As we pulled into John Martin State Park, RV in tow, there was an eerie glow in the air. I felt a heaviness caused by more than smoke and decimation from uncontrolled wildfires. There was a mix of desperation, and a lack of direction that permeated the campground full of an eclectic mix of state of the art vans, weekend warriors, and the displaced with their dated trailers, patched and worn from years on the road.
It was 2020, some were searching for something, some were running from something (as we were) and for some, it was a way of life, either by economic necessity or a desire to live on their own terms. We hope that someday we can join them on the road and be free. After having played by the rules most of our life, now middle aged, we are acutely aware of the time we have lost, and that there is so much more to life.
We made camp alongside a large manmade wall of concrete, engineered to keep millions of gallons of water at bay. I was uneasy camping beside a dam, as water had an insidious way seeping into spaces where it didn't belong. I also knew that walls, given enough time, eventually come down.
The next day, we discovered that we had forgotten to bring eggs. So we went on a mission to buy eggs. We were directed by a kind man to a small corner store. When we got there, they were sold out. They directed us to the nearby bait shop. They were also out of eggs. It was hard to understand how, in the middle of America, surrounded by farmland for miles . . . they could be out of eggs?? We were then directed to a small grocery across from the post office. The post office was housed in a dilapidated building that seemed to embody the post office motto of rain, sleet and snow. This building seemed symbolic for the institution and American life itself, that is also dysfunctional, dilapidated, and in disrepair.
The following day, we set out to discover what the Prairie had to offer. We unhitched our trailer, free to explore the rich culture and history of this iconic American expanse. Recently, my husband had taken to building guns as a hobby. A hobby I support because he enjoys it, but guns make me uneasy. We set out to find a shooting range that would accommodate him. The range was over 30 min away and we had to pass through the heart of the small community. The people who historically lived on the prairie, settled into one of the harshest existences America had to offer. What remains, is a way of life that was appealing to some, and hopeless to others. We passed weather worn homes and businesses, some long forgotten—once great symbols of American exceptionalism, now in decline, along with the ambitions of those that erected them.
The people we met along the way were friendly, kind even. They seemed to understand, that these passer throughs were now a large part of their livelihood. We finally reached the gun range, a large seemingly make shift building elevated above the rest. The uneven ground scare on the prairie. There was one lonely soul there spending his afternoon, collecting used brass and shooting on occasion. I stayed near the car, uneasy about gun ranges, as my husband spoke with the man and befriended him. While my husband set up to zero in his scope on his riffle, I had an opportunity to connect with the man and discovered he was former military, had grown up in California, and had left a long time ago in search of a better life. He had lived in a handful of western states, just like us. As we chatted, I felt connected on a level that could only be understood by those living parallel lives. You see, we came of age at the same time, having lived in similar places both regionally, economically, and culturally. Most importantly, we shared experiences from a place and time that no longer exists. We spent over 2 hours reminiscing about the nostalgia of it all. I was grateful for the time we spent talking and left with renewed faith in humanity.
2020 has revealed so much of the dark underbelly of America. Our trust in our institutions and ourselves has eroded. Yet, as humans, we want so desperately to be understood, and at minimum, our way of life respected. We want to connect with like minded people and are desperate for people to understand our pain, and our frustration. We feel that we have to depend on ourselves. This was something that the people of the Prairie had learned long ago—that water and resources have a way of vanishing when we need them most.