It all began with water. Not the water under Kansas, where I was born, but in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when I was twenty-six and recently divorced. That is when I took my first, life-changing, mind-shattering, body-awakening dive into a delectably clear mountain lake. It had been a long, hot climb. My crazy boyfriend had gone running down to the lake ahead of me, dropping his clothes as he ran. He splashed and cavorted as if having the greatest time of his life. But I was not so sure. I lay down on a boulder and trailed my fingers through the water.
“The high-altitude sun presses my back as with a dry iron, while below me, riffles slap rock. Glare refracts off the water, dappling my arm and flashing hypnotically on my retinas.” That’s how I described this pivotal moment in my new book, The Ogallala Road, A Memoir of Love and Reckoning.
Once I finally gathered the courage and dove in, I would never be the same: “It only takes a half minute or so and I’m willingly giving myself to the water and it is giving itself to me.” Soon after that first dive, the boyfriend faded into history, but the lakes came into the eternal present of my life. In all of my western travels and in all of the western places I’ve lived, I’ve been a promiscuous lake lover, dropping into each at the slightest wink of sunlight on water.
By the time I found myself back in Kansas in my thirty-fifth year, stuck due to my own poor choice in a husband, who had vanished soon after he returned me, pregnant and chagrined, to my parents’ doorstep, I had become an inveterate lake swimmer. The thought of a summer without a lake nearby bothered me so much that I attempted to swim in my father’s tail-water pit—a bulldozed hole in the ground that collected runoff from his surrounding flood-irrigated fields. This was an unsatisfactory experience, to say the least.
It became my job during those years back home to get up early each morning, plunk my baby son in his car seat, and drive one of the farm pickups out to my father’s corn and soybean fields, where I would walk along the irrigation pipes, knocking open the pipe gates and changing the sets. The water would pour out with such force that when I sliced my hand through it, I had to brace myself lest it threw my arm back and dislocated my shoulder. That’s how much water we were pouring onto our fields—one-thousand gallons per minute out of five wells twenty-four hours a day throughout much of the summer. Two-hundred million gallons per growing season. And we were just one of several thousand High Plains farmers. I knew the water wouldn’t last forever, I knew it was wrong, and I knew I was betraying my first love. The giver of life and joy. Water.