A reader who knows I’ve lived my whole life near Boston asked: How did Nebraska come to figure in Covered With Snow? Here’s the gist of that back story (no spoilers).
In the late ‘90s I had my dream job. Dot.com was booming, up-ending assumptions. How will the Internet change our business? People with money wanted to know, and my senior colleagues were some of its actual designers. I was flitting between Boston, Silicon Valley, New York, and Europe, helping big brands anticipate proverbial hairpin turns and cliffs. I got to meet all sorts of interesting people, ask them naïve questions, and climb steep learning curves. I would then write corporate fictions—scenarios—riffing creatively (sometimes wildly) on what they had told me in hopes that their executives might think more and better “out of the box”.
As zeal for corporate self-examination trickled into more stable, conservative industries, our small consulting firm received an inquiry from a life insurance company in Nebraska.
My colleagues expressed distaste. “Flyover country” was populated by rubes. Did I not know that? Why endure a connecting flight only to end up in a second-rate hotel eating a cheeseburger to the thump of a jukebox? To some of my colleagues, the virtues of “living bi-coastly” were firm realities, as were schemes for upgrading to first class on the BOS-SFO and SFO-BOS nonstops (the “nerd birds”) so as to make better business contacts.
But I was curious. I’d never been to Nebraska. And extreme jet lag to Europe, a night in my own bed, then back to the West Coast was killing me. Why not? My boss was only too happy to let me run with the lead. In 1999, I flew to Lincoln and won the deal.
What ensued over the following year or so, as I made many more trips to Nebraska and met many more people, was a complex and increasing mixture of fascination and respect. So many of my Boston colleagues’ presuppositions and jibes proved false that I stopped trying to justify why I enjoyed the gig or explain what I’d learned. Outwardly, central Nebraska felt like taking a time machine back to the 1950s: weirdly refreshing, slower, more humble. That was how I might have put it back then, but those were mere sound bites, not the full-orbed sensory-cultural reality.
Not the human reality.
Sure chasms yawn between Boston and Nebraska. Most folks know that. (As I came to learn, huge chasms lurk within the state too—east to west, city to farm, military to civilian, lush green to sandy brown.) Yet the more time I spent there, the more I began to see Nebraska in terms of people and story, the most vital distinctions aesthetic, personal, ineffable, irreducible.
Around the same time, back home, I was getting better acquainted with an MIT engineer as we served together on the board of a very serious triathlon team here. ‘K’ had grown up in Grand Island, even further out on the “there be dragons” edge of the Nebraska map than where I’d hung out with my insurance client. On long bike rides, I began to develop a clearer picture of K’s old life: why he left, what he missed, what he retained (unconsciously as well as deliberately).
And why he had no plan to return.
‘K’ had done what many have since WWII: flee the country for the city, the heartland for a coast. It’s a dog-bites-man story. With due respect: been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
But what if the man bit the dog? Why might someone go the other way? In 2006, driving solo cross country, I took my time through Nebraska, mulling that question, observing. I meandered far off the interstate, talking to the kinds of people I had not encountered in my corporate days. I took photos and shot video to jog my memory, then sketched a few chapters and a rough outline.
A few years after that, my daughter qualified for a national-level competition in Omaha. We took our time on that trip too, drove around out into the hinterlands. As she observed much I had missed, a family story began to take shape. Years after that, well into the final editing process, an opportunity for a final research trip came up—an easy excuse to take a last look and make tweaks. The result of all of that hardly captures my experience, but some of it made its way into Covered With Snow. Fictionalized, of course.
Whether you have been to Nebraska or not, I hope you enjoy the book.