It was colder than calculated and the crosswind cut like hell, but the cold air felt like catching my breath.
We’re in a drought again, the air holds it, dry and bright, but the ground is stubbornly saturated in some pastures, briefly stagnating recent rain water in pools. In the periphery of the bright sunshine glare off black asphalt, an interrupted mass of cowbirds shot up all at once from one of those bright pools of blue. Just beyond, horses dotted the next pasture half bright chestnut bays and half cream white, scattered perfectly evenly, like some surreal chess match.
Then a turn and a new highway. The sun was so bright the sky was near white and dreamlike glaring. The newness, the ever nagging primal need to be out in the wide open unknown exhilarated. Familiar shapes passed by even in the new; a half rotten barn propped for use, a low from the wind lying farmhouse three generations old with two new generations worth of additions and all matching white new-ish siding pulling it all together as best as possible. The next farmhouse never got additions. It died a generation ago and the roof has collapsed, although the weirdly bright faded paint hides the age of the siding.
Is rural America dying? The Oklahomans, the Kansans, the Texans, the Nebraskans of fifty years ago aren’t seen through the same window anymore. A sign reading “Pray for America” flashed by and on the other side of dead main street another was posted in front of a church. Two beautiful, albeit simple, white washed country churches, one across the street from the other were the last two buildings we’d passed, not a solid twenty five feet back, surrounded by the empty lots of vanished houses. Their blessed windows busted or covered with plywood, dark and empty eyed, one’s roof partially caved, nearly anything metal from the cross to the utility boxes stripped away, doors padlocked, steps and paths overgrown. Narrow is the way, pray indeed.
Three buildings remained of old main street, one an obvious blacksmith shop and one maybe a general store? They’re rotting, right there in the prairie sunshine while next door a pumpjack rocks and across the road where maybe more of main street once stood, a fresh pavement lot and a line of shiny new oilfield trucks under one of those bastard open sheet metal barns, notorious for flying away in the spring updrafts. Oil is collapsing the Oklahoman economy, again. But there are those clean trucks, sitting shiny in the sunshine, on the paved over section of Main Street Oklahoma. Two oil carrier trucks blasted loudly through the stillness and the pumpjack still rocked methodically in the background.
On we went, through an area of Oklahoma that to say I enjoy riding through would be an understatement. The highway just south is a long time favorite and this new one quickly gained its own hold, in spite of the heartbreaking scene on Main Street. Once an old highway connected the two, I’ve seen its bones next to the faster, newer, bigger, better, shinier, easier, straighter and wider replacement behind us to the west. The bones look better by comparison.
Later, at lunch, my mind is still somewhere else.
“How do you write that fast?”
“It’s mostly shorthand and code, but I don’t know how I read this. I won’t be able to in a few years.”
“I never learned shorthand. I can’t write that fast.”
“I did, we had to in our classes, but I shouldn’t write it in cursive. All these damn road journals will be useless in a time.”
“What are you writing about?”
“Do you think autonomy is the murder accomplice to the killers of small town America?”
And there went the conversation, against a backdrop of bacon and eggs frying behind the long diner counter and a few less than last time we were here forlorn eyed old men painfully coughing between occasional jovial conversation with the waitresses. Last time we were here, nearly every booth, table and bar stool was full. Today, three tables in a much larger looking room seat guests, not including ourselves.
Outside I watched an elderly gentleman across the street, his face sun worn, wrinkles dramatic even at a distance under a crisp white Stetson with dark leather band, bright polished conchos shining. His wares were set out for pedaling, mostly mildly used farm equipment, oiled to mask past use, but a table of ceramic bric-a-brac sat to the front and foremost for attention, the kind older women might once have stopped to look at. No one stopped.
He sat in a lawn chair, under the open bay door of a large storage space, mindfully smoking cigarette after cigarette, inhaling thoughtfully, exhaling with experience, rolling them over between puffs, carefully repositioning and positioning again their place between his paper thin lips. Watching the smoke and its conduit hawkeyed yet completely ambivalent, a routine from so far back that even as concentrated as he looks to the outside observer his mind is somewhere far away, sometime far away. By the time we’d finished lunch and were gearing up for the coming cold front on the ride home, he was whistling to himself as he closed up shop, ignoring all that machinery and metal in spite of the sunset, and instead carefully wrapping, packing in styrofoam, and their own small boxes each of those individual knickknacks. I wondered who he knew that liked them and is she still alive.
On the way home as sundogs faded into the slow rolling overcast, a night watchmen lit up suddenly uphill to my south. A bright sea glass colored beacon, it drew my eye. Otherwise unnoticed I spotted the tin roof farmhouse, barn and hay bales situated in its calm safe light and smiled at something deep inside, that safe warm place the night watchman always made, those buoys in the coming of night, those lights against all of rural America going dark.
You powerfully described such a lonely and sad season of our part of the country. The photos are powerful as well. We were driving through Nebraska on Monday, and I had similar (but without your amazing eloquence) thoughts about rural America.
Thank you. Nebraska can be overwhelming too. We saw a few places there this summer that broke my heart.
You write so visually, and with such emotion …
“And there went the conversation, against a backdrop of bacon and eggs frying behind the long diner counter and a few less than last time we were here forlorn eyed old men painfully coughing between occasional jovial conversation with the waitresses. Last time we were here, nearly every booth, table and bar stool was full. Today, three tables in a much larger looking room seat guests, not including ourselves”
I just describe what I observe. Josh was making fun of me today for being able to write about one spot of chipped paint on some random decaying farmhouse we pass that he never notices. It was a lot funnier the detailed way he put it, lol.