flint hills kansas illustration

The Flint Hills

As twilight falls, my father-in-law and I travel across Kansas’ rolling pastures, chasing fire as we go.

We are en route from Strong City to Emporia, in eastern Kansas, and we cannot find the particular road Bob had in mind, the one where we could park the car and hike along the Cottonwood River. On the map, I see Corn Creek, Crocker Creek, and Steak Bake Creek, all of which splinter from the southern fork of the Cottonwood. There is also a north fork, and both are tributaries of the Neosho River, which is a tributary of the Arkansas River, which is one of many tributaries in the Mississippi River watershed. There is fenced property on our left, and cows graze in a modest pasture behind a ranch house. One, its coat the color of cinnamon and matted with dirt, runs alongside our car as we drive past. We periodically glimpse the Little Cedar Creek, which is nearly dry, on our right, the water so scant that we can see gravelly pink and gray limestone in the creek bed.

The mood changes when we cannot find what we are looking for, and I fear that Bob, my father-in-law, is feeling defeated. He turns onto state Route 177, which will eventually get us to I-35 and back home to Topeka. The cattle on the more vast, elevated pastures along the highway graze in small groupings. They will gain weight throughout the spring and summer, and be sold in October. One sits with her thin forelegs tucked symmetrically beneath her broad body, her calves in close proximity and seated in the exact same position. Bob points out wild turkeys and, occasionally, bison being raised.

As we merge onto I-35, we see orange flames blazing through a hilly pasture on the other side of the highway. Thick black smoke gathers beneath the low-hanging clouds. Throughout the afternoon, we have noticed isolate wisps of gray smoke wafting faintly like chimney smoke from the charred hills. It is my first time visiting Kansas during the springtime, and Bob explains that every April, as the grazing season begins, the pastures are burned to clear dry brush and expose newer soil, which readily releases its nutrients. New bluestem grass springs to life almost immediately, poking through the exposed earth. The Flint Hills are interspersed with cottonwoods and cedars, and the singular shape of each gnarled tree is magnificent, even in daylight. The annual burns also prohibit new tree growth, which renders the ones that are here more distinct. The plumes of smoke we have seen for most of the day are from the last burning embers of slowly dying fires. But the advancing flames we see now are bright and on the move. They will part the brown grass from the earth and shock the soil awake.

Bob pulls over to think. This initial phase of burning, the first touch of fire to dry grass, will not last long. We are on the opposite side of the road as the burning pasture, and Bob, who drives with his camera on his lap, wants to photograph the flames as they tear through the grass. He takes the next exit, and my husband, Derek, navigates us closer to the pasture using the map on his phone. Bob’s turns become deft and precise. He pauses briefly to photograph a squirrel with glassy eyes that stands on top of a mailbox.

Bob has owned at least a dozen cameras in his lifetime—the first a Yashica rangefinder purchased at the Tinker Main Exchange when he was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Newly married, he lived in an apartment in Midwest City and, on weekends with my mother-in-law, photographed rolling hills and open prairie, the sun seeming to slip through a seam in the earth as it fell behind the horizon. When they returned to Wichita, he bought a Yashica SLR that allowed the photographer to see the image that will be captured directly through the lens. Assignments for a photography class led him on solo journeys to the arboretum and through the alleys between aircraft manufacturing plants.

These days, he occasionally drives back to Wichita, accompanied by a friend from his photography club in Topeka. At the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail stop, they photograph Boeing fuselages loaded on trains bound for Seattle. They drive to Emporia, Newton, Kansas City, and Falls City, Nebraska—any town a steam engine might pass through.

Fire is a change from the norm: Close-ups of flames might make for an unusual submission to the contests his photography club enters. But Derek speculates that Bob is interested in holding on to something that might otherwise be lost to time. I speculate that chasing fire is akin to chasing trains: Both tear freely through this open landscape. Another type of silence settles in the car—not the disconcerting sort, where we might speculate as to one another’s sensitivities, but the kind that is rich with awareness.

When we glimpse a shock of orange a few feet from the car and just uphill, Bob brakes and parks on the shoulder. Low flames, less than a foot high, weave through the remaining grass a few feet away from the passenger side of the car. Bob takes off, cupping the bottom of his camera in one palm as he walks uphill on the pasture that we had tracked from the car. He is in that exalted creative space where there are no choices to be made, a space that, as a writer, I long for—where instinct is powerful and clarity is abundant. Since we spotted the flames, the only question for Bob has been, How do we get as close as possible? He pauses, searching for the flames we had glimpsed from the road—upon getting closer, much of the hillside is already like the last moments around a campfire, speckled with ash. Bob climbs the back of the pasture, a steep grade almost perpendicular to the road. From the car, the flames had seemed to travel downhill. But when I see him crouch and I watch the steadily advancing low orange flame rimmed with black smoke broach the precipice of the hill, I realize that they are climbing. He crouches to capture the exact interchange between the fire and the dry grass.

A full flame seems to momentarily take hold of the grass, and then suction it upward. As the flame absorbs the grass, it is fitful motion. Derek, my mother-in-law, and I step onto the pasture. We see a winding path of small fires weaving through the grass like burning footprints. Once robust, the fire has broken into pieces and gravitated to the driest grass. The fire’s path mirrors the meandering creeks in the back hills, but instead of sinking into the muddy earth like the shallow creeks, the fire strains away from the land. Bob disappears for a few minutes, pursuing freshly lit flames. In one of his photographs, the edges of a robust flame break from the center in small bits, scattering in the air like an archipelago. In another, when the flames are at their highest and the concentrate of yellow and orange most luminous, an orange seam halves the pasture and delicate wisps of black smoke swirl above the restless fire like tarnish on silver. We remain until Bob turns toward the car and says happily, “Let’s go find some more fire.”

At a scenic overlook, Bob points out the landscape of the Flint Hills at a distance. The shadowy slopes are interspersed with shrubs and cottonwood, sycamore, and evergreen cedar trees; the latter seem to spring from the side of the road, even when it is dry and rocky, in miniature.

The next time we come this way, it’s winter of the following year, and Derek drives. On the way home from Alma, Kansas, Bob and my mother-in-law sit in the back seat, his camera pack on the seat between them, as well as a 1-inch spiral-bound book filled with maps and routes for exploring the small towns of Kansas. We have a debate when leaving Alma about the best way onto the Skyline Mill Scenic Byway, and soon we realize we are instead on the Native Stone Scenic Byway, which winds south, then east, and then north again, home to Topeka. The prairie will not burn for another five months. The pastoral expanse is entrancing, the landscape of peaks and valleys skirting shadow and light. I concentrate on the movement of the shadows, the way in which light can climb and sprawl and vanish. We wend a broad curve and, suddenly, the hills and meadows are bathed in high-chroma yellow sunlight, as in a high-contrast photo. The horizon is somewhere beyond the mounds of rolling hills. The earth seems to expand and press into the atmosphere, enveloped by a glowing horizon. On sparse allotments of ranchland, black and brown cows graze. There is a moment, again where we are unsure of the way home, and Derek suggests we continue on the scenic byway. Sunset begins subtly, the horizon purpling. Above the purple rim, a band of fiery orange emerges, the colors blended together at their edges. Another band of pale orange follows, the colors stacked like panels in a Rothko painting. Buttery yellow light glows softly, mingling with the emerging night.

Amy Beth Wright lives in Brooklyn. Email her at amybeth21@gmail.com.

Illustration by Ping Zhu

Originally Published October 2017