Travelers and Locals
As any traveler who has taken this long road from Goodland to Topeka as many times as I have can tell you, you're going to have to stop a few times. You'll need gas. You'll need food. You'll get a little restless and need to stretch your legs. Maybe you and your partner are switching driver and navigator for the next hundred miles if you're lucky enough to have a companion. Maybe the kids need to use the bathroom again because you caved and let them get the big Gatorade at the last gas station. Somewhere along the way you're going to have to stop. But I am going to ask you to do just a little more; stop at a truck stop. Stop at a Love's. Stop at the Oasis on the Plains in Colby, or really any gas station with a restaurant or two attached to the side. Stop. Sit down, and stop again.
If you look at the folks around you, there are two types of folk here. There are those who are treating themselves after a long day on the farm, and those who are taking a break from the miles of highway and the unending landscape of crops and sky. There are folks who are here because their options for going out for lunch are this, the Pizza Hut, or the restaurant owned by their neighbors. The others are here because they know the next fast food is 40 miles away and they don't want to wait that long for some other food than the bag of chips they've been snacking on. In most places, it's easy to tell the traveler from the local, by their appearance, their behavior, or their propensity for photographing things that are just slightly less mundane than everyday life. But here, along I-70 in Kansas, the two are almost identical. Farmers and road trippers wear similar clothes, are equally exhausted, and go to the same restaurants for lunch. There is not much for tourists to photograph, and the locals have little use for cameras. I spent the first five years of my life growing up in Kansas and the rest of it traveling back and forth between the grandparents in Colorado and Kansas. In those many years of traveling across this state, I've only just now found a way to tell the tourists and the locals apart, and even this is only a theory.
Kansas folk have a specific look to them, a certain character to their gaze that immediately sets them apart from those just passing through. Had I stayed a while longer, I'm sure it would have become a part of my appearance as well. You see, the traveler stands pumping gas at an exit for a Kansas town that has always been asleep, looks out across the fields and crops – further than they've ever been able to look before – and realizes that no one is looking back. They then make it their purpose to drive as fast as they can down the highway to escape this empty prison. The Kansan looks out at the same landscape, knows that no one is looking back, and smiles. They know an empty prison is the greatest kind of freedom. They stop, maybe they sit, and they stop again. That kind of stopping – that realization – will fix a person's gaze and create a permanent impression on the way they look at the world.
I am sure that when I was a kid, I was just a traveler. During those trips from one grandparent to another, I hated the drive and the hours spent looking at endless fields of corn and wheat. For a long time it felt like a prison, but as I grew older and started driving it a few times on my own it really started to captivate me. Now, as I drive from east to west and west to east, my mind has wandered over the landscape from the furthest south you can see to the furthest north, scouring the landscape for a sense of that which we all call beauty. And maybe I've found it, but maybe I haven't. Maybe there is some part inside of me that knows that this is where I've come from, and knows that there is always something here for me. Something inside of me calls out to these rambling hills and listens for a response. Sometimes I hear it. Sometimes I don't. But I'm not sure I'm always okay with no response. And if I can’t take the occasional silence, I'm not sure if I can even be said to have some small place amongst the locals, or if these travels really have had some effect on how my eyes look. But I can wonder, and I do. I wonder what I think when I stare out on the landscape. I wonder if I'm afraid of the no one looking back. I wonder if they see that gaze in my eyes.