"You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you... He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart." William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea (1905)
Some of my most favorite times have been in Kansas, and that is not because my excitement about arriving colored it in anyway - but because it was totally awesome! Kansas gets a bad reputation from pretty much everyone. The only things I hear about the sunflower state is that it is flat, monotonous, boring, or something about the Wizard of Oz. I rarely hear anybody praising grasses singing in the wind or the overwhelming feelings of isolation you can get standing under a sky with no end and how those feelings are like nothing else in the world.
Good thing I am here to tell you about those things!
Driving through Kansas caused quite a spiritual stir in us - every mile we exalted the Lord above: Oh, my God. The plains they never ended. From careful rows of corn and sunflower stubble, to gently undulating ranch land, to the vast scorched earth of the Tallgrass Prairie National Park and Preserve, as far as the eye could see was as far as the eye could see.
We made a beeline to the Tallgrass Prairie in the Flint Hills, first and foremost, on a very chilly yet calm day. Bundled in our hiking layers and eager to stretch our legs after three days on the road, we set off on a seven mile hike through the winter worlds of some of the last tallgrass prairie in America. The natural prairie remaining here is only 4% of the original 170 million acres that didn't fall under cultivation or development just within the last generation. Wow.
And what should appear on the horizon less than a mile in? A herd of bison, plodding staidly along like a glimpse back in time. The majority of the prairie we walked through had recently undergone a controlled burn, so we didn't really get a good idea of what it would have been like to be standing under prairie grasses upwards of eight feet high, but we did get an amazing sense of isolation - with the winds at an atypical hush, the silence of the winter prairie was nearly deafening with not a tree, house, or power line to break the line of sight.
"Native tallgrass prairie is the rarest of all North American biomes... [It] is a singular system defined by climate, weather, size, and the interactions of fire and grazing bison. Because those factors are no longer functioning in a balanced whole anywhere in North America, true tallgrass prairie can be considered to be extinct as a natural functioning ecosystem." John Madson, On the Osage (1990)
With our legs aching and the sun setting in the overcast sky, we headed into nearby Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, to soak up a little history. I am in the middle of reading William Least Heat Moon's PrairyErth, which covered Cottonwood Falls and Chase County in the first chapters, so I was thrilled to see the quiet little town through the eyes of the author, including the Emma Chase Cafe and the Cottonwood Falls infamous red roofed courthouse.
But like most prairie towns on a Tuesday in the middle of winter not much was open and as I sometimes do when I stand next to my Subaru with Vermont plates pointing my camera about, I began to feel more like a voyeur than a well meaning tourist. We hit the road towards our accommodations for the night in Salina, watching the sunset on oil derricks down on the prairie.