The past year or so has been challenging. The covid-19 pandemic ended or upended many lives, causing us to question former habits, try out new ones, ponder whether life could ever return to “normal.” For my husband and me, the pandemic accelerated a move we’d originally planned to undertake several years into the future—from one U.S. coast to the other to be close to a grown son and his family.
It took most of the winter and early spring of 2021 to make the needed arrangements: to find a buyer for our previous house, plus someone to sell us an “age in place” home close to where one of our sons lives in southern California. Then the more physical work began. Giving away, selling, or discarding half a lifetime’s worth of furniture, clothes, and knickknacks that would not fit into our downsized new home. Then packing, packing, and more packing. Renting a mobile storage unit and figuring out how to fit our remaining stuff into it, one piece of furniture or box at a time. Family and neighbors pitched in.
Finally but also too soon, our departure date arrived. Before heading across the country, we made a couple of detours to visit family and friends, some of whom might not be around the next time we had a chance to visit “back east.” Then, from a suburb in central Maryland, westward ho!
We stopped briefly in central Ohio to meet our other son’s current intentional family. Then we threaded our way across Indiana and Illinois on rain-slick, pot-holed roads to a Mississippi river town in Iowa, one-time home to a set of great-grandparents. The namesake store that Jim’s great-grandpa had founded was no longer doing business, but its building still stood, raised nameplate in place.
Iowa’s interstates provided a near continuous view of wind farms. As we passed, their blades were turning, producing renewable energy. Rest areas where we took pee breaks had shelters surrounding their picnic areas. Once we’d been blown around by the near-constant wind, we understood why. Historical markers at these areas mostly chronicled settlers’ stop-off points and routes westward. Here and there, some mentioned the original inhabitants. Place names memorialized them, too: Iowa, Sioux City, Keokuk, Wichita, Topeka, Pawnee, Kiowa, and many more.
The further west we got, the bigger and emptier the landscape seemed. Irrigation rigs gradually became more plentiful icons in the flat, windy landscape. In western Kansas, we swerved slightly to visit the small town of Greensburg. A while ago, I’d read articles about the resurrection of this town, nearly flattened by an F5 tornado on the night of May 4, 2007. In the wake of recent increases in severe weather events, the saga of Greensburg has again become newsworthy.
When we arrived late afternoon, the Greensburg town museum was open. We took an hour or so to tour exhibits of the town’s origins, near-death, and reconstruction. Founded in 1886 with help from stagecoach entrepreneur D.R. Green, the town’s initial claim to fame was a large, stone-lined hand-dug well completed in 1888. The well descended over 100 feet to reach the Ogallala aquifer to provide the town with water. Though no longer functional, the “big well” is a centerpiece of the reconstructed museum.
Along parts of the museum walls were pictures and videos of the tornado’s destruction. On the morning of May 5, 2007, little remained of the pre-tornado town. Thanks to warnings that were largely heeded, there were only a dozen fatalities, but only three of the town’s buildings remained standing. Everyone was rendered homeless. Government, non-profit disaster relief agencies, and individual volunteers from near and far responded quickly to help the town recover. It took a while for the idea of a “green Greensburg” to take shape. Other exhibits described the planning and reconstruction process, highlighting some of the rebuilt town’s environmental features.
I don’t have the technical expertise to fully appreciate the conservation and renewable energy components of the renovated town, which includes a wind farm, solar panels, and energy-efficient public buildings and private residences. Museum exhibits stressed that rebuilding and economic development efforts have not been without snags. Greensburg’s post-tornado population, growing slowly, is a good bit smaller than before. Also, like many small towns on the Great Plains, Greensburg perennially struggles to provide good jobs and a good quality of life for its residents. Like most places, Greensburg has recently suffered economically and socially from the pandemic. Nevertheless, for me the town had a vibrant feel to it, personified by the 80-something museum docent who sold us our tickets. She explained that she’d spent her whole life in Greensburg. The 2007 tornado was the first and only one in her lifetime to hit this settlement smack dab in the middle of “tornado alley.” She very much expected to finish her life well before the next one hit. In the meantime, she was proud of the efforts the town had made to reinvent itself. For additional information about Greensburg and its rebirth, please search the internet for various Youtube videos and recent news articles.
After Greensburg, we caught bits of the U.S. Southwest—sections of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, New Mexico, Arizona, then southern California. Partly because of the pandemic, partly because we were just strangers traveling through, we had few extended interactions with locals. It seemed to me that masking and social distancing regulations varied a good bit from place to place, as did compliance with any restrictions. Reactions probably had less to do with governments at any level and more to do with peer pressure. People mainly imitated their neighbors. Many seemed to have a fierce independent streak that the prospect of a potentially lethal, readily spread virus did little to abate. Even in small towns, though, customs and ethnic mixes were changing.
By the end of our car pilgrimage, I had a much greater respect for the gritty folks who make their living and maintain their communities in “flyover country.” For me, a car trip rather than a plane ride provided insights I might well have missed in non-covid times.