FLYOVER LAND: What's Right With Kansas
Photo by Rachel Miles, Creative Commons
riving south on Interstate 135, from Salina toward Arkansas City, I can see the giant rolls of hay that look like mammoth shredded wheat, and the long hedgerows of Osage orange trees planted as windbreaks during the Depression, now taller than I remember them.
Cream white waves of tall grass. The wind coming across, always the wind.
This is the flyover land. Jets stream far above and people with briefcases and laptop computers look down and feel glad that they are not driving across this seeming emptiness. But when you drive across north and central Kansas, particularly if you are originally from this country, you do not feel the fatigue and the tension that accumulates on urban freeways.
The land is soothing and nurturing and layered with mystery. Riding a bus across the state in the '60s, I remember awakening suddenly, a bit disoriented, sitting up in the night to see long lines of flame stretching across the Flint Hills prairie, annually burned by ranchers.
The lines of flame were galactic in their brilliance and desolation and beauty. Now, decades later, the miles fly by.
Now and then a half-hearted dust devil skips across the fields and nodding pump jacks suck oil from beneath the land, their heads and necks moving up and down like prehistoric birds.
And of course, the clouds, always the clouds, high cumulus clouds spaced almost evenly across the sky, snow white on top and slate gray underneath. Past Lindborg and Gypsum toward Assaria, the sky a mirror of the land. Black birds clustered on the tops of sorghum.
So much of this land was lifted up during the Dust Bowl years and flung into the air and so many of the people landed in California.
Now the fields are ripe, rich in color—the rust of sorghum, the gold of cut wheat, the deep black of plowed earth and all the lines of trees in different shades of green; some turned by sudden shadows from moving clouds tar black against yellow grass, cedars and hedgerows leaning like herds of something forgotten into a wind that has stopped.
Stuckey's, Texaco, long lines of rail cars stopped on the prairie. More trees here than a century ago. Now past the Smoky River where the land flattens out even more.
Few places in Kansas are truly flat. Only in the most western regions does the line cease to move in curves and jumps and serrated ridges. Only there does the line of the horizon like the green line on a heart monitor grow steady and flat. In most places of Kansas, the land is like some long symphony with repeating themes and with subtle notes but never monotony.
Away from the cities, square-box white farmhouses stand up large with lonely dignity, and of course the windmills and the silos are there and the white lines of dust moving upward from the horizon.
At night this land turns endless and bottomless. On some nights there is nothing but stars. On other nights frighteningly violent storms and hours of calm just as frightening, and then sometimes God's fingers or perhaps the devil's claws reach down and, twisting, scrape across this long, sinuous back with a roar that one can only describe if one has heard it.
And the smaller moving mysteries. On the road ahead, and then for 200 miles, small yellow caterpillars inch across the pavement.
Yearning box turtles move en masse too, especially in the spring. In one Kansas town, the citizens were split between those who wanted to make the box turtle the state animal and those who didn't, and the turtle opposition, called "poppers," would drive out on the highway at migration time and intentionally drive over the turtles.
This land heaves itself up. Migrations of insects, reptiles, people seem to move up from this land and outward.
I remembered: One night in 1969, driving home from a girlfriend's house outside of Hutchinson, the wheels of my car began to slide on the road.
There was no cloud in the sky; it was filled with stars. But I nearly lost control of the car in the slide. In my headlights I could see blips and blurs like a rain of hail or a swarm of locusts—it was neither. It was frogs, a hatching of frogs, or toads, I do not know which. But thousands of them were hopping, flying across the road and my car was sliding on them.
The flyover land is breathing land.
This is where East becomes West. This is where the sensuous hills of Kentucky and Illinois and Missouri meet the hard, spare rockiness and dryness of the masculine West. These are the plains of fertility. This is not the heartland, really. This is the seedland. Food Phone Gas, next right.
This essay is excepted from The Web of Life.
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