Standing on top of Piscus Peak, a great flat-topped loaf of a hill rising almost like a mesa amid surrounding rolling mounds, I couldn’t get my altered version of a Cat Stevens tune out of my head: “Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wide world.”
Wide views are an everyday pleasure here, but this one had people — many of whom have lived their whole lives in the Flint Hills — gasping.
Some two dozen of us had chugged up the steep, rock-strewn sides of the peak in John Deere Gators, then parked in a line at the top to watch the sun go down. Under a drop ceiling of white popcorn clouds, the horizon was a great 360-degree ring of periwinkle blue.
We were here on a fundraising outing, to raise money for four Emporia charities: the Boys and Girls Club, the zoo, an animal shelter and a program that introduces at-risk urban kids to the outdoors. The annual date-night ride offered by Prairieland Partners John Deere dealership allows two dozen couples to go four-wheeling through private ranch land.
At the beginning of our rally, when we hopped in our off-road rides at the Bazaar Cattle Pens, most of the chatter was about the charities and joshing about who would be the fastest out on the prairie.
It was 94 degrees when we set out, so getting splashed while bouncing across rain-swollen creeks was amusing and refreshing. Midway through our ride, we stopped for dinner under a century-old spreading oak tree next to a gin-clear stream, and new friendships were struck up over hot dogs and Dr Pepper.
But on Piscus Peak, gazing out at infinity with nothing but swirling grass and speckles of distant cattle in every direction, a reflective mood settled on the group. We wondered aloud what Native Americans must have thought standing on this same spot with basically the same view.
And the first settlers, were they too beaten crossing the rocky landscape in creaky wagons without shock absorbers to feel elated by the views? One woman joked the terrain must have caused many a woman to cuss her husband for dragging her away from the city.
Staring out at the hills that rippled endlessly to the edge of the sky, it occurred to me that a striking visual component here is the lack of a middle distance. All my views are either vast, uninterrupted panoramas or macro close-ups: jewel-tone butterflies clinging to a wildflower in a bouncing gale, dung beetles rolling a ball of manure in tandem across a road, seashell fossils, honeybees on clover.
In the city, beauty exists mainly in the middle distance: ornate buildings, lamp posts, flowerbeds in parks, strangers on the sidewalk. On the prairie the middle distance is erased, indistinct between the far horizon and the vibrant, textured nature underfoot.
By the time we rumbled off the peak to make our way back through the tall grass and wildflowers that were made more fragrant by the evening damp, the focus of the drivers was less on racing and more on arcing out to the edges of the pastures, to take in as much scenery as possible.
Back at the cattle pens, where we turned in our Gators, six of us lingered by our trucks until everyone else had left, not wanting to let go of the very wide world we were lucky enough to play in for a night.