Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2,000 Miles in the Great Plains

Over six days I drove for 27 hours and roughly 2,000 miles, from my home in Lincoln, NE, on over to Colorado, down into New Mexico, east to Oklahoma, then back up to Nebraska. I went to NM for a family reunion, but really, the true pull of the trip was to see parts of the Great Plains I never have before--a way to give me visual context for my Oklahoma memoir. The last stop was the most emotional and special for me--a third visit to my family's 1894 homestead.

Sunset over the front range in Colorado Springs
And now this is all on fire
The reunion was in Red River, NM, a tourist trap in northern NM. The views were stunning.

I braved a 20 minute ski lift to go up to 10,000 feet. I am terrified of ladders, mind you. This was a terrible experience I made myself do for some unknown reason. The reward was feeding french fries to:

In a family auction I won this doily, made by my great great grandmother who came over from Russia in 1874 with the great German Mennonite migration. I am so honored to own this intricate cloth.

After Red River I headed to Taos for an evening to see what's what, and on the way out of town to cross the Texas panhandle into Oklahoma I drove by this:

I was floored by how much sagebrush there was. I think of it as so stereotypical. Really, our media-enduced fantasies about reality make us view our world through stereotyped lenses, so when we experience the real thing we wonder if it's fake or true, Matrix like. The only way to know is to go forth and live it for yourself.

In retrospect, I raced through this trip. I wanted to get to Oklahoma--which seems ironic since I've always despised the state. I've had trouble thinking about my memoir, how to structure, how to organize 1,000 pages of notes over three years of research (but knowing structure comes from a central / driving need, a search, a question). It's overwhelming, but as much as I have an emotional connection to this book like no other, I also lacked the emotional depth or beginning I craved to link ideas together, or create a narrative. I may or may not have had this breakthrough I sought while walking my family's homestead. I can tell you--whether from exahaustion, the 100 degree heat, or pure desire--I nearly wept walking across the wheat stubble, scratching my feet against the sounds and smells I remember as a child during harvest, trying to make myself travel through time to something I could never understand. When I walked through the missing walls of the second barn--the first was taken by a tornado--I imagined myself walking alongside or through my great and great great grandparents' bodies.

The transition from the field back into my car was like night and day, so quickly from one existence into another as if a shade were drawn. I thought that I'm writing about a life fewer and fewer people live and that even fewer remember, that I'm writing for a readership of ghosts and myth.

In my journal I wrote: "The wheat stubble scraping against my shoes like a washboard, the locusts shooting out from the red earth as if exploding upon re-enty into another world, bouncing across an atmosphere of memory."

In my journal I wrote: "Just barely nudge one last post on the barn's absent east wall and the whole roof sways like johnson grass down by the south catch pond."

"Wind comes from the southwest unimpeded across the plains like Coronado, searching aimlessly for the city of gold, perhaps to conquer an emotion in all of us that stirs and frightens--that we will never be enough, that the land will echo beyond our transparent lives, that we are as fragile and easily tossed into the wind as topsoil and song."

"Who are we without a creaky windmill to sing us to sleep at night."

And at the old church cemetery--the abandoned church having been burned down on purpose after the windows were broken by vagrants: "In the field to the north, where the Bergthal church was, torn fake flowers litter the folds of grass and soil. On the nothern edge a thin strip of wildflowers--thistle, sunflower, winecup--hold even more blooms, merging wild with synthetic sentiment and nostalgia."

Before leaving town I found Big Jake's Crossing on the Washita River, just a mile or two southwest of the homestead. Big Jake was a Cheyenne chief who camped there along the river after settler allotments, and this is also where my grandma was baptized. An hour or more northwest up against the current was where piece chief Black Kettle and his village were massacred by Custer in 1868.

Standing on the concrete bridge, turtles dove into the water from warm perches on the shore and rocks.

And here are some images of downtown Corn.

Below is my elementary school in Weatherford. I remember walking 2 miles one way, and I also remember the window on the left where my 1st grade green bean plant in a styrofoam cup soaked up the sun. I've always lived a dual, conflicted life--I grew up in Minnesota, yet learned the state songs and mottos of Oklahoma, so I hum to myself "Oooooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain" as I color in scissor-tailed flycatchers in my mind while snow falls in December as the Vikings choke yet again.

I hope I'm ready. A storm has been building. As a writer it's a fine line to know when to make one's self write, and when to wait (to leave the dough in the oven a bit longer). All I know is that I saw the Plains in a new way and that I can't go back, which seems to be half the American dream--simultaneously looking forward while glancing over our shoulders wistfully. Maybe that's also being human. All I know is I get dizzy easily, turned around, lost when I should simply be looking and living the here and now as fully as I can. But that's what books are for.


Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Interesting and wistful post Benjamin. I didn't know you loathed Oklahoma, but that part of my state makes people hardscrabble tough. I love the whole place, but I do hate grasshoppers. Lord, I hate them. I'm so looking forward to your memoir. I bet we will share some memories.~~Dee

Benjamin Vogt said...

It's been a depressing place for me, a weight around my neck. Trips as an adult--and past my grandma's death--have eased it somewhat, but I still felt it this week. That mucky, quicksand, hot, stuck forever feeling.

Desert Dweller said...

Thanks for the quick trip...I always love that sagebrush dotted desert and scent up in Taos; nothing like that down here. I also missed you not liking Oklahoma in past posts, though it sounds like you are less into Nebraska or the Huskers:-)

Darn, we could have met in Clines Corners of Santa Fake!

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Hi Benjamin,
I love your great-great grandmother's doily! I'm glad you were able to get that.

I enjoyed your photos of Oklahoma. I hope your thoughts and words find form for your book.

The wild senna is about 4 1/2 feet tall and blooming. I love it!

James Golden said...

I like this. Don't know what else to say.

Benjamin Vogt said...

D--Scent? I missed that being in my car. I'd rather be a sooner than a husker, but I suppose I'd also be content as a gopher.
S--Wow, that senna seedling grew 4' in one year and is blooming? Amazing! Must me the plutonium in my garden soil. My senna is shorter and blooming less this year (and early), just as the caryopteris is.
J--Thank you. Sometimes less is more (it often is, hence my love for modernism).

GardenGeri said...

Enjoyed your perspective. I have some of my Gardening Grandmother's crochet.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Geri--It's so important to have that stuff, I think, and in the right family members' hands!

Teresa said...

I love your story from beginning to end. Glad there will be more to come.
I, too, have a treasure from my grandmother. A metal water pitcher that I fill with plants. She was a gardener so I think it would have pleased her that I put plants in it. When I look at it I am reminded of how you used this in her ordinary, every day life and it makes me feel like I know her even though she passed when I was young. Thanks for sharing.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Teresa--a water pitcher? I tore off a light switch from the barn. We need these things, right? And it's more than sentimentality--they are guides, markers along our way.

Unknown said...

Ben, the name Vogt caught my attention. Then Oklahoma and Big Jake Crossing nailed it. I grew up on a farm half way between Clinton and Corn.
I enjoyed your description of the attraction and austarity of the place. In my case, the Mennonite influence also was a strong factor. I think I carry it all with me - a simple life and a curious mind.
FYI, 1961, Wheat harvest team of ____ Vogt.
Okla, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska