Growing up, I heard story after story about the Dust Bowl from my parents and grandparents. Dad described his mother shoveling rather than sweeping post-storm drifts. Grandma told how she placed wet sheets over her children’s beds to protect their lungs as they slept. She’d launder the linens the next day because they got so dirty.
My mother’s family lived in Southwest Kansas and shared similar tales when family gathered. What made these epics unique was that I grew up in Southern California among fertile citrus orchards and strawberry fields. The concept of dust darkening the sun was outlandish to a little girl who played outside year round.
When we moved to Oklahoma in 1972, I listened to more first person accounts of the Dirty Thirties, but the tales seemed movie or a book-like to me. Even though I had seen dramatic photos in history books, I couldn’t imagine that air could hold more dirt than breathable oxygen.
As a college junior in Weatherford, Oklahoma, I literally got my first taste of a dust storm. As my relatives had described, daylight disappeared. Aeolian soil, probably from Nebraska, found its way through every crack and crevice in my ancient dorm room. Mucus I coughed up in response to this invasion was muddy, which explained why my taste buds screamed, “What are you doing, eating the garden?”
Just as in the stories relatives relayed, the day turned so dark I had to flick on the overhead light to see. I also had to skip the trek to the cafeteria for supper. My tongue thanked me as it had plenty of foreign matter to process. I hadn’t sampled that much dirt since I was three.
Over the years, I’ve seen dust storms enough that those old tales ring true, true, true. Recently, I drove twice in one day between Ellis and Logan during marathon winds. In the morning as I traveled toward my destination, air-borne loam muted the horizon line. A normally sharp view took on fuzzy edges, but I could clearly see distant elevators.
By the time I finished my chores and began my return, I couldn’t see from one section line to another. Wind speed had increased considerably, stirring air into the color of milky coffee. What had been bluster earlier was now a gale that pressed weeds in the ditches flat to the ground.
Hordes of tumble weeds large and small raced east. It was like watching a movie or news report about throngs of people breaking out of a prison and running helter skelter to get away, only these were herbaceous orbs of all sizes rolling at top speed across the prairie. I didn’t clock them, but if I’d had one of those radar guns, I suspect some sleeker plants cruised by at 55 miles per hour.
Thankfully, they were plants and not people or animals that dashed in front of my grill. I know I whacked at least 200 unmoored Russian thistles on that journey. At times, it seemed as if 2000 prairie critters sped my way. If I had been able to see more than a couple hundred feet, I may have had to stop driving to count the masses passing before my astonished eyes. The tumbleweeds that day compared in number to the millions of migrating buffalo that once stopped trains crossing these grasslands for up to three days.
I no longer have trouble understanding family Dust Bowl accounts. In fact, after that nasty Saturday storm, I have a saga of my own to pass on to my granddaughter. As a Kansas kid, she isn’t going to have the trouble her grandma did picturing a landscape erased by blowing dirt.