Veer north off I-80 somewhere west of Lincoln, Nebraska and the small towns start to jut out of the plains alongside the cornrows or, sometimes, in between the cornrows. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Farmers roll steadily down empty highways in pickup trucks at 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, checking fields with the corn to their right, soybeans to the left, and then the pattern switches.
Further west, the cattle pastures roll on and on in what feels like mind-numbing repetitions of themselves. Cows and their calves dot the treeless hills in the springtime as stray cars glide by over the black asphalt that divides the skies torn wide open above. You might think it was all the same if it weren’t for the spectacular valleys pressed and gouged into the flat earth around them, making you forget where you are for a few unconscious moments at a time.
Cedar trees crowd together along the nadirs of gray-brown ravines, clawing at the water that runs through the shallow crevasses when it rains — if it rains. They stand close as if to hold one another when the shattered cold of February hits, freezing them in time. Without a choice and just as sure of themselves, they stand and sway through the powdery heat of July and August.
The winds sweep through the bare hills here so often that you forget what stillness feels like. Perhaps that’s what gives everyone here a subtle restlessness — just barely noticeable, just enough to simmer up to the surface when boredom takes over for a few seconds too long.
Spider web fans of lightning bolts paint the skies in the evenings between May and September. They flash in between angel hair strands that droop from storm clouds resting over the flat bean fields. You see them coming from miles away, and so thunderstorms aren’t much cause for concern. People here don’t spend time worrying about the devils they can see, only the ones they can’t.
From time to time, droughts wage war on everyone and everything except for the grasshoppers and, some years, the crickets. And yet, when the rain returns, it seeps through the sandy soil, turning the brown grass green again before settling into the giant aquifer below the farmlands and grassy plains. At that point, the diners and donut shops return to their usual mix of five-piece dice games and small town gossip.
For me, I can’t quite get over the old vehicles that sit in fields long after they’ve stopped carrying people or livestock or both. They were meant to be fixed up one day, I’m sure. Or maybe they were supposed to be used for spare parts, now just rusted and fossilized relics of a time that carried more hope for someone else.
This place is full of half-told stories like that. It’s a place of many beginnings and few endings, in both the most righteous and most mundane of ways. Things started out simple here and they never got much more complex, save for satellite radios everywhere and combines with six-figure price tags.
It’s at once one of the most forgiving and one of the most ruthless of places to call home. A lot of people leave at some point. A few stay. A few leave and come back.
Most just point their cars towards the snow blanketed plains in late December before waking up somewhere else in the New Year. No matter what, this place never forgets you, even if you don’t remember it quite like you used to.
And no matter what, the gate is always open when you come home. You may just have to cross a cattle guard or two to get there.