Velvety grass plains grow into massive ranches, topped by sandstone buttes. As I leave Butte, NE, population 452, in Butte County, a conspicuous array of signposts direct me every which way: to Fairfax, eight miles north; to Napar, NE, also north; straight ahead to Springview, 41 miles, and Valentine, 104 miles. Straight ahead it is.
Rich purple wildflowers named hoary vervain and brilliant golden sprays of another variety create a showy display in the otherwise mundane roadside ditches.
Entering Keya Paha County, I�m at the junction of Highways 137 and 12, with signs announcing Burke, 16 miles out; Burton, 16; Springview, 29; and Shepherd Ranch.
Near the junction of Nebraska Highways 183 and 12, I cross Burton Creek; further along another, East Holt Creek; followed by Springview, NE, population 292. I am now 48 miles from Valentine.
Over the next 19 miles, there�s Rock Creek Angus Ranch, Cub Creek Recreation Area, Nordon, and entrance to Cherry County.
Coming up: Smith Falls State Park, situated 4 miles south of Highway12. On a previous trip, I parked my car and hiked the trail back to the falls and stood under a veil of rushing water cascading from a very high rocky ledge. Happening upon a waterfall as tall as Smith Falls is yet another bit of honey for my North Central Nebraska journey.
Farther along, past signs for Berry Bridge and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, I cross Big Beaver Creek.
The activity of my vacation during these last 4.5 hours has consisted of driving the hills and dales of Highway 12 to this place: Valentine, NE, population 2,820.
I stop in Valentine to gas up and use the restroom. At the checkout, a tall broad-shouldered woman behind the register greets a customer with a long-winded, �Mo-o-owwww-ning!� that ended in a high-pitched screech.
Overhearing this new way of saying, �Good morning� of �Morning,� I sense instantly that I am in a new place with new energy and a new language. Valentine, NE, a bustling city on the edge of the pine-covered banks of Niobrara River.
Here in Valentine, where traffic and commerce charge up and down Main Street, people have endured generations of weathered isolation that could wear away their very lifestyle, but does not.
Here in the Sand Hills of Western Nebraska, windblown sand makes your hair dusty, sticks in your teeth, and smarts your eyes.
I am exhilarated by a sense of freedom while traveling westward on Highway 12. Once again, I take back my long glances at the vast open ranges that stretch for incomprehensible distances. Once again, I consider this place my own.
A resident of Southeast South Dakota for more than 30 years, Paula Damon is a popular columnist, keynote speaker, and freelance writer. Her columns have won first-place national and state awards in The Federation of Press Women competitions. Most recently, Damon�s writing took second place statewide in the South Dakota Press Women 2007 Competition. For more information, e-mail paula email@example.com.
� 2007 Paula Damon