This article was a finalist for the 2010 City and Regional Magazine Award in the photo essay category.
You notice the wind first thing here on the Plains, a stiff and relentless wind that whistles in your ears and brings tears to your eyes. You get used to it, though, just like you become accustomed to the pungent scent of feedlots and the sight of rusting farm equipment strewn about the countryside. It is not a classically beautiful landscape: Undulating fields of winter wheat, tall and spindly, roll like green oceans. Wooden sheds and old barns, long ago abandoned and increasingly arthritic, barely resist the urge to take a knee in flower-covered meadows. Trains chug and screech and bang in a symphonic clatter along miles of tracks that intersect nearly every paved road. And grazing cows dot the russet prairie, crouching in whatever shade they might find. It is not pretty, no—but it is authentic Colorado, and quintessential America.
There are two kinds of towns out here: small, and smaller. Like the surrounding geography, the towns themselves don't look much different from each other at first glance. Each hamlet you pass—Amherst, Crook, Proctor, Holly, Cheyenne Wells, Yuma, Kit Carson, Towner, Wray—has a local newspaper, a liquor store, a post office, and a bar. But it's the huddled masses of dilapidated buildings, places that 30 years ago served as cafes, shops, and markets, which now sit empty, windows broken and signs faded by the sun, that make a lasting, unsettling impression.
The past few decades have seen a steady decline in population in these parts. People can't afford to live where there's so little opportunity. The few folks that do mill about the towns know instantly that you're not from around here because, well, they know everyone around here. Yet they still smile and wave. In Iliff, Vernon Stumpf slows his tractor long enough to nod a quick hello, and says that he cuts all the town's grassy areas each week in the summer, mostly because he just likes doing it. Just outside of Jason's Repair and Restorations auto shop in Sterling, Jason Morrow and his dog, Desmo, a skittish Rhodesian ridgeback who rides sidecar on Morrow's chopper, remind you about the town's Sugar Beet Days festival. Donald Oswald, a young-looking Kiowa County commissioner who's been working to restore downtown Eads' ramshackle storefronts for five years, tells you he gets more hootin' and hollerin' about his made-from-scratch pies than anything else. And Raymond Berges, a crusty farmer who's lived near Julesburg for the past 70 years, carries on about the whopping cost of a new combine, the piddly price of wheat, and how the Democrats' cap and trade regulations will up and kill the farming industry.
It's a foreign vernacular to Front Range ears, ears that hardly ever hear—or really listen to—a word about a rural way of life that hangs on a handful of miles outside of Denver. We Front Rangers tend to reflexively turn our attention to the lofty peaks rising in the west, even though so much land unfolds to our east—a swath of fertile soil that spreads out into a vast levelness that yields corn, wheat, and cattle, and is home to thousands of farmers and ranchers and their families. Spend some time on the Eastern Plains, though, and you'll realize that these folks are true Coloradans, the independent, vigorous, hardscrabble, outdoorsy, roughin' it kind of people that the rest of us so often talk about being. And there are stories out here on the Plains, stories of hard work, sacrifice, family, ingenuity, and stubbornness, and stories of people who hold out an earnest hope for a future in this austere, forgotten landscape.