Janet Sheridan: Crossing Kansas
A sister-in-law burst into tears when she entered Colorado for the first time after a long drive on I-70: “I thought I’d see mountains. It looks just like Kansas.”
In the past, I, too, misjudged Kansas.
For me, crossing the stretched-out state was an endless trial — like wandering 40 years in the desert, the excitement of the Red Sea far behind, and nothing to eat except manna.
But since Joel and I retired and take more road trips to Illinois to mix it up with our grandchildren, I’ve grown familiar with, and fond of, the Sunflower State.
The immensity of its sky and predictability of its topography give significance to the ordinary: a revolving plume of dust dancing in a field, ponderous cows playing follow-the-leader along a hillside, bare branches accentuating an asymmetrical tree.
These details seep into my senses — much like the pleasure I find in easy, familiar conversations with my husband as we travel.
Entering Kansas, we drive into uninterrupted sky and free-flowing flatness. I settle into the drone of movement and drift of time as cars merge and divide along I-70 like drops of water gliding a windowpane.
“I don’t think we’ll make it as far as we’d hoped today,” Joel tells me as we pass an RV loaded with heads and bicycles. “We lost time when we missed the exit for your yarn store in Denver.”
“Well, you didn’t marry me for my navigational skills. Maybe we could stay in Hayes.”
Outside my window, sprinkler systems stretch like pre-historic birds over expectant fields. Dusty pickups travel dirt roads and mammoth farm machines dwarf their drivers.
In the distance, a water tower sits atop a small, intimate town.
“I forget, where does the time change?”
“Back around Colby, wasn’t it? You’d think we’d remember.”
“I guess we’ve been distracted by the possibility of stopping to see the world’s largest prairie dog or the two-headed pig.”
As we drive, oversized rolls of yellowing hay wander shorn fields like confused caterpillars; vigilant hawks patrol for prey; and a fidgety wind welcomes noon.
We pass an advertisement for Abilene.
“The name always reminds me of the song,” Joel comments, “It’s a great one: easy to sing along with and sound good.”
“Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen,” accompanies my thoughts for too many miles, until hunger and the turkey sandwiches I assemble as we travel chase the lyric from my mind.
In the afternoon, swollen clouds perfect for napping swell above the towered immensity of the Cathedral of the Plains with its sense of medieval mystery. I watch until it shrinks into the surrounding terrain.
We stretch in our seats as we travel past faded homesteads, strong-spirited trees, and fence posts of stone.
“There’s something lonely about abandoned homesteads — the sagging porches, drooping clotheslines, solitary windmills.”
“I know. I always wonder about the lives lived there: What happened to the inhabitants? Where did they go?”
At dusk, lightning performs like a stage magician, hurling thin daggers at the horizon. At forgotten intersections, deserted gas stations stand stark in the sudden illumination.
Soon a red sun slides away, drawing quick darkness behind it.
Approaching headlights flicker, then stare boldly; family vans pass, glowing with light from technological pacifiers. An unfocused moon flirts with far shadows.
“I need to get out of this car. I think I can see the lights of the wind farm outside of Salina; I say we stop there.”
I study the intermittent pinpoints of light hovering over the hills like red fireflies and agree.
In a motel just off I-70, the day’s ride replays in my mind, and I wonder: Did Israelites living in their Promised Land remember the desert and reminisce about heat shimmering off sand, a subtle rainbow in a ledge of multi-hued rock, the earth’s revealed skeleton stretching before them?
Did they feel an appreciation for the land of their long journey, much as I now anticipate and value the unique beauty of Kansas?