I already knew there would be no mountain here. That isn't the reason I came. But I can tell by the vacant looks on the other folks' faces, they assumed there would be. Mt. Sunflower; it's the highest point in Kansas and is labeled as such on the map. At over four thousand feet, it's easy to be misled if you don't know a thing or two about the state.
I find the whispering wind healing. It makes the grass breathe, much like the wind on an alpine meadow. The view here is of square miles of blonde vegetation, one after another, melting into a solid pale of angelic quality at each horizon. This is a place that makes me feel small, and my troubles along with it.
I open my mouth to take in a breath of that whispering wind. I can taste the earthiness in it. Tens of miles beyond the rust of the little iron fence which squares in the official high-point marker, the planet's curvature is precise and graceful. I know my digital camera can never do justice to the full power of the moment, so after half a dozen shots taken on half a dozen different settings, I tuck it back into the bag and stare silent.
Kansas was nicknamed the Sunflower State for obvious reasons. A garden of these lofty, golden plants from heaven crowds around the marker, each of them swaying as though humming a lullaby. The space between my eyes tingles from the strain of trying not to make a scene in front of the two strangers.
I love sunflowers. What more could you want in a plant? The very name is smile-inducing, and they live up to that name one hundred percent. They aren't quite as common where I grew up, in neighboring Oklahoma, but they've been a part of my life since I was a kid. I remember lying on the dirt some afternoons in the middle of the patch that grew on the hill at Grandpa's farm just to stare up at them. Each flower was like a miniature sun, smiling down at me, crowned by royal blue sky. Edible, life-sustaining. I must have gone through enough roasted seeds to build a mountain from the hulls by the time I was fifteen.
So as far as I'm concerned, this here qualifies as a mountain. Not literal, but a mountain nonetheless. It has the views and it has the magnificence. For me, in a spiritual way, this is truly the highest mountain anywhere. When I come here, I'm able to see my life from a vantage point I've never been able to find anywhere else. All one has to do is learn to tune in to the voices speaking. They're in the wind, the sky, the grass, the soil. But you're never going to hear them unless you slow down enough to let them speak.
What a joke! There's no mountain here. Four thousand feet? Are you serious? If I had to guess I would say the hill (if you could even call it that) is more like four inches. There should be a law against lying to people on a map.
What do I care anyway? I'm not traveling to sightsee. I wasn't even trying to come here in the first place, I'm just trying to get the hell across this horrid state. I have a business meeting in Lakewood in three hours and I'm still in effing Kansas! None of this would've happened if my GPS hadn't quit on me right in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea how I got here. I guess I must have veered onto an exit ramp while I was texting a while ago.
Oh, why me, Lord? Just why?
No phone signal. Of course not! Even microwaves want no part of this forsaken desert. Oh, yeah; it's a desert alright. What else could you call it? The last time I saw a tree had to have been Wichita, and I'm pretty sure it was planted.
Well, at least there's some people here I can ask for directions. I can tell by the way the old guy's carrying on about places in Kansas he can help. Not sure about the other dude. He looks as lost as me. Hasn't said a word. Just been standing there with his hands in his pockets listening and nodding his head. Something about an underground town, a salt mine, a city of rocks, gypsum formations, lush vineyards, and how splendid the fall foliage in Kansas is in October. Whatever that ancient fossil's been smoking, I wish he'd pass it around.
I can't help but feel sorry for both these guys: The one for obviously being senile and delusional; the other for having to stand there and listen to his pathetic nonsense. What underground town? I've seen hundreds upon hundreds of miles of nothing and nobody. If it weren't for the mile markers, a guy couldn't even tell he was moving in this freaking state! I did eighty-five all the way from Salina to wherever I wandered off the interstate, and it felt like I was parked the whole time.
It all looks exactly like this. Like when God was creating the earth, Kansas was the last thing and by then he was so wore out he just said "screw it". For heaven's sake, put something here! A bush, a cactus, a log, a landfill, anything!
The curvature of my mouth arcs downward as my eyes start to cross from the chore of staring at the curvature of the planet. The word death strobes inside my brain while the image of this silent, pale yellow sea becomes forever burned in my unfortunate memory. I'm drowning in boredom, and only these two goofy strangers can save me. Comic relief beats no relief, I suppose.
I have to get back!
I thought maybe a long, quiet drive was just what I needed. I guess truer words have never been spoken: No matter where you go, there you are.
I shouldn't be sweating in this breeze. My mind is a runaway bullet train, and that dizzying curve at the end of the horizon is the cliff. If the elevation here is four thousand, that can only mean four thousand feet to plummet. The whole world is a mountain. Treacherous and impassable, and now I stand at the top. I don't know how I made it, all I do know is that the climb back down is usually the most deadly part of the journey.
Two contrasting voices sear my ears from off to the side. One is scratchy and fast like a violin; the other is monotone and bassy. It's a dark melody of elderly arrogance dueling with youthful indifference.
The relentless word trade adds pollution to the already dim environment of wherever I am. I have no idea, I just took off driving. That's been my whole problem, hasn't it? I never know where I'm going, and when I get there, it's always too late to turn around.
Oh, if I don't get back home...
How do I know one of these strangers isn't a wanted serial killer? What better place to satisfy a sadistic craving than...here? Here, where not so much as a wayward styrofoam cup dares disturb the land with a hint of civilization. Here, where sunflowers sway with their deceptive beauty, waving their thin bodies at me, pointing east as if trying to warn me to leave. Where this black marker sits in the sandy dirt like a tombstone waiting for a fresh soul.
What if my car won't start? What if those are storm clouds brewing in the distance? What if I'm so far into the middle of nowhere I can never return?
"Yes, sir, I kid you not. If you head south until you get to the town of Liberal, there it is! Just as sure as the world: Dorothy's house."
The young man keeps his eyes glued to his phone, begging for a signal to return and for that old know-it-all to shut up. "If you say so, Gramps," he mumbles with a snort of a laugh. "You realize The Wizard of Oz is entirely fictional, therefore so is Dorothy's house, I hope?"
"No no no!" the old man states with confidence while patting sunscreen on his dated face. "Of course it's all fictional! The house is a replica, but it's the darnedest thing you ever seen. Looks just like it! You'll swear you can hear Auntie Em' inside hollering about the cyclone coming."
The two turn and look at the third party. He's still standing there with his hands in his pockets, stiff as a tree, soaked shirt collar.
"You okay, dude?" the one with the phone asks.
After a dragging moment, he finally takes his eyes off the horizon, the question registering, and sounds off an abrupt "Yeah."
"You look like you're worried or something," he remarks with a half-hearted shrug. "Anyway, sorry to say goodbye to this beautiful dumpster fire of a scenic view, but I gotta get going or I'll be late." He slams the car door shut behind him and fires up the motor before anyone can say another word.
"You don't have to thank me for the directions or anything," the old man barks under his breath. He quickly takes on a smile, wide and radiant like Kansas itself, as he hobbles to the mailbox with a pen in hand. "Wouldn't be a visit if we didn't let the world know we were here, now would it?" he asks the remaining visitor while moving the pen in a casual dance to sign his name and home town.
The man takes his hands out of his pockets, and for the first time, smiles into the horizon with an eagerness to get his name down on the pad too.
They both turn to throw one last glance at the vehicle as the engine revs and puffs of smoky dust emit from the peeling tires.
"Well...Is he stuck?" the elder wonders aloud as the car continues to sit in place.
Leaving the engine running, the young man gets out and begins a slow stroll back toward the marker. He holds the phone up to his eyes as he walks, but isn't texting. An almost undetectable flash hits the sparkling granite letters that spell "Mt. Sunflower". A hint of blush colors his otherwise ivory complexion. A grin as wide as the elders' follows.
"Damnit, guys!" he says as he examines the picture of this "mountain" he just took. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
The old man reopens the mailbox with a squeak, retrieves the pad and pen, and holds them out to him. He takes it and nods as he signs it, a drop of water dampening the paper.