Great Plains, amen.

This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the June 8, 2019, issue of the Kearney Hub.

Some places beautiful to me because they’re mine

Geography interests me — it always has.

I don’t know if this is true for all people who travel a lot as kids, but personally, I think that’s where my connection to places has its foundation.

It feels like coming full circle to have been born in Franklin, to have lived elsewhere across the Great Plains from the time I was 2 until the time I was 24, then to have moved to Kearney and five years later to northwest Phelps County.

This seems unpredictable, and yet the threads of connection make it feel like a rich story. My mom’s family is woven through Harlan County history. My husband’s parents and my parents were acquainted before either of us was born.

This has always been a place I’ve known.

When my siblings and I were really little, our folks would drive all of us the 600 miles from our home in New Mexico up to Republican City or Louisville, or both, where we’d spend Christmas or spring break.

A few of the places we’d pass through would be places we’d also pass through on a hot day on the wheat harvest trail. My childhood memories are often faulty — idealized, mostly — but I really remember gluing my nose to the window, looking with summer eyes at winter places.

The destination was always grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but the places on the way were mine.

Earlier this week, on a quick drive to a Kearney appointment, we crossed U.S. Highway 183 as part of a Jeff Paplow Harvesting convoy passed on its way from home in South Dakota to start wheat harvest somewhere down south.

For a combiner, getting ready to leave on harvest is tremendously stressful, but the actual getting gone is so exhilarating. It’s a new start in known places, with familiarities to enjoy and changes to assimilate.

Oh, and crops to harvest — but this is a geography story!

Seeing those combines, I so much wanted to be on the road, stopping overnight in maybe Boise City, Oklahoma, or Dalhart, Texas — places that 12-year-old me knew before the road signs were visible — and continuing the next morning to the first farmer customer’s yard.

The excitement of getting to our stops, visiting the post offices and libraries, driving the twisty dirt road with the quirky little rise, seeing the star-shaped field again, hearing the unmistakable squeaky sign at the truck stop, meeting up with friends for the fair, swim lessons, VBS, even school — these places grew to be more mine every year.

One of my favorite places is one most people will never see: A corner where you can see for miles with a sign made from an old disk blade that says, “My road keep out Robert Porter.”

The return home in the fall was always a big deal, too. My house, my room, my bed, my winter clothes — but also how much the tree grew, who painted their house, the new equipment at the school playground, maybe a road with new pavement. And are the neighbors home?

Ownership is a pretty loose situation for a kid. That’s the beauty of place — it can be yours or mine or a kid’s or all of ours.

Harvest stops were my places, home and harvest headquarters were my place, and everywhere in between — also my place.

For me, meeting people means I’ll ask where they’re from, and if we have even a glimmer of common geography, talking over our coincidence of place until they’re completely tired of it and me.

New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska? Let’s chat.

I could spend hours with an atlas or gazetteer, but the advent of Google Maps turned that map habit into a whole new time suck. Every time I figure out that Google has new images, I locate my places and figure out what’s new.

It makes me especially happy if I not only find my family’s fresh wheat stubble but someone emptying a combine into a grain cart, following a barley windrow or waiting in an elevator line.

Those places are already mine, but these details make them mine on Google Maps as well.

I’m hoping the day comes that a perusal of Google Maps reveals my family’s combines in my husband’s fields. So far, not so much.

I hope love of place becomes part of my children as well.

We’re doing our best to share with our kids our admiration and respect for land and place — a pasture my husband rents for cattle that is among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen; the place we live that also was home to the kids’ great-grandparents; locations where our ancestors and more recent family have lived and where they’re buried; his University of Nebraska–Lincoln and my Bethany College; places I’ve traveled on harvest and haul the kids out to see.

This story of geography is full and beautiful to me because it’s mine, of course — each of us is like that in our own way.

I have the exquisite blessing of having the whole Great Plains as my place.

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