Meeting ghosts on the prairie

On the mystery and heartbreak of traversing the Great Plains. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

The Great Plains, I have read, were once the bottom of a great sea, in a time long before there were any people to sail across it. But the sea did not stay full, and the waters evaporated, ascended to the atmosphere and were deposited ten thousand miles away. And no more rain ever came.

The seafloor rose, ascended to be nearer the sun, and grass grew. Crossing the sea of grass were great beasts – camels, horses, lions – and eventually scant bands of hardy people who hunted the beasts. They followed meager trickles of water, and slaughtered the herds that grunted and chewed the grass. When other hunters arrived, separated from their prairie-dwelling siblings for twenty thousand years, the new arrivals killed both the herds and the old hunters, and soon the sea of grass was again empty of fauna, and ready to be repopulated.

And once more a new group moved onto the plains, and for the first time, they built permanent homes, and with plows they overturned the earth, and sought to make the prairie their garden.

For three generations they tilled and toiled, building hopeful cities. Hotels, schools, banks proclaiming their stern grandiosity.

And in the 1920s and 1930s, the hand of God came to scrape clean the plains. The prairie, you see, does not tolerate settlers. It is meant to be forever a near-trackless sea of grass. Dust storms, rolling monsters as high as mountains, scooped up the fragile topsoil, and whirled it aloft, to be deposited as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

And the people, the attempted settlers, abandoned the prairies, their bodies and their clothes and their souls caked in dust, their heads in their hands.

They never returned.

And in cruising the vast and trackless wastes, I am a sailor on that ancient sea. My car, my safe and tiny vessel, bobs slowly up and over and then back down the swells of low hills, like mighty currents turned to dust.

Sometimes I travel via the Interstates, the great shipping lanes, where 18-wheelers roll like enormous cargo ships to far-flung ports. Like distant islands, I see the jumbles of the survivor towns far ahead of me. Sometimes I pull into dock to restock my supplies and fuel. At night, lonely blue lights dot the horizon like sleepy fishing boats with anchors dropped.

But on the back roads lie the ghosts. The tragic aridity of the dry sea, that drove the settlers away, also preserves their former homes. Without water, the only methods of destruction and dissolution are gravity and wind. And so are left moments in time.

They say the Pyramids of Egypt will last another ten thousand years.

They say the astronauts’ footprints on the moon will remain for millions of years.

I say a concrete foundation in the Comanche Grasslands will last just as long.

Abandoned homesteads are easy to spot from a distance. Whereas inhabited dwellings exhibit windows covered by lacey white curtains, vacant ones belie their empty interiors with gaping black holes.

I approach them with reverence. They are the homes of stalwart pioneers, the desiccated remains of those who fought against the prairie and failed. The houses are often ringed with long-dead cottonwoods, doubly to take the inhabitants’ minds off of the placelessness of their existence, and to attempt to cut the insatiable, incessant howl of the wind.

Inside it’s not uncommon to find 60-year-old furnishings strewn about as if the little homestead had been shaken like a dollhouse. The houses, formerly swaddling hearths, are not dormant. Though mummified and crisped in the sun, shutters clatter and clunk in the wind; they click with locusts, flutter with swallows.

Unlike the mountain ghost towns, populated only briefly by hordes of rowdy twenty-somethings seeking quick riches in the mines, the homes and towns of the plains were platted by older, wiser people taking the great gamble of moving their entire families onto the desert to eke out a legacy.

In the mountain ghost towns, you might find the ruins of a saloon, evidenced by glittering pockets of broken whiskey bottles; on the plains you’re more likely to find a child’s bedroom, bird-dung-spattered toys on the floor. Many homes still contain the cast iron stove on which maybe two generations’ worth of a family’s meals were cooked, the rotted remains of box spring mattresses onto which an exhausted farmer collapsed after a day’s desperate work, or the closets where a wedding dress hung hopefully for decades. As far as I can tell, the family floated away into nothingness.

The families, quite likely, ended up scraping by somewhere else. And yet the houses are haunted, by the emotional leavings that saturate the walls of any building where families dream. And, I must realize, they are haunted by me. I am an intruder, sometimes, into once-comfortable and familiar surroundings, where vinyl records played and floorboards squeaked beneath children’s feet.

Further, the homes haunt me. When I leave, I take with me a glimpse into another life, a memory of a time that was not mine and a family who never invited me into their home.

I see in the homes an awful future. I think of my childhood bedroom, and I close my eyes and watch the passage of time crack the walls, shatter the windows, rip up the floorboards. I watch the roof beams cave in over the kitchen where my mother baked pies. I see birds nesting above the bookshelves. I watch the basement fill with tumbleweeds.

Nature is slowly reclaiming the meager plots of land that were briefly stolen from it. Blowing dust nicks away microns of dry wood walls, and grass grows through the floorboards. Eventually, the homes will be overtaken by a heavy blizzard, or a powerful wind. And if not, one day the world will again freeze, and glaciers the size of mountains will roll forward and pulverize the homes to dust.