Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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Seasoned XIT ranch hands scoffed at such claims; the demo projects were a scam, cowboys said. They warned anybody who would listen that the Panhandle was no place to break the sod. Dust mulch? How was that supposed to hold moisture in the ground, with the wind blowing steady at thirty clicks an hour? The land was high and cold, with little drainage, and nearly treeless in its entirety. As for rainfall, the average in the county was about sixteen inches a year, not enough, by any traditional standards, to sustain a crop. At Dalhart, the elevation was 4,600 feet. A blue norther would come down from Canada through the Rockies and shake a person to their bones. The Panhandle was good for one thing only: growing grass — God's grass, the native carpet of plenty. Most of the land was short buffalo grass, which, even in the driest, most wind-lacerated of years, held the ground in place. This turf had supported the southern half of the great American bison herd, up to thirty million animals at one point.

The best side is up, the cowboys said time and again — for chrissakes don't plow it under. Nesters and cowboys hated each other; each side thought the other was trying to run the other off the land. Homesteaders were ridiculed as bonnet-wearing pilgrims, sodbusters, eyeballers, drylanders, howlers, and religious wackos. Cowboys were hedonists on horseback, always drunk, sex-starved. The cattle-chasers were consistent in one way, at least. They tried telling nesters what folks at the XIT had passed on for years, an aphorism for the High Plains:

"Miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell."

The syndicate had bondholders in London to satisfy. By 1912, the last of the XIT cattle were off the land, and the ground that was leveraged to build the state capitol of Texas had ceased to function as a working ranch. Four years later, Charlie Goodnight held what he called "the last buffalo hunt" on his ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. More than ten thousand people showed up to watch the old cowboy chase an imported buffalo, a limp choreography. When Bam White and his family crossed over into Texas in 1926, only 450,000 acres were unplowed of the original three-million-acre XIT.

The family spent the next night in north Dallam County, a day's ride from Dalhart. The thunderheads had missed them, passing farther east. Bam White rose in the winter darkness and gave his horse team another pep talk. We're in Texas now, keep on a-going, one leg at a time. You got us outta Colorado. You got us outta Oklahoma. Now get us through Texas to Littlefield, and a new home.

They had crossed into one of the highest parts of the High Plains, where the wind had its way with anything that dared poke its head out of the ground, and it was .atter even than Oklahoma. Lizzie White wondered again why anyone — white, brown, or red — would choose to live in this country, the coldest part of Texas. Even the half-moon, icy at night, looked more hospitable than this hard ground. As they said on the XIT, only barbed wire stood between the High Plains and the North Pole.

The Whites arrived in Dalhart on February 26, 1926. Bam found a place to camp at the edge of town and took to fretting again. Littlefield was still 176 miles to the south. The family was down to the last of their dried food, and they didn't know a soul. It was not the first time a family with significant Indian blood had returned to the old treaty lands. Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache who had drifted back lived a shadowed existence, dressed like whites, going by names like "Indian Joe" and "Indian Gary." As long as they stayed largely invisible, nobody paid much attention to them. Indians were not citizens yet. They could be forcefully removed to a reservation. Any hint of their earlier presence was gone, erased for the new tomorrow. Dalhart had no history beyond the XIT; what came before was viewed as having little merit.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

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