Read from the first chapter, "A Leap into the Prairie Sea" from Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains by Patrick Dobson:
"In the spring of 1994, it came time to swim.
For weeks, the smell of redemption floated through windows on sweet western winds. Without my noticing it, every breeze became laced with fragrances of mown hay, cow dung, and dew on willows; perfumes of grass and rain and plowed ground. The ocean-like expanses of prairie promised baptism—a transformed life. When I slept, thunder rumbled through dreams the color of maturing wheat. I only needed a push, however slight, to jump into the grassy sea.
My existence had closed in on me, grown insular and stifling. Repairing furniture and doing general labor in an upscale hotel’s engineering department rarely varied. Although I was only thirty-one, a day of adjusting thermostats or buffing chair arms for the wealthy wore me out. I spent evenings parked at the television, wondering what I’d done wrong. I was always getting off work and getting ready for work. Because of this, the Kansas City, Missouri, I grew up in, with all its grand possibilities, looked and felt smaller at the end of every shift. As spring broke through winter, gray and brown, the city faded into grimy and sinister twilight. I became restless, critical of everything, and cynical about my own bad lot.
Two related and deeply conflicting fears kept me awake at night: Unless I changed, life would mean endless despondency and despair. Change, however, would take me into unknown territory where people like me were consumed by a mean and unforgiving world.
As a part-time single father, I used my daughter, Sydney, as an excuse to avoid taking charge of my own fortunes. Working people have to work, I told myself. I had to have a job. Bills needed to be paid whether I liked it or not: kid, rent, health insurance, and 401k contributions. My worth as a human being lies in endless files of pay stubs and records of taxes paid. Others were responsible for my misery: Sydney and her mom, my parents, my bosses and the companies they worked for, utility companies, landlords, and vast, abstracted hoards of strangers who dressed better, talked better, and lived more comfortable lives than I did. At the same time, I was petrified to think of losing time clocks, balanced checkbooks, and bragging rights based on timely payment of rent and child support. While I yearned for independence from the strictures of working life, I wanted, even needed, to be told what to do.
The contradictions became too heavy to bear. In May 1994 I was painting the floor of the engineering department the same battleship gray I painted it every month. Unmarred paint grew from the edges of the concrete-and-cinder-block room until I stood in a bare, jagged circle of dirty floor. “Nah ...dammit,” I said, feeling pretty dumb. I stared down at the paint roller, smelled the cold concrete and latex, and ran out of breath. My heart raced and pounded in my ears. A flash of lightning reflected off the door open to the loading dock and trash bins. The rumble of thunder that followed echoed in my chest. A rain-soaked breeze wafted through the steel door. The smell of mown grass and wet dirt cut through the fug of paint, cold metal, and garbage. There was a sharp ping in my chest, like the breaking of a spring wound too tightly. I had to act before getting so accustomed to gloom that I would never escape.
That afternoon I stared out my half-opened living-room window. Another thunderstorm set down on the city. Its weight and electricity, its cool, wet breezes felt good. The lightning flashes stirred memories of family vacations when I was growing up. I indulged myself in reflection.
Every year without fail, on a Friday in June or July, my mom, aggravated and harried, would herd my three siblings and me around the house and garage while she loaded our 1965 Dodge Polara station wagon with food, camping gear, and clothes. When dad arrived home from work in the evening, we’d eat a hasty dinner off paper plates and dive into the car to chase sunsets across Kansas. Besides occasionally scolding us for being kids with nothing to do, my dad was quiet and anxious to get across the Kansas plains. To him prairie was enemy of all things civilized. He would drive after sunset to avoid having to look at the expanses he reviled. Flat, ordinary, and “too damned hot, ”Kansas stood between him and calendar-photo backdrops of mountains, cold streams, and crisp air tinged with the sting of pine resin.
But that drive, repeated throughout my youth, was the most wonderful thing I knew. Sitting at the open window that afternoon, the memory of it haunted me and I ached for it. As we drove and evening fell, my siblings settled into somnambulant stares. Shadows lengthened across the rolling hills of eastern Kansas, giving them uncanny depth and mesmerizing color. Miles flowed by with the low hum of the Polara’s V-8 and the tick-tick of rubber bumping over sections of concrete pavement. The Flint Hills’ rocky-topped mesas disappeared into night, emerging again in profile against flashes of heat lightning. The stars flecked my parents’ dark silhouettes in the green checks and slashes of dashboard lights reflected off the inside of the Polara’s long side windows. A stillness filled the car, although the vehicle rocked and dipped and shook. Tinny voices and country music on the AM radio emerged from magical, insubstantial static. To me the voices sounded like astronauts from distant galaxies called Springfield, Illinois; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Sedalia, Missouri.
By the time we arrived at a state park near Wilson, Kansas, my father had undergone a transformation even greater than prairie turning into night. He was free from the lonely, windowless, fluorescent-lighted room where he repaired broken cash registers. My family, as a whole, felt his relief. We children were no longer burdens to be endured with a six-pack after a day of tedium. He was jovial and loving, as he was only rarely, if ever, at home.
With happy determination, he erected our family-sized tent from confused bundles of poles, ropes, and canvas. While my dad hummed and whistled, the vacuum of night drew me past the outer ring of lantern light. Surrounded by the smells of grass wet with dew, prairie dust, and bare limestone, I stared into a clear, star-addled skyrimmed with blazes of heat lightning. Later, comfortably wrapped inmy sleeping bag, I drifted to sleep, watching the tent light up with those flashes, listening to the sounds of my family sleeping and the cool wind in the grass.
Mornings on those vacations’ first days, I stumbled sleepy-eyed into a blue and green and brown world of treeless, rolling hills.The sun shone brighter than at home; the land and sky were as deep and wide as I imagined the ocean to be. Windmills spiked the hills here and there. I stood or sat a little way from the tent and car, and just stared into the space. Too soon dad would scream that it was time to leave and mom would herd us back into the car. Once in, my dad drove angrily, as if he couldn’t sail us across the open plains and into the mountains fast enough.
I never forgot the feeling of those mornings on the prairie. Once I was old enough to drive, I made prairie journeys when restlessness and fear drove me to frustration and anger. Such trips into the endless expanses began as adventures. The gray-blue dark of a thunderstorm, a blanket of wheat or sunflowers, and the smell of dust and dry grass renewed my spirit and allowed me to imagine new possibilities when I returned to working life. But the wishful and grandiose thinking soon faded to disappointment. Fearing change, I plodded back into routine and lost the hope I’d felt on the road. For a decade and a half, I used these sojourns, long and short, as an addict uses drugs. Respite from the restlessness and fear grew ever briefer. My need to relieve these maladies pressed on me in greater measure. A short overnight or a few days in Gove County, Kansas, or Nebraska’s Sandhills might let me weather a few weeks or days of old habit. But I needed more Gove Counties, more Sandhills, and more windmills atop naked hills to sate deepening depressions.
That May afternoon in 1994, I watched rain fall outside my front window and said aloud to myself without thinking, “Helena, Montana.” The utterance made sense. Helena was the biggest town farthest across the Great Plains from Kansas City. Though I had only ever seen Helena as a dot on a map, I decided that in one year I would go there—on foot. Taking off across the plains struck me as the right and proper thing to do. I would inundate myself in sky and land. Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, I thought, would show me a way to find a new life."