“They’re just a big pile of rocks,” my friend said. “What’s the big deal?”
Responding to such a concept—that the Rocky Mountains were nothing more than a jumble of boulders—left me all but speechless. My friend, a man just turned 35 years of age and never having once seen a mountain or a foothill, was heading to Colorado for a short, fast vacation. His destination wasn’t merely familiar to me, it was a place steeped in memory. As much as I envied him, I wished more to see the expression in his eyes when the snowy mountains rose from the ruler-flat horizon to forever inhabit his consciousness.
In the weeks leading up to his departure he cajoled and kidded about the trip. He dreaded eastern Colorado, asking if it was really flatter and more desolate than western Kansas. (It is.) Should he expect winter or spring temperatures? (Winter, always.) Would he see a dipper, a bird that flies underwater? (Maybe.)
Just before leaving, he surprised me by saying, “I might like it so much that I have to ask you what you were thinking of when you moved here.”
And then he was gone. I followed his exploits through sporadic comments and photos on Facebook, impatient for more. One image showed a broad flat valley ringed with misty peaks, light snow raking across the sagebrush. It was so evocative, so real, that I could feel the cold. I could taste the pine-scented air.
We talked at length on his return. The trip changed him, as all such journeys do when we navigate beyond the fields we know. It wasn’t so much the questions he asked that signaled a quantum psychological shift but the plans he was already drawing up for another outing. High on his bucket list, he said, was to learn fly-fishing. He couldn’t believe how clear the streams were, how icy cold, how beautiful. I told him I’d teach him.
The question came near the end of our last conversation. “After that,” he asked, “what did you see in Kansas when you first came here? How could you leave that?”
Though I’d half expected it, I was still caught off guard. In one of those psychic flashbacks where everything reels past like an old grainy slideshow, I was hurled back to 1974, newly married and exploring a world I never knew existed, that of small rural towns and friendly people and a landscape devoid of mountains. Our visit was transformative but not without concerns that continue to trouble me, namely weather that can kill you. We fished the Big Blue and small farm ponds, toured the unpopulated country, met a slew of new relatives who welcomed us with open arms. We were introduced to humidity so intense that it felt as if we were underwater. And yes, one evening we stood outside watching the sky turn the color of an old bruise and sirens roaring to life and I asked what was going on, what should we do, and they said they didn’t know. That they never knew.
“I couldn’t live like that,” I told Lori.
But it would not let me go. Enough so that for the next 26 years we discussed leaving the mountainous west for the Kansas tallgrass prairie, almost serious but not so serious that we were willing to write resignation letters to our respective employers. It was more of a pipe dream, wishful thinking kept carefully reigned in. That it took so long, and with so much anxiety, had less to do with successful careers, raising a family and comfortable niches than it did with the mountains themselves.
They had always been there serrating my horizons, drawing the eye, snagging clouds, a constant interplay of light and shadow. To give them up for a place devoid of even small hills seemed not just impossible but soul-killing. And yet there was something about Kansas that immediately appealed to me, some ineffable quality I could no more define than I could explain.
Though I tried, of course, to relatives and friends, to coworkers who questioned my sanity. My explanation ran through the usual themes of rural existence, of long dusty roads, sluggish creeks and sun-dappled woods, of a sense of freedom I’d never encountered in cities. My ace was the local phone book, a slender volume encompassing more than two dozen towns, which when placed beside the Denver metropolitan directory, all three volumes of it, would unfailingly trigger a dawning of awareness in their expressions. I’d tell them that the place didn’t have rush hour, it had rush minute, that the entire county had exactly three traffic lights, and the county immediately to the west had none. That kind of population scarcity was nearly impossible to fathom for those used to flourishing cities, and if at first they acted incredulous, scoffing at the lack of jobs, fine restaurants and recreational opportunities, it was really just a charade. At heart we’re all rural.
Harder to explain was how I felt at home there, as if I’d been away for a long time and only recently returned to the realization of how much I’d missed it.
Maybe Kansas is a state of mind more than a state of place. Maybe it’s not something words can convey. After a decade of living here I’m still struggling with questions that should be easy to answer but are not, so that when my friend asked that fateful question I was left mute, and could only shrug and tell him that the transition was easy, that it was the hardest thing of all.