Ode to the Prairie

My father fed the world.

“A Kansas farmer feeds 128 people—and you,” read the billboards scattered across an otherwise untarnished Midwestern prairie. The signs were an anomaly amidst the thousands of acres of vast grassland dotted with Angus cattle and wind-whipped wheat fields, an ode to the unsung heroes whose quiet service kept the Western world fed. The signs had been updated numerous times, until finally the commissioners left them at 128.

My father was a farmer, and his father before him, and his father before him. The farmland had been in our family ever since my great-great grandmother came to Kansas in the 1800s to claim 160 acres of land from the government. After settling into life on the prairie, she fell for the next-door neighbor—whom she always referred to as “Prince Charming” in her writings—and married him soon after. They built a sod dugout with their own hands, survived a prairie wildfire, and through their persistence made the Kansas prairie their home.

The prairie had changed little in the last one hundred and fifty years, save for the farmhouses that replaced dugouts, and the fences that now separated one man’s land from another’s. Despite the additional landmarks, the spirit of the prairie remained the same: wild, mysterious, untamed, home only to those dedicated enough to expend themselves each year planting crops which might or might not break even come harvest time.

My parents raised my siblings and I on a farm that could have given Laura Ingalls Wilder a run for her money. In the mornings, my father and I would often round up cattle on horseback, chasing them across the prairie as the sun ignited the sky with vibrant bursts of gold and pink. After school, my siblings and I explored the wonderful wilderness. We built a playhouse, waded in the creek, picked warm cherries from the orchard, and discovered a spectacular ravine that we nicknamed “The Pretty Place.” My childhood was carefree and idyllic, filled with the kind of pre-9/11 innocence that you can never regain once you grow up and learn about political scandals and genocides and terrorist attacks.

When I was 15, I decided I wanted to go to film school, which is something no one in my small community had ever done. After attending a college near home for a year, I packed everything I owned into my 1997 Crown Victoria and drove 1,200 miles away from home to a place I’d never been (California) to live in a city where I didn’t know a soul (Los Angeles.) I assumed that I would find a job in Hollywood after graduation and begin a career in the entertainment industry.

Despite submitting countless applications and exhausting every contact that I had, though, I still hadn’t found a job by the time graduation rolled around. I said goodbye to friends as they moved away, began renting a room from a stranger, and started looking for a pay-the-bills job. I worked cobbled-together jobs during the day and took long walks around my neighborhood at night, as if each step would bring me closer to figuring out what on earth I was doing with my life. I returned to my room each night as the darkness fell, listening to sirens blare outside, marveling at the strange irony that here, in a city of over 8 million people, I felt more alone than I ever had in my hometown of 2,000. As I waited for my phone to ring, I realized a terrifying truth: I didn't know what who I was or what I loved anymore.

During college, I once met up with a successful alumnus from my alma mater. “If you want to succeed in Hollywood, you have to want it more than anything,” he told me. “I’ve ended relationships because they interfered with work. You have to want it that badly.” At the time, I thought his speech was inspirational and somewhat romantic. Being so passionate about a career that you would sacrifice everything for it? How moving, how touching, how bold! And, I realized, sitting in my white-walled room in the stranger’s house, how empty. 

The fall after I graduated from college, I flew home for Thanksgiving. I walked around the farm with my dad, admiring the wide-open spaces I had loved as a child, feeling the healing juxtaposition of solitude and community. I watched the sun slink behind ruby red hills, mesmerized by the simple beauty of golden light splayed across pastures and ponds. And somehow, standing in an area too desolate for most of my friends to find, I didn't feel lost anymore. 

As I trekked across my childhood stomping grounds, I remembered why I had gone to film school in the first place. It wasn’t because I wanted to produce huge blockbusters or see my name in lights. It was because as a child, I had never been able to go a single day without writing a story. Somehow, amidst smog and strangers, I had forgotten who I was and what I wanted. But there, in the midst of the silent, vast prairie, I remembered what I loved.

Someone once said that sometimes you have to leave a place to learn to love it for new reasons. And as I looked around my family’s farm, I realized the truth of those words. Sometimes, a place is just a place. But other times, you couldn’t be who you are unless you had been where you have been. Sometimes you have to go back to where you started from to remember who you were always meant to be. And sometimes you have to be lost so you can ultimately be found.

They call Kansas America’s heartland, and I understand why now.