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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The Wanderer

They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news. One of his horses was dead. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a flat tire, except this was the winter of 1926. The Whites had no money. They were moving from the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado, to Littlefield, Texas, south of Amarillo, to start anew. Bam White was a ranch hand, a lover of horses and empty skies, at a time when the cowboy was becoming a museum piece in Texas and an icon in Hollywood. Within a year, Charles Lindbergh would cross the ocean in his monoplane, and a white man in blackface would speak from the screen of a motion picture show. The great ranches had been fenced, platted, subdivided, upturned, and were going out to city builders, oil drillers, and sodbusters. The least-populated part of Texas was open for business and riding high in the Roaring Twenties. Overnight, new towns were rising, bustling with banks, opera houses, electric streetlights, and restaurants serving seafood sent by train from Galveston.With his handlebar mustache, bowlegs, and raisin-skinned face, Bam White was a man high-centered in the wrong century. The plan was to get to Littlefield, where the winters were not as bad as Colorado, and see if one of the new fancy-pantsers might need a ranch hand with a quick mind. Word was, a family could always pick cotton as well.

Now they were stuck in No Man's Land, a long strip of geographic afterthought in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, just a sneeze from Texas. After sunrise, Bam White had a talk with his remaining horses. He checked their hooves, which were worn and uneven, and looked into their eyes, trying to find a measure of his animals. They felt bony to the touch, emaciated by the march south and dwindling rations of feed. The family was not yet halfway into their exodus. Ahead were 209 miles of road over the high, dry roof of Texas, across the Canadian river, bypassing dozens of budding Panhandle hamlets: Wildorado, Lazbuddie, Flagg, Earth, Circle, Muleshoe, Progress, Circle Back.

If you all can give me another two or three days, White told his horses, we'll rest you good. Get me to Amarillo, at least.

Bam's wife, Lizzie, hated the feel of No Man's Land. The chill, hurried along by the wind, made it impossible to stay warm. The land was so threadbare. It was here that the Great Plains tilted, barely susceptible to most eyes, rising to nearly a mile above sea level at the western edge. The family considered dumping the organ, their prized possession. They could sell it in Boise City and make just enough to pick up another horse. They asked around: ten dollars was the going rate for an heirloom organ — not enough to buy a horse. Anyway, Bam White could not bring himself to give it up. Some of the best memories, through the hardest of years, came with music pumped from that box. They would push on to Texas, twenty miles away, moving a lot slower. After burying their dead horse, they headed south.

Through No Man's Land, the family wheeled past fields that had just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by, honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn't even grass for the horse team; the sod that hadn't been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages. Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It means "wanderer."

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

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