Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
Just as many of us like to roam across Kansas, Russian thistles, too, are full of wanderlust.
I don’t think about tumbleweeds often, but was reminded of them on a recent trip to Dodge City with my friend Tracy Simmons. While the Russian thistle grows all across Kansas, it really thrives in the western half of the state.
“I miss tumbleweeds,” I told Tracy when we first encountered them near Cullison in Pratt County.
“When tumbleweeds blow across the fields, they look like animals moving,” Tracy said.
In western Kansas, Russian thistles grow like weeds. Apparently it takes a lot of space and fresh air to raise these things.
After the first freeze, the rambling weeds break free of their roots and set off to see the world. (Or, if you’re a scientist instead of a poet, you could say that they travel simply to propagate.)
I imagine that tumbleweeds often bounce for miles, crossing property and jurisdiction lines. Maybe we could tag some of these tumblers and see just how far they do venture from their source.
But the lives of tumbleweeds can get cut short. With no road-crossing skills, they may wind up under the brutal tires of a Kenworth, or get caught in the undercarriage of a Camry, scraping the highway for the next 13 miles. Many tumbleweeds are snagged by barbed-wire fences where they remain imprisoned until they dissolve into the dust from which they came.
Michael John Haddock, creator of the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website, describes them as such: “Russian thistle is a prolific seed producer. The stems break at ground level and roll in the wind causing the seeds to fall. Thus the common name tumbleweed. The seeds require only limited moisture to germinate.”
Gypsy-like by nature, it’s not surprising that these thistles from Russia ended up in America’s plains states. Arid land and a windy atmosphere is their natural habitat.
Thistle seeds smuggled themselves across the ocean. Haddock wrote that the thistle was “Thought to have arrived in the Great Plains in the mid 1870s with flaxseed imported from Russia.”
Tumbleweeds are ours now.
On our trip to Dodge City, Tracy and I took the turnpike through Wichita and then headed west on US 400. Unlike the Flint Hills that we had just passed through, the land flattened and carried on forever. The scale of earth and sky is different west of Wichita; there’s a long stretch of highway between towns.
It was a warm November day, in the mid-50s, and we drove through strong cross winds. Wind speed is relative though; it may not have been overly windy according to western Kansas standards. Dodge City enjoys an average annual wind speed of 13.9 mph, and is high on the list of windiest cities in the continental United States.
Having grown up with the wind and tumbleweeds in Barton County, I may miss the companionship of these rolling weeds, but I sure don’t miss the nagging wind.
As we headed to Dodge, the wind blasted us from the south, steady at 30 mph and gusting even stronger. Windbreaks came in the way of semi-trucks traveling in the opposite direction. When an eastbound truck passed us, it blocked the south wind momentarily, pulling the car dangerously toward the center line. But the suction was brief. When the truck passed, the wind returned, pushing the car toward the ditch. It was a two-hands-on-the-steering-wheel kind of a day.
We are warned in the case of flash flooding that two feet of water can float a vehicle, but we are never told about dramatic wind currents which can also float your car across the highway.
Wind is an invisible element, and it’s something of a daily hymn in western half Kansas. You cannot see the wind, but neither can you miss its presence. It can slam car doors shut or push an old barn to the ground. And it’s the worst hairstylist ever.
But, wind has a purpose; the tumbleweed would be nothing without the wind beneath its wings.
Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh