Heard Around the West in 2068

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


These fictional short stories are part of our Speculative Journalism Issue, where we imagine stories from a West under climate stress in 2068.


Celebrating his 108th birthday last week at a posh colony for seniors in Logan, Utah, Dave Pilat was eager to tell the Salt Lake Tribune about the big changes he’d lived through. “I’m still amazed that so much of Utah has become a national park,” he said. “A lot of people in power wanted to steal our public lands in the early part of the 21st century.” And he remembered watching the video of Glen Canyon Dam getting dynamited into rubble: “Once Lake Powell silted up, it was nothing more than a big mud puddle. But,” he added, “I’m really sorry Old Faithful in Yellowstone went to sleep, though it’s wonderful that Kansas has pretty much gone back to bison.” Pilat had invited Hazel-Wendy Virginia, a friend from New York, to his birthday party, but what she really wanted to talk about was the overzealousness of the Carbon Police. A week ago, two black-clad agents barged into her birthday party just as she was about to blow out 107 candles on the cake. “And the ticket for emitting that little bit of carbon? $100!” Pilat sympathized, calling the Carbon Police’s actions “government overreach.” Both centenarians-plus attributed their long lives to being optimistic and staying politically active. Though they often got fed up with politicians, they said, they always voted in hopes of “getting a better bum.”

“They were dark and woolly and stood high at the shoulder, they moved down the valley wreathed in their own steam and water dripping from their half-moon horns, free and untended. No human beings owned them or directed their movement. They went where they meant to go in their own minds. They spread to the horizon under a drifting animal mist, and they smelled good.” From The Color of Lightning, by Paulette Giles
Norman Rawn/CC via Flickr

Western historian Celia Popper attended the Buffalo Commons Festival in McCook, Nebraska, where people congratulated her on her best-selling book, The Bison Comeback. Popper recounts the amazing renaissance of the bison — 2 million strong as of 2068 — that have reclaimed their historic ranges in 10 Great Plains states. Popper’s great-grandparents, Frank and Deborah Popper, first proposed the radical idea of a buffalo comeback in 1987, in a 15-page paper in Planning Magazine. Celia Popper said they would be “thrilled to see what’s happened since then,” though she acknowledged that the human costs of the transition had been high. The Poppers maintained that it was a “historic blunder” to break the deep-rooted prairie sod. Back in the 19th century, promoters misled homesteaders, who had no idea they were settling in rain-scarce country that would never take to conventional farming. Sadly, families learned the hard way that rain did not follow the plow. In their paper, the Poppers pointed out that in the late 20th century, the forbidding climate was already creating thousands of ghost towns as whole areas emptied out in the face of persistent drought. They also documented the return of dust storms that led to mini-dust bowls, brutal, cow-killing blizzards, and biblical hordes of locusts that leveled crops. Then there was the inevitable depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer’s ancient waters. In Anne Matthews’ excellent book, Where the Buffalo Roam, published in 1992, Frank Popper summed up the history of the American West as “one long continuous, hopeful, feverish real-estate transaction … and a lot of people, mostly those who could least afford it, got burned.”

One man did try to warn people about the folly of colonizing the Great Plains. In a report to the government in 1870, John Wesley Powell warned that the Plains region could never support Eastern-style agriculture. His advice was ignored.

So what truly belongs on the Great Plains? “Bison, of course!” Celia Popper told the crowd. And thanks to the genius of an academic couple from New Jersey, millions of tourists from all over the world now travel to the West to watch bison enjoying their homes on the range. The 1,500-pound animals fit seamlessly into the landscape, she said, along with wolves, lions, coyotes, hawks, eagles and countless other kinds of flourishing wildlife. We know exactly what’s happening on the windswept prairies because thousands of Interior Department drones recently counted the herds, Popper said. Bison now inhabit parts of three Canadian provinces as well as portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. But plans to reintroduce woolly mammoths and other once-extinct, cloned megafauna are on hold after a group of saber-toothed cats and dire wolves recently escaped their pens in Black Hills Pleistocene Park and took out most of the nearby Camelid Compound, in a bloody incident that horrified millions of drone-cam viewers.

Popper credits Native American tribes, nonprofit groups and the federal government for creating the Buffalo Commons, a massive act of ecological restoration that also involves reseeding native grasses. “As the land prophet Wendell Berry put it so eloquently,” she said: “‘In plowing under the prairies, we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing. In restoring damaged land we learn to heal ourselves.’ ” 

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.


High Country News Classifieds