Cathedrals of Chalk: Return to Happy Jack Mountain
There is a special place from my childhood called Happy Jack Mountain that I visit daily from New York City even though that Mountain resides more than 1,500 miles away near Scotia, Nebraska.
Afloat in the Flatlands
I travel to Happy Jack Mountain by closing my eyes and walking the winding trail of 234 railroad tie steps up to the 483 foot Peak that pinnacles 2,000 feet above sea-level.
This is the story of a time and place that will never change for me, for every time I visit Happy Jack Mountain, it is the Fall of 1969 when life was glittering and full of innocence and promise.
My existence was purely good and clean and I was four years old.
Nebraska is notorious for being flat.
In fact, “Nebraska” is the Oglala Plains Indian phrase for “Flatwater.”
The running joke is that Nebraska is 98% sky, 1% land and 1% manure.
Wind, Rain and Sunshine are the Holy Trinity that rule life upon Nebraska’s plains.
Nebraskans are known by some as “fly over folks” where people on either end of the nation only get to know us, our customs, and our dreams en passant as they arc over us in airplanes on their way to someplace bigger.
Fields of Green
Atop Happy Jack Mountain, Nebraska becomes lush.
Atop Happy Jack Mountain Nebraska is a river with sandbars that children play upon pealing laughter below you.
Atop Happy Jack Mountain Nebraska becomes rolling hills and glistening valleys and windswept fields of green.
Atop Happy Jack Mountain, you can see 98% earth and 2% sky.
Atop Happy Jack Mountain, Nebraska grows before your eyes and you’re let in on the secret of the spectacular, great, promising miles wilds awaiting you just beyond the bend of your eye beyond the horizon.
From Indians to Happiness
Happy Jack Mountain was first used by the Pawnee and Sioux Indian tribes during frequent inter-tribal plains skirmishes in the 1880’s and you can still view the remains of their lodges on the site.
In 1869, a fur trapper named “Happy Jack” Swearagen built a dugout in the side of the Mountain and used it as a lookout point to help guide and warn new Pioneers moving West. Jack Swearagen also helped found Fort Hartsuff and he got his nickname because he was always “happy to help” new folks settle in the prairie paradise he knew so well.
Happy Jack Mountain stands tall along Highway 11 and the Loup River Valley borders one side and the other side borders the start of the North Loup village limits.
North Loup, hometown for 300 folks, is dear to my heart because it was the birthplace of my mother (a former North Loup Popcorn Days Queen, but that’s another story) and we visited often.
My grandfather was the North Loup Pharmacist for over 50 years.
If you wanted to feel better, a handmade, homemade, pomade from Vodehnal Pharmacy worked better than any machine milled pill.
Scotia Chalk Mine
Happy Jack Mountain is made of chalk. That’s right. Chalk.
The guts of the Mountain are known locally as The Scotia Chalk Mine since it resides near the Scotia village limits of that 300 person town.
The Chalk Mine was carved out by decades of mining the silky white gold for use in whitewash paint, for use as the binding element in log cabin mortar during the 1800s and for use as the main abrasive ingredient in household cleansers.
The chalkstone was also used as building bricks and foundations for early houses found along the Loup River Valley.
How was the Chalk created? At one time, long ago, most of Nebraska was covered by a large inland sea.
Sediments from this era, made up of small sea creatures, died when the water receded and their remains became became the Chalk in them thar Hills!
Happy Jack Mountain was mined from 1877 to the end of World War II.
At that time the great State of Nebraska purchased the Chalk Mine and created a historical wayside area.
In 1978 the mine was closed to visitors when the entrance collapsed during a rainstorm — the entire mine’s structure is, after all, chalk — and we all know what happens to chalk when it gets wet. It dissolves.
In my lifetime, the mining for Chalk had ceased in the belly of Happy Jack Mountain and great caverns were left behind — yawning, white, stretches of darkness punctuated by the constant scent of chalk dust afloat in the air.
You could enter the chalk mine through several gaping openings dug out of the base of the Mountain.
Once inside, you were immediately cool and surrounded by white Cathedrals of Chalk in every direction. Each Cathedral connected to the next by a hand-dug hole.
The Chalk Ceilings in the main entrances rose to over 40 feet!
There are over 6,000 hollows of honeycombs to explore.
The Chalk Mine is the only place in the world where you can see examples of the “room and pillar” mining technique.
Most folks in North Loup and Scotia climb Happy Jack Mountain together once a year during the sunrise Easter service. Everyone ascends to the top of Happy Jack Mountain to witness the wood Cross staked on the peak and decorated with colored Christmas tree lights. A prayer service ensues. Silence bends time to a standstill.
With heads bent in prayer, the Lower Loup River Valley snakes below. Then you feel the pull of the spirit of Christ as He lifts your eyes from the ground and up to His glowing Cross. The colored lights shine only during this special service and the message is clear: In Christ Shall Ye See The Light.
Grandpa & The Hell’s Angels
Times change. While I was still living in Nebraska, the entrances to the Chalk Mine was closed with fences so you could not go deep into the Chalky Cathedral.
The Hell’s Angels were famous for camping at the base of Happy Jack Mountain for weeks at a time as they wended their way Westward. Makeshift outhouses were installed to try to bring in more frequent visitors from the outlands. An aluminum bench, anchored in concrete and steel was erected under the wooden cross and historical markers were placed on the peak and at the main mine entrance — all civil signs that thefted the rustic charm of a private and special, undiscovered, delight.
Plymouth Fury II
My best memories of Happy Jack Mountain are when I used visit my grandfather during the Summer. We’d tumble into his 1966 Plymouth Fury II together and toodle down Highway 11 a mile or so at what felt like five miles an hour. We’d climb out of the car at the base of Happy Jack Mountain and, hand-in-hand, we would shuffle through the chalkdust covering the floor of the mine and stand in the exact center of the largest honeycomb and peer out.
Grandpa and I would stand there, quietly cool in the shade of the Chalk Cathedral, and we’d wonder at the hot, stifling, Nebraska August twisting the air into rising ripples of heat.
The silver Plymouth sat steaming in the sun just beyond our reach.
Reflected in each other’s eyes, we recognized our shared sorrow and loneliness and mourned the distance between us: He lived alone in North Loup as an early widower; I lived lonesome in Lincoln as a young, fatherless, son with a single mother.
Together, we silently vowed that this moment would bind and bridge us forever across the glory of the sky, nullifying the 150 mile grasp of land between Lincoln and North Loup that grounded us from each other for months at a time.
The Moments of a Lifetime
Then, with flashlights in hand, grandpa and I would travel deep into the cool crevices of the Chalk Mine, never repeating a journey, never re-tracing our steps, never talking, never making a sound except for the crunch of the chalk fragments breaking beneath our feet. Our goal was to discover nothing but greater coolness.
The deeper we crept, the cooler we became. In 10 years of “mining for cold” with grandpa, we never found and end to the 6,000 feet of hollows. Those explorations were thrilling and I’ve never been so alive since. Thank God those moments have lasted a lifetime.
When my grandfather died, so did my physical visits to Happy Jack Mountain. However, in the last year or so, I’ve started a self-hypnosis technique to relieve stress and expand my mind. The place I visit during episodes of self-hypnosis are those trips to Happy Jack Mountain.
Grandpa had a hard time walking up steps, so if I wanted to visit the peak of Happy Jack Mountain after we’d cooled off within its belly, I’d have to go it alone. And I did. Often. Grandpa would root me on as he sat on the hood of his Plymouth, urging me on as I raced to the top of the Peak as fast as my feet would carry me.
On Being Built
Alone atop Happy Jack Mountain, with grandpa rooting below, I closed my eyes and made myself promise to never forget the freedom, delight and wonder surging through my body as I fought to catch my breath. Savoring those moments alone, and thrilling at the promise of staying atop that mountain forever, are the common touchstones of my being that built who I am today.
Shoulders of Spirit
Today when I close my eyes in New York City and stand under the Happy Jack Cross on a starless Nebraska night, I feel the colored cross lights ablaze against a black velvet sky. I warm as a crisp November wind whips through my hair. I am Blessed in the sweat and Spirit of those who sundered beneath me seeking a brighter future in a dark Chalk Mine. I stand taller on the shoulders of their Souls.
I sing to the beat of their pickaxes chipping chalkstone — a cacophony of cause, a ringing of evidence that the common rhythms of life are universal and inborn and shared — and I am re-connected and re-collected to the dusty, dusky dreams of the Nebraska dustbowl days.
Through veins of ivory chalk bleeding hope beneath my feet, I join their Joy in praying for a fertile tomorrow. With them I dream aloud of a good night’s sleep in exchange for a hard day’s work, and together, we sing surrounded by cascading Cathedrals of Chalk that provide hard evidence of what every Nebraskan is born to know: The earth rules the Heavens. Together we muscle our way to a means to a greater end that is mapped in the calluses of our palms and branded in the breath of our children racing cool against our necks.
Handing Down History Hand-in-Hand
There’s nothing else like Happy Jack Mountain in the world and I wish I could take you there myself — hand-in-hand, just as my grandpa led me there some 29 years ago — for the Chalk Mine of Happy Jack Mountain is best experienced in the loving grip of someone who truly believes you are promised a better and brighter life than anyone else in the world.
History is best handed down hand-in-hand and, as I grew older, my cousins and I came to love Happy Jack Mountain together while our mothers looked on with their father from the sunny otherworld beyond the chill of the chalk.
Hand-in-hand, we would scream and chase each other through the pearly caverns and laugh until our lungs hurt.
I always knew grandpa wished he could come into the mountain with us once more and laugh like a kid again.
Unfortunately, age and a bad case of gout decided he should stay numb in the sun with his two daughters. But I could tell by the dew gleaming in his eyes afterward that grandpa knew his job was done: He had given each of his grandchildren the gift of each other alive inside Happy Jack Mountain.
Despite the churning changes of history, people and technology, Happy Jack Mountain remains unfettered and pristine in the frame of my mind as it rests upon the shelf of my heart. Twice a day I close my eyes, do self-hypnosis, and travel to the top of the Mountain and look longingly down upon the rushing Loup Valley River while the coolest breeze in the land rakes my ears and beckons me homeward.
If you’d like to visit Happy Jack Mountain and the Scotia Chalk Mine someday (I hear the Chalk Mine has been reopened to the public by a local Scotia fella), here’s the prettiest route to get there:
From Interstate 80 near Grand Island, Nebraska, go North on Highway 281. At the town of St. Paul, go West on Highway 92 for six miles. When you hit the Highway 11 intersection, take a right (North by Northwest) and drive for a final 18 miles and there you are. Be sure to bring a flashlight, because the mine, even though it’s white, grows black quickly when the sunlight stops crawling into the caverns.