Beauty on the Plains

Prairie sun narrow“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.

What changed?

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.

Western prairie and rain
Rain on the western prairie

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.

Prairie 4
The view from I-70

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.

 

Prairie and windmillJunction 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.

Prairie 5
The Flint Hills in winter

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.

Flint Hills in Summer
The Flint Hills in Summer

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.

18 comments

  1. I have a special love for the terrain of Kansas. If you ever have time on one of your trips back on I 70, go south on highway 83 at Oakley towards Scott City. There is a beautiful valley where the highway crosses the Smoky Hill River. Go a few more miles and visit Scott State Park, named one of the best in the country, and rhe Monument Rocks. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll have an even greater love for Kansas.

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  2. I think your post goes much deeper than Kansas soil, Jane. This applies to so many areas of my life. Learning to love the “place” I’m in geographically, spiritually, chronologically. Thank you.

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    • I thought of it in terms of the kinds of people we meet, too, Kathy. Some are Florida-type people, with easy, readable, welcoming personalities, while others take much longer to know and appreciate. But the plain brown prairie kinds of people are just as beautiful when take the time to appreciate them.

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  3. I used to dread the drive along I-70 because I though it was so boring with no forests or hillsides to enjoy. But then I learned to appreciate this landscape for the beauty present during the changing of the seasons. We are so blessed in America to have such varied topography.

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  4. Thank you for another interesting post about Kansas. I especially enjoyed your “No farm fields were used in the making of this post.” Funny! Although, I do actually see two farm fields in the photos. Tamara’s photo of the rain storm near a field of wheat (possibly stubble after harvest) and the abandoned field near the windmill. Enjoyed it all.

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    • Point taken, SuZan. I don’t know if you remember, but in last week’s post, I planned to substitute some fallow near Eudora for the open land that runs along I-70. I’m merely pointing out that I found some integrity, and did not, in fact, fake the Kansas prairie.

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