Cindy Hoedel

Signs of a Kansas summer: Lightning bugs, warm strawberries

A fresh-picked strawberry from Cindy Hoedel’s garden is ripe all the way through.
A fresh-picked strawberry from Cindy Hoedel’s garden is ripe all the way through.

It was already a perfect evening.

A dozen of us were sitting at picnic tables, handmade ones with welded steel frames, the kind people have out here that can’t be moved by the south wind or fewer than two strong bodies.

We were feasting on ribs just off the smoker and the kind of expertly prepared homemade sides you can always count on at rural gatherings: deviled eggs, creamed corn, three-bean salad, scalloped potatoes, ruby red watermelon chunks dotted with fat blueberries.

A very large log, ignited with a very large torch, blazed in a metal fire circle with cut-out silhouettes of cowboys on horseback.

I was watching three heeler-mix dogs playing tag and tumbling over one another when it happened: a tiny sulfur-yellow light blinked on in the purplish dusk.

My first lightning bug of the year!

It never gets old. It’s the same thrill you get seeing a shooting star when you aren’t looking for one but with added significance: For me, the first lightning bug evening marks the real start of summer, a natural rite of passage into my favorite season.

That was the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, and the two days that followed were a charmed sequence of warm-weather set pieces.

We played fetch with a dog in a clear running creek.

I rode horseback, galloping down a grassy lane along a barbed wire fence without falling off somehow, even though I hadn’t ridden since I was 14.

I picked my first perfectly ripe strawberry in the garden and ate it on the spot.

In the straw bale rows, all the hot-weather-loving crops I had planted from seeds a week earlier popped up at once, their big, shiny first leaves opened wide to capture the sunshine and turn it into fat cantaloupes, watermelons and pumpkins.

[Straw bale gardening: Cindy Hoedel’s tips for getting the most out of it]

In the flower beds, the four o’clocks and moonflower bush I feared I had killed with overzealous weeding shot up all at once; they could feel the earth heating up, no doubt.

A small flock of orioles turned up to feast on the red and black fruits of mulberry trees on either side of my property. The brilliant yellow (female) and orange (male) birds crisscrossed the yard like May Day streamers in the breeze all weekend long.

A favorite ritual — the Sunday drive — was extra delightful, as some local friends invited us to explore their family’s land, tucked just out of view from public roads and containing all manner of charming old stone structures, amazing antique farm machinery and a private burial ground on a high hill with 360-degree views.

Helping some neighbors move, I stuck my nose in a scarlet rose rambling along the front porch.

My friend noticed and invited me to take some cuttings and shared a trick I’d never heard for getting them to take root: stick the planting end in a potato and bury the potato.

Then, on Monday evening, the cherry on top came in the form of, well, cherries. A friend out on a walk invited me to finish harvesting the rest of a cherry tree he had started on.

And so the weekend that started with a lightning bug blinking closed out with a bowl of sour cherries sprinkled with sugar. And if that doesn’t taste like summer, nothing does.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel