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.