When Dennis Riley first encountered the Great Plains of western Nebraska at 11 years old while on a car trip with his salesman dad, he was struck by the sense that there was something very special about the place. He had been powerfully moved, but by what he did not know. On subsequent trips with his father to Denver and Salt Lake City from his home in suburban Pittsburgh, that feeling grew.
For several summers in a row, Dennis joined his father on these long dusty rides across the parched Midwest and never once was bored by them. In fact, he was drawn to the flatlands like Odysseus to the island of Sirens. There was something inexplicably beguiling to Dennis about the vast reaches between the Missouri River and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with their grain silos on the faraway horizon appearing like starships poised to launch to the heavens. The only way he could come close to describing the feeling was through the use of a simile.
"It's like standing on the forehead of God," he told his late wife when she inquired about his unbridled fascination and enthusiasm with a part of the country she considered devoid of appeal.
They had driven through Cheyenne County, Nebraska, on two occasions as part of their vacation visits to various national parks and once they had even stayed in a small motel in Sidney, Nebraska, at the lower rim of the county.
"It's more like standing on the forehead of the devil than God," remarked his wife as they stood beside the two-lane blacktop, which stretched across the flat terrain as far as the eye could see. "I mean it's all dried up and barren. Not what I consider God's country. There's not a tree or shrub in sight."
It was not as if Dennis was a devout Christian or staunch believer in any particular deity, but invoking the word God was the only way he could get near to expressing what he felt about the place that occupied his thoughts in the long months between his return visits as a youngster and throughout his entire adult life. Now as his time on earth was coming to a close, Dennis wished to heed the call of the high plains once more. It was where he wanted to die, because he felt the likelihood that something beyond death might exist there—that the door to a potential afterlife was closest on those infinite beige steppes.
After nearly five years in remission, his prostate cancer had returned with a vengeance, and he was told he had six to eight months to live.
"We can get you an extra month or two with a couple different therapies but they have side-effects as you know," offered the urologist, but Dennis declined refusing to spend his last days in a chemically induced haze.
"It's your call, of course, Mr. Riley, and I certainly understand your feelings. We can keep you pretty pain free until the end and you'll be able to get about pretty well, too. In the meantime, let's keep our hopes up that some breakthrough may come along from all the research going on right now. You never know," said the doctor with what Dennis felt was feigned reassurance.
He expected no miracles and immediately began developing a strategy for his imminent demise. He would not put his daughter through the horrors of his ravaging decline. They had been through that with the death of his wife as she was reduced to skin and bones in her final days from metastasized uterine cancer. There and then he had vowed that if he ever contracted a terminal disease he would leave to spare his loved ones such a grim and demoralizing experience.
Despite his dire prognosis, Dennis derived solace from his plan to spend his last breaths beneath the panoply of stars that shined so bright and appeared so close in the immense solitude of the western spans of Nebraska. Dennis thought of it as a place of incalculable potential and possibility—a runway to the cosmos. It was here in such serene and unobstructed terrain that beings from another universe might choose to land and share their knowledge of immortality. The thought comforted him and even lifted his battered spirits. Through the decades he had retained the wonder and awe that filled him as a boy when he and his father took their bucolic summer rides.
He kept his intentions to himself knowing he would face major resistance from his daughter, Clare, who, like his wife, did not understand his attraction for what his wife described as "that empty country." Although his daughter had never traveled west by car, she embraced her mother's view without questioning it.
When Dennis was told by his doctor that his cancer had finally spread to his bones and vital organs and thus his days were numbered, he packed his car with some basic camping supplies and set out from his house to Route 80, which would take him to within miles of his ultimate destination. On his way to the interstate he dropped by his daughter's condo and left a note in her mailbox telling her how much he loved her but saying nothing about what he was about to do. Not long into his trip the pain that had caused only mild discomfort in his hips and thighs began to intensify, forcing him to lay over in Indiana and Iowa, but on the third day he arrived at a small bluff in the stark yet spiritually fecund Cheyenne County outback that he felt was the perfect spot to commune with eternity.
By nightfall Dennis had set-up his tent and gathered enough dry grass and twigs to create a fire, although it was hardly necessary in the mild late May breezes that gently swept across the slight escarpment. His pain had continued to increase but was mitigated by the satisfaction of being in his sacred place. Two days passed while he awaited the end and during that time he reflected on his life while drinking in the unending vistas that lay in every direction. From his vantage point he could trace the earth's contour and study the constellations that shone with a brilliance he had only witnessed there.
He thought about the great nature writer, Edward Abbey, and his secret burial in a blue sleeping bag in the Arizona dessert and the words of the old Indian chief in the movie "Little Big Man," who proclaimed "This is a good day to die," as he set off into the wilderness only to discover it was not his time to die. Dennis knew he would not need to leave where he was. There was no doubt to him that he had reached the end zone as his failing body grew languid and sank into the folds of his mummy sack.
While Dennis quietly and serenely passed his final moments, his daughter notified the authorities of his disappearance and advised them to search the area in which he awaited the cessation of his existence. Her intuition had signaled his whereabouts.
"I know he's out there," she told the dispatcher at the Cheyenne County Sheriff's office.
"Why?" inquired the voice on the other end of the phone a thousand miles away.
"Because that's his favorite place in the world, and I just know he wanted to return there before he died. It's his magic spot," answered Dennis's distressed daughter.
It took the police the better part of the day to locate Dennis's encampment. Just hours before they happened on to it, as the sun was about to break over the eastern horizon, Dennis drifted in and out of consciousness beside the tent he had abandoned when he found it too claustrophobic. In his final lucid moment he discerned an object hovering above him of such grand scale and luminosity that it blocked the fading stars from his gaze, and he knew instantly that what he had always sensed present in the vast ethereal plains, yet could not fully define, had come to get him.
The sheriff's deputy assigned to locate Dennis searched his vehicle, tent, and the area surrounding them but found nothing. It was a week before the search for him was called off, and despite his daughter's constant pleadings for them to continue to look for her father, his case was relegated to the county's surprisingly thick missing persons file. During one of many conversations, Clare had learned that her father was not the only person to vanish in that region over the years.
The sheriff's office had advised her to stay put until they had something to report but after many torturous days, she booked a flight to Omaha and drove a rental car from there to the Cheyenne Country Sheriff's office in Sidney. She was greeted warmly and sympathetically by the sheriff and his deputies, who still had no clue as to her father's whereabouts.
"He may be several states away by now. Who knows? Maybe he hooked a ride with somebody. It's for sure he isn't out there. We've combed every square inch of that terrain twice and haven't come across a single sign of your father leaving his campsite. His car's there, and his camping gear, but that's it. We didn't find any tracks leading away from the place either. It's like he was scooped up into thin air."
Dennis's daughter got directions to the site and immediately headed there despite the late hour and the fatigue that gripped her. For the first time on her drive from Omaha she took in the scenery and examined the land with an unprejudiced eye. It was truly spectacular in its immensity and remoteness, she thought, as she neared the place where her father had vanished. Nothing remained at the site that could attest to her father having been there other than a marker consisting of two foot-long strips of yellow crime scene tape attached to a stick.
For a long time Clare stood looking out at her father's cherished prairie and as she turned to leave a gentle breeze caressed her cheek and she knew he was there with her and had found his way to Heaven.
BIO: Michael C. Keith is the author of over 20 books (mostly on media topics) and many articles and short stories. In 2003 his memoir, The Next Better Place, was published by Algonquin Books and received high praise from critics. Keith teaches Communication at Boston College and is the recipient of numerous awards for his scholarship in radio studies.