Several years ago, I visited the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, Colo. On a cloudy day, I could view the mountains from my daughter's kitchen window as they seemed to blend into the sky. On a clear day, the ragged peaks stood majestically surveying their realm. Pike's Peak guarded the Mountain View Elementary School that my two grandsons attended.
I loved these picture-postcard views. But as we traveled up farther into the mountains to the quaint village of Vail, I felt closed in. I couldn't see what was around the next curve, and when we got around it - there was another curve. The mountains rose up on either side of the road, sometimes so close that the road signs cautioned "Beware of falling rock." The trucks en route were struggling to make the grade up to the Continental Divide; when I tried to pass them, the car would not respond to my foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor. When we pulled over to a scenic view area and got out of the car, I began to feel dizzy and short of breath. The view was magnificent! But I knew that I would not rest easy until we had made our way out of these mountains.
This observation probably will embarrass or be disconcerting to most people. But I have come to realize that I am a prairie woman at heart. I was born, raised and have always lived on flat land, and this is where I want to continue to live and be buried here. I have become accustomed to long drives across the prairie. And I am settled into the reality of corn, soybeans, wheat, feedlots and pig parlors. This is where our food comes from, and the food is raised by people who are industrious, uncomplicated and friendly.
When I was a little girl, my father, mother and I would travel once each summer to the north woods of Minnesota where my mother had lived as a girl. By the time we reached St. Cloud, my father (who was born on the prairie and always lived on the prairie of southwestern Minnesota) would comment "Look at all this good-for-nothing land," as the prairie gave way to hills and trees. My mother, in turn, hated the shocking levelness and openness of southwestern Minnesota, much as Beret did in Ole Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth" disliked it. She also hated the sound of the wind rustling the corn leaves in late summer - while this was music to the ear of my father and me.
An advantage to living on the prairie is that very little can take one by surprise. You can see storms coming and playing themselves out in the open distant sky. Again, my father and I would often stand on a hill near our farmhouse and watch for tornadoes. We could predict (probably just as well as Doppler radar) the speed and direction of an approaching storm. We could also see fires that were burning a distant barn, clouds of grasshoppers approaching, or company coming in the dust cloud snaking down the gravel road.
Probably no one, especially those who live near the Rocky Mountains, would believe that level ground could be so beautiful or powerful unless he or she had the experience of living here for many years. To quote from our own Lyon County writer, Bill Holm, in his book "Prairie Days": "I have a prairie eye. Dense woods or mountain valleys make me nervous. After once visiting Burntside Lake north of Ely for a week, I felt a fierce longing to be out. Driving home in the middle of the night, lit by a brilliant moon turning blowing grasses silver. I saw for miles endless strings of yard lights, stars fallen into grove tops. Alone, I began singing at the top of my voice. I hope neither neighborhood cows, nor the Kandiyohi County sheriff were disturbed by this unseemly behavior from a grown man. It was simply cataracts removed from the prairie eye with a joyful rush."
It was wonderful visiting the mountains of Colorado - but I have no strong desire to live there. I was imprinted on the flatness at an early age. I do not deny these jutting landscapes are gorgeous in their own way, but I have come to realize a simple thing about myself: I like my mountains lying down.