Life

Discovering The Heart Of Slow Travel On Kansas’s Konza Prairie


UPROXX

Konza Prairie. Flint Hills, Kansas. Home to the Konza Prairie Biological Station, run by nearby Kansas State University. I see gently rolling hills — covered in long prairie grass, green melting into yellow into burnt orange. When I pull over and step out of the car, my dog, Reuben, stares at me from the backseat. He’s trying to figure out what I’m doing. I hear the wind — no rush of cars, just wind. This is not part of our rhythm, this middle-of-the-day stop. And yet here we are. I stare out at the trailhead for a moment, and then I turn back, open the door, and grab the dog.

The sound of wind as it whispers and hushes through prairie grass is something I never thought I’d care about. Now I know it’s something I’ll never forget.

1:40 p.m.: Driving through the flat expanses of Kansas is starting to warp my mind. It doesn’t matter that I left I-70 for some of the gentle curves of the local two-lane highways, surrounded by sunflowers and corn. Everything, eventually, starts to flatten and dissolve — the heat of the midday September sun sizzling on asphalt and erasing the line between here and oblivion. The only thing that keeps me in my mind is the occasional whine from the backseat of my 11-year-old dog, who long ago gave up on sitting or lying and is instead surfing every turn and brake, every move making him more anxious.

We’re a little more than half-way through our journey, and as Kansas rushes by the corn and sunflowers start to disappear, giving way to vast fields of grass. With every whine and whimper, I feel like I have to rush to get to my destination as quickly as possible, so I can get Reuben out of the car and into his new life.

***

When my boyfriend and I decided to move across the country, we agreed that he would take care of closing up the apartment then fly, and I would race with the car and the dog and some essentials to our new home.

The plan was simple enough: get from Portland, Oregon, to Durham, North Carolina, in as little time as possible. Approximately 2,800 miles, cutting a line straight through the middle of the country. I could burn through that, I figured. It’s not like there was anywhere I needed to stop. After consulting maps and dog-friendly hotel websites and finding cheap campgrounds, I decided I could do it all in four and a half days. Less than a full work-week. Simple.

The last time I’d driven across the country, I had a co-pilot who could drive when I got tired, and we stopped at Wall Drug in South Dakota to check out the kitschy, sprawling tourist stop in the middle of South Dakota. Then we went to Glacier National Park to gawk at the enormous rocky mountains and dip our toes into a glacier lake.

This time, however, it would just be me and my old pup, burning rubber.

***

1:54 p.m.: Reuben’s whining is getting bad, and he’s starting to pace and turn in the confines of the backseat, stepping on his bed and his water bowl, scratching at my armrest. I’m afraid he’s going to end up smashed into the headrest if I have to brake suddenly, and I start to calculate how far we have to go until our next designated stop. We have a schedule, after all. I’m supposed to drive for approximately six more hours, until we reach the outskirts of St. Louis.

It’s day three, I tell myself. Two more days to go. One and a half, really. I can do this. Then I peek in the rear-view mirror and I see his eyes, practically begging for relief.

Before I know what I’m doing, I find myself turning left onto a dusty one-lane road just outside of Manhattan, Kansas, surrounded by grass.

***

We decided to leave Portland because it was becoming all the things we didn’t want. Busy, expensive, a self-satisfied mess of people who never stopped talking about the death of Old Portland and how cheap everything used to be. Leaving wasn’t an easy decision: Portland was the only place I’d ever known as an adult (plus the donuts are bomb). I moved there when I was 19 and grew into adulthood in that city. It had been my partner’s home since his family immigrated in the early 90s, and when we met he told me he was a lifer, that he would never live anywhere else.

But eventually, we ended up taking stock of our lives and deciding that it was narrow-minded to assume that there was only one place, one city, that was right for us.

I’ll only ever live in a city, I once said. And I could never live back on the east coast.

Needless to say, we surprised ourselves when we picked a new home in the middle of North Carolina, but we decided to just roll with it. We could always move again.

***

2:15 p.m.: After putting on his lead and grabbing a bottle of water, I let Reuben pick our direction. Usually, we walk in step, side-by-side, conquering the world together. But today, I know, there’s no stopping the anxious pull of a dog trying to get as far away from the car as possible. We start out on the crunch of compressed dirt and what looks like limestone, near-white rock that blinds me in the sun, green grass so saturated I have to remind myself that color like this doesn’t only happen in photo filters.

The click of insects and gentle whine of a day reaching peak heat engulfs, and I can’t help but reach out and touch some of the dry stalks of tall grass. The shhhh of movement as my hand runs through feels like a whisper, and a shiver runs down my spine. The feeling I get is preternatural — a sense of a world beyond what I see and notice every day.

Even Reuben is starting to relax, the leash becoming slack instead of taut. Soon, the straight path starts to climb, and as we ascend, I start to get a sense of scale. Below me are the flint hills, rolling as far as the eye can see. Trees dot the horizon here and there, reminding me how vast this place is, how small I am. Reuben sits, panting, and I pour some water into a collapsible bowl for him while I sit and stare at the prairie and breathe deeply.

***

There is so much of the world that I haven’t seen. I know this. There are so many people to talk to, so many places to wander through, to try to get to know in the limited time I have. Travel is a mere scratching of the surface, and I constantly wonder whether such a thing as getting to know a place is even possible. Still… it’s better than the alternative, better than staying put.

And yet, I have to admit that while wandering through Europe and South America, I forgot my own country, my own home. I would stay put in Portland, maybe go up to Seattle. I’d visit my family on the east coast, haunting Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. My knowledge of America was limited to the parenthetical coasts hugging this vast continent. What was Kansas to me before this unintended pit stop? It was a place to get through, a straight, flat line on the way from point A to point B. Nothing but corn and sunflowers and football fields. I was hyper-focused on my plan, my idea of what I wanted, on the endpoint. The goal. But sitting in the middle of the prairie, surrounded by grass and wind, watching my dog finally relax, I realized what I’ve been missing.

***

5:45 p.m.: Three hours later and we’re still here. Still picnicking in the parking lot. Still reading with a blanket over my shoulders and a dog by my side. Whenever I start driving again, I’ll have to shift a few things to push my arrival by a half day. As the sun starts to sink, the prairie glows. I’ve never seen anything like it. The light is warm and alien. But there’s a familiarity building, a recognition. As Reuben and I make our way back to the car, we take our time, and I feel his soft fur rub against my leg. A flock of birds, spooked by our steps, takes off to our right. Where they’re going, I don’t know. And instead of pulling at the leash to examine the fluttering wings, Reuben turns and licks my calf.

On we stroll, back to the car. Better for having stopped.

NOTE: In the time since this visit, Konza Prarie has gotten strict about enforcing a “no dogs” rule.

Lisa Dunn
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