On other driving trips I’ve made to the midwestern US, Kansas invariably challenged my patience. Whether it was severe sidewinds (with a trailer in tow) or Detour signs that petered out with no further warnings or directions, I’d come to expect a bump or two in the Jayhawk state.
This time, Kansas was a pleasure because it was our destination. We shied away from monotonous freeway routes to get there, rolling instead through sagebrush in the Great Basin of Oregon and Nevada, on into Utah’s hot red rocks, following US 50 eastward across eleven-thousand foot mountain passes before descending onto the plains where Colorado joins Kansas and its wheat fields.
Pioneers who came west from Saint Louis saw vast prairies of tall grass, and today a small remnant of that once-great green ocean can be seen at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, near the Kansas communities of Strong and Cottonwood Falls. We walked the loop trail twice, binoculars and camera in hand, doing our best to identify birds we don’t have at home while trying to imagine the landscape as it was before highways and fences and modern commotion. As we left the preserve I spent a few moments down among a gathering of Black-eyed Susans. Emerson said “Earth laughs in flowers,” and on that day we were all smiling.
On our first night in Garnett, where our grandson Josh lives, we sat on his back porch with sodas and a cool breeze, and there they were: quick sparks of confetti in a dusk-blue-black sky. Fireflies, or, as Kathy remembers them from her Saint Louis youth, lightning bugs. She and her friends caught them in Mason jars on summer nights when entertainment was a spontaneous choice of activities that didn’t include shopping malls or TVs or other distractions. Josh may be a throwback to that time, as he’d rather be fishing than almost anywhere else, but the allure of bigger, brighter lights is always there. Small towns without corner cafes, declining populations, and too many boarded-up brick storefronts have reminded us how tenuous life in some parts of “the country” has become.
Tomorrow we begin the drive back to Oregon, tired but also refreshed from visiting family and friends. The Interstates beckon, if only for their directness. “East, west, home’s best.” Once we figure out where to stuff the three-tiered pot holder Kathy bought at a garage sale, the car will be packed. You won’t see them, but strong memories of Kansas will be in there, too.