Tuesday March 1 was a four-state day. I ate breakfast at dawn in a campground in eastern New Mexico. Lunch found me sitting cross-legged on the ground at the weedy edges of a rest area outside of Dalhart Texas. In the mid-afternoon, Dellie and I shared a soft ice cream in Hooker, Oklahoma. By dinner, we had reached a peaceful campground beside a fish hatchery and wetland restoration in Pratte, Kansas. The south-easterly winds were strong all day, but we made time across the dry, flat and largely uninhabited prairie surrounding Highway 54.
Positioned between the great Colorado Plateau and the eastern forests, the Heartland of the United States unfurls like a supple leaf. There really is like no other place like it in the world. Tens of thousands of acres of open prairie produce great quantities of food under a sky that never seems to end. Farming is big business, and many of the operations are industrial. On the radio, announcers quote the price of soybeans and wheat. In Dalhart, Texas, I witnessed my first large-scale feedlot: acres and acres of cattle being fattened before slaughter.
On my sister’s family farm near Kansas City, Missouri, life unfolds at a smaller scale. My brother-in-law oversees a modest herd of cows. There are fresh eggs and what my sister calls “the accidental rooster,” a surprise male bird who matured from a group of pullets they purchased a few years ago.
My maternal grandfather Guy Arnold was born on the Nebraska-Kansas border not far from here, before he and his family went out west to California. His own grandfather, Sterling Keck, had come west from Tennessee to the Heartland, where he operated a prosperous farm in Kansas until he died at the age of 93. The Kecks and the Arnolds were part of the westward expansion of settlers who craved freedom, open space and opportunity. Now, the Heartland is a deeply settled place. The pace of life is deliberate and calm.
A hardwood forest surrounds a shallow creek at the edge of the farm pasture. Walking there one morning, I heard a deafening chorus of mating bull frogs and saw a delicate white flower pushing open a path through last year’s leaves. For the first time since mid-January, I could feel the call of renewal pulling me west toward the mountains again.