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In the Land of Curves

June 19th, 2012 at 9:00 am

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


I’ll tell you what, Arkansas residents sure get their money’s worth out of steering wheels.

Earlier this month while headed to my mom’s house near Hot Springs, I wound my car around dozens of tree-covered mountains. Scenic Highway 7 has plenty of tight curves. On this particular 30-mile section of roadway, there are only a few straightaway stretches, and I don’t think any of them are longer than a quarter of a mile.

The Arkansas hills and I have a shared history. I’ve been coming here since I was a pup. My grandparents lived in northwest Arkansas during my early days and my family made frequent visits.

At their tiny house about five miles outside of Fayetteville, Grandma would prepare pancakes and sausage patties for breakfast. And she served sliced peaches in colorful Fiestaware bowls.

With breakfast over, Grandma, Grandpa, my parents, my brother and I would take off in the car, because that’s what my family does and has always done for entertainment. We drive to see what is out there.

On these daytrips, we sometimes took rugged and rocky trails into the hills. Mom and my grandparents searched ditches for wildflowers and plants to add to their collections. Grandpa kept a shovel in the trunk for digging vegetation. We hauled many of those specimens home to Pawnee Rock. Our backyard was full of Arkansas plants.

As a kid I didn’t get much enjoyment out of these drives. I was prone to carsickness and the spinning highways didn’t help at all. But the real killer for me was the strobe-like light of sun and shadows as we drove through these tunnels of trees. That sharp and splintered light splashed into my eyes and cut into my brain.

The mixture of frantic light and stomach-churning curves soured my breakfast, and several times as a child I had to ask that the car be pulled over. To this day I hold a grudge against pancakes and sausage.

Driving in the Arkansas mountains is not my favorite thing, but I do appreciate these hills. Arkansas offers a nice change of scenery from the level land of Kansas. On these curvy roads, I’m reminded of fun times, of great moments from childhood spent with my family. And in the present day, I enjoy visiting my mother in Arkansas.

But as a Kansas writer, the differences between the two topographies jump out at me like a deer leaping from the woods.

As a flatlander whose vision is trained for distance, I feel blocked and short-sighted here. I miss being able to extend my eyes for miles. Adding to the claustrophobia, I can’t even see my beloved sky, except for the strip that is directly above the highway.

Tall pines and oaks, hickory and gum trees are only 10 feet from the highway, even closer at times, and they cast striped shade across the pavement. Their proximity to the roadway makes distant views impossible. I hear there are gorgeous mountains out there, each range a shade darker than the one before it, but I seldom get to see those long shots for myself.

While driving through the canyon of trees, I can only see as far ahead as the next curve. I can’t see the forest, much less the mountain range, for the trees.

Trees are a dime a dozen in Arkansas, but in Kansas, trees are like pets. We may not necessarily name them, but we have favorites, ones that we always look for when we drive familiar roads. There are several trees that I always nod to between Emporia and Strong City.

It’s just my nature, and I suppose my job as a writer, to compare different landscapes. Wherever I travel, bring my Kansas resume with me. And I’m sure that holds me back some, making so many comparisons.

Perhaps I’m always just trying to see the big picture, wanting to see the whole show at once. And maybe that’s my lesson here, what Arkansas has to teach me, that I need to pull in, to surrender that craving for distance, and to look at those things that are right there in front of me.

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, out of state, traveling

  1. dave
    June 19th, 2012 at 13:07 | #1

    yeah…the appreciation of those things right in front of you. that’s what we’re looking for. that’s also why I don’t have to travel very far to enjoy myself, although I enjoy traveling. to me, I can discover new places in my own back yard, if I look into places I’ve never seen before, or look at them differently than I ever have before.

  2. June 19th, 2012 at 13:14 | #2

    I’m always more than ready to get back to the prairie skyline after traveling in the mountains (or Arkansas!). Every place has its own beauty, no doubt, but give me the big sky! Lovely post, Cheryl.

  3. Flips
    June 19th, 2012 at 14:55 | #3

    Since we moved to the Ozarks full time 5 years ago– I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE– ALL THE TREES– THE HILLS & THE LAKES & &&&&&&&&
    When we come back to Kansas to visit– it takes us a few days to get use to that damned Kansas wind that never seems to stop blowing!!!!!!! When we moved here– the first thing I really enjoyed was putting lawn furniture on my deck– patio & yard– & it not blowing to the North 40!!! The Kansas wind really wears on us now– & drys us out– our skin & hair & believe it or not– I have trouble breathing back in Kansas–takes about 3 days to get my breath again!!! I grew up all my life in the Kansas Flint Hills– I guess I didn’t know the wind DID NOT BLOW LIKE THAT EVERY PLACE ELSE!!! :)) I love the trees– the hills– & really love living inbetween 3 huge lakes– the Kansas lakes look like big ponds now!! :)) Kansas will always be “Home”– but really love the Ozarks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. June 19th, 2012 at 16:34 | #4

    Loved the reminder of traveling to Arkansas. Both our kids would get sick whenever we went – tried all kind of things, like traveling before breakfast, after breakfast, crackers, etc, etc but always had to stop numerous times. I, too, enjoy the open spaces and cannot imagine being in a place where I couldn’t see in all directions. Tell your mom “hi” from the Kansas relatives!!!!

  5. June 19th, 2012 at 20:14 | #5

    Nice story. Yep, lots of curvy roads in AR. Much easier to tug my 30 ft travel trailer on KS roads, but that’s another story. Keep the good stuff coming. Chuck

  6. Donna Boese
    June 19th, 2012 at 21:37 | #6

    Thanks for reminding us to enjoy what is right in front of us! I have to say, I agree with you about all those hills and curves. They are nice to look at for awhile, but I am always anxious to get back to our beautiful state, Kansas.

  7. Mike Cranston
    June 20th, 2012 at 08:39 | #7

    Oh My Gosh Cheryl

    I am from upstate New York and I feel for you totally. I was raised most of my life in North Eastern part of this great country and it wasnt until my son moved to your great state of Kansas in 2003 that I could finally feel what you guys feel everyday. Now as I drive around here in my neck of the woods I long for the days of Kansas driving…the open skies and the wide open roads too. Yuppers…steering wheels and brakes….we use lots of both of these on our daily commutes to work everyday. Thanks again for sharing..Cant wait to visit you fine folks again soon.

  8. sara
    June 22nd, 2012 at 12:27 | #8

    At the ripe new age of 60, I figure I had better take my solo Kansas trip if I am ever going to make it. Your writings have helped spur me onto planning this adventure, Cheryl. I have my Kansas maps and memories to guide me…no firm committments, just a few places circled in red, and some scenic backroads to travel. I am leaving this myopic place called DC and soon will be in a car/bubble looking out over the prairies, and yes, I will also nod to a few special trees on highway 50…cottonwood,as I recall. Thanks, Cheryl, for writing and sharing.