Many thanks to Andy, Pam and Doug over at Statesider for publishing my Tallgrass story~
Can you remember a moment that changed you? Perhaps only a sliver of a moment, yet one that remained so subtly that it’s years later before you finally say, “Yes, that was when I knew….”
It happened to me in the 90s. I was young then and driving a sleek, black sports car along an undulating back road commuting through the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills to reach my graduate class on time. It was understood that speed was of no consequence on this empty byway as traffic was nearly non-existent, and if you did encounter the patrol, the highway was so narrow they would have no place to turn around. The only reprimand I ever did receive was a brief flash of red lights from an oncoming officer, who was likely traveling as fast as I was. So I regularly topped and descended those hills so sharply that my stomach felt the effects. Windows down, music up I watched the land pass in a current of endlessness.
Then one morning as the horizon was perfectly bisected between heavy, slate-colored clouds and brilliant green hills, a light rain misted the air and the isolated heart of the land seemed more removed than usual. I slowed, and my music quieted, and I drove along taking in more of the landscape than I usually did. Up ahead, along the fence line that paralleled the road, a small, yellow dot appeared and as I got closer, a solitary man on a horse materialized from the gray—his characteristic broad-brimmed hat pulled low on his brow, his yellow rain slicker the beacon I had seen from the distance. By the time I reached him, he was turning northward away from the road, disappearing again into the mist. But a wistfulness had already settled in me. The stranger and his horse, the land and the elements: in my mind their hushed solitude embodied something I could not yet name, only feel.
I drove on. I completed my studies. I graduated, and I laid plans. “Go west, young woman!” I heeded the call. Cattle and corn, god and country. The presumptive rhetoric that fed it all. I wanted none of it. I left my home state without a backward glance, glad to finally be gone. So it was with irony that 20 years later, bowing under the weight of caregiving and at a time I needed solace, I looked to Kansas.
I would not say distance had made the heart fonder, but I would say learning about the ecological systems of my home state had made me aware that in all the years I had driven the Flint Hills, I had never experienced the tallgrass prairie that gave the land its mystique. It is true that I had seen the hillscape in each of her seasonal guises: the dead-brown of winter, the eerie serpentine fires of spring, the rebirth of those endless waves of emerald green each summer. And every fall I had watched the green turn to bronze in the dying light of the year. But I had never walked the Tallgrass, never been among the swaying and majestic big bluestem when it reached its zenith of six to eight feet. The desire to do so—and the quietude it would offer—lured me home…(continue)