We started with four lanes of pavement hours and hours ago, but the roads keep getting smaller and softer. Going west into Nebraska the rolling hills roll longer and the trees thin out and the views get bigger. At Atkinson, we turn north and follow a blacktop until it curves away and abandons us among the thin and brittle corn and the gigantic pivot-irrigators. Without the asphalt, this road isn’t so much dirt as it is sand - squirming and shifting underneath the truck.
After the 1890 count, the US Census Bureau found at least 2 people per square mile out on these plains and declared the frontier closed. But a hundred twenty-some years later, I’m pretty sure the only other person in this square mile is the one sitting next to me in the passenger seat.
We nose down into a shallow valley and just before crossing Big Sandy Creek stop beside the ditch on the left. You have to really be looking to spot the double fencepost in the barbed wire. I get out and wade through the grass, untie the loose post from the rooted one and drag it, and its section of fence, to the side, opening the driveway for the first time this summer.
I feel extra-masculine manhandling barbed wire, driving my Dodge through waist-high weeds and stepping in cow shit. Those are the kinds of things us city boys only get to do in our imaginations as we’re watching truck ads on TV. I hope MSL notices how broad my shoulders are.
There’s a key to the house hidden in the shed. Be careful opening the screen door - there will be wasps. If you’re first in, get the big fuse from the kitchen and stick it in the box on the power pole in the yard so that the fridge can start cooling. It will be tomorrow before anyone else arrives, so if I can get the mower running, I’ll knock down the grass in the yard.
I’ve only been here a handful of times, but Janice’s farm is one of my favorite places. South of the Niobrara, north of the Platte. East of the sand hills, west of the Missouri. It’s a part of the country that a lot of people would rather fly over. They don’t know what they’re missing and let’s keep it that way.
Janice grew up on the farm and inherited it when the ancestors passed. Her parents and their parents and their parents raised their families here - they were the original homesteaders. I don’t know if “profitable” is the right word to describe their farming enterprises over the years, but somehow all those generations made a life right here on this loose and dusty piece of Holt County.
Remnants of the operation hide in the overgrowth: a cattle-loading chute, the foundation of a long-gone corn crib, sheds in various stages of collapse, a chicken coop with the corpse of a four-legged something decaying inside. It’s been there long enough that it doesn’t stink anymore. Old cars litter the property - driven ‘til they wouldn’t and then pushed into the weeds where they still sit today.
Janice is one of those people that I’m not exactly sure how I’m related to. My wife’s mom’s grandfather and Janice’s grandfather were cousins, or brothers, or just knew each other real well, or something like that. She and I are only related because I married into the family, but the fact that I’m married at all can be, in part, traced back to Janice even though we didn’t know each other at the time. But that’s another story. We may or may not be on the same family tree, but we’re in the same woods and over the years Janice has stayed in-touch with her Iowa cousins, and that’s enough to call her family.
Janice’s childhood here on the farm sounded more 1800s than 1900s. She was out of high school before electricity came. Phone service wasn’t available until the 1960s. The house still doesn’t have running water. It never will.
Agriculture wasn’t Janice’s calling. She went off to college and then a career in architecture in Arizona, but she held onto this family land in Nebraska and made a point to visit a couple times a year, and stay for a few weeks every summer, spending her days doing the bits of maintenance to keep the house habitable and the lane passable. There was always some project going on … one year we helped her move the outhouse to a new hole.
The farm is a perfect place to unwind. If you want to do something physical, there’s always brush to be cleared and painting to be done - the kinds of chores you can set your body to while allowing your mind to go off wherever it wants. Miles from town and neighbors, you can be as alone as you wish. Walk in the wide-open fields. Read. Write. Wander around with a camera. Nap. Sit and have a conversation without electronic interruption. One year we had a huge bonfire with driftwood leftover from the spring flood. Another time we roasted big chunks of pork in a pit down on the creek bank.
Nearly all of my time is spent outdoors. The farmhouse is well over a hundred years old and designed just like I would if I were living alone. There’s space at the back and upstairs for sleeping, but pretty much everything is in one room on the ground floor. It’s a combination kitchen, dining room, living room and machine shed and workshop. There’s very little in the way of decor. The kitchen counter doubles as a workbench. The cupboard contains cups, plates, bowls, insecticide, a bottle of Glenfiddich, saws, drills, wrenches, maple syrup, a coffee can of old screws and salt and pepper. The house is a basic, functional shelter and it is hard to imagine how many generations were born, grew, and died inside.
But we don’t come to the farm to be inside. In fact, when we’re here, MSL and I even sleep outside in a tent in the front yard. The whole point of coming to the farm is to be outside, engulfed in all that magnificent space, inhaling the sweetness of the grass, absorbing the energy delivered by the sun. It’s the light of life.
The farm is quiet. The loudest sound is the buzz of the insects: bees, and flies and so many grasshoppers I swear you can hear the springs in their legs go “boing” when they jump. Or maybe the loudest sound is the wind, which has about a thousand uninterrupted miles to get a running start before it arrives.
And if the loudest sound isn’t the bugs or the wind, then it certainly is the mourning doves. They roost here by the hundreds and their constant lament adds a reflective melancholy to this farm which hasn’t seen a crop, or a farmer, in decades. It’s the perfect soundtrack for this broken-down, almost forgotten place.
On a hot day, the creek is the place to be. We sit beside it. We sit in it. We lie down in it. We walk in it, upstream and downstream. It has cut a deep enough bed through the surrounding pasture and there are enough cottonwoods on the bank that it’s rather private, and once I’m out of sight of the house, I’ve been known to leave my swimsuit behind and enjoy the sunshine and the wind.
This is a land that is not quite wild, and not quite tame. One night after staying up late enough to see the Milky Way rise, I lay awake and listened to yipping and barking and occasional howling and wondered if they were coyotes or dogs. I was awakened shortly after sunrise by the sounds of heavy footfalls, heavy breathing, and grass being trampled. I unzipped the tent and could have reached out and touched a brown calf. A small herd of the neighbor’s cattle was passing through. They weren’t supposed to be in the yard. Someone must have left a gate open.
A thick layer of nostalgia blankets the farm. It isn’t a hopeless or depressing place at all, but everything points backward in remembrance of productivity and people from another time. Walking around, I find old hand tools and bits of rusty hardware sitting in unlikely places - on fence rails and such - as if someone from a previous generation had started a project, got interrupted, and just never got back to it. I’m convinced that Janice knows where all of these things are and leaves them there on purpose … the spirit of the old man is still alive as long as the tools are out.
One of the few pieces of decoration inside the house is a watercolor by Janice herself of a red garden gate in a wire fence with a rusty can upside down on the fencepost. As I walk out to my tent one morning I realize it is pitched right in front of that scene - a red garden gate in a wire fence with a rusty can upside down on the post. For how many decades has that gate been red?
I don’t know that Janice has made a huge effort to keep the farm in its 1960s condition, but it is obvious that she isn’t interested in modernizing much. She is so devoted to the place it makes me wonder if those simpler times were the happier ones for her, or if maybe she has carried a bit of guilt for not taking the reins of the family business and building on her ancestors’ investment. If the latter is the case, it would be some common ground for us, and an interesting conversation.
But it will be an impossible conversation. We got word that Janice passed away last November in Phoenix. I don’t know what interest or intentions her brother or her kids have in the farm. Janice loved the place because it was home. I loved it because it is quiet and beautiful and as much of an escape as any place I’ve been. I’m thankful that she was so generous in inviting us to visit. They say there will be a memorial service sometime next spring in Stuart, the next closest town, so maybe I’ll get to see the farm one more time.
a few more pictures: