We’re not even to the first stop sign in our neighborhood when Nicholas asks, “Are we in Kansas yet?”
For the first twenty miles, Julianna shouts every three minutes, “Hotel pool!” She only stops when the refrain changes to a pathetic, “Toilet! Toilet!” We have to make two bathroom stops in the first two hours, despite having put the kids on the toilet just before starting out. The third stop is at the home of some former neighbors we haven’t seen in five years. The kids play, we chat and snack, then get back on the road.
Five miles west of Topeka, the terrain changes abruptly, like the flip of a switch. Vast expanses of undeveloped land, sweeping hills, low grass punctuated by low shrubs. Then the switch flips again, and it’s like looking at home: uneven fields of corn and dense woodland. And then the prairies return, stealing my breath with the hazy green beauty.
For the first time I understand what it was that drew people to the frontiers, far from convenience and even safety. There’s a wild loneliness to the landscape that calls hearts overwhelmed by the chaotic buzz of urban life. To someone caged in by buildings and brick and mortar, all that open space looks like freedom.
West of Salina, where we stop for dinner at IHOP, we see a billboard advertising free land for residential and commercial use. Now that’s revealing. I didn’t think any land was free anymore, anywhere.
For twenty-three miles we drive through a wind farm–in one mile on one side of the highway, I count thirty-two. Hundreds of windmills, dwarfing more familiar windmills that sit spinning in the hot wind, even when there’s no farmhouse or barn anywhere to be seen. The terrain is not nearly as dull and unvarying as I remember.
Sat., June 22, 2013: Hays, KS to Estes Park, CO
My day begins, predictably, at 4 a.m. I lie in bed for almost an hour, trying to go back to sleep, but I can’t. Time to do some novel work by the sliver of light between the hotel curtains. We’re so far west in the time zone, it’s still pitch dark at 5:30, and the floodlight right outside the window is all the light I have to work by.
The bigger towns in Kansas seem to be at geographic break points. Leaving Hays, we see the first set of gates used to close the interstate during blizzards. And the terrain abruptly flattens out. But it remains greener and more lush than we expected.
10a.m. Mountain time, ten miles shy of the Colorado border, a crop duster and three semi trucks carrying blades for a wind generator (those things are so much bigger than they look! They made the semi look like a 3/4 size toy), we run out of distraction tools and have to pull out the junk food.
All morning, we have unfair amounts of fun at the expense of the world’s largest prairie dog, which sounds almost silly enough to get off the highway to see. Almost. We want to make it two hours without stopping for a change.
2:40 p.m.: It’s official! First sight of the Rockies! The haze is so thick, perhaps from the Colorado Springs fire, that we can’t see them until they are already looming over the power lines. They emerge from the horizon all at once.
We roll into Estes Park in the nick of time to attend Saturday Mass…but not in time to change clothes. I have never felt so conspicuous in my life. I am not only not dressed for church, I’m still dressed for hot plains weather, in short denim shorts and a tank top, and I spend most of Mass chasing a toddler who is equally inappropriately dressed and has been stuck in a car for two days. I could swear the guy behind us is giving us the evil eye. I take it as a lesson in humility and charity, my word of the year: a reminder that behind every judgment is a story you can’t know. It’s a reminder I desperately need, considering they sing “Colorado on my mind” by Merle Haggard as a Communion meditation–and half the assembly sings.
After a dinner-and-breakfast grocery run, we arrive at our final destination: a cousins reunion at Overlook Ranch. It is perfectly still here, and the air smells vaguely sweet with the light scent of the ponderosa pines all around us. I know that however late I stay up this week, talking with cousins, I’m going to be up at 5:30 every morning to drink in the stillness. I’m already glad we’re here, even if they are warning us that there is a bear in the area, and it does visit the ranch.
Featured Recipe: Chrissy’s “throw-it-together” dressing for fajita salad:
- 1 part lime juice, including some pulp
- 1 part rice vinegar
- chopped fresh cilantro to taste
- A “blob” of honey
- 2 parts olive oil
Whisk together first four ingredients, then add olive oil while whisking. Serve over a salad of greens, roasted peppers and onions, grilled marinated chicken, black beans, avocado, cheese–whatever sounds good.