I often wish I could have a time machine and stand in a place and just slowly go back in time. In July, I felt that I did exactly that during my time on the short-grass prairies of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. Very little tied me to a specific period of time except for my possessions, contained in a car and a Casita camper. Many years ago I read James Michener’s book, Centennial, and as I approached Colorado I downloaded the audiobook version. That book became my time machine.
As I visited the Pawnee National Grasslands, I realized I was in the exact location of most of the book; Weld County, Colorado in the NE corner of the state. The city of Greeley, the Platte River, Pawnee Buttes and the Chalk Cliffs are all the central locations of the story. Most of this area is now a National Grassland, which means people can drive and camp anywhere. You can drive named roads that are barely crushed grass to show the way, and where there are fences you can drive through gates - as long as you close them. Roads lead to working windmills, and cows have free range and can be found blocking your progress. Pronghorn Antelope are plentiful.
But oh, the magnificence of the sky, prairie and where they meet at the far horizon. With grass no more than 6” high and not a tree to be seen from horizon to horizon in any direction, the view is immense and I feel very dwarfed and insignificant. The wind blows ceaselessly until it suddenly dies to nothing, the flies bite hard and the sun beats down on low cactus and tumbleweeds that pile up against any fence.
In Centennial, the Indians live near Rattlesnake Buttes. I was there. Michener talks about the Chalk Cliffs. I could see them far in the distance. The biggest thing missing was the buffalo. How tens of millions of buffalo could have been slaughtered by the settlers and explorers is beyond my imagination, but their absence changed history for the Indians, and not even my time machine could make them reappear. Certainly, I could picture how the Indians were systematically pushed out as settlers moved in to the places where water was present.
I tried to imagine what life must have been like for the settlers who were given land west of the Mississippi River. In all, more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the U.S., was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders. Back East, the eldest son got the parent’s farm. The younger children knew farming but had no land. How enticing that must have been to them and to immigrants newly arrived in America. But, the living conditions were brutal. As much as I loved being there, I could not imagine living there year after year.
A few years of good rain were followed by many with none. “The rain follows the plow” was an effective advertising gimmick but not reality. Instead, year after year the dust was pulled from the ground by the never-ending wind. Sun-parched soil, grasshoppers, fire, and blizzards that suffocated cattle were all part of their life. It drove many mad, especially the women who couldn’t keep the dust off anything, including their infants. Then hope would return with the rain, but it never stayed.
As conditions reached the point that settlers knew they could not continue, they abandoned it all. The ghosts of houses still standing give testament to the hopes, dreams and never-ending work that were blown away by the wind.
One night I camped on the prairie.
I saw no lights except the sun, the moon and the stars. The sunset and sunrise were among the best I’ve witnessed as they turned the world around me to gold.The sounds of coyotes at night andthe sight of a Pronghorn Antelope looking down at me from a small rise in the morning were surreal. So, I sat at the edge of a Prairie Dog town that had been decimated by Prairie Dog plague, and watched the families of Burrowing Owls and the few remaining Prairie Dogs. I hid behind tumbleweed that had piled up against a fence and was soon ignored by the Prairie Dogs
and Burrowing Owls. Unfortunately the biting flies and red ants still found me. I watched as adult and young owls interacted with each other. I watched adult owls fly up and grab insects to bring back to feed their hungry, noisy owlets.
Later I wondered about the plague, as there was such a difference from New Mexico’s towns of 100 or more and Colorado’s towns of less than a dozen. Google informed me that this is the exact strain of Bubonic Plague that is believed to be the cause of the Black Death that swept through Asia, Europe and Africa in the 14th century and killed an estimated 50 million people. I learned that, even now, people, who have been bitten by infected fleas could contract Bubonic Plague.
As I arrived at a new National Grasslands, I stopped by ranger stations and told them I was looking for Prairie Dog towns so I could observe them and Burrowing Owls. They all talked about the plague but not one mentioned the possibility of being infected by a shared flea. Maybe they haven’t come across many people who want to sit in the middle of the town and just watch.
But, sit among burrows and all the little bugs, I did. Were any of them fleas? Happily, I am now long past the 3-7 days that would result in symptoms of illness so I won’t be adding that to my adventure stories!