I’ve experienced four claustrophobia-related panic attacks and none were caused by elevators or caves; they were caused by trees. Specifically, East Coast trees. Since our kids live back east, we’ve driven back and forth many times. And the highways back there are beautiful. You can drive for miles and see nothing but a tree canopy. No Comfort Suites, no McDonalds, no houses, and no people. After a few hours of this isolation, my palms itch, my legs twitch, and I can’t get enough air into my lungs. Damn trees.
I think that where you feel most comfortable driving is influenced by where you first drove. My first road trips were to Kansas State which is located in the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie. It was just me, my Camaro, and Steve Miller with a side of Queen driving along roads first cut by wagon wheels.
In the early spring, the prairie is on fire with controlled burns. At night, the hills glow with a ribbon of red embers. After, the smell of smoke hangs heavy over the blackened earth. Soon, the land turns yellow-green and then emerald. In the fall, the grasses are brown and rust and gold and the sun hangs large and low.
You can see beyond today in the prairie. You can see yesterday and tomorrow and the day after. After this vastness, I can’t tolerate being enclosed. I like being in a place where the sky is so big it seems as if the sun is rising and setting at the same moment; I like thinking I can see the earth curve.
Only an estimated 4% of the tallgrass prairie still remains in the world and 80% of it is in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma. A few years ago, a final agreement was reached to save 11,000 acres by creating the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve. In an example of how things ought to work, ranchers and attorneys and environmentalists and Republicans and Democrats came together in an agreement that took decades to reach. Ranchers will be allowed to continue a way of life that has existed for generations and, in return for not plowing the land or developing it, the government will pay the ranchers a portion of what they would have received had they sold or plowed their acres. The ranchers will grant easements to scientists and environmentalists who will be involved in restoring the native grasses and animals including some of the 30 to 75 million buffalo who once roamed. Wins all around.
When I first meet people and they learn I’m from Kansas, they start with the Dorothy jokes and end with the opinion that Kansas is one vast wasteland that you only drive through to reach the Rockies. Oddly enough, the Flint Hills are a kissing cousin to the ecosystem of the Rockies. The prairie formed only because the Rockies sucked the moisture out of the sky and our prairie grew up in defiance of that theft. The Rockies are truly take-your-breath-away spectacular but, you know, there are a lot of trees there.
It’s strange because I have seldom touched a cow or a grain of wheat and know nothing about agriculture, but, as we drove through the Flint Hills this weekend, I felt at peace. This Kansan truly is most at home on the range.