Senses of Place

Dead Man's Gulch
Tall Grass Prairie, Elk and Butler Counties

Early Afternoon, Late September
by Elizabeth Schultz

The destination—Dead Man’s Gulch—sounded straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel or a John Wayne film, a lifeless spot where cattle rustlers might have been strung up and shot without a trial, where a man might have wandered alone, lost, desperate, never to be seen again. Our day of traveling, however, led me and my traveling companions, Jerry Jost (Kansas Land Trust director) and Susan Iverson (KLT Board member) through stunning Kansas countryside to an oasis of diverse and unexpected life.

We left Lawrence, prepared for a long day with good walking shoes, ample water, and packed lunches, heading west on the turnpike beneath an overcast sky. We passed fields of corn shocks and soybeans, their leaves canary yellow, with distant wood lines still holding summer’s dark green. By the time we reached the Flint Hills, the sun had burned off the cloud cover, and the grasslands opened up, unfolding to the edge of the sky. Summer moisture had kept them deep sea-green although yellow broom weed had created swaths of chartreuse. Overhead, turkey vultures glided like the ocean’s frigate birds. As we left the turnpike for two-lane Kansas roads, turning south, the land continued to stretch out before us.

In the distance unexpectedly appeared immense scythes cutting through the sky, bisecting clouds. The familiar tall grass prairie landscape with intermittent farms had become surreal. Driving closer, we read, “DANGER. NO TRESPASSING. Please enjoy the view from the safety of the public road. Thank you, Elk River Windfarm.” Several hundred wind turbines, a forest of immense white trunks had been set here in perpetual motion, their blades whirring, wheezing, throbbing, and getting out of the car to observe them, we stood in silence, dumbstruck by the size, the power, the elegance of these twenty-first century man-made creations. 

But we exclaimed aloud when we noticed that the cattle placidly grazing beneath the turbines were not cattle at all. Emphatically contrasting with the wind turbines were bison—hundreds of them—and we were delighted by the size, the power, and the beauty of these creatures, the plains’ iconic, indigenous mammal, who had made their home here for centuries. In the heat of early afternoon, the herd ambled and wandered, males and females, old and young mingling, groups forming and re-forming, calves nursing, young males rolling on their backs, kicking up their legs, wallowing in dust baths. A few of them stood stolidly by, looking at us soulfully with their poor eyesight, undoubtedly, however, using their olfactory powers to sniff out our dimensions and characters. Other bison, too far away to appear individuated, had wandered further off beneath distant turbines, herds flowing with the luxurious ease of the grasses themselves.

Turning a dusty corner, we paused to take in the high ridges of the expansive sweep of prairie, in the heart of which lies Dead Man’s Gulch. The roadside bristled with gorgeous purple Leavenworth eryngo. We climbed a cattle gate, and Jerry pointed out the barely visible ruts of a road running ahead of us through stands of silver bluestem, little bluestem, and Indiangrass. It would take us to our destination, less than a mile off, hidden in a dense stand of green trees, which were clumped together in contrast to the shimmering prairie. It was well past high noon, and hot and hungry, we pushed ahead through the waist-high grasses, whirring with grasshoppers. Meadowlarks, zipping ahead, led the way. 

A natural spring, trickling through multiple layers of limestone, Dead Man’s Gulch, in contrast to its name, is an oasis of life. Bursting with a diversity of life, if it overlaps with the prairie’s endemic organisms, it also emphatically contrasts with them. Water makes the difference. Sitting on the rim of the gulch, cooling off in the shade of bur oaks and sycamores, we heard the gulch’s water trickling beneath us into a pool. We could see it, then, meandering outward between and over chunks of limestone into a small, clear stream. Here, water skaters dimpled the pool’s surface; yellow garden spiders spun webs among the trees’ twigs; a daddy-longlegs prowled gingerly about the stone ledges; a common wood-nymph fluttered in the grasses with the double eyes on its wings blinking. Here, a frog flung himself outward to splash down—plop—into the pool; a small western ribbon snake rippled across rocks. Here moss appears in masses, dense and moist, and tree roots are exposed, knotted and gnarly and wet. Susan thought she heard a woodpecker; I imagined animals coming at night to drink; Jerry took pictures. 

Refreshed, we came around the rim to walk down into the stream, to contemplate the overwhelming power of water, which centuries ago must have been responsible for cracking these great limestone slabs and distributing them at random into the gulch. We imagined that the water, the shade, the infinite life of Dead Man’s Gulch might have made it a boy’s swimming hole, a source for survival during the drought of the Dust Bowl, and surely a special site for native peoples over countless centuries. We departed with the unspoken sense that we had spent time in one of the earth’s sacred places. 

Thanks to Beth Schultz for engaging our senses with another special place in Kansas!