For all of Patrick Stein’s life, Southwest Kansas — “God’s country,” he called it — had looked basically the same. Golden fields, white grain elevators, blue sky. But lately it was starting to look different. “Here come a couple of fucking raghead bitches,” Stein announced as he spotted a group of dark-skinned women in long, colorful robes and gauzy scarves walking up the avenue named for the great frontiersman Buffalo Jones. His buddy Dan Day, with whom he had attended a Garden City gun show that day — February 27, 2016 — slowed his truck. Stein, who was sitting in the passenger seat, poked his head out the window, and by the time he spat those last two words — raghead bitches — he was close enough that the women, startled, lifted their eyes toward the vehicle.
Men like Stein and Day — with drink-ruddy faces and ISIS HUNTING PERMIT bumper stickers — are a common feature of the landscape in Southwest Kansas, although Garden City has perhaps fewer than its neighbors Dodge City, the infamous gun-slinging town, and Liberal, which isn’t. As locals like to point out, there’s something a little different about “Garden,” which despite feeling like the middle of nowhere is populated by people from seemingly everywhere. The seat of rural Finney County, Garden City is situated in almost the exact center of the country, with attractions like the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Swimming Pool (built 1922) and the World’s Largest Hairball (discovered in the belly of a cow circa 1993). It has been a modest but consistent boomtown, host to a rotating crop of industries — sugar beets, cattle, wind turbines — that require a lot of land and a lot of people to work it. As a result, the area has always attracted immigrants, from the Mexicans who laid the tracks of the Santa Fe railroad in the early-20th century to the Japanese who arrived after the Second World War. And while there was some initial trepidation on the part of the locals, they usually found, in working side by side with the newcomers, that they shared those values considered to be midwestern: belief in God, family, and hard work. “All equal, regardless of wealth, color, or creed,” one resident boasted to Truman Capote when he visited the area in the 1960s to report In Cold Blood. “Everything the way it ought to be in a Democracy, that’s us.”