A brooding immensity

Even after having lived for twelve splendid years in one of the visually most handsome areas of the western world, the high desert of New Mexico near Abiquiu, or, who knows, possibly because I enjoyed life surrounded by this beauty of a landscape for so long … for too long?, the fresh and new vistas offered by the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills never fail to suck the breath out of me.

This is hard, stony country where, on most days, the light is bright and clear and the earth’s structure is shown vividly. Its unforgiving soil, many months of the year camouflaged by a spectacular growth of ultra-healthy grasses, presents an astonishing relief with bulges and hollows, limestone grottos and bones, rather than a planar arrangement. The surfaces twist and undulate; the space wriggles, flares, solemnly inflates, then collapses again to prepare for another outburst. The scenery is haptic, not abstract as such, rather a womb with a view. There is empirical space and there is conceptual space. Both meet in the Flint Hills.

Driving on Kansas Highway #177, the only paved north-south connection through Chase County (there is also one paved east-west connection, Highway #50) is never not a surprise, always a joy. The rolling grasslands on both sides of the road … from a distance they look almost like the smooth lawns of suburbia — you know them, those lawns like suburban wives, “beautiful and useless and tended by their husbands once a week” (as wrote Mark Costello); or they look like a sublime “Design by Nature” 180-hole golf course worthy of any Masters, with dramatic slopes, treacherous deep-blue ponds reflecting the whimsical white clouds, and enough hard-stone traps to bring a singular excitement to the game. It must be the fast progress of the car on the lonely road, even if I keep my speed under 55 mph, that creates this sublime experience of place.

Other than the amazingly ever-continuing grasslands rich with ponds and healthy cattle grazing into the far distance, plus a few ranch houses or barns, and a few tree lines here and there, along Highway #177, the Scenic Byway, between Cottonwood Falls and my domicile in Matfield Green there is nothing to especially attract the eye. Until I meet the old Bazaar two-room school house and become aware of something high on a far hill across from it. I turn off and, after crossing the bridge on the South Fork of the Cottonwood River, leave my car and start hiking. Uphill. Roniger Hill, named after two brothers who, in the 1930s, built stone markers to honor the Indians whose remains they unearthed atop the ridge. They discovered more, tons of artifacts, enough to fill the little museum they established across from the Chase County courthouse in Cottonwood Falls still open to the public.

Funny, how easily we all are deceived. I at least was, when, in Holland, in my teens, with great fascination I watched all those American TV series and Hollywood feature movies showing settlers and cowboys, and Indians, or rather cowboys against Indians, and longhorn cattle too, struggling amidst a sea of cacti bordered by grand mesas. Dodge City, Kansas, on screen looked like the Mojave Desert or the Sonoran Desert in real life do — so, for a long time I truly believed the Kansas cattle country was a fascinating desert, had abundant saguaros, et cetera.

Now, living in Kansas, I learn, I know, I understand, but I still do not fully comprehend that: 1. There are no cacti or mesas in Dodge 2. The Indian tribes were not the sole propriety of Monument Valley. There were no Apaches circling Dodge. The real Dodge is in old Kaw, Kiowa, Arapahoe country. This prairie is where the real buffalo roamed. This is where the Anglo-Saxon settlers’ Oregon Trail and Santa Fe Trail created deep and lasting tracks in the land. This is where the great American myth originated. And I, dumb Dutchman in Kansas, am still expecting to see a cactus around every corner. Will I ever learn? The lasting power of the big, and the small, screen …

I don’t learn easily anyway. On Roniger Hill I had expected to find –I don’t know why– the Knut Rockne Memorial. It is not here, but close, just south of the Bazaar school house and west of Highway #177.

“Such is the power of Notre Dame football and Kansas weather,” wrote William Least Heat-Moon in ‘PrairyErth’. Transcontinental and Western Air (the future TWA) flight number 3 on the last day of March, 1931, with registration number NC999E, a Fokker F-10A with three propellers — this F-10A unfortunately crashed. Quarterback Knut Rockne was, in those years, in the 1920s and early 1930s, a football player with a star quality comparable to none, and “a tremendous money maker” to boot. Fans called the 43-year-old Norwegian immigrant, who made the unheard sum of $40,000 a year, “The Rock.” (FYI: the American middle class at that time were happy with a mere $1,000 a year.) The crash, during unexpected bad weather, killed them all, six passengers and two pilots. Knut Rockne being one of the victims, hordes of destitute fans from everywhere in the U.S. were attracted to the site. They drove to Chase County, they even flew in, in their own double-winged planes. The crash site with its wreckage attracted hundreds, maybe thousands of scavengers, many carrying shovels, especially after rumor had it that one of the passengers was transporting a fortune in stolen money and negotiable bonds. Some locals, I am told, still believe that someone carried off a fortune on that memorable day.

Even my, at the time world-famous, compatriot Anthony Fokker himself, the one who had so much contributed to the development of air warfare in WWI, flew to the crash scene. He, in good American spirit, denied any implications of improper design or structural flaw of his company’s plane. Yet, as Least Heat-Moon discovered in old files, the F-10A was a problem-plane with a bad rep. It was this crash that hurt Fokker’s image in the U.S. enough to make it disappear altogether from its skies. (The company remained an important aircraft designer and builder in Europe until its slow demise in the 1980s; its assembly halls near Amsterdam are now owned by Airbus.)

Knut Rockne’s name is still recognized. He was one of the first great sports heroes of modern times and in those days the fame competition was a whole lot less severe than today. I hear quotes, I hear stories, I hear myth. Knut Rockne –what’s in a hard-boiled athlete’s name–, as I learned recently, eighty years after the crash while watching a popular comedy show on TV, used to state it well before the game, when the team was ready to charge out of the locker room: “Guys, it’s, Win one for the Gipper. Let’s go and lay eggs in them brains.”

Leaving the highway to enter one of the hundreds of narrow dirt roads leading slowly, because of the harsh flint gravel tearing at my vehicle’s tires, to faraway ranches and pastures, the experience changes. The grasses appear a lot taller than I believed when being kept at a distance on the highway. When I get out of the car for a hike, I find myself struggling through dense growth reaching higher than my knee, or growing hip-high, or shoulder-high, or even taller than I myself stand. With my feet on the ground that earlier anticipated, intriguing golf course becomes an obstacle course which would get even a notorious champ like Tiger Woods in yet more trouble than he already has maneuvered himself into. Here the soil is rock-strewn, and it is hardscrabble rock; there the flinty soil is more like a sponge that sucks down my boots. Walking on the prairie is a strenuous, exhausting exercise comparable only to walking on loose, shifting sands on wide beaches. My dogs, too, are struggling in the tall grass. They wade through it in the same way they conquer deep snow, by constantly jumping high to check out the trail ahead of them, only to dive back deep into the grass … and up again. My Blondie is the smartest of the two and soon decides to use me as a prairie scout to hack an easier path for her to follow. She stays “in” my knees all the time until I reach an area with lower grasses, then she starts roaming again.

One of the more exciting roads to travel is the so-called Madison Road, the dirt road officially mapped as 365 Street leading across the eastern county line into neighboring Greenwood County and then into Lyon County. From WP Road still in Chase County this dirt road winds a magic line through the Flint Hills until it hits Texaco Hill. This is one of those hills with a view beating most other hills with a view.

The Madison Road is one of the prairie back-roads, which, wherever I stop and stare, all offer me the endless views of horizons after horizons after horizons. In the shimmer of the summer heat, during “the white empire of noon,” the outlying hills disappear from view, and the land becomes one long, never-ending stretch of grass. Only when the light is less harsh, or when the sky is moist, with a ground mist that has more presence the farther I look, do I notice elevations and inclinations in the land between my position and the far horizon. They create a new horizon and, behind that one, another meeting of earth and sky becomes visible. And so on. It is like this in whichever direction I turn: 360 degrees of repeated horizons.

Nothing stands between me and these horizons. If I change position, I may see a few distant trees that mark the presence of a creek or a pond. But along the first twelve miles of the Madison Road the prairie is almost as it was when first discovered by white men in the early 1800s. A sea of grass, it was piously called then and later, so many times, by so many different observers –some of whom became well-known authors– that the observation became a fine, fine cliché.

I cannot detect who was the first one to make the comparison, not that it is important. The account of David B. Edward, a Scotsman traveling in the area in 1836, can be considered as utterly typical: “Now, reader, your relator is lost for words to describe the balance of the landscape, as no language can convey to the mind anything adequate to the emotions felt by the visitor, in ascending this vast irregularly regular slope of immense undulated plains, which extend before the eye in graceful rolls, affording from the summits of their gentle swells, to the utmost extent of vision, with the blue of boundless expanse and profound repose of these immense plains, excite emotions of sublimity akin to those which arise from a contemplation of the ocean.” Somewhat later, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote ‘The Kansas Emigrant’s Song’, often reverberated to the refrain of ‘Old Lang Syne’:

We cross the prairies as of old
The pilgrims crossed the sea
To make the West, as they the East
The homestead of the free.

The brooding immensity of the land — it cannot be caught in pictures. But it leaves me shivering. In ‘My Antonia’, Willa Cather writes: “Between that earth and that sky I feel erased, blotted out,” a line which stays with me forever, even more so since Ans renamed herself Antonia, because it’s easier on the American tongue, and that’s how she was baptized anyway.

After twelve miles on Madison Road, the country changes. I see more and more working as well as deserted oil pumps in the land. They are scarce and far away enough not to be really disturbing, and yet … they create an unwelcome change. I am happy to get rid of their aluminum and rust when the hills slowly disappear and trees invade what one day must have been old prairie, too. The land not just begins to flatten out, no, the vegetation also loses its outsized golf course character. The land has been plowed. The plow forced it to surrender its original vastness. Suddenly, the land can be compared with other rural lands in Missouri, in Nebraska and elsewhere in the Midwest, or in central France or central Germany. Everything looks very pastoral, although it lacks the immeasurable magic of the true prairie.

I hit the first ranch since leaving the WP Road –which means, the first ranch east of Jane Koger’s Republic of Grass– just minutes later. A few more follow. Then the first “gentleman’s ranch” comes in sight, and two or three houses obviously designed for weekends and vacations. I enter Madison at Kansas Highway #99, twenty-one miles after leaving the WP Road. In Madison, they appear to have a real 9-hole golf course mown to perfection. I take Highway #99 North towards Emporia and pass the Emporia Country Club with its own proud golf course. I pass through Olpe (population 519) where a sign on the highway tells me: “If it wasn’t beef, it wasn’t dinner,” and I notice a liquor store named “Why Not.”

Why not, indeed. I do need some strong medicine to recuperate from the ultimate prairie experience.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, September 2010 

It was Mark Costello who compared suburban wives to lawns.