Stephen Collector / Courtesy photo
If you go
What: Julene Bair talks about her book “The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 6
Where: Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St.
Tickets: $5 entry includes $5 voucher for book purchase
The High Plains were something to be crossed, Goodland a mere marker ticking off a nearly completed trek across Kansas on long drives from my home in Missouri to the place that would eventually become home, Colorado. But one summer, perhaps the ninth or 12th (who knows?) time I crossed through western Kansas in my early 20s, passing through later in the summer than usual, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of sunflowers in bloom as far as my eyes could see.
I suspect I would have appreciated western Kansas much sooner if I’d read local author Julene Bair’s “The Ogallala Road” before my very first fly-by on Interstate 70 in my teens. Bair grew up (mostly) on a farm near Goodland, Kan., and though she left for San Francisco and then the California desert, it’s evident the High Sierra didn’t cause the High Plains to leave Bair’s heart. The book’s subtitle is “A Memoir of Love and Reckoning.” I’m not sure whether the “love” part of that is meant only for her family, or the men in her life, but regardless, her loving prose on the places she’s lived and visited make this memoir worth picking up.
That said, Bair’s tome isn’t 278 pages of elegiac exposition on landscapes and nature. In fact, her descriptions are made all the more lovely by a plainspoken Kansas sensibility that brings the reader back to earth in good time, such as when she mentions that the living room furniture at her parents’ home is “shitmuckle brown.”
And in the spirit of getting back down to earth, within the exposition is a moving plot, a story that is part-personal history, part-history of the Ogallala aquifer and its use by Plains Indians and modern farmers — who are draining it.
The Ogallala and water itself are a powerful force in Bair’s work. The book opens with Bair seeking water in creek beds near her family farm. Modern irrigation is draining the aquifer faster than nature can replenish it, and childhood haunts that were once reliable watering holes are now dry. While she’s out there searching for some signs of the Ogallala’s life, she meets a rancher, Ward, and is instantly smitten (certainly the obvious candidate for the “love” in the subtitle). Ward is an atypical cowboy in some ways — he’s a bookworm who claims to appreciate her liberal bent — but she still struggles with falling for a guy from the place she so deliberately left.
And, yet, she has returned before. The story jogs back to Bair’s younger days, and her return to her family in Kansas after becoming pregnant with her son, Jake. Battles ensue with her father over how she renovates the old home on her family’s land, how to plant trees, use of chemicals — and there, just as sure as all rivers return to the sea, once again Bair’s story returns to water. It’s inevitable: The family farm operates in a way that is at odds with Bair’s drive to save the Ogallala for future generations, and it’s that tension that will carry readers through to the end.
Contact Jenn Fields at email@example.com