The Kansas prairie blazes, clearing old growth; Spring tempts our ambitions.
|It comes again. The Green. It creeps along the ground, making slow progress notable only from one morning to the next. Soon it will climb up the trees and all the browns and grays will be overtaken. Ducks have arrived at the pond and ice will not be returning. The seasons played a trick in February, thawing out and tempting us. I took Moe walking a couple of days later. He barked at the smooth, frozen surface. About two feet from shore a snake had gotten caught as the temperatures dropped, like a primitive insect embalmed in amber. It had come out of the mud, lured by the promise of a change of season and was now locked in the ice. I grabbed a stick and reached across, tapping. The ice was perhaps a half-inch thick and easily broken. The snake lay still . I draped it over the branch and lifted it a little. Lethargically, it moved. Its cold-blood, flowing like honey that's been kept in the pantry almost too long, gave the energy only to roll off the stick. Slowly it sank back down to the bottom, to bury itself for a while longer until spring really arrived.
Now its late-March and we move from the teaser to the full feature. The weather reports start to give the burning conditions so ranchers can plan for the annual burning of the prairie. It used to be that Jim Griggs, who owns a few-thousand-acre ranch out near Leon, would gather up a few guys, a few six-packs to pay them with, a tank of water, and bottle of diesel fuel. Jim would drive while one of the guys stood on the flatbed with the fuel and a few rags, throwing small torches every few feet.
You start a prairie fire in a light breeze along a firebreak--a creek, or road or cattle trail--upwind of where you want it to end so that it has to fight its way along and you have more time to stop it. Once it's lit, you drive around to the other side and wait for it to arrive. By waiting upwind you also avoid sitting in the smoke. As it burns across the plain the smoke rises into a gray cloud that seems to hover above. It's the cloud first, then the smell, then smoke and flames along the ground that tell you burning season has arrived.
When we came to Kansas, the annual burn was just the way things were done. No one gave any thought to it. They just set the world ablaze, turning it into a blanket of charcoal. But at some point someone noticed that because it was what folks always did, that made it a "ritual." And since it was a ritual, people from the city concluded it was "culture." Since it was culture, Jim, being enterprising, figured he could charge people to come and see it. So Jim decided to take the sides off of his old grain truck and load the bed with tourists--artists, photographers, and people who normally found at the symphony--and show them the wonders of the spring burn.
Kansas is not known for tourism and unlike most states does not even have a tourism department. Promoting tourism falls within the responsibilities of our Department of Commerce. Jim thought perhaps they would be willing to promote his enterprise and so he called to Topeka. To people trying to find a way to make Kansas interesting, the idea of sending city folks through a blazing field on the back of an old truck seemed inspired. It seemed so inspired, in fact, that within days he got a call from the wanting him to save a spot for the undersecretary of commerce himself.
Jim's dad bought the International Harvester in 1973 after its retirement as a rural electric coop boom truck. He took off the boom and built a flat bed on the back using oak planks he picked up at an auction. Thinking that it might be useful to have a large flatbed truck, he made the grain sides removable. However, in the 35 years since neither he nor Jim had ever actually had a use for a large flatbed truck, and the International sat 11 months out of the year behind the barn next to the fuel tanks. Jim took pride in the fact that in thirty five years it had been driven less than 10,000 miles and he liked to brag that in 35 years he'd never done a single thing to it except add diesel fuel--no filters, no oil, no windshield wiper blades, nothing.
As Jim considered his plan, it was pretty obvious that having the undersecretary of commerce standing on a flatbed truck driving through a rocky field was an idea that needed some refinement. If he was going to build a tourist attraction, he needed to do it right. Now, a few years ago a local Baptist church received the gift of a set of padded pews from a Methodist church in town that had upgraded to soft chairs. These replaced the unpadded oak pews, which the local church sold at a silent auction. Since they seemed like a good source of cheap lumber, Jim had bid on ten of them, and won them all. With the help of a couple of friends he set them up on the bed of the International and nailed them down so they'd stay put.
If the undersecretary was going to come, Jim's friends told him, he would need more of a show than simply driving out to watch grass burn. He needed to be a modern day Buffalo Bill and turn it into a Wild West entertainment production. Rusty, Lou and Joe volunteered to provide musical entertainment. They could sing cowboy songs, Rusty suggested, leaning against the back of the truck cab as the passengers watched the fire. Now you have to understand that Rusty aspires to be a professional musician, and once he got the gig poured his whole heart into it. He collected all the country and western songs he could find that had any lyrics at all about fire, smoke, or sparks. Most, it turned out, dealt with old flames. Rusty plays the guitar, Lou the bass, and Joe the fiddle. Knowing that the fiddle and bass are not the easiest instruments to play while sitting in the back of a truck driving though a field, Rusty made the boys practice on an old hay wagon while his girlfriend pulled it around in a circle with the tractor.
Jim hasn't travelled very much, but he talked to folks at Fleming Feed and Grain, where everyone in Leon hangs out, about what people expect of a tourist destination.
"Everyone needs a uniform . . . or to dress up like a cartoon character."
"You've gotta provide souvenirs."
"What people want is a show--lots of build up, lots of drama."
That all seemed a little beyond Jim's keen, so he enlisted Greg Young, the high school drama teacher, to plan it out.
Like Rusty, Greg took to his task with passion. Jim normally wears a hooded sweatshirt and denim jacket, but Greg didn't think that quite suited the part. So he ordered chaps, cowboy hats, flannel shirts and vests for all the guys who were going to help with the burn. He ordered bandanas online, but when they came he found he had ordered eight cases, instead of eight bandanas, and they were a few shades brighter yellow than he anticipated. Horses, he concluded, would be the final piece necessary for the show. Anyone coming to the prairie to watch a ritual would surely be disappointed if there were no horses.
Greg's plan was to have Jim mounted on a horse. The truck would be parked on the side of a hill up from the Walnut River. Jim would ride back and forth across along the river bank, shouting out a description of the history of range burning. His brother, Roger, would then hand him a lit torch, and Jim would hold it in the air with both hands, riding like Kevin Coster in the opening scene of Dances With Wolves as he puts himself before a firing line. He'd then turn around and, like a polo player, hold the torch along the ground as he rode back, starting the field ablaze.
When the afternoon of the event arrived everything was in place. Jim had sold all forty tickets at $25 each, including the one for the undersecretary. He had not, however, tried to actually start the International in advance. As people began to arrive an each was given a glowing yellow bandana. When Todd, who volunteered to drive the International, got ready to pull the truck around to pick them up, the battery was dead. Roger jump-started it from his pickup and the show was on. Todd loaded everyone up and set off for the makeshift theater about three-miles away where Jim was waiting with his horse. Todd's wife, Sue, sat in the seat next to him. It was her job to take pictures of their passengers which they could sell to them as souvenirs later.
A grain truck driving down a dirt road raises a lot of dust. Grain has little concern about this and seldom complains. A group of artists, photographers, and third-tier politicians are a little less understanding and day was off to an inauspicious beginning. Once they got off the road and started driving through the prairie toward the river the dust died down quite a lot, but since grain does not require suspension, and the passengers were all sitting on hard wooden pews, Todd had to drive slowly, easing as gently as he could over each bump or protruding rock. By the time they arrived, Rusty and the band and nearly run out of songs.
The wind was blowing a little too hard for Greg's plan of Jim yelling out from the horse to work. He concluded that there was no way anyone would be able to hear what Jim was saying so he changed the plan and had the truck stop along the riverbank for Jim to give a lecture on horseback.
The longer Jim talked the stronger the smell of diesel fuel grew. This struck Jim as a bit strange. The exhaust from the truck would not have surprised him very much, and he made a mental note that next year he needed to tell Todd to shut the truck off while he was talking. But diesel fuel? He rode around the truck while continuing his lecture. When he got to the other side he could see that fuel was running out from the return line to the fuel tank. Since it was only at a moderate rate he made another mental note that after 35 years, that probably needed to be fixed and his bragging days were about through.
When Jim was done, Todd drove the truck up the hill, nearly to the top, since they did not now need to be close enough to hear Jim, and shut it off. Jim held the lit torch over his head with both hands and kicked his horse to a full gallop. Unfortunately, Jim had not practiced this with his horse before. When the horse caught a glimpse of the flame, it stopped. Suddenly. But Jim, with his hands in the air and nothing to hold onto continued, torch in hand, over the saddle and on to the ground. When the torch hit, he saw a flame darting off in a thin line back toward the road, like a something from a movie. Despite being a little dazed from the fall, Jim realized pretty quickly that the torch had hit the trail of diesel fuel left by the truck and was following it back to the road. It took him a few moments more to look behind him and realize that the flame was following the trail in the other direction too, chasing the now-parked truck. He could hear everyone on the truck cheering loudly as the flame spread and field began to burn.
"I didn't think it would start that fast!" the undersecretary of commerce yelled up to Todd who was still in the cab of the truck. Todd didn't think it would start that fast either. Nor did he think that there was any good reason that it ought to be speeding along the same path he had driven to get to their vantage point. Through what was rapidly becoming thick smoke he could see that Jim was again on the horse, riding back and forth, alternately waving his arms and pointing.
Todd turned the key to start the truck. Nothing happened. Sue, in the seat beside him realized what was going on, opened her door, stood on the running board and yelled "everyone--get off and push!" pointing to the thin line of approaching flame. Those at the ends of the pews got off first and grabbed a hold of whatever part of the truck they could. As the truck started to move, Todd turned the wheel so that it would roll down the hill, powered by gravity instead of paying guests.
As it slowly accelerated the passengers re-boarded as best they could. The truck bounced down the rocky slope, the under-secretary of commerce remaining seated on a wooden bench; or, more accurately, seated on the wooden bench that part of the time he was not bounced into the air. It was not lost on Todd, or anyone else, what lay in front of them. They were heading straight toward the ribbon of flame that was heading, as far as the eye could see in each direction, straight toward them.
Thinking back to stories of the musicians on the Titanic, Rusty picked up his guitar and started playing the last song in their repertoire. This one had been written and sung by Johnny Cash. "I fell in to a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, but the flames went higher. It burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire, that ring of fire . . . ."
Todd thought that perhaps he could start the truck by putting it in gear and letting out the clutch. By this time it had gained some speed. He was so taken with the wisdom of his idea that he did not consult with anyone else first. When he let clutch out suddenly the truck bucked and surged to a near stop. The pews continued on, the nails pulling out of the floorboards of bed. Those who had been sitting in the pews continued on too, and pews, singing cowboys, artists, photographers, a newspaper reporter and the undersecretary of commerce lay merged together up against the back of the cab. But the engine was started, and Todd gunned it as they approached the flames, spreading the human cargo, pews and instruments across the whole grain-bed again, though with considerably less order than the original arrangement.
The truck rolled through the fire onto the blackened char on the other side. Todd brought it to a stop and shut off the engine. It was immediately enveloped in the smoke, causing everyone's eyes to water. "Pull your bandanas over your mouths, Rusty yelled." Sue, realizing that in all the excitement she had missed her job, turned around and through the back window of the truck took a picture of the pile of pews, musical instruments, and people, faces covered with yellow bandanas.
Just about then the wind shifted and the smoke cleared. It was dusk now and as people wiped their sooty faces and looked back, they saw the bright orange line, contrasted with the black ground on one side and the tall grass on the other. As it moved, it looked like the fire was rolling out a black sheet like you might roll out a plastic tablecloth. The glow of the fire reflected off the cloud of smoke above it. The guests looked, awestruck, at a landscape they'd never seen before and just stared, entranced by the flames as dusk turned to darkness and only thing visible anywhere was the now-distant orange line of Hell retreating.