“The Deadliest Woman in the West.”
That was the book my husband and I had paged through in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve visitor center gift shop prior to our hike.
We had been waiting out a rain shower (OK, a torrential rain event, perhaps) that had dogged us from our early-morning drive to the preserve, located in the heart of the Flint Hills region of Kansas.
To kill time while hoping for a break in the rain, we toured the visitor center’s exhibit, highlighting the ecosystem of the prairie throughout the seasons. It included dioramas, bird call buttons, pelts and skulls. We shuffled around the gift shop and impatiently peered out windows focused toward the expansive prairie.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the designation of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a nationally significant remnant consisting of 10,894 acres of wide open space, beautiful vistas, wildflowers, wildlife — and what I value the most, a space so capacious and a sky so vast, that a sense of peace, solitude and the ability to truly breathe permeates my being. In a word, it’s Zen.
Tallgrass prairies once covered about 170 million acres of North America, according to the National Park Service. Within a generation, the vast majority was developed and plowed under (a nod to John Deere would be appropriate here). Indeed, almost 350 years ago (circa 1673), Louis Joliet said of his exploration, “At first, when we were told of treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country ravaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, or for vines, or for any fruit whatsoever. ... A settler would not there spend ten years cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plough into the ground.”
At last, skies began to clear. We so wanted to see the bird with the silly name and the call to match, and walk among one of the last great patches of land set aside for the pleasure of those who choose to visit.
The ranger said to watch the skies, and wished us a happy hike.
Dic-dic-dic-cis-cis-cis! The diminutive dickcissel was daring us to find him. How could we resist?
In spring, proscribed burns bring a carpet of green grass in just two weeks’ time. By summer, the grass is waist-high and bird traffic is thick: More than 150 species can be seen in the vicinity. There are 31 species of mammals. Bison, the largest, can be seen in the Windmill Pasture, located on the preserve’s western side.
In fall the grasses of the prairie (Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass) reach maximum height, anywhere from about 5 feet to almost 10, but then blow over and are used as shelter by wildlife during the winter months.
“From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm. There now came a sharp whistling in the air from the south, and as they turned their eyes that way they saw ripples of the grass coming from that direction also.”
L. Frank Baum, “The Wizard of Oz”
Because I’m a bit of a storm junkie, I pushed to continue our hike despite the darkening sky and the increased wind. The yellow and brown dickcissels were many and delightful, calling to one another as they flitted from fence post to grass tip. Meadowlarks, lark sparrows and, way up, turkey vultures caught our attention, while coneflowers, aster, wild onion and gayfeather added pops of color along the path.
Rumble, rumble — wham! In the distance, we saw lightning strikes. So beautiful, it was positively exhilarating.
Wham! Another bolt, this time significantly closer. Then another — closer yet. It was pouring now. My rain jacket was a pitiful shield. I could already feel the rain seeping through my T-shirt, down my legs, into my sneakers. I tilted my face up toward the sky and then yelled with delight when yet another bolt hit so close that we could smell it. Actually, I’m fairly certain I felt the ground nearly undulate beneath my feet.
“The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains.” That was the full title of that gift shop book — and the irony was not lost upon me as I looked over at my spouse of 30 years, a man of great adventure who loves the outdoors and reads incessantly on the natural world. It was his eyes. They were not smiling back at me in the “Here we are on another adventure” kind of look I’d been expecting. Nor was it a “This rain jacket is a piece of junk” kind of irritated expression.
His look was of great concern. He’d done his reading. You do not, as the story goes, mess with Mother Nature.
“Should we run for the building?” I asked.
“Let’s book it!” he said.
We lived to tell the tale.
Upon our return, soaked to the bone, we encountered a woman and her son who had taken shelter in the nearby historic schoolhouse and had watched our antics (with much trepidation) from a window. They had been rescued by a FedEx driver, who gave them a lift back to the visitor center. “The lightning was right on you!” she said, shaking her head in amazement that we’d made it back safely.
If you go
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is about a two-hour drive from Kansas City and about nine hours from the Twin Cities. Call 1-620-273-8494 or go to nps.gov/tapr for more information.
• A Labor Day Weekend Quilt Show welcomes the fall season, and Sept. 10 is Prairie Wildflower Day. Both events are free.
• In June, the area hosts Symphony in the Flint Hills, an all-day prairie shindig culminating with the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra performing for sellout crowds. This year, more than 5,000 attendees enjoyed music by Aaron Copland as well as Peter Boyer’s “Celebration Overture.” Go to symphonyintheflinthills.org for more information.
Kathleen Stoehr is a native Minnesotan who lives in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, and writes regularly about food, beverage and travel.