Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer in Kansas: A Nasty Blow

This stretch of southwestern Kansas is hatchmarked into square miles of dusty dirt roads that embody the Public Lands Survey System, the surveying scheme of numbered section-township-range instituted in Jefferson's administration to tidy up the mostly unexplored West . It's country that, like much of the rest of the flat Midwest, hasn't seen any significant rainfall in over four years. Farmers are looking at 19 bushel-per-acre wheat crops instead of 40 or 50 bushels per acre. The frost got much of what the drought probably would have taken off anyway. Crop insurance salesmen are as popular as airline tickets out of North Korea.

North Korean hitchhikers

Driving back to the field office last evening around dusk, I was feeling a bit unnerved by a large semicircle of wall cloud looming above my small truck. A wall cloud is as often as not a tornado waiting to happen and I hadn't heard anything about a tornado watch, although admittedly it is Kansas I'm driving around in. A wall cloud is the leading edge of something nasty and looks very much like a wall that's about to fall on you.

The Ulysses Blow
Equally unnerving was the solid black curtain hanging beneath it, straight ahead to the west, reaching all the way to the ground and fully obscuring the 20-mile visibility I've learned to take comfort in. A couple of miles off to the south I could see the edge of it, big clouds of brown roiling dust barreling along the ground and stacking up hundreds of feet. It was, as Mark Twain described the wind in the Nevada desert, "a peculiar Scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth 'whence it cometh.' " I pulled off to the side of the county road and waited for it to come. The landscape I was driving into really did resemble the "Dirty Thirties:"

I'll be honest - between the approaching blackness and the fact that I was right under the wall of cloud and about 50 yards from a sizeable dust devil off to the north, I was as nervous as a sinner in a stalled elevator, looking and listening intently for a funnel to loom out of the murk. Then the wind hit and the wall of dust started sandpapering my windshield. In the middle of it, I called a friend on his cell phone, a wheat farmer born and raised there. No, no tornados, he reassured me."I'm about a half mile north of you working on a sprinkler and I can see the whole thing - I've never seen anything like this. I wish I had my camera."

In about 15 minutes the dust blew on, the sky cleared to a murky brown, the wind kept up for another half-hour, and aside from a stiff breeze it was gone. Some of the county roads are a bit lower than they were, some of the topsoil has new owners, there are probably a few shingles and small dogs unaccounted for. The drought is as biblical as the wind. What can happen next?

Oh shit, not again.

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