The sun climbed higher in the sky and dragged the temperature with it. The morning wasn’t warm yet and the breeze was chilly, but we walked in a sort of netherworld, down among entwining branches, blocky layers of limestone formations and sudden pools of water, and the combination of our exertions and the sun’s warmth soon heated us through.
Chod stripped off his parka and loosely tied it around his neck in a style favored by fashionable Yuppies, to which I kidded him. We were miles from the nearest human, alone on the Kansas tallgrass prairie, indeed in a place where most people are not even allowed, so the sight struck me as incongruous. But he got the last laugh.
Chod watched with amusement as I wrestled with the zippers on my Gore-Tex jacket. The front was easy enough but the pair beneath my armpits resisted my ministrations. I could have simply removed my jacket but that would entail first dropping the pack, binoculars, and camera and then reversing the order, and that would mean we’d have to stop. We were making good time but there were many miles yet ahead of us, so I twisted and pulled and cursed until he took pity on me.
“Need some help?” he asked with a smirk.
I raised both arms while he pulled the zippers open. Relief was instant.
“Sure you don’t want to take it off?”
We moved off, pacing fast. Here, then, is the measure of a true friend: one who will unzip your pit zips.
The trees fell away and returned, and the creek narrowed and widened and narrowed again, and each cycle saw a diminution, a lessening, a giving way to altitude and grass. At a sheltered spot in the lee of a wooded hill we dropped our packs and stripped off our jackets and dug out our lunches. Kings Creek was a dry stony channel. We’d been on the move for over three hours; it felt good to rest.
“How much farther?” I asked.
“We’re not even half way,” he said.
I thought about that for a minute. The length of the creek was allegedly five miles, but was that measured by crow-flight or the meanderings of its footprint? So far we’d kept to the channel except for short stretches where depth or vegetation made it impossible, but once clear of the trees we should be able to pick up the pace. Still, we had a few more miles to our destination, and then the return trip.
The wind whispered in the trees. If not for Chod it would have been a simple matter to stretch out on a limestone block and doze in the sunlight, and when rested to head back downstream. Or better yet to remain here while the sun wheeled across the skies and fell below the horizon, and shadows thickened and the slow unfurling of dusk drew a hush over the land.
After a while we donned our packs and moved on.
Left behind were all traces of man, the mysterious wooden containers lined with wire mesh, the warped and gnawed nest boxes of wood ducks, the measuring rods, the beribboned trees. The creek was an intimate, sheltered place known only to us and the sky above.
And colorful. Emerald pools formed below springs bubbling from the hillsides. Watercress nodded where fast riffles cascaded over limestone shelves. The creek-bed was a carpet of reds and yellows and auburns of fallen leaves. Even the stones were variegated with bands of moss, some dried to a desert tan and others dark like cedars, or streaked with algae so vivid that it seemed somehow unnatural.
We passed an old cement stock tank whose rotted-out bottom now jutted into space, undercut by the creek. A rusted iron pipe led uphill to a spring. Shrubbery forced us to bypass the ruin on the left, our feet squishing in half-frozen muck and the brittle stalks of cattails.
For a while we skirted the creek, now a restricted, brush-choked maze. The last ragged cedars fell away and in the near distance the hills opened up unobstructed, gentle cuestas whose south-facing slopes were treeless and studded with exposed boulders. A thorn forest rose before us and we carefully wended through its bristling stands and broke through into the open.
Trees were now behind us. Our view encompassed only sky and grass and the snaking path of the creek. It was a subdued, placid thing no more than a yard deep and as many more across, and as it rose to the barren heights other feeder creeks branched off and writhed through the prairie undulations. Two major branches could be seen in the distance past a tall windmill, its blades rusted and broken.
“We’ll take the north fork,” Chod said.
I traced it until it disappeared behind a ridge. A mile or two at most. Behind us the Flint Hills rolled away to a horizon smudged with smoke, and far down the valley, at what seemed an impossible distance, the gallery forest was a gray shape mantling the stream.
After a long drink of water we turned and headed uphill. Kings Creek was fading, coming not to an end but to a beginning.
Conclusion next week…