Sunday, July 23

(fragmentary, posted much later)

Landscape: I just drove to deep southwest Kansas, the part of the state which most closely approximates the world's limited conception of what the word "Kansas" signifies. It contains, I suspect, some of the flattest landscapes on the surface of the planet. Utility poles and two-lane roads recede to vanishing points on a horizon studded with grain elevators. The edge of the world often dissolves into heat-mirage blur.

Along one hundred and sixty miles of highway: The towns of Garden City, Scott City, Sublette, and Liberal; two empty quonsets; three feedlots; the open sheds of a large dairy operation; a Doppler radar installation. Mennonite churches and women in plain dresses.

I think it is difficult to judge the true scope and scale of the human-built structure on America's surface. Western Kansas is vast and, in a sense, empty. The population density is low and likely dropping fast. Like nearly everywhere I've been on the rural Great Plains, small towns are abandoned along their edges and rotting slowly from within. Some seem to exist primarily because of their isolation — local lumberyards and low-end Wal-Mart analogues like Duckwalls surviving in that space just below the threshold of profitability for the big chain stores. Truckstops, co-ops, and farm supplies.

All of this is deceptive, in a way, because it becomes easy to ignore the vast changes imposed by settlement and agriculture on a landscape which was once drastically different. Heading south on highway 83 just after dark, we were puzzled by dozens of pinpoint strobe lights flashing in the middle distance and along the horizon. Eventually it became obvious: Each flasher marked the center point of an irrigation pivot.