- The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning by Julene Bair
Near the end of The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, Julene Bair sums up her relationship with the High Plains of far northwest Kansas: “I’d been on this Ogallala road since birth. I’d grown up slaking my thirst with Ogallala [aquifer] water and bathing in it. I’d gotten much of my financial support from Ogallala crops. And ever since I was a young woman and had knocked open the pipe gates myself, I’d been thinking Ogallala thoughts. … I wasn’t going to get off that road anytime soon, and I didn’t want to.”
The Ogallala Road picks up the stories that Julene and her brother, Bruce, told in their accounts of childhood on the Bair farm, One Degree West and GoodLand. Here Bair weaves her intimate knowledge of the water deep beneath the High Plains that her family pulled from the Ogallala aquifer with the struggle to hold onto their farm after their father’s death. The irrigated crops paid the bills.
The love and reckoning of the title refers to the farm northwest of Goodland, Kansas, and to Ward Albright, a rancher Julene meets while searching for ponds once filled with water, now filled with sand. Her love for Ward and for the land reflect her conflicted relationship: Ward is a grass man, not a dirt man. Hazardous chemicals and irrigation boost crop production that enables Julene and Bruce’s family to live well away from the farm. The solution, Julene wants to believe, involves her hope that Ward can help her save the farm.
As she tells this story, Bair recalls the years she and her young son took refuge from a failed marriage on the farm, sparring with her stubborn, demanding father, learning the intricacies of farm management, and trying to leave but getting pulled back even after her move to Laramie, Wyoming. Because she keeps the farm’s water usage records, after her father’s death Bair becomes increasingly aware of her own complicity in the “planned depletion” of the aquifer and the deep divide between her concerns and Ward’s defense of unabated water use.
The inevitable reckoning comes for Julene, Bruce, Ward, and the Bair farm. She realizes how much water the farm uses in a year. Knowing that other farmers use just as much or more and that the fossil water of the aquifer will never be replaced, she asks herself, “Did I need to become an activist? … As long as my family was part of the problem, what legs would I have to stand on?” Julene opts for activism, Bruce tires of making complicated decisions concerning the farm, and their faithful on-site manager is ready to retire. Keeping the farm becomes impossible, but selling—to a corporation that turns even the pastures into irrigated corn—brings deep, deep pain. It’s a conundrum that farmers up and down the arid High Plains face as they draw millions of gallons of water to raise the corn to feed the cattle to support the beef industry that sustains the region’s economy.
Those concerned about the continuing viability of the High Plains and the family farm and those who enjoy a good story by a gifted writer will value Julene Bair’s account of love and reckoning along the Ogallala Road.