At Home in the Flint Hills
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
AT HOME IN THE FLINT HILLS
Our favorite places are the ones where we feel most like our real selves.
Maybe your preferred spot on the planet is in the Rocky Mountains, or on a tropical beach, or at your grandparents’ farmhouse. Whenever you arrive at your favorite place, it wraps its arms around you and says, “Welcome home, Sweetie.”
We all understand the power that a particular spot can hold over us. These places call us to return. And we crave that warm embrace, we long to be welcomed home.
For many of us, a favorite place is the Flint Hills.
This region is not my native landscape. I was raised in the Arkansas River Valley in central Kansas. It’s relatively flat out there, mostly cropland. The agricultural grid pretty much guarantees a crossroad every mile. Barton County is more arid than here and short buffalo grass grows in the pastures, not tallgrass. Basically, the land is square and flat and dry.
I love the Flint Hills now, but honestly, it took me a number of years to fully appreciate the wonder of this rare landscape. I moved to Emporia when I was 21 and at that time my attention and youthfulness were focused on other things.
Back then, whenever I left town I stayed on paved roads. And while the turnpike offers a stunning trip through the heart of the Flint Hills, that decade wasn’t a time in my life when I was entertained by landscape. Hills, grass, dirt, rocks. Meh, whatever.
At some point, though, I began to explore. I left the highways occasionally and followed gravel roads. In my late 20s, I made my first trek onto the open range in Chase County. My friend’s pickup bounced over the cattle guard; this was the entry point onto a foreign landscape.
When we came to the place in the road where you drive through a rocky creek bed, I laughed and asked, “Really? This is the road? We drive through a stream?” The water may have been one-inch deep at the time, but I had never forded a stream before. My previous life had shown me only bridges.
I’ve lived in Emporia for three decades now and claim the Flint Hills as my own. It’s a place of solace. There is healing to be found on the open land, under that never-ending sky.
This summer I hiked some of the trails at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. East of the highway, the Fox Creek Trail winds along a shaded stream. But the trails on the hills beyond the ranch house are the ones that offer a feeling of infinity. Grass and sky go on as far as the eyes will reach.
In the Flint Hills, I feel a happy sense of solitude even in the company of others. And when I’m by myself, I never feel alone.
The unbroken sod tells the story of timelessness. It’s that steadiness, a silent reassurance that this land has not changed much in thousands of years, that gives me hope for the future.
It’s quiet on the prairie, but not always silent. Insects and birds chatter. Some days there’s a growl of wind as gusts sweep the prairie without regard for man or beast. Wind can spin like a dervish, or it can ride low and slow and straight over the grasses, playing them like flutes.
A herd of bison lives on the preserve. Bulky and brown, they stand still like paperweights, holding down the prairie on those windy days.
The landscape is one hill folding into another, bodies of hills lying together. There are few trees for shade. We make our own shadows here, unless a cloud runs interference with the sun.
As a hawk glides overhead, we feel the rhythms of land and sky. And somewhere out here, we step into that space between questions and answers, a place where we are satisfied with the unknown.
After darkness comes, the wind settles down, and the Milky Way flings itself across the sky. A rumor of coyotes hangs in the night air.
When the world closes up shop, when the sky turns from blue to black for the very last time, when the last poem is written and read, this is where I want to be – out in my beloved Flint Hills.
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh
Order the book: Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State by Cheryl Unruh