Archive for Monday, September 3, 2007

Kansas girl still fascinated by state’s stunning sunsets

September 3, 2007

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When I first got here, I would chase sunsets nearly every evening, getting in my car and heading out west to watch them from a different hill. I still do it, but now that I've been here for several months, I have begun taking Kansas sunsets for granted. So I chase them only about once a week. When I mentioned this penchant to a Lawrence acquaintance, he e-mailed me a couple of good places around Lawrence to view sunsets, complete with directions. So I guess I'm not the only one around here who does such things.

There was no need to go anywhere special to see spectacular sunsets where I grew up in western Kansas. In that flat expanse, the sunset looked the same from wherever you were standing. Here, hills and trees can get in the way.

The best place to view a sunset, hands down, is Wells Overlook Park. From up on the top of the several-stories-high platform, you have a perfect 360-degree view. All of Lawrence and the surrounding hills and valleys become a 3-D map stretched out below you. And that high up, it seems that the sunset lingers on the horizon forever. Down in Wakarusa Valley, they think night has fallen. Nope, from the top of the lookout, the sun still sits on the horizon and refuses to sink for an extra 15 minutes or so.

A place from which I used to view sunsets is no longer available to me, the top of (new) Fraser Hall when it was being built. During the summer of 1966 while attending the summer session, a college friend from my hometown showed me how to climb up there without being seen - it was little more than a skeleton of itself then - and we would sit on the top floor, legs dangling. It was a great view - and thrillingly dangerous.

Second-best place is above Clinton Lake from the road that goes over the dam. (I had a camera with me one time.) Then there's a hilltop overlooking Hidden Valley. As for the many other places where I've caught great sunsets - most of them far out into the country - I can't tell you where they are. I just stumble across them in my mad dash for a new place. The best sunset I've seen so far was Aug. 18 at - get this - exactly 8:18 p.m.

In my early days here, I would sometimes get wonderfully lost, and I'd pick my way home haphazardly, hoping to blunder my way out of the Douglas County countryside maze before dark. Then I realized I had a GPS in my car and I could just hit "home," and this annoying voice would tell me how to get back.

Two children who sometimes ride in the car with me have named the voice "Lola," after Robin Williams' nemesis in the movie "RV." We have a special game, which sends them into spasms of absolute delight. We put in an address - usually their home - and then as Lola gives directions, we do the opposite. If she says, "take the next right," we take the next left. If she says "follow the road," we turn off of it. And then Lola will say, "take the next U-turn, if allowed." Her voice tone never changes, but after about the fourth time she instructs us to take a U-turn, we think we hear exasperation. The children's parents probably wonder why it takes us so long to get home after piano lessons.

Chasing sunsets is just a safer version of the kinds of things I've always done. It used to be white-water rafting on the Colorado River or backpacking up Avalanche Trail into the backside of the Maroon Bells wilderness. Less inclined to risk-taking and extreme exertion as I've grown older, chasing sunsets safely fulfills my primal need to live inside the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

I met what would become a lifelong best friend while on one of these pursuits of beauty and wonder when I was 18 and she was 17. At a college orientation retreat in a state park, she noticed me lying prone in the grass a few yards off a walking trail and came over to see if I was dead. I assured her I was OK. "Uh, what are you doing?" she asked hesitantly.

I explained that I was trying to see what the grass looks like to an ant. "If you get down to their level, you can see what a magnificent jungle this is, and how intimidating a blade of grass must feel," I told her. (It must have been after chigger season - this summer I'm avoiding grass. My war with chiggers is not going well, despite following all the advice I've received.)

She got down to an ant's-eye level with me and joined in marveling at the beauty of a single blade of grass. We have been good friends ever since. She now admits that, at the time, she thought I was really weird. My friend Joanna is now much weirder than I am. She is a writer and an artist who continues to see the world through childlike fresh eyes. I especially like her watercolor of a suspended stack of river rocks. I wonder if I had a small hand in coaxing her eye to discern hidden beauty. I hope so.

Excuse me, gotta go. There's a terrific sunset brewing.

- Elizabeth Black is a writer living in Lawrence. A southwest Kansas native who attended Kansas University, she recently returned to Lawrence after living in Chicago and then on the East Coast for more than 30 years.

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