Since moving back to the farm, I’ve noticed I have a tendency to create well-worn paths to places I love. I have one to my favorite spot on top of the hill that overlooks this abundant river valley, and I have one around the front of the house, up over the rise to the east and back across by the shed where my dog, Sam, and I love to walk several times a day.
And then there’s the one that led me back to this farm. That path is called Oregon Trail Road and is, I’ve been told, the longest stretch of the original Oregon Trail still in use as a road. I walk a part of it almost every day and never fail to be in awe of the settlers who walked its entire length. There is little doubt I would have lasted no more than three days on the trail back then. And even if I had, at the end of those three days, I would have likely thrown myself under some wagon wheels to escape the misery that must have been.
My path from and back to this spot in the northern Flint Hills was certainly more circuitous that those following the Oregon Trail. I left this farm when I was 17 and didn’t know if I’d ever come back, at least not to stay. During most of my 20s and 30s, home was wherever I laid my head. I had a case of wanderlust that kept me on the move. I didn’t need much comfort or even familiarity, just a place to catch some rest and a little shelter. I was full of spunk and curiosity and wanted to see the world. My dreams were filled with bright lights and big cities, and I couldn’t wait to explore what was beyond these fields and prairie.
I saw quite a lot in the four decades I was away. I lived in Kansas City, Chicago and San Francisco, and traveled all over the United States and a number of countries in Europe. I met new people, learned lots of new things, had some amazing adventures, and remained stalwart in my belief that it didn’t matter where I lived because home was something I carried in my heart.
I still believe that. But now I also know that the space in my heart that was always “home” was this farm. Every inch of it holds some kind of memory for me. The trees that line the driveway have stood as witness to my growth. They were there, although also younger then, when I took my first bike ride – without training wheels – on my shiny blue Huffy. I can still remember feeling the security and safety of my father’s hand on my back, steadying me as I wobbled toward the road. As I turned and headed east, now under my own power, I caught a glimpse of panic in Dad’s eyes. While knowing I would be back this time, he must have wondered how long until I took that left turn at the end of the driveway and kept going.
When I did make that turn, at 17, and headed off to college, I didn’t know if I would ever live here again. I came back for visits; however, there were times when the length between those visits was rather long. But no matter how long I was away, this was always a place so familiar that I could walk around in the dark and not bump into a single thing.
I always carried the farm with me wherever I wandered and lived, and over time I realized that when I was here I didn’t want to leave, and when I wasn’t here I wished I was, so when my mother died and the farm was left without anyone to tend it, I decided it was time to return – this time for good.
And I couldn’t be more grateful for the well-worn path that led me back home.
The Oregon Trail, once took settlers to their own dreams of faraway places, but, for me, was the well-worn path home.