This essay was previously published in the 2017 Bear River Writers Review. I will be heading back to the Bear River Writers’ Conference again this year from May 30th through June 3rd. In 2017, I was in Jerry Dennis’s workshop, and this essay was inspired by his writing prompt, conversations in class, and feedback from other workshop participants. I will be in Jerry’s workshop again this year, and I am looking forward to discovering what I will write about this year. I believe this will be the tenth time I have attended Bear River. My friend Darcy and I still talk about that canoe trip on the Bear River in 2001!
One day, the Arkansas River vanished behind the house I grew up in. No one seems to know the date, but on a cool January day in 2017, I focused on what remained as I stood above the riverbed at the dam in Wilroads Gardens, a farming community five miles east of Dodge City, Kansas. Tumbleweeds, bindweed, and dead cottonwood trees stretched out to the east and west of me as if arms grasping at something or someone I could not see. I shuddered as if someone’s cold hands had touched my face. I no longer lived there, nor did I have access to the landscape of my childhood. I imagined the water, desperate, expanding outward in minute particles like horizontal teardrops flat against the dusty riverbed. The bones of dead fish and buffalo began rising to the surface of the land as if surviving some catastrophic nightmare deep below the surface of the earth.
I moved away from my childhood home in 1976 at the age of 21. Fifteen years later, my parents sold the house and our land when they moved to Michigan to be closer to me, my husband, and son. As a Michigander since 1977, I am surrounded by the Great Lakes, endless rivers, and smaller lakes so bountiful that there seems to be one attached to every city and town. Higgins Lake, a glacier-carved lake so clear and beautiful that I can watch fish swim at the drop off, seems to be a paradoxical beauty compared to the Arkansas River I adored growing up. When my future husband first showed me the clear water of Higgins Lake, a place he had been going to visit since his grandparents bought their beachfront summer cottage in the early 1950s, I stood in awe at the clarity of the water, and of the distinct changes in color that identified the various depths of water. I could stand in water up to my neck and see my entire body below me, as if I were dancing in slow motion as I slid my feet through the sand. This wasn’t the Arkansas River, the Ford County Lake, or Cedar Bluff, all places in Kansas I grew up loving even as their waters swallowed me beneath their murky beauty.
I began exploring the Great Lakes as a young mother. I felt as if a spell had been cast on me. The water pulled me in, and for a long time, I stopped thinking about the Arkansas River even though my parents still lived there. I still walked down to the dam when I visited my parents, but its slow vanishing did not seem to register with me. Nothing seemed to have changed since childhood when my mother worried about snakes, and my father complained about people who dumped their garbage down by the riverbed. When I returned to Dodge City in 2010 to visit friends, I did not fully understand what had changed with the town and within me. The house I grew up in seemed as if it had collected all of my childhood memories and buried them.
My mother died in 2008, and my father passed away in 2012. I helped bury my parents’ ashes in a small church garden in Alma, Michigan, something that felt almost sacrilegious as I performed the act. Shouldn’t I have buried their ashes in Kansas? With dirt still clinging to my hands, I felt a new sense of urgency to recover what was lost to me. For five years, I struggled to figure out what I needed to do. In January of 2017, Liz, a childhood friend who lived in Wilroads Gardens, forewarned Don, the current owner of my childhood home, that I would be showing up. Unlike previous visits to my old house, I wanted to do more than take pictures from the road. I did not want to go inside the house. I needed to go down to the dam. My cousin Audrey and I pulled into the driveway. I jumped out of the car and walked up the sidewalk that still bore my footprints in the first section of concrete. Don met me on his front porch.
We chatted for a while, and upon my request, Don gave us permission to walk down to the dam. My cousin Audrey drove through a section of the old fence that was missing and made her way through a rough stretch of the field towards the dam. After she parked her car next to a barbed wire fence that no longer held a sting as I touched it, I walked towards the dam through an obstacle course of cacti, sticker patches, and cottonwood branches that had undoubtedly snapped off in yet another round of intense Kansas wind.
With barely a hint of a breeze, I stared at the dry riverbed and looked back towards the house I grew up in. I stepped away from the brink of the dam to survey my surroundings. The iron rungs that used to provide a ladder on part of the concrete wall of the dam to the river below were tangled up in vines and weeds, invisible to someone unfamiliar with the landscape. As I looked towards the west, Dodge City’s grain elevators, water towers, and meat packing plants, interruptions in the western Kansas landscape, disappeared behind a wasteland of dead trees reaching upwards into the brilliant blue sky. As I spun around and marveled at my ability to scan the skyline as far as an eagle aloft might see, I realized my claustrophobic aversion to large cities and their permeating sensory overload stemmed from this very spot on earth where I stood. I needed air, space, and water to breathe.
My body began to ache as if I had awoken from a very long slumber. I thought of the house I lived in now. What if Higgins Lake vanished? What would be left behind? The Great Lakes? What if something happened to them? Where would I hide my secrets? When I grow old and my mind begins to falter, would my stories begin at Higgins Lake and work their way counterclockwise in time? Would I tell stories of watching majestic freighters on Lake Superior and of burying my feet in the sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan? Would I talk about all of my trips to Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and finally having the weather cooperate so I could walk around on the famous Blackrocks without being washed away by Lake Superior? Would I tell the story about the morning I stood on Higgins Lake, frozen as it always is during winter, watching a fox running towards me, snapping photographs as quickly as I could, and the thrill of it all? Or will I return to the Arkansas River, and talk about all of the times I crossed the river into Fort Dodge? Will I reveal the secrets I shared with the river as my dog Stinker and I sat on top of the dam just to watch the river go by? Will I remember the time I stood at the top of the dam watching the sky darken with violent clouds, lightning fueling the feeling of danger heading towards me, before running down the two-tracker towards home and meeting my mother and father at the doorway as they scolded me for making them worry? Whatever the future holds, I hope this will be true: There will be water, and our vanishing points will at last converge into each other.