Living and Loving in Flyover Country

Young journalists tell the stories of a small Nebraskan town

Cover: The sun rises over Nebraska’s Sandhills, outside Valentine. Seen from the passengers seat of a two-person airplane on June, 25 2014. Photo: Amanda Berg. Right: A map of Valentine, Nebraska.

Valentine, Nebraska, “America’s Heart City,” is nestled near the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. Home to only a few thousand people, many refer to this part of the U.S. as Flyover country due to most outsiders only seeing it from a plane traveling between the coasts.

However, there’s a lot of life in the Great Plains. Just hearing the name “Nebraska” conjurs up visions of vast cornfields, cattle, and cowboys. While yes, parts of these assumptions are correct, there’s more to the middle than meets the eye.

In the summer of 2013, Andrew Dickinson, Lauren Justice, Nick Teets, and Jacob Zlomke, formed Fly Over Me, a three month photo project documenting daily life in Valentine. It wasn’t for a workshop, or for a fellowship, or for school. It was just because they wanted to.

“The whole idea was to explain to people not from or familiar with rural areas what the lifestyle and culture is like,” Zlomke said.

Valentine High School football team members stand at attention during the national anthem before their game against Chadron Senior High School in Chadron, Neb., on Sept. 12, 2014. Valentine lost 40–0. Photo: Andrew Dickinson

The group raised more than $3,000 for the project through a Kickstarter campaign, meeting their goal in six days. By the end of the fundraising period, 113 backers pushed them beyond their modest budget of $5,000.

To kick things off, the team started reaching out and making contacts in Valentine. Dickinson, Teets, and Zlomke were all based in Lincoln, Nebraska, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.

A young boy stands on the roof of his family’s car during fireworks on July 4, 2014 at the Rosebud Casino. Photo: Brianna Soukup.

“Nebraska is a small enough place as a state that all we had to do was ask our friends,” Dickinson said.

Acquaintances in Lincoln helped them make connections in Valentine, and they branched out from there. Midwestern kindness is not a myth. People were more than happy to introduce them to friends and acquaintances, and their list of contacts continued to grow.

A wedding party finds its way to the stage at Skylite Bar in Valentine, Neb., on June 14, 2014. Photo: Andrew Dickinson.

Exercising their extended network worked so well that when they arrived in Valentine, the marquee of a local restaurant, The Peppermill, read “Welcome Fly Over Me Journalists.”

The crew hit the ground running, meeting as many people as they could. They knocked on doors, visited shops, and conducted interviews.

Teams of three attempt to calm, saddle, and ride unbroken horses during the Wild Horse Race event at the Rosebud Casino’s 4th of July rodeo. Photo: Jonathon Augustine.

This led to the creation of Community Voices, an online collection of audio interviews which allow the people of Valentine to tell their stories, big or small, in their own words.

Interviewee Dave Price, the owner of Price’s Gallery and Framing told the crew, “I don’t even know if I want them to know about this part of the world. Maybe it’d be better off it they all stayed away because I wouldn’t want it to be like Colorado.”

The Stolzenberg’s, a ranching couple, told the story of how they met and stayed in love for 50 years.

“I think someone probably cried in every interview we did,” Justice said.

Three months flew by and there were still more compelling stories to tell. It became clear that the team’s job in Valentine wasn’t over.

Ghost Hawk Park, Pine Ridge. Photo: Alex Matzke.

Fly Over Me returned the next summer with additional help from fellow journalists Jonathon Augustine, Amanda Berg, Alex Matzke and Brianna Soukup.

“People already knew what we were doing.” Teets said. “They were even really excited that we were coming back for another year.”

Chuck Hartman sits atop his demo car before the Fourth of July demolition derby. Photo by Alex Matzke.

While the first stay in Valentine was about fostering relationships and gathering ideas, the second summer was focused on making a short documentary.

Stories the team gathered during the first summer became even more crucial the second time around. When they photographed the Miles family at a Sandhills marathon race in 2013, they had no idea that the Miles’s would eventually become the lens that represented the ranching community in 2014.

A teenage girl holds her little brother in her lap during the Rosebud Fair Pow Wow on July 4, 2014 on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Brianna Soukup.

“The first thing we did ended up being something we followed through all the way to the end,” Teets said.

The town was becoming less of a project, and more like home.

Peg Liberator lights up a cigarette at her home on July 10, 2014 in Valentine, Neb. Liberator, 97, has lived in Valentine since the for the better half of her life. Photo: Brianna Soukup.

“The people that really became a part of our lives weren’t always the people we were photographing,” Berg said.

During their down time, the team grabbed drinks and hung out with the regulars at George’s Corner Bar. Now the journalists speak fondly of the relationships they formed outside of photographing—the moments that made them feel like a part of the community.

Kristen Redhawk, 16, writes on her family’s driveway with smoke bombs on June 28, 2014 in Mission, South Dakota on the Rosebud Reservation. Photo: Brianna Soukup.

“Those relationships give you the confidence to do the other work you’re doing,” Berg said.

The Fly Over Me crew gave the wealth of material they collected to Erika Colbertaldo, a grad student at Syracuse Univerity, who is editing the footage. Once the film is finished, the goal is to tour small theaters in Nebraska.

“It’s still a long road ahead of us,” Dickinson said.

Raesha Warren looks on as ranchers rope calves to brand on the Higgins family ranch Wednesday, June 17. Photo: Lauren Justice.

The work in Valentine stands as a model for young journalists looking to sharpen their skills. The relatively random assignment that the team gave themselves provided lessons that they didn’t, and probably couldn’t, learn in college.

Ella Warren rests while helping her father and two older sisters herd cattle on their family ranch. June 30, 2014. Photo: Amanda Berg.

Soukup said that since that summer she feels much more creative and knows more ways to tell a story. Berg hopes to continue collaborating on projects.

Dickinson, Augustine, Soukup and Justice returned to Valentine in recent weeks, even though the new material may not end up in Fly Over Me’s final documentary.

“None of us are ever going to stop going back to Valentine,” Dickinson said.

Historic bridge on the outskirts of Valentine, NE. Photo: Alex Matzke.

The Fly Over Me team advises readers that if they are ever in Valentine, to grab a cherry bomb from George’s Corner Bar, but not to ask what’s in it.

They’ll also be posting to Vantage’s Instagram account over the next couple of days so check out their work there and follow them at @flyovermevalentine.