In the exact middle of the Flint Hills, the undulating land rolled out in all directions. The moon shone so brightly that it brought out the color of the prairie. It was open range. Temporary cattle fence stood around a feed plot. A white-painted truck loader stretched up like an alien ship. Farm lights and strobes on radio antennae and cell towers blinked miles away like multi-colored fireflies. What stars could pop out beyond the moonlight shimmered. The air smelled of dry grass. The wind blew cold.
I stood out in the gravel road that ran up and down the hills to the horizon. I remembered my first days in Laramie. I knew no one in town and my dorm friends were doing studently things like studying. When I’d read and listened to music until I couldn’t anymore, the lonesomeness became too great. I hopped in the car and took Highway 130 out over the Interstate and past West Laramie. The road ran flat and straight through the prairie toward Centennial, a foothills town that had little going for it but a few tourist spots and a grocery store.
About eleven miles out of Laramie, a gravel turnout lead to a sandstone historical marker. I’d pull off the highway and get out of the car. Lighting a cigarette, I listened to the wind as it blew up out of The Big Hollow, the largest wind-eroded deflation basin in the Americas. The grass rustled around me and sang through the barbed wire at the roadside. I’d lean up against the marker, looking toward the west, where no lights shone and the dark made it feel as if the world dropped off into the abyss. When the moon was new, the Milky Way shined above like frozen chiffon veils. Under a full moon, I could see the hills and mesas in the distance.
I stood there for hours on end, lucky that almost no one drove the road that late at night. I cast around for something that would indicate what the hell I was doing in grad school at the university. I was a father with a baby in Kansas City. I told myself I was making a new start after years of being a drunk. The daily duties of the grad student gave me little comfort. The pressure I put myself under to perform well drained me and made me feel like an empty husk.
I’d lean against the other side of the marker and look toward Laramie. A few blinking towers rose above the city. It was beautiful, that blanket of light in the distant river valley. The absolute loneliness I felt at that turnout made me feel better. The image stuck in my head. I dreamed of it at night when, despite almost constant insomnia and worry, I fell into fitful sleep.
I stood now in the middle of Kansas prairie outside of the little town of Matfield Green, where my friend Tom owns a small house. He had invited me to visit and stay the night. He wanted to show me around and offer me run of the place if I desired a place to escape and write. He had three rooms upstairs he wasn’t using and thought it would make a great getaway for a writer who needed space.
There’s nothing special about Matfield Green. It sits in a fold in the prairie below the storied Flint Hills. There’s no store. The bar’s been closed for who knows how long. The draw of the place comes from the fact that you can drive a half mile in any direction and the beauty of the prairie will wash over you.
All day, Tom had taken me around the area to show me the sights. We popped into galleries in Cottonwood Falls, fifteen miles north of Matfield Green. He introduced me to nice people and took me for great food at the bar in Cottonwood Falls. We toured the courthouse for which The town is famous. We stopped in at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and drove up to people’s houses. Everyone knew Tom and thought it natural that he just stop in.
We visited the cemeteries at Bazaar and Matfield Green, where the dead shared last names. Grave markers show just how hard life used to be in this corner of the Great Plains. Babies died before they could talk. A lot of people barely made it to middle age.
Someone or some people cared enough about the cemeteries to keep them mowed and trimmed, and the gates and fences painted. I signed my name to visitors’ books—ordinary spiral notebooks—housed in metal cases on poles about waist high. I asked Tom if this was normal for these prairie cemeteries. He had been traveling the Flint Hills and photographing them for four decades. These were the only two cemeteries where he found these visitors’ registers.
Although Matfield Green isn’t a special, it struck me as an interesting small town. About 50 people live there. Artists and writers have created a small renaissance for the once-dying town. Cindy Hoedel, a former newspaper reporter from the Kansas City Star, took up residence there a few years back. When Tom introduced me, I remembered her writing about the town in the newspaper and from a profile on the public radio station. We sat on her gazebo and talked as the afternoon sun arced toward evening. She and her husband had somewhere to go and we had only a little time. Tom, Cindy, and Mike drank a beer. We talked the town and its goings on. When it came time to leave, I asked Cindy about her time at the newspaper. We talked about the changes in journalism and the heartache of seeing the profession die. Tom had to drag me away so Cindy and Mike could get away to their event.
After dark, Tom and I lit a fire in the pit out under the trees out back of his house. The cold was getting to us but the fire made things all right. We chatted for about an hour before time to go inside. Tom had to make a phone call and suggested I take the road under the railroad tracks and drive up onto the prairie.
At a turnout about two and a half miles from town, I stood next to the car and felt again the comfort of solitude. There’s a vast difference between lonesomeness and loneliness. Lonesomeness hurts. Loneliness just feels good.
I spent about a half an hour under the moon near that cattle fence. As far as I knew, I was the only person up there. I could have seen car lights for miles in any direction. There was nothing, just the moon and me and that truck loader. When the cold started getting to me, I got in the car and stared out the window.
After a while, I drove the gravel road back toward town. I wasn’t in any hurry. I opened the window and listened to the tires on the gravel. I missed Laramie.