- Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains
In Lander, Wyoming, one of his stops along a journey that arches from Kansas City, Missouri, to Helena, Montana, Patrick Dobson serendipitously meets Willard Hugo, out walking his dog. Hugo applauds Dobson's attempt to meet the Great Plains head-on and tells him, "I think it's a good thing you're doing, getting out across the country. You get to meet [End Page 203] fine people that way, people seldom seen by the rest of the world" (179). Whatever else Dobson had hoped to accomplish during his months-long trek to Montana—reassess his work and his life, reconnect to childhood memories, diminish his anxiety and alienation, rediscover his passions—his role as bearing witness to the modern Plains becomes primary. What he discovers about the lives of people is central to understanding what is right and wrong, functioning and non-functioning, about plains communities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Dobson does not present a sentimental journey. He is often tough on himself, presenting encounters and emotions that take the reader into uncomfortable terrain. The first days on the road stir up fears of people and surroundings. Sometimes his fears are justified. Saint Marys, Kansas, effectively runs him out of town. In Gering, Nebraska, Dobson encounters an Ohio man right off the pages of a Flannery O'Connor story, malevolent and psychotic. Dobson's instincts tell him to steer clear of this drifter. An aggressively desperate wife and mother in Lander, Wyoming, keeps him up half the night with her awkward, off-balance attempts at seduction. When he rebuffs her and tries to explain that he is on a journey of self-discovery and exploration of the Great Plains, she replies, "Who the hell gives a shit about the Great Plains? It's a shithole. Look at this place. A shithole on the edge of the mountains" (183–84). He kicks himself for staying with this woman, for allowing himself to fall prey to her threatening emptiness.
Thankfully, most of the people Dobson meets on the plains are unexpectedly generous, thoughtful, and interested in a man who wants to walk across their territory. Dobson loves this rolling, sky-filled country, and while many of the people he meets are living on the margins of their communities, barely making ends meet, they greet him with an openness and share with him the little that they have, displaying true generosity of spirit. Dobson is able to discuss a range of topics with his many hosts, from politics to religion, which exposes many of the contradictions of plains people. A Kimball, Nebraska, couple, James and Mickey, espouse a conservative politics that would align them with Tea Party activists, fundamentalists, and Sarah Palin enthusiasts; yet they accept Dobson's contrary, liberal views of America and, when preparing him to meet his sister, James asks the author, "You got anything against lesbians? … I gotta know" (118). Flesh, blood, and love come before religious orthodoxy. James loves his lesbian sister and her partner of three years. Dobson meets others, helpful and giving, otherwise kind souls, who try to dissuade him from walking through reservation country in Wyoming. "They spoke of natives," Dobson tells us, "with the third-person impersonal pronoun: [End Page 204] 'They're angry.' 'They don't like whites.' 'They'll take everything you got if you let 'em'" (187). Their unquestioned racism, abstract and based on no real experience, stands in contrast with Dobson's actual encounters with Native people. Such fracture lines display the best and worst of human behavior.
Dobson's engaging, often lyrical style burnishes his memorable journey. With keen attention to detail, he makes the seldom seen stand out in stark contrast against the stereotypes and two-dimensional representations of plains people and spaces. He also makes us feel deeply the social injustices, cultural neglect, and economic displacement that affect thousands of people across this vast expanse of the American West. An important addition to the growing body of...