I’ve been working on the southern Great Plains lately away from my beloved Oregon. I don’t know why I miss home more now. After all, I’ve been here in Oklahoma for no longer than I’ve been away on my long photo safaris of the recent past. But I do miss home.
That’s why I”m writing this post at the airport waiting for my flight. I have about a week and a half off so I decided on the spur of the moment to cash in frequent flyer miles and fly back to the Northwest. I need a break from the monotony of treeless plains and fields, from a river-less place that gets its water from an enormous underground store created by rains of the distant past.
The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest of its kind in the world and has supported the American bread basket for generations. Now of course it’s being “mined”. We’re steadily depleting it, forcing us to continuously lengthen our straws, drilling deeper and deeper for precious water.
I’m posting a few photos from an old farm that I passed on the long highway that runs the length of the Oklahoma panhandle. This stretch of loneliness juts westward between Kansas and Colorado on the north, the bulk of Texas to the south. It seems as if it takes forever to drive far enough west to leave Oklahoma, either continuing west to New Mexico or north into Colorado. The highway never strays. It points west like an arrow.
It’s inevitable that you pass or parallel a few historic pathways. One is the old Santa Fe Trail. Kit Carson and countless others rode horses over this trail in that golden time of westward expansion in America. But this series of photos speaks to a more recent time. Although the farm was abandoned sometime in the 1960s judging from the vehicles left behind, it very likely was used in the decades before that. Maybe even during the wet years before the dust bowl swept through in the 1930s.
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath documents the lives of those hard-working souls who left Oklahoma during the dust bowl and traveled to California in search of work. These are the kind of people who built this country. The story of westward expansion has fascinated me for a long time. It was the first historical writing that I devoured while still quite young. At least by choice; I don’t count anything I was forced to read in school.
It was a warm late afternoon with very sparse traffic on the two-lane highway. A few flies buzzed around the old buildings and automobiles. The old windmill had been stripped long ago by relentless winds. On that day the wind was calm.
Heeding the warming someone had painted on a door (see picture), I didn’t go into any of the buildings. I just walked around shooting pictures, stopping to picture children playing in the yard, a weather-beaten woman hanging laundry. A man bouncing to a stop in one of those old pickups, drunk on moonshine.
I wonder why they left? Was it one of the droughts that routinely plague this region? Too many failed crops of corn? Did they just up and move to California one day? Did they start over from zero? I look and wonder. Did they miss home? Now it’s time for me to go home!