Eighty two miles per hour would get me pulled over in my home state of Virginia, but in Kansas, I whiz right past the state trooper on I-70. He doesn’t flinch. It’s dusk and my rented shoebox-sized Fiat 500 doesn’t seem to be able to go much faster, which I think is probably a good thing when I spot a deer on the shoulder. In this car, hitting that deer at this speed likely would be fatal for both of us.
I’m rushing toward the Flint Hills of Kansas, near the geographic center of America. My plan calls for an abbreviated night’s sleep followed by a very early morning two mile hike under the stars. I’m hoping to make it to the middle of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve for sunrise on a day where the forecast calls for “brilliant sunshine”.
A few generations ago, the middle of America was covered in a sea of prairie grass. Now only 5% of that vast sea remains, most of which is in the rocky hills of Kansas. Thankfully, much of what remains is now federally protected. Prairies are an incredibly complex ecosystem and exceptionally good at converting solar energy into edible protein. The prairie’s strength is subtle, and mostly underground. Each blade of grass has a root system twice as long below ground. Author William Least Heat Moon wrote, “The prairie is not a topography that shows it’s all, but rather a vastly exposed place of concealment.”
So it was with child-like enthusiasm that I set out under the stars early this morning in my quest for the sunrise. Though excited, I was also cautious. Hiking in a dark, unknown territory past signs warning visitors about recent aggressive Bison behavior was a bit unsettling. My senses were on high alert, but the further in I went, the more comfortable I became. A half mile past the Ranch Legacy trail intersection, I found a set of tire tracks veering off toward the shoulder of a high ridge. Instinct told me to follow, and I’m glad I did. At the crest, a vast valley of intense green opened up as far as I could see. I could not image a better promontory from which to experience the Tallgrass Prairie.
Atop a lushly covered hill.
As brilliant golden sunshine rose.
With undisturbed beauty in all directions.
The cherries on top stood a hundred yards away - a herd of grazing Bison, none of which displayed any aggressive behavior for the hour I spent at this spot fully immersed in the openness.
Ruth Palmer, one of the stewards of the preserve, told me that if I was a fan of open spaces, I would love Tallgrass Prairie. Others say it’ll take your breath away. I did love my visit to Tallgrass Prairie – so much so it’s now on my Rushmore of favorite places. And Tallgrass Prairie did in fact take my breath way… or more appropriately, gave me an incredible amount of space to breathe.