How could I have been so disdainful? Almost hateful.
Normally, I’d just gun it, all 427 miles, like being forced to sit through a PowerPoint before you get the free steak dinner from the timeshare pitchman.
Who could blame me? I’m spoiled. My life has been rooted in some stunning landscapes. They don’t call New Mexico the “Land of Enchantment” for nothing. I have lived in Albuquerque, Lake Tahoe, Key West, San Francisco and Virginia Beach. Coastal Carolina? Oh, please!
But the plain sister had her way with me last weekend. The Sunflower State bathed me endless waves of sun-drenched expanse and sang to me an anthem of beauty and perseverance. Ah, Kansas! How could I have been so blind?
Last Sunday, my son Sean and I hiked through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. To say “hike,” is a bit of a stretch, makes one think of steep grades and narrow trails. This was admittedly, somewhat flat and wide, compared to hikes I’ve done in the Pecos National Wilderness for example. But, the things you can see in the prairie!
“Whenever you stop on the prairie to lunch or camp, and gaze around, there is a picture such as poet and painter never succeeded in transferring to book or canvas…”
That quote is attributed to D. W. Wilder, a Kansas historian and champion of a free press, who wrote The Annals of Kansas, a study of Kansas history going all the way back to 1541. With a nod to admitting that old D.W. was probably right about not being able to paint a picture with words nor brush, let me attempt to tell you how the prairie made me feel.
I fell in love.
I fell in love with the permanence. I fell in love with the quiet dignity of a part of our beloved country that has unfortunately been relegated to a fly-over or drive-thru. Are you kidding me? Do you know what is out there? It is so beautiful. The prairie is so very beautiful. The contours of the hills, like crumpled bedclothes, verdant stands of green tucked into the folds, sun and shadow, screaming blue sky, warmth rising from flaxen fields, the chamber music of bug and bird, vibrates from the tall grasses. It is magnificent. ‘Tis a healer, this. The land is a healer.
In Off the Leash, after my reverence to landscapes across the spectrum of what can be seen in America, I wrote that if I had to choose a favorite landscape it would be the desert.
“As much as I love the Carolina Coast with its dense, sweet, healing air, the desert frees me, much in the same way the flat land of Texas does. I am oddly comforted by the relative insignificance of my existence compared to such a majestic theater. Everything we are and have is a mere speck against the backdrop of the desert: a lizard scuttling across a sandstone boulder, a moment; then we’re gone. The desert goes on.”
But will our prairies? Tallgrass prairies once covered 400,000 square miles of North America. Now, less than 4-percent of that remains, most of it in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The headline on the brochure in the visitor center read, “The Prairie’s Last Stand.”
We could tell that the park ranger was eager to chat. After Sean and I looked the diorama, played with all the interactive exhibits, listened to the bird calls, even watched the film, we stopped to get a map and trail information. Nice fellow, that park ranger. He was poor-mouthing a little bit about how budgets are slashed, year after year, how the visitor center hours have been cut, how roads and trails are closed due to disrepair and how head count dictates the life or death of a national park. Yellowstone averages about 3,000,000 visitors a summer, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000. He talked about how being a park ranger is a great job, but tantamount to a life of poverty. He told us, “you just gotta believe in the mission,” which is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.
I’ve got a couple of ideas on how to help preserve the preserves: one involves future generations and one involves the idiots who control the purse strings in D.C.
If we took every nickel that is being spent in this country on pharmaceuticals to calm kids down and redeployed that money to haul their hyper-active asses out to wide open spaces like the Tallgrass Prairie, and gave them ample time to experience the splendor of the natural world, in solitude and not in packs, and stripped of their cellphones, gently coerced them into capturing this beauty only with their minds, perhaps it just might capture their hearts. It just might make an impression, stir some emotion, inspire a consciousness, or a flicker of awareness, perhaps even respect. If we could engineer a situation whereby every single American, 18 and younger, was required to spend some time alone in a national park, I don’t care if it’s the Grand Tetons or the Florida Everglades, if by some miracle or political will we could make that happen, do you think it might become possible for them to hear the marshland, the forests, the wind whipping through canyon and cliff, brushing the tops of the tallgrass with a prayer for protection?
While we are waiting for the miracle of a new generation to happen, let’s talk about the so-called grown-ups. On Monday, according to the Daily Beast, the United States spent approximately $79 million dollars for a single airstrike against Syria, in which the F22 Raptor made its debut combat mission. This is the most expensive fighter plane ever built. By the time you add up the cost of 47 Tomahawk missiles, (about $1.6 million a “pop”) and the squadron of support fighters, plus the main attraction, the stealth fighter (certainly no steal) it doesn’t take long to run up a tab for a cool $79 mil. I’m not tallying hits and misses here, nor am I jumping into an unwinnable debate over what to do about the situation in Iraq and Syria. I am as worried as the next guy, but look at the math! $79-million-dollar-days at the office add up pretty damn fast to a staggering $575 billion dollar annual military budget. $575 billion is the DOD budget for FY15. Couldn’t they get by with a few less jets and carve out a little bit more money for our national parks?
It costs $2.6 billion dollars to run the National Park Service for an entire year. We spend some $48 billion dollars a month on defense.
I used to think there wasn’t much to the wide open prairies of Kansas. I was wrong. If the individual can become enlightened, why not governments?
Pray for peace and call your members of Congress.