Great Plains Dreams and Realities

Quite often, I do have storm chasing and/or tornado dreams. Tornado dreams have been going on since early childhood; in fact, I’ve had a set of about six, dating as far back as my preadolescence, that recur in various forms once or twice a year apiece. New dreams about tornadoes or storm observing — at least those which I can remember — appear a few times a year, but very seldom blend with the older ones. Instead, they simply add to the collection, and may recur if especially memorable. I’ve been deeply fascinated by tornadoes and other severe storms since before I can remember, well back into infanthood, apparently; so this should be no surprise. Indeed, sometime I might document a few of those dreams in this BLOG, just for fun, since other weather nuts form a majority of this minuscule readership volume. 🙂

A storm chasing dream that I had a couple of days ago sticks with me as few have, however, partly because of its exquisite detail and mainly because it involves no storms. The latter fact alone surprised me when I woke up immediately afterward.

In the dream, I was driving northward along a two-lane, southwest Nebraska highway toward an afternoon target area somewhere nearby. Only scattered cirrus and a few very small, early cumulus clouds dotted the sky. Judging by the sun angle, it was slightly before noon. I headed up and over the top of a steep hill, reminiscent of the one north of I-80 in Sidney, except that this wasn’t Sidney, or Imperial, or McCook.

Instead, the burg looked to be a generic, nameless High Plains town that seemed to be about the size of real-life Imperial, a mile or so across a stream valley from my hilltop vantage, nestled on the north slope of the floodplain. The stream was a nearly waterless watercourse, a braided-channel sand pile with small, shallow, crisscrossing ribbons of wetness — fairly typical for the region in real life.

At the bottom of the hill was a long, new, two-lane bridge across the stream; I recall being happy that this new bridge was built, affording me a shortcut to the town. As I accelerated downhill, bridge in sight, the hill steepened and the road’s gradual curves began to sharpen. Somehow, despite almost losing control and flying off the road at least twice, I got to the bridge with a big sigh of relief at having navigated the ever changing roadscape. [Have I been watching too many old Dukes of Hazzard episodes?]

As I exited the bridge and decelerated up the gentle rise into town, it now was late afternoon, I was facing east with the sun behind me, and storms hadn’t developed yet. Both I and the car were in dire need of liquid fuel.

In the dream, I recalled being to the town several times, the most recent being about 10 years before, and was startled at the changes since. Ahead sat several dusty, unadorned, sheet-metal warehouses I didn’t recall from before; to my right along the river bottom and sprawling uphill was a giant feedlot for hogs and a collocated meatpacking operation. Those definitely were new. So was the presence of numerous Mexican folks (mostly men) walking about, whom I presumed to be off-duty workers and family members related to the huge hog-processing operation.

As I turned left off the highway and onto Main Street, another realization hit: Except for the hog outfit and the gas station three blocks ahead, this town was dead — at least, the town as I had known it. Two-story, brick-and-glass faced business buildings were closed, long since abandoned, their sidewalks carrying nothing but dust plumes and a stray tumbleweed or two. Diagonal parking spaces that had lined both sides of the brick street were devoid of vehicles, their paint fading and peeling. Not a soul could be seen amongst and between the ghosts of commerce past.

To my right, bright tan glare of the late afternoon sun reflected off plywood where there used to be storefront windows. To my left, in the shade, businesses with quaint old descriptors still seen on fading signs — HABERDASHERY, APOTHECARY, even BARBER SHOP (complete with partially dislodged barber pole, no less) — stood silently as if mummified in the tomb of time.

Yet I remembered that they all were open and thriving when I last was here, cars and pickups packing the spaces, families with kids strolling the sidewalks and entering and exiting the doors…even a fleeting memory of old men playing dominoes on a picnic table outside the barber shop. It was as if the town was still in the 1950s in my last visits, but the 1950s had morphed to a semi-apocalyptic version of 2007 in only about 10 years ensuing.

Next, as I swung left across the gravel parking lot of the gas station, I spotted a rusting pole that extended horizontally from the second floor of the building across the street. A white metal sign, also rusty, hung diagonally by a single upper corner, from one of its original two chains. The sign pivoted slowly to and fro in the gusty south breeze, the chain itself creaking with rust, the wind occasionally clanging one corner or another off the brick wall. On the sign were mostly capital letters in brown serif font, reading “OLDHAM’S JEWELRY and FINE FURS.” This was the only proper name of a business to appear in my dream, and it is one that almost stereotypically epitomizes a long gone era in many ways. [The irony is that this era was virtually dead even when I was a kid in real life, in a worldly city of a million people. So I can’t explain this through any sort of direct personal nostalgia.]

That was the most powerful aspect of the dream. What happened next was almost an amusing sidelight.

After fueling, I went into the gas station, carrying a paperboard cup for filling with a fountain drink. Around it I had kept a clear plastic cup holder stamped with a blue, two dimensional depiction of a Dallas Cowboys player from before my time — Cornell Green — a fantastic real-life defensive back in the late 60s and early 70s. [I don’t really have such a thing, nor have I ever used or seen anything quite like it.]

When I was filling the cup, the Cornell Green covering cracked, so I walked up front and threw it away in a messy garbage can. The clerk, a thin, wistful looking, bearded black gentleman of perhaps 65, leaned over the counter to ask for the cup holder. I retrieved it from the trash, cleaned it off and gave it to him, as he explained that the Cowboys were his favorite team, and Green was his hero when he was younger. He told me he never had any Cornell Green memorabilia at all, so getting my discarded cup holder was the highlight of the year for him in this “ugly ol’ town.” There, at the end of the dream, it felt absolutely great to bring something meaningful to that old guy’s world, and in a way, to offset for him the bleakness and drudgery of life in that town.


That was it, and I woke up. I don’t put much into psychobabble about dreams and their interpretive meaning for the individual dreamer. This isn’t about me. Rather, its fuller meaning is in an externally experienced central theme — namely, a longstanding sea change in the demographics and economics of the Great Plains that has been especially pronounced since shortly after I began roaming them in search of spectacular and violent skies.

The germane topic here is not even the dream itself; for it basically reflected reality — albeit amidst the spatial and temporal illogic so characteristic of dream settings. Having grown up in what then was a mostly Mexican neighborhood of Dallas (since gentrified and made pricey), who the people were didn’t bother me at all — in the dream or in real life. But the issues behind their presence, and behind the dead shops as reflected in the dream, are worth considering, for their impact already is becoming profound.

In many ways, most settlements of the Great Plains have been withering away for decades, without substantial infusion of people or money. Those towns that aren’t dead or dying fast have had to adjust to new economics. These can include, for example, service-based dependencies for towns fortunate enough to have interstate highways, and/or the bend-over-backward, sell out-to-the-devil efforts to lure massive and smelly livestock processing operations, itself often a desperate measure to hold or reacquire any kind of tax base.

The surviving municipalities, their leaders and their long-time residents must deal with new cultures, new ethics, and ways of life that are utterly unfamiliar to the stern and stoic old descendants of the northern European settlers. Illegal immigration now is a point of contention. So is racism, in long homogenized communities. So is the onset of drugs and gangs, no longer a “city problem.” So is crime, even if the Wild West escapades 100 years ago in the same places make most of today’s illegalities look tame by comparison.

In some places, a few well educated, Internet-savvy Bohemians and idealists are settling, refugees from crowded places who seek more peace, solitude and affordable living, and who wear different clothes and speak different accents than the old-timers. We’ve met them too, on a yearly basis: A nature photographer opening a gallery in Belle Fourche, an Internet restaurateur in Wakeeney, and others. There will be more like them as the state of being wired to the world becomes less dependent on actual location. These folks provide oases of youth and enthusiasm in some towns, but are there enough to prop up their sagging economies? Other towns, so far able to attract neither hog slaughterers nor gentrification, simply continue to fade away, their old apothecaries and haberdasheries doomed to the dust heap of oblivion.

These socioeconomic issues are real. They permeate the width and breadth of Great Plains from Montana to west Texas. Those who travel through on a yearly basis to intercept storms really should stop and hang out in these places for a few hours before the chase day, or on days between storms…to walk around, check it out, take it in, meet some folks, learn what’s happening. For better or worse, it’s the stuff of dreams.


One Response to “Great Plains Dreams and Realities”

  1. M. Buler on January 26th, 2007 11:28 pm

    Cornell Green! Now you are really making me feel old! When I was a kid they blacked out all of the Eagles games but we did see a lot of the Cowboys back then. Many an offensive plan met it’s untimely end at the hands of Cornell Green!

    I too have recurrent dreams about places that are abandoned or dead, and they always leave me with an empty feeling. You long for a taste of the life that was there, and it is now beyond reach. When our local steel mill went out of business in the early 70’s portions of 4 different towns began to die. Places that were once vibrant were torn down, a favorite restaurant, the bars that my dad used to frequent. Every so often I return there in a dream, but these places, people, and experiences still remain out of reach, even in the dream itself. These places eventually recovered in real life but its a different crowd, a different attitude.

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