In the dozen or so years I've taken kids out there, lots of students--even some from here--have told me how much they loved a short trip to Highland, the ghost town, where, at their prof's request, they do nothing more than look at the broad and seemingly empty world we live in here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains.
For me, at least, Highland is a highlight of the whole semester. I bring them out, show them the old graveyard, and then set them loose with notebooks to describe what they see when they look west, miles and miles into an endless horizon, a 180-degree invisible seam of earth and sky. Just look, I tell them. Just stop what you're doing and look. And write. Show me.
This year, I waited for three weeks because a soggy fall meant every last class brought overcast and rain.
So I kept putting off the trip, until yesterday. Weather.com said rain at 11, but at seven, when it was time to decide, the sky wore only a glaze of clouds. By eight, when we left, it was thinly overcast. By 9:20, when I left with the second class, we were met by what weather folks call these days, "a wintry mix."
Wasn't pretty. It was cold and cloudy and even rainy out there at the ghost town. Windy too. Not nice. I'll admit it--quilted harvest landscape or not, it wasn't a morning to stand out on the prairie and drink in the endless beauty. Yesterday, when we got back in the van, no one left speechless--just shivvering in the pesky, wet cold.
I prefer Mother Nature domesticated; I'd just as soon she'd humbly serve me. I like a prairie landscape conveniently lit by a smiling sun over all that open land kind, the whole place sweet with the music of meadowlarks, warm to the skin, and manure-less.
I like nature on my terms. Yesterday, she'd have none of that.
In the first class, two young women went down the road when the others headed into the cemetery. They hiked off by themselves and sat on the edge of the ditch, far from the madding crowd. When I walked to down to visit, one of them was writing, while the other lay back in the grass. I made no commands. College students are like adult children; you don't generally order them around. Besides, both of them are good kids.
Anyway, I thought my trip to Highland this year was pretty much of an unqualified failure.
And then I got an e-mail from one of those two who'd left the pack, an note she sent to tell me her little sister had been taken to emergency back home in Illinois, that the prognosis wasn't good, and that she would likely go home, asap. She was one of the two who avoided the cemetery, the first stop on the sweet prairie tour. She was the one who wasn't writing, the one lying back in the cold grass of the ditch.
And then I remembered that two years ago now, the girl with whom she'd found company, the two of them all alone down the road--I remembered that student, the one beside her in the ditch, had back then lost her own little sister.
My own plans for a sweet trip to the edge of the plains didn't work out. Nature did everything but throw us a blizzard. But maybe, out there in all that openness, there was yet another reason for me to take the whole bunch out there, a cause I had nothing to do with, a mission only the God of heaven and earth could have designed.
Maybe it was good for the two of them to be there, alone, along a country road. Maybe for them it was warm in the cold.
I don't know about Mother Nature, but sometimes I think it isn't half-bad being used.