City boy; Kansas prairie
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a big fan of Kansas.
I’ve always hated the vast expanse of flat, brown sameness I thought I saw out the car window. I’ve always gone out of my way to pronounce the name of that river ‘Ar-kan-SAW,’ and always wished I were somewhere else — anywhere else — that had majestic mountains, ginormous trees, glacial lakes and an In-and-Out Burger. Over the years, my passively inimical attitude against Kansas has softened, but on Saturday, June 14, 2014, I felt my first pangs of appreciation for this place and its, dare I say it, beauty?
My childhood self would be horrified.
I was born in California, which in my mind was always home. My family later moved to the vicinity of Seattle for a few years until we moved again for my father’s job — this time over the rainbow. Moving day came on my 13th birthday and I wasn’t happy. I didn’t know anything about Kansas except for what I’d seen in the Wizard of Oz, and I remember my surprise as we drove into Wichita from Highway 54. “Look, dad!” I said. “They have a McDonalds!”
As you may have guessed, I’m a city boy.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve spent plenty of time in the great outdoors, shooting rifles and panning for gold with my dad, standing under the awe-inspiring grandeur of Half-dome and El Capitan, hiking with my Boy Scout troop through the dense, rugged forests of the Pacific Northwest and exploring the alien wonders of the High Desert. I’m old enough to admit that it was childish resentment that colored my thinking about Kansas and kept me from appreciating anything about it.
Like I said, on June 14 I had my eyes opened.
The signature event for the Symphony in the Flint Hills took place that day in a pasture, 16-miles east of El Dorado, Kan. I’m a communication student at Wichita State University, and this summer I enrolled in a unique, experience-based course called the Flint Hills Media Project. We spent a week hiking and driving all over 10,000 acres of rolling, flint-strewn prairie and the nearby villages and country roads. We sacrificed sleep and recreation and most other summertime expectations all students share so that we could cover the annual event, producing professional documentary videos, newspaper articles for publication around the state, Internet content, and a snazzy, 4-color magazine I was pretty excited to see my name in.
What I can’t get out of my head, though, is that prairie.
It’s been a few days since the big event, and yes, we’re still recovering from too much sun, wind, mud and rain. But when I close my eyes, all I can see is a green, undulating panorama stretching out to touch the clean, blue sky. I guess I’m typical in thinking of the Flint Hills as a place with spotty cell service that you drive through a little faster than the speed limit; a stone sign on the turnpike and a blur of rocky, barely-hills not worthy of attention. Fly-over country, they call it.
I guess I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Up close, the tallgrass prairie — the last, unbroken patch of it in the whole world — is not a monotonous field of brown or green, but a cornucopia of sage, thistle, milkweed and more mixed in with the native tallgrass. Walking on that grass in my unworthy city-boy shoes wasn’t like walking on the tame sod around my house. It was peppered with shards of unseen flint lurking just below the surface — which is also the reason the Flint Hills is the last, large bastion of prairie untilled and undominated by man. Standing on the open prairie utterly dispelled my notion of its boring flatness. With nothing around me except earth and sky, I didn’t feel as if the world towered over my own smallness and the insignificant ground beneath my feet. I felt as if I were the one towering. As if I stood at the top of the world looking out over it all. At that moment I understood the words printed on my Symphony in the Flint Hills volunteer shirt: “Land Sky People.”
I talked to a lot of people last week, both locals and visitors, from the child playing outside the ruins of the old Liggett Hotel — who looked shockingly like a character from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — to the affluent patrons sitting in the beer tent debating the virtues of the Kansas City Symphony. I felt a surprising sense of kinship with the people who lived in those hills, the ones who referred to themselves as “stewards of the land.” The business of the ranchers isn’t cattle, they’ll tell you, but the grass. Life on the prairie is slower. Calmer. Those people who live and work on the prairie were not sitting, forgotten, at the foot of the world — they were perched at the top of it. I felt that my time spent in the Flint Hills made me a little more like them.
I don’t think of myself as a city boy anymore — my eyes are open now. I’m Land Sky People.