In the beginning was darkness. And more than darkness: a void of luminance so profound as to be matched only by that infinite moment before light burst into being and stars were hurled spinning into space.
I was there, whether floating or standing, corporeal or apparition, I could not say. Only that after a long time a sense of dread fell upon me. Slowly, as if mere imagination, a thin shaft of light appeared. It came from nowhere, serving only to accentuate the darkness, but as my eyes adjusted the dim outline of an endless hallway came into focus. The light bent at an angle indicating an open doorway. Something hard and round and metallic lifted at a slight angle into the light and disappeared back into darkness. And again, and again, with an almost metronomic rhythm. I recognized it as the pitted barrel of a Winchester Model 97 shotgun, the bluing worn off, a bayonet adapter hooking backward like a question mark.
Did I hold the shotgun, or another? Was I, or the person, in wait? There was only darkness, the sliver of light, and foreboding. And that limitless hallway that had no beginning or end.
I told myself it was only a dream, and when in following nights I found myself there again, trying to get beyond the doorway, something blocked my way.
I took this dream on the road, and in a southern city I found that hallway, or one remarkably like it, and the dread nearly paralyzed me. Were it not for a special slice of pie and a single migrant sailing the skies homeward, my journey might have ended there.
Fortunately, it did not.
I believe that imagination is the principle fabric binding our selves together. Some call it faith and others karma but it’s the same thing, a belief that our lives have meaning and purpose, that miracles or acts of serendipity occur with stunning regularity, that the best is yet to come. Just a week before I had driven down remote dirt roads in Washington County in search of a vermilion flycatcher, a rare southwestern bird that had shown up several days earlier. It wasn’t the first I’d seen—that honor went to a male found at Chatfield Reservoir near Denver, when on a stormy afternoon with the skies above the foothills forked with lightning we located the bird hemmed in by a feverish mob of birders like half-crazed paparazzi. The Washington bird failed to show but in its stead was a low-flying B-17 Flying Fortress, its turrets bristling with machine guns. Hearing my shout, my friend asked what it was. “A ghost!” I crowed.
I was in my element there, with only dirt roads to wend and new country all around, and the potential for miracles as thick as pollen. Even then the thought of driving to Wichita for the first Kansas Book Festival, where I was scheduled to autograph my book, was troubling. Not for nothing did we move to a tiny rural town, for my tolerance for traffic and people had grown tenuous over decades of living in Denver. To willingly go into the maw of a big city seemed a betrayal.
Normally we drive the backroads but this time we wanted speed and distance. We left the northern Flint Hills on the interstate, joining hundreds of other sojourners, all bent on reaching their destinations in the shortest time possible. Hours later it was a relief to escape the rush and stairstep down rural roads to the tiny Amish town of Yoder, where I’d promised a friend to visit the hardware store. It was everything he’d said—a throwback to another era, with possibly the largest selection of kerosene lamps and supplies in the state—but around the corner was something even better: the Carriage Crossing Restaurant.
I’d heard rumors that their pie was to die for, especially the lemon meringue. After a perfect meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and of course a hefty slice of pie, I knew that if death were a requisite for the pleasure, I’d willingly lay my bones beneath the grass of Yoder cemetery.
Through Haven and Mount Hope, past blocky Mennonite churches and woods tinted with the first autumn hues, we made our way toward Wichita. The chosen route postponed the inevitable but eventually traffic engulfed us and the city’s gravitational pull sucked us in. We found the hotel, checked in and unloaded our luggage. I was already frazzled. The place was a dump, the room too small, but it was nothing compared to the hallway.
I found it when walking to the front desk. A short jaunt, a left turn and it stretched away, innumerable doors segmented into groups of eight, four on each side, narrowing exponentially in perspective. In my mind’s eye I saw the shotgun slide into the light, and a sense of vertigo hit me. Lori, unaware of the dream, never noticed my flinch. Though my stride barely wavered, I felt like running back to the room and barricading the door.
This, then, was the city, a vortex of traffic and noise and menace, the culmination of nightmares. I felt lost, and knew suddenly the book festival would be a failure. It was a mistake to come. We should have turned back at Yoder.
The next morning we drove to the stadium. A monarch butterfly flew by in a lazy spiral as we entered, its brilliant color contrasting sharply with the dull concrete walls. So incongruous was it that I stopped to watch as it made its way southward on its long migration. It had so far to go, and was so fragile, but it did not falter.
The simplest things can imbue inspiration and courage. In a southern city, under a clear hot sky, I made my way toward the row of tents where people were waiting who knew me and called me friend.