Open sky, open mind

July 30, 2010

July 20

Despite Chief Jerry’s tepid endorsement of the prairie reserve, I still had an urge to see it. For one who has lived in cities most of my life, the chance to spend time in the vast openness was a rare opportunity. The master itinerary of this trip had Paul joining me on August 8 in Kentucky for about a week’s worth of riding. I spent last night conservatively estimating whether I could make that rendezvous. I could with a few days to spare. So this morning after saying goodbye to Javier and Jerry, I headed northeast toward Strong City and the Preserve. I had a favorable wind and made it to Strong City by mid-day. It was a hot and hilly two miles further to the prairie.

Tallgrass prairie once covered most of the midsection of the United States. As new settlers began to discover how fertile this land was, it was plowed under and converted to farmland. The Tallgrass Prairie area was “preserved” in a sense, because the topsoil was too shallow to plow, so it was used for cattle grazing–a use, fortunately similar to what bison had been doing for eons.

This stately home conveyed the success of the cattle ranch that once occupied this area.

The barn was designed so that haywagons could drive right up one ramp into the hayloft, then exit down the second, never having to turn around.

This preserve is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. This was once an ancient shallow sea which converted over time to limestone and chert, which is more commonly called flint. The late 1800’s ranch house and barn remain as an impressive historical counterpoint to the natural features. Only in 1996 was the ranch designated a National Preserve. It is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the National Park Service.

I felt roasted by the time I made it to the shady shelter of the Preserve’s barn/visitor center. I briefly questioned why I would want to take a hike in 95+ degree heat in the open sun, but the effort getting here and the opportunity to see a nearly vanished part of our country compelled me to venture out.

I asked the ranger how to best experience the prairie in the time I had. He recommended the 3 Pastures Trail, which was a 4 mile loop that would take me far out into the grasses and offer some sweeping vistas of the hills.

I could just about walk under the curved trunk of this massive cottonwood tree, but set against the hills it is a minute feature of the land

I started walking, first down from the barn into the first pasture. The wind that had help propel me up here now helped moderate the heated air. I crossed a dry creek bed and passed through a pasture gate. Huge cottonwood trees dotted this low land. But their size became apparent only when you came near them. Otherwise, they were dwarfed by the great expanse.

Clouds, sky and grass--the defining elements of the prairie

The trail next led me up a ridge. I began seeing the seemingly endless rolling of the hills, soft and green, occasionally dotted with cattle herds in the distance.

Clouds, sky, grass. That’s all that was around me. Not a person in sight. All I could hear was the wind. This is the sight that perhaps westward travelers saw and feared–a vast unknown they were heading into. This may have also been what some settlers saw and dismissed–what could be valuable about this type of land? I was trying to feel what those who loved the prairie felt. What was the connection, the attraction, the power, that the prairie offered to these people?

I still haven’t been able to answer that. Perhaps the connection comes as you experience a lifetime there, not a few hours as I did.

The breathtaking simplicity of the prairie vistas can make you overlook to complex beauty of the prairie grasses themselves

Prairie seeds ready for launching

Up to this point, I had been struck by the big beauty of the prairie. At a junction in the trail I sat down on the ground. The prairie world changed. I saw different grass heads swaying thickly in front of me. Seed heads were opening, pushing out furry progeny. An indentation in the grasses marked where a bison had lain for a rest or the night.

The prairie, and being in the prairie, was beginning to mean something to me. I was reminded you could find beauty on different levels. Because there was so much sameness, I was not focused on a point or a destination. It cleared my mind to think. One reason I’ve always enjoyed biking is that it forced you to experience the world at a slower pace. Walking through the prairie (or walking anywhere) slows your perspective even more.

This re-realization made me think about the power and purpose of walking in our lives. These days, walking is often associated with good fitness, but people have walked for social and political reasons as well. Think of the pilgrimage or the protest march. I once strode up the Philosopher’s Walk in Heidelberg, Germany, trying to imagine what Kant thought about centuries before me.

As all this circulated through my brain it dawned on me how valuable this day’s diversion was. The consistency of Kansas’ wind, heat and roads was turning my days into a focus on getting to the next town before it got too hot. Experiences like this were part of why I wanted to take this trip–to see, feel and hear what was unique about this country; and reflect on how and if that had any effect on me and how I viewed the world.

These seedheads, seen at eye level, were among the tall grasses growing along the bottomlands trail

To compete with nearby grasses, these sunflowers piggybacked upon each other to gather sunlight

Despite its effect on me the 3 Pastures Trail did not provide me what I had originally come here to experience–being amidst tall grasses. The ranger had explained that in these uplands, the grasses attained those highs in the spring and fall, when there is more rainfall. He directed me to a bottomlands trail near the Fox River.  There I walked past grasses and sunflowers taller than me. A century ago, when the prairie was still dominate, people could only find lost cattle when they saw the tops of these grasses part. Nearby, thick stands of trees overhung the Fox River, making it seem dark and claustrophobic compared to the openness of the prairie.

To cap off this day of impressive natural experiences, rumbling dark clouds moved overhead as I finished the bottomlands walk. I made it back to the motel in time to escape a strong storm that moved through the area. After it passed I stepped outside to watch the setting sun illuminate the passing clouds and turned eastward to see impressive lightning bolts arc downward from the sky.

The sun putting back color in the sky that the thunderstorm had taken away

A Tallgrass Prairie vista

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