When I moved to Wichita in 1990, I marveled at what Kansas weather forecasters so casually described as a breezy day.
“This is breezy?!” my dad said, as he and my mother helped me settle into my new apartment.
Wind gusts rattled the windows and sliding-glass door, sending my two Carolina-born cats under the bed, mewing helplessly.
“I wonder what ‘windy’ feels like.”
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I don’t wonder anymore. Least of all this week, when an evening drive through a headwind into west Wichita had me gripping my steering wheel like a pilot trying to navigate a single-engine plane straight into a hurricane. These gusts wreck your hair, flip your skirt, burn your lungs and tear your contact lenses.
“I keep washing my eyes,” my friend Annie said Monday. “And I’m inside.”
This wind is relentless, miserable, exhausting. Even in the city the horizon fades to ash and dust, as if the artist drawing this scene couldn’t decide where to paint the line. The sun barely burns through the haze.
“Builds character,” I tell my Kansas-born children, who learned about the Dust Bowl from history class and the Ken Burns documentary. We think about the pioneers, and what it must have been like to see enormous clouds of dust roll across the prairie like tidal waves.
Hannah, 16, grasped her hair and squinted her eyes during our weekend errands. Short trips across parking lots required herculean effort.
“I could see getting here,” she said, thinking again of the settlers. “But why stay? Why in the world would anyone stay?”
I’ve lived here more than half my life – a fact that struck me recently when I saw a car with a North Carolina license plate and sidled up next to it to see if I recognized the driver – and I’m only now starting to understand.
Kansas tests us, mocks us, dares us to keep going. Winter, with its ear-numbing cold, melts into spring, with its vicious wind and deadly storms. Kansas boasts hail stones the size of cantaloupes, and when those pass, the heat settles in.
We grumble and complain. How can you not?
But as I told someone recently, when she bashfully admitted she kind of liked the late freeze and trace of snow Wichita got in mid-April, I appreciate a climate that demands respect.
Southern California has its earthquakes. Florida, its hurricanes. Minnesota has white-out snow storms, and Louisiana, sweltering heat. Other states have landslides, avalanches, fires or floods.
Kansas has most of that. Plus dust.
We take whatever the world throws at us and stand here proudly, defiantly, watching the tumbleweeds skitter past.
My children may decide, as I did, to leave the place where they were born and raised and find some new, exciting territory. My son, the swimmer, says he wants to live someplace warm. My daughter loves snow-capped mountains but also wants to travel the world, speak another language, see the Eiffel Tower and the Great Barrier Reef. Big dreams, which I understand, of course.
But I’m glad they have their roots in the prairie. They’ll appreciate the power of storms and the calm afterward. They’ll learn how to drive in wind and on ice. They’ll know when to pull over and stare at the sunset because it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.
Growing up here, they’ll be ready for anything.