This is a love story.
I grew up in a small Kansas town, Clay Center, the county seat of--you guessed it--Clay County. The town has a spiffy web site now and a pretty bad-ass water park. When I lived there, the internet needed diaper changes and the water park was a Great Depression-era concrete-lined hole in the ground. Just under five thousand residents lived in Clay Center when I was in high school twenty-five years ago... and the population has been shrinking since.
Dirt and gravel roads criss-crossed Clay County, most of them laid out grid-like in sections. Drive a mile, and you would find a perpendicular section road. Order lived there, neat and tidy, except for the river. The Republican River snaked from the west to south-southeast of town and disturbed the grid. Driving close to the river, I found abrupt ends to gravel paths and dusty drops of twenty or thirty feet to the slowly rolling water below.
My heart fed on those roads and the mystery of overhanging trees and quiet fields. I would drive and drive and drive during lazy afternoons. Gas cost less then, less than a dollar a gallon, and my car was a sanctuary. There were secret places and shadowed hollows of public hunting land near river-bottom fields. Dead ends hid in the county's hills--like a cemetery I once found while driving Mom's four-speed Ford Ranger. The poor machine strained in reverse as I straddled ditches on either side for a quarter mile as we backed away from the locked gates.
Sometimes on lazy afternoons, I would drive away from my small town on a county highway and choose a gravel road to explore. I'd park on the roadside, half in/half out of the ditch, leave my car behind, pick a hill, and climb. I'd be lost to everyone for an hour or two. Alone. Invisible. Gone.
I couldn't live in Clay Center now. I've grown, and the seventeen-year-old me is long gone. He left a legacy in my veins, though. It's why I don't mind my brief commute through the rolling countryside into Jefferson County. It's why I value slow Saturdays and walks on wooded hillside trails on the edge of Lawrence. Northeast Kansas is a cousin to the home I knew, close but not the same.
My heart wants these things--hills to climb and grass and trees and time to just be. I ache for a time when I could disappear for a few hours, lost to everyone and everything.There's no magic in my Kansas memories... just gravel and dirt and plowed-under fields and the muddy swell of a river.
No magic, but plenty of love.
Hills to climb.
Roads to explore.
A love story.