Back to the Flint Hills: Writer returns for documentary film

William Least Heat-Moon, author of "PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country," ponders the changes and comfort he found while revisiting the Flint Hills in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Chase County during the making of a documentary film Thursday, April 1, 2010.
William Least Heat-Moon, author of "PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country," ponders the changes and comfort he found while revisiting the Flint Hills in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Chase County during the making of a documentary film Thursday, April 1, 2010. The Wichita Eagle

"People may prefer the obvious beauty of the mountains and the seacoast, but we are bipedal because of savanna; man is man because of tall grass."

—William Least Heat-Moon


CHASE COUNTY — On a day so blustery it makes meadowlarks fly sideways, William Least Heat-Moon returns to his favorite county in Kansas.

An SUV carrying Heat-Moon creeps slowly across the prairie, past 13 bison, on a bumpy trail that tosses passengers back and forth and up and down.

Horned larks flit alongside the trail.

Heat-Moon — author of "PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country" and "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America" and others — is in his element.

He returned last week to participate in "Return to PrairyErth" a 90-minute documentary film that's being directed by Wichitan John O'Hara and is expected to be finished in June.

In the 1980s, Heat-Moon spent eight years interviewing more than 300 people, researching land records and walking Chase County in order to tell "PrairyErth."

Nearly two decades after it was published, the prairie is at once the same and vastly different.

Much of the land looks the same as when he began examining the county, then one of the economically poorest in the state.

In fact, the land looks much as it did 150 years ago, he said.

It is in Chase County, Heat-Moon said, that the landscape significantly shifts and visitors can leave East Coast civilization behind and officially enter the Great Plains.

The biggest change, Heat-Moon said, is in the people and the way they think.

"In terms of rural Kansas, this is one of the most progressive places around now," he said. "I see more prosperity here."

In the mid-1980s, Chase County was the site of turbulence. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve had yet to be created by Congress, and local ranchers feared a government takeover. They were leery of environmentalists and big-city tourists who they felt could trash their land.

Since "PrairyErth" was published, the preserve, 11,000 acres by Strong City, has been created.

Broadway in Cottonwood Falls, once nearly a ghost town of empty shops, has become a trendy hangout for tourists and locals. It boasts three art galleries, antique shops, the Grand Central Hotel — the state's only AAA four-diamond historic country inn and restaurant — and the Emma Chase Cafe, a happening restaurant on Friday nights with live music.

"Chase County, trendy? I never thought I'd hear that kind of talk," Heat-Moon said and chuckled. "Chase County is a beautiful, distinctive place. I've been in every county in the United States ... and no other county looks like this. It is not to be confused with any other county. And when you look at it in its entirety, the people know this is some special place."

The author

The man who brought some fame to Chase County is now 70 years old.

Born William Trogdon, Heat-Moon took his last name based in part on his heritage — he's English, Irish and Osage.

In the 1930s, when his father was participating in Boy Scouts, it was suggested the boys create American Indian names for themselves. His father picked the name Heat-Moon because July was the month when an Osage ancestor was born.

When young William joined Boy Scouts, he took on the name Least Heat-Moon and it stuck.

William Least Heat-Moon is the type of man who asks a lot of questions.

He peppers Brian Obermeyer, Flint Hills project director for the Nature Conservancy, with questions.

There's the bison herd at Tallgrass Preserve, introduced last November. Heat-Moon wants to know where they came from.

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

Do they carry brucellosis, a disease highly contagious to cattle?

They do not.

How were they introduced to the prairie?

Brought by truck, they were placed in a portable pen for a few days. Half of the 13 were let loose to roam the prairie. A few days later, the rest were released. It was done in phases, Obermeyer explains, so it would not traumatize the animals.

What about burning?

Rotated burns every three years to help control the numbers of invasive plants that could gain hold if not burned.

The background

Not once in the 20 years since it was published has "PrairyErth" been out of print.

The 624-page book was on the New York Times bestsellers list and on the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list.

"I wanted this county to be a textbook for what people could do with their writing and the land," Heat-Moon said. "It is a big, thick, challenging book about Kansas. It is a book people either love or hate. I have to confess it turned out better then I believed it would."

The idea was inspired in 1976 when Heat-Moon thought about writing and photographing a piece for National Geographic on the Flint Hills.

Then, he said, he realized that would be too big of a project. He narrowed in on one county, with special interests in the land, the people and architecture.

First, he had to write "Blue Highways," a book chronicling the 13,000-mile journey he took through small towns in the United States, steering clear of fast food and interstates.

When it came to researching "PrairyErth," Heat-Moon spent six years collecting stories and doing interviews.

He took 25 geologic maps of the county and laid them out on his office floor. He narrowed the maps down to 12 and decided to organize the book by walking the county — to better see the topography and geography.

It has been 19 years since he visited Chase County for any length of time.

"To go down Broadway and see what's happening is so stunning to me," he said. "I see so many signs of economic upturn. You can really eat and sleep here. And the attitude of the residents is much more optimistic and upbeat. People really seem to believe in what's going on here."

The characters

Judy Mackey, co-owner of the Flint Hills Gallery in Cottonwood Falls, remembers when Heat-Moon was working on "PrairyErth." One of her paintings, a thunderhead over the prairie in Chase County, was used as the cover illustration for "PrairyErth."

"We have people who come into the gallery and say there is something mysterial about Chase County and Cottonwood Falls," she said. "Nobody has been able to put their finger on it. But it is like we are going back into a time frame where people can come here, relax and get a little touch of yesterday."

"PrairyErth," she said, has drawn people to the Flint Hills.

She doesn't know of anyone who has been disappointed.