Magazine article National Parks

Prairie Solitaire

Magazine article National Parks

Prairie Solitaire

Article excerpt

In the middle of America, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve offers an intimate, grounding experience.

I'M HOOFING IT BACK TO MY CAR after an evening spent stargazing in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, when the ground starts to tremble under my feet. I've stirred the bison from their slumber and done it in just about the most dangerous way possible- by unwittingly getting too close. My attempts to spot the herd a safe distance from its bedding area had clearly failed. If I survive this, I think, 111 need to buy a better flashlight.

Snorts and thundering hooves echo through the darkness, and all I can do is wait for the hulking figure of a frightened, sleep-deprived bison to careen into my circle of light. But as I listen, I realize the bison are running away from me. My heart beats again. I choose a wide path around the trail, making sure to leave the bison plenty of room.

These bison are lucky- inside the preserve, they can stretch their legs- but most of their predecessors were either killed off or squeezed out by development. Of the 170 million acres of land that once constituted their grassland habitat, only 4 percent remains. In 2009, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy introduced 13 plains bison to the preserve; two years and three babies later, the herd is thriving on one of the largest and best protected landscapes of its kind. Here, there's still plenty of grass tall enough to tickle the bellies of bison.

The morning after my close encounter with the herd, I'm walking up the Big Pasture Trail, a 13-mile loop of old ranch roads now used primarily by fire crews and researchers. Not many visitors walk the trails here. Of the roughly 22,000 people that come every year, most opt for a short bus tour to an overlook, or maybe a trip to the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. But with more than 40 miles of trails, most of which were opened to the public in the last two years, this preserve was made for walking. Here, visitors don't need to worry about dodging cyclists or horseback riders or getting stuck in a traffic jam. Exploring this place is all about putting one foot in front of the other- a method that park guide Jeff Rundell understands well. "I just love to run out on the prairie," he says. "I love the freedom, the idea of getting out there and seeing nothing but grass and open space."

Beyond the old farmhouse, bluestem grass, wild coneflowers, and 500 other plant species stretch for as far as the eye can see. I imagine stepping into a time when pioneers traversed this oceanic landmass on their way to the promise of the West. Suddenly, the faint rumbling of engines and beeping trucks in the distance whisk me back. Their presence seems to signal an awakening for the preserve: Construction is under way on a new visitor center and restrooms.

I've come to the prairie at the tail end of summer, and the land is alive with the monarch butterfly migration. As I move farther into the preserve, cicadas quickly drown out any sounds of construction. I find myself incredulous that an animal so small can bombard my ears with a sound so large (male cicadas produce a buzz upwards of 100 decibels- the insect version of a packed concert hall). Birds sing, although I can't always see them, and somewhere in the grasses to my right, a frog calls for a mate. This is a place where the rarity of visitors leaves nature to shout out loud.

After stargazing, bison stampedes, and early mornings spent watching the sun rise over the Flint Hills, I've arrived at my last day at the preserve. By now I've more than earned my prairie legs, but there's one last trail I have to hike. I need to time it just right: that part of the day when the sun bathes the land in soft golden light. For my last visit, I want to see the prairie in full glory.

So early in the afternoon, I sit idling at a Starbucks drive-thru in nearby Emporia to fuel up and kill time. As I wait, the girl at the window strikes up a conversation. …

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