El Dorado, Kansas

The Edge of Nature

I remember the first time I visited Houston, Texas. It was like someone started at the Gulf of Mexico and just paved their way inland for 70 miles. I also remember visiting family in southwestern Missouri and realizing that they were two hours from anything resembling a city. It made the thirty miles between El Dorado and Wichita seem like a pretty cozy distance. I sometimes think El Dorado was kind of in a sweet spot for size and location.

I use the term 'Sweet Spot' fully aware of the irony of describing a smelly oil town with those words.

If a town gets much smaller than the 10-12K range El Dorado occupied, you start to lose access to modern conveniences. (Well, to be honest what I mean is that we did back in the sixties.) Today, of course, a hermit within reception range of a cell tower has access to virtually anything. But back then, a lot of Kansas towns weren't big enough to have their own movie theaters and decent restaurants. In some places, options for recreation and entertainment were pretty slim. In El Dorado, it wasn't too bad. And if you wanted to see a newer movie or do something a little more spectacular, well Wichita was only a half hour or so away.

Later, I would attend college at Ottawa University in a town roughly the same size as El Dorado (but without the smell of refineries) and the dynamic was very similar. If you wanted something Ottawa didn't offer, Lawrence was 20 miles up the road and suburban Kansas City started about forty miles up the interstate. Size and proximity favored the locations of my youth.

I remember being able to walk just a few blocks from our house and find myself on the banks of a creek lined with Osage Orange and Cottonwood trees. Pushing through the trees (which could be hazardous with Osage Orange), you could literally walk into a wheat field. I remember at the height of summer, rubbing out kernels of raw wheat and chewing them.

These days, I live in a tiny town on the outskirts of Austin. I bought a house in a planned community on the outskirts of that outskirt town. Basically, they carved a few cul-de-sacs out of the Hill Country and sold lots and that's where I live. I can walk about a block and be in the middle of some scrubby ranch land, surrounded by grazing cows. To me, that just seems right.

Of course, this part of the Hill Country also is full of assorted arachnids. Spiders and even scorpions used to be really common in this neighborhood. I haven't seen a scorpion in the house for a couple of years, now.

There was a time (not that long ago, actually) when heading a few miles up a river from the nearest setlement put you in absolute wilderness. Heading inland from the rivers was a one-way ticket to becoming totally lost. Now, there are ribbons of concrete connecting everything. I'm not a Luddite and I really do appreciate the convenience and luxury of being connected to a major city. But I like being able to walk down the street and step off into brush and hear the wind whipping through trees and shrubs. Give me a home where the longhorns roam, where the grackles and armadillos play.

There's too much of this planet that is just marvelous and amazing and overwhelmingly beautiful. And we hide in the city and forget those things are there when they probably represent one of the best things about humanity - our ability to be awed. Wonder is a feeling the renews me. It recharges me. Seeing things that amaze and inspire is what keeps me going. If I really thought I had seen it all and done it all, there would be no reason to stick around. Walking to the edge of the neighborhood and seeing bees converse across the face of a sunflower - it may be silly, but that still has the power to captivate me for minutes at a time.

I don't know if that sort of thing is instinctive or if you have to learn it. But I have a hunch that I owe it to growing up a short walk away from nature. And that means I probably owe a little of that to El Dorado.