We were among the brave.
It was the Sunday before the winter solstice, time for a long-overdue first trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Hiking around in some remnants of a prairie that once covered 170 million acres seemed like a perfect socially distant day trip.
“The bravest 25% of our visitors come during the winter,” said Eric Patterson, the amiable lead park ranger in the visitor’s center.
Visiting in the summer when the grass is green and the flowers are out is great, he said, “but there’s a stark beauty in the winter.”
He talked about fog on the grasslands, or the beauty of an ice storm.
“Well, you wouldn’t want to come right after an ice storm,” he clarified.
His advice to Kansans in winter: “Put on your coat and come on out.”
Patterson, who has worked at the park for 18 years, said attendance has grown steadily since the park was established in November 1996. (Later I looked up the numbers. Last year was the park’s busiest, with 33,750 visitors.)
“This is an anecdotal observation, but most visitors are regional,” Patterson said. “We get some local traffic, but they live and breathe this every day and may not go out of their way to visit until friends arrive.”
Patterson reminded us that the park is unique in the National Park Service thanks to the public-private partnership in which the Nature Conservancy owns the land but the park is administered by the National Park Service. (This is thanks to the efforts of many people but perhaps most credit goes to former Sens. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker and Bob Dole.)
Maps taped to the counter provided some useful perspective: The park is just 17 square miles — a tiny jagged L amid Chase County’s total of 760 square miles.
Almost all of Kansas is privately owned. (A beautiful exploration of that striking reality is George Frazier’s joyride through “The Last Wild Places of Kansas.”)
“There’s very little open to the public to walk around,” Patterson said of the state.
This can be deceiving to travelers who are just driving through and see only the wide-open spaces.
“There are lakes and reservoirs, but if you’re hoping to get out of your car and imagine life 200 to 2,000 years ago, that was a bit tricky,” he said.
This park provides a place to do that. So off we went, out into the horizon.
It wasn’t exactly like being transported back 200 or 2,000 years. We heard a plane flying overhead, a truck or two driving by on Kansas Highway 177 and the inevitable train in the distance. We also heard the laughter of a couple of kids romping down a trail on the hill below us.
Most of all, though, we just heard the wind. It was mercifully gentle that day.
Patterson had pointed out the place where we might see bison — and we’re pretty sure we did see some, though we wouldn’t have known this if Patterson hadn’t told us to look for “dark dots.” We saw five such dots, standing still on a distant rise.
Patterson said we might also be able to see bison from the grounds of the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse. But we only saw a faraway family and some construction equipment.
Admission to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is free, minus the cost of your gas to get there. The trails are open 24 hours. (This time of year the visitor’s center is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
It’s an easy, restorative adventure.
“We’re lacking for Grand Canyons and Grand Tetons here, but we’ve got a lot of grand prairie,” Patterson said, which was true and sincere even if he’d said it thousands of times.
“Solitude, space — all of the things people say they want in their lives, when they get here it can be a bit unnerving,” he said. “It really is quiet. We really are by ourselves.”
For those who find that too unnerving, he added, “Walmart is 20 miles away.”