Traveling from Pittsburgh to Boulder, Colo., to drop off her son at college, Kate Benz ended up with an honorary hometown and new extended family in Kansas — and a book about it all.
Her plan was to take the shortest route west, then fulfill a longtime desire to explore “forgotten corners of America” in a meandering journey back along secondary roads. And to do it alone.
It was 2013 and, at the time, Benz was the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s “Fanfare” society columnist.
Heading east from Boulder, Benz made a quick Google search of “best road trip route across Kansas,” which put her on Route 36.
Just south of the highway in the north-central part of the state lies Courtland, population 285, where she made a quick stop and was so smitten that she ended up returning again and again to write the story of the place and its people.
“Nothing But the Dirt: Stories From an American Farm Town” was published July 15 by the University Press of Kansas.
There was an indefinable allure about the four-block main drag, a half-cafe, half-antiques store called AnTeaQues, and a conversation with an old-timer named Charlie, Benz said.
Driving the remaining 1,500 miles back to Pittsburgh, she kept thinking, “How can I get back to Courtland?”
“My initial reaction in the early stages was, I was just kind of befuddled over how someone could become so enamored, so impressed, so obsessed with this tiny, little, rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere,” said Benz’s son, Justin Guerriero, who graduated from the University of Colorado in 2019 and is now a reporter with the Tribune-Review.
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way at the beginning, he said, but was impressed by how his mother dove into the project and brought the book to fruition.
In a series of return trips, Benz followed the locals around with pen and notebook, sat with them over coffee and visited them in their homes, social groups and businesses. Her local connections eventually spread and resulted in her securing a publisher.
‘The soul of America’
The book is a portrait of a small town and its people, told as a series of vignettes, but Benz said it’s also the story of America as a whole.
“Hearing their stories, it was reminiscent to me of what the real heart and soul of America is, or what it was at one point,” she said. “People reading these stories might say, ‘What do I have in common with someone who lives in Courtland, Kansas, population 285?’ a lot. We all know what hard work is, we all know what pain is, we all know joy.”
Like other towns across the country, Courtland is a “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps community,” Benz said. “They came from people who worked really hard. There’s not a sense of entitlement, not a sense of I deserve X because I’ve done Y. They do their jobs and understand that the good comes with the bad.”
Because Courtland is smack in the middle of Midwestern farm country, the book necessarily touches on the plight of the local farmers — operational costs weighed against stagnant or sinking commodity prices, the effects of federal farm subsidies on their livelihoods and the caprices of the weather.
“One of the most surprising things to me is how immensely complex and convoluted the farming industry is,” Benz said. “Even talking to these people and doing the research, I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding how complex farming is.
“I don’t know any other industry where you can do everything right, when you’re supposed to do it, how you’re supposed to do it and, in a moment, everything you’ve done can be wiped out,” she said.
Still, Benz said she wasn’t writing with an agenda — she let the story tell itself through the people living it.
One thing she avoided was writing about any local intrigue, either personal or political.
“In a small town, you’re certainly told stories. But as a writer, my responsibility wasn’t to write an expose and reveal skeletons in the closet,” Benz said. “You might get a tantalizing story to make someone turn a couple of pages but, at the end of the day, is it worth it to lose that trust? To me, it’s not.”
With one book down, Benz has an idea for a sequel about the women of Courtland, both those who are married to farmers and those who have become farmers themselves. But even if there is no sequel, she’ll keep returning.
“That’s the greatest joy in writing this book, the relationships I developed,” she said. “This year, I think I’ve been back five times. These are people I now consider to be my extended family. I tell them they’re stuck with me at this point.”
Benz said she hasn’t heard any negative comments on the book from her subjects and sales have been brisk among them.
Living a quiet life
Getting to Courtland is easier now that Benz and her husband have moved from Pittsburgh to the Black Hills of South Dakota, about 40 miles southwest of Rapid City.
It was a move they’d been considering for a while. Looking at life in Courtland helped convince Benz to take the plunge about two and a half years ago.
“When I first discovered Courtland, I was like, wow, this is what life should be like. It should be quiet. It should be peaceful,” said Benz, who grew up in the Cranberry area. “When I spent time there and then went back to Pittsburgh, I realized how loud the world had become, in the sense that there’s always something coming at you, whether it’s audible or visual or literal.”
In South Dakota, the loudest noise comes from the crickets.
“I joke with my husband now that when I go to town, which is once a week to do my shopping or my errands, I can stand civilization for about three hours and then I’m like, get me back to my pine trees, ” Benz said. “People find that surprising because I was the ‘Fanfare’ girl, and that job was awesome and super-fun, but to me how I recharge is being alone and being quiet.”
Following her stint at the Trib, Benz worked in video production and social media promotions for The Waterfront. She’s now a full-time freelance writer.
Guerriero said his mother’s work has convinced him to put Courtland on his travel itinerary.
“I haven’t yet seen the glorious little hamlet of Courtland with my own eyes, and I kind of kick myself,” Guerriero said. “I lived in Boulder and Denver for the better part of a decade and I could have gotten to Courtland a lot easier from there than I could from Pittsburgh.
“But now that the book is out and I’ve read it, Courtland is definitely on my list of places I want to see,” he said.
“Nothing But the Dirt” is available through the University Press of Kansas, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online sellers. Readers interested in a signed copy can email Benz at email@example.com.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .