Chod Hedinger needed to adjust his socks. We found a grassy spot beside the trail, sat down heavily, and shucked our boots. I peeled off my sock liners and groaned with pleasure. A red blister throbbed on my left heel. My feet hurt. My calves were tight and sore. My shoulders were tense.
“We do this because it’s fun?” I moaned.
“Because we’re stupid,” he replied.
The road dropped steadily toward the gray furze of gallery forest far in the distance. At least it was downhill.
“How much farther to the homestead?” I asked.
“A couple of miles.”
“Lie to me. Say it’s a half-mile.”
“I can’t lie.”
I leaned against the pack and let the sun warm me.
It’s a half-mile to the homestead, I decided.
Chod hefted his water bottle and eyed its contents. “Enough for one more swig,” he said, and gulped it down.
I wanted water. I wanted beer, and a juicy green chile cheeseburger or a half-raw T-bone steak with butter-marinated mushrooms and crispy onion rings. I wanted a nap.
After a few minutes we pulled on our boots, laced them tight, complained about getting old and fat, and staggered to our feet. The road went on, and wearily we followed it down.
Twenty degrees. We slipped into jackets, gloves, packs.
There is something fundamentally exciting about that initial weight settling across your shoulders, of snugging down the straps so the pack rides closer to the body—the solidity of it, the bonding of fiber and cloth to torso, the confidence of self-sustainability. The sense of adventure is palpable. From that moment on a person could wander for days or weeks or years, all limits or constraints rendered null and void. Time brought to heel. You are, perhaps, freer than at any other period in your life. The world is yours.
This euphoria will last for four or five miles.
Our breath fogged the morning sun. We crisscrossed cameras and binoculars like bandoleers across our chests. We looked for the heights where Kings Creek is born and saw only stark winter woods and a dusty trail leading from the trailhead to a slight declivity where the forest swallowed it whole. Such was not our path today. We were traveling a road known only to moving waters and a handful of researchers, scientists, and field hands from the faded Dewey Ranch, whose ghosts still wander in the whisper of winds through the tallgrass prairie. And now us, by special permission.
We turned our backs to the trail and walked the road toward the entrance of Konza Prairie Biological Station south of Manhattan. At a barbed wire fence we turned toward the creek and crossed a field of tall yellowed grass and passed through the first stand of woods and dropped into the gravelly bottom. The opposite side of the channel deeply grooved into the hillside, exposing roots that dangled like tresses. The creek was low, with alternating pools and shallow riffles, and ice crusting the edges. On either side the gallery forest hemmed us in.
This is how it started. I looked downstream and thought of the confluence of Kings Creek with McDowell Creek and of the Kansas River beyond. Not too far but far enough over private property to make inaccessible. Half a mile of twists and bends to a conjoining of streams I might never see.
But that was a minor concern. Stretching before us were nearly five miles of prairie waters so pristine that they are among the critically few that all other waters are measured against. Kings Creek is a benchmark, a reference standard, a criterion. Due to favorable topography, a small watershed, the light hand of man, and the protection of the Nature Conservancy, this small trickle of water is little different than that which flowed centuries ago.
Standing there was like stepping back in time. Minnows darted in the pools, quicksilver flashes catching the sun’s hard slant. Drab sparrows and juncos flittered through the underbrush along the banks. I snapped a photo as my own benchmark, a record of the beginning, and turned and followed Chod around the first long bend.
To be continued…