Summer of the Pandemic 2020
By the time we drove into Alma Hank perked up. He has an uncanny sense of geography and senses when we are near. By the first 45 degree turn to the left before Trails End his tail began to wag. He had the smile he gets on his face. When we turned onto the gravel road his tail was wagging hard, thumping the edge of the car door. We were both very happy to arrive. It had been a harrowing afternoon of thunderstorms, 65 mile an hour wind gusts, blinding rain, and falling hail. We twice took shelter under the interstate overpass.
We arrived just after sunset. There was just enough light lingering in the sky to unpack. I walked Hank west to where the road and drive meet. There was a slight drizzle. You could hear the constant fall of rain on the leaves but it was not so heavy to be bothered by. Clouds covered the sky so no stars were visible, though out across the field lightning bugs shown their luminescence. It appeared like a galaxy, the enchanting twinkle of green stars across the field. I’m not a religious man so I don’t ever expect to get to Heaven, except in the Flint Hills when I turn the wheel of the car onto Trails End, drive to the conclusion of the gravel road, and step out of the car. Then, I feel like I’ve cheated death and am as near to the pearly gates as I’ll ever be.
– Jeremiah Ariaz, June 22, 2020
Note: The Reece bunkhouse on Trails End Road is about a mile from Volland. Sometimes it is made available to visiting artists and artists-in-residence. Jeremiah has stayed there many times.
I brought the high chair from the garage into the bunkhouse and used the tall table in the corner as a writing desk. I could write then lie on the couch to read and so became the rhythms of my day. I’ll return everything to how it was.
from “Departing the Bunkhouse” July 7, 2020
At my family’s farm I uncovered three large binders containing our family history. I’ve brought them with me to read and photograph. My cousin wants them back when I see him this weekend at the farm so my days will be busy. I aim to photograph fragments from the archive that I can include in my project and will, if time permits, create a facsimile of each for the family to have. I think I’ll be able to do it on the porch of the bunkhouse though if there is not enough light, perhaps the Volland store will prove better. Would it be okay if I photographed in the gallery?
With the albums I will stay busy for the week. I’ll drive back to Russell Co Friday or Saturday morning to see my family and photograph, then return east. If available, I’ll remain at the bunkhouse for a few days longer to do not much of anything, which was my original hope. Then, the long haul to Maine.
Thanks again for this residency. I’ll be putting it to greater use than anticipated. I hope you can see the archives; they are impressive.
June 19, 2020
I’m headed out of Great Bend but detouring to Haskell Co in southwest Kansas, where the pandemic of 1919 originated. Then to the farm where I may stay 2 days depending on how Hank and the farm dog George get along. I should have a better idea of things tomorrow.
It would be great to see you, even if from a physical distance.
July 4, 2020
Letter: July Hike by the Light of the Full Moon (abridged, with permission)
The plan is to start the hike in the Tall grass Prairie National Preserve walking west chasing the setting sun then make a loop returning to the east as the full moon rises. The drive from the bunkhouse in Wabaunsee County to the Prairie Preserve is just about the prettiest stretch of highway you could set wheels on.
I’m in a rush to get there before sunset and didn’t account for matters that have slowed my approach. …. [A] delay comes from the Dairy Queen where I pick up dinner. I thought this would have been quicker than packing a meal. I was wrong.
When my turn comes the girl working the Dairy Queen drive-thru window asks if my dog would like a treat. Certainly. She has piercing blue eyes that so command your attention that one could forget for a moment she is wearing a mask. Masks have reduced the sense of connection you make with people, both friends and strangers. It puts a degree of separation between you and the world that feels far greater than the thin material covering one’s mouth and nose. The blue eyes are a welcome distraction.
When we make it to the trail, we have to move fast to catch the sunset. Hank waits patiently outside the car at the foot of the prairie while I gather my pack then sit on the tailgate devouring a cheeseburger and fries while the sun goes down. It’s almost 8 PM.
It’s nightfall and still over 80 degrees plus the humidity is thicker than usual. I have a new old secondhand burnt sienna bandana to wipe the sweat from my brow and from the back of my neck. We hustle the first 2 1/2 miles of trail to get up to a ridge in time to see the setting sun appear to set fire to the wispy clouds above.
As night sets in coyotes start howling in the distance. Hank falls back from his lead to walk a step behind on my right side. I have a map and try to take stock of our whereabouts. It’s like an ocean out here, an ocean of green prairie grass, and we need to keep our bearings.
The sun went down at 8:53 PM and I trust the full moon rise at 9:42 PM will illuminate the way. With nothing to obstruct the sunset, twilight lingers for nearly an hour providing ample light for our hike.
The Flint Hills is a sublime landscape, especially at night. Walking out here alone it brings forth a touch of fear the pioneers must’ve felt venturing across the naked land. People wrote, perhaps most famously Willa Cather in “O Pioneers!” about a “prairie fever” that could set in. People were driven mad by the howling wind and desolation. All these generations later, approximately 150 years on, [there are] not a whole lot more people here. In fact, population density has dropped across much of Kansas. But now a patchwork grid of gravel roads, the highway, and phone lines connect people. You don’t hear about the “prairie fever” anymore; the more common affliction in rural areas is methamphetamines.
The fork in the trail is marked by a flat rock in the grass that reflects the faint light. We almost miss it. Turning east we see the moon rise though it’s largely obscured behind cloud coverage. I don’t think we’re going to have the light I expected. I have an urge to hasten my steps but must remain sure-footed on the trail. A bat swoops down feeding on insects and flies in erratic circles. For a moment I think it might be a hawk deciding if he could pick up Hank but then I feel the vibration of its fleshy wings in the night air as it flies close to my head.
I take some pictures with my phone as we walk but when confronted with such natural beauty as this, every exposure falls short. In a photograph you can’t see the subtle undulations of the Flint Hills, or fully appreciate the lightning bugs that illuminate against the dark ground, or make out the brilliant orange orb of the full moon that finally appears, only a few shades lighter than the sun that fell over an hour ago.
The moon is an inspiring, though slightly foreboding, sight. It appears to be a “blood moon” though its color could be enhanced by the Sahara dust storm sweeping in from Africa. This fiery red moon on the Fourth of July feels appropriate to the tumultuous year. I’m grateful that the last miles of our hike may be illuminated. I stop walking for a moment to listen…. to the insect orchestra, to Hank pant, me catching my breath, the occasional fireworks in the distance.
In the dark the landscape is nearly featureless. I feel my legs move but have little sense of momentum.
Not many stars are visible in the sky. They are cloaked by cloud coverage and diminished by the light of the full moon. Looking level to the ground lightning bugs emerge to take the place of the stars. There are more than I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard people comment on how many there [are] this year. Looking across the prairie you have the sensation of peering into a not so distant galaxy.
Environments like this, in the prairie at night, miles away from another human soul, make everything feel more primal. Hank acknowledges my authority as pack leader. He stays close at my side.
My eye catches a stone marking the fork to the Davis Trail.
Near the 7th mile I begin to slow. The rushed pace of our departure is catching up with me. I welcome the warm glow of a farmhouse light in the distance, a sign the end of the trail is near. The moon is completely obscured by clouds but I know we’re close.
Hank also gains a little confidence, perhaps recognizing the trail, and proceeds ahead, his white body faintly visible in the darkness.
I can’t see the moon, which has fallen back, behind the clouds but the sky shines as if a great city were not far in the distance. There’s just enough light to distinguish the trail. The headlight of a passing automobile catches the side of Lower Fox Creek School, the one room stone schoolhouse built in 1884 that sits atop a small hill. My car is parked there. I can hold my eyes to the geometric shape silhouetted black against the dark sky.
My feet are sore, my body is tired; I know I’ll sleep well tonight. I belt out a yawn that echoes across the prairie and turn left at the fork onto Schoolhouse Spur. We are in the 8th mile, the last of our hike. 8.5 miles at our completion. It’s almost midnight.
I’m keen to get my boots off and give my feet relief. I give Hank a drink when we arrive. Once inside the car I roll down the windows and open the sunroof. Hank smiles. On the drive back we can continue to bask in the night air. I wish the Dairy Queen in Council Grove were open for a scoop of ice cream and a second helping of those blue eyes.
Departing the Bunkhouse, July 7, 2020
It’s been a lovely stay here at the bunkhouse. I couldn’t think of a finer place to be isolated from the world.
The new swimming hole is wonderful! We went yesterday and picked up Liz and El in the Polaris (who sat in the back seat safe with abundant wind dispersion). It is the clearest of the swimming holes and very refreshing. (Though Liz thought the crawfish might have been nipping at her.) I didn’t feel anything but I kept moving and Hank swam in circles happy as could be the entire time.
Hank and the cats are getting closer. They laid near each other last night separated by the screen.
I’m going to return to Great Bend to visit with Mom again for a day or two then drive to Maine. I hope next time we come this way we’ll able to see you. …I can’t thank you enough for … this lovely retreat.
All the best,