Afterward, as I flipped through the 250 or so images I’d taken on our jaunt through north-central Kansas, methodically weeding out the worst ones by hitting the X key to mark them for deletion—and finding far too many so designated—I couldn’t help but question my skills as a photographer, a sort of internal lambasting and blame-game in which former Independent Baptists are so fond of indulging. I imagine penitentes of the southwest do much the same though their preferred method of flagellation involves glass-tipped whips and cactus-studded sandals. Conscience can be such a nag at times.
It wasn’t until later that I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied. Both of my companions, Chod Hedinger and Jim Mayhew, ended up tossing more photos than they kept, and of the latter very few were real keepers. Perhaps Mayhew expressed it best when he wrote, “What you’re seeing is Kansas. It's just not something to write home about when you’re taking pictures. But it was fun.”
Fun it was, and strangely unsettling.
Our intent was for a final trip to close out the year, an exploratory birding and photographic trek through the heart of north-central Kansas. Our only imperative was to avoid pavement at all costs except where necessary. Chod drafted a route using a DeLorme Atlas as a guide, transcribed into a long, rambling series of directions that were impossible to follow. I know, because I tried, using the selfsame map. Once off the beaten path roads usually hew to the square-mile grid devised by Thomas Jefferson, at least where the terrain allows, so that no matter which road we took we would theoretically be heading in a cardinal direction. As long as we remembered which direction was which we couldn’t get lost. Naturally, we left our compasses at home.
Minneapolis was our jumping-off point and the last hard-surfaced road we’d see for most of the day. It was mid-November, the sun barely lifted above the horizon. In the shadow of the Ada Grain elevator we parked by the railroad tracks to stretch our legs, and I lifted the camera to try for a hopeless shot of the full moon balanced on the upper girder of a trestle, an impossible composition with my equipment and the time of day, but I reasoned that pixels are free and so snapped the shutter thrice. And in so doing perhaps cursed the remainder of the trip to mundanity, as if inadvertently having offended the gods of creativity. We snaked around the elevator and trundled across an old bridge and headed west on an unmarked road.
Coming as I do from a megalopolis whose edges forever radiate outward, it still shocks me how quickly the trappings of civilization vanish in rural areas. No sooner had the elevator disappeared behind us than the fields opened up into miles of what can only be described as nothingness. The first few towns passed unremarked and fell away without a trace of memory, forgotten almost before the next undulant rise revealed yet more miles of November-gray woods bordering the mute creeks and abandoned homesteads, the shattered windmills and dusty lanes branching to the right and left without marker of any kind.
Surprisingly, the land was wetter than normal, creeks filled, pastures damp and fringed by an unlikely green, ponds overflowing, scintillant under an azure sky, riffled with a whisper of a breeze. Everywhere the land lay fallow, prairie grasses bleached to pale shades of gold and rust and dusty along the roadways, coated in a fine powder, fields disked under or freshly shorn, stubbled and unkempt. And empty, almost incomprehensibly so.
Capturing that emptiness wasn’t easy. Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer whose traveling exhibition of the Flint Hills still tours the state, admitted as much in an interview. “These are low, rolling hills, and every time you pick up a camera and point it at them, they kind of get small in the distance,” he said. “They aren't like the Tetons, which are big enough to fill a 4x5 frame."
There was so little to fill any frame, or even to focus on, as if the eye or the imagination couldn’t find a reference point to land on. At one point we bounced down a rutted two-track to the ruin of a limestone house and erupted from the truck eager for something greater than sitting and staring, and as I approached the front door, tilted askew on one hinge, a barn owl blew out the doorway and flashed past me like a pale ghost, its wings almost brushing my face. Other than cows it was the first sign of life we’d seen in hours and served only to heighten the desolation. Walking back to the truck I gazed down the road both ways and it seemed to go on forever and nowhere, the far horizons etched with its solitary tracing, a faint and fading artifact on a land impossible to tame. Less a ruin than the once and future Kansas, a harbinger of a time not very distant when vast portions of the state become virtually uninhabited.
Angling north and west until dropping down into a country inhabited by rolling tumbleweeds and ghost towns and towns barely alive, the few shotgun-toting strangers eyeing us warily, we traversed a bewildering maze of gravel roads, some marked, most not. It’s a mystery how Chod, who was driving, kept his bearings. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was as surprised as us when he finally crested a ridge and saw the cobalt waters of Wilson Lake glinting in the sun.
By then lengthening shadows introducing a third dimension and we stopped for several more photographs. Or attempts, I should say, for the low rolling hills withdrew into the distance until all that remained was a vast featureless sky and the impression of windblown ridges marching away to infinity, and a dawning realization that some lands can only be briefly experienced and then left behind.