The Worst Hard Time… Again

On 4th of July, I felt my first rain drops in 65 days.

Boise City, OK made the New York Times in May because they hadn’t had any rain in 222 days. To date, they have had 1.18 inches of rain this year…  I’ve been walking through the “Dust Bowl” (grasslands of New Mexico, Oklahoma panhandle and southwestern Kansas) during the worst drought in 100 years.  It’s worse than during those Dirty 30’s, when all the top soil dried up and blew away in huge clouds of dust hundreds of feet tall that swallowed up houses, caused fatal dust pneumonia, sent most people packing and drove many mad.

There is a book by Timothy Egan called, “The Worst Hard Time” about the people who stayed through the Dirty 30s, about why they came and how and why they stayed.  I have been privileged to get to know some of their descendants, many of whom farm the same land with a quiet stoicism and acceptance of this year’s hard time.

It is simple, with no rain, there are no crops except those that are heavily irrigated from local wells.  There is no grass this year in New Mexico’s Kiowa National Grasslands.  No grass. Not a blade of green in the hundred miles of high desert I slowly walked through, just bare earth with brown tired grass leftover from last year.  Every rancher has to buy hay… but there is no hay except for irrigated plots.  I asked my host in Abbott, NM (population 2) where they got the huge new truckload of hay that her son had just arrived with, and she said, “It’s last years hay from someone’s barn.”  When I asked her how they are getting by, she replied simply, “I have the best neighbors.”

After spending the night in the Baptist church, I was in a tiny cafe/diner in Keyes, OK.  There were a few ranchers having their breakfast before starting the day.  We talked about them selling off most of their herds because of the drought. They also said there’d been 4 fires the night before from lightening strikes, one of which had burned down a few buildings of a local rancher.  This is a common story along my route, fire, fire, fire, dry heat and wind.

I can believe that this wind could drive someone crazy, back in the thirties or now.  Day after day, for months, with very few breaks, I’ve walked with the wind whistling in my ears.  Sometimes the wind has been strong enough to blow me off the road, and walking into a headwind makes 15 miles feel like 30.  I end the day with wobbly legs, red pinched skin and sand everywhere…  I remember seeing a 1928 silent film called “The Wind”( ), set in west Texas, about a woman who goes mad from the constant wind.  I now relate this on a personal level.

The wind is like a soap-opera character in the story of my journey, sometimes a good friend gently pushing me forward and cooling my heated skin.  Then plotting against me the very next day, foiling my progress and howling in my ears for hours.  Or abandoning me entirely to the hot midday sun on a 105 degree day.  It is practice in patience and perseverance to know the wind so intimately.  This is something the farmers and ranchers learn when they take their first steps in this landscape.


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11 Responses to The Worst Hard Time… Again

  1. Elizabeth Miller says:

    I followed your link to The Wind, the silent 1928 movie – what a riveting, tearing, exhausting movie! And now I have a better understanding…and even more respect for your epic journey!

  2. Jennifer Kempke says:

    Hi Laura,
    I met you Tuesday evening while working at Paden’s Restaurant in Ellsworth, KS. I was just amazed at how strong and sure you are of yourself and the journey you have set out on. It was a pleasure to be your waitress and get to know you for that small moment of your journey. After my shift was over, I came home to my 2 girls who are 14 and 13 and shared your story with them. I thought that would be the end of my story with you, but today, on our way to Salina, KS we saw you walking. You really got us talking and thinking hard about what it may be like to be in your shoes right now. Your inner strength and faith in strangers is inspiring. I think you are touching many peoples lives and enriching them as well. We watched your story on the website after returning home from Salina. We wish you a safe and memorable journey and we will be checking in to see if you arrive safely to Michigan!
    It was a pleasure meeting you! :) Jennifer

  3. Elizabeth Miller says:

    I am learning so much from your journey and writing – thanks for keeping on keeping on.

    • Laura says:

      Thanks, I’m learning a ton myself. This is a very interesting country with kind people. More so because I’m looking for this America, the one where people help out strangers (being a woman on my own definitely helps). But I love how generous and open people are with me.

  4. Hello Laura, how surprizing it was to drive by you in Dodge City, KS in the early morning (7:30’ish) as me and my co-works drove out to Gardner City, KS and not realizing anything unusual at that time. After my meeting in Garden City, KS I began my 6 hour drive home to Kansas City, KS along Old hwy 56 when to my surprize I spotted you again along a long lonely stretch of highway. As I blew by you at 65 mph I couldn’t help notice the backpack, then wow a webcam (of all things I spotted a webcam on her sun visor) I thought how odd it is for a female out here in NO WHERE LAND USA to be walking all by herself and yet have a backpack and webcam… Okay, I’m curious; I’m going back to see if maybe she might need a ride, directions, water (the temperature on my car’s outside temp gauge was reading 101 degrees) or maybe she might need something… I flipped a u-turn and drove back towards Laura only to my surprize to notice how excited she was to see me pull up along side the highway. I rolled down the passenger side window and immediately she introduced herself and explains to me what it was she was doing… My jaw drop and about fell to the floor. Are you kidding me? Your walking to where I asked? She say’s Grand Rapids, MI… I said, “Oh really” where at in Grand Rapids, MI? Because, I’m from Michigan, specifically Grand Rapids and Mt. Pleasant MI and we moved here to KS in 2003. She tells me a story about her grand father having a Electrical Contracting business in Grand Rapids, MI and I about fall out of the car because I know her grand father from years back when I had my own business in Michigan and used to work along side her grand fathers business in the same fields of work. It was such a surprize to listen to her talk about how welcomed she has been along the way, and learning about all the wonderful people/places she has seen. We discussed the drought conditions of course since my line of business is related to that industry and explained how some of the farmers in Western KS have simply given up on their crops and buried them. I explained too how yet, over here in Kansas City, KS were dealing with flooding condition along the MO River with St. Joseph, MO , Leavenworth, KS, etc. dealing with levies breaking and such. And we laughed how the Great Romans, Egyptian, Greeks were able to divert water to needy places with Aqua ducts and such and place like CA and AZ have done some of the same, why would it be so difficult for some place like Middle Town USA to develop some sort of Aqua duct system to divert those flooding water to the western areas of NE, KS , and OK to help those places deal with the droughts they go through every year. Millions of dollars are spent we “laugh” with the Corp of Engineers / Homes Lost / Familes displaced with each and every Flood that occurs on the Mississippi and Mosouri Rivers take that money and invest it in an Aqua duct system and rid the territories from to dangerous event which re-occur every year. We laughed we chatted and commented on how small the world really was. I asked her if she needed anything and she commented on how her webcam had just broken and that she was hoping that the next big town (Great Bend, KS) would have a place where she could get another one. I explained to her the size of Great Bend, KS and the Best buy, Walmarts etc in that town and that she should have no problems finding a webcam. I told her I had a 6 hour drive home to my family and I’d been in western KS for the past 2 days. I wished her fair well and good luck with her journey. Laura after reading some of your history here and some of your life its was a pleasure to meet you as two strangers passing in life. You have a wonderful outlooking personality and a devoition to your future that only some of us can only dream of. Best of wishes for you in all of your travels through life. ** ROB **

  5. Frosty says:

    You are wrong! it is NOT ” … worse than during those Dirty 30′s, when all the top soil dried up and blew away in huge clouds of dust hundreds of feet tall that swallowed up houses, caused fatal dust pneumonia, sent most people packing and drove many mad.” a little wind, a little dry dust….and you whine! The local farmers may be having “hard times” but they KNOW hard times…and this does NOT compare to the 30’s! The fortitude of these folks is awesome! ….and so they prosper off their hard work, fortitude and…yes…… whiners!!!! KEEP WALKING!!!

    • Laura says:

      hehehe… I think you misunderstand what I said. This is in fact a worse drought than in the 1930s, meaning they have had less rain. However, they are not suffering from the same horrible conditions simply because they learned from their ancestor’s mistakes. Back then, they tilled the soil, overturning acres and acres of grassland… and when the region hit a dry spell, it blew away. Modern irrigation and no-till farming practices are why this drought is not turning into another great “Dust Bowl”.

      My point is simply that this is a very hard year for farmers and they are taking it in stride with a simple acceptance I admire.


  6. PEDRO MEXICO says:

    happy travels..
    Grand Rapids is waiting you.. later walk from there to Mexico city

  7. Nancy Prominski says:

    Hi Laura,
    So good to hear some more of your story!!! The Dust Bowl etc. are truly remarkable. Interesting analogy. You will be entering the real midwest soon. I can’t believe how far you have walked. The Grand Rapidian’s are cheering you on. Keep up the good work.

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