10 Lessons for All of Us from the Plainsky, Nebraskans

Long Morning, Lusker Ranch

Long Morning, Lusker Ranch

I began the PlainSky, Nebraskans project three years ago. My daughter was two; I was finishing my master’s thesis; we had lived in our present home less than a year. But I felt called to the project, energized by it, focused by the prospect of documenting a way of life with which I was familiar, but knew others weren’t. And time was running out.

So here I sit, the project well in hand, the first show opening in nine months, and a companion limited-edition book. So what? That’s not why I did this; I was looking for lessons, not praise. I was searching for cultural memories and ways in which to preserve them, mainly through photographs. Still, what have I learned?

And then, Rachel Larson’s 25 Things list crossed my path. She codified everything I had seen from the honest, hardworking Nebraskans I have been photographing; and I realized–not surprisingly–the project needed a set of lessons. So Rachel, here’s to you; you’ve cemented ranch culture for those who have lived it, as well as those who have never known it. My list can’t compare, but here it is, anyway.

10 Lessons for All of Us from PlainSky, Nebraskans

  1. Trust, and be trustworthy. I am reminded of a previous post about Joe Whiteaker, owner of Whiteaker’s Clothing in Harrison, who told a broke cowboy to wear a new pair of boots out the door without paying for them. Joe trusted the cowboy to pay for them when he could, and the cowboy knew he couldn’t break that gift of trust Joe had invested. In this era of defaulted loans, scrutinizing credit agencies and circular squabbles, it’s worth it to remember that the Whiteaker’s way of doing business was once the norm. Once, we trusted each other. The PlainSky, Nebraskans still do.
  2. Be a good neighbor and good citizen. People in Harrison, Arthur, Crawford and other towns across the western part of Nebraska are keenly aware of one thing: All they have is each other. Without everyone helping everyone, no questions asked, no refusals, there is no neighborhood, no community and no survival. Helping a neighbor means down the road, you’ll have someone you, too, can ask for help. What’s more, you’ll feel good about yourself and the place in which you live.
  3. Look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. Why do so many people avoid eye contact, or brush off that simplest sign of good intentions, the handshake? Because we’ve grown accustomed to living lives of solitude and mistrust. Let people know you mean what you say, and you’re glad to see them, in these two easy steps. I’ve never met anyone in western Nebraska who did otherwise.
  4. Respect your upbringing. In western Nebraska, every family I’ve worked with has told story after story about family; some were funny, some morose, but all important to what the family had become. These people don’t try to escape their blood, they accept that no one is perfect. All parents can do is try their best, and someday, each child will have to do the same.
  5. Cherish simplicity. In brief, unplug. Sit on a horse. Watch a sunrise. Smell the rain. Build a memory. It’s funny how the world moves slower once you do this.
  6. Say thanks. Everyone deserves a simple, heartfelt “thank you” for help rendered, no matter how small. Time and time again, I have heard these people (who are of few words by nature) say this–and mean it.
  7. Eat a meal together. Without the television. Or smartphones. Just good, simple food (lots of it), good family and friends, and lots of stories and smiles.
  8. Break a good sweat. Whether it’s for your own benefit or someone else, there is a singular joy in hard physical work. At the end of it, you don’t just tell yourself you’ve been working; you feel it. Moreover, you look back at the job and say with pride, “I did that.”
  9. Tie one on. Hard physical work justifies the occasional raucous evening. Think of it as decompression.
  10. Live this moment. Every waking hour (and for western Nebraska ranching families, there are a lot in a day), we should remember that this moment won’t come again. The way the Herefords cluster in a draw of the land, or how the grass becomes molten gold in the late evening sun, or when the breeze rises just enough to cool your face on a hot summer afternoon. They’re all precious; don’t wish any of them away. Today is enough; live this moment.

Am I wealthier from the PlainSky, Nebraskans project? Not monetarily, no. But certainly spiritually. I, too, have learned to live this moment.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Abby Meidell, Lusker Ranch

Abby Meidell, Lusker Ranch

Abby Meidell, Lusker Ranch

Abby Meidell is a bright, honorable and cordial young woman; she served as our “tour guide” at the Lusker Ranch the morning of the May branding, showing us the land, explaining the minutiae of life, and showering us with massive caramel rolls.

As the adults prepared to ride out to round up the cattle pairs for the branding, Abby stood talking with my assistant and me, and the corrugated metal of the equipment shed made a fantastic background with the morning light creating dramatic shadows in the building’s galvanized waves. Abby would normally ride that morning, but still recovering from a ruptured spleen, she was grounded. As the adults began to ride off, she looked wistfully back at them, and it was evident where she would love to be.

Sergio, Lusker Ranch

Sergio, Lusker Ranch

Sergio, Lusker Ranch

Sergio is a character cowboy: funny, mischievous and genuine. During a brief respite at the Lusker Ranch branding in May, he said, “You know, I was a National Geographic centerfold.”

Intrigued, I asked for more details; Sergio was featured in 1993 as part of the story “Wide Open Wyoming,” photographed by Richard Olsenius. Sergio was carrying a mailbox across a road, and found it funny that such a picture emerged from his experience with the magazine.

“The photographer spent five or six days with us, and I end up in the magazine carrying a mailbox. Funny, eh?”

I imagine Olsenius found Sergio as photographically intoxicating as I did, and much of the branding, I made images of him. He’s not a Nebraskan, so he won’t feature in the Plainsky project, but he certainly will find a place in others. I chose to publish this one first as a character introduction to such a fascinating subject.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Boots and Gloves, Whiteaker’s, Harrison

Boots and Gloves, Whiteaker's

Boots and Gloves, Whiteaker’s

There are few places left in America like Whiteaker’s, and it’s one of the modern world’s great travesties.

As many readers and viewers are accustomed to from me, I’ll illustrate my point with an analogy.

A good friend and real-deal cowboy I know from around Harrison told me, “Once, I was in Whiteaker’s looking at a pair of boots.

“Mine, they had holes in ’em, and you could see my sock through one. Joe Whiteaker told me to try on a new pair for size, and they were great; I couldn’t afford them at the time, though, so I started to take them off.

“‘What are you doin’?’ Joe told me.

“‘Well, I can’t pay you for ’em, so could you hold ’em for me until I get my check?’ I said.

“‘Nope,’ Joe said. ‘You just wear those outta here and pay me when you can.'”

Trust. Compassion. Community. All things that Whiteaker’s offer in the store. And often, for a little bit of cash, you can get a nice pair of Justin boots, too.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Leif and Claire, Lusker Ranch

Leif and Claire, Lusker Ranch

Leif and Claire, Lusker Ranch

There are few people I’ve met who are more fun and inspiring for making images than the Meidell family: classic faces, marvelous people, and fantastically genuine. On a Monday night, just as the sun cleared the clouds to the west of the Lusker ranch, Leif Meidell and one of the family dogs, Claire, sat on the corrugated metal roof of the garage, the Great Plains stretching out behind them.

Neither could have looked better that night.