(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006)
Despite growing up on the plains, I suffered from a common bias: the belief that prairies are something to drive across, not to. So even though I'm heading to Kansas to explore two scenic drives (the 48-mile Flint Hills byway southwest of Topeka and the 77-mile Wetlands and Wildlife byway around Great Bend), I'm prepared for a type of beauty that makes people say, "It's nice, if you know what to look for."
My expectations were tempered even by prairie lovers, who compare grasslands to oceans (most of the action is under the surface), and my conversation with Steve Miller. Steve, National Park Service manager of Kansas' Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the country's only tallgrass prairie-oriented national park, told me before my trip, "The prairie's kind of subtle."
But as I drive up a rise near Great Bend, I hit the brakes before a vista as subtle as the "Hallelujah Chorus." Hanging in the tatters of a fading thunderstorm is what must be the biggest rainbow God has painted since Noah's day. Its colored bands arch thousands of feet over the central Kansas grasslands, challenging a sky that usually laughs at the puniness of everything around. I raise my binoculars and trace the rainbow's right leg to the ground, where it illuminates a lone tree on the plains.
These surprising rushes of wide-open beauty are waiting just past Kansas City in the rolling Flint Hills and the massive wetlands farther west. In autumn, the plains' searing summer is past, prairie grasses are peaking and massive bird migrations pass through the wetlands. It's nature on a scale many people think is confined to history books. "Mostly we live around all these human-made activities," Steve says. "To go out there and have solitude and tranquility, that's a special experience."
These drives also offer the romance of surrounding yourself with ecosystems that dominated the Midwest before settlement nearly wiped out the natural systems. The wind once rustled through 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie in the future United States; about 96 percent of it is now gone. The United States once had 221 million acres of wetlands (northwest Ohio's Black Swamp alone covered an area the size of Connecticut). Less than half remains.
When preservation and restoration began in the last few decades, many of us realized that saving some of these lands satisfied something deep in our hearts. "To a lot of people, the prairie is the soul of the country," Steve says. "There's a lot to be discovered, and really, it's still an appreciation to be developed. I think it's there in the back of our minds." I decided I was overdue for more focus on the prairie, so now I find myself far from most of mid-October's glowing leaves, driving through Kansas.
Little Bus on the Prairie
I click on the high beams as I pull off I-335 and turn west onto lonely Highway 56 (the Old Santa Fe Trail) toward Council Grove. It's immediately obvious that this is more than the usual rural night driving, where the world is no bigger than the headlights' reach. Tonight, without a town in sight and the prairie awash in the light of a full autumn moon, I can see the vast landscape around me. I stop on a gravel side road and lean on the car's fender.
Across a barbed wire fence, grassy hills roll away like waves in every direction, and ranch houses glow like buoys. The warm breeze carries an owl's "who-cooks-for-you?" hoot over a knoll. Then I notice something grinning like a row of teeth in the roadside ditch, a stony smile that saved eastern Kansas' virgin prairie. Pioneer farmers arrived with high hopes in the Flint Hills region that runs from northern Kansas to Oklahoma, but limestone just beneath the soil (mixed with layers of flint) rejected the plow like a wild horse spits out a bit. So the Flint Hills became ranch country, and a lot of virgin prairie survived, albeit grazed by cattle instead of bison.
I learn much of this as I continue on to Council Grove, listening to the byway's radio station at 1680 AM. A folksy fellow on a recorded loop talks about limestone and prairie grass, and as I'm parking in front of the Cottage House hotel, a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1879, he says, "You'll like it in Council Grove. We invite you to stay a spell." In the morning, I head about 20 miles south along two-lane Highway 177 to the 10-year-old Tallgrass.
Prairie National Preserve, a nearly 11,000-acre tract of virgin prairie operated by the National Park Service and owned mostly by The Nature Conservancy. The park is largely old Z Bar Ranch land, and guests can tour the stately limestone ranch house, a one-room school and prairie exhibits in the massive barn. But the buildings are mere stepping stones to the hills that swallow visitors heading out on nature trails and backcountry hikes into grass that's knee-high in most places, and over your head in a few.
Three times a day, small buses loaded with visitors follow tire tracks out of the barnyard and disappear in the immensity of the undulating prairie. On the preserve's far side, the bus chugs to the top of a rise, and the diesel engine rattles to a stop. A breeze whistles through the open windows as Ranger Kimo Hartman climbs out of the bus, softly saying over his shoulder, "Step into my office."
The 10 of us follow him out, and soon we're each slowly turning in circles, drinking in a panorama stretching 25 miles in every direction. The surrounding ranch lands look just like the preserve's property, creating a horizon-to-horizon view that's barely changed since the reign of the bison.
Kimo spends a few minutes teaching us, explaining that steers gain two pounds a day grazing on the Indian grass he strokes between his fingers. He rubs a head of wild bergamot in his palms and has us smell the Native American version of hand cream.
After the bus tour, I follow a trail into the prairie. Thanks to Kimo's talk and a fistful of brochures, I'm now reading the grassland's language. I recognize little mounds of dirt as pocket gopher burrows. Instead of a nameless mass of grass, I now see big bluestem and switchgrass. The "thud" or "clink" of rocks tells me whether they're limestone or flint.
I sit down in the grass, lean back on an elbow and look through a frame of swaying seed heads at wispy clouds skidding across the blue fall sky. There's a lot to see on the prairie. I think I'll stay a spell.
There's not a duck, goose or grebe in sight. I can't blame them. I'm standing 120 miles west of the Flint Hills on a dike overlooking what should be about 41,000 acres of wetlands near Great Bend. Instead, I see vast stretches of cracked gray dirt that must look like a shuttered motel to migrating waterfowl.
But a sign on the edge of the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands urges me not to give up on bird watching yet. "While distressing to see, it is comforting to know that this is a healthy part of the natural ecology of a prairie marsh," it says. More comforting is the sign's assurance that when one wetland is passing through a dry year in its natural cycle, that doesn't mean the entire region is parched.
Back at my motel, I open the website of my next option: the 20,000-acre Quivira National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Great Bend. The site reports "good water" at the refuge. Better yet, I find estimates of the latest bird populations. Green-winged Teal: 2,600. Mallards: 6,900. Coots: 22,000. I'm not sure what coots are or who's counting them, but they're going to ensure I don't get skunked.
At sunrise the next morning, I'm sitting along Big Salt Marsh, surrounded by flocks of birds wading, feeding, gliding in for landings and rising in great, chattering flocks that block out the scenery. With the official Quivira species booklet in one hand and All the Birds of North America in the other, I'm checking off new birds as quickly as I can identify them.
Coots, it turns out, are duck-like birds with grayish bodies, black heads and white beaks. And while I appreciate them being last night's sure thing, they soon become visual white noise. Rafts of them float past a stoic great blue heron standing by avocets and sandpipers sweeping the shallows for bugs near a muddy island. Occasionally, the coots spook and fly off, their wingtips and feet slapping the water with the sound of soft applause.
With all the birds to see, I pass the morning covering 5.5 miles of one-lane gravel cutting through Big Salt Marsh. Occasionally, I unfold a lawn chair beside the car and watch, but mostly I turn off the engine and use the car as a viewing blind. It's a welcome wind block, and birds tend to tolerate cars more than hikers. I soon stop checking the rearview mirror for traffic; I'm the only human visitor.
Over the wind's steady rush through the grass, gulls' shrieks mingle with honking geese and mallards quacking among the cattails. When the breeze swirls my way, I hear the sporadic pop-pop-pop-cough of a lone oil der-rick. Even with this intrusion, the loneliness is splendid, the kind earned by patiently accepting nature's pace.
"You can go for miles and never see a house, and that's unusual for a lot of people," Rob Penner, land manager for the Nature Conservancy's land at Cheyenne Bottoms, says about places like this. "Some people, it makes them nervous. Some people find it amazing."
Evening comes with no sunset-just a gray sky that pours out its rain as I head back to Great Bend in the dark. When I stop and pull the bird list from a coat pocket, I count check marks beside 25 species, including a rare whooping crane. I'm pretty impressed, until the booklet tells me Quivira hosts 311 species.
This punctuates the day's message: I've only seen fall's opening act. A Quivira visitor center ranger says November brings 1 million birds. And when I check in at Lizzie's Cottage bed and breakfast (now closed), I talk with Ed Klima, who runs the place with his wife, Phyll. Ed leans back in a chair and says, "I've seen a flock of geese fly over Great Bend for five or six hours straight."
That's a big story. But this is big country. And out on the prairie, I've learned, you shouldn't underestimate how big the views can be if you just go look.
What to Watch For
Fossils In limestone-heavy areas such as the Flint Hills, rocks found on the prairie contain abundant signs of tiny ancient sea creatures.
Big Bluestem Dominant on tallgrass prairies, this plant is known for its distinctive, "turkey foot" seed head that looks like a bird's toes.
Indian grass You can quickly spot this common tallgrass prairie plant by its showy golden seed head.
Western meadowlark A flutelike voice and yellow breast marked with a black V distinguish the state bird of Kansas (and several other states).
Red-tailed hawks Watch fence posts for this raptor with a four-foot wingspan.
Great blue herons Roadside marshes are prime spots to see them wading and grabbing fish, frogs and insects with a yellow, spearlike bill.
American Avocet Look for black-and-white avocets swinging their upturned bills side-to-side underwater to find insects.
Snow Geese For sheer numbers, it's hard to top these white birds with black-tipped wings, which travel in flocks up to the hundreds of thousands.
Whooping Cranes This endangered species is a prime trophy for bird- watching lists. Often seen in groups of gray sandhill cranes.
How to See Nature Better
When you head out on your own drive to see nature up close, keep these tips in mind.
Plan your day around sunrise and sunset. In addition to providing the day's most beautiful light for photos, these times find animals at their most active.
Be patient. For animals that appear on demand, you'll have to visit a zoo. In the wild, you need to settle in, then let the animals get used to your presence and return to their normal routines.
Watch transition zones, such as water's edges and areas where trees give way to meadows. Animals often stay close to such boundaries.
Learn to spot more than just footprints. Animals leave many signs, including deer antler rubs on trees and disturbed dirt where birds dust their wings.
Take binoculars. You'll always appreciate a closer view.
Bring field manuals. Outdoor travels are much more interesting when you can refer to birds, animals and plants by their real names.
Use All of your senses. Our brains tend to discard most of the information around us, but if you concentrate on just sounds or smells, you'll discover how much is really going on.
Call Rangers or tourism offices at your destination for current reports on weather conditions and wildlife activity.