“There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is with your eye on a far goal, because you then begin to believe you’re not closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot fell just where it had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people: circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on – that place you have to get through, that purgatory of mileage.
Hiking in the woods allows a traveler to imagine comforting enclosures, one leading to the next, and the walker can possess those little encompassed spaces, but the prairie and plains permit no such possession. Whatever else prairie is – grass, sky, wind – it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.”
-William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country
As we entered the Kansas prairie on Friday afternoon, I was telling Leah and Eric and Dan about what it was like to move from North Dakota to Illinois. The feeling of being constrained by the trees, claustrophobic even when outside. The hills that blocked your view in every direction instead of the infinity of the plains. And then, what it was like to adjust to that, and go back again to visit, and feel like you were about to fall off the face of the earth. There was just nothing to hold you down anymore, it feels like there is no gravity and that’s why there’s nothing there. We talked about how it compared to the desert of Dan’s Grand to Grand Ultra, and the feeling of standing at the edge of the ocean. To feel tiny and to stare into an infinite universe. I am comforted by vast expanses of sky and water, and the prairie fills that same need for me.
Our time in Kansas was split between a ranch bunk house run as a B&B and a rented Hyundai. The bunkhouse owner left a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls on the counter for us. The Hyundai only gave up one tire to the sharp flint gravel roads. The event came with warnings of both tornadoes and cattle stampedes.
Leah was the racer this weekend, the rest of us the support crew. A 100 mile race often requires two sunrises. Our first was cold and rainy and grey-blue and gloomy. The orange fuzziness of our second sunrise was blown across Kansas to us by a 40mph wind. And in between? Leah was as unrelenting as the wind itself.
Do you have friends who continually make you gasp in awe at what humans are capable of doing? I suggest you get some. Like the endless ocean or the infinite sky or the prairie that rolls until the earth curves, friends who have no limits can be the best challenge to your own mental barbed wire fences.
When we packed to leave, the proprietor of our bunk house showed up with warm freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for our trip home, bringing her husband along to meet the woman who had just run 100 miles. I sat in a rocking chair, gripping my phone and praying my 3G connection would hold, watching Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space. He stepped to the edge and stopped to speak.
“I know the whole world is watching, and I wish the whole world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”
And sometimes you remind yourself in Kansas.