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A Night on the Prairie

A one-room abandoned school house next to a tree and swing set under a starry sky
Prairie Schoolhouse, Kansas

In the dark, I could hear the voices of the two other photographers, a retired husband and wife team, down the dirt path from me. I hadn’t expected anyone else to be at the long-unused stone schoolhouse on the Kansas prairie, but I wasn’t surprised either. In fact, I was surprised there weren’t more of us out with our cameras.

The lights from Emporia and Council Grove faintly lit up the horizon on either side of me. If it weren’t for that touch of the present day, I could imagine hearing the crackling campfires as groups of settlers or traders settled in for the night along the Santa Fe trail.

In the distance, piercing the quiet night, a pack of coyotes began a frantic chorus, a sign of a successful hunt. After several minutes of high-pitched whines, it was quiet once again.

Photography after dark requires more patience than during the day, waiting for exposures between ten and thirty minutes. With modern digital cameras, the processing time takes roughly the same amount of time as the exposure time, meaning each image takes between twenty minutes and an hour before I can see if the exposure was correct.

I realized I should have brought a book with me.

One of the things I miss most about living in the Western U.S. is the night sky. Tbilisi, like every other city, has far too much light pollution to enjoy all the wonders above us.

When we were living in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Corie and I would get up once a year in the middle of the night to drive ten miles out of town and watch the Perseids meteor showers. We were always a wreck the next day, but it was worth it. It’s a tradition both of us miss.

So I didn’t mind sitting out in the prairie on that moonless night, looking at a sky full of stars and the Milky Way stretching above me. In the rush and monotony of daily life, it’s good to remind oneself that we’re surrounded by amazing, beautiful things.

Turn-of-the-century buildings along a deserted street at night
Main Street, Council Grove, Kansas

I glanced at my watch. It was 10 p.m. It had been a long day already, and I knew Corie was waiting for me to call her to let her know I hadn’t been abducted by aliens or experienced some other weird and unusual tragedy. I also knew that Corie understood she married a man who is highly likely to stop in the middle of nowhere, far from any cell reception when a good photo is to be had.

I had left the Vaile Mansion in Independence earlier that afternoon, happy that it was only a two-hour drive to Emporia, where I decided to stay for the night. After I checked into the hotel and splashed some water on my face, I decided to drive to the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve west of the city, then drive north to Council Grove, one of the major stops on the Santa Fe Trail.

The sun was nearing the horizon when I arrived at the preserve. Before mankind had its way with the landscape, tallgrass prairie covered more than 170 million acres, nearly a third of the North American landscape. Today, only four percent of that remains.

I walked a short distance along a wide dirt path imagining how the settlers along the Santa Fe Trail would have perceived the landscape, day after day of open prairie as far as the eye could see with kids in the back of the wagon constantly asking “are we there yet?”

By the time I arrived in Council Grove, a 20-minute drive to the north, the town’s sidewalks had already rolled up. As I walked along Main Street, I noticed an unusual building a block away. It was the Cottage House hotel, which was built in 1867 as a three-room cottage and blacksmith shop. A sign on the front window invited everyone to come in for a tour.

Elizabeth, a woman in her 30s, was working the desk that evening. From the way she had talked about the history of the hotel, I was under the impression she had worked there for quite some time. I was surprised when she told me she had only been there for two years.

“I just love this place,” she told me enthusiastically.

It wasn’t hard to see why. The hotel seemed more like a visit to grandmother’s house, simply decorated with lace curtains and antique furniture. The rooms that weren’t rented out were open for visitors to explore, each one feeling like one had stepped back in time. I regretted going back to the cookie-cutter hotel I had already paid for in Emporia.

Outside, two middle-age men were sitting on the hotel’s generously sized patio drinking, from the smell of it, very stiff rum and Cokes, a celebration for a long day of riding their bicycles through the prairie. The men told me they spend a lot of their time seeking out different Rails-to-Trails projects around the country to explore.

It didn’t sound like a bad way to live life.

the sun setting on a silhouetted horizon in Kansas
Sunset, Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, Kansas


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