“I noticed from your Facebook feed that you like to travel,” I said to my new, young, East-Coast-hip friend at Bible study.
She looked startled.
I felt a moment of panic. Am I the only person who refers to Facebook in real-life conversation? Is there a What-Happens-on-Facebook policy I don’t know about?
“I do like to travel,” she said finally. “I’m at a stage in life when I can come and go easily. I enjoy being outdoors. Hiking and camping, that sort of thing.”
“Have you found any good places to hike around here?” I asked.
A strange look crossed her face. “Not….not really, no.”
Another woman at our table chimed in. “The Flint Hills are lovely.”
“Yes, I went to see them one day.” My new friend looked puzzled. “I don’t know if I looked in the wrong place or what, but….”
Light dawned for me. This woman is from Florida and upstate New York. I’ve seen pictures of her in Greece, Colorado and the Everglades. “They were kind of underwhelming, huh?” I said.
She nodded, apologetic. “A little.”
The Kansans at the table digested this information. Finally I said, “You might enjoy Bentonville, Arkansas.” Because the Ozarks are so much more impressive.
Our conversation played back in my mind as I drove through the Flint Hill range a few weeks later. We were headed to Colorado Springs for Christmas, a route we’ve traveled many times. Outside my window the undulating landscape glowed in shades of amber beneath the winter sun. What makes this country beautiful in my eyes, I wondered. When we reached the post rocks of Russel County, why did I sigh with appreciation?
I didn’t always feel this way. Twenty years ago, when we first took I-70 west, I was not impressed. My standard of beauty was southern Wisconsin, where the highways curve around rocky bluffs and span wide, rushing rivers. Green is the color of my northern homeland. Brown, flat Kansas could not compare to that.
My question went unanswered until our return trip. As we made our way from west to east, I noted the landmarks. I waved to the small town of Brewster, the home of my publisher. I waited with expectation for the big bend in the road from Colby to Oakley. I watched for the spires of the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria.
We reached the outskirts of Salina, and I drank in the sights. Salina lies in the Smoky Hills, a region defined by rocky outcroppings piled into strange shapes. No gentle hills here, these were the severe and jagged crevices of a hostile planet.
Beyond Salina, when the land smoothed out, the prairie wind tried to push our van from lane to lane. I thought for the thousandth time about the pioneer women who went mad listening to that howling force of nature. It took a certain mental toughness to survive sod houses and locust swarms.
Junction City came next, home to Fort Riley army base, a town where my husband has professional ties. We booed the Cracker Barrel as we passed. We’ve never forgiven it for losing our order one late, snowy night when the kids were babies.
The sun sank low behind us as we approached Topeka, and in the lengthening shadows I found my answer.
The Kansas landscape, so barren to a newcomer, is made beautiful by love and knowledge. Learn its history. Learn to love its people. Then the Flint Hills will glow in the evening light, and the prairie will come alive with the ghosts of pioneers.
Credit goes to Shannon Phipps for the Flint Hills in Winter pictures, and to Tamara Clymer for the rain storm on the prairie. All pictures were taken along or near Interstate 70 in Kansas. No farm fields were used in the making of this post.