Thursday, January 3, 2019

More than 80 years later, a byways journey reveals remnants of '30s 'Dust Bowl' country

After decades spent documenting wildland roads of the American West, we opted in 2018 to focus on historical backroad travel through what once was the Dust Bowl.

Dust Bowl region of southeastern Colorado

For several days, we traveled in our 4Runner along the often unpaved and remote county roads in the Great Plains where the states of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma meet.

Early in the 20th century, the complex tall-grass prairie ecosystem that had covered and stabilized soils of the Great Plains for millennia was plowed under.

Virgin tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma.

Failure to apply appropriate dryland farming practices, and then drought in the 1930s, reduced 100 million acres of once-verdant prairie to windblown dust.

The result was an ecological, agricultural and human catastrophe of unprecedented scale in the American heartland, which, like the rest of the country, was also in the grip of the Great Depression.

As massive dust storms ravaged farmlands and blackened the skies, tens of thousands of environmental refugees -- "Okies," some called them -- abandoned their farms.

Country road in what once was the Dust Bowl.

Many took to Route 66, completed in 1922, toward what they hoped would be refuge in California. It was a migration of epic scale, depicted by the likes of novelist John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and photographer Dorothea Lange (Migrant Mother).

Oklahoma has the last original 9-foot-wide pavement of Rte 66,
the "Mother Road" traveled by Dust Bowl migrants.

A lifetime later, remnants of the experience linger. What is evident as well is how larger and more-mechanized farms that need fewer hands have hollowed out rural America.

A dwindling farm population kills off local businesses.
While modern conservation practices and underground aquifers have restored farming to the region, backroad travelers today can still see vestiges of a bygone era.

Abandoned gas station, southern Colorado

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