Thursday, January 31, 2008

Center of the world

“I believe you think Kansas is out of the world but believe me it is right in the center,

and God Almighty was in one of His pleasantest moods when He made it.”

– Richard Smith, Sept. 16, 1870

How many ways are there to connect the dots of a life? I can’t recall the first time I stood at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in lower downtown Denver, but I know it didn’t impress me as much as it would later in my life. Time matures us all, physically and mentally, and spiritually, too, the latter being the most important but not in the way most people think. We are in this world and of it and linked in ways we will never fathom. And later, after walking down the concrete steps from the viaduct to the small platform overlooking the confluence not far from where gold was discovered in June 1858, a deepening sense of the antiquity and permanence of the land and our mystical ties to it settled in my bones, and the world thereafter became a different place.

It took a lot of imagination to picture it as it once was. The Front Range rising in the west, Long’s Peak a sharp canid fang to the northwest, an unbroken tide of shortgrass prairie rolling to the eastern horizon, and perhaps an Indian settlement or two, and the sound of birds, water, and wind in the cottonwoods. Not a lonely place but almost ideal, and now ravaged under concrete, steel and glass, the air choked with exhaust and thrumming with the roar of traffic.

Strange to realize that Kansans created the rough mining village that would grow into the largest city in Colorado. It was November 1858, and a party hailing from Leavenworth, then a part of the Kansas Territory, founded the Denver City Town Company. My wife and I reversed their outward migration to the frontier almost a century and a half later, if you define frontier as any unpopulated area growing ever more unpopulated.

It was a good time for Larimer and the others to leave. The Kansas-Missouri borderland was a freefire zone, blood spilled at the Marais Des Cygnes massacre was still wet on the ground, John Brown had less than a year to live and Abraham Lincoln would soon declare that “No other territory has ever had such a history.” And war was coming, the likes of which no man could imagine.

The territory that would become Kansas was first an idea, then an ideology, then a bloody battleground. That’s what we remember, what school kids are told every January 29th as teachers recount the difficult birth of the state. There’s more, of course, the trails that led settlers into and out of the territory and the immigrants who stayed, the Native American tribes, the mountain men, Pony Express riders and cattle drives. And before them the explorers: the Pathfinder, John Fremont, in 1842, and Stephen Long in 1819—for whom the tallest peak on the Front Range was named--and the most famous of them all, Lewis and Clark, who crossed the northeastern part of the state in 1804. I have no affinity with any of them other than perhaps Long, whose peak graced my imagination and view for two and a half decades. If there are any connections between myself and the early explorers it is with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who in 1541 entered Kansas looking for Quivira, one of the mythical seven cities of gold.

Coronado was well known to me, having been schooled in Albuquerque, not far from where he entered the Rio Grande Valley valley after sacking the Zuni pueblo of Tiguex.

Many years prior to my Colorado experience the same sensation whelmed me while standing in the ruins of Cicuye, a pueblo not far from the Pecos River in northern New Mexico. It was night, and starlight glimmered on the distant snowy mountains. I had walked from the parking lot to the kiva and stared down into that midnight entrance and felt some unnameable thing within me move as if in recognition. I was younger and less certain of myself and chalked it up to the mystery of a vanished civilization. Now I recognize it as a homecoming.

It was at Cicuye that Coronado first heard of Quivira. Not that far, really, from where I first learned of it. But where he went in search of gold I also went, and my search was more successful.

I don’t claim to understand what makes one place intrinsic to our being. All I can say is that there are places of power that speak to us and captivate us and hold us in their imagination.

Perhaps these are tenuous connections at best, faint tracings on a map extant only in my imagination. But imagination is what keeps us here in the face of our adversities, an imagination that blazed when I first crossed that imaginary line dividing one state from the next. And I wonder if these connections may not even be connections but something else entirely.

Edward Abbey wrote, “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” For Abbey, it was the deserts of Utah. For me it’s multiple places, a medley of desert and mountain and prairie, of pinyon-juniper woodlands and deciduous hardwood forests, of West Texas scrubland and Yucatan jungles, but always at the center of my known world is the northern Flint Hills where the tallgrass prairie bleeds away into the glaciated regions. Like life itself, it’s a territory of intersections, borders, confluences, connections. It’s Kansas, and for this outsider, every day is Kansas Day.

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