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Tumbling Tumbleweeds

December 11th, 2012 at 5:47 pm

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

columns, Flyover Weather, landscape, nature, traveling, weather

  1. Flips
    December 11th, 2012 at 17:52 | #1

    We use to decorate tumbleweeds as small Christmas trees!!!! 🙂

  2. Anna Keller
    December 12th, 2012 at 01:13 | #2

    A common sight here in New Mexico, too. Your description of the windy drive reminded me of driving in Northeast New Mexico… dust bowl country; and lots of tumbleweeds. Now I’m inclined to take a tumbleweed sighting drive after reading your essay, Cheryl!

  3. December 12th, 2012 at 10:44 | #3

    We’re all so used to tumbleweeds, but when we were traveling home from a work trip, one of our co-workers spotted them rolling across the highway & asked us to pull over. He jumped out, grabbed a big tumbleweed & ended up putting it in a big box & mailing it to his brother in New York! : )

  4. Chuck Buerki
    December 12th, 2012 at 22:20 | #4

    Looks to me like they’re having a union meeting to discuss who built the fence in their yard without their permission.

  5. December 14th, 2012 at 19:55 | #5

    Thank you all – Flips, Anna, Kelley, and Chuck! I appreciate your comments so much!

  6. Jack Turbes
    December 16th, 2012 at 16:42 | #6

    Insidious, that’s what tumbleweeds are. The lyrical Sons of The Pioneers romanticism goes away when you encounter a gaggle of ’em on the Interstate and naively choose to play automotive pinball with them as they careen across the highway. It lessens the super-slab tedium but it can become expensive. Why? Well, you find they’ve exploded into every imaginable crack and crevice of the car, and ripping the shrapnel free is like trying to pull barbed wire out of all the nooks and crannies.

    And it can become much more than an annoyance. A few years back I was having elusive cooling issues with the old Ford Tempo, which otherwise ran faultlessly and had covered KS miles reaching into the six-odometer-digit range. After two radiator flushes and as many thermostat changes, a knowing technician in Great Bend said that it was a congested radiator(!). “Huh?”, I responded. “Yeah”, he answered, telling me that the narrow space between the A/C “radiator” in front of the real radiator was clogged. He was able to loosen the former enough to open the space to reveal and remove a matted mass of — you guessed it — tumbleweed remains that had accumulated over the years. Neither rain nor sleet nor biodegradation had dented the thorny residue. Problem solved.

    Now, as I travel through the Plains at that time of year I am watchful of those ubiquitous free-roaming kali tragus as they emerge from a drainage basin, bridge abutment or other hiding place and bound onto the highway. I have become adept at timing my encounters, accelerating or even changing lanes to avoid their becoming enmeshed in the grille…and air intake…and wheel well…and undercarriage…and mostly the radiator assembly.

  7. sara
    December 22nd, 2012 at 08:03 | #7

    We have used tumbleweeds for Christmas trees. They can be as symbolic as an evergreen for the tenacity of life amidst our sorrows and woes.