I grew up in Chicago. One thing about Chicago. You can draw a line straight to the North Pole and not run into any mountains. You can drive to the Gulf of Mexico and it gets flatter and lower, if that’s possible. You can trek east through most of another time zone before you hit the foothills of the Appalachians. And of course, it’s a thousand miles until the High Plains surrender to the frosted peaks of the Front Range. We live here in the vast central lowlands. I know people on either coast who bypass them in favor of the Bay or L.A., NYC or D of C. A friend of mine from Ireland described these midlands as featureless. To me, taking a plane to avoid the Plains is a flight of missed opportunity. Where else do thunderheads rise higher than Everest? Where can I see the sky arc over the horizon, surrounded by green sea and archipelagos of trees. Where else can I count more billboards than blades of grass? To shoot over the Plains late at night with Sara McLachlan baying or an old trucker radio station giving forecasts states away is a modern mystical experience. Man, you can sail out here for hours without running aground on the shoals of a shopping mall.
A friend who grew up in Dodge City and now lives in Albuquerque once told me that a Kansas sundown had it hands down over one in Santa Fe. I knew what she was talking about as I drove South this sunset down Highway 156, coming off I-70. There weren’t many clouds in the sky, except in the southwest corner, between the sun and I. And how they seemed to pose for me, set afire in shades of amber and auburn, crimson and colors unknown to my palette, which is half blind, and unrefined. A few winter cirrus streaks reached north in fingers, and blue-purple splashes, like a painter’s divine mess, exceeded the fingers’ grasp. A wisp of darting thin cirrus turned out to be a flock of birds instead.
The gentle spirit of Kansas, of the sun-brazed Flint Hills miles east, the gentle pitch of the endless Plains; all of it reminded me of my friend, Randy, whose rust and gray beard reflected the grasses where even a sleepy-eyed camel now and then grazed. Randy, a native of Great Bend, near the middle of this middle state, had a week before passed away and was buried here. He was an open-hearted man, like the powder blue sky that was a gigantic gem above me as I sailed the River That’s Not a Road. Randy’s smile was soft and gentle, and he took his time getting wherever. Now I know that his patience came from these rolling lands. The Plains are empty yet full of awe, with grass-clad table lands that have close relatives more naked in the Colorado Plateau west of the Rockies.
There’s so much glorious emptiness out here, it’s tempting to take it for granted. But if I can’t appreciate the humble, relaxed grandeur of the Great Plains, how can I truly revere the awe of the Great Basin. If I can’t be present for the shallow rivulets of the Flint Hills, how can I presence myself to Flaming Gorge, of which these folded lands are fractal precursors. Often as I drive more “mundane” country, I need to remind myself to be present to whatever beauty, to whatever nature, there is. Because whatever moment is happening is the most important moment of my life.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just