Starting when I was two years old, I made one or even two trips to Southern California each year. These continued until I was seventeen, and a few times since then, they have been repeated. Most of those trips were made by automobile. It was a point of pride in my family that we never slept in Kansas, and that is no small feat considering that Kansas is well over four hundred miles east to west.
When I was nineteen, I met a young woman named Ann who proudly identified herself as a Kansan. Being obnoxious even then, I expressed my rather negative impression of her home state. Although I was really just teasing her, I did say something about Kansas being only an obstacle to be overcome on my California journeys. I told her that the scenery was a repetition of farmhouse, barn, one tree, wheat field, massive grain silos, wheat field, start again with the farmhouse, and repeat for most of a day’s drive. What, I asked was there to admire in such a place?
Ann made several attempts over the years to explain her affection for her home, but, though I respected her opinion in so many areas, I remained largely unmoved by her descriptions of the prairie. We became very close for a time, but the currents that flow through time and our lives separated us. Our last contact was an exchange of e-mail messages in 1993.
We had much in common: Family structure, appreciation for literature and music, life goals, and so on. Each of us was able to broaden the other’s interest in or at least appreciation for much that life offers. We assisted one another with academic assignments, and made some classes at least tolerable. For me, though, and despite Ann’s attempts to sway my opinion, Kansas remained a place to be driven through and overcome.
In 2011, I determined to locate Ann, presumably still in Topeka. Instead, I learned that she had died some ten years before, a victim of leukemia at the age of fifty-three. I was devastated. My first and continuing reaction was a keen sense of loss, but I have also recognized the gifts that Ann has given me. In ways that I will not discuss, I believe that Ann has saved my life, or at least has lengthened it, I actually like to listen to Vivaldi, and visits to museums of fine art are no longer seen as a dull waste of time.
I visit Ann’s grave once or twice each year, and always on her birthday. She used to make a big deal of my birthday, presenting me with baked Alaska as a birthday cake. I have not celebrated my birthday since those days. So, if birthdays were once special to her, then hers will henceforth be special to me.
I have also allowed Ann to guide me through her Kansas, and I have discovered that there is majesty about the place that requires no thundering surf, no soaring mountains. The wonder of it is the peace and the solitude of broad prairie, the wind, always present either in a whisper or in tumult, and mostly, just the simplicity of broad vistas. Kansas is solitude out on the prairie, but it is neither truly empty nor lonely.
I travel with my best friend and perhaps with Ann. We stop often just to see and to think. I hate to leave, but I am always refreshed when I return to my more responsible life.
This is my homage to Kansas and to my Angel of the Prairie. It is a reminder that we must always make the effort to look more deeply lest opportunity pass and be lost forever.