In which Katie finds a small town safe harbor, stands for agriculture and submits to the pressures of exhaustion.
Kansas looks dreamy in the snow. That much I learned on day 14. I loaded up my truck and waved my warm and beautiful southern Nebraska yurt (and its even warmer and more beautiful host) goodbye.
All my fellow New Englanders know the heavenly sparkle that explodes from the earth when uninhibited sun and icy blue skies hit a fresh snowfall in the morning. Now take that snow globe effect and apply it to the widest and most open spaces imaginable. Dot the landscape with cows, windmills, the occasional cluster of trees and old farmsteads. That was my four-hour drive on day 14.
Dighton is a town of just over 1,000 people. It is also the county seat of what is one of the most sparsely populated parts of Kansas, according to its reliable locals. The skyline is a carbon copy of every other town I drove through since crossing into western Kansas. A water tower, a grain elevator, the covered stadium seating of the fairgrounds, and a single main street of three-story buildings all still stand where they were undoubtedly planted decades ago. A Kwik-Stop sign glows neon somewhere in the middle, announcing too-low gas prices to all potential customers. The rest of the town folds out from this one main street, parallel and perpendicular lines of rural lives well-lived and well-loved.
Recess lets out at the elementary school across the street. The playground is hidden behind a vintage gas station with a body shop still in business. A red 1940s farm truck rests its old bones next to the pumps that look about the same age, like a group of friendly geezers recalling the glory days of their youth. The truck holds a “For Sale” sign in its window. I haven’t had the courage to look at the asking price, because there is a dangerous chance that I cut a check. At least my belongings would fit in its spacious body a bit better than they do in my infant Ram.
Lane County is home to a massive number of playa wetlands. Playas are wide shallow depressions in otherwise flat expanses that hold a few inches or feet of water in wet times. October has not been one of those times. Neither was September, or August, or July. The drought conditions in Nebraska and Kansas are a cause for serious concern right now. Dighton sits on top of the hugely important Ogllala Aquifer, which is not getting recharged at a sustainable rate for the long-term. When protected, these playas play a huge role in mitigating that issue.
Lane County farmers are some of the more conservation-minded folks in the state. Thanks to collaborations with state agencies, conservation non-profits, the USDA’s Farm Services Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service and others, they were able to enter a majority of their playa wetlands into programs that pay for their restoration and protection. These wetlands that were otherwise difficult to farm become more profitable for farmers when returned to their natural state and buffered against sedimentation.
They also support bird populations by the tens of thousands. I have been reassured of my choice in reporting location by the multiple sandhill cranes I have witnessed while out with these landowners. Whooping cranes are spotted out here on occasion too.
It has become a personal odyssey of mine to report stories in which farmers, ranchers and other members of the agricultural industry are environmentally responsible and sustainably conscious stewards of the landscapes they call home. As the industry comes increasingly under fire for its contributions to climate change, it seems more important to highlight people and communities that focus on carrying forward the right way. I could throw out random buzzwords like wetland easements and prairie grassland restoration, carbon sequestration and no-till practices, cover crops, rotational grazing, soil health and subterranean drip irrigation. Instead, I just ask that before you support climate mitigation strategies that involve wiping agriculture clean off the face of our nation, you consider your reliance on its products and you research any of the aforementioned jargon.
But I digress.
I came to the conclusion yesterday that I am utterly exhausted. I was out visiting playas with sources from 8 to 5, and by the time I got home it felt like midnight. I am now two and a half weeks into my trip, and have about two weeks left to go before I return to Missoula. This adventure is shaping up to take more time than I had originally thought. Getting stuck in Nebraska’s random frigid weather added two extra days that I had not planned for. I’ve also had an abundance of sources and interviews to visit and conduct since then.
This is obviously a good problem to have. But I get overwhelmed every now and then. Sometimes, the only way I can reground myself is by reorganizing my clothes or rearranging my truck. I delete useless emails. I dump photos and interview audio into organized folders. I chip away at little odd tasks that provide structure to this completely floundering adventure I’m on.
I am staying in a small but luxurious guest house attached to a massive equipment shed on a 12,000-acre farm and seed business. The property is a commanding presence located about eight miles outside of Dighton. This will be one of my last nights sleeping in an actual home before I get back to camping for the foreseeable future.
Tonight I sat out on the edge of a winter wheat field under a cloudless dusk sky. I watched the sun drop into fiery oblivion on one side as the moon became airborne on the other. They greeted each other from across the horizon for a short while, maybe about 15 minutes. They caught up quick and both went their own ways, like some astronomical changing of the guards. I sat crosslegged on the ground, observing the spectacle and forcing myself to forget about the stress that has accumulated in the nooks and crannies of my brain. Blood reds and tangerines and salmons melted into hazy lavenders and muted cyans and denim indigos. Above a distant farmstead the moon glowed, a giant hole punched in a light-blocking curtain hung in front of heaven. I smiled, knowing I was witnessing miraculous simplicity.
I have driven through some of the most remote parts of the lower 48 states in recent weeks. There has been heart-stopping beauty everywhere I have landed. Someday I will return home. Until then, being a child of highways and dirt roads and the open skies and the fellowship of strangers-turned-kindred spirits is just fine with me.