When I Drive Across Kansas

When I left Denver for Lawrence, Kansas last weekend, I underestimated the time it would take and the storms that are always possible this time of year driving across the plains. The drive started well. I had four books on tape—Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Nick Arvin’s Articles of War, Joyce Carol Oates’s The Tattooed Girl, and Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls. I figured I’d save those for later. I stuffed sunflower seeds in the right side of my mouth and moved the shells, once shucked, over to the left. I had a fountain soda and a sunny afternoon ahead of me. My mom called to check on me. “No storms. All sun,” I said, all sunny. The sunflowers prayed at the sky. The wheat glowed gold. Then it started to storm. Funny that "storm" is a noun and a verb and that storms themselves are nouns and verbs. A thunderstorm appears as a bulky puff and then it puffs its bulk over the fields. Rain rains, tornadoes tornado, but humans don’t human. Maybe we are weaker. Just proper nouns who do things.

I probably should have pulled over. Whatever in us makes us think “Surely, I won’t die. Everyone else might, but not me,” is the same thing that made me drive through the storm. I watched the black mass circle around the highway counter-clockwise as NPR announced its very clear severity. The swirls started south of me, whispy and half-serious, becoming black, but soon they were sitting on the highway, straight east, straight ahead of my hood. A fat rainbow twinkled out the edge of a furry gray cloud. The sunflowers bowed down, yellow bonnets curling over brown faces.

“If you’re on I-70,” the crackly voice on the radio said, “You should pull off and wait this cell out.” Cell. This storm sounded like something in The Matrix. I had a wierd feeling I'd either hit a really bad storm or no storm at all. Red pill or blue pill? What did I do? I kept driving. Well, no, that’s not entirely true; I pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru for an ice cream cone, then I got right back on the highway, with my vanilla soft serve in one hand and my camera, flash turned off, in the other.

I don’t know what I was thinking. Wind does not blow over the plains; it rips across them. It tears paneling off cars and knocks semis over sideways. I tried to catch a line of cows running on camera. I tried about 15 times to capture the lightning hitting the ground and the dust galloping over the highway. But I could barely drive with two hands, much less none. I threw my cone into the cup holder and I wouldn’t find it til later, til it had melted into an opaque, milky pool.

One thing I love about storms in the West is that they approach. In Alaska, they just sit on the town, stubborn and sullen. In Colorado and Kansas, they make an entrance, swooshing their robes of many colors across the ground like an angry king. “Who stole my land without asking?” This king would say. Farmers would scatter. Sunflowers would lie prostrate. Cars would pull over and passengers would enter McDonald’s and stay for hours. The clouds would move and the world would run for cover, then stop.

This was one of the most magnificent storms I’ve ever seen. I counted: for every five seconds, I saw at least five bolts of lightning, sometimes more like ten. The bolts turned all my windows white (I took the pictures above during the same second). Some cracked sideways across the sky, then like a shattered windshield, branches erupted from the initial line, and squiggled down to the ground.

When my brothers and I were little, we used to go into this spoof gift store in Southwest Plaza called Spencer’s for ten minutes at a time while our mom was in the department store. Amongst the dirty playing cards and pins with the F word on them, they had one of those electric spheres on a stand—a crystal ball that looked like a giant lit-up snowglobe, with electric bolts wiggling out from the epicenter towards the glass like wavy tentacles. If I put my hand against the glass, the tentacles all came to meet it. They were hot pink and hot to the touch. The ball felt like magic. Was it magnetic? Did it sense me? Each of my fingertips controlled a magenta zigzag. I could rake the electric fingers with the tips of my own from one side of the curve to the other, from the top to the bottom. We always had to leave Spencer’s before we’d had enough.

So it was with this storm in Kansas. I couldn’t just sit there under the McDonald’s awning and watch the sky turn from inkblack to milk-white without going into it. So I drove. Pretty soon, I had my shoulders pulled up towards my ears. I leaned over the wheel like my mom does (even in sun), and sent the wipers into a fury. They did nothing. The rain came from both directions. The man on the radio reiterated the speed of the wind: up to 75 miles an hour. "Trees are lying across the road in Hays," he said. "It's too dark to see how deep the water is. Get off the roads!" I went 80. I would beat this thing.

There were other headlights, but not many. I had started going so fast that I realized, as suddenly as a bad headache, that I couldn’t stop. A black shimmery curtain covered the exit ramps. All I could see was the white line along the shoulder. If I stopped, someone would slam into me. If I tried to pull over and pulled over too far, I’d roll down the steep hill or end up going off the side of some bridge I didn’t realize I was on.

There was one brief moment, it lasted maybe two seconds, where I could see absolutely nothing. I wedged my car in between the shoulder and a semi spraying even more water across my windshield, and thought, prayed, I hope I make this, I hope I make this. I couldn’t see the shoulder, the sky, the truck, just water thrashing its way across glass like a thousand transparent snakes. When you're going fast, momentum makes more sense than making a decision. My speedometer still read 80 (I know because I had never turned cruise control off—I just wanted to burst through the storm like I was digging to China and I'd end up in some wonder world if I could just get far enough to pop out into the other side).

Which is pretty much what I did. Right after I pictured my bloody body on the side of the road and my car flipped over and some bystander calling my mom, the rain let up just enough for me to see that I wasn’t on the road anymore, but driving down the gloriously wide shoulder. I righted the wheel and the semi disappeared into the mist behind me. The rain splashed against the windshield, but it left spaces for me to see. I breathed and brought my shoulders back against the seat.

I have probably driven across Kansas and Nebraska 30 or more times. We used to take I-80 to Chicago, I-70 to Kentucky, and later, I used to drive those same flat roads to pick up Ashley on the long drive to Louisiana. Most people think the plains states are boring, but the continuity of the land has a strange beauty and dependability to it—gray rocks, slow livestock, lines of gold-green that will pull a car across the country.

When you drive alone across a place that is mostly bare, you begin to feel that way yourself. Your best and worst memories wave from the roadside. You’re like those rusted old trucks half-decayed under the grass, half-growing into the green. I know all the signs along the side of the road like lines in a song about my summers growing up—“World’s largest Czech egg, next exit!” “A Kansas farmer feeds 128 people and you”, “Come see the largest live prairie dog in the world”, “Pet the 36-inch live donkey!”

When I drive across Kansas, I think of pulling over for storms and eating gorp in the back seat of the minivan. When I drive past the camouflage tanks parked in long, blocky strips at Fort Riley, I think of my uncle Mark who went AWOL from the Army and ended up in Alaska. When I pass the wooden “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign, I think about all the heartache I carried across these plains when I was in college. I like driving here because of the time and the storms and the parts of history--my history--that I would have forgotten if it weren't for this highway.

I-70 was the first stretch of interstate that opened in the U.S. I always think of one of my favorite books, My Antonia, when I drive east out of Colorado. “There seemed to be nothing to see,” Willa Cather writes. “No fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”