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At Home in the Flint Hills

November 19th, 2013 at 10:00 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Flint Hills

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

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Order the book: Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State                                                                    by Cheryl Unruh

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columns, Flint Hills, landscape, sky

  1. Lou Ann
    November 19th, 2013 at 11:06 | #1

    Cheryl, Beautifully done and artfully captured!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

  2. November 19th, 2013 at 12:49 | #2

    Love, love this. Each word gives an image, captures a feeling. You continue to help us see ourselves through your words.

  3. November 19th, 2013 at 13:07 | #3

    Thank you so much, Lou Ann and Marci! :-)

  4. November 19th, 2013 at 13:26 | #4

    I love this. Beautifully done, Cheryl!

  5. eleanor browning
    November 19th, 2013 at 13:33 | #5

    Your words are like music–and my thoughts, exactly! Thank you, Cheryl!

  6. November 19th, 2013 at 17:22 | #6

    This one goes in my read and re-read file. And another line of perfection, “Bulky and brown, they stand still like paperweights, holding down the prairie on those windy days.”

  7. ginger porter
    November 19th, 2013 at 22:10 | #7

    Loved this one as I too love the Flint Hills. Unfortunately we need a gifted writer like you to put it into words. Thank you for the beauty conveyed in words.

  8. nancy mattke
    November 20th, 2013 at 00:02 | #8

    Beautifully said.

  9. Judy Atwood
    November 20th, 2013 at 00:42 | #9

    Thanks for such a beautiful way of putting into words a beautiful part of the country. I lived in the area for over 20 years and now live on the central coast in CA also a beautiful part of the country.

  10. Jan Short
    November 20th, 2013 at 03:20 | #10

    Beautiful sentiment and beautifully written! I drive through the flint hills from kc to Wichita often and love that part of the drive. Thanks Cheryl! Great to see you in print!

  11. Roger
    November 20th, 2013 at 09:24 | #11

    Liked this line. “Bulky and brown, they stand still like paperweights, holding down the prairie on those windy days.” This one too. “A rumor of coyotes hangs in the night air.”

    This one is in your top ten percent, Cheryl.

  12. November 20th, 2013 at 10:03 | #12

    I couldn’t agree more, Cheryl. I got teary reading the last line…well done, you!

  13. November 20th, 2013 at 12:01 | #13

    Wow! What a powerfully gifted and graced expression of a beautiful sacred space in our midst!I discovered and fell in love with Chase County and the Flint Hills early in my young adult life upon moving from Ohio to Wichita to attend WSU. The place and presence of the Tallgrass Prairie got stuck in my cells, I swear, and has never left, even after all these years and miles away now. Thank you for your artful and mindful reflections. YOU are a gift!

  14. November 20th, 2013 at 12:19 | #14

    Thank you so much, Diana, Ele, Tracy, Ginger, Nancy, Judy, Jan, Roger, Kelley and Beckie!

  15. November 20th, 2013 at 20:53 | #15

    Cheryl,
    This is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.I especially like the wind playing the grasses like a flute and the paperweights line.
    I lived in Kansas for many years and pastored several churches including Westminster Presbyterian in Emporia.
    Now I am retired and living in Alabama writing fiction. My love for Kansas land and people plays an important part in my novel Like Sheep which is set in Kipp, KS and my next book Like a Fox which is set in a fictionalized Emporia and the Flint Hills. Your imagery is spot on and takes me back there.

    Your name sounds familiar to me. I’m running it through my computer mind trying to decide if we’ve met.

    Best wishes and thanks for the reflections.

  16. Vivian
    November 23rd, 2013 at 14:42 | #16

    It’s said that writers should write about what they know. I would add that they do their best when they write about what they love. Such a moving article, Cheryl. Thanks so much. It makes me think of the place I want to be when “the world closes up shop.”

  17. November 23rd, 2013 at 18:51 | #17

    Super writing.

  18. Mike Cranston
    December 13th, 2013 at 14:34 | #18

    Oh My gosh Cheryl

    I am not a native of your wonderful square state (upstate New York) but that column was wonderful. I feel so much peace when I am in Kansas…this sentence is perfect “I feel a happy sense of solitude even in the company of others. And when I’m by myself, I never feel alone.” You keep hitting them out of the park everytime you put words on the paper. Thank you for sharing your words with us.

  19. December 16th, 2013 at 21:01 | #19

    Thanks so much, Mike!