At home, where the buffalo roam

The Flint Hills speak to certain people.

These are not words I ever would have imagined writing, because the Flint Hills are hilarious. In case you don’t know, there is a swath of earth that stretches from central to northeast Kansas which is known as “The Flint Hills.” There are signs for it.

It is nothing, really, except unadulterated Kansas. In the spring it is green and soft. In the fall it is golden and crunchy. Tall yellow grass waves as you pass. You may see some cattle here and there, a windmill off in the distance, a rusty reminder that some day long ago some family settled up there. The houses are always long gone. But that’s it. You can’t call the Flint Hills “settled,” because there is nobody there, and hasn’t been for ages.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think about Native Americans who once lived out there, where the buffalo roam. The terrain is uninhabited, unfarmed and unvisited. We are all just passing through on the way to someplace else.

The funny thing about the Flint Hills is not the Flint Hill themselves, but that they are seen as an attraction. You are greeted by a limestone sign as you enter them, “Welcome to the Flint Hills.” You have arrived. You have arrived nowhere. Which is supposed to be the point, I think.

Brady grew up in Louisiana and Buffalo and went to college in Ann Arbor. He now works for the newspaper in Kansas City, and drives through the Flint Hills to Oklahoma at least twice a year. He marvels at them. He thinks there are tourism dollars to be made there. Brady, I remind you, is not a business man. He is a newspaper man, which is the opposite.

But Brady is a romantic, and the Flint Hills seduce him. They have that effect. My wife and I were driving back to Kansas from our home in Houston this last weekend. It was still light out when we passed through the Flint Hills, but the sun was tucking itself in. There are days in Kansas when the air is crisp and dry, but the sun is warm in a cloudless sky. It feels like walking in from a snowball fight and finding your mom baking something. The flannel sunlight lays on top of the dry cold, and if you have a sweater on, it is perfect. A lot of places aren’t quite like that. A lot of places sit near bodies of water, and the cold feels different there. It’s a little wet and a little heavy. I’m thinking of Chicago or Minneapolis. Even Houston gets that way when it’s cold, which isn’t often. The wind comes right off the Gulf of Mexico. In Kansas, it has dried out before it gets there. In Kansas, paradise comes in small packages.

It was one of those days we were driving through. We agreed that one day we’d like to move back to Kansas, back to Lawrence, specifically. We had our first date there. We got married there.

Life is good in Houston. There is no state income tax, jobs  a plenty, the winter is mild, real estate is affordable, and the Mexican food will sit you back in your chair. We like it here. We want to settle in. Our kids, should we eventually have some, might think of this as home.

But home whispers to you when you go near it, and we felt that. Yes, we thought, maybe some day we will come back. We’d like that.

That was Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night, I stood in downtown Lawrence, right outside the Red Lyon. The wind was up. The temperature was down. The door guy stood there smoking a cigarette, and I wondered if he was doing it to keep warm. I had on two shirts, but they didn’t stand a chance.

It stayed that way through the night and into Sunday morning, and when we were leaving, set out for an a.m. pass through the Flint Hills, we both agreed it was a good reminder that things are never quite as romantic as you remember them.


It is supposed to be hot here; or, Kansas’ climate is not well understood

These words will end up being stuffed right back inside my mouth, and that is a reality I am comfortable with. This is because I am impulsive, and I have a strong impulse to write them, even if I know the consequence is likely to involve future humiliation.

I moved to Houston 10 days ago, and practically every person I have met here has almost immediately warned me about the weather in July, as if I should be preparing for the Apocalypse.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that I am not concerned with this. Every morning when I take the dog out, I fear that this will be the day the sidewalk vaporizes beneath my feet, leaving me walking barefoot (my sandals would have melted, too) though a bayou of molten concrete and hobo excrement.

And I further recognize that Houston is legitimately scorching. I read somewhere it was the “sweatiest” city in the United States. This I suppose could have been a measure of obesity, or of physical exertion, or the exertion of the obese, but considering the heat seems to be the main thing anyone wants to tell  you about Houston, I’m assuming it was a comment on the climate.

ANYWAY, all of this has made me realize that most people do not have a clear conception of the climate in the lower midwest. Kansas, I keep wanting to point out, is not exactly North Dakota.

Recently, someone warned me that in the summertime here it will  “get into the 90s with 90 percent humidity.” This was delivered like a grave warning. At the risk of sounding smug, I am, uh, familiar with that kind of heat.

So these are the words I am expecting to be eating in somewhere between 15 and 45 days: I know heat.

I have been incredibly hot in Kansas. One-hundred-degrees-in-the-shade hot. Football-practice-in-full-pads-at-3 p.m.-on-a-102-degree-day hot. Step-outside-at-8 a.m.-and-start-dripping hot.  So hot it makes you incredulous the human race survived in Kansas long enough to make it to the inventions of air conditioning and Gatorade.

In the past year, I have interviewed for jobs in Columbia, South Carolina and Memphis, and this same thing happened to me there. If you live south of Interstate 70 (what I call the Great Barbecue Divide), you most likely assume Kansas is more like Nebraska than Oklahoma*.

*I know some Kansans will disagree with me, but even from a cultural perspective I’ve always felt  Kansas was more closely related to Oklahoma than Nebraska or Iowa. 

Even though Kansas has both brutal winters and brutal summers, the thing everyone south of it notices is the winters. Which makes sense. Humans are constantly doing things like that. When I was 8 and we lived in Indiana, I remember thinking Kansas, where my grandmother and cousins lived, was some kind of desert wasteland. This probably had a lot to do with a photo of my cousin playing in my grandmother’s yard, a yard in which all the grass was completely yellow and dead on account of some wicked drought that must have occurred in about 1989.

But still. Because it was hotter than Indiana, Kansas was therefore HOT. And I think that’s what happens with people from Houston. Because Kansas is sometimes cooler than Texas, it is always cooler than Texas.

That all said, I could go for a Gatorade.