Going home is better than being home
Chapter 1: The Way Home
Going home is better than being home.
Something about traversing the ground—physically counting off the miles that lay between Chicago and Western Kansas—was crucial to the process of going home. I was not prepared to be home unless I had traveled the distance, literally. Preferably, on tracks of steel going in a straight line. As the train moved west, the tension spooled out of my body. My mind became blank, cleansed of the details of urban survival and the demands of journalistic ambition. A clock slowly unticking. A wheel slowly unturning. Ready to be at peace on the Great Plains where hours move more slowly than any other place on earth.
In my early days in Chicago, my favorite method of getting home was a train called the Kansas City Chief. It started in Chicago, chugging noisily through old stockyards, past oil refineries, smelly factories and crumbling warehouses, then rudely skirted the dirty backyards of neighborhoods, passing under and through graffiti-smeared train trestles. The Chief then whistled into the Illinois countryside passing through endless cornfields and nondescript small towns. By evening, the train was racing through Iowa, then crossing into Missouri, a state I always slept straight through. Well past midnight, the Chief would pull into Kansas City. I would blink in half wakefulness as unwelcome light and people flowed in and out of the train. We would be stuck for an eternity in the under-roof station in Kansas City assaulted by the glare of artificial light until finally, mercifully, the train would lunge into motion and pass into the cool blinking night of Eastern Kansas countryside, its green beauty and gentle hills hidden by darkness. Then through the last hours of the night until dawn, the mournful train whistle marked small town after small town on the Kansas prairie. By dawn we were lost on the flattest plain in the country, the train finding its way from one outcropping of grain elevators—not really towns—to another, stopping briefly for mailbags but few passengers.
Around breakfast time, when the California-bound passengers were cranky and beginning to demand coffee, we would lurch into Dodge City, slowing past the infamous “Front Street” with its once-wild Long Branch Saloon. The Chief would stop for an instant, hardly enough time for me to drag off my one overpacked suitcase.
By my second or third year in Chicago, I had discovered that for a few dollars more I could reserve a sleeper on the Kansas City Chief and my trips home took on an indulgent air of luxury. Shortly after boarding, I would show up at the dining car for a steak dinner. In the 1970s, there was still tablecloth service with waiters in tuxedo-like uniforms. You were formally seated at tables for six in the order in which you arrived, so dinner became a polite social occasion with random strangers. The fixed-price five-course meal often lasted a leisurely two hours. During these meals I met California’s first woman State Supreme Court judge, a novelist whose books would later appear on the bestseller lists and an assortment of other interesting characters, all of whom shared a common bond—fear of flying. Then I “retired” to my berth, secured the pull-down bed, and changed into pajamas.
There is no slumber as good as that in a sleeping compartment of a train. Like being in a woman’s womb as she moves about her life-business, you are happily rocked in the fluid, tightly, warmly bound within a secure environment, sounds muffled and undemanding.
The conductor, the same aging, cheerful black man always on duty, knowing I slept soundly on the Kansas City Chief, would wake me an hour out of Hutchinson. That gave me thirty minutes to dress, gather my things, and prepare to disembark. But most of the time, I dozed off again, unwilling to be born. Then I would suddenly hear him call out “Dodge City,” and I’d have to get off in my pajamas, clutching a coat around my braless torso, lugging my barely-latched suitcase off the train, rumpled, and totally unprepared for sunlight and wind, a preemie, dispelled harshly before I was ready. I’d barely greet my parents before rushing into the station ladies’ room to finish dressing.
Mom would assure me when I re-emerged dressed and combed that nobody had noticed. It was our ritual. Of course no one noticed. No one was ever there. I was always the only one getting off—or on—at that stop. Everyone drives in Kansas. No one takes a train.
I’d climb into the back seat of the Oldsmobile, and Dad would swing out onto the nearly empty highway that passed by Front Street. Mom would be excited, almost like a small child, with words tumbling out in happy profusion. About the time we reached the outskirts of Dodge, she would suddenly say, “Becky, are you hungry.” Without waiting for a reply, my father would turn into a roadside cafe.
Two eggs over easy. Hold the bacon.
The cafes were nearly always empty except for one or two tablefuls of retired farmers who had the time to jaw over their coffee because now it was their sons out at dawn. Though dressed for rugged work, there would be none for them. They had earned the uneasy luxury of taking their time getting out to the field to check on what was going on without them. So they tarried over long, slow discussions about the price of wheat, politics and the way it used to be and should be again.
During the hour and a half drive beyond Dodge, while Mom talked and Dad seemed lost in thought, I began to notice something: more and more trailer homes were sprouting up on farmyards. Once trailers functioned to house a hired hand or a son and daughter-in-law who wanted some privacy away from the main farmhouse. But now, often as not, the trailer home became the main farmhouse with the former home standing empty and in disrepair. It was as if the farmer had conceded that it was no longer worth keeping up the dwelling. Furthermore, the mobile home—trailer dwellers prefer the term “mobile home”—could be moved out on a moment’s notice, signaling, it seemed to me, that farmers all over the Plains were admitting imminent defeat, knowing their final days on the land were coming to an end. Better to be prepared for flight than fight a battle that could not be won. Each visit, I saw more and more trailers. Little did I know my parents were nearing the day when they would move their possessions into a mobile home parked on the edges of their former existence. I could not have borne it if I had known.
My last visit to Western Kansas before we lost the farm had been a glorious golden November week when Thanksgiving came in the midst of a burst of sunny warmth, as if the prairie didn’t know winter was coming. Most of the muted greens of summer had become muted browns. The fields of wheat stubble were still yellow-gold, dotted with straw bales standing in the field. Touches of green struggled to remain. Even in winter, the buffalo grass never quite loses its gray-green sheen, and the winter wheat planted in September was now short, thick, and as kelly green as a summertime city lawn. I was home. Thomas was home. And a plump pheasant rooster was roasting in Mom’s oven. Our legendary buffalo herd grazed in the pasture. The horses were restless and excited, sensing they would be ridden hard by Thomas, then groomed and fussed over, as it had been in the days before he left them.
Mom was rushing around absentmindedly, trying to manage every detail of her cooking while talking nonstop. She was not used to cooking large meals since all six of her children had grown up and scattered to the farthest corners of the country.
I would give anything to have one more meal with my parents on the farm and then go for a long walk along the ridge looking for arrowheads. I would give anything to sit under the cottonwoods in the U-bend of the creek and write poetry.
I would be content just to know that the creek and the cottonwoods were still there.
During my shamefully ambitious thirties, when I thought time was too precious to waste crossing the distance, I would fly in to Wichita “International” airport, and drive the last two hundred miles in a rental car, cruising at 80 mph on Highway 50, resenting the little towns with their 25 mph speed limits. But always, at the point that the prairie became flat, totally flat, I’d slow down and the tension would travel out of my neck into my fingertips and then dissipate into the stale, nicotine air of the rental car. That’s when I would notice the rental car stench and realize that clear air was waiting to fill my lungs. I’d roll down the window so I could smell the earth and draw a deep, deep breath. And I would remember that going home was as important as being home.
This time I’m driving home, oh, not all the way. I can’t bear driving through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. So I flew into Kansas City, and rented a car so that I could at least drive the entire diagonal length of Kansas, from the very top corner, to the very bottom. I need the time alone on the road.
I am about to turn forty. A grown-up Rebecca returning to Kansas.
My name is Rebecca, Becky to my family. Becca to my Chicago friends.
There is a ritual to this drive. I take Interstate 35 and pass as quickly as I can through the outer ring of the suburbs of Kansas City—which look just like the suburbs of every other American city. Once I’m well into the countryside, I begin looking for the Lebo Junction exit. It’s easy to miss. There I stop for a meal if I’m hungry, or a cup of coffee if I’m not. Lebo Junction is an old-time truck stop—the kind where truckers get preferential seating and free phones, where the waitresses have gravelly voices and know all their customers’ names and call even the crustiest trucker “honey.” The Lebo truckstop store sells everything from toilet paper to TV sets to western-cut leather jackets. I once bought Bill, my photographer friend and sometimes fiancé, a tan suede western blazer here. He wears it every day. We’ve never married. One of us is always getting shipped out to some foreign assignment, and then when we’re both in Chicago for any length of time we get cold feet. Now we’ve dropped the fiancé business and think of ourselves as friends for lack of a better word. Both our relationship and his Lebo Junction jacket are worn and patched, yet still comfortable.
So don’t feel sorry for me. World-trotting journalist. On the road alone. Rootless, childless. Facing forty.
I also stop in Lebo Junction in honor of a Christmas past, when I was desperately trying to get home in time for our family dinner. A blizzard in Chicago had delayed my flight. The plane was headed for Wichita but forced to land in Kansas City because the Wichita airport was closed and Kansas City was about to shut down as well, due to a blinding fog which had settled over the entire Great Plains. I grabbed the last rental car left at Avis and set out for Western Kansas, knowing I would never make supper let alone dinner. It was already eleven o’clock in the morning and I was eight to ten hours away—with the threat of a blizzard moving in.
I was desperately hungry. Nothing had been open in the airport. I stopped at exit after exit. It was Christmas morning and even the three McDonald’s along the way were closed. The fog was so heavy I could barely see two car lengths in front of me. There was no one on the road. It was eerie driving down an empty Interstate. Finally, I saw a highway patrol car on the side of the road. I stopped and asked the officer where I could find a bite to eat.
“Go back seven miles to Lebo Junction. They never close.”
“I got off at Lebo. There was nothing there,” I countered.
“Trust me. There is a truck stop and it never closes. You just didn’t see it in the fog. Go to the right after exiting. I guarantee it’s there.”
So I turned around and took the exit again. I was already in some sort of parking lot before I could make out the outlines of a building. I was astounded to see maybe thirty trucks and twice that many cars neatly parked in rows. I’d been right here not twenty minutes ago and had seen nothing.
When I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by light and music and noise, a huge Christmas tree near the door, and tables and tables of families. The restaurant was serving turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and green beans dripping in butter, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes—all the traditional fare of a country Christmas dinner. People were dressed up. Children were running about. It seemed that everyone in this quadrant of Kansas was in this room having a communal Christmas dinner.
Feeling as if I’d stumbled into a Twilight Zone episode, I ordered the Christmas feast. Actually, it was the only choice on the menu—and I was hungry.
A few moments later, as I nursed a cup of coffee, the waitress came over, bent down speaking low. “Honey, the table over there—the Olson family—would like you to join them. They asked me to come over and talk to you.”
Poor Rebecca. Alone in Kansas on Christmas Day.
I thought for an instant about how I had planned to bolt my food in ten minutes and get back on the road. But with an edgy mix of gratefulness and embarrassment, I accepted their offer—what else could one do under the circumstances?
I picked up my coffee cup and introduced myself while they moved chairs making room for me. The Olsons were a fourth-generation ranch family in the Flint Hills. They lifted their cups of hot spiced apple cider to my making it home in time for the day after Christmas. One son-in-law hailed from Dodge City and we compared old dust storm stories. After pecan pie, the Olson family began exchanging gifts. Being so large a clan, they had taken to drawing numbers, a tradition my own huge extended family followed as well. I began to excuse myself with apologies about getting on the road, when the old man of the clan ordered me to sit back down. One of the children, giggling, brought me a hastily wrapped package. Someone had sneaked out into the restaurant’s adjacent store. I unwrapped my gift, one I will treasure forever, a puzzle of an illustrated map of Kansas. I inspected it with unabashed excitement. A dotted line traced the old Santa Fe Trail. Down in my part of the state, along the southern cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail, little icons marked Wagonbed Springs, the Cimarron National Grasslands, and the Dalton Gang Hideout near Meade. A peace pipe drawing located Medicine Lodge, where the infamous treaty was forged which, unbeknownst to the Indian chiefs who planted their reluctant signatures, virtually handed over the Plains Indians’ last hunting grounds to the white invaders and banished them forever to the reservation.
Little has changed in Lebo Junction during the last ten years.
Today I’m not hungry so I order coffee and, of course, pecan pie. I look around for the Olsons—I always do, just in case—and, on the way out, I leave a business card with the owner’s wife who has been manning the cash register for as long as I’ve been stopping here. I ask her to give the card to Mr. or Mrs. Olson next time they come in. On the back I have scrawled, I never celebrate Christmas without thinking of you. Love, Rebecca.
“Old Man Olson passed on last spring,” I’m informed. “And Mrs. Olson has Alzheimer’s, poor thing, doesn’t even recognize her own kids. But I’ll give this to the next Olson to come in. Lord knows there’s enough of ’em, sweetie.”
Shortly after Lebo Junction, I leave the Interstate for Highway 50 and enter one of the last pristine wonders of the world, the Flint Hills. As far as the eye can see, soft, rolling hills and deep valleys are carpeted by tall grass bending and swaying in a unison chorus directed by the wind. There is little traffic on the road and almost no sign of human habitation or manipulation except for an occasional windmill beside a pond of pooling water in a deep valley, or a graying wood corral near the side of the road. Sparse numbers of cattle graze the rolling hills, oblivious to the road’s encroachment upon their lazy existence. They are in no hurry. There is endless grass.
I’ve seen these hills in all seasons. In spring, the grass is hazy apple green with a profusion of wildflower pastels visible only upon a closer look. Now it’s the middle of summer, so the bluestem grass has a slight golden aura. In fall it will turn a brilliant red-bronze. The color of the tall grass prairie varies with the amount of rainfall as well as the seasons. But always it is beautiful beyond description. A view from the air is even more stunning. The hills are soft and rounded so smoothly it looks less like the planet Earth than some exotic planet composed of a soft, springy, dough-like material. (I know what it looks like from the air because once I brought Bill along on one of these drives, and he went nuts with the views, having me stop the car every few yards so he could take photographs. When he ran out of film we backtracked to Emporia to buy more. Then when we stopped for gas in Strong City, he walked into the bar next door and somehow found a farmer with a small plane
to take him up to shoot aerial views. Eventually, Bill published the photos in a book. He never made it to Western Kansas with me. He just couldn’t leave the Flint Hills.)
Now I turn off onto State Road 150, a shortcut that heads straight west. It’s little more than a narrow strip of asphalt laid over the hills, rising and dropping sharply like a roller coaster. I can’t resist driving fast, making it as physically exhilarating as it is visually. When I get around to writing a book about the most beautiful roads in the world, this will be one of them. I daydream about building a cabin out here somewhere and just staying forever. Bill said the same thing that trip when I left him here. He said that one day when he had the money saved he was going to buy a ranch here and never leave. I told him if he did that I’d marry him immediately, despite my better judgement. He hasn’t done it yet. Bill doesn’t know how to save money.
The Flint Hills soon give way to flat farmland interspersed with small meandering streams. Here in the center of the state where rainfall is adequate and sometimes bountiful, all the land is tilled and sectioned off into neat squares of healthy green, with hedgerows of cedars everywhere emphasizing the squareness. Farmhouses—most of them two-story, frame Victorians surrounded by mature trees—possess a look of permanence. This is where my mother grew up, hence I have uncles and aunts and cousins in this part of the state, most of them with thriving dairy farms and Victorian parlors closed off by glass doors.
I should stop at my grandparents’ graves, just two miles off the road.
But I don’t stop. I want to get to Western Kansas before nightfall. Even though my parents are no longer there. Even though our farm is no longer there.
I’m about to turn forty. And I must get home.
The highway now joins the Arkansas River at Great Bend, so named because the river indeed makes a huge bend here. Everywhere, there are black, rooster-like oil wells pumping, sometimes in clusters. These black mechanical birds peck at the earth, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the oil they pull from its depths.
From Great Bend, the road slants south and west following alongside the Arkansas River, pronounced, by the way, not Arkansaw like the state Arkansas, but like Noah’s Ark plus Kansas. Ark Kansas. We Kansans are offended by any other pronunciation.
A few miles outside of Great Bend, I sometimes stop at Pawnee Rock—but not today, I must get home—where a tiny town clusters at the base of a huge rocky shaft that enigmatically juts out of the plains. Usually, I climb to the top of the rock and gaze in all directions, remembering the thrill of childhood visits here and the story my father would always tell. Colonel Dodge was traveling from Fort Larned back to Fort Dodge one day in 1871 when he found himself in the middle of a huge herd of buffalo. Wondering how large the herd was and what direction he might ride to avoid them, the colonel climbed to the top of Pawnee Rock. To the horizon in all directions, as far as he could see—at least twenty-five miles wide, my father would guess—Colonel Dodge saw a solid brown mass of buffalo slowly lumbering north. The colonel was stuck there five days waiting for the herd to pass before he could travel on to Fort Dodge. Within ten years, this great southern herd, estimated at about twelve million strong in 1870, would be reduced to one dazed old bull and a few bawling, motherless calves.
Back on the road following the southwest path of the Arkansas River, I suddenly come over the crest of a hill and see in the river valley below the legendary Dodge City. My birthplace. To the left, a large smelly feedlot, packed brown with thousands of fattening cattle covers an entire hillside. Dodge is still an endpoint cattle town. They just aren’t driven up the trail from Texas anymore. Slaughterhouses, which locals prefer to call packinghouses, remain a major industry here. And this massive feedlot on the edge of town was one of the first enterprises to apply assembly-line techniques to beef production. Breeders sell or consign their range-fed cattle to such feedlots where the animals are packed into pens and fed grain around the clock under glaring lights that obliterate the night and confuse their eating patterns. Hormone additives in the feed help the cattle fatten more quickly. With little room or reason for movement, the animals expend minimal energy and gain as much as a hundred pounds, most of it fat, in just a few weeks. That increases the sale price, which is based on weight. The beef people have convinced consumers that more marbling—the fancy name for interspersed fat—means better flavor. To the beef industry, more marbling means higher profits. For the consumer it means more heart disease.
Opposite the feedlot, mounted horsemen cut from rusting steel stand silhouetted against the sky, as if wary of approaching Dodge City. But when travelers stop to admire this striking sculpture, they are assailed by a smell so repulsive, it sends them hurrying back into their cars. The amount of urine and manure produced by such a feedlot is staggering. The muck builds up in the pens and invariably seeps down the slope towards the river, despite mandated holding ponds below and bulldozed waste mounds inside the pens, which are periodically removed. Fortunately, since the wind blows mostly out of the west, the city is usually spared the feedlot’s stench.
I leave the feedlot and the rusting cowboys behind as I descend into this historic valley. While the old buildings in many prairie towns have been replaced by nondescript, utilitarian steel or cinderblock structures, Dodge City remains filled with decades-old sandy-red brick houses shaded by large trees, as well as a small central downtown area of two-story brick and stone structures. Built to stay. Solid. That’s Dodge City. But it wasn’t always solid. And still isn’t—entirely. Another part of town has plenty of seedy bars to prove the town is still rough around the edges.
I usually stop at Front Street for a cherry coke at the Long Branch, no longer a saloon but a family tourist attraction. But not today. I want to get home by nightfall. If you come at the right time, you’re treated to a noisy, messily choreographed gunfight, with young cowboys leaping and rolling off roofs and falling dead in the street. Today it’s hot and lazy, and I see neither tourists nor gunfighters. But there are some old bowlegged cowboys on the street and they’re not part of any show. Just old retired guys with big ears holding up their cowboy hats. What is it about old men? Do their ears grow bigger or do their heads shrink to make their ears seem bigger?
My father never wore a cowboy hat. He was a farmer through and through.
I may have been born here, but I am still ninety miles from home. I pass the red brick hospital and cross the bridge over the Arkansas. Somewhere just on the west edge of Dodge City I pass an invisible but powerful line—the one-hundredth meridian. Just an innocent line on the globe—little did the cartographers know they had demarcated the line of no return. Some say the Great Plains begins at the one hundredth meridian. It is at that point that the rainfall generally measures less than twenty inches a year—there isn’t much that will grow on so little rainfall. And for that reason, when agriculture first came to the Great Plains, banks would not lend money to farmers west of the one-hundredth meridian nor would insurance companies insure crops or property. If you strayed over that line, you were beyond the help of man and sometimes God.
Fifteen miles outside of Dodge, still heading south and west, it suddenly becomes amazingly flat.
I always forget how flat it is.
Western Kansas is the flattest spot on earth. It’s so flat that you don’t need Galileo to tell you that the earth is round. You can actually see the horizon bending down out of view in all directions. As a child, I assumed that if a hill dared raise its head, a tornado would quickly flatten it. Because of this flatness, land takes up very little of your view. The sky becomes everything. It is your scenery. It is your entertainment. Rainbows arc across the whole sky, sunsets paint their colors from horizon to horizon. Clouds crowd the sky with shapes that conjure up epic stories for daydreamers on long, lazy afternoons.
Then every evening the thunderheads roll in, angry clouds of enormous towering proportions. When night has fallen, the shows begin. Lightning rips across the sky in patterns so intricate and spontaneous, you never tire of watching. But rarely do these braggart clouds give out any rain, merely teasing, teasing, teasing the parched land with dazzling devilish glee.
During the early afternoons before the clouds move in, the sky is criss-crossed with the white contrails of jets traversing between New York and Los Angeles. As a little girl I spun elaborate daydreams about the people in those airplanes. As an adult whose work often placed me in those very same air lanes between the coasts, I reversed the spectacle, peering out the window down at the landscape below. Shortly after the pilot would announce we were over Dodge City, I would begin scanning for the Cimarron River. Then the North Fork of the Cimarron, and by finding the place where the Sand Arroyo joins the North Fork, I could actually pinpoint our farm.
For other passengers there was nothing to see—that is, until someone invented circular irrigation. My two bachelor uncles were some of the first farmers to test out these contraptions, huge sprinklers on wheels that followed a slow path, often measuring as much as a mile in diameter, employing water pressure to inch them along. These giant sprinklers were a marvel of engineering, conservation and practicality. Soon nearly all the wheat and milo fields in our area became circular. At first, airline passengers marveled at the crazy round quilt shapes. In the early days, I felt it necessary to explain the circles to my seatmates, whether or not they were interested. Now everyone knows. Sometimes the pilots even explain the patterns as part of their in-flight banter.
In my skywatching youth, between the orderly jet trails of commercial flights, were nonsensical spiraling exhaust trails excreted by hot shot pilots from Air Force bases in Colorado and Utah who played crazy, daredevil games in our skies. They regularly broke the sound barrier, rattling our windows and nerves, with not a thought or backward glance.
It was only fitting that our devils also descended out of those skies: predator tornadoes twisting down without warning to grab some prey, wreak some sadistic havoc, then withdraw anonymously into clouds as if nothing had happened. No remorse, no explanation. We knew they were lurking when clouds turned greenish. Our fathers could predict their approach most of the time. You aren’t even surprised—well, in fact, secretly delighted—when a funnel suddenly pokes out and heads for the ground. Touchdown. Now run.
You can learn to read the clouds, but you can’t predict the path of a tornado. It will turn and go another direction. It will double back. It will mischievously destroy one house and spare the next. The stories in our county are fantastical: The parsonage of our country church gone. Nothing remains but the piano, sitting exactly where it was, with the hymn book turned to the very page the pastor’s wife was playing moments before she ran for the basement. One neighboring farmer picked up and gently let down five miles away buck naked. Cows found dazed ten miles from the field where they had been grazing. Everyone has stories and loves to tell them.
And everyone is always prepared for the next one. We kept oil lamps, books and games in our tornado shelter. Indeed, we spent many a summer evening in our damp cellar, while my father watched the boiling clouds searching for the funnel that would send him down the steps to join the rest of the family, already deep into a game of Monopoly.
The pioneers in Western Kansas learned quickly that the only way to survive the daily threat of tornadoes was to live in underground homes called “dugouts.” In the fifties, we still lived in a dugout built by my grandfather. It was embarrassing to be so “old-fashioned,” but also a bit romantic.
Two years after the tornado flattened our farm—all but the dugout—my father enigmatically decided to build an above-ground home. Just to let us know who was boss, a tornado hit the new house the day before we were scheduled to move in, clipping off a wing of it and stacking the four walls neatly on top of each other a few feet away. My father persevered and rebuilt, but not without a storm cellar of poured concrete under the new wing.
We were not yet hooked into electricity let alone television and therefore blissfully unaware, but I’m told that the rest of the country was afraid of the atomic bomb during those years. They were building bomb shelters and ducking under school desks during bomb drills. We didn’t fear the atomic bomb. We had something far more real and immediate. At our one-room country school, we regularly practiced tornado drills. Our teacher, stopwatch in hand, would time us as we raced for a culvert under the road. All twelve of us—ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade—wiggled into the thirty-inch diameter culvert. We had to run for it a few times for real.
While tornadoes stuck fear in our hearts, it was the dust storms that tried our souls. You could see them rolling in. Huge black, boiling monsters on the horizon. If you saw one coming, you had maybe thirty minutes to get to shelter. Hurricane-force winds drove the fine dust. It would choke and kill you in minutes if you were out in it. Even huddled in our houses in the dark, survival meant tying wet handkerchiefs over our faces to filter the air and protect our lungs.
To this day, every February 19th I remember the worst day of our lives. We didn’t see the sun at all that day. At noon it was so black you couldn’t even see enough light to tell where the windows were. Even inside the house a thick cloud of fine dust hung in the air. When the storm was over, we had to shovel out dust ten inches deep from the house. There was no sleeping during a dust storm. Survival meant vigilance—you had to constantly wet the kerchiefs. We huddled together, like a bunch of bandits, our eyes peering out over our handkerchiefs. But we were not the bandits. The dust storms were—robbing us blind of our livelihood and sanity. Farm animals died, choked by the dust. Crops were ruined. The cleanup took weeks.
Tornadoes were better. Their capriciousness, their unpredictability was . . . well, predictable. You could run to a shelter, you could flatten yourself to the ground and it would pass over. In seconds, the great roar was gone. But dust storms lasted for hours, sometimes for days, penetrating into your pores, your lungs and souls.
Nevertheless, we survived all of it.
Somewhere in those turbulent fifties of my childhood, there were also some good years when the elements allowed our wheat to grow and reach harvest. I remember July days filled with excitement and joy. My mother and sister and I would pack baskets of food, bountiful dinners and suppers, spreading the food out on folding tables in the middle of vast golden wheat fields. My father and four brothers would climb down off their combines, and in the shade of a truck, we’d feast on fried chicken, potato salad, and corn on the cob, washed down by bucketloads of ice tea. Then we’d finish with cool watermelon, spitting the seeds as far as we could into the wheat stubble.
Afterwards, the menfolk would climb back on the combines and work into the night until they dropped. Long after I’d gone to sleep they’d come in—sometimes I’d wake briefly to their muffled talk while they ate a piece of pie left out on the table for them. They’d snatch a few hours of sleep, only to climb out of their beds a few hours later, grab breakfast and return to the field just as the sun dried off the dew. Then the combines would roar again, bringing in the harvest, quick, quick, quick before thunderstorm, hail or tornadoes could grab it from us. I remember one painful July Third when hailstorms destroyed our “bumper” crop. Hail as big as golf balls—as a child I always wondered what size a golf ball was, having never seen one—pounded the wheat into a mush. My father stood at the window and watched without saying a word. It’s the saddest I ever saw him. My mother disappeared into her bedroom for hours and sobbed. I could hear it through the walls.
I’m on the cutoff now, our term for the state highway that heads straight west from Dodge to Odyssey. They’re going to have a bumper crop this year. (I’ve never understood why they call it a “bumper” crop. Does the wheat grow as high as the bumper of the truck? Does it “bump” all the scales when you weigh in at the elevator?) The wheat fields stretch lush and green-gold as far as the eye can see on either side of the road. Not because of rainfall, but because the creeping circular irrigation sprinklers have metered out exactly the right amount of water, delivering it in gentle, simulated rain. I wonder if the women still bring supper to the field.
The nearly ripe grain ripples in the wind. Only if you have grown up on these Plains can you thrill to the lyrics, “amber waves of grain.” I turn off on a dirt road and stop the car, get out and wade into a field, luxuriating in the smell, color and texture of nearly ripe wheat against a blue, blue sky.
Walking back to my car I stop and look around in all directions. There is no north or south, no east or west. This is part of my ritual: to just stand and look, as if I am the Little Prince surveying his planet. As always, I am flooded with layers of complicated emotions, which I can only inadequately describe as a sense of relief, of safety, of belonging. But it is more than that. There is an undercurrent I cannot understand.
I take a deep breath. I am back on the Plains. Yet I did not really come here of my own accord. It is as if I have been pulled here from the forests and hills by some irresistible force. My love for these Plains is against my will. Consciously, I hate the Plains and left them as soon as I could. Unconsciously, I love them with the aching of an abandoned woman for her lost lover.
Back on the road in my rental car, I continue going west. I’m near now. The sun is dropping to the horizon. I’m on schedule. I’ll be home by dark.
Home? I can’t go home. I have no home.
Ten years ago, while I was away covering some event in another part of the globe, and while Thomas was away exploring the canyons of the Southwest, and while my older siblings were engrossed in their careers and children, my father was backed into a terrible corner. Not only was the farm lost to us, but the land itself, the very land itself, was lost.
Why is it that the Acropolis still stands, that wild cats roam free in Rome’s ancient coliseum, that the Great Wall of China beckons to the earth’s revolving satellites, but no trace is left of my childhood home of twenty-five short years ago?