(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.