Ghosts of America

BY THE TIME we hit Nebraska, Colorado was already in flames. The cornfields were crunchy and blighted all around. Ahead, sections of the Platte had not yet vanished. Behind us, they hadn’t yet started dredging the shallow Mississippi. At every rest stop, the temperature was 105. What scant livestock was visible was crowded hard under the shade of dying trees. Our daughter summed up Nebraska for us: “ . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . cow . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . prairie . . . cow. . . .”

Yeah, Orion all the way: we were driving a hybrid. It had a craptastic AC unit that coughed 95-degree air. We were as one with the heat-stroke victims all around us. I suddenly betrayed all my beliefs: I wanted loads of freakin’ greenhouse gases in my AC unit, stat! I was begging for relief. Cold water bottles. Frantic as scavengers in the fallout zone of The Road Warrior.

Men and women on talk radio, allegedly human beings and fellow Americans, spent the summer scoffing at “global warming.” It’s a cycle! they said. It’s snowing in _______, they insisted. They also seemed to be really angry that scientists acted like they were smarter than they were. Look, America—it was hot. It got hotter. Then it caught fire. And your food died on the stalk.

DISPATCH FROM The Great American Drought: I-70 is festooned with dead pines. Oh, you’ve heard about it. All those majestic lodgepoles, all et up by pesky little beetles because the winter doesn’t get cold enough to kill them. Miles and miles of gray creaking dead forests. And more to the north and the south. Dead wood by the hundreds of thousands of tons from New Mexico to Wyoming and Montana. All of it waiting for one good dry lightning strike.

Perhaps the epic smoke event will seed the clouds. What we thought was rain was grasshoppers escaping in a plague formation. The corn was as high as a field mouse’s eye.

In the Rockies, the Great Divide had about enough snow on it to make a good-sized Slurpee.

In California it wasn’t just dead fields of corn or wheat or wilted soybeans lying like chopped-off gray hair on a barbershop floor. It was whole orchards. Dead. They could have been up in the Ghost Rockies. Signs: ANOTHER CONGRESS-MADE DUSTBOWL.

In Hannibal, Missouri: 103 degrees in the shade. No visitors. No birds—they were all hiding under the bushes. The heat was a sound-eater. The Big River was now gasping. Finally, too weak for shipping.

Horses staring at dry stock ponds and crows laughing at us all.

NEBRASKA was a veritable Eden compared to what waited for us beyond. It was almost . . . green. Remember green? That was the color of golf courses. Nebraska still had some green happening, and the not-green was more golden than brown or gray or black. Yet.

It was the relentless hybrid-AC oven experience that destroyed my will to drive. I wanted to at least reach the border of flaming Colorado, as if my return could somehow assist my beloved mountains from the holocaust. But the heat.

So we pulled into Gothenberg. We stayed at a roadside motel in sight of a field that seemed to have an eerie Indian warrior on a horse staring at us in the gloaming. Whoa.

Scant food in sight, so we went across the dirt trucker lot to the Ran-Dazzle restaurant. I have nothing but praise for the Ran-Dazzle and its clients, all of whom seemed to know each other except the indigenous couple who left their table for a minute and whose silverware I took thinking they were gone and who came back and stared at their table asking, Where the hell did the fork go?

Miraculously: rain at night. Mules out in the field had real opinions about this; it was hard to tell whether they were happy or not. The horizon light was sickly green, so maybe the mules were warning everybody to get in the tater cellar.

In the morning, we drove around looking for breakfast. It serves me right for betraying the Ran-Dazzle. We found a “Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen” type joint and walked in. Neon sign said: OPEN. It was empty. All tables set. Even the register just sitting there. “Hello?” we called. Dull hum of abandonment. “Anybody?” OMG—call Fox News: the Rapture happened and I was looking for waffles.

ONE GOOD THING about dead plains: you can see the ruts of the Oregon Trail better. Ruts, baby. Ruts! And this is why you need to visit Gothenberg. Aside from the Ran-Dazzle, it is the home of The World’s Largest Plow. And that eerie Cheyenne horseman. And a giant rust bison. They all gather near a jaunty red barn that serves as a museum.

Inside, there were allsorts. You immediately fell into a different era and were enveloped within some Cormac McCarthy lingo entire, as if the very wraiths of those forlorn pilgrims hove from the cracked earth and whispered their liturgy into your ear. In other words: aprons and bonnets and rubber tomahawks and good pioneer books. A prairie schooner in the parking lot.

Our hostess revealed herself to be eighty-six years old, and she had seen a dust storm or two. Had outlived many a drought. And she knew every bit of history and took us from photograph to photograph, explained every map, demonstrated the items on hand that had felt those long-gone hands and which must surely be haunted now. In the doorways, plastic bags of water hung. “It makes the flies nervous,” she explained.

Outside, a real faux pioneer hut. Real buffalo dung in the firebox. A rifle above the window. The settler who lived there was a visionary. He collected old barbed wire from outfits all about, and he used six and a half miles of it to sculpt a life-sized bison who now stands rusting blood-red in the burned fields. And later, another five or six miles of wire made the Cheyenne hunter on his horse who had stared at us all night.

It was 101 degrees—a world made of nothing but ghosts.

“I’ve seen drought, all right,” our hostess said. “This one’s pert near the dustbowl, isn’t it? Why, when there’s a breeze, I have to shut the door and sweep the prairie back out a few hundred times.”

This one will end, too, she said. But it didn’t seem like it would end. That blood-colored buffalo staring at the murdered plains, made of the cutting wire that killed them, and the hunter staring forever into the horizon that would endlessly open before stampedes of strangers from an unseen ocean. His people thought the death would end. And the Escape Hybrid with its toxic, eco-friendly batteries: will it stand on some forlorn memorial plinth beside the dry bed of the Missouri River one day, facing west?

As we drove seven thousand miles away from the red barn, looking at burning bony soil, it was her face I held on to. Her laughter. Her delight that a busload of “religious” types lined up one day to hug her.

“Do I look like a grandmother to you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m a crop-duster!” she announced. “I have flown across the entire Great Plains in my plane!”

Maybe that’s what will not die, in spite of the unending season of burning we seem to have entered: maybe it’s that ineffable thing I found in Gothenberg, Nebraska. What do you call it? Spirit.

Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. Born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea has published extensively in all the major genres. The author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, IL, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.


  1. Given, the mass amount of evidence, and the amount of personal experience people have, and stories like this, I don’t see how people can deny global warming. There isn’t even a good reason to say that climate change is not happening. But its good to know spirit can still be found. even in the worst situations.

  2. I live in Nebraska, and we emptied out the Platte — bone dry — this summer to keep half of the corn marginally alive. We had water restrictions even as people kept their unused lawns green. Drought is part of living on the Plains — I would not say “prairie” because it does not exist anymore, and I’m surprised you or anyone else uses that term. Even if droughts are part of the ecosystem, they will sure be stronger and longer. We are well over 10″ behind normal precip with only one 3″ snowfall this winter. And yet no one cares–no designs with permeable hard surfaces, landscapers don’t used adaptable native plants to the region.

  3. I am going to get some of Luis Alberto Urrea’s books..Hansen did a study that showed the 2011 drought here in Okla had to be mainly caused by Global Warming..I seem to be the only one in the state who has heard this and I send emails to the Public TV folks to talk about it..Our Climatologist can only say”El Nino” and “Cycles” in cleverly worded statements…Down with barbed wire

  4. I live in the southwestern part of New Mexico, land of open lands, the Gila River, mountains and wilderness surrounded by national forest.
    The last two summers have been horric, the heat unbearable, the sun more intense than ever before. The monsoons have passed us by, the last real one was in 2005. We all thought the this would be the year the river dried up.
    The terrifying, destroying
    wildfires came too close, it was dangerous to breathe the air, so full of smoke and fire retardant. The animals perished in the hundreds, and the forests, plants, insects, birds……….sent to hell’s torch. We have not seen but a inch or two of snow on the mountains, which feeds the river after melting. The loss of fish, beaver, water fowl, I can’t imagine the numbers. The winds have blown away tons of topsoil. Every year it has become hotter, not just a few degrees, but scorching hotter. The great birds of prey hang their heads down, there is little food for them, as there is’nt the plant life to sustain their prey, nor that of the deer, elk, etc. The numbers are down. The last three years, the bee population has decreased due to lack of plants…too dry. But hey, there seems to be water for granted for irrigating the pastures to sustain cows for slaughter.crazy, ain’t it? Sort of like golf courses in the desert.
    This country is out of control, selfish, and alarmingly ignorant to the truth of the fragility of sustainable life every life form requires to survive. I just don’t understand, and it saddens me deeply.

  5. The desolation expressed in this article was moving and desperate as the parched wheat in Nebraska. The in-your-face evidence The heat of these places as the author drives through the Heartland is brought into the light as if saying: See, global warming? Get it? It targets the one thing that keeps human growth tripping over itself to keep up with the starvation caused by its very own conundrum going: agriculture. The thought that somehow our food “died on the stalk” creates an end-of the-the world type fear. The return to Depression’s Dust Bowl hit hard. The desperate and pitiful search for anything except “cow… prairie…cow” accentuated the drive through the drought. The spirit of the hostess in the middle of the wilting farmland turned the wheel at the last moment, directing us towards that tiny glimmer of hope in the form of a barbed-wire bull. This article struck home.

  6. I can attest to the Nebraska spirit. Spoiler- my mom and dad “are from there. Some facts- The painter/teacher Robert Henri started what is known as the “Ashcan School” in New York was born in Cozad, NE on Rt. 80 midstate. He was the son of a gambling man who took his family to NYC to escape a charge of murder. In Harris up in the panhandle close by the South Dakota border and the protected Ogalla Grasslands is a little preserved faux town made up of village buidings and their contents collected in one spot. Also presided over by a senior. Very educational. See:

  7. For the past 15 months i have been travelling across the USA on horseback – roughly 15 miles a day – bearing witness, asking questions, learning. In the first 8 1/2 months i only rode through 1 1/2 days of rain. Ranchers are cutting their cattle herds by 1/2 – rivers that ran year round 5-15 year ago (depending on the area) are dry. I’ve ridden through small town after small town where half the homes have been abandoned. The Monsanto cotton farmers continue irrigating, knowing that the crop won’t “make”, they waste the precious water because that’s what it takes to get the insurance company to pay for the failed crop – meanwhile they exist on a steady diet of Fox news and blame all the hard times on Obama and/or “the environmentalists”. These are good people, kind and helpful and generous people, who have taken me and my ponies in night after night, offered us food and shelter, shared their stories and their lives. A strange cultural disconnect – the logic of cause and effect denied – insanity and impending famine – a failure of imagination – a paralysis of fear. It’s interesting that we claim to live in a Democracy – theoretically of, by and for “we the people” yet NOBODY i have spoken with is happy with the way things are going, Nobody trusts the “government” (not even the military families I’ve stayed with) and the thing I find most sobering is that Nobody i have spoken with has an idea for a way forward that they truly believe is viable, a positive vision that they truly believe could be possible, even IF by some miracle everybody agreed to go along with the plan. 10 months to go – not giving up…

  8. Amazing writing yet again from Luis Alberto Urrea. He writes from the heart–and the mind. He travels from one end of the country to the other: and his dispatches from the road are gold to me.

  9. Wow, what an amazing article, and comments. It makes me think one word… roadtrip. The article mentioned how you can see the ruts of the Oregon Trail. How I would love to have the summer off to follow the Oregon Trail. I know most of the article is a bit downbeat, but the descriptions really want to make me see the land for myself.
    Thanks for a wonderfully descriptive article!

  10. Beautiful & desolate. This land, this America has what seems to me to be a long history of missed opportunities for beauty & abundance. Green lawns while dwindling aquifers?… Growing whatever we want while the landscape goes hungry? There has always been enough here, and we’ve never acted like it, and so we lose. We never had to, but we do. And might deserve to… I think of the stacks of killed buffalo like the clusters of parched, exposed soil.
    And isn’t it amazing now, the wandering it takes for us to see what’s going on? People in the cities and even amidst the pine beetle-kill wood here in Colorado feeling comfortable and able still to push off our worry…
    Thanks for & for all of you responding like you care and are willing to see these ghosts alongside the author. ~Peace

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