I set my trio of John Coburn stories in northeast Nebraska, with the fictional Red Horizon an amalgam of little long-gone towns. The title I chose for the larger collection has a more sentimental meaning and refers to some specific geography.
“…a place where angels and devils nest.”
When I was a kid, the wild undulating hills that stretched for five miles or so along the southern Missouri River valley were under corporate development. Three thousand breathtaking acres of tangled wood, rocky grassland and hidden canyon—revered by locals as God’s country but called Devils Nest—were set to be straightened, plowed and paved. Devils Nest, without the apostrophe, was to be the next word in luxury living. From 1970 to 1973, the resort featured a golf course, equestrian club, airstrip, exclusive dining, and even a ski lift. The hills were alive with the sound of snow machines.
From the ‘70s, it’s the ski lift I remember the most. Steel pillars plunked down in the Nebraska sod, soon abandoned when the artificial snow melted too fast. It was like something from Chariots of the Gods: old farmers standing around, shaking their heads at the improbable nature of it all.
Within a few years the entire effort went bust, but the legends of Devils Nest lived on, from the apocryphal origins of the region’s name to tales of Jesse James and his descendants living there.
(One story attributes the name to an early surveyor who called the sudden yawning valley a devil of a nest. Another has it that an early trapper saw the word “DEVIL” spelled out by a crooked old grove of mulberry trees.)
From the 80s it’s the abandoned Yacht Club restaurant I remember. Standing on the splintered deck where we weren’t supposed to be, surrounded by broken glass and graffiti, we looked across the hard ravines. The expanse of nature threatened to swallow us, like it reclaimed the sidewalks, the parking lots, the commercial works of the previous decade.
So I grew up on the edge of Devils Nest, without the apostrophe, and it always somehow symbolized both the past and the future, but never the present.
Somebody always had a weird story pulled from the Nest’s dark history. Somebody always had a plan for its bright future. But the present tense of the place was always elusive, as hard to hold as the ever whirling wind or that slushy artificial snow.
Photo by Jerry Mennenga