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Borderlines: Sketches from the Empty Quarter: Dust Storm

By GK Harkness

April 5, 2023

Kiowa County, Colorado, far out on the eastern margins of the high plains, has been my home for most of my life. A life that is now beyond the end of its seventh decade. My people came onto the open empty, country of western Kansas and eastern Colorado almost one hundred fifty years ago. A few of us still remain, rooted by the siren song of this place and weathered in for the long haul. Occasionally I wonder why.

Yesterday was of those days that those of us on the high plains dread.

“Dust Storm Warning” blares from the emergency notification systems on our radios, personal electronic devices and television.

At least now the weather folk give us a heads up. If you live as I do, down here on the floor of the sky, eventually the message becomes ingrained to keep your hat tipped back and your eyes up where the weather comes from. Not to do so indicates your occupation keeps you inside sturdy walls or you are visiting from somewhere that the weather is of little consequence.

I’m not referring to the massive “rollers” that announce a cold front or a visiting super-cell thunderstorm. Those look terrifying but blow right on through. No, I mean the black blizzards that descend from the north and continue through entire days and nights.

Long before the time of social media and the National Weather Service, the first inkling we had of what was coming was simply a feathery line on the horizon. Almost always this was/is preceded by beautiful, unseasonably warm weather. At first, it’s only a wavy dark shimmer of movement, usually blue in color. By the time it warrants a second look it has become a seething, flowing wall of blackness swallowing everything in its path.

Unstoppable. Unavoidable. Unearthly … although it is composed entirely of earth and wind.

Think tidal wave.

Time to head for the house, the barn, anywhere but out in the open.

When the dark demon arrives, the world can disappear. Your fingertips vanish from the end of your arm. Forget trying to see and don’t even think about rubbing your eyes. The roads become a deathtrap and static electricity painfully bites from any object you touch. The fine dust penetrates our homes, vehicles, lungs and livelihoods. And it goes on and on and on, shrieking, roaring and shaking the unshakable.

Yesterday was not of that caliber. Ugly, but not as damaging as it could have been.

But each storm takes a bite. The topsoil is loosened, the ground cover peeled further away and the fuse smolders brighter as it inches towards the worsening powder keg of the fields and pastures. The economic ruin, misery and despair left in the aftermath of these storms is unfathomable to those outside these rural communities

The Dust Bowl never really left the High Plains. It lies just below the surface of the land, sleeping under a thin blanket of prosperity. Slumbering there in a fitful rest, the old nightmare awakens at irregular intervals and prowls a familiar landscape, at its howling worst in Winter and Spring.

Those of us with deep roots here arm ourselves with the harsh lessons learned from our ancestors and wait out the winds. Eventually the rains come again and broadcast hope, nourished with seeds of technology and the ambitions of another generation.

The truth is the land expects more from us than we can give. The promise is never quite fulfilled, and the prize is withdrawn again, only to be offered anew when memory relents and hope triumphs over experience. This is the voice of the prairie; it is the age-old words of wind and time.

This is home. Scratch me and I bleed dust.

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