1999 Graduate Nonfiction Winner
Walking in Big Places
Eight or nine years old, I followed my father’s gaze across the face of a wide ocean of rolling sand and weeds and dried corn stalks northeast of my hometown in southwest Kansas, where the horizon is so fiat and so far away the world’s only limits were our poor eyesights and the subtle, visible curvature of the earth itself. Vastness made tangible; standing small beside him and an old, red Jeep Wagoneer, aged to a dusty orange, in a world split exactly in half by blue-sky dome and windblown fields. Oceans made of grasses and fields and, on crisp fall mornings, an expanse of brilliant blue sky so big it makes people start asking questions of themselves. Big questions, for a big land.
Places like these, I have come to realize in the years since, are an acquired taste. Anything as big and as empty as southwest Kansas has a way of making most people uncomfortable. They don’t like those big questions, don’t like being able stand in the middle of nothing and see to the edge of the world, to feel their own smallness so acutely.
But my father was different; he and my mother have a love for that land that has kept them living out there in that ocean all of my life, and much of theirs. They talk of his retiring and then moving south to New Mexico, to the volcanic mountains they visit around Raton, but I don’t think they will ever leave for good. He seems to have come to an understanding with the vastness of southwest Kansas, and walks through it, along with everything else life throws at him, with a quiet casualness that I admire. My father doesn’t seem to ask those big questions, at least not that he has ever told me. But then again, he doesn’t really talk too much, so there’s no way of knowing what kinds of questions he might have been asking himself, standing beside an old Jeep in a field beside his youngest son.
We had come to that particular field, full of sand and old dry cornstalks, to look for arrowheads. He’d found them in the windblown fields since he was a boy, growing up on his dad’s homestead farm about thirty miles south and five miles west of Ulysses, close to the Oklahoma border. Searching for arrowheads consisted of walking, striking out from the known and walking across those vast windswept hills, eyes focused on the windswept ground, and for me, I discovered, it consisted of walking like my father, of finding a comfortable casualness amidst all the big questions big places ask of a person.
I remember this scene in faint images and vague feelings, distantly. It reminds me that my father and I, if even for the briefest of moments, shared a unique view of the world that day. We walked together in that sea, that empty ocean, amidst the rolling waves of windblown sand that stretched away to lose themselves against the sky, and we saw things as if through the same eyes. The earth below us— its very sediments and sandy grains and dry, crunchy blades of sun-scorched prairie grass and wispy old cornstalks—demanded complete attention, filled the mind completely, and together we were blind to all the vast world around us. No sky, no horizon, we studied the earth in front of us carefully, looking for arrowheads.
I see my father walking in front of me, stepping away from the Jeep and into that field with a long, swinging swagger that seems to breathe with the confidence of a man comfortable in these big spaces. His hips roll, his shoulders swinging, shifting weight back and forth smoothly with each step as he walks away, and his footsteps appear in the sand beneath me and I set out to follow him.
I stepped slowly, hesitantly, watching him as he walked off the edge of the road and into the waves of the sand hills. I looked down at his footprint where his leather boot sunk inches into the sand in front of me, and I paused on the solid edge of the field. He continued to walk away, and I looked closely at this first footprint, held mesmerized as the sand tumbled down from the edges of the hole he left behind, sliding into it like liquid pouring in over the rim of a bucket being pushed underwater. It filled, the sand found its angle of repose and stopped.
Taking a breath, I walked further out into the rolling fields after him, my head down to study the ground, suddenly intrigued by the contours and the ridges and the sediments beneath me. I knew without looking up that he, too, had his head down, watching the sand as it passed underfoot. He watched the ground because it is where he found himself at that moment; it was what he wanted to do, he understood it, and for my father, that was always enough. The vastness of his surroundings, the big nothingness waiting for him to lift his head from the task at hand, did not really seem to be a consideration.
Maybe that’s why I have never heard my father worrying over big questions, big emptiness—he doesn’t feel the weight of vastness surrounding him because he sees what is right there, close in front of him, like the ground that lived and moved and slid beneath our feet.
I understand this more now than ever, after a visit from him, just a few weeks ago, after a particularly difficult time for me at graduate school, when he heard my confusion, saw my doubts, and said, “It’s hard to find yourself when you were never really lost.” Simple answers my father learned, I assume, while walking casually, comfortably, through big empty places.
We wandered those windblown fields for hours. We didn’t walk together; we struck off on our own, together but apart, which is pretty common for us. Though alone, we somehow shared the hills and the time; I walked and thought of the little orange and blue plastic tool chests he had at home, with little clear plastic drawers overflowing with the little pieces of history he has found over a lifetime. All shapes and sizes, from large spearpoints six or seven inches long, to the tiniest, most delicate point. For killing birds, he somehow let me know. I never remember him coming out and telling me anything like that. The information, like most of his hard-earned wisdom, seemed to find its way from his mind into mine without any words I can pin down in my memory. He knew what most of the ancient tools were called: Folsom points, hatchet heads, grinding stones for corn meal. He had books about them, books with pictures that looked just like the chipped point he held up beside them. The books held a place of respect in our house, lined up on the shelf alongside the Louis L’amour westerns my two older brothers and I grew up reading, just like Dad.
The hills were blown bare by the winds of the days before. Fields of dryland corn and wheat, then harvested or burned, had changed to fields of rough, raspy corn stalks and sparse, dried grasses, and been blown into smooth rolling seas of brown sand. Fine quartz. From the ancient Rockies to the west. The earth traveled eastward down their long slopes, moved by wind and river as the range was chipped and beaten and weathered away and new mountains rose up to take the place of the old ones in a smooth, unnoticed cycle.
Close to the road the grasses and corn stalks still clung to the sandy soil and kept it in place, but further out into the fields the winds had free reign. I’d stepped off a shore and into shifting, moving currents of sand. I picked through the sediments with my eyes as I walked, my head down, studying the places where I could still see hints of old crop rows—a tuft of grass or a dead corn stalk anchored in the sand, holding on in the face of the long hot winds that roar across that empty flat land. These stoic remnants of what came before slowed the wind down just enough that the blowing sand accumulated on the downwind side and stretched away from the bits of vegetation in long, low ridges. Between these, the sand was smooth and its blowing and moving uncovered tiny treasures for my father, and maybe that day, I hoped, for me.
It was a Saturday morning in the fall, a calm day after the wind had shifted entire hillsides around for a week. They are always there, just buried. And the wind changes everything. I walked through a world of sand, the taste of excitement and hope metallic in my mouth. I was hoping to find my own motherlode, and maybe he was, too—I never really know, even today, what he hopes for, or if he has any of these big dreams, outside of the life he has found: his stable job, trapshooting, arrowhead hunting, a loving wife and four children, an old Jeep Wagoneer. I’ll never be sure if this life is what he wanted, if it is just the life he found, or if maybe it is both—he wants it because it is what he has found.
I looked up from the ground. Big emptiness extended away in all directions—sand, cornstalks, and a tangible nothingness stretching to the horizon, with me somewhere in the middle. My stomach dropped and the big thoughts pushed down on me like atmosphere, invisible and heavy I felt small, the arrowheads I looked for even smaller. Impossibly small amidst such space. My father ambled casually in the distance, studying the ground at his feet.
Years later, when I am sixteen and I nearly lose my license for reckless driving, my father will let me know somehow, I am proud of you. He will not get angry; for going to the man whose land I virtually destroyed with our Jeep and apologizing face to face, my father will let me know You were brave. He is a man seemingly free of expectations, and free of the disappointment that comes when expectations aren’t met.
Perhaps this freedom is the source of the strength that I admire, the reason why he could be so patient and walk so smoothly, casually, through those long, empty fields where maybe, just maybe, one tiny arrowhead lay waiting in an endless, wide ocean of sand. This is how that smooth, rolling, assured walk of his could leave footprints through such wide expanses, where the wind and shifting sands whispered futility across distant ridges. Maybe he just doesn’t look up, doesn’t worry about or contemplate that he is searching for something so small, so delicate, amid so much space.
The arrowheads, even then, were getting harder to find as the soil conservation projects put much of the land into seasonal rotations, out of production for years, so it didn’t get planted, plowed under, or burned each year. The CRP lands were different, covered in low scrub weeds, pastures taking hold and keeping more of the delicate sandy soil in place. Times are changing. The vast windblown hills were stripped bare less frequently; these smooth, windblown fields fewer and further between. This was another development my father seemed to take in stride, seemingly understanding and accepting that the world would change; he just kept walking, and he still found arrowheads on a regular basis.
I paused more frequently to look around. My youthful attention span was frustratingly short, and I was aware of it. I wanted to be patient, to find boxfuls as Dad had done, but I was not patient. Instead, I watched my father walking in the distance. I started to kick at the sand as I walked, and stopped as I realized how childish it was.
I crouched down in the sand, trying to imitate the stance I had seen in an old black and white picture of my father’s father. I tried to balance comfortably, with my feet flat, butt low, almost touching the ground. I had heard my father talk about this particular squat at Thanksgiving dinners or Christmas holidays when the family was all together. It was something, he told us, that his father did. He had seen it in western movies, too, like when Sam Elliot played one of the Sackett brothers in the television adaptations of Louis L’amour’s books.
I tried to imitate the family squat there in the middle of the field, but couldn’t do it, periodically falling forward or falling back. Giving up, I began to study the way my father walked instead, trying to see the particular way his weight shifted and his hips rolled smoothly in that long, confident stride—another family heritage—and wondered if I’d ever have it.
Our family supposedly has a particular way of walking, and I think maybe it is that easy, assured walk of a generation or two who have stretched their legs in big places like this; confidence made manifest in a casual rolling stride. People say they can recognize it a long way off, an easily identifiable, swinging swagger. It is somehow uniquely our heritage, and it is something I can already sense is pleasing for my father as he watches his three sons growing up. None of us boys ever knew his dad, our grandpa, but we’ve seen the few pictures of him. I think it makes him proud to see himself, and his father, in us.
My two brothers and I are the only men left in my dad’s father’s family, and I feel a gentle whisper of responsibility in this knowledge. Most times, it is an easy burden, a weight eased perceptibly, for example, when the three of us brothers sit together, three-abreast, across the bench seat of my small Ford pickup; we have shoulders that don’t quite fit, three broad sets that share a load and must be turned, overlapped a little, to close the doors.
It happened again—this subtle shoulder reassurance—just last summer, at my oldest brother Lance’s wedding. He weaved his way through the airport in Columbus, Ohio, to pick up my other brother?, Leslie— named after the grandfather we never knew—and me, driving a small Chevy pickup that he and his fiancée had just bought. The three of us clambered in, automatically and without hesitation turning our shoulders a little to make room for each other. I don’t know if my two brothers thought about it the same way; I suppose other things, more pressing things, filled their minds; Lance was, after all, getting married the next day. I think perhaps being the youngest by a few years allows me a certain reflective distance at times like that.
Later, after the rehearsal dinner had ended, Lance, two of his friends, my brother Leslie, our father, and I walked to “The Buckeye,” a mass of lights, pool tables, and big glass cases of Ohio State Buckeye collectors’ memorabilia housed in a sports bar across the parking lot from the hotel where we were staying. We pulled up chairs, one unique group among many crowded around large wood tables, and I looked past them to the big, dark wood bars and tables, rows of pool tables, toward a video gameroom in the back.
It was the first time I ever drank beer with my father; I was 23. Both of my brothers ordered. Pale Ale. Killian’s Irish Red. I ordered a big Coors Light, and on the other side of the big oak rectangle, I heard my father’s low voice, always especially gruff in social situations, order the same. We tried to talk; we were soon playing pool. Dad won most of the time; it was exactly the kind of bachelor party I would have expected from our family.
We left the bar relatively early, at least by the standards I had established after four years of college back in Kansas. Five of us waited, ghostly under the pale, phosphorescent glow of the neon lights in front of the bar, while Dad walked to the convenience store at the end of the block for his package of cigarettes. I watched him go, the casual swinging of his hips and shoulders slowly fading unobtrusively into the darkness across the parking lot, and then turned back to the group. A light Ohio breeze moved through us, heavy with asphalt and exhaust; the April night was growing chilly. I listened as they talked, and watched the slow parade of emotions and thoughts across Lance’s face, where I could read bits and pieces of stories, a life I hadn’t really been a part of since I was a child, and tales of the preparations and last minute concerns of these last few days and weeks. I was surprised by my brother, surprised by his life when I saw it up close, at how many people and things he had to think about, how big his life had grown out here in Ohio, while I wasn’t looking. I stopped listening, letting my own mind slowly wrap itself around the weight of the truth; Lance had already expanded his world out of our family’s known boundaries; the wedding tomorrow was just a formality.
Columbus was bigger than any city I’d ever lived in, and the biggest place Lance had lived in, too. The largest campus in the United States, he had told me. I watched over their shoulders, absentmindedly, as a stiff, awkward man—homeless, no doubt, or drunk—weaved slowly through the muted, darkened expanse of parking lot behind our group, his legs and arms jerking and moving with difficulty; awkward movements, a marionette in the inexperienced hands of a child. I forced myself to look away, past him, toward the four lanes of taillights and streetlights flashing on the windows of cars on the street beyond, and eventually back to a conversation that went on without me.
“I can’t believe I forgot to call Steve,” my brother was saying. Steve was his fiancée’s brother, who had left after the reception to take their parents back to their house across the city But Lance didn’t dwell on his mistake, didn’t linger in regret; I could sense he’d already moved on to other concerns, unwilling or unable, at this point of the weekend, to spend undue time considering problems he couldn’t solve. At that moment, he reminded me of our father, and I smiled as I listened to he and his friends discussing the weekend in late-night, disconnected calmness, laughing quietly, shoulders shrugged against the cool night air.
“Wonder what’s taking Dad so long?” I asked casually, hoping to see if Lance was thinking about him, too. Before he could answer, the world slowed; I felt an image suddenly catching in my mind, turning me away from my brother’s face, spinning me back around, back toward a place across the parking lot that my mind felt more than saw My father was still there, the marionette-man hobbling across the parking lot in frightened old-man steps, quiet, trying to be casual while jerking a leg forward, each in cautious turn, and placing it trembling, painful, before attempting the other. Arms awkward; counterweight balances desperately trying to offset each small forward step.
He was stopped just past the middle of the expanse of black asphalt; I could see his legs shaking, stark in a telescopic view that seemed to close the distance between us. He was waiting for the shaking to stop before walking further. I stepped far enough out of the group to call out, quietly, asking if he was okay. Yes, be there in a second. He started walking again; carefully, painfully, slowly. I asked if his boots were hurting his feet. He didn’t answer, and when he reached us, he quietly apologized.
“Sorry,” I think he said. “Damn blood pressure medicine. Won’t let my heart rate go up, makes my legs shaky. Hard to walk.” He paused, awkward grin cutting a pale face. “I don’t think they’ve got it quite right, just yet, do you?”
We waited as a group. No one seemed surprised, no one questioned him further while he rested. It was nothing unusual for him, I guess. He was taking this stage of his life in stride, and the rest of us could do nothing less. Reassured by his explanation, trusting his calmness, the group started across the parking lot. Dad’s walk was slow and pained, and if I’m not mistaken, frightened. We tried not to notice his legs trembling; he pushed himself so he wouldn’t slow us down, we slowed down so we wouldn’t push him. He was careful and as always, patient and calm in his journey, hips set squarely, unswervingly, moving unquestioning in the direction of his destination; arms, with carefully calculated, arhythmic jerks, legs, placed individually, with forethought and intense concentration--a child walking on ice and afraid of another painful fall.
After many long, unsure minutes, Dad’s patient and careful walk, so casual in its pain, and so painstaking in its deliberateness, carried each of us unknowingly through the long, empty parking lot to our motel on the other side; Lance’s friends, Tom and Peter said good night. The next day my brother Lance got married, and my father’s confident steps returned; booted feet sliding smooth, knees bent and hips swaying in an unconsciously graceful rhythm. With oblivious abandon, shuffling, a parents’ old-fashioned dance, boldly unconcerned with everyone else, he moved my mother across the floor at the reception, careless and heedless of the world as they moved in a dance I had only seen them do a few times when they pushed back the green rug, worn thin from years of traffic, from the living room of the house where I grew up.
I didn’t find an arrowhead that day in the sand hills with my father. In fact, I haven’t ever found one. My father still has all the ones he has picked up over the years, though most of the best are now displayed on the living room walls in frames he made out in his woodshop. Each intricate dove-tail joint and perfectly smooth, sanded, stained, and polished surface of the frames are testaments to his patience, the products of endless hours of devoted, loving labor. The arrowheads he has found fill up nine of these frames, and he still has the little plastic toolboxes full downstairs in the basement. Nowadays his medicine is better and his blood pressure bulb has become the most popular entertainment at holidays, when the family is all together. My brothers and I have a running contest to see who is in the best shape, who has the lowest heart rate and the healthiest blood pressure.
And today, the September air is cool and heavy as I leave school, weighted with the anticipation of a storm that probably won’t come for days; night has fallen and the wind gently rustles the leaves of the trees. It feels as if the world is holding its breath, wanting to whisper something to me. I listen for a moment, look down at my feet. I start to walk away, and decide not to walk on the sidewalk. I step off into the grass and turn to watch my footprints behind me as the blades spring back and the defined edges of each footstep fade into each other. I am a child, and my father’s footsteps appear beneath me and I, like each of my brothers, follow him.
Brad Garmon is a first-year graduate student in English at KSU, following undergraduate study in Earth Science, English, and Geospatial Analysis, and a year working in publishing While concentrating on fiction and creative nonfiction at KSU, he has been awarded Hickok and Popkins Fellowships, and an AWP Journals Project nomination. Garmon is the recipient of this year’s Touchstone Graduate Nonfiction Award.
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
Last updated April 30, 2003