Statesider: Reclaiming

Many thanks to Andy, Pam and Doug over at Statesider for publishing my Tallgrass story~

Matfield Station Kansas Flint Hills

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)

Reclaiming

I haven’t posted for a bit, so thought I would share an early-version snapshot from a travel piece I’m working on….

For several years now I have wanted to walk the tallgrass in October when it reached its zenith height of 6 to 8 feet. And this was going to be the year, and Thursday was going to be the day. But it did not come to pass. History got in the way….

For those who did not spend their elementary years coloring photos of buffalo and sunflowers every January 29, (Kansas Day), I will tell you now that the American Bison is the Kansas state mammal. Which is ironic as the bison was exterminated by 1879, 18 years after its ‘proud homeland’ became a state. This was done in effort to get rid of the pesky “south wind” (Kanza) people whose name the state ultimately carried into history. It’s funny to me the things we “honor” and how we “honor” them. But I digress, the point being….

After packing the recommended gallon of water, cell phone, floppy hat and camera and hiking about a half mile across the hills, I and a few other Tallgrass Tourists found the trail blocked by a herd of wild, free-roaming American Bison. Being on foot and there being no fences for protection, hikers are advised to remain a good 100 yards away from the herds. And Kansans being fairly common sense folk, we did. Most took a few snapshots and turned back to the visitor center. But I remained on that sun-beaten, wind-battered hill and watched as the bison grazed and rolled on the dusty prairie.

I knew it would be another year before I could hike far enough into the preserve to see the majestic, rolling tallgrass, but that was ok. Because just for a moment I got to see those bison reclaim–if only symbolically–their natural state of grace. “No,” they seemed to be saying, “not today. Today it is you who must go.”

Rural Missouri: Alpacas d’Auxvasse

Many thanks to Rural Missouri Magazine for recognizing a good story and allowing me to write it. fullsizeoutput_34d

On a quiet patch of land protectively surrounded by stands of Evergreen and shade-dappled by Maple and Oak trees, Ann Mayes lovingly tends a herd of curious, richly colored, sweet-natured creatures. Alpacas D’Auxvasse, the business Mayes began in 2003, is the result of a “love at first sight” moment, which took place halfway across the country in Seattle, Washington way back in 1993…. Continue reading here.

 

 

Elsewhere: A Letter to a Stranger

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Happy to say my Letter to a Stranger has been published by Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. If you enjoy reading about land, culture, wilderness, cities, travel, et al, I recommend spending some time with them. Great people, great writing based in Berlin, Germany….

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for IMG_0289you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.   Continue reading

Mesa Verde Christmas

It was a perfect day, an orphan’s Christmas. My friend’s mom, who worked at Mesa Verde National Park, had rented the Superintendent’s House—a 100-year-old stone structure sitting on the canyon’s edge—and invited a number of us to share their family’s holiday. So loaded with the odd assortment of kids and couples, ex-husbands, ex-lovers, good friends, family and baskets of food and drink, we set out early heading westimg_0185 toward to the mesa. It was a festive departure with only the slightest oversight of forgetting one of the kids who had escaped the backseat to play Legos in his room. But we loaded him back in and our little caravan hit the road.

Crossing the plateau, then scissoring up gravel to the mesa, we arrived in our expectant chaos and began to unpack. It was an unseasonably warm day, not so much like December should be on Christmas, but brilliant with sun and crisp air that created surreally sharp edges to the world. Emma—creative, vivacious, and ten—handed out name tags she’d made the night before. Red and green ribbons hung from our necks with our “elf names” inscribed on small, carefully cut squares of paper. Twinkle Sugar Cookie, Tinsel Pointy Ears. The kids tore theirs off as they sock skated across the worn hardwood floors. The adults kept them on with sheepish smiles, pouring glasses of eggnog and settling in for the day.

Back outside, we glided in the porch swing or perched along the low, broad wall that wrapped the covered porch overlooking the slick rock and deep rift of canyon that stretched beyond view. Yucca and Prickly Pear grew from surfaces worn smooth by sand, water, and wind. Branches of Douglas Fir reached from the shadowy canyon floor, while gnarled Juniper and Pinion forests edged the tops of the walls. No one spoke; we just basked–comfortable, together, and lizard-like–under the warmth of the sun. From time to time, kids’ voices broke the quiet with shouts and laughter.

“Let’s pretend…” we heard Emma say, her voice echoing off stone. Continue reading

October

Fifteen years ago this week I landed in a small mountain town sitting at 9,318 feet that felt more like home than any other I had known. I met creative, inspiring people who opened a vibrant new world to me: artists, writers, treehuggers and travelers. It was a place that allowed me to develop my voice as a writer and gave me an outlet to share it. That place and those people will forever be carried with me, no matter where I go. img_0257

Likewise, it was October a few years later when I left for the northwest coast and camped my way from Cali up to the Canadian border. A few years later and another crisp October took me to Scotland, the Hebrides and the standing stones of Callanish. And a few restless falls later I quit my job, headed to Taos and landed a writing gig that began a series of the most surreal experiences of my creative life. Pretty much every year for the past several years, October has found me on the road to somewhere experiencing something Different.

Then, two years ago this month, I packed what I could into a small trailer and headed back over the passes to return to Kansas. I was almost killed when I hit an ice storm on Vail Pass and spent the next few days holed up on the flatlands of eastern Colorado thinking about why we are called to the places we are and how we make the decisions to follow that call. Then last year, well, I landed here.

I often wonder what it is about October that makes me restless, and I can’t help but remember the days of childhood when I envied migrating birds as they crossed the skies above open plains. Other days I wandered amazed through clouds of fluttering Monarchs as they filled the trees in our back yard, resting on their way to Elsewhere. Maybe I’m just feeling the pull of nature’s tide; perhaps others feel the same. We are, after all, not so different from those creatures when you peel away the cell phones, concrete and cars.

Whatever the answer, this looks to be a quiet October for me, and I don’t find myself disappointed. It has been a hectic and somewhat difficult couple of years leaving me happy to sit this one out, content to watch the bittersweet change color and tip back a glass of wine at dusk, letting the wheel of the year turn, rolling on, this time, without me.

Holding On

There’s a box I dig through from time to time that is full of notebooks and files, things I feel I need to keep because they carry some memory I am afraid to lose as the ephemeral flickers and fades. The item I most often pick up and hold is bound with a shiny, black, plastic spiral. The cover is turquois blue. A vertical image of a US SpringfieldIMG_0860 M1 Caliber .30 rifle rests neatly along the binding. It’s rare that I pick it up without heartfelt pain.

It is nothing, really, just a student’s project from many years ago, the summer of 2008 when I taught a tech writing class for a college in northwest New Mexico. It’s his final project, one that asked students to design an instruction manual. El, recently home from three Iraq tours, wrote on how to disassemble, clean and reassemble the M1. His hands remain strong and sure in photographs within the pages I now grasp.

My time with El began when I found him sitting—muscled arms crossed over an equally muscled chest—ten minutes early for the first day of class, which dictated the standard for every morning thereafter. He was always the first one seated, solidly holding down the room, it seemed, waiting for the rest of us to arrive.

His Navajo heritage echoed in dark eyes and black, military-shorn hair. His smile came readily; he joked with his classmates, and his intelligence emerged quietly through discussions of class material. But there was, too, an unmitigated sense of leadership in the weight of El’s presence, an unseen barrier setting him apart.

Together, however, there were 15 of us, an intimate number for a summer session, and we talked about many things, as is the case in writing classes: one must think to be able to write. And as often happens, the students became temporarily bonded through shared experience. Bonded enough that on our last day of class, the day of our final and their last project was due, more than one student was worried when El was not in his seat. There were further concerned glances when he had not arrived well after testing began. Continue reading

October 31, 2015

 

 

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Too often confined to a desk these days, I find sitting down to write has lost its appeal. Instead I’ve turned to my camera….

This is Turkey Tail fungus. Found on dead and decaying wood, its color becomes vibrant on misty gray days.

 

skirt! Magazine: Living Outside the Clickable Box

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Image Courtesy Gunnar Conrad

…on trying to reenter the “real world” workforce after 13 years of mountain living. Dedicated, of course, to all those artists and freelancers in my life. 

 I recently applied for a full-time position that used an online application system. It was a corporate job, but they wanted a storyteller, someone who would work with their different departments and write the stories of their projects. Great, I thought. I’ve been writing people’s stories for 15 years. I can do this. 

 The problem began with the upload of
the résumé. Mine is set up to reflect my years 
of freelance work first. Second come the “normal”
 jobs I’ve held in the past, and that became the problem…
they were in the past. Distant past. When I finished my application and hit review, instead of showing my résumé, it showed an aggregate of the information pulled from my résumé, which I can only assume was designed to hit on key words…like “work experience.” It looked as though I had been unemployed for the past several years. None of my freelance work showed at all.

 I’ve had this problem before when applying for a normal life. Those moments when I decide to step securely back into the bounds of societal expectations looking for a stable lifestyle. But it’s never been easy; I’m rarely quantifiable. Though there are exceptions. (continued)

This Land Press: When Kansas was Ahead of its Time

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In 2001 I was a new writer for the Community Voice, a publication for the African IMG_0210American community in Wichita, Kansas. My editor had never seemed very fond of me, so I was surprised when she handed me what I considered the best assignment in the house: to interview a man named Curtis McClinton, Sr. He had been Kansas’s first African American State Senator.

I arrived at his home on a cold February morning where we talked until almost noon. Without hesitation I can say the impact of that conversation has been immeasurable. He was gracious, intelligent and direct in his manner, but also a man of good humor and a very sharp wit who put me through my paces—subtly drawing out my own story—before easily moving into his own. His profile was the first of hundreds I have now written, always looking for a better understanding of human nature and experience.

This year being the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, I revisited my conversation with McClinton for This Land, a magazine based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Years before the Act was written for our nation, McClinton stood on the Kansas House floor and introduced his bill for equal accommodation, which finally passed in 1958. At the time of his presentation, because of his race, he had yet to be allowed entrance to the downtown diner near the capital. You can read his story here. You’ll need to scroll down the page just a bit….