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The Wastelander

Ghosts of America

Memories of the present and other signs of the times

Luis Alberto Urrea

Published in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion magazine

BY THE TIME we hit Nebraska, Colorado was already in flames. The cornfields were crunchy and blighted all around. Ahead, sections of the Platte had not yet vanished. Behind us, they hadn’t yet started dredging the shallow Mississippi. At every rest stop, the temperature was 105. What scant livestock was visible was crowded hard under the shade of dying trees. Our daughter summed up Nebraska for us: “ . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . cow . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . cow. . . .”

Yeah, Orion all the way: we were driving a hybrid. It had a craptastic AC unit that coughed 95-degree air. We were as one with the heat-stroke victims all around us. I suddenly betrayed all my beliefs: I wanted loads of freakin’ greenhouse gases in my AC unit, stat! I was begging for relief. Cold water bottles. Frantic as scavengers in the fallout zone of The Road Warrior.

Men and women on talk radio, allegedly human beings and fellow Americans, spent the summer scoffing at “global warming.” It’s a cycle! they said. It’s snowing in _______, they insisted. They also seemed to be really angry that scientists acted like they were smarter than they were. Look, America—it was hot. It got hotter. Then it caught fire. And your food died on the stalk.

DISPATCH FROM The Great American Drought: I-70 is festooned with dead pines. Oh, you’ve heard about it. All those majestic lodgepoles, all et up by pesky little beetles because the winter doesn’t get cold enough to kill them. Miles and miles of gray creaking dead forests. And more to the north and the south. Dead wood by the hundreds of thousands of tons from New Mexico to Wyoming and Montana. All of it waiting for one good dry lightning strike.

Perhaps the epic smoke event will seed the clouds. What we thought was rain was grasshoppers escaping in a plague formation. The corn was as high as a field mouse’s eye.

In the Rockies, the Great Divide had about enough snow on it to make a good-sized Slurpee.

In California it wasn’t just dead fields of corn or wheat or wilted soybeans lying like chopped-off gray hair on a barbershop floor. It was whole orchards. Dead. They could have been up in the Ghost Rockies. Signs: ANOTHER CONGRESS-MADE DUSTBOWL.

In Hannibal, Missouri: 103 degrees in the shade. No visitors. No birds—they were all hiding under the bushes. The heat was a sound-eater. The Big River was now gasping. Finally, too weak for shipping.

Horses staring at dry stock ponds and crows laughing at us all.

NEBRASKA was a veritable Eden compared to what waited for us beyond. It was almost . . . green. Remember green? That was the color of golf courses. Nebraska still had some green happening, and the not-green was more golden than brown or gray or black. Yet.

It was the relentless hybrid-AC oven experience that destroyed my will to drive. I wanted to at least reach the border of flaming Colorado, as if my return could somehow assist my beloved mountains from the holocaust. But the heat.

So we pulled into Gothenberg. We stayed at a roadside motel in sight of a field that seemed to have an eerie Indian warrior on a horse staring at us in the gloaming. Whoa.

Scant food in sight, so we went across the dirt trucker lot to the Ran-Dazzle restaurant. I have nothing but praise for the Ran-Dazzle and its clients, all of whom seemed to know each other except the indigenous couple who left their table for a minute and whose silverware I took thinking they were gone and who came back and stared at their table asking, Where the hell did the fork go?

Miraculously: rain at night. Mules out in the field had real opinions about this; it was hard to tell whether they were happy or not. The horizon light was sickly green, so maybe the mules were warning everybody to get in the tater cellar.

In the morning, we drove around looking for breakfast. It serves me right for betraying the Ran-Dazzle. We found a “Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen” type joint and walked in. Neon sign said: OPEN. It was empty. All tables set. Even the register just sitting there. “Hello?” we called. Dull hum of abandonment. “Anybody?” OMG—call Fox News: the Rapture happened and I was looking for waffles.

ONE GOOD THING about dead plains: you can see the ruts of the Oregon Trail better. Ruts, baby. Ruts! And this is why you need to visit Gothenberg. Aside from the Ran-Dazzle, it is the home of The World’s Largest Plow. And that eerie Cheyenne horseman. And a giant rust bison. They all gather near a jaunty red barn that serves as a museum.

Inside, there were allsorts. You immediately fell into a different era and were enveloped within some Cormac McCarthy lingo entire, as if the very wraiths of those forlorn pilgrims hove from the cracked earth and whispered their liturgy into your ear. In other words: aprons and bonnets and rubber tomahawks and good pioneer books. A prairie schooner in the parking lot.

Our hostess revealed herself to be eighty-six years old, and she had seen a dust storm or two. Had outlived many a drought. And she knew every bit of history and took us from photograph to photograph, explained every map, demonstrated the items on hand that had felt those long-gone hands and which must surely be haunted now. In the doorways, plastic bags of water hung. “It makes the flies nervous,” she explained.

Outside, a real faux pioneer hut. Real buffalo dung in the firebox. A rifle above the window. The settler who lived there was a visionary. He collected old barbed wire from outfits all about, and he used six and a half miles of it to sculpt a life-sized bison who now stands rusting blood-red in the burned fields. And later, another five or six miles of wire made the Cheyenne hunter on his horse who had stared at us all night.

It was 101 degrees—a world made of nothing but ghosts.

“I’ve seen drought, all right,” our hostess said. “This one’s pert near the dustbowl, isn’t it? Why, when there’s a breeze, I have to shut the door and sweep the prairie back out a few hundred times.”

This one will end, too, she said. But it didn’t seem like it would end. That blood-colored buffalo staring at the murdered plains, made of the cutting wire that killed them, and the hunter staring forever into the horizon that would endlessly open before stampedes of strangers from an unseen ocean. His people thought the death would end. And the Escape Hybrid with its toxic, eco-friendly batteries: will it stand on some forlorn memorial plinth beside the dry bed of the Missouri River one day, facing west?

As we drove seven thousand miles away from the red barn, looking at burning bony soil, it was her face I held on to. Her laughter. Her delight that a busload of “religious” types lined up one day to hug her.

“Do I look like a grandmother to you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m a crop-duster!” she announced. “I have flown across the entire Great Plains in my plane!”

Maybe that’s what will not die, in spite of the unending season of burning we seem to have entered: maybe it’s that ineffable thing I found in Gothenberg, Nebraska. What do you call it? Spirit.

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Luis Alberto Urrea is author of Queen of America.

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