My guess is that my first acknowledgement of the Dust Bowl was seeing the painting, Mother Earth Laid Bare, by Alexandre Hogue at Philbrook when  I was very young.  It moved me.  It has always been my favorite painting at the museum, maybe because it tells a story in such a graphic image.  I am an Oklahoman, so I know about the Dust Bowl.  Sort of.  I knew Okie wasn’t a term we liked until Governor Bartlett used it as a tool to boost the state’s image.  I used to take Okie pins with me to Europe to give the people I met.  I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and seen the movie, although that story wasn’t really about the Dust Bowl itself.

A few years ago, I read Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Time, a brilliant accounting of the Dust Bowl that made me really want to understand what happened.  I’ve travelled through the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, driving through Boise City, OK and Dalhart, TX, two of the worst hit places.  I’ve been through eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and western Nebraska, seeing those great plains.  I’ve driven through the tall grass prairie to see what the land was like before the ravaging of the plains through greed and ignorance of what we can do to the land.  I watched a documentary called , Black Blizzards, which featured Tim Egan and visualized much of what he had written.  I’ve studied Woody Guthrie and his music which captured the times so brilliantly.  Ken Burn’s recent series, The Dust Bowl, incorporated all of this information and introduced me to Caroline Henderson, a college educated homesteader, who stuck it out, never gave up, and left us her letters and articles about her life.

I’ve always been interested in the women of the west.  Many of them were perfectly happy where they were, close to family and friends, but went along to share the adventures with husbands following a dream.  Some wanted adventure, some had dreams of their own, some wanted to escape lives in the east.  I think the fascination is in imagining what I would have done if I were in that place and time.  A friend of mine says she knows she never would have gotten past St. Louis.  The people who settled in the Dust Bowl area wanted their own piece of land, an independent sort who didn’t want the confines of the city and loved the wide open spaces they found.  The dreams became reality and times were good and then they went bad, really bad, for a decade.  Ten years of a combination of the Depression, drought, and floods of dust, year after year after year.

What would I have done?  Would I have left right off the bat, walked away from the home I built with my own hands, the land I’d tilled myself?  What would I do when my children were coughing up dust and there was no milk or food or crops?  What would I do when I’d waited so long that there was nowhere to go…no jobs, no money for gas to leave, nothing left to sell and nobody to buy it if there was anything.  What would I do?  Would I be stubborn, full of hope, or let it get me down?  How much courage did it take to leave?  How much courage did it take to stay?

Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done.  I guess all we can do while looking back is learn from the stories and hope that we would have the courage they had to keep on living in desperate times.  And I can be extra thankful and appreciative of all that I have today.