Those who, like myself, leave the places where they grew up at a young age almost always think they will never look back. But they almost always do. In my case, the inevitable look back began after I’d been living in San Francisco for eight years. Camping trips in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert reawakened me to the outdoor life I’d had as a child. In fact, I became downright nostalgic over my Kansas childhood.
After visiting home for wheat harvest one year, I shared slides of the trip with friends. It made me proud to see how impressed they were by the big wheat trucks, giant combines, golden wheat fields, and the inimitably clear, blue banner of plains sky. I especially loved the images of my dyed-in-the-wool farmer father. His broad smile in those pictures revealed how happy he’d been to have me home for a while.
My father always made it clear that he wished I would return home to live, and I always made it clear that wasn’t about to happen, although now the reason had changed. I didn’t think of myself as a city girl anymore, and I certainly no longer disdained my rural past. Quite the opposite, I now dreamed of living in far more isolated country, in a little rock house I’d run across while camping in the Mojave Desert. I’ve mentioned before in these commentaries how lovely that place was and how exhilarating it was to live there. But it was also, to no one’s surprise but my own, very lonely living alone miles from the nearest neighbor or town. That loneliness made me more open than I should have been to a marriage proposal from a local cowboy.
So it was, under less than ideal circumstances, that my father got his wish and I found myself, at the not so tender age of thirty-four, back in Kansas, recently divorced and an expectant mother, living and working on the family farm. At first, the return felt humiliating, to say the least. But my parents didn’t judge me for my failed marriage or for the financial straits I found myself in. Nor did they pity me. In fact, my father, noticing how handy I’d become with tools and how hardy I’d become as an outdoorswoman, began to imagine me as his successor.
If I hadn’t left home as a young woman, it is unlikely that I would have broken out of the gender roles of my childhood and developed skills that allowed my father to imagine me taking over the farm someday. For this I was grateful. But my long absence also made me sensitive to changes on the farm, where buffalo grass pastures had given way to corn and other irrigated crops, and each night, a yard light blinked on automatically, obliterating the stars. Although I loved being needed and wanted at the heart center of my family, I missed the wildness that had formed my spiritual center. Ever since, I have been trying to communicate why it is that, even in farmed places like Kansas, the spirit needs wildness to survive.