Breasting the regular swells of land, on a red dirt road as true as a line of longitude, the car was like a boat at sea. The ocean was hardly more solitary than this empty country, where in forty miles or so I hadn’t seen another vehicle. A warm westerly blew over the prairie, making waves, and when I wound down the window I heard it growl in the dry grass like surf. For gulls, there were killdeer plovers, crying out their name as they wheeled and skidded on the wind. Keel-dee-a, Keel-dee-a. The surface of the land was as busy as a rough sea–it broke in sandstone outcrops, low buttes, ragged bluffs, hollow combers of bleached clay, and was fissured with waterless creek beds, ash-white, littered with boulders. Brown cows nibbled at their shadows on the open range. In the bottomlands, where muddy rivers trickled through the cottonwoods, were fenced rectangles of irrigated green.
Corn? wheat? alfalfa? Though I grew up in farmland, asthma and hayfever kept me at an allergic distance from crops and animals, and it was with the uninformed pleasure of the urban tourist that I watched this countryside unfold. I loved its dry, hillocky emptiness. To be so blessedly alone with it, so far from the nearest freeway and the nearest city, was a townee’s holiday treat. Here were space and distance on a scale unimaginable to most city-dwellers. Here one might loaf and stretch and feel oneself expand to meet the enormous expanse of the land.
I stopped the car on the crest of a big swell and attacked a shrink-wrapped sandwich bought at a gas station several hours before. The smell of red dust, roasted, biscuity, mixed with the medicinal smell of the sage-brush that grew on the stony slopes of the buttes. I thought, I could spend all day just listening here–to the birds, the crooning wind, the urgent fiddling of the crickets.
The gas-station sandwich, with its washcloth turkey and distressed lettuce, was not a happy affair–and I gazed out of the window at a vision of fegato alla salvia. The calves and the sage were ready and waiting on the landscape, but it would take a 1,100-mile drive to Seattle in one direction or a 700-mile drive to Minneapolis in the other to find an Italian restaurant to combine them on a menu. Here, where eastern Montana snugged into the corner made by Wyoming and the Dakotas, was the least populated, least visited region in all of the United States–a tract of rough pasture as big as England, on the western rim of the Badlands.
Mauvaises terres. The first missionary explorers had given the place its name, a translation of a Plains Indian term meaning something like hard-to-travel country, for its daunting walls and pinnacles and buttresses of eroded sandstone and sheer clay. Where I was now, in Fallon County, Montana, close to the North Dakota state line, the Badlands were getting better. A horseback rider wouldn’t have too much difficulty getting past the blisters and eruptions that scarred the prairie here. But the land was still bad enough to put one in mind of Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo astronauts: dusty, cratered, its green turning to sere yellow under the June sun.
The road ahead tapered to infinity, in stages. Hill led to hill led to hill, and at each summit the road abruptly shrank to half its width, then half its width again, until it became a hairline crack in the land, then a faint wobble in the haze, then nothing. From out of the nothing now came a speck. It disappeared. It resurfaced as a smudge, then as a fist-sized cloud. A while passed. Finally, on the nearest of the hilltops, a full-scale dust-storm burst into view. The storm enveloped a low-slung pick-up truck, which slowed and came to a standstill beside the car, open window to open window.
‘Run out of gas?’
‘No–’ I waved the remains of the hideous sandwich. ‘Just having lunch.’
The driver wore a stetson, once white, which in age had taken on the colour, and some of the texture, of a ripe Gorgonzola cheese. Behind his head, a big-calibre rifle was parked in a gun-rack. I asked the man if he was out hunting, for earlier in the morning I’d seen herds of pronghorn antelope; they had bounded away from the car on spindly legs, the white signal-flashes on their rumps telegraphing Danger! to the rest. But no, he was on his way into town to go to the store. Around here, men wore guns as part of their everyday uniform, packing Winchesters to match their broad-brimmed hats and high-heeled boots. While the women I had seen were dressed in nineties clothes, nearly all the men appeared to have stepped off the set of a period Western. Their quaint costume gave even the most arthritic an air of strutting boyishness that must have been a trial to their elderly wives.
‘Missed a big snake back there by the crick.’ He didn’t look at me as he spoke, but stared fixedly ahead, with the wrinkled long-distance gaze that solo yachtsmen, forever searching for landfall, eventually acquire.
‘He was a real beauty. I put him at six feet or better. It’s a shame I didn’t get him–I could have used the rattle off of that fellow . . . ‘
With a blunt-fingered hand the size of a dinner plate, he raked through the usual flotsam of business cards, receipts, spent ball-points and candy wrappings that had collected in the fold between the windshield and the dash. ‘Some of my roadkills,’ he said. Half a dozen snake rattles, like whelk shells, lay bunched in his palm.
‘Looks like you have a nice little hobby there.’
‘It beats getting bit.’
He seemed in no particular hurry to be on his way, and so I told him where I came from, and he told me where he came from. His folks had homesteaded about eight miles over in that direction–and he wagged his hat brim southwards across a treeless vista of withered grass, pink shale and tufty sage. They’d lost their place back in the thirties. ‘The dirty thirties.’ Now he was on his wife’s folks’ old place, a dozen miles up the road. He had eleven sections up there.
A section is a square mile. ‘That’s quite a chunk of Montana. What do you farm?’
‘Mostly cattle. We grow hay. And a section and a half is wheat, some years, when we get the moisture for it.’
‘And it pays?’
‘One year we make quite a profit, and the next year we go twice as deep as that in the hole. That’s about the way it goes, round here.’
‘That’s the way farmers like to say it goes just about everywhere, isn’t it?’
We sat on for several minutes in an amiable silence punctuated by the cries of the killdeer and the faulty muffler of the pick-up. Then the man said, ‘Nice visiting with you,’ and eased forward. In the rear-view mirror I watched his storm of dust sink behind the brow of a hill.
In the nineteenth century, when ships under sail crossed paths in mid-ocean, they ‘spoke’ each other with signal flags; then, if sea conditions were right, they hove to, lowered boats, and the two captains, each seated in his gig, would have a ‘gam’, exchanging news as they bobbed on the wavetops. In Moby-Dick, Melville devoted a chapter to the custom, which was evidently still alive and well on this ocean-like stretch of land. It was so empty that two strangers could feel they had a common bond simply because they were encircled by the same horizon. Here it was a hard and fast rule for drivers to slow down and salute anyone else whom they met on the road, and it was considered a courtesy to stop and say howdy. Fresh from the city, I was dazzled by the antique good manners of the Badlands.
It had not always been so empty here.
The few working ranches were now separated from their neighbours by miles and miles of rough, ribbed, ungoverned country, and each ranch made as self-important a showing on the landscape as a battlemented castle. First, there was the elaborately painted mailbox–representing a plough, a wagon team, a tractor, a well-hung Hereford bull–set at the entrance to a gravel drive. A little way beyond it stood a gallows, with twenty-five-foot posts supporting an arched crosspiece emblazoned with the names of two or three generations of family members, along with the heraldic devices of the family cattle brands: numbers and letters, rampant and couchant–in western-talk, ‘upright’ and ‘lazy’. In the far distance lay the ranch, its houses, barns and outbuildings screened by a shelter-belt of trees. Trees! Here, where almost no trees grew of their own accord except along the river bottoms, these domestic forests announced that their owners had water (and in the West, water has always meant status and power), agricultural know-how and long occupancy of the land. I figured that you could easily arrive at an accurate estimate of a given family’s income, character and standing in Montana just by looking at their shelter-belt. Some were no more than a threadbare hedge of sickly cottonwoods, but one or two were as tall and dense and green as a bluebell wood in spring.
The families were so few, their farms so unexpected and commanding, that they mapped the land, stamping it with their names, much as England used to be mapped by its cathedral cities. Here, where a crew of surly heifers blocked the road beside the creek, was Garber country. A barred, lazy ‘A’ and upright ‘T’ were burnt into the hide of each animal–the family brand of the Garbers (‘Gene–Fernande–Warren–Bernie’) whose grand ranch-entrance I had passed eight or nine miles back. I honked, and was met by a unanimous stare of sorrowing resentment, as if I were trying to barge my way through an important cow-funeral. When I gingerly nudged the car past their brown flanks, the cattle booed me for my profanation.
A mile on, more cattle, bullocks this time, scarred with the same bar-lazy AT. New names fell at long, slow intervals: Brown . . . Breen . . . Shumaker . . . Householder . . . Their estates were great, but bare and comfortless. It might be nice enough in June to look out from your window and know yourself to be the owner of all the dust, rock and parched grass that you could see, and more–but how would it be in January at minus-twenty-five degrees? Then, the sheer breadth and weight of the land would get to you. You could go crazy up there on your white hill, listening to the coyotes yodel. I thought, I’d settle for a more sociable berth, like being a lighthouse-keeper.
Not long ago, things had been altogether different. For every surviving ranch, I passed a dozen ruined houses. The prairie was dotted about with wrecks. Their windows, empty of glass, were full of sky. Strips of ice-blue showed between their rafters. Some had lost their footing and tumbled into their cellars. All had buckled under the drifting tonnage of Montana’s winter snows, their joists and roof beams warped into violin curves. Skewed and splayed, the derelicts made up a distinctive local architecture, as redolent of their place as Norfolk flint or New England clapboard of theirs.
It took me a while to see the little hilltop graveyards. I had mistaken them for cattle pens. Fenced with barbed wire and juniper posts, each held ten or twelve rotting wooden crosses, with, here and there, a professionally chiselled undertaker’s headstone. The names of the departed–Dietz, Hoglund, Grimshaw–didn’t match the names on the gallows of the working farms. Save for the odd empty jamjar, the individual graves were untended, but someone kept the fences up and the grass neatly cut. I supposed that for farmers here it came with the territory–the job of looking after the dead strangers on your land.
Once the eye grew accustomed to the dizzying sweep and chop of the prairie and began to focus on its details, the whole country presented itself as a graveyard, it was so strewn with relics of the dead: single fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire; the body of a Studebaker, vintage circa 1940, stripped of its wheels and engine, on a sandy knoll; a harrow, deep in the grass, its tines rusting to air; on the tops of the buttes, small cairns of carefully piled stones. For as far as one could see, and one could see further here than anywhere I’d ever been on land, the dead had left their stuff lying around, to dissolve back into nature in its own time, at its own pace. A civilization of sorts–houses, cars, machinery–was fading rapidly off the land, and it wouldn’t be long before its imprint was as faint as that of the Plains Indians’ teepee-rings or the shallow grooves worn by the single-file herds of buffalo.
I pulled up beside a wrecked house that stood conveniently close to the road and, stepping high and cautiously for fear of six-foot rattlers, made my way through the remains of the garden, past the assorted auto parts, the stoved-in chicken coops, the tin bath with a hole in its bottom, the wringer, the bedstead, the Frigidaire with the missing door. Though its frame had started to corkscrew, and its front wall bulged, the house was in better shape than most; a gabled two-storey cottage with a collapsed veranda, that in its day must have been as proudly, prettily suburban as any farmhouse on the prairie.
Inside, I was met by a panic scurry of wings: swallows had built their wattle-and-daub nests at picture height on the parlour walls. Squealing shrilly, the birds fled through the windows. It looked as if the owners had quit the place as precipitately as the swallows. They’d left most of their furniture to the mice, who’d nested in the sofa cushions, and the birds, who’d marbled the slipcovers with their droppings. A fly-swatter hung on its appointed nail. A foldaway ironing-board stood open, inviting the thought that perhaps the family had left the house in their Sunday best, outfacing the unkind world in freshly-pressed pants and blouses.
In the room beyond, I found clothes still hanging in the closet. Curious about their date and fashion, I reached for a dress, but the mildewed cotton came away in my hand like a fistful of spider’s web. In the bottom of the closet stood a pair of cowboy boots. All day I’d felt in need of snakeboots, but these were a couple of sizes too large for me, and their leather was so cracked and stiff that it was well on its way to becoming fossilized.
Above each window in the house, the curtain rods had torn fringes of yellowed lace suspended from them. Four inches deep at best, these genteel remnants shivered in the wind. Lace curtains on the prairie . . . The woman who’d put them up had made a thorough job of her hemstitching: though the curtains themselves had rotted and blown out long ago, their stubs looked as if they might yet survive several more years of gales and blizzards. I could feel the woman’s excitement at her handiwork as she veiled the buttes and outcrops with a pretty fall of white lace. The curtains would have altered the land for her as importantly as any amount of planting and ploughing.
The parlour floor was a sorry rubble of papers, books, magazines. Here, open on its title page, was the USDA Yearbook of Agriculture for 1935, badly foxed and swollen with damp. There was an ancient Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogue. I stirred the rubble with my shoe and came up with a mud-splattered postcard, mostly illegible. Dear Neva, Hi Honey, what’s the . . . with you, did you . . . or are you . . . we went fishing . . . if you have to go down to meet her . . . we went to the dance Monday . . . couldn’t darn . . . Saturday … In the corner behind the sofa I spotted a sheaf of manuscript pages. They had been chucked into the one dry spot in the room, which had otherwise been raked from end to end by rain and snow, and the ink on them was unsmudged. Perched on the sofa-arm, I settled down to read.
The densely-scribbled figures looked like prose, but were in fact an epic of desperate small-hours arithmetic–a sum that continued over seven pages of heavily-corrected addition and multiplication. The handwriting grew crankier, more bunched and downward-sloping, as the sum progressed and the numbers mounted. To begin with, it didn’t look so bad. The amounts were small–$4.20, $9.15, $2.54–and they took time to swell up and burst. They sketched a careful life: rent to the Bureau of Land Management (the letters BLM were repeated several times and ringed in a blue doodle that went through the surface of the paper); payments to Sears, to Coast to Coast Hardware, to Kyle’s Radiator Shop, to Lawler Drugs for animal vaccines, to J. T. Rugg for seeds, to Walter somebody for tractor tyres, to L. Price for a whole bunch of things, to Farmers Elevator, to Sinclair, Blacksmith, to Oscar Overland for oats, to Ward’s and Hepperle’s and Gamble’s and Fullerton Lumber.
On the third page, a ringed figure showed for the first time: $1,040.40–’Note at Baker Bank.’ The interest on this loan looked enviably low: at $40.50 for the year it came out at around four per cent. But even this was more than the family was spending on clothes ($35.51, with everything bought at J. C. Penney). $1,040.40. The horrible figure was written out several times in the margins, and islanded with shaky circles.
By the last page, the handwriting was all over the place, and the figures were standing, or leaning, an inch high on the paper. How do you turn \$2.54 into $5,688.90? Easy. You just add and go on adding and adding, until you scare yourself sick. The document in my hands would drive anyone to the Jim Beam bottle. I’ve made my own pages of calculations in the same distraught writing; seen the numbers gang up on me and breed at a crazy rate. What the bottom line always comes to is the old two a.m. cry: We can’t go on living like this.
The wind creaked in the roof. This house had been built to last. Its frames were stout, its cedar floor laid like a yacht’s deck. It had been meant for the grandchildren and their children’s children, and it must have seemed–when? in 1915? 1920?–a rock-solid investment: a fine house in the country, with a barn and outbuildings. Even now one could feel the pride of its owners in their creation, though it had sunk in value to a few dollars’ worth of firewood and a convenient nesting box for the neighbourhood birds.
A little further on, past another pocket-sized cemetery, stood a schoolhouse on a hill. Hay-bales were stacked in what had been the yard, between the trestle frame of the swings and the basketball hoop on its pole. Some flakes of whitewash still adhered to the bare grain of the wood on the schoolhouse wall. I stepped inside.
A dead woodpecker lay on the floor, and more swallows had built their mud-igloos on the walls, but the schoolroom retained the odour of morning milk, wet coats and spelling bees. The place had been heated by a great cast-iron stove, dusty and birdlimed now. In winter, it would have roared and crackled through the lessons, its voice as memorable to the students as that of the teacher. A framed sepia engraving of George Washington (who could not tell a lie) hung over the blackboard, on which some recent visitor had left the chalked message, SPOKANE OR BUST!!!
The teacher’s quarters were downstairs in the basement. Ice-heaves had wrecked the cement floor, but everything else was in place: the chaste single bed, the table and upright chair, the propane gas cooker, the rocker, with a maroon velvet cushion, for listening to the radio in the evenings over a mug of cocoa and a good book. The chest of drawers had been emptied, but there were three cardboard boxes of mouldering schoolbooks under the bed. Comfortably seated in Teacher’s rocking chair, I leafed through her library. The books had been published between 1910 and the late thirties: grade-school readers, most of them put out by Ginn and Company, enshrining a version of America that now seemed hardly less distant than that of the Pilgrim Fathers–it was so bold and bright and innocent:
Have you a flag hanging in your schoolroom? What are the colors in our flag? Many people think that these colors have a meaning.
They think that the red in our flag means that we must be brave. They think that the blue in our flag means that we must be true. They think that the white means that we must be clean.
How many stripes does our flag have? How many stars does it have?
A poem, printed in gothic script, nicely caught the mood of things:
A youth across the sea,
for the sake of a hope in his breast,
Shook out a steadfast sail upon a dauntless quest.
He had seen a star in the West,
He had dreamed a dream afar;
He wrought and would not rest.
Heirs of that dream we stand,
Citizens of that star–
America, dear land!
I read stories about Washington and Betsy Ross, about the sickly boyhood of Theodore Roosevelt (‘For years he had to sleep sitting up against some pillows. He could not lie down without coughing,’) and the impoverished boyhood of Andrew Jackson (‘But Andrew kept growing in spite of all they said. He clinched his little fists at colic, measles, and whooping cough. He talked very early, and walked instead of crawled …’).
From a useful book titled Who Travels There, I learned what to do when lost in the wilderness:
If you ever find that you are lost, do not become frightened. There is more danger in fright than there is of starvation or accident. If you allow yourself to become frightened, you become possessed of what we call ‘the panic of the lost’.
As soon as you discover that you have lost your way in the wilderness, sit down with your back against a stump or stone, take out your jackknife and play mumblety-peg or sing a song. This will pull you together, so to speak. Then take a stick, smooth off a place in the dirt, and try to map out your wanderings. Making this map will cause you to remember forgotten objects you have passed on the road, and may help you to retrace your steps.
The America of the schoolbooks was a realm of lonely but invigorating adventure, where poor farm-boys grew up to be President; land of the brave, the true and the clean, where a beckoning star stood permanently above the western horizon and poverty and ill-health were tests of one’s American mettle.
To prairie children, this Schoolbook America must have seemed reasonably close to home. Its heroes were small farmers like their parents. There were no cities in it, and not a whiff from the smokestacks of heavy industry. Agriculture was everybody’s business. Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood (most of which had actually been spent on East Twentieth Street in Manhattan) was relocated, for story-book purposes, to the great outdoors, where little Theodore ‘tried to take part in all the sports which other children took part in. He tried so hard that before he was a big boy he could swim and row and skate and box and shoot. He could ride horseback. He could sail a boat.’ Beyond the village and the farm lay the wilderness, from which boys with jackknives learned to navigate their way home. The values honoured in the books–self-reliance, piety, woodcraft, patriotism–were all values that would come in handy in eastern Montana. Children in New York and Chicago, poring over the same texts, might as well have been reading about the land of Oz.
Here, though, you could see your own experience intimately reflected in the books. The Grade Three Learn to Study reader (1924) had a chapter titled ‘How to Save’:
Have you ever tried to help your father and mother to save money? Some children think that they cannot save, because they are not working and earning money. You can save money by saving other things.
Good advice followed. Save your clothes: keep out of the mud; hang your things up when you take them off; use a napkin when you’re eating; learn to sew on buttons. Mark your possessions: keep your rubbers fastened together with a clothespin; buy a ten-cent roll of adhesive tape and use it to put your name on your cap, gloves and boots; shave a strip off the top of your pencil and write your name there. Don’t waste costly paper: if you want to draw a picture, do it on the back of a used sheet.
Thrift-conscious eight-year-olds, saving their parents’ money with needle and thread and rolls of adhesive tape, were a type unfamiliar to me. Most of the eight-year-olds I knew were into Nintendo and hundred-dollar Raiders jackets. But it wasn’t hard to imagine such an anxious and considerate child living in the house I had just left. He’d draw his pictures on the backs of old bills from Oscar Overland and J. T. Rugg.
The chapter on ‘Buying Christmas Presents’ gave one an idea of the kinds of luxuries that were within dreaming distance of a third-grader on the prairie: a spinning top (ten cents), a jackknife (thirty-eight cents), a striped ball (five cents), a toy automobile (sixty-five cents), a locomotive (one dollar) and–hope against hope!–way up on top of the list, a pair of skates for two dollars. The twelve designated presents came to a total of $5.68.
The coast was clear. Not a soul in sight, not a puff of dust on the far horizon. I loaded two armfuls of stolen books into the trunk of the car and headed south to Baker, where I put up in a motel room furnished with junk from the wilder reaches of the fifties. The pictures on its walls were all of water: two horseback explorers were in the act of discovering a mountain lake; a packhorse bridge spanned a river in what looked like Constable country; printed on dark blue velvet, a Japanese sea was in the grip of a tsunami. They were pictures for a dry country. At $23.50 for three beds, a bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen, the room was pleasingly in character with the frugal spirit of the place.
That evening a thunderstorm moved in on Baker from the West. One could see it coming for an hour before it hit: the distant artillery flashes on a sky of deep episcopal purple. As the storm advanced, I sat in a bar on Main Street, reading the life of Patrick Henry in Four American Patriots: A Book for Young Americans by Alma Holman Burton.
‘Colonel Washington,’ said Mr Davies, ‘is only twenty-three years old. I cannot but hope that Providence has preserved the youth in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.’
‘Ah,’ thought Patrick, ‘George Washington has done so much for his country, and he is only twenty-three!’
The people in the bar were huddled and talkative: living by day in so much space and solitude, they evidently liked to squash up close at night. At the back of the place, two poker tables were in session, the players gossiping unprofessionally between reckless bids of fifty cents a time. The slogan in scabbed paint on the bar door announced: LIQUOR UP FRONT, POKER IN THE REAR–an unsavoury old chestnut in Montana, where bars doubled as casinos.
He looked down at his hands. They were brown and rough with toil.
‘Alas!’ he said, ‘I do my best, and yet I cannot even make a living on my little farm!’
This was quite true.
Patrick could not make his crops grow. Then his house caught fire and burned to the ground. It was all very discouraging!
The snippets of bar conversation were, on the whole, more interesting than Alma Holman Burton’s prose. A Mexican seated at the table next to me was talking to a scrawny, pencilmoustached, thirtyish type, perched on a swivel-stool at the bar. The Mexican said he was up in Baker from Wilmer, Texas.
‘Wilmer?’ said the guy at the bar, in a whoop of delighted recognition. ‘I know Wilmer! I was in jail in Wilmer. Buy you a drink, man?’
And so, at the age of twenty-three, Patrick Henry, with a wife and little children to provide for, did not have a shilling in his pocket. But his father helped a little, and Sarah’s father helped a little, and they managed to keep the wolf from the door …
. . . which would not have been a dead metaphor to a child in eastern Montana, where wolves picked off the sheep at nights and ‘wolfers’ trapped the animals for bounty.
‘There is one thing I can say about Patrick,’ said Sarah’s father; ‘he does not swear nor drink, nor keep bad company.’
The thunder was directly overhead, and it was immediately followed by a long kettledrum tattoo of rain on the roof. The bar went quiet. Everyone in it listened to the rain.
‘It’s a gulleywasher,’ the bartender said, gathering in the empties.
The thunder rolled away eastwards, towards North Dakota, but the rain kept coming.
‘It’s a gulleywasher,’ said the man who’d done jail-time in Wilmer, as if he had just minted the expression.
A crowd formed at the open doorway of the bar to watch the downpour. The rain fell in gleaming rods. Main Street was a tumbling river, already out of its banks and spilling over on to the sidewalk. Its greasy waters were coloured red, white and blue by the neon signs in the bar window. A truck sloshed past at crawling-speed, throwing up a wake that broke against the doors of darkened stores.
‘That,’ said a turnip-faced old brute in a stetson, speaking in the voice of long and hard experience, ‘is a gulleywasher.’
People craned to see. A couple had brought their toddler along (this was an easygoing bar in an easygoing town); the man lifted her on to his shoulders to give her a grandstand view of the wonder. The rain made everyone young: people dropped their guard in its presence, and the pleasure in their faces was as empty of self-consciousness as that of the toddler, who bounced against her father’s neck, saying ‘Water. Water. Water.’ One man tried to launch a dry little joke at the rain’s expense, but no one listened to him. Some shook their heads slowly from side to side, their faces possessed by the same aimless smile. Some whistled softly through their teeth. A woman laughed; a low, cigarette-stoked laugh that sounded uncannily like the hiss and crackle of the rain itself.
It went on raining. It was still raining when I drove back to the motel, where the forecourt was awash, and the kitchen carpet blackly sodden. I sat up listening to it, attuned now to what I ought to hear. When rain falls in these parts, in what used to be known as the Great American Desert, it falls with the weight of an astounding gift. It falls like money.