The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry

The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry

by Julene Bair
The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry

The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry

by Julene Bair



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A love affair unfolds as crisis hits a family farm on the high plains

Julene Bair has inherited part of a farming empire and fallen in love with a rancher from Kansas’s beautiful Smoky Valley. She means to create a family, provide her son with the father he longs for, and preserve the Bair farm for the next generation, honoring her own father’s wish and commandment, “Hang on to your land!” But part of her legacy is a share of the ecological harm the Bair Farm has done: each growing season her family—like other irrigators—pumps over two hundred million gallons out of the Ogallala aquifer. The rapidly disappearing aquifer is the sole source of water on the vast western plains, and her family’s role in its depletion haunts her. As traditional ways of life collide with industrial realities, Bair must dramatically change course.

Updating the territory mapped by Jane Smiley, Pam Houston, and Terry Tempest Williams, and with elements of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, The Ogallala Road tells a tale of the West today and points us toward a new way to love both the land and one another.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101609316
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/06/2014
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 288
File size: 726 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Julene Bair is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essay collection, One Degree West, won several regional awards and was a finalist for the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Iowa. She lives in Longmont, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Praise for The Ogallala Road





Falling in love is like reading a novel, it’s an act of imagination, a suspension of disbelief.

—MARY ALLEN, Rooms of Heaven


THESE WERE CALLED THE HIGH PLAINS BECAUSE THEY WERE FOUR THOUSAND FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL. I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin. It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner. Instead, I trudged through wheat stubble that used to be the south end of our pasture, my shoes filling with powdery dirt and my socks with stickers.

This western Kansas land had belonged to the Carlsons, my mother’s side of the family. When I was sixteen, my parents traded their share in it for land elsewhere in the county. Like many other successful farmers, they built a new house in town. More than three decades had passed since then. Although I knew there wouldn’t be water in the creek here, I wanted to walk down its dry bed as I had in childhood, picking up every shiny piece of agate I saw, hoping to discover an arrowhead.

In the dry places, men begin to dream, wrote Wright Morris, who grew up north of here, in Nebraska. Where rivers run sand, something in man begins to flow. I thought I knew exactly what he meant. The sandy beds of dry creeks unfurl evocatively into the beckoning distance, inscribing their faint script over the land. They entice the exploring spirit.

But when I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt. Weeds grew where there had once been smooth sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.

Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct, telling us that a place can sustain us for generations to come. I’d always known this in my bones, but it wasn’t until many years after I left Kansas and discovered my passion for wilderness that the intuition became conscious. This creek was now ugly. That didn’t bode well for the underlying aquifer’s ability to support life in the future. Rain and snowmelt couldn’t filter into the ground as efficiently through dirt as they could through sand. And sandy creek bottoms were critical to the meager half inch of recharge that the aquifer received each year. It needed all it could get because irrigation farmers were allowed to pump forty times that amount.

At least the north end of the pasture remained in grass. Standing here as a child, I often pretended that this was the original Kansas, “pre-us.” The low-growing grass stitched itself over the ground like a wooly tapestry, accented, especially in the spring, by other pastels. Blue grama grass. Apricot mallow. The yellow and cream waxen blooms of cactus and yucca. Prairie dogs chirped alarms from mounds of whitish clay, and meadowlarks sang from their perches on yucca spires, their notes climbing and dipping like winding ribbons. Instead of cows, I imagined buffalo grazing the hills. The grass had been named after the buffalo because millions of them once thrived on it.

We’d called this our canyon pasture because the creek had carved some cliffs into the otherwise smooth terrain. The canyon was really no more than an “interruption in the earth,” as my mother called it. But it was the wildest topography in this part of the county.

The one-room school that she’d attended—and that my brothers and I also went to, before the farm schools were closed and we started riding the bus to town—used to hold field trips here. The boys would try to throw rocks across the canyon, and in its shadowy ruts and ravines, we caught orange-speckled lizards as they dashed beneath the bayonet-shaped leaves of yucca. I remembered my brother Clark’s hand on my arm, cautioning me to look closely before grabbing. Once, we heard a buzzing sound and jumped back from the bush I’d been about to reach beneath. A tongue-flicking, tail-rattling snake lay coiled at our feet. Its vibrant, diamond-shaped head bobbed in the air, mouth open, fangs bared.

“Why is it wiggling its tongue at us?” I asked.

“That’s how it smells you,” said Bruce. Also my elder, but closer to my age than Clark, he loved nothing more than goading me.

“It can’t strike this far though,” Clark said. “We’re safe.”

The Little Beaver made a horseshoe turn here. Our old windmill stood on the spit of land formed by the bend. When I paid visits to the canyon as a child, my father’s ewes and their lambs would be drinking out of the low troughs. They would scatter as I approached, their hooves sounding like water riffling over rock. But today only a few cattle grazed the hill above the canyon, moving in and out of the shadows of cumulus clouds.

I used to climb the windmill and sit up there for what seemed like hours, transfixed by the shadows. They might have been cast by lily pads or boats on the bottom of a lake. From that height, I could also see our big house’s red roof rising above a shelterbelt of elms. But if I climbed the windmill’s narrow ladder today, I knew too well that I would not see our roof or even the trees.

My grandfather Carlson had built the house high on a knoll. With stately trees and a huge red barn beside it, it had been a landmark, visible for miles around. Now it was as if all evidence of our existence had been erased by the wandlike arm of the center-pivot irrigation sprinkler I’d parked beside. Like all the sprinklers that circled these plains, this one was made from a quarter mile of pipe strung between steel towers. Along the pipe’s length, hoses hung down with spigots on the ends, spraying a uniform mist over a 130-acre circle of six-foot-tall, fully tasseled corn.

I could hear the pump engine’s growl, pulsating on the morning’s mounting heat. It hadn’t been like this in the midsixties, when we left this place. It had been quiet then. But now in this second year of the new millennium, you couldn’t escape that sound on the High Plains. Our current farm, only about ten miles from here as the crow flew, was no exception. We had five irrigation wells, some of which ran all day and all night during the growing season.

We drew the water from the most plentiful source of groundwater in the country. The Ogallala Aquifer was the hope and promise at the center of the nation, the source of life that had made habitation possible for millions of years before the words “United States,” or any words, for that matter, had been coined. On geologists’ maps, it was roughly the shape of a tornado, wide at the top where it lay under parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and narrowing to a funnel in Texas, where farmers had been irrigating longest. The maps indicated depletion rates in colors ranging from blue, in much of Nebraska where water was still plentiful, to brown and almost black in some parts of Kansas and north Texas. Meaning gone. Pumped dry, or at least to below usable levels. Those dark freckles of high decline were spreading like cancers, gradually enlarging and taking over hundreds of square miles.

The windmill’s fan whirred and the well rods creaked up and down, making a tinny, lonely sound. Water spurted from the pipe into a tank. These, not the growl of irrigation engines, were the sounds I equated with water while growing up. The rhythm was systolic, soothing. I washed my arms and face in the transparent rope, which fattened and thinned as the windmill breathed. I drank. “The best water in the world,” Mom used to say. She was right. Going down my throat, it felt as cold and bright as the sunlight was hot and bright.

“Cussed wind!” she also used to say, almost every time she stepped out of the house. But Kansas settlers must have been grateful for the wind. Every drink it pumped must have felt like an answered prayer, relief from the surface realities. Digging a good well would have been like tapping unexpected kindness in a mail-order spouse. Having what you were stuck with turn out to be all right after all.

I removed my cap and put my head under the pipe. When I stood up, ice-cold rivulets ran down my back. I took in the vista, looking north into the neighbor’s pasture, at unmarred distance. Too steep to plow, the hills above the Little Beaver were still simple beauty. Grass and sky. Minimalism at its best. I imagined that the green rolled over the valley’s rim and continued unfenced until it disappeared around the curve of the earth.

•   •   •

BACK ON THE GRAVEL ROAD, I MADE my way northeast, stopping each time I came to a bridge over the Little Beaver and walking along the bed. After crossing the county line, the land grew craggy with continuous canyons and ravines that were far deeper than our little “interruption in the earth.” This was such classic Indian terrain that the county had been named after the Cheyenne, the last tribe that had hunted and camped here. It was too rugged to farm, and without dirt eroding from plowed fields, the bed of the Little Beaver was again the familiar sand of childhood, large grained with many pink and yellow quartzite beads.

The banks became steeper, and standing in the cool shade on the south side of the bed, I thought I could smell moisture. This, I realized, was what excited my dryland spirit most about rivers that ran sand—the possibility that farther on, if I followed their sinewy curves long enough, I would come to a place where they ran water.

I hoped to discover one of the springs that the Indians and pioneers traveling west to the Denver goldfields had camped beside, and that the county’s first settlers had built beside. Last year, my family had pumped two hundred million gallons out of the Ogallala Aquifer. That was not an unusual amount for an irrigated farm. But there were thousands of irrigators, and all that pumping drew the water table down and robbed what little surface water there once was. I knew that whatever I did or didn’t find would be commentary on my family, an indicator of the price the land had paid for our comfort.

“Please let me find you,” I prayed. “Let you still be here.”

Pulling to a stop at yet another bridge over the dry creek bed, I saw the dark green shimmer of a lone cottonwood tree far down the bank. A cottonwood sighting means not only welcome shade but also the possibility of water. I smeared on another coat of sunscreen and retied my shoes. Thinking, Snake, Snake, stay away from me, oh Snake, I stepped gingerly through sunflowers and other thick weeds, spread two loose strands of barbed wire, and crawled between them into the pasture.

Part of the creek bank had caved in, leaving at shoulder level an overhang of buffalo grass sod. On the underside, thick masses of roots hung all the way to my feet. I breathed in the musty, earthen smell, lifted the tresses, let them fall. The creek bottom seemed darker here. Leaning down, I pressed my knuckles into the sand and discovered it was damp!

•   •   •

I FOUND THE POND LYING STILL AND innocent, a receptive, vulnerable reflection of the sky. This wasn’t rainwater. It hadn’t rained in weeks. My brother Bruce had been managing our farm since our father died—four years ago now, in 1997. He had told me he was worried that the ground would be too parched to plant dryland winter wheat this September. No. This pond was what the pioneers and early settlers had called live water. It had found the surface by itself without the aid of rain, or today, a rancher’s pump. It came from the aquifer, exhaling into the bed of the Little Beaver.

I dragged a stick, clearing algae away, and laid my palm on the sun-warmed surface. The water wasn’t beautiful or bracing or clear like in a mountain lake. But it inspired tenderness in me because it was in danger. How large had the pond been forty years ago, before we started irrigating? Had the creek run all the way from here to the Republican River, a distance of about thirty miles?

A puff of breeze rippled through the cottonwood’s upper branches. The leaves sparkled and fluttered, making the sound of rushing water. Thousands of thirsty plainspeople, be they Indians or pioneers, had probably taken heart as I had today, seeing the shimmer of those leaves in the distance, then hearing that sound while drawing near. This place ought to have a tall fence around it, I thought. A monument should be erected. Here was a destination that truly did warrant school field trips.

But I couldn’t stand there and worship the water any longer. The sun was bearing down on me from overhead, and a hundred yards beyond the pool, several pairs of large brown eyes in broad white faces looked warily in my direction. The cottonwood beckoned from the bank. To make way for the cows, I climbed out of the creek.

•   •   •

SQUATTING IN THE SHADE, I TOOK SUCH liberal gulps from my father’s jug that dribbles ran down my chin. Mom had filled it with iced tea for me that morning, the way she used to do for Dad. It tasted of chlorine, terrible compared with the water I’d drunk a couple of hours ago directly out of the ground in our old canyon pasture.

This is who I am, I thought. It had been too long since I’d last done this type of solitary exploring. Motherhood, for one thing, had prevented it. I felt my pocket for my cell phone, to call my son, Jake. If he didn’t answer, it would mean he’d made it to work that morning. I knew that he’d gotten home before ten last night, as I’d instructed, because I’d had a friend check on him. “You’re treating me like a kindergartner,” Jake had complained.

No answer. Good. As I was preparing to leave a message, I heard a familiar clanging noise. I looked up to see a white pickup coming down the hill pulling an empty metal stock trailer behind it. Great! I thought. Now I’ve got to deal with some yokel out here in the middle of nowhere.

I tried to warn you, my mother said in my head, where she’d resided for as long as I could remember. “Be careful gallivantin’ out there all by yourself,” she’d cautioned me that morning as I left her house in town. “I’ve been gallivantin’ my whole life,” I’d told her. I could change a tire if I had to. I saw from the way her lips pressed together what she was thinking. She could change a tire too. That had not been what she meant.

Although I doubted that the man in the pickup would rape me, neither was it likely he would appreciate my being on his property. I wanted to vanish, but it would have been ridiculous to be seen hopping into the ravine. So I stood up.

My sudden appearance spooked the blue heeler who rode on the pickup’s flat bed. He barked frantically until the truck drew to a stop beside me and his owner shouted, “Can it, Spider!”

“Hello,” I said. The dog was keeping me pinned in the gaze of one blue and one brown eye. His lip edged up over canines as he emitted a low growl. “I don’t mean to trespass,” I said. “I was just looking for springs.”

The man got out of his pickup. A half foot taller than I, broad shouldered and large boned, he had the dry, dusty look I expected in plainsmen, his skin sun darkened, his blond mustache sun streaked. He pointed toward the creek. “I guess you found this one.”

“Yes. It’s so hot out, though. The shade looked inviting.”

He extended a hand. “Ward Allbright.”

“Julene Bair. I grew up not far from here.”

It surprised me that he didn’t seem to recognize my surname. There weren’t many people in those two counties, Cheyenne and Sherman, who hadn’t heard of my father, Harold Bair. He’d been well known for his large herd of sheep. This was mainly cattle country. Ward clasped my hand hard enough to register respect anyway, maybe for my freedom to wander wherever I chose. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I don’t think Conway would care. I came up to collect these horses I loaned his daughter.” He raised his chin toward the hill above us where two bays—a mare and a half yearling—grazed. “For a 4-H project.”

“This is the first time I ever saw a spring in the Little Beaver. Can you believe that?”

He nodded. “There’re plenty of them, but when you’re a kid, you don’t know anything other than what’s out your back door.”

“Used to be plenty of them,” I said. “I’ve read that more than seven hundred miles of Kansas creeks and rivers no longer flow.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It’s a shame what we’re doing to the water.”

He looked perplexed. Oh boy, I thought. Was I about to have a political argument with one of those fanatics who thinks that owning land gives him the right to abuse whatever was on or under it? Then I reminded myself that here in Kansas it was I who would be considered the fanatic. I probably sounded like one now.

Ward said, “Hey, didn’t you write that book? I recognize you from the picture on the back of it.”

This was surprising, to say the least. Besides my mother, the only locals I knew who’d read my essay collection had been one fourth-grade and one high school English teacher.

“I liked that book so much,” Ward said, pausing to reminisce. “It had this melancholy quality about it that reminded me of The Last Picture Show. Larry McMurtry. I’m sure you know his work.”

“Not as well as I should.” In fact, I hadn’t gotten around to McMurtry.

“I even considered writing to you. I figured your publisher would forward the letter.”

“You wanted to write to me?” I asked. “Why didn’t you?”

“Oh sure, now. You would have thought I was some kind of nut case.”

“No, I would have been flattered.” I looked up into the shadow his hat cast. For the first time, I noticed his eyes—an arresting Caribbean sea green.

I lowered my gaze. Dark circles stained the underarms of his T-shirt, a light-gray color that a man would grab on a routine morning when he didn’t expect anything new to happen. And nothing new was going to happen. After all, this guy wore a silver belt buckle. Burnished by years of wear, it featured your standard calf roper. Jake’s dad had cured me of my cowboy fascination.

I could imagine how I looked. After dousing my head at the windmill, I’d just jammed my cap back on. It had the word “Vedauwoo” embroidered on it below a silhouette of that granite mountain range—one of my favorite haunts near Laramie, Wyoming, the town where I lived.

Ward’s cap also bore a Wyoming emblem. King Ropes, a famous saddler.

“Do you read much?” I asked.

“Winters get long when you live in the country, and I always liked a good book.” Taking a blue kerchief from his hip pocket, he removed his hat, revealing a high forehead. No ring, I couldn’t help but notice as he wiped his brow. But ranch and farm types didn’t always wear rings. Dad hadn’t.

“Could use a little of that winter weather now,” Ward said. “My favorite author is Cormac McCarthy.”

Were we really standing in a Kansas pasture? Louis L’Amour I might have expected, or Zane Gray. “I like the way he drops into Spanish,” I said. “‘Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montañas.’”

“You memorized that,” Ward said. “What does it mean?”

“’Tis I who brings the mares from the mountains,” I declaimed. “When I taught at the University of Wyoming several years ago, I always assigned All the Pretty Horses. Even though I think McCarthy was intentionally overromantic in that book. He was playing with the cowboy myth.”

“I don’t know about that,” Ward said. His tone made me wonder if he’d ever heard the two words “myth” and “cowboy” together before. “I’ll admit McCarthy did get some of the details wrong,” he continued. “Did you notice that whenever those two boys went into a saloon, they would take their cigarettes out of their shirt pockets and put ’em on the bar top? Now a cowboy just wouldn’t do that.”

“What would a cowboy do?”

“He’d leave ’em in his pocket, take ’em out when he wanted one, then put ’em back.”

This had to be the most ridiculous cowboy rule I’d ever heard, and I’d heard a lot of them. I glanced at Ward’s roughout leather boots and his jeans, bunched at the ankle. Jake’s dad used to stand before the mirror making sure his pant legs bunched exactly like that. He’d explained that a cowboy wore his pants long so they wouldn’t appear too short when he straddled a horse. He had a whole list. Cowboys didn’t wear sunglasses or feathers on their hats. They wouldn’t wear a buckle like Ward’s unless they’d won it. They wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts. They called women “ladies,” and to him, he said, that’s what I would always be. I’d learned the hard way how false such chivalry was.

Ward was tall and formidable looking, but his belly bulged somewhat over his fancy buckle. I was eager to work my way farther down the Little Beaver to see what other water awaited my discovery. But standing opposite me beneath the cottonwood tree, he gave no more sign of leaving than did his dog, which lay curled at his feet, snapping at flies. Finally, he broke the silence, nodding toward the bays. “That mare’ll get here soon. She knows there’s oats in the deal.”

“My dad said a horse’ll sell its soul for a bag of oats.”

Ward laughed. “They will, too.”

“Look at how the heat makes their legs waver,” I said, “like a mirage.”

“Isn’t that somethin’? I can see how the Spaniards confused the buffalo with trees.”

“Pedro de Castañeda!” I said.

Ward nodded. “You a history buff too?”

“I’ve been reading all I can get my hands on that might mention historical springs, for an essay I’m working on about the Ogallala Aquifer and irrigation on the Great Plains. I read Castañeda’s journals just last week. From a distance, they could see the sky through the legs of the buffalo and thought they were pine trees.” Admittedly, Ward had a nice smile. Slightly crooked, its startling whiteness was set off by a dark face.

Castañeda had been one of Coronado’s men. They’d come north searching for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, which of course didn’t exist. They wound up in what, three hundred years later, would become Kansas. I said, “Can you imagine the Spaniards trying to figure this place out?”

Ward shook his head and continued to smile appreciatively at me. Was he also remarking the coincidences in our meeting? A meadowlark sang from a fence post, its intricate notes running up and down the scale. “It amazed me to find this water,” I said.

He drew a quick breath. “I know just what you mean. I’ve got two sections of grass on the Smoky Hill River. Water changes everything.”

“You live on the Smoky?” The Smoky Valley was a paradise of unfarmed hills sloping down into cottonwood groves along the river. As a kid I’d dreamed of marrying Roy Rogers and owning a Smoky Valley ranch with him. I said, “One of my father’s old sheep buddies lives there. He told me that the ponds are mostly gone.”

“The river still runs on my place,” Ward said, “but it’s no bigger than a crick now.”

“If I’d come out here looking for springs twenty, even ten years ago, I probably would have found water closer to home.”

“Prob-a-blee,” Ward said. “Water always runs downhill.” He was referring to the way the plains slanted downward from the Rockies. Irrigation pumping had naturally dried out the westernmost springs first. “And it is a shame,” he added. “I always considered myself lucky I didn’t have to farm anything, or dig one of those expensive wells.”

The horses had nibbled their way to the pickup and were stretching their necks over the bed, trying to reach a bucket that sat there. “Let me give you a ride to your car. I can load these nags up in no time.”

“No thanks. It’s not far.”

“If I run across any news stories on the Ogallala, I could send them to you.”

A flash must have passed from my eyes, because his eyes signaled back, one quick flash.

He found a pen and piece of paper in his truck and wrote down my address. I extended my hand, and he held it for an extra beat. “Say hello to your son for me. Was it . . . Jake?”

This took me aback. “Good memory.”

“He must be a teenager now.”

“Yes.” Did reading my book give him the right to ask about Jake? I wasn’t sure. “He’s sixteen.”

He walked with me to the bank. “Let me give you a hand.”

“It’s not steep here.” Unsteadily I slalomed down into the creek bed I’d climbed out of on my hands and knees. I could feel his eyes following me as I walked away. He had truly unusual eyes. Kaleidoscopic, as if filled with sunlit green stones.


IN LARAMIE, JAKE AND I LIVED IN A BIG OLD HOUSE THAT I’D BOUGHT THE WEEK OF MY JOB INTERVIEW IN THE EARLY NINETIES. With only a few days in town, I asked the hiring committee at the university to let me know their decision right away. There hadn’t been many houses on the market at the time, but driving around on the last day, I found an old two-story on the west side that I couldn’t believe the real estate agent hadn’t bothered to show me. It had everything I wanted—a wide front porch facing the Snowy Range Mountains, varnished woodwork, high ceilings.

Back in Iowa that summer, I could barely wait to move. I’d just completed a graduate writing program, and through all the years I’d been studying, I dreamed of living in the West again. Having returned to school in my late thirties, I’d been what they called a nontraditional student. And now I was eager to settle down with my nontraditional family of two in a home that had at least the trappings of tradition. More important, there would be mountains nearby. Jake would learn to love the wilderness as much as I did. And instead of driving eight hundred miles from Iowa to Kansas to see my parents, we could now make the trip in a half day.

When I pulled up to the curb in the Ryder truck two months later, I had to put on my best mommy face. Had I really poured the student loan money I’d managed to save into this brown-and-yellow fixer-upper? The exterior was so badly chapped I would have to sand every board before I could replace the ugly colors. Inside, now that no furniture or curtains hid damage, I saw that the varnished woodwork was scarred. Every room needed new carpeting and paint. But with its graceful turn-of-the-century detail, my house had incredible potential. I knew that I could make it beautiful again. “I’m going to live in this house for the rest of my life,” I told my parents when they drove up for a visit.

“Oh, you’ll get out of here,” Dad said.

I hadn’t really expected him to like my house. After all, here was the man who’d moved us out of the grand house that my grandfather Carlson had built on the farm—with high ceilings and varnished-pine woodwork and bay windows and beveled glass in French doors—and built instead a nondescript ranch style in town. I understood what had motivated him. After my grandmother Carlson passed away, my parents traded their share of her land for land closer to my father’s other holdings. Although there was an old house on the new land, Dad didn’t think that one suitable for Mom. He’d been raised in a sod house and hated remembering his mother bringing up seven children in that “rat hole.” Dirt falling off the ceiling, he often recalled. Christ! His father had been successful too and could have built Grandma Bair the big stucco house that I loved romping through on holiday visits much sooner than he had.

Sometimes Mom regretted leaving the house she’d grown up in, but Dad didn’t seem to know what they’d sacrificed. In my Laramie house, I saw a classy, historic home that would give Jake some of the solidity I’d had in my childhood. Dad saw only peeled paint.

“You wouldn’t recognize architectural integrity in the Taj Mahal,” I said.

“Is that so?” The corners of his lips shot down into an inverted U and his brows shot up. It was his my-aren’t-we-snooty-today look.

Then I saw, through the window behind my father, a man in a greasy parka peeing on my chain-link fence. The man was Doc, I soon learned, a local character who lived in a shack down the street and was fabled to have shrapnel lodged in his brain from Vietnam.

•   •   •

I DID MAKE THE HOUSE BEAUTIFUL, I thought, returning to Laramie after my three-day trip to Kansas that August. It might have taken me eight years, but I’d done it. I’d spent the first summers sanding the exterior, then slathered the clapboard in shiny ivory with coral and sagebrush trim. Jake and his friend Andrew helped me sand down the columns on the front porch, which I’d varnished at the same time I did the porch’s floorboards. With the honeysuckle vine I’d planted pouring over the front fence and my xeriscaped garden of wildflowers, the house now had an open-armed, welcoming look that surpassed even my memories of the farmhouse.

I wished my father could see the house now, but he lay buried in Kansas, beneath a tombstone with a wheat stalk carved on it. Anyway, as much as I wanted to impress him, there wasn’t much I could do about the neighborhood. I really hadn’t chosen the best part of town. Before signing the offer, I’d consulted with a future colleague, who assured me there were no bad neighborhoods in Laramie. Little did he know. Even though Doc had since died and his shack had burned down, leaving a welcome gap on the street, Jake had witnessed many ugly things in the families of his friends here. Abuse, neglect, alcohol- and drug-addicted parents.

To compensate, I’d enrolled him in a model elementary school on campus, staffed by master teachers. He made some good friends there. The summer before they started high school, they’d formed a punk-rock band together.

When they practiced in my basement, the house shook. Some parents would have objected to the bedlam, but Jake drummed with thrilling enthusiasm. I loved how he poured himself into the music. And I looked to his friendships with professors’ kids for reassurance that he was fine despite my single parenting, his missing father, and all he’d seen in our lousy neighborhood.

I dropped my bag in the entryway. He was lying on the couch watching TV. His velvet-eared, doe-eyed beagle, Regina, jumped off his chest onto the coffee table, then into my arms. I kissed the white splotch on her head, then leaned over and did the same to Jake’s forehead, an inch below his self-inflicted Mohawk. “Hi, Mom,” he said, as if he had no reason to feel guilty. It was only four o’clock, and he wasn’t supposed to get off work until five. Jake had probably the coolest job in town for a teenager, pretending to be a gunslinger from Laramie’s Old West days, and he just blew it off?

He was wearing an old tank top of mine from twenty years ago. Cracking vinyl paint on the front of it showed a surfer riding a wave. On the side of his left calf, below the brown jeans he’d cut off—with pride, it seemed, in how jagged he could make them—I noticed a self-administered tattoo of a crooked star.

“Oh Jake,” I said, reaching to touch what amounted, in my maternal opinion, to a stain on his innocence.

He covered it with his palm. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

“How was I going to miss it?”

He pretended to return his focus to the TV.

I flicked it off.

“Gee, Mom, don’t you think I’m a little old for you to take away TV?”

“Why aren’t you at work?”

“I overslept, I guess.”

“You overslept. By how much?”

“I don’t know. That alarm clock doesn’t go off. It’s happened two times now.”

At times like these, I longed for a man to step in and set Jake straight. It went against all my feminist principles to want this, but I did anyway. Dad would never have put up with this kind of behavior in his sons. Not that I did. I let Jake know that he would lose his driving privileges if he skipped another day of work.

•   •   •

THE NEXT MORNING HE DIDN’T GET OUT of bed until after my fourth knock. Too late for the breakfast I’d cooked for him, he shoved his park-issued cowboy hat over his questionable hair and left for the tourist park.

I sat down at my computer. If that water I’d seen four days ago in the Little Beaver could talk, what would it say? Above my desk hung a Charles Russell print—a caravan of Plains Indians crossing a creek. Russell had depicted the riders in the rear as transparent and ghostlike, as if fading into history. They might have been crossing the Little Beaver, the water that had supplied them now as diminished and ghostly as they.

Farmers said they had no choice in how much water they pumped. Use it or lose it! my father used to say whenever I complained about how much he drew out. Kansas, like most dry western states, had a law requiring that those holding water rights take advantage of them to their fullest, or lose what they didn’t use so someone else could access the water before it flowed, or seeped, into the next state. It hadn’t occurred to early legislators that water could be lost through too much use. Now the law was codified by long practice and the rights holders were powerful vested interests with political clout. It would be nearly impossible to change how the Ogallala was managed. Still, I wanted to see new laws passed that aggressively protected the water.

I emptied the pencil sharpener, played with paper clips, and searched for an argument that would penetrate the armor of the most dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist.

My father died thinking that he and his farm neighbors were the same people they’d always been, descendants of pioneers adhering to frugal pioneer values. But since his childhood, he’d gone from horse-pulled plows to tractors that pulled forty-foot-wide chemical spray rigs. He’d gone from windmills that pumped ten gallons a minute to centrifugal pumps that could lift twelve hundred gallons in that brief amount of time. He’d gone from intense labor that broke men’s and women’s backs to intense pillage and poison that broke the earth’s.

Staring at me from my bulletin board was a self-portrait Jake had penciled on the back of an envelope when he was ten. It was an accurate portrayal of him then. The wide, clear forehead. His trusting gaze and crooked, close-lipped smile. No matter how much turmoil he’d put himself through lately, by resisting school, work, me, he was still fundamentally the same kid. Under his rebellion, the soul of him was trust. He and his generation deserved far better than what my father’s generation had bequeathed mine.

Make that his children would deserve better. On the geologists’ maps of the aquifer, our county, Sherman, was still mostly orange, for reductions of 15 to 30 percent. It hadn’t taken me long to do the math, figuring how much water we had left on our farm if we continued pumping at current rates. About eighty-five years’ worth, I estimated. I would be dead. As difficult as it was to contemplate, so would Jake. We would have “gotten ours,” as my father liked to say he had.

What I’d written moments before now seemed overblown. It had the same self-righteous tone I’d taken with my father when I was younger. But after inheriting part of the land I had always accused him of abusing, I had quit my teaching job. Thanks to the Ogallala, I was now able to write full time. I had no right to point my finger anymore.

I went back and crossed out all the “he”s and put in “we”s.”

•   •   •

I WOULD STIR-FRY SOME BROCCOLI AND MUSHROOMS with hamburger. Jake liked that. At the front gate, I looked down the street, hoping to see his beater pickup approaching. Not yet. I opened the mailbox and was surprised to find not only the usual assortment of pizza flyers and bills but also a hand-addressed white envelope.

Seeing the postmark, I smiled. So soon? Ward must have written and mailed it the day after we met. I hurried up to my bedroom, closing the door and locking it lest Jake return and interrupt me.

Black fountain-pen script flowed confidently onto fire-orange paper. You may not have given a second thought to our chance encounter. I, on the other hand, have revisited it often. At the bottom of the page, he’d rendered a cowboy riding a sorrel in watercolors that strayed beyond the lines. The horse was about to gallop over a prickly pear cactus, in purple bloom.

As I read, I felt as if I were the one being painted—back into vivid existence, coming alive to a type of excitement I hadn’t felt in years.

Tap-eta, tap-eta, tap! Jake’s customary knock, his fingernails on my door. I leaped up.

“Mom? Can I come in?”

I shoved the letter under my bed and slid the lock open as quietly as possible. His hat was tilted back as if he were a real cowboy, tired from a day riding the range. “Why are you sittin’ in here with the door locked?”

Caught. Sometimes I felt like the kid. “Old habit, I guess. Your Mohawk is showing.”

Jake looked at me suspiciously. “You’re looking pretty punk yourself, Mom. Did you know your hair has a paper clip in it?”


I PULLED MY BAG ONTO THE ESCALATOR AND TRIED TO FIX THE PERFECT SMILE, NOT TOO EAGER, YET WARM, RECEPTIVE. We were supposed to meet by the fountain, but I wanted to be ready in case he was waiting where passengers first spilled into the terminal. Denver was about halfway between our homes, and I was stopping here on my way back from Omaha, where I’d presented my essay on the Ogallala at a literary conference. We would have a day and a half together, then I would fly the rest of the way home to Laramie. Not seeing him, I continued over to the “Mountain Mirage.”

Clear, perpetual glacier melt, funneled down from mountain reservoirs, then forced through hidden pipes, spouted up from hundreds of holes in the marble floor. The water put oxygen into the air and soothed travel-weary nerves with the sound of itself. Elegant compared with the cow pond we met beside in August. We’d exchanged two long letters, then switched to cybercorrespondence. That’s when my disciplined morning writing routine had come unraveled. Ding! Better check. It might be a word from Ward.

I allowed myself one slow scan of the crowd. Not seeing him, I began to wonder if I’d scared him off somehow. But he’d called me the night before I left for the conference and had sounded fine then. “I thought I’d better speak to you at least once before our date. Otherwise I’d get tongue-tied.” It was the first time we’d talked since we met. I had been worrying about the same thing. Take that word “date.” I was relieved to hear him say it out loud, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for two people entering their fifth decade to go out on one.

It’s hard, I’d written, not to anticipate the whole soaring, predictable plot based on one charmed meeting. The same way we hum a whole song after hearing a single bar. Disappointment is inevitable.

Why had I considered it necessary to hedge my romantic bets? I wondered. I regretted having tossed that discordant thought into the mix. It had caused him to agree, and that was the last thing I wanted.

When it comes to the disappointment factor, he’d responded, my experience has proven you right, but I’m kind of like Pea in Lonesome Dove: “Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.”

For the most part, we’d stuck to safe topics. He wrote a gripping account of riding a runaway horse when he was a kid. It’s always been a mystery to me how it managed to brush me off on the only tree between the Smoky Hill River and Oklahoma. I’ve had plenty of near-death experiences on horses since then, but that one is still the benchmark. We recommended books on Cheyenne Indian history to each other, and I shared drafts of my essay. He’d proven to be a perceptive critic.

I scanned the terminal again, a full 360 this time, then looked into the airiness overhead—the hollow undersurface of white peaks that were supposed to resemble mountains. No matter how distinctive the architecture, the scale of it dwarfed a person.

Waiting for him like this made me regret the one confiding e-mail I did send, telling him that because I’d grown up twenty miles out in the country, I hadn’t developed many social skills. High school had consequently been rough—part of the reason, probably, that I’d gotten married so young, at eighteen. After that first divorce, I’d been shocked to discover I didn’t know how to make friends. I’d since become much better at that, but as I’d written, By myself in the house at night, with Jake gone somewhere, the lonely ache still creeps up on me sometimes, as if a door has been left open onto subzero cold.

Waiting. What had he revealed in turn? He’d said that all of his past relationships had been good, even if none had lasted. What made them good, then? He wrote that trying to describe my abiding interest in horses would be like boiling a religion down to a few words. And in case you were wondering, as for religion, I don’t follow any standard-issue faith but firmly believe death isn’t our final end. I was glad he felt that way, I responded, although I couldn’t claim as firm a belief.

Ward had been somewhat revealing when, in the interests of honesty in advertising, he listed his faults. He said that he procrastinated too much, and this kept him from achieving the degree of success he wanted. The admission worried me a little. He also confessed that his friends considered him very independent. I’m not proud of that, but there it is.

Why does he consider that a fault? I wondered. I did take pride in my independence. When I’d told him about going back to Kansas to have Jake after my second marriage ended, had I given him the mistaken impression that I was of a more dependent nature?

But courtship is a fine institution, he added. Had he been trying to warn me?

I must have written something disparaging about conservative politicians, because he also said, I can tell from your last letter that we see things differently in some regards. We’d since acknowledged our political differences. Could we talk these out without rancor or insults? We weren’t sure, but we were already committed to trying.

Actually, we didn’t really seem to care what our differences were. It’s way too soon to be thinking the way I’m thinking, Ward wrote in his last e-mail, before he’d called. This is INSANE. What is going to happen when we wake up?

I guess it’s this, I thought, letting out a huff of cynical despair. This is what’s going to happen. I scanned the high walls for a clock. How long should I wait for him? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? Then what? See if I could catch an earlier flight back to Laramie? I was like Pea too. Always walking up on the wrong side of romance. When had it ever not kicked me flat?

Just as I spotted the clock and discovered it was ten minutes past the time we were supposed to meet, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

He stood grinning beside me, wearing a black cowboy hat. We hugged briefly. “I waited on the mezzanine,” he said. “Thought I could see better from up there. Then I missed you altogether.” His exotic eyes had a mischievous glint in them.

Why on the mezzanine instead of where we’d agreed? He’d wanted to play me a little, apparently, and it had worked. The minutes of anxiety he’d put me through seemed deliciously excruciating now that they were over.

•   •   •

AFTER DRESSING FOR DINNER IN OUR SEPARATE rooms, we met in the hotel lobby. Ward was wearing a brown suit, a pale-green shirt and a regulation brown tie with a yellow stripe. He said, “I know you probably expected something western, but what I think you want here is a date, not a cardboard cutout.”

In the pasture, he had reminded me a bit of a blond John Wayne, but dressed this way, the high ovals of baldness on his forehead exposed, he reminded me more of my farmer father ready for a night at the Elks Club. Or for Easter Sunday, when he would indulge my mother by going to church. I was sure that Ward’s callused hands had seldom felt the brush of a suit cuff. Like my father, he was an outdoor working man who’d endured and been shaped by weather.

Ward hadn’t gotten his tan in a leisurely way, recreating. He’d gotten it the honest way, working. Each day he breathed the dust I’d breathed growing up. He felt the heat and cold I’d felt. Smelled the same smells. His eyes looked restless in the hotel surroundings of plush carpets and rich brocades, and I knew that his vision had been honed, as mine had, on distances and pastels.

The male university professors I knew in Laramie seemed effete by comparison. For exercise, they rode bicycles and, like me, were willing to drive sixty miles to Colorado to shop at Whole Foods. Ward would probably melt like the Wicked Witch of the West if I suggested he ride a bike or visit Whole Foods. If the Parmesan and walnut-encrusted tofu I wanted him to try didn’t do him in, the sun-dried tomato tapenade on a gluten-free, whole-grain wafer would. Indeed, his waistline suggested that he was still nourished on beef and potatoes.

I would have to deal with some things, I thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if, among men, he told the same kinds of sexist jokes that my father had. But then again, he loved my book and the grasslands. He cared enough about the past in our mutual home to be excited when I’d suggested we go to the Denver library the next morning to look at old maps of the region. He wrote well. He stood open to me, like a door onto another self. The Kansas farm girl who, with all her worldly experience, had never quite left home.

If romance has a color, it is burgundy. I don’t remember what either of us ate, but I do recall the sensuous, round-bellied goblet in my hand and the chime it made when we clinked. While we waited for the contents of our glasses to loosen our tongues, we fleshed out some details from our pasts. I knew from his letters that he had studied history in college. But now he told me how important it had been to him to pay his own way through, working for a large-animal veterinary practice. A close family friend who had graduated from high school before him had almost busted his parents’ bank account going to school, then had flunked out. “I was bound and determined not to be like him,” Ward said.

My father had paid his way through college too, I told him. “I admire people who do that.”

“If I was going to flunk out,” Ward explained, “I wanted to do it on my own dime. I was more interested in my job than colonial politics, but I stuck it out and made a pretty good showing.” After getting a teaching degree, he’d been hired by a small Colorado high school.

He still faulted himself for lacking patience, not wanting to “hold those kids’ hands.”

“Why should you have?”

He reached over and squeezed my hand, which I’d placed strategically, on the table between us. “Thank you, darlin’, but we all deserve, well, need some hand holding from time to time, especially when we’re young. I just wasn’t the one to do it. I’ve never been so unhappy in my life, before or since.”

I watched the frown leave his face as he returned to the present. He confessed that when he’d told his friends how excited he was about our date, they’d advised him to put on the brakes. “They think I don’t really know you, but they don’t understand how many words we’ve written to each other. They’re not like me. Most of my buddies would rather walk a mile barefoot through a sticker patch than write a letter.”

After Ward quit teaching, he moved to Denver and sold real estate, but that job hadn’t lasted long either. He now earned the greater share of his income selling ranching products—pipe corrals, water tanks, loading chutes, while grazing some cattle himself. “Cows and sales might make my living, but horses give me a life.” He’d moved back to Kansas because his family’s land would afford him the privilege of spending the rest of his life around the animals. “I never met a horse who didn’t have a decent heart. Some of them have been frightened by bad treatment, but you can win back their trust.”

“Unlike humans?” I asked.

Table of Contents

I A Rare Find 1

II A Body in a Place 83

III Ward and Julene 153

IV Kansans in the Caribbean 221

V The Ogallala Road 247

Acknowledgments 277

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for The Ogallala Road

“A story of land, water, relationships, and love . . . Bair witnesses many changes from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. . . . Her mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty, and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy. . . . This is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.”
—Mark Bittman, The New York Times Book Review

“Powerfully captures the stubborn beauty and dignity of a farm family on the Western High Plains—the open, rolling landscape that has defined Bair’s life. . . . The Ogallala Road weaves two equally absorbing love stories into a complex tale that is both personal and political.”
—Chicago Tribune

“A narrative that a number of readers greatly enjoyed . . . Bair balances several themes: inheriting part of a Kansas farming empire and returning to live on the ancestral land; becoming an eco-activist when she realizes that her farm and all around it are draining the gargantuan, life-giving Ogallala aquifer beneath her feet; and getting romantically involved with a neighbor of decidedly different political views.”
Elle, Elle’s Lettres Readers Pick, April 2014

“Bair’s way with words is beautifully descriptive and one senses a deep connection to the land. The Ogallala Road is a wonderful mix of reminiscing one’s personal journey and history back to their roots, so to speak, concern for man’s impact and depleting of the land’s limited natural resources, and a poignant, sweet little love story with a bona-fide cowboy. . . . Julene Bair shares her heart and will touch yours with this powerful book.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Bair’s voice is fierce, passionate, and determined. . . . Readers of environmental literature will hear echoes of Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, and Rachel Carson. Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on her literary forebears. She has written her own tale and coupled it with a story of water that concerns us all.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

“The book takes on a narrative drive that goes beyond the usual environmental book. Will they fall in love? Will they find a way to keep the farm without draining the aquifer, like farmers had been doing for decades? . . . . But that’s a reckoning that is yet to come for Julene Bair, the farmers in Kansas, or for the rest of us who live on what was once one of the greatest grasslands on Earth.”
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Eye-opening and beautiful.”
—Andy Borowitz on The Leonard Lopate Show

“In this thoughtful consideration of life at a crossroads, Bair tackles questions about single parenthood, romance, and the monumental task of determining the future of the family farm. . . . She recounts her long concerns with the demands farming places on the land, especially the Ogallala aquifer. . . .  Bair’s measured approach to her family’s ultimate decision about the farm provides a thoughtful look into America’s heartland. Book groups should find much to discuss here, from love to family to the big questions we all must face about how we live now.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Nostalgia for the family farm in arid western Kansas vies with a deep consternation about the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by crop irrigation in Bair’s ardent, deliberative narrative. . . . Her thoughtful work underscores the dilemma now facing farmers on the High Plains.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A moving story of love and loss, denial and reckoning, and the emergence of a new kind of hope.”
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being and My Year of Meats

The Ogallala Road is a story about love, family, and the unraveling of the earth. But more than anything it is about what it means to be shaped by a place, to love it so much its waters run in your veins like your own blood. Like Wallace Stegner, Julene Bair writes about people inseparable in every way from the land.”
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars

“Bair elegantly weaves heart and earth, love and the place where it is born. You can taste the water in this book, and the thirst when it is gone.”
—Craig Childs, author of The House of Rain and Animal Dialogues

“Folded into an eloquent appeal for the preservation of the nation’s most vital source of fresh water, this wonderful book is also the most poignant remembrance of a prairie love affair—a small and finely-crafted masterpiece.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Men Who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

“Julene Bair has given us a profound account of a dramatic tragedy.”
—Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute

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