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The Ogallala Road by Julene Bair

An environmentalist revisits the family farm with mixed feelings about water shortages, and finds a love story along the way.

ogallala

Julene Bair left the family farm in the high plains of Kansas for the bigger world of San Francisco, then the solitude of a rock house in the Mojave Desert. She returned pregnant, worked with her father on the farm for as long as she could stand it, then found security in a cowboy town in Wyoming, where she raised her son alone. She returned again to tour the ever-diminishing creeks and springs on foot and to study the Ogallala Aquifer, which the United States relies upon for 30% of its irrigated crops. Next to a big cottonwood, she meets a cowboy who admires Cormac McCarthy–and falls in love.

For most of The Ogallala Road, this cowboy, Wade, accompanies Bair as she struggles to reconcile the wilderness-loving, liberal-minded, Subaru-driving writer she’s become with her roots as a farmer’s daughter of Kansas’s conservative rural plains. The memoir clearly began as the story of a shrinking aquifer and a nation’s (or a world’s) self-destructive hubris, and one suspects Bair is as surprised as readers will be that romance takes so much of the spotlight. Wade embodies everything that both nourishes and infuriates her about Kansas, which is a challenge to their love story.

The farm that has sustained generations of her forebears retains a strong hold on Bair’s heart, and her family’s–and her own–role in depleting the aquifer becomes a central source of conflict. The Ogallala Road meanders through the history of the Cheyenne Indians’ longtime residence in the region, seeking insight into a more balanced relationship with earth and water. “Hang on to your land!” Bair’s father exhorted his children, but under the pressures of a changing world, they’ll consider selling. Bair comments on the difference between growth and progress, and a feeling of connection to the land that she suspects her father would have snorted at, while wrestling with her own guilt. In the end, it is the water, not Wade, that causes her the most pain–but the memoir closes with a tentative note of hope.

In its combination of nature writing, environmental concern and love story, The Ogallala Road is unusual. Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.


This review originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 million gallons.

2 Responses

  1. Eight million gallons is a lot of water, and it makes me think I should give this a try – for the water story. Would I be right? Did you learn enough about the Ogallala and its place in the world to make this worthwhile?

    • That’s not its strongest suit, no. It’s a human story; the science part is backseat and you’d probably not get what you were looking for there. I’m still interested in A Great Aridness by deBuys, for the water story in particular.

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