Forever tied to the Ozarks

Friday, December 16, 2005

It is, I think, a fair assumption that we are attached most to wherever we grew up.

Not to disparage Kansas, since I think most of its beauty is hidden, but only a native Kansan can truly love that state's treeless hills and plains.

I had the good fortune of living in eastern Kansas for four years. I took the time to explore areas of the state that even most natives had never bothered to see. In addition to the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairies, there are other marvels to be found if you're willing to get off the interstate.

Most non-Kansans complain most about the Sunflower State because of the monotonous drive to get to Colorado. Most travelers probably never stop to think that several hours of the monotony occur in Colorado before you get to Denver.

Western Kansas is not just right of way for Interstate 70. Its towns have secrets that you won't learn unless you spend a spell. Hint: Visit Oakley's Fick Fossil and History Museum featuring dozens of works of art using shark's teeth like daubs of thick paint. All of the shark's teeth were collected by a rancher's wife -- Mrs. Fick, I believe -- who lived nearby.

OK. I'll grant you that days on the high prairie can leave little to do other than to pick up buckets of shark's teeth.

But don't you think it's just a teensy bit interesting that there were sharks in western Kansas at one time?

I'm not picking on Kansas. Nosiree. I know better than that. Sharp-witted wordsmiths at many a Kansas newspaper don't cotton to being the butt of anyone's joke, especially anyone from Missouri.

Kansas, however, is a good example of how a place creates attachments that last a lifetime, no matter where life takes you.

One of my best friends is a native of Wilson, Kan., which has deep Bohemian Catholic roots. He became one of the Wall Street Journal's writing luminaries. Early in his journalism career he purchased property near his hometown. His heart never left that part of Kansas.

That's attachment.

I know the ties that bind our emotions to a place. That's the way I feel about Killough Valley in the Ozark hills over yonder.

I've mentioned Killough Valley many times over the years. Many of you think it's a make-believe place like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone. It's not. It's as real as the town or city or farm or riverbank where you grew up.

Killough Valley is not terribly far from Taum Sauk Mountain, an area that has been much in the news this week after a manmade lake on a mountaintop spilled most of its water into the valley below.

The manmade lake, whose water is used to generate electricity for AmerenUE, is actually atop Proffitt Mountain, which is near Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest elevation above sea level in Missouri.

The top of Taum Sauk Mountain is a state park. The Ozark Trail goes over the mountain and connects the state's highest point with one of its most beautiful parks, Johnson's Shut-ins State Park, a few miles away. The trail climbs alongside Mina Sauk waterfall, said to be the highest waterfall in Missouri. Its ribbon of water is best seen in the spring -- or right now, when the cascading water freezes like a stop-action photograph.

The rip in the levee atop Proffitt Mountain is a blow to all who are attached to the Ozarks in ways that can only be understood by those of us who proudly claim to be hillbillies.

It is impossible to imagine the terror the runaway water brought to those in its path. We can only thank God that lives were spared.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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