Portland has been reached and excitement abounds, but memories of the prairie still linger. We arrived just days ago, spent the weekend in the city starting the apartment search, then drove to a small farm in the coastal mountains near Sheridan, Oregon to stay and work for a few weeks until finding a place. Driving in through the Columbia River Gorge for the first time, on the silver cloud streaked, rain and rainbow spattered day, was a grand and stunning entrance to the area. Two bald eagles, their whites gleaming, deep ochre beaks bright with the sun even through the grey drizzle, a golden eagle and many hawk friends gave their warm welcome. Even after hiking with friends in Forrest Park and driving the glorious back roads into the coast range, my mind wandered to the beauty of the inland sea, the flowing, windblown Flint Hills of Kansas. Unlike Mt. Hood or the Gorge it is a landscape much praised for its subtle and slightly less dramatic beauty. Its endless graces are found and truly appreciated only after unhurried and open-hearted appraisal.
I only managed to get in two longer runs. I wanted to go bigger but there was too much to get done before we left. When I did run it felt good though, beginning to build up the miles again, thrilled with the adventure of seeing new sights, experiencing new vast playgrounds.
My father's house is on Route 177. About 10 miles north on that road is the very small town of Bazaar, Kansas. There are two other ways, besides directly up 177, to get from my father's to Bazaar, or vice versa. The route to the west (beginning from Bazaar, as I ran it) is via Rock Creek, L, M and lastly Open Range Roads down to the town of Matfield Green, just a 1/2 mile south of the my father's place. Sonya and I drove the route in reverse from the house, setting the odometer to check the mileage, making sure I was clear on the directions. When we reached Bazaar the dashboard read 18 miles. I thought it was going to be longer and I wanted a farther run so we crossed 177 to the east side and headed down Sharpes Creek.
|Feeling small, adrift in the inland sea|
I pulled over when we hit 24 miles. I grabbed my one hand-held water bottle, a Bumble Bar, a few fruit leathers, an Emerge-ncy, some almonds, and my camera, drank some water from an extra bottle in the car, had Sonya take a picture of me, and set off. She ran with me for a ways and then wished me luck and headed back to the car, like a reasonable person. It was a cold grey perfect day and I was soon warm running up and down the undulating dirt road, by the rich grasses that stretched on in generous overlaps into the horizon. I passed a small cluster of houses at Bazaar, when I crossed 177 to the west side. I saw two cars there and a couple a few miles before the end in Matfield Green, but otherwise the roads were silent, deserted save for my two feet. I cruised along Rock Creek Road, heading due west, along the north side of the elegant, low and snaking valley, by cottonwoods and oaks grouped with their naked winter fingers held prominent against the sky. The clouds finally revealed tears in its fabric and the sun poured through, making the charcoal masses of the grouped trees shine black like ash and the orange-red of the prairie bluff above glow like fire.
|Looking west into the Rock Creek Valley|
|Fellow runners and friends|
I shared a moment with some horses as the glorious new light enriched the tones; the white of the horse before me pierced the air and the three deep auburn ones pulse with a hypnotic vibrance. Whenever I passed cows on my run, they would flee scared, a miniature stampede to get away from me. But horses were different, specially these four, as the sun beamed with rich spirit on their elegant bodies and faces. As I approached on the road they turned and watched with curious gazes, then came toward me, trotting excitedly. They came near the fence then stopped and stared eagerly, saying We want to come running, brother! But this damn fence is in the way. I looked into their bottomless, beautiful eyes, that spoke volumes in the silent winter air. I held my fist up in solidarity, then brought it down to my heart a few times to show the love. Word, my friends. Mad love. Wish you could come along with me for a few miles. Well, maybe in the next life we'll get in a good long run. Peace. I turned and ran on.
The Flint Hills roll along more than you might think. I began to realize that this run was much different from a flat 24 miles. As I turned left on L Road, way out there with nothing but cottonwoods and birds and the big sky all around, I knew I was going to be pretty dehydrated. There was no where to fill up, the streams undrinkable for the livestock and agriculture around.
It isn't something I'm proud of, but occasionally this happens: I go too big on way too little food and/or water. In some cases I call it being Consciously Under-Equipped (CUE) and it works just fine, in other cases it doesn't and I'll admit that it's negligence bordering on slight stupidity (needless to say, most of the time I am quite adequately prepared.) I was still feeling good though, stopping to take pictures and enjoy the views often but running strong and keeping a decent time nonetheless. I realized that it was my first run of more than 15 miles since the Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon this past November; an unfortunate and unusually long hiatus from big runs.
|The view north on the L Road|
The sun was getting lower in the western sky, to my right as I ran south. The land and the views along that section were uniquely pleasing. One of the most amazing things about the Flint Hills, a subtle and soft-spoken landscape often overlooked and generalized, is the infinite little variations that combine to make one mile feel completely unlike the next. Every section of the run was unmistakably Flint Hills, yet each looked and felt differently, like an eclectic group of sculptors forming the landscape in matching clay. As I forged on down the L Road I realized that to my left, as the crow flew, there was nothing and no one, except for a few cows, for the 5 miles between me and my father's house. I felt small and alone, and it was good.
I ran up what felt like gentle but endless hills, long out of water, my single bottle sucked dry. Evening was coming, the light dying slowly, as I took a left over to M Road, and then south again for a moment to the Open Range Road. I began the final 5 miles that still rollercoastered up and down, emulating the grasses. It was the most open, exposed and uninhabited section of it all, that last section right down into Matfield Green. After a few miles on the Open Range it was almost dark and I was finally feeling my dehydration in earnest. Thankfully I was almost home. I didn't have a headlamp but I had anticipated running into the night, plus I knew my way and it was easy to follow in the dark. Then, for the first time in 3 hours, I heard a car behind me. An older woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window to address me. I kept running but turned to talk as they pulled up along side me.
"What are you doing?" She asked, looking at me hard like she was interrogating.
"Oh just running, having fun!" I smiled. She didn't smile back.
"How far are you going?"
"How far do you have left?"
"So you're going to Matfield Green?" She still seemed unamused and the man driving wasn't making it easy either.
"That's right," I said, getting a little tired of this stone-faced questioning, while continuing to run.
"Do you have someone to pick you up?"
"I'm staying there." She and the man looked at each other like they didn't know what to make of me. They drove off.
Not the typical friendly Chase County locals I know.
The wind was picking up, the temperature dropping, the dark clouds crowding each other and filling the sky. I took shorter runs often on the Open Range Road and knew what landmarks correlated to the mileage. I could count down as I went now, ticking off the miles until I reached home. With only one left my legs began to cramp. I choked down an Emerge-ncy with no water, and it helped a little as I pushed on and gutted it out, but the cramps came back the last few hundred yards to the bunkhouse. I painfully finished the job, burst in the door and sat down. I had felt great otherwise, running solidly, so happy with the distance, but my poor hydration planning really caught up and took it out of me, literally. An hour after getting home my body freaked out and I threw up and was hurting for a bit. Note to self: Don't run a hilly 24 miles with only 16 oz. of water.
That was an unfortunate ending to a great run and an amazing and perspective changing experience in the Flint Hills. Lesson successfully relearned, now bigger and more, on into the season. What I really wanted to do before leaving Kansas was to complete the full loop, starting and ending in Matfield Green, via Bazaar, on the back roads. I checked it out on the map and it looked to be 36 miles, and I had just run 24 of it. Like always though time ran short, there was too much to do before leaving, projects to finish, packing to do. I just couldn't afford to take the 5-6 hours to do the loop, but a 2-3 hour run, that I could squeeze in. So I had Sonya drop me on the edge of 177 at Bazaar, the day before we left. I was running the eastern route, the 18 miles from Bazaar to Matfield Green via Sharpes Creek.
This day was much colder, there was some snow on the ground and the sky showed signs of a possible "wintry mix" (as the local meteorologists liked to say.) The melt down my body had experienced after the previous run scared me straight; this time I took two hand-held bottles. I said goodbye and Sonya pulled away to drive to Cottonwood Falls and photograph the quaint and picturesque little Kansas town, recording the scenes before departing the prairie. I turned and began running, one foot after another, building momentum down the dirt road. I crossed a bridge over the South Fork of the Cottonwood River by the big orange-hued, grassy hill upon which the name of the town, B-A-Z-A-A-R, was spelled out in rocks at a scale adequate to be seen from a great distance; a tradition for towns in Chase County.
The road traversed around the eastern edge of the massive hill, taking me farther into the Sharpes Creek Valley proper. For a while the road rolled along on the western slope of the valley, up high enough to give great views across to the east, and to the north and south along the length of it. The grey of the sky made the colors of the earth richer. The cold, sharp retort of the wind demanded my presence as my eyes scanned the landscape. As usual, hawks were everywhere. Red tails and Northern Harriers, and some smaller raptors were ever-present, perching atop poles, gliding, circling high, or soaring and swooping low along the grass, always looking for the kill. I hadn't brought my camera and had no need to stop, so I kept a good pace, save for a few moments here and there to stand in awe of the sights and enjoy being stunned and humbled and filled with love. I felt great, getting into the rhythm of the long run again.
The Flint Hills will challenge your notions of space. Its dancing grasses drift onwards in great waves to the edges of what we can grasp. Its expanses consume the mind and body when you place yourself in them. The road ran along the bottom of the valley for awhile, along Sharpes Creek itself, past a few small farms and then out deeper into nothing. There was a small lake with cottonwoods around it and a glorious backdrop of rich, endless hills with a mesh of drainages, draws, and valleys carved into them, as if by an ancient artisan who passionately and intimately knew the medium. I watched a large bird flying along at tree level as I ran, then saw a flash of white and knew it was a Bald Eagle. I watched as it lit onto a branch of one of the scraggly cottonwoods, snow-white head beaming iconically as it settled into its proud perch. I stopped and soaked it all in, said hello to my eagle brother/sister, Props and mad love to you my friend, said Peace and continued on my way.
My route crossed the highway, KS 35, and once more I entered a different world. It was like things just kept getting bigger, the views, the unfathomable distances to the horizon (the Heartland 100 course shares some of my route in this section. Psyched to do that race sometime!) I ran up the biggest hill of the run and stopped at the top. It can hardly be written what those sights mean to the soul. Cows could be seen at impossible distances, miniscule groups here and there, sprinkled like black pepper on a never-ending casserole dish of piled mashed potatoes. I was alone in the cold and wind and great silence as gentle precipitation came down upon me, lighter than drizzle, barely perceptible. I began to notice the most fascinating ice forms around me. Miniscule spikes of ice had formed on the grasses and on the barbed wire along the edge of the road. But only the top third of the grasses and plants were frozen white, making a sharp contrast to the rest of their slender stalks. Trees far off, adrift in the prairie sea, glowed too with the unearthly icy white. I peered close at the crystals, at the perfect, delicate forms. I grinned wildly and shook my head in disbelief, completely stunned by Nature's breathtaking creations.
I ran down the hill and eventually back across the highway, nearing the end. Getting a little tired but well-hydrated and thrilled, buzzing from the sights, the land, the rhythms of the run. A Red Tail perched in a tall tree and called piercingly as I ran by and the bright white feather-duster tails of three deer appeared ahead on the road, moving nimbly along. Word. I entered Matfield Green from the east by the old school house. A nice man named George and his flock of goats live there now, used books from his bookstores of old filling the classrooms and gymnasium. I took the back way to avoid the half mile of paved road, cutting between the fields where the coyotes sang nightly and we'd watched one hunt by daylight from our door.
Well, 18 miles wasn't the 36 I'd wanted but it turned out to be a new favorite run. I reached a deeper level in my relationship with the Flint Hills, gained a new appreciation for the land and the landscape and a new understanding of its energy, its personality, its tones and moods. The path from Bazaar to Matfield Green via Sharpes Creek made me feel small and humble and reminded me of the proper order (see Under a Giant Sky) and I was fortunate to see many animal friends along the way. It also made me feel connected to the prairie's pulse, made me feel an inseparable part of the wonderfully heart-wrenching continuum of life and death. And I finally realized that you don't always need mountains to be in awe, that truly special land has many faces.
I can't wait to go back.