An American Place

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September 19, 2012
Brooklyn, New York

Hay Springs, Nebraska is not a town easy to forget. I first traveled there in the winter of 2004 for the funeral of Sergeant Cory Mracek, a paratrooper killed in Iraq. Despite the bitter cold, every car on rural Route 20, which cuts across Sheridan County, pulled over onto the side of the road to salute the passing funeral procession. In the very small towns of Hay Springs, Rushville, and Gordon, residents bundled up in coats lined the street with American flags. I am a person who remembers things visually; so this summer, when I was searching for an American story, I immediately thought of those pick-up trucks on the side of the road. I had not made a picture then, but I knew it was a place to return to, a place that, in my mind, spoke of an older, more traditional America.

Residents of Hay Springs, Nebraska, line up to watch the funreal procession for Cory Mracek pass by,
February 4, 2004.

In the heat of August, I decided to photograph the drought that has paralyzed the farms and crops across a giant stretch of the American heartland. While the drought is very real, and its effects have been devastating for many who earn their living growing and harvesting the food that we all eat, I knew before I even left that I was thinking about more than the physics of the weather. Like with any news event, the drought becomes a prism through which to perceive something more meaningful to me, something harder to explain in a sound byte. I wanted to explore our own country, its conservative bedrock, and gain a better understanding of some of the deep divisions that separate that hinterland from the coasts. If the drought was what got me there, I hoped to stay for the chance to visit a culture very different from my own here in Brooklyn.

Sheridan County is in the remote northwest corner of Nebraska. Named after the Indian fighter General Phillip Sheridan, who systematically slaughtered the buffalo that roamed the high plains in order to starve his Sioux and Cheyenne enemies, many attitudes feel as if they have been fixed in time. Though just a dozen miles south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Sheridan County is ninety-nine percent white, and local prejudice against the Native Americans on the reservation runs deep. The cattle that quickly replaced the buffalo are watched over by the descendents of the immigrant settlers who labored to tame the land, killing the wolf, bear, and lion. These men and women lived outside of any city’s gates. They fought and died to claim this land as their own, in spite of whatever obstacles faraway easterners from New York or Washington placed in their way.

During my stay in Hay Springs, my hosts were Jim Mracek and his wife Pat, the parents of Cory, whose death had brought me to Sheridan County eight years earlier. Generous to a fault, always willing to help a neighbor, or stranger, in need, the Mraceks are at the same time wary of the larger world that seems to have moved on.

Jim is a caretaker for a 5,000-acre cattle ranch. Like many people who live off of the land, Jim seems to have paid close attention to his surroundings. Dependent upon God’s creatures, it’s easy enough to conclude that the world is a harsh, unforgiving place. At the same time, there is a natural order, an accepted balance, and a rhythm to life that doesn’t have to be questioned or struggled over. On the ranch, there is no such thing as can’t. Hard work and patience and then more hard work solve almost any problem, of which there are many: another fence to mend, a stray calf to find, a pivot to check.

I failed at fully understanding the political beliefs of this deeply conservative part of the nation. The gap between basic political assumptions in rural western Nebraska and my own was just too large to build a bridge over. But self-reliance, hard work, an older, more intimate, connected America; these were all attributes where I could find great beauty, visual and otherwise.

Looking above, into the vast, blue Nebraska sky of the open prairie, I could see the jet streams of the airplanes flying from coast to coast. This is what I wanted to try and photograph, I realized. A place, an American Place, that the rest of the nation only sees from the plane window, those grids of intersecting dirt roads mapped across the seemingly endless expanse of land, viewed from 40,000 feet above.

UPDATE, Sept. 27: The Commerce Department’s report released today downgraded the growth rate of the GDP from 1.7% to 1.3%, citing the effects of the severe drought reducing crop yields and farm inventory.

PHOTOGRAPHS + TEXT by Andrew Lichtenstein /

Editor: Jamie Wellford, Photo

With support from Leica Camera

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