In the waning days of 2014, writer Beth Schultz brings us a trek to Mt. Mitchell, in Waubaunsee County, and a reminder of the beauty of spring. Beth is a longstanding contributor to KLT’s newsletter through her column, Senses of Place. Our many thanks to Beth for her passion for the wild places of Kansas and for her lasting friendship.
Late Morning, Early May
Graduates of the University of Kansas have been climbing up and down Mt. Oread for years, and some people in Lawrence remember that posters with the imperative, “Ski Kansas,” writ large, were not joking, given that a ski lift had once been installed on Mont Bleu in the southeastern corner of Douglas County. Nevertheless, I was astonished to hear that Mt. Mitchell rose over a portion of the Flint Hills just south of Wamego and welcomed an invitation to accompany a friend on an exploratory visit.
Avoiding I-70, we took Route 24 west, paralleling rail lines transporting the surrealistic, immense white wings for wind energy turbines on the one side and the Oregon Trail on the other. We passed historical markers, indicating that we were also following the path of Pottawatomi Indians, who having reached Linn County, after enduring “The Trail of Death” from the north central part of the continent, were forced to move again into northeastern Kansas. We sped over land where human and animal histories were deeply imprinted, but because it was a mild, mild day after a long, harsh winter, we rejoiced in the day’s soft light, its pale blue haze.
Passing by the Columbian Exposition Theater and the Oz Museum in the center of Wamego, we headed out of town, turning east on the rolling Mt. Mitchell Road. We were welcomed by a bevy of birds on the low slung telephone wires—grasshopper sparrows and meadowlarks, chests pumped up, heads tilted back, singing to the sky, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, darting up and away, their long, elegant tails scissoring away the haze. We drove and stopped, drove and stopped, getting out to observe red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds flickering up from the ditch, a flock of rusty-breasted barn swallows flitting in and out of a sturdy stone barn—surely the site of their nests, a western kingbird showing off its yellow vest on a fence post, turkey vultures drifting on high. We paused to look carefully at a green slope of limestone outcroppings, studded with flowers—purple prairie verbena and golden prairie ragwort. We admired the cattle free-ranging, across a green pasture, and a 1970s bus, its gay paint peeling, its windows open to all winds and creatures, parked on the top of a ridge. But surely this could not be the top of Mt. Mitchell! We hailed a car out of a dust cloud, and the young woman driving told us we needed the next road over. “Mt. Mitchell Prairie Lane,” she said, and when we complimented her on the loveliness of this road, she affirmed, “I’ve just moved here from the city, and I’ve never been happier.”
After this initial detour into loveliness, we found the twisting lane to our mountain, with proper signage indicating that Mt. Mitchell is “an Audubon of Kansas Sanctuary operated and managed by the Prairie Guards.” Abandoning our car in a parking lot, we set out climbing this Kansas mountain, a high limestone knoll. We took a winding trail up, which allowed us to continue dawdling, wandering, sauntering. At a bend in the trail, a cluster of stunted hackberry trees created what my friend called a “birdtrap,” a trap which sprang open with the exuberant escape of five scissortails as soon as we entered. As we climbed, early spring prairie flowers sprang up everywhere at out feet. Accompanying the verbena and ragwort we’d seen earlier, soft white bunches of New Jersey tea covered the slopes. A single bloom, four delicate white petals unfolding , hunkered down into its greenery: unidentifiable. The dried stalks of compass plants and maximillian sunflowers promised flowers for months ahead. At random along our upward path, red glacial erratics, printed with green and grey cartography, were scattered, and twirling, spinning, skipping over grasses, plants, and rocks were butterflies—common sulphurs, black swallowtails, zebra swallowtails, painted ladies, and eastern tailed blues—a living mosiac. And deep below us in a green ravine we knew water trickled, for the sound of frogs singing for dear life reached us on our hillside.
Walking up and around, turning into and away from the sun, we reached the summit at last with the four directions spreading out before us: south, a woodlands of sycamores, oaks, hickories, entangled in vines; west, farmlands reaching toward the Konza Prairie, burned black bands of prairie grass, and smoke billowing to the top of the sky; north, the rolling hills and pastures we’d seen first in searching for Mt. Mitchell; east, our way homeward.