Immortal Ogallala

In the Texas Panhandle, every season is drought season

What is there to tell you of the place I am from? It’s a nowhere place. The kind of town you drive through and thank God you never had to live there. A few dilapidated houses and a four-way stop interrupt an otherwise empty Texas countryside. If you go down Broadway, you’ll see a handful of buildings—a lumber store, one small café, a bank, a grocery store, a post office, and novelty shops. Weekday mornings, you’ll find the Longhorn Café dotted with the usual group of farmers, sipping coffee and shooting bull, waiting for daylight when they’ll begin slow work on dry land. And Friday nights, you’ll catch every Sue, Jack, and Sally heading to the high school field to grumble about the football players, now struggling as a six-man team.

My childhood in Hart was dappled with typical Americana: days spent at the hamburger joint drinking Big Red sodas and playing Pac-Man, summer nights full of neighborhood cops-and-robbers games, bike rides to Fast Stop to buy a package of Sixlets, and bus rides steaming with friendship and hormones to tournaments in Lazbuddie or Springlake. 

Something should be said, though, for the uniqueness of the place—the way the wind forced me to run the 400-meter dash at a tilt, head-on into a wall of dust; the way that same dry wind tangled my hair and my Sunday dress with a passionate caress that could only be described as tough love; and the way the bald earth, visible from my bedroom window, drew me to walk miles down the dirt roads, daring myself to go just a little farther until our house finally disappeared.

• • •

Seasons in Hart are marked mostly by the strength of the wind—gentle in summer, biting in fall and winter, violent in spring—and the intensity of drought. If you ask a local farmer what they are planting during a particular season, they might say cotton, or they might say, “The price of corn is up, so we are planting corn while it’s good.” What they mean, though, is that they are planting the moisture-hungry crop while the water supply from the Ogallala Aquifer is good.

The Ogallala Aquifer feeds over 12 million acres of land across 174,000 square miles, which stretch from Texas to South Dakota. Perhaps it was the grandeur of the aquifer that originally led to an idea of immortality; there had always been water, so there would always be more water.

The truth, though, is that natural rain recharge cannot keep up with withdrawal demand in the Great Plains’ semiarid climate. In recent years, severe drought has exacerbated the depletion and forced farmers and homeowners in the panhandle region to pull up their well pipes and drill a little deeper into the ground in search of water.

In Hart, water exhaustion is something understood but never talked about. We come from generations of cowboys and straight shooters. We live in the plains because it’s imperative to see for miles and miles exactly what is happening around us. We speak very matter-of-factly about comings and goings, and about other people’s affairs or our own, but we rarely break beneath the surface.

It is like the DVD my aunt recently recorded of my grandparents fielding questions about their lives—their childhoods, their love story. How easily I contributed to the list of questions, and yet I still have not watched the video. I’m afraid to admit that the days are narrowing until a recording is all I will have left of them. 

• • •

On the outskirts of town, beyond the Lions Club, beyond Wilbur Ellis Fertilizer, my father works in his red tin shop, surrounded by a personal museum of antique car parts and rebuilt hotrods. A welder by trade—or, more romantically, a blacksmith—he is a genius in metalwork who pays his bills working for the farming industry.

It’s Saturday morning, and Dad and I tinker on his Studebaker Champion while we wait for another customer to make the trip down Highway 194. The bleak sky and the frigid wind add to the chill lacing the air between us. These days, I only come home for special events—graduations, birthdays, funerals—and my father knows that any other visit masquerading as “quality time” should be met with a degree of suspicion. A few days earlier, I blurted out that Hart was in danger of total obsolescence, to which he promptly replied, “You’d be surprised how many kids want to come back after they get a taste of city life.”

In the 1970s—the height of my father’s youth—bell-bottoms were in style, Carter became president, the nation finally moved past the Nixon debacle, my father fell in love with my mother, and Hart’s cotton fields were full of migrant workers, who settled into freshly painted houses as the farming industry boomed. By the ’80s, my father gave little thought to raising a family elsewhere. Now the panhandle skies, the dusty West Texas springtime, and the unhurried, friendly conversation embody him in such a way that I have trouble separating the man from the place.

For a long time, family heritage in these parts meant land titles and business transfers. Two of my father’s three siblings still live within thirty miles, as do his parents. Watching Dad handle tools with his right hand, I remember something my grandmother once told me: “Your father tried to be left-handed when he was little.” Her tone indicated such nonsense might be akin to radical sympathizing or liberal leanings. She coached him until he became right-hand dominate so he could operate the machinery at the shop, where he’d later take the helm from my grandfather.

Things change, though. Farming technology—center-pivot sprinklers, GPS-controlled tractors, Roundup Ready seed—has decreased the job market. Given such limited opportunity, only one of my ten cousins has returned to the area to work.

While we shiver in the thinly insulated shop, statistics run through my head, facts my father doesn’t care to hear: the saturated thickness of the Ogallala in the Hart area has been depleted by anywhere from sixty to one hundred feet over the last twenty years; or, even if conservation methods are employed, by 2070, the 111 feet of average saturated thickness remaining will have decreased to forty-four feet; or (especially), by the turn of the next century, the Ogallala may not be able to support the few remaining farms that have survived, which would impact the entire local economy.

I know that such passive-aggressive comments are best left to sunny days and BBQs, once everyone has had a few drinks, not winter workdays. I can’t help myself, though. Over the passage of the morning, I manage to whisper something about “depleting water resources” and “family land inheritance.” Dad doesn’t validate my comments because he, like everyone else who makes a living off the land, doesn’t need statistics to know what’s happening.  

After an hour without sight of a patron, Dad suggests we pack up and take a drive around the area. He is humoring me, but there is also something about being in or around cars that brings peace between the two of us. Maybe all of those times I sandblasted his hotrod parts and worked on upholstery panels, or all of those times he changed my oil and fixed my engine, have given us common ground. We know if other words fail we can still say spark plug, fuel pump,or “Hey, dipstick,” and understand each other.

Dad drives me to a farm near his house. “It’s amazing that on this side of the highway, the water is better than on that side. See that bunch of trees there?” He points to a lone clump of trees in the distance. “That guy doesn’t have any water. He’s got four or five wells that pump what one well on the other side of the road can pump—not even a mile away.”

We drive across the expanse of the county, and the story repeats itself. Dad pauses at a group of houses surrounded by outdated, rusting farming equipment and stares at the ruins. “These houses were still lived in during the ’80s.”

On our way back, the sun finally emerges, illuminating Hart’s cemetery as we pass. We are thinking the same thing, but I’m still surprised when Dad says it aloud. “Hart will be like Wayside soon, where there are more people in the cemetery than in the town,” he jokes, but adds hurriedly, “Of course, I don’t know that they ever had a thriving industry.”

Water depletion is a problem with no immediate solution. Farms from Texas to South Dakota could cut off their use of the Ogallala and switch to dry land farming, but the output would never match the level of irrigated farming. The nation is in a codependent relationship with the plains. The goods are demanded; the goods are supplied. If we knew the true cost, could we even do anything about it? Would we?

As we take in the rows of headstones, the aquifer beneath us, a fading collection of rain memories, curls into crevices of limestone, unaware of the effect of its ebb and flow.

• • •

Sometime later, I am driving down the long stretch of highway between Amarillo and Lubbock when I see a sign that reads: WAYSIDE  20. It is a sunny spring afternoon, and I am not in a hurry, so I take the detour. Arriving in Wayside feels much like driving across the Texas-New Mexico border; the change is unapparent and indicated only by signage. The town consists of nothing more than ten-odd remaining houses and a cemetery, which, on my count, held 478 graves, five of them fresh.   

Peace lingers in the quietness, though. No one drives down the crossroads by the cemetery, and as far as I can see, native Texas grasses, interrupted only by a few green fields of wheat, sway in the wind. A distant thundercloud crawls my way and cools the evening air. For a moment, seeing the shafts of rain makes me hopeful, but then I remember where I am standing.

Still, I am reminded of all the times I’ve felt the need to lie down on cold dirt, to feel the earth pressed against me, and to cling to it. A deep kinship to the nothingness surrounding me bubbles in my chest. It is followed by the sweet sadness of longing for a home that may soon be little more than a fading memory.

What else, I can hear my father say, can anyone ask for at the end of a life than to have been part of a place just like this?

About the Author

Mallory Barnes

Mallory Barnes works full-time in finance at Texas Tech University. She has called the Texas Panhandle home for most of her life. She is currently working on her first novel.

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