By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
If you live in a place where drought is not just a word in newspaper stories from far-away places, it doesn’t matter if your plans for the day involve a highway drive before noon: waking up to see fog is a gift. A small one, more a favor, really, than an outright present. Still, the presence of enough moisture in the air to blur the edges of the day, to soften the prospect of rising temperatures, to haze what might become even greener pastures? A gift.
We saw fog Thursday morning as we headed east to Protection, a quick road-trip to pick up the last bit of the beef we’d purchased a while back. Early that morning, rousing my teens, I told them cheerily, “the scenery is so beautiful!” as though the prospect of landscape viewing before noon would appeal. They slept in the back seat, curled against each other like puppies. Looking out the windshield, their dad and I marveled.
Turning southeast from Meade, the landscape of our corner of Kansas changed from scrub and sand to something more mysterious. Perhaps the fog suggested the unexpected. Sculpted mesas and creek bottoms gleamed white in the diffused sunlight, the chalky soil laid down in thick layers. Twenty minutes later, the soil turned to smudgy red clay, vivid swaths of it visible between clumps of trees clustered along Bear Creek, Sand Creek, unlabeled run-offs.
A stranger to the area might not have noticed the subtle changes: “it’s all so flat,” is what most visitors observe. Our open country in Southwest Kansas requires a different kind of looking. Not lush, not easy on the eyes, not friendly, the land spreads wide in a wordless challenge. A canyon might punctuate the horizon, a few cottonwood trees could cling to the prairie, the road might ribbon up or down a few times, but the land is essentially wide-open, a great expanse from your position to the horizon. So much space opens ahead and above: do we dare to find our place in the vista?
I wonder, sometimes, what the many East African African immigrants who’ve found refuge in the U.S. think of the place they’ve landed. Do our acres of Kansas crop- and range-land remind them of the great spaces of the homes they lost? I wonder what the college students who arrive to study at Seward County Community College think, having started a journey in the jostling Bronx or lushly forested South America or Europe with its millenia-old monuments, then debarking from a small airplane on the tarmac at Liberal Municipal Airport. No teleporting has occurred, but it is entirely reasonable for a newcomer to feel a bit off-kilter, as though Southwest Kansas is akin to another planet.
This place could feel empty. It could feel desolate. It could feel hostile, a sun-baked plane of exposure for insect-tiny people scrabbling to find our way.
Thursday, it felt verdant with possibility. The fog burned off by 10 a.m., though a few hazy pockets nestled in the microvalleys outside Protection. Above the earthbound cloud wisps, dry, bare branches jabbed at the brightening sky. Some of the older trees had dried to death in the drought. Others offered leaves.
I looked across the land, its colors nearly glowing in the filtered sunlight of a May midmorning, and I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful sight. Red wing blackbirds, hawks and larks sketched celebratory arcs through the air. A velvet layer of short, sage-green grass softened the spare angles of Jacob’s Well and the Big Basin just east of Ashland.
No one can imagine how Kansas will look for the rest of this summer. Will it be another mercilessly dry one, the grasses baked to brown before July? A rainsoaked miracle? If temperatures top 100 degrees, day after day, will the old-timers reassure us that it’s only a cycle, nothing to fear?
And no one can imagine how Kansas will look to those of us who leave and return. If former students travel home for reunions, the only sure thing is that nothing will look exactly as it did in the past. Yet the land itself holds true to its form, and the trees, old and stubborn as they must be to hang on to the wind-scrubbed prairie, tell the same story year after year.
This country is a place that fosters resilience and gratitude. It rewards a searching eye with unexpected flashes of vivid beauty. The space sings, when you stand still long enough to let it wrap all 360 degrees around you.
My sleepy teens heard the song, when they woke. The fog was long gone, leaving the beauty of the land directly visible to the traveler’s eye.
“This doesn’t look like Kansas anymore,” one exclaimed.
“Oh, it’s Kansas,” I said. “You just haven’t noticed it before.”