The Goldilocks State

The first thing I noticed about Denver, peering down from a descending airliner, was that it’s pretty darn flat.

This, I was assured by the friend who picked me up from the airport, is what just about everybody says the first time they reach the Queen City of the West. It may be a mile high, but it’s not actually balanced on top of the Rocky Mountains, or even perched on their shoulders. Nope, it turns out that Denver is an outpost of the High Plains, built within eyeshot of the big mountains and surrounded by low hills. For the most part, it’s a place your average cyclist wouldn’t find too intimidating.

To be honest, it was a little bit of a letdown. I’d half expected to find people living in neighborhoods where they would make their morning commute by hang glider and get home by scaling a cliff. Instead, my friend and I tooled around a landscape with less rise and fall than the subdivision I grew up in, on streets that were straight and long (in the case of Colfax Avenue, 26 miles long).

It was an object lesson in expectations versus reality, and one I really shouldn’t have had to relearn. After all, as a native Arkansawyer, I’ve spent much of my life adjusting people’s expectations of my home state to better suit the reality on the ground. The trip out to Denver and the nearly 1,000-mile drive back offered a refreshing perspective on that dichotomy.

Part of my disappointment with Denver’s largely level terrain sprung from the fact that I am a professed lover of mountains. Years ago, I’d been to the Rockies on a trip to New Mexico, and traipsed around the highlands of Wales while studying abroad during college, but outside of that had hardly set foot on any serious elevation. I’d developed the idea that Denver was a scaled-up version of Eureka Springs, hung all over the mountain slopes.

There are your expectations again.

I gradually figured out that there would be disadvantages had the capital of the Rocky Mountain State actually been built farther up on the Rocky Mountains, which rise a short drive west of town. And the reality is that most of those disadvantages would be felt by flatlanders like me. A quick trip up a steep staircase already had driven home the fact that, yes, there was less oxygen in the air I was breathing. Imagine, then, what it would be like if the city were several thousand feet higher in the mountains. It takes time to acclimate your body to the spare air at those heights, and there is such a thing as altitude sickness. Needless to say, it would be mighty hard to transact business with your Denver clients if you couldn’t catch your breath. Or if you lost your lunch meeting, so to speak.

So I admired the peaks from a distance, some still powdered with late-spring snowpacks, until it was time to head home. I put Denver in the rear-view mirror and drove downhill some 4,000 feet in elevation as I passed into Kansas and headed for Wichita.

Flat, right? That’s what Kansas is supposed to be. Board-smooth fields of wheat from horizon to horizon. But driving a few hundred miles across the state, I came to the opinion that “flattish” would be a more accurate term, at least along the Interstate 70 corridor. The land rose, the land fell, undulating gently like the sea. Nowhere did I experience that infinite expanse of waving wheat that had been built up in my expectations; there was always a hump or hollow to traverse. Which, naturally, makes sense. Wind and water are going to do their thing, regardless of what the land has to say about it. And again, maybe I was in the wrong part of the prairie, but there are vast swathes of the Arkansas Delta that could teach Kansas lessons in flatness.

I’m tempted to say that I drove across more than 300 miles of these rolling prairies without a clear view of any significantly different landscape in any direction, but that’s really kind of unfair. After all, I had the interstate-induced equivalent of tunnel vision—I could only see the landscape through which I-70 traversed. But still, even that narrow slice of Kansas didn’t fit with the perception of what had been percolating in my head since I first saw “The Wizard of Oz.”

Of course, the notion that you could stand on one end of the state and see straight across it to the other is absurd…but how many absurdities do we learn as children and only reluctantly (or never) let go of as adults?

Mostly, I noticed what I didn’t see on that drive. There was hardly what I would count as a forest, and not much that would qualify as a river. Not even in Wichita, where I stopped for the night in a room with an Arkansas River view. Where it passed by my hotel, the river looked kind of anemic; I halfway suspected I could have waded across it without getting in above my waist, though discretion won out over curiosity.

This isn’t to say there wasn’t charm to be found in Kansas. The landscape was dotted with little towns bearing evocative Native American names, and towering windmills spinning slowly along the roadside for miles and miles. Wichita’s core was graced with the stolid architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, practical buildings that spoke of a hardy people setting down roots in a young country.

But as I found in Denver, something just seemed to be missing. I found it after a slantwise dash across Oklahoma, when I finally crossed the Arkansas state line on Interstate 40.

We may not have anything that Coloradans would call mountains, or that Kansans would call plains, but only because the folks who live there are used to the extremes of those landscapes. Here in Arkansas, though, our topography is of the jack-of-all-trades variety.

Our mountains aren’t the highest, but they possess a sedate majesty that is easy to appreciate. Our plains and prairies aren’t the most expansive, but they offer a glimpse of that big-sky openness. Our forests are pines and oaks, not mighty sequoias, but that puts them on a more human scale. Rivers fill the seams of the landscape with an abundance of water, be they deep and wide, narrow and fast, or something in between.

Arkansas is a study of topography in moderation. And it is, as the fairy tale says, just right.

Columnist Eric Francis thinks North Little Rock is just right.

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