Geography interests me — it always has.
I don’t know if that’s true for all people who traveled a lot as kids, but that’s where my connection to places has its foundation.
It feels as if I have come full circle. I was born in Franklin, lived elsewhere across the Great Plains from age 2 to 24, then moved to Kearney and, five years later, to northwest Phelps County.
This seems unpredictable, yet the threads of connection make it feel like a rich story.
My mom’s family is woven through Harlan County history. My husband’s parents and my parents were acquainted before either of us was born.
This is a place I’ve always known.
When my siblings and I were little, our folks would drive us the 600 miles from our New Mexico home up to Republican City or Louisville or both, where we’d spend Christmas or spring break. A few of the places we passed through then were places we’d see again on hot days while working on the wheat harvest trail.
My childhood memories often are faulty — idealized, mostly — but I remember gluing my nose to the car window, looking with summer eyes at winter places.
Our destinations were to see our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but places along the way were mine.
On the harvest trail
During a quick drive to a Kearney appointment earlier this week, we crossed U.S. Highway 183 just as part of a Jeff Paplow Harvesting convoy passed by on its way from South Dakota to start wheat harvest somewhere down south.
For a combiner, getting ready to leave on harvest is tremendously stressful; actually getting gone is so exhilarating. It’s a new start in known places, with familiarities to enjoy and changes to assimilate.
Oh, and crops to harvest.
OK, back to the geography story!
Seeing those combines made me want to be on the road, stopping overnight in Boise City, Okla., or maybe Dalhart, Texas — places the 12-year-old me knew before the road signs were visible — and continuing the next morning to the first farmer-customer’s yard.
There was the excitement of getting to our stops, visiting post offices and libraries, driving the twisty dirt road with the quirky little rise, seeing the star-shaped field again, hearing the unmistakable squeaky sign at the truck stop, meeting up with friends for the fair, swimming lessons, Vacation Bible School and even school.
These places grew to be more mine every year.
One of my favorite places — most people will never see it — is a corner with a view for miles and a sign made from an old disk blade that says, “My road keep out Robert Porter.”
Returning home in the fall always was a big deal, too.
There was my house, my room, my bed, my winter clothes, but also how much the tree grew, who painted their house, the new equipment at the school playground and maybe a road with new pavement. And are the neighbors home?
Ownership is a pretty loose idea for a kid. That’s the beauty of place. It can be yours or mine or a kid’s or all of ours.
All those harvest season stops were my place. Home and harvest headquarters were my place. And everywhere in between also was my place.
I ask people I meet where they’re from. If we have even a glimmer of common geography, we’ll talk about our coincidence of place until the other person is completely tired of it and me.
New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska? Let’s chat.
Discovering new places
I could spend hours with an atlas or gazetteer, but the advent of Google Maps turned my map habit into a whole new time suck. Whenever I discover that Google has new images, I locate my places and figure out what’s new.
I’m especially happy if I can find my family’s fresh wheat stubble and also someone emptying a combine into a grain cart, following a barley windrow or waiting in an elevator line.
Those places already are mine, but the details make them mine on Google Maps as well. I hope I’ll peruse Google Maps one day and find my family’s combines in my husband’s fields.
I also hope my children develop a love of place.
We’re doing our best to share with our kids our admiration and respect for land and place: a pasture my husband rents for cattle that is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the place where we live that also was home to the kids’ great-grandparents, places where our ancestors and more recent family members have lived and are buried, Jeremy’s University of Nebraska-Lincoln and my Bethany College, and places I traveled during harvest and take my kids to see.
This geography story is full and beautiful to me because it’s mine — each of us is like that in our own way.
I have the exquisite blessing of having the whole Great Plains as my place.
Freelance editor and designer Karen Nelson writes four times a year from her rural Phelps County home. Comments and discussion are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.