The Worst Hard Time

We read snippets in history books or pretend to listen to old men talk about the day the dust blew from one end of the North American continent to the other.  My parents, who grew up in Topeka, a couple hundred miles from the upside down earth known as the Dust Bowl, told me stories of walking to elementary school with wet handkerchiefs over their faces to keep the dust from choking their lungs but having to sleep outdoors because of the rainless heat.  The Dust Bowl, for those who lived through it, was certainly The Worst Hard Time.  If you want to understand the sometimes silent stubbornness of the generational Midwestern psyche that still exists almost a hundred years later, follow the stories of long suffering and perseverance in Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time.  His melancholy masterpiece captures you from the first sentence and keeps you up with a reading light long after the sun has gone down.  You not only learn about the people but also the history of the land and the terrifying folly that created the Dust Bowl in the first place.

I cringe almost every time I tell someone I am originally from Kansas, expecting to hear a joke about the stretch of I-70 between Salina and the Colorado border. The expanse bores people.  Or does it?  Pulitzer Prize winner Egan paints it this way:

“On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there.   It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity.  It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented.  Not a tree, anywhere.  Not a slice of shade.  Not a river dancing away, life in its blood.  Not a bump of high ground to break the horizon, give some perspective, spell the monotone of flatness.  It scared Coronado, looking for cities of gold in 1541….It even scared some of the Comanche as they chased bison over the grass…

It still scares people driving cars named Expedition and Outlander.  It scares them because of the forced intimacy with a place that gives nothing back to a stranger, a place where the land and its weather – probably the most violent and extreme on earth – demand only one thing: humility.”

After devouring Egan’s book, I will never again drive through that land that begs a belief in a Creator God without thinking of the Anglo pioneers, European immigrants, Indians, and Spanish who suffered.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As you drive through the southern Plains, look for the domed summer sky meeting the gold wheat and sunflowers, or a dilapidated barn and a rusty abandoned windmill that were once buried in dust, the prairie churches that never swept away and anchored lives to hope in something that they could not see.

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