Where I Write #12: A Stable in the Floodplain


Across the Missouri River from North Omaha, just east of the intersection of Interstates 29 and 680, a few miles down a winding, dusty gravel road, across a set of train tracks and a stone’s throw from a sizeable rock quarry at the foot of the Loess Hills in Crescent, Iowa, sits the bucolic GlenCarry Stables, austere and unpretentious, home to Glen and Carol Cudmore as well as their son Brent, his wife, Kit, and their two children.

My wife Jenni has boarded her horse, Pharly, a 12-year-old Thoroughbred mare, at GlenCarry for almost two years now. There isn’t anything about GlenCarry you’d consider particularly flashy or high tech. Overall, the facilities are just fine, pretty good, even; by that I mean, there’s nothing a person who’s into riding horses doesn’t have access to, whether it’s an outdoor ring, a hunter/jumper course, an indoor arena with ground poles, incredibly knowledgeable horsemen (and women) or a simple round pen for turning out, GlenCarry has these things and they’re definitely pretty damn good. Forget I called them fine.

It’s also quiet out here, but not too quiet. Cars and trucks hum along heading north and south on I-29 a mile or so to the west. To the east, trains rumble by just across a creek maybe a hundred yards from the stables on a fairly regular schedule. But what makes this place special is the people, the Cudmore family, who live in the house at the end of the gravel driveway shared by all the buildings on the property and who work on the land on which they live.

So what, then, does all this have to do with where I write? The simple fact is I probably get more writing done and generate more ideas at GlenCarry than anywhere else. Almost every time my wife goes out to the stables to get a lesson from Brent, or just to ride Pharly, I’ll go with her. It’s an escape from the monotony of my day-to-day routine and it, in a way, has become a sort of mini writer’s retreat for me—Yaddo for one.

Recently, I’ve been spending some time at the stables without my wife. Unfortunately, it isn’t for writing. It’s because the stables are situated on the edge of a floodplain and the Missouri River is about to spill over its swollen banks. Experts’ projections are bleak. Surrounding corn and soybean fields are already filling up with water and the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t even released the extreme surplus of water to the north yet.

Although it seems like poor reservoir planning and management, it’s probably too late for finger pointing. The simple fact is that the stables are going to flood. I’ve been spending my time at GlenCarry trying to box up belongings and move valuables to higher ground. All twenty-four of the horses boarded here have been temporarily, though indefinitely, relocated. Caravans of trucks, trailers and vans have been pouring in and out of the property’s driveway. In a matter of weeks, everything is going to be under water. The only real question is: how much? Hydrologists and engineers think that there could be ultimately anywhere from six to ten feet of standing water that will last for possibly two months—a true nightmare scenario if you stake your livelihood on your land.

Friends, family, neighbors and volunteers have spent countless hours moving and boxing up things, tools, clothes and furniture. We’ve burned old and rotting wood and boxes, thrown away scraps of metal and tools no longer identifiable as useful. We’ve disconnected and removed the water heater, the air conditioner and the furnace because those are just a few more things the Cudmores won’t have to replace once the water finally retreats. Over the span of a couple days, I’ve seen literal blood, sweat and tears spilled in the undertaking of this Herculean effort.

Perhaps, surprisingly, the one thing we aren’t doing is sandbagging. Experts have stressed that it’d likely be futile and the best thing we can do is save as much stuff as we can before it’s too late, before an immeasurable amount of water is released from dams to the north and the Missouri River swallows miles of land on either side of its already overflowing banks. The only thing to do once the boxing and the moving are finished is hope and, if you are so inclined, pray.

During breaks at GlenCarry, I’ve tried snapping pictures of the property. Lots of pictures. Just in case. I don’t want to forget anything here. The dusty rows of horse stalls, the tack room that smells of comforting cedar, the chipping white paint on the bleachers outside the show ring, the starlings that swoop through the barn and perch in the rafters, the ubiquitous smell of worn and ridden leather, the guinea fowl that parade routinely around the property, the grit that invariably settles on your teeth. I want to preserve all of this any way I can—with photos, with words—even if it’s for selfish reasons, because I need this place too.

I want to remember Peaches, the English collie, who always greets Jenni and I as old friends. I want to remember the barn cats that I’m incredibly allergic to but that keep the stable’s rodent population under control. The miniature horses, SpongeBob and Snickers. Wonky the Donkey. The four stud colts. The Grand Prix stallion, Galypso. Pharly’s best friend, Sweetie. Brent and Kit’s horses, Paco and Dorian. The manure spreader with wild orange flames painted on its sides. The smell of diesel fuel for the stable’s tractors. These are all individual components of my collective muse.

GlenCarry has become so much more than simply a boarding stable for Pharly, more than a place where Jenni can take lessons from Brent and a place where I come up with my best writing ideas—it’s become an extended part of our home, and the Cudmores, an extended part of our family.

It’s where Jenni rides. It’s where we go to get away from the grind. It’s where I completed a significant portion of my MFA thesis, if only scrawled on legal pads and notebooks. So, yeah, for the moment at least, it’s also where I write.

* * *

Or perhaps I should say, wrote. Since completing this piece, the worst-case scenario has unfortunately come true. The house, barns and stables are now submerged under six to eight feet of water that will not likely be going anywhere for months. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, the photos. It’s hard to imagine that much water could cover so much land and force so many people to relocate indefinitely. It makes me feel kind of silly to mourn for a place I like to write when it means so much more to so many others. One thing is for certain, when the waters subside, I’ll be one of the first there with a shovel and hammer to start the rebuilding process.

Joseph Michael Owens has written for PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, The Houston Literary Review, and for Grey Sparrow Journal, where he is a regular contributor to its “Man on Campus” section and as well as a technical editor. Additionally, his short story “We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don’t” was nominated for Dzanc Books‘ Best of the Web 2011 anthology. Joseph also manages the website Category Thirteen, dedicated primarily to the hectic and haptic process of writing. Joe lives in Omaha with five dogs and one wife. More from this author →