Returning to the Great Plains, As the Rest of My Generation Flees

Somewhere vaguely west of New York and east of Los Angeles, north of Austin and south of Bismark, is a place you drove through or flew over. You don't remember much of it because you were yawning, asking the person in the seat beside you why anyone would live way "Out There," as Truman Capote put it, where nothing exciting ever happens. That vast, inevitably flat part of your trip is a place called, among other things, "Kansas." And yes, there are people who live there—on purpose—and they aren't sorry you were inconvenienced by their state. But they'd probably apologize anyway if you nagged them about it—because they're Kansans, and they're kind. Then they'd go back to what it is they were doing, which is raising wheat and corn and cattle and shipping them out of state to where they're needed in the world, for your benefit—or better put, the benefit of your milk and bread and steaks and whiskey and beer.

The people Out There also raise sons and daughters, which they also send off into the world when they're old enough. Most of the time they never return, except to visit for the holidays. Then they yawn the entire trip back to their homes on the coasts, probably down the street from you, where it's nice and modern and tidy—where everybody has a little yappy dog they follow around with a little plastic baggie.

I'm one of those Kansan sons who fled the farm for all the attractions of the city, Chicago to be exact, which is 900 miles from the farm where my family has been growing wheat since 1885. My two older brothers and I were driving tractors and pickups when we could reach the pedals and sweeping out dusty grain bins before summer league baseball practice.

Now that I've been gone for 15 years, it's easy to imagine giving up the city and trading it in for a wildly different career path—farming. I've had my time with an urban address. I'm over it, and I'm making my escape back to the wide-open plains, where the nearest neighbors are miles away—where, I swear, opportunity is knocking.

The Great Plains is an intimidating place in person. On a movie screen, however, it's more exotic and haunting. At least, that's how it appears onscreen in Nebraska, Alexander Payne's endearing and forlorn film about his home state. It's the story of a man who believes he's found a fortune he can collect only in the state that resides north of Kansas—a place not so different from where I grew up. The long horizon lines and the ribbons of road captured just as they really are, leading to dusty hamlets that are shrinking in slow motion. The Main Street of the small town in the movie is exactly how so many of them really are: nearly absent of youth, a little boarded up, faded, creaky and stale, but still open for business because the people refuse total failure. They're fighters Out There.

The loser in Nebraska is a guy named Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) who grew up in a farmhouse near one of those fading towns, who left the family farm when he was young and who, as an old man, couldn't stop thinking about how to return to Nebraska and buy a pickup truck.

I'm looking for a pickup, too—my ticket back to farm country. Every night from my apartment, I tune out the sound of constant traffic and earmark pages from my stacks of books and magazines about country living and rustic architecture. Then I hunt online for an old truck to resurrect that can handle thelumber and windows I need for the house I'm planning to build in rural Kansas. My future homestead is called Middle Fork Farm, because it straddles the middle fork of a creek that sometimes runs with water. When I tell people where it is, I say it's between Kansas City and Denver, to which people sometimes say, "But there's nothing between Kansas City and Denver." For the record, Lane County does exist. It is 717 square miles at Latitude: 38.482056, Longitude: -100.466888. Population 1,704 and falling.

Returning to the Great Plains, As the Rest of My Generation Flees

The solitude can be intense—my new property is far enough from any highway that you can't hear the cars—but it's exactly what I'm looking for after outgrowing whatever excitement I attached to my city address. The hype I gave it isn't nearly as gratifying as what I gave up. I don't feed on the ambience of a frenetic city with a population density of more than 11,000 people per square mile. (Lane County's is 2.4.) I don't need to wait in lines. I don't need traffic. I don't need to fight crowds so I can pay premium for the rest of my life. It's not worth it. Not to me. I'm building a little place of my own, right there on the hillside of Middle Fork, where I'm tied to the land instead of floating in a city where I will never own anything.

Middle Fork looks just like the place where they filmed Dances With Wolves, which is why a Hollywood producer bought this particular patch of nowhere years ago after filming a stylish TV commercial on our farm for a major chemical company. She had wanted to build a cabin or a lodge, if she could ever escape L.A., and might have invited her friend Kevin Costner (just "Kevin" to her) over for a weekend. Maybe they'd ride horses and have a bonfire by the bluff. But it wasn't meant to be, and she sold it to my parents, who are selling it to me—all 80 acres, including the creek, the grass, the rocky features and the hill.

I've admired the property since I was a kid because it's different than most of the rest of flat Lane County. Now that it's mine, it's all I can think about. I picture every contour of the land, where I will situate my cabin for the best use of light and maximum scenery, and where to place the chicken house, water well and the garden. It's "awesomely extensive," as Truman Capote wrote in the first paragraph of In Cold Blood—that "lonesome area that other Kansans call 'Out There.'" When Capote trekked to southwest Kansas, less than an hour's drive from Middle Fork, he described seeing herds of cattle and grain elevators rising like Greek temples from great distances. It still describes the landscape, though there are fewer rural houses and more oil pumps dotting the horizon.

The town nearby—the county seat of Dighton—isn't much. It's little more than all the basic services: a grain elevator, five churches, two liquor stores, a grocery store, gas station, a post office, a bank, a library, a school, a hospital, a pizza place, a burger place, a lumberyard and a landing strip. Almost everything you need, and almost nothing you don't. It's the kind of place where you have to lock your car doors when parked along the street; otherwise, you'll find a box of fresh zucchini on the seat. No note.

The local weekly newspaper is a community bulletin board with not much more than land auctions and school sports. The "Word of God" column always makes the front page—placed next to the weather forecast and grain markets as if it were a given, sobering fact, no matter the verse. Obituaries always outnumber birth announcements. The typical story about the first baby born in the New Year doesn't run until July, or so the joke goes. The social fabric is thin and held together with tight white perms, turtlenecks, crafty vests and white athletic shoes. When the local kids grew up, they left town and mostly never came back—not permanently, anyway.

I'm guilty of helping widen the hole in Kansas. I can't speak for every farm kid who grew up driving a tractor in the dust, but I thought about leaving all the time. I'd listen to the sound of the engine droning on for hours, daydreaming about all the things I was missing while growing up so far from everything. I felt that if I was going to make it big, it wouldn't happen in a place where cattle outnumber people 40 to one.

When I visited Lane County during the holidays, locals sometimes asked if I was back to stay. It was a casual question, as common as talking about the weather. But they actually wanted to know the answer, because people under 60 aren't coming to Lane County much at all anymore. It's been hemorrhaging youth for generations, losing 30 percent of its population in 30 years. In another 30 years, the schools and services will be scattered like regional outposts—the kind where you fill the tank if you're planning a trip between them.

Still, I can't resist returning. The truth is: There's decent money in farming. Those days spent planning and caring for the fields add up to a high-quality wheat crop, which is sold by the truckload. My family—my dad—has become a good enough farmer that other farmers line up to buy his wheat, which is no accident and has little to do with luck. He's become known for producing some of the best wheat in the business.

That's not to say it will be easy. The pressure to do what my dad does so well—the thing he's been doing practically his whole life with a measure of success—is immense. He knows that I have to learn everything he knows about the fundamentals, that farming is a combination of business, science, art, timing, gambling and strategy. It's also like mafia warfare. Neighbors and friends double as each other's competitors, and grudges and alliances last for generations, and everyone knows their farm could be the next abandoned patch of weeds growing up through the skeleton of a house along the road. All it takes is enough bad decisions, enough of what my dad calls "$10,000 mistakes," and you can turn out like Woody Grant from Nebraska, who came back to his father's withered farm at the end of his life with no ties to the land, only passively regretting not doing something about it.

I can't let that happen, which means I have to hit the ground running as fast as I can, as long as I'm alive (and, unlike Woody, young). That's the advice I hear from my parents, who say that to be successful in farming, you have to run like your life depends on it—because it does.

As the day comes closer to breaking ground on my cabin in the heart of the middle of nowhere, I can already feel the distractions slipping away. I'm already caring less about the irritations of my neighborhood in Chicago—the trash in the streets, the air that tastes like exhaust. It'll be someone else's neighborhood as soon as my lumber order comes through in the spring, which should give me at least a few weeks to rough-in a structure before the wheat harvest in June.

My older brother said I could stay with him for a while as I build my place down the road on Middle Fork. He knows exactly what I'm going through. He used to live in the city, too. He had an office, an apartment and a thousand neighbors in earshot. And like him, I see a much greater, better life Out There where I know what I want: To farm and work my way back into the industry I was born into. I can feel the pressure—and the power—of that opportunity, and how fragile it is, and how I'll have much bigger things to worry about soon: like drought and disease, fuel prices and water supply.

I called my parents from Chicago to talk about the plans for Middle Fork, about the square footage of my cabin and my barn, and how I'll plant trees surrounding the homestead to dampen the wind, and how I'll build the road along the contours of the ground. They said the plans were solid and practical. They said they're happy another son is coming back to Kansas to do what Ehmkes have been doing in Lane County for 130 years. They said their motivation for doing well in farming was for us, the next generation.

It's something I see as a gift, and it's always ticking. If I set it down even for a second, or make any of those ten-thousand-dollar mistakes, the thing will blow up in my face and I'll have ruined five generations worth of sacrifices, dreams, risks and profits. Frankly, it scares the shit out of me—a fact I recently admitted to my mom."Good," she said. "You need to be nervous."


Layton Ehmke, a contributor to various regional and national publications such as Outside, will soon be living on a compound on the frontier of western Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @Ehmdash.

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Photo courtesy of Paramount Vantage and Layton Ehmke