“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
-- Henry David Thoreau
-- Henry David Thoreau
A thin fluff of new snow drapes the land in a fleeting cape, muzzing the stark gray of wind scoured-grass and hiding in perfect camouflage atop the lingering drifts. As I watch, it slowly recedes from the darker patches where nature has chosen not to pile the last ice of autumn.
Snowless areas reveal the shortgrass, leaves gray and sere and cured on the stem, the seemingly worthless detritus of annual prolifity. The grass looks darker than it is, monochromatic, in sharp contrast to the swirled, sculpted drifts. The bright-dark mottling is rare dazzle in a land usually adorned in a more uniform coat.
Overnight the temperature soared to nearly 14 degrees as a thin, broken overcast hoarded warmth. But the clouds depart with sunrise, and by 7:45 the temperature has fallen off to six or seven degrees. With the sunrise comes a breath of west wind, three or four miles an hour worth, enough to cause a shiver. I stand in beauty, but it’s a cold beauty.The air is dry, moisture precipitated directly to ice. Last night’s snowfall was no storm, just the water falling out of the sky. Long gone are the dust, pollen, molds, and assorted bugs of the other three seasons. The air is as pure as it ever gets around here, bracing and invigorating.
A perfect morning to trudge a joyful path through winter’s priceless gift.
The cold makes a prairie hike just a bit risky. I’ve got emergency gear in my ruck, and I’m warm and dry, dressed in layers and with top-of-the line boots and gloves, but the last thing I want to do is break a sweat and fence with hypothermia. This is not a workout hike. Conditions dictate the pace, and I move slowly, winding in and around the highest drifts.
I move along the north side of a windbreak. Small birds flit here and there, singly or in pairs, sometimes booming aloft in tattered flocks. They’re designed for this, endlessly searching out the minuscule seeds of summer’s bounty. There is wonder in the dynamism of this tiny slice of our ecosystem.
Many seeds will never germinate, and many animals won’t survive the winter. Here and there lie the carcasses of small birds; a dead vole is frozen solid near the mouth of its snow-tunnel home. I suspect the fallen are newly so, expired in the recent night, for coyote tracks meander in abundance across the snow, and as scavengers, coyotes are very, very efficient.
Tracks across the new snow provide an early-edition newspaper of sorts, telling the local story of the last few hours. Cottontails have been everywhere, as have mice. A small dog has made big, looping patterns across the snow, and feral cats have been slinking along the tree line. A few antelope wandered through just before dawn, moving south to northwest. I try to figure out how many, but I am not a very accomplished reader of the Prairie News.
After a few hours, with my wandering confined to about three square miles, I pause in the lee of a windbreak and face south, the sun warm on my face. My dark clothes soak up the sunlight and I feel warm and comfortable. I scan the horizon through binoculars, and spy a pair of mule deer traversing a saddle a couple miles away.
The wind picks up and another broken overcast moves in. The sun no longer bathes me in warmth, and the persistent breeze nips and worries at the collar of my jacket. Still dry and warm, I shiver nevertheless, and start to think of calling it a day. I eyeball my progress, guestimate I’ve come four or five miles. The same distance will return me to my trusty, winter-grimed pickup. It’ll be enough. I turn my back to the wind and head for home.
Hours later I crunch up to my truck and shed my ruck and rifle. I glance around, enjoying the final moments of my prairie expedition. I recall a mindless argument from earlier in the week, and grin a secret grin at how little such things mean out here.
The day comes late and raw, blasted by a north wind. Snow swirls with intensity and begins to drift. I’m dressed as warmly as yesterday, but I’m nowhere close to comfortable. I stick mainly to the roads and the warmth of my pickup and madly snap pictures, desperately trying to capture some fleeting sense of winter’s majesty.
I pause near a favorite stopping place and try to remember what it looks and feels like in July. As I stand there, back to the howling wind, a coyote trots past a score of yards away. She scents me and her head snaps around; we make eye contact. I carry a perfect coyote rifle, but have neither reason nor desire to shoot. The coyote is a pragmatic survivor, though, and lopes quickly away. Miserably chilled by the wind, I scoot back to the warmth of my pickup.