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The Ocean of Grass

Date: Year 14, day 3.

Location: Denver, Colorado.

Weather: Overcast, but looks like good traveling weather.

Miles traveled so far: 500.

Miles left to go: 1800.

Things I need to worry about today: Cyclones. We’ll be going through Kansas.

After a breakfast of canned beets and crackers I went outside to take care of Arnold. Over half of our jerry cans were still full. I got the pump out and gave Arnold his breakfast. “Eat up, soldier! No bears or landslides today, just miles of open road!” I looked around, but only saw Conner and Tan loading up our gear. “Where did Pippen go?”

Conner pointed to the building next to our furniture store. “Shoe store. She saw something in the window she wanted.”

Pippen came out, wearing new boots. Black leather boots with six-inch platform soles. And metal spikes. She wobbled over to the Humvee, slid the driver’s seat all the way forward, and climbed in. Her feet reached the pedals now. “I’m going to drive all the way through Kansas,” she announced.

We drove out of Denver, heading east. The highway was mostly straight and flat. The pavement was cracked at regular intervals, and weeds had grown up between the cracks. They made a rhythmic thumping sound as we drove through them. A cloud of dust rose into the air behind us as we sped eastward. When we reached the border of Kansas, I got out the geography book and read the chapter out loud.

Most of Kansas is part of the Great Plains. Kansas is one of the most productive farming areas of the United States, producing more wheat and sunflowers than any other state.

 I looked around. The land was completely flat. If there was farmland here once, it was all gone now. Grass covered everything. It was a couple of feet high, and a dry golden color. It had a simple, undecorated beauty to it that was a nice change after the mountains. Waves of darker color rippled through the grass as the wind blew it, making it look like pictures I’d seen of the ocean. There were little islands poking up through the surface of the ocean; the remains of giant sprinkler systems, some grain silos, a small town.

“What’s with the big ball on stilts?” asked Conner.

“It’s a water tower,” I said. “I’ve read about them in books. You pump water up into it, and then it flows back down to all the houses, even when the pump is off.”

“I’ve never seen them before.”

“That’s because back home, there’s always a mountain close enough to put the water tank on.” 

Then the town was behind us, and we were back in the ocean.

After a few hours, the landscape was getting a bit old. We’d occasionally pass houses or towns, but mostly it was just more grass. I’d grown up in a valley where if you looked far enough in any direction, you could see mountains. Here you could look all the way to the horizon and see nothing but horizon. I could tell the others were being affected by the lack of scenery too. Pippen was starting to look dazed, and she was the one driving. As leader, it was up to me to come up with a way to keep everyone awake.

“Let’s play a game!” I said. “We’ll look at the letters on license plates of cars we pass, and whoever comes up with the longest word that uses those letters in that order wins. See, there’s a plate that says ‘LIS 314.’ I can make the word ‘List’ out of that, which is four letters. Can anyone beat that?”

“Glish,” said Conner.

“What’s ‘glish’?” asked Pippen.

“What a frog says when you run over him.”

“Microencephalitis!” said Tan. “Nobody can beat my medical vocabulary!”

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” said Pippen. She won that round.

The next plate was “563 GCY.”

 “Grucky,” said Conner.

“What’s ‘grucky’?”

“What a frog is after you run over him.”

“Gastroscopy!” said Tan.

“Geometrically,” I said.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious…ly,” said Pippen. 

We gave up on the license-plate game and just watched the grass go by.

“Callie?” asked Conner.


“This is where Dorothy was from, isn’t it?”

“Uh huh.”

“And then she got sucked up in a cyclone and landed in Oz where there are talking animals and singing Munchkins and color.”

“Right, that’s the movie version.”

“But she kept telling people ‘I want to go home. I want to go back to Kansas.’”


Conner looked out the window. “Why?”

After two hundred miles, the simple, undecorated beauty was reaching in and sucking my soul out through my eyeballs. “Stop the truck!” I yelled. “I’ve got to get out!” Everyone looked at me. “Um, I mean we’ve got to get some fuel,” I clarified.

Pippen pulled off the freeway at the next town. The grass stopped at the edge of town, held off by the pavement. There wasn’t much more to the town than what you could see from the freeway. It had a water tower, a grain silo, a John Deere tractor dealer, a few churches, and a cluster of homes and businesses.

We drove into the town’s only gas station. Pippen and Tan went into the station’s mini-store to look for lunch. I got out my fuel pumping kit. Close to where we’d parked were three metal covers, set flush in the ground. I found the green cover.

“Conner, open this.”

Conner pried open the cover with Stanley.

“Lighter,” I said.

Conner tossed me his lighter, and went to join Tan and Pippen without asking me what I was going to do with a lighter at a gas station. Conner had been on fuel runs with me before. 

I opened the inner lid and snaked the hose down into the underground fuel tank. There might be water floating on top and rust on the bottom, so I tried to get the hose in the middle of the tank. I switched the pump on for a few seconds, running a bit of fuel into a pickle jar. Held up to the light, it looked like diesel fuel should. Nearly clear, with a light yellowish tint. It smelled like diesel, sort of sharp and oily. I poured a bit of it onto a paper ripped from my notebook and took it out to the main road. I weighted the paper down with a rock and lit the edge with the lighter. When the fire got to the fuel-soaked part, it burned with a happy yellow flame. 

“I knew it! You’re a pyromaniac!” said Tan’s voice behind me.

I whirled around. “No I’m not! I’m just testing the fuel!”

“Riiight. I think you secretly like burning stuff!”

I stood up and tried to look dignified. “I’m conducting a field test of the quality of this diesel fuel sample. If the fuel doesn’t catch fire easily, it means the cetane number is low. If I hear spitting sounds, the fuel has water in it. If it smokes, it’s got contaminants. We’re at a turning point in our quest. If we can find decent fuel out here, we can keep going to Florida. If not, we’ve got just enough fuel left in the Humvee tank and the jerry cans to get us back home. This is not pyromania; it’s a scientific test.”

Tan apologized. “Sorry. So what does your scientific test tell you?”

I grinned. “Fire pretty!”

We let the fire burn out, then walked back to Arnold. Tan watched as I filled Arnold’s tank and topped off all the jerry cans.

“Jon says fuel used to be worth a lot of money,” Tan said. “I think it cost more than food.”

“Then why didn’t they lock the tank lid?” I asked.

Tan shook his head. “I don’t know. But the pens inside are chained to the counter. I don’t think I’ll ever understand past people.”

Back on the road, it was the same flat Kansas landscape again. I craned my neck around, looking for a cyclone to liven things up a bit, but no such luck. 

After a couple of hours, I noticed Pippen was muttering to herself as she drove.

“Pippen, are you okay?” 

“I’m fine. It’s just that we pass a little town, and it’s got a water tower and a grain silo. And then a few miles later, we pass another little town, and it’s got the same water tower and grain silo! I read that when you get lost, you can wander around in a circle if you don’t have a compass. Are we driving in circles?”

“Nobody would be crazy enough to make a road that goes in a circle, not even past people!” I said.

“Okay, but maybe we got turned around back there when we got back on the freeway. I’d hate to think we’ve been going the wrong direction for a hundred miles!”

 Now that was a really awful thought. 

“Does anyone have a compass?” I asked. 

Nobody had thought to bring one. The GPS system was useless. I decided to give the outdated survival book another try. It had five different methods for finding north. “It says here that you take your watch and aim the hour hand at the sun, and then bisect the angle between the hour hand and twelve o-clock, and that line will point south.”

Tan had a watch, but it was digital. It was too cloudy to see the sun anyway.

“Okay, the next method is to look at which side of the tree the moss is growing on.”

I looked around. “Right, no trees. Okay, checking which side of the bush the ants build their nest on…no good without bushes. Checking which side of the mountain still has snow…no good without mountains. Finding the north star won’t work until night, and I’d really like to be out of here by then.” 

Yeesh. A simple survival task like finding north, and I couldn’t even do that! 

“Conner, you and Harri go hunting all over the valley, and you guys always make it home again. How do you do it?”

“It’s easy. From anywhere in the valley, you can still see Clan Mountain. I’m never lost if I can see that. I guess that doesn’t help.” Conner pointed at my notebook. “You’re writing the new survival manual, can’t you come up with a modern way of finding north?”

I couldn’t resist a challenge like that! I started a new chapter.

Modern Survival Manual

Chapter 3: Finding North

I started by drawing a picture of the earth, and then added a little stick figure standing on the earth looking lost. Good. Now, how could stick guy tell which way was north? A few weak ideas came to mind. One of the screwdrivers in my toolbox had a magnet on the handle for picking up dropped screws. I knew you could make a primitive compass by floating a magnet on a wood chip in a bowl of water, and the north end of the magnet would point north. But how do you find out which end of a magnet is the north end and which is the south end? I only knew of one way, and that was to put a compass next to the magnet, and if I already had a compass… 

I could build a large Foucault pendulum and watch it for an hour to see which way it rotated… No, that would only tell me which hemisphere I was in. 

Wait! There was something coming into focus in the back of my head… Quickly I sketched a line of little dots circling the earth. 

“Satellites!” I shouted.

“I thought those burned up,” Pippen said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said excitedly. “Past people put dish antennas on the top of their houses so they could get television signals from satellites. The TV satellites were in a geostationary orbit which let them stay over the same spot on the earth, so the dish antennas didn't have to move. A geostationary orbit only works when the satellite is 36,000 kilometers up, and directly over the equator. So satellite dishes in the northern hemisphere always point south!”

I wrote in my notebook:

If you are lost outside of civilization, find a house with a satellite dish. If the dish is facing toward you, then you are facing north. 

We were approaching a couple of mobile homes on the left side of the road. Everyone stared intently as we passed. Sure enough, the homes had small dishes on the roofs. All of them were pointed toward us. 

“We’re still going east!” I said.

Everyone cheered.

After several hours, the landscape began to change. There were hills here, and occasionally some rocks. The grass had changed too. It was green and nearly as tall as my head. As we drove over the top of a hill, we could see the waving green grass spread out in front of us. And something else was moving. In the rolling hills beyond, fuzzy brown blobs drifted slowly through the grass. 

“What are they?” Pippen asked in amazement. “Are they cows?”

Conner sucked in his breath. “They’re buffalo! I thought those were extinct!”

They were far from extinct. Hundreds of them wandered through the green ocean. The grass was short where the buffalo were, munched or beaten down by thousands of hooves. They were standing in the road too. Pippen drove right up to them. They were huge, with ratty brown hair, and curved black horns. They turned their heads to look at us and then went back to eating. 

“They’re blocking our way!” complained Tan. “Conner, get out your gun and shoot them!”

Conner looked at him sternly. “I’m not going to shoot an animal for just being in our way! Let’s just watch them. They’ll move eventually.”

So we opened up the machine-gun hatch and climbed up onto the roof to watch. We sat dangling our feet over the edge of the roof, watching the buffalo eating and the wind blowing the grass. It was a nice peaceful feeling.

I leafed through the geography book. “This says millions of buffalo used to roam across the great plains. But the book calls them ‘Bison.’ The Indians who lived here depended on them for food, clothing, and shelter. But it calls the Indians ‘Native Americans.’”

“What happened to the buffalo?” Pippen asked.

I checked the book. 

“They got killed off by advancing civilization. Eventually there were only a few buffalo left, and they rounded them up and put them in fenced ranches.”

“Then what happened to the Indians?” Conner asked.

I skipped ahead a few pages. “Hmm. Pretty much the same thing.”

Apparently the buffalo had escaped from their fences after Fixer hit and had been doing very well. There were even younger ones, smaller, reddish versions that stayed close to their mothers.

“They’re adorable!” Pippen exclaimed. “We should take one home and keep it as a pet!”

Conner grumbled, “Oh, sure! You want to take care of the cute, fluffy animals. Nobody cares about the sharp, dangerous animals. I’ll bet nobody ever made a fenced ranch for rattlesnakes!”

Suddenly the buffalo stopped eating and looked around, snorting through their big black noses.

“There, look!” said Conner.

Off in the distance, we could see gray shapes trotting purposefully across the trampled grass toward the herd.

“Big dogs!” I gasped.

“No, not dogs,” said Conner softly. “Wolves!”

The peaceful feeling was all gone. Pippen slid away from the edge of the roof. “Callie, are there supposed to be wolves in Kansas?”

I flipped a few pages. “No, they got killed off by civilization too.”

“Maybe these wolves came down from Canada,” said Tan. “I don’t think that ever got civilized.”

“Shouldn’t we get back in the truck?” Pippen asked nervously.

Conner shook his head. “The wolves didn’t come here for us.”

The wolves stopped fifty feet from us, sniffing the air. Ten of them. They were bigger than any dogs I’d seen, but leaner. Their yellow eyes stared at us intently.

After a few minutes the wolves decided we weren’t interesting and turned back to the buffalo. The closest group of buffalo had formed a circle with the babies in the center. They twitched nervously. The wolves circled around the herd, darting in to snap at them, then dodging away as the buffalo tried to hook them with their horns. I’d seen dog packs hunt deer back home. The dogs had looked a bit clumsy and uncertain, like they had a faint memory of how their wolf ancestors had hunted, and they were just playing at it. These guys were the real thing, and they were dead serious.

Conner watched them with an intensity he usually reserved for video games. “You wanted to understand nature, Callie? This is the hunt. The animals might be different, but the hunt is the same. Sometimes the herd wins, and the pack goes hungry. Sometimes the pack wins, and the weakest of the herd die, but the rest grow stronger.”

Finally the buffalo herd panicked and broke into a run, with the wolves snapping at their heels.

“Run, buffaloes! Run!” Pippen shouted.

“Run! Run!” shouted Conner.

I glanced at him suspiciously. “Hey, are you cheering for the wolves?”

Conner shrugged. “They have the same job I do.”

The buffalo and the wolves disappeared in the distance. I stood on the roof and looked at the cloud of dust in the direction the hunt had gone. “I hope the buffalo get away,” I said. “I hate those nature movies where the bunny gets killed.”

Conner frowned. “Callie, I kill bunnies to feed the clan. You don’t hate me, do you?”

“That’s completely different. Of course I don’t hate you!”

Conner looked relieved. At least the road was clear now. We climbed back down into the Humvee. Tan offered to drive, but Pippen insisted she was going to make it through the whole state.

An hour later, we were in the outskirts of a big city. A sign over the freeway read “Welcome to Missouri.” As soon as she got past the sign, Pippen slowed to a stop, took the truck out of gear, and collapsed on the steering wheel. 

“I did it! I drove through the entire state of Kansas! And I didn’t go insane!”

“Insaner,” corrected Tan.

 “I can’t drive any further,” gasped Pippen. “Can we stop right here for the night?”

Right next to us was a big recreational vehicle off on the shoulder of the road. Yeah, that would do nicely. 

We got out of the Humvee and yawned and stretched and looked around.

“What’s wrong with the sun?” asked Conner.

The sun was setting on the plains to the west. But it was the strangest sunset I’d ever seen. The sun was a huge orange ball, and all the clouds in the sky burned red.

“Jon says that after Fixer, the sky looked like it was on fire for a year,” said Conner. “Do you think this is what he saw? Does this mean Fixer’s come back?”

Tan shook his head. “I don’t think this is the same thing Jon saw. Jon said the sky was red all day, and there was a whole year without a summer. I don’t know what made that happen. It’s like we have a jigsaw puzzle without the box, and we don’t have enough pieces put together to see the whole picture yet.”

Tan looked at the big orange sun for a minute. “You know, I think we’re looking at a normal sunset! We’ve never seen the sun get all the way to the horizon, because the mountains were in the way.”

We watched the sun until the last orange sliver disappeared over the flat earth.

The RV was great. It had a kitchen table and a stove, couches, and a TV. And in the back, there was a bathroom with a sink. In the front seats there were two dried-out past people sitting hunched over, still wearing their seat belts. Tan approached them politely. “Excuse me sir, ma’am. You don’t seem to be using this place. May we stay the night here?”

They didn’t say no, so Conner tossed them out on the road.

I went outside to open the valves on the RV’s propane tanks and see what else I could do to make the RV more comfortable. We’d been on the road three days, and I figured we could do with a little luxury. We had plenty of water in the Humvee, so I poured a few gallons into the RV’s water tank. Now the toilet and sink would work. Behind a panel on the side of the RV, I found a 12-volt battery that powered the lights inside when the engine was off, but I knew that battery would be dead. The Humvee has a 24-volt system, but a 24-volt battery would be too heavy to carry, so instead the Humvee has two 12-volt batteries hooked together in series to make them into one big battery. 

“Arnold, would you mind donating a battery?” I asked. “Just for a little while.”

Arnold didn’t mind, so I pulled up the bottom of his passenger-side seat where the batteries are, loosened the terminal clamps, and hauled out one of the batteries. These are pretty heavy, but they have a carry strap. I hooked the battery into the RV’s electrical system. 

By the time I got back inside, Tan had figured out the propane stove, and was cooking up some soup. Conner was pulling down the folding beds, and Pippen had already turned on the TV and was sitting in front of it watching intently. It was nothing but a blue screen.

“Don’t use the electricity too much,” I warned. “I’m using one of Arnold’s batteries, and I want him to be able to start in the morning.” I switched off the TV.

“Hey!” Pippen protested. “That movie was a classic!”

After dinner we cleared the food off the table and spread out the map. I traced our route so far with my finger.

“Okay, we’re here, in Kansas City.”

“I thought we were out of Kansas!” protested Pippen. “Didn’t we make it to Missouri?”

“Kansas City is in Missouri.”

“What? Is there a Missouri City in Kansas?”

“Pippen, are you asking for past people to make sense?”

“Never mind. Past people crazy!”

I started again. “We need to go across Missouri to Saint Louis, then we cross the Mississippi River and start heading south. We go through Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and then down to Orlando.”

Tan gasped. “Atlanta? We’re going through Atlanta?”

“Yeah, it’s right here, on our route. Why?”

Tan leaned forward eagerly. “Because Atlanta is where we’re going to find other people!”