Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter Pause

I wrote this for publication but got rejected. I'm afraid you poor readers are going to have to suffer through it. Click on the pictures to see a larger image.

As I feed calves on a bright February morning, I hear it calling. A whisper at first, barely audible, borne on the barest whiff of breeze, like the first cranesong of autumn. “Let’s go.”
It gets louder, clearer. “C’mon, let’s go. It’s been too long. Let’s go….” It’s the prairie calling me, and the prairie is right. It’s been too long.

Autumn was long and warm and filled with work. Fencing, corrals, weaning, sorting, moving cattle, setting stock tanks, getting hay in, hauling feed. The sun moved south and the days shortened and the weather stayed unseasonably warm and mild.

Winter arrived with a bone-chilling blast of arctic air. Temperatures fell below zero and stayed there. Dry snow came in spurts and gathered in dirty, untidy piles, blown here and there by a biting, constant wind.

Work became physically hard and demanding. Tough enough in fair weather, feeding cows and calves became a miserable chore when the cold and snow and wind came. Winter conspired to carve away summer fat and pared deep down into the heart of me, to the core of will and duty perseverance.

And then winter paused for a few short hours.

Dried and empty, last year’s yucca pods lend texture to February’s shortgrass prairie landscape in the southwest Panhandle of Nebraska.
Yucca, buffalo and grama grasses and deep blue sky line a prairie canyon rim south of Kimball Feb. 19.
The day was one of those you dream about while mired in the arctic depths of winter. The sky was clear and blue and cloudless, the sun was bright, and the air was still and warm, its temperature hovering somewhere in the mid-60’s.

Lovely February days come to the High Plains, but they don’t come every February. Forecasters forecast them, but they don’t always materialize, and when they do, they usually haven’t been presaged. When a lovely February day appears, unbidden and unanticipated, I hear the call. “Let’s go. It’s been too long.” When everything breaks right in mid-February there’s only one thing for me to do. Grab my gear and follow the call.

I stride out across the uneven shortgrass prairie. From a distance, it looks agreeably flat, but hiking it reveals a different truth. Every square foot is a mountain range cast small, with peaks and valleys of native bunch grasses; wheat grass and needle grasses and grama grasses and Little Bluestem and buffalograss, to name but a few.

As evening comes on and the day cools off, cattle graze along a prairie swale Feb. 19 south of Kimball.
The uneven prairiescape makes good footwear a must, and I hike unashamed in $200 boots and $20 socks. I carry my usual load; rucksack and rifle, pistol and camera, GPS and water. The weight of my load enhances the workout value of the hike. The firearms do too, but more importantly, they ensure that I properly exercise the moral and ethical responsibility which attends my constitutional right.

In mid-February the grass is sere and brown and gray, winter-dormant, roots still gripped by frozen earth. The snow is mostly gone, but there’s no mistaking the winter landscape, nor the feel of deeply frozen ice beneath an inch or so of sun-mushed topsoil.

I head roughly north, where a pair of wells and windmills need checking. They lay over the horizon, two and three miles away. The prairie may call, but water for the herd has priority. Mixing the two is a fine solution.

As I hike along the pain in my ankles is intense and, at first, distracting. Experience tells me the pain will ease at some point, become less bothersome, recede from the forefront of experience. I earned bad ankles during years of service at sea. Walking and running on steel decks causes cumulative injury. For some it’s knees or hips or the back. For me it was Achilles tendons. Surgery has helped, but my young ankles are gone forever, traded away in good cause.

As the pain recedes and muscles loosen I push harder, stretching my stride and driving my heart rate into the fitness range. I begin to sweat and breathe more deeply. As the terrain rises my heart begins to pound and the air rushes in and out of my lungs. I begin to feel the ache of lactic acid building in leg muscles.

As I top a rise and put the first mile behind me, I catch sight of the windmills. I move easily now, muscles warm and working smoothly, heart pulsing and lungs breathing at an elevated but comfortable rate. The pain in my ankles eases and seems but a distant ache. I feel giddy and happy and content. The weight of everyday human existence falls away and I am suffused with a sense of peace. Surrounded by beauty, I go in beauty. The prairie may wear a drab coat this season, but it is no less striking than when it wears the colorful coat of spring and summer.

Ahead of me scampers a jackrabbit, cutting back and forth between clumps of yucca and appropriately-named rabbit brush. With a final zigzag, he disappears down the scree-covered bank of a dry wash. The prairie becomes more broken as I draw closer to what we call the canyonlands, deep cuts and draws and washes accumulated over millennia of natural erosion. High overhead, a pair of Ferruginous hawks soar in the warm air, tracing a broad, mile-wide oval in the crystalline sky. The air may be warm for the season, but it remains winter air, sterile and devoid of growing season odors and insects.

I drive on, pausing only to check my windmills. Both are functioning, turning slowly in the light breeze and pumping cupfuls of water into filling stock tanks. As I finish with the second windmill, I bend my course around to the east, eager to walk the floor of a canyon not visited since summer. Signs of cattle are everywhere; muddy hoof prints and hair-adorned rubbing rocks and piles of fresh manure.

I summit the last of the high ground and find the cow herd spread out before me in the swale leading to the canyon. They watch me closely but are unafraid; they know me and know that I’m as likely to appear before them afoot as in my trusty pickup. The rise is a good place to pause, so I shrug off my rucksack, lean my rifle carefully against it, and squat down to snap a few photographs.

I take in the scene before me, trying hard to pack every detail into the vault of memory. The camera is a wonderful device, capable of producing stunningly beautiful images, but it can’t capture everything, and often misses the most important parts. I know that someday my memories will have to serve when I hear the prairie call.

Rested, relaxed, and memory-filled, I take up my ruck and rifle and enter the canyon. It runs roughly northeast to southwest, in the general direction of home. Eroded out of limestone and siltstone, the canyon floor is mostly sand, packed firm enough for walking by melting snow. At its widest the canyon is about 50 feet, narrowing here and there to not much more than 20 inches. The walls vary from vertical, fractured rock to gentle, grass-covered slope. There are eroded caves scattered along the walls; some tiny and some large enough to shelter in. A few of the larger ones have soot-covered ceilings and other evidence of human habitation.

I climb up out of the canyon along a grassy slope and find myself less than a mile from home. The canyon offered relatively easy walking, but this last stretch is a long march up a steepening slope. I could go around the hill, but I crave the challenge of hard exertion. I drive myself up the slope, pushing hard against gravity and the visceral inclination to shorten my stride. Heart pounds and muscles ache and I’m not sure whether the roaring in my ears is an external or internal sound. Air dashes in and out of laboring lungs and my eight-pound rifle seems to weigh a hundred pounds.

Silly, winter-chasing grin
Finally the slope eases and my pickup, my destination, appears. The prairie becomes mostly level, and as I close in the pounding in my chest moderates and falls away into the background of the moment. At the pickup I lay down my rifle and slip the rucksack from tired shoulders. I’m lightly winded and my clothing is soaked in sweat. I check my GPS device and note that I made 6.5 miles in just over 100 minutes. Free of my load, I step back from the pickup and turn a full circle, taking in the prairie all around me and showing it a grin plastered face. I’ve answered the call and I feel wonderful. For the moment, at least, I’ve chased winter completely from my soul.

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