By, Dan O’Brien
My seventieth birthday fell on Thanksgiving, 2017. It had been a tough year, with destructive wildfires destroying the canyon lands above my California friend’s homes and even more dangerous hot air emanating from Washington, DC, and some of my own health issues that reminded me constantly that I was now seventy years old.
There was something in the harbingers of this winter that I was not ready for. Though a beautiful autumn had lingered into November, with a few yellow cottonwood leaves still clinging to the highest branches and the northern ducks had come down but dilly-dallied on the oddly ice-free ponds. Like the Northern Great Plains themselves, I simply was not ready for the crippling cold that lay ahead. It is at times like this that it’s good to have a lifetime of friends to offer you sanctuary.
A tempting invitation came to me from Florida. “It’s warm down here. Oranges and grapefruit grow on trees!” From California: “No one is using the beach house. The surf should be good.” I was always leery of trees that bore citrus instead of apples and I felt way too old to surf. Besides, just then, retreating to the coasts seemed like a retreat from the battle of the Great Plains. I decided to stick with what I knew best. The ducks on the ranch ponds seemed slightly confused by the mild temperatures, but we all knew what was coming. If they weren’t going to go south, I would lead them. I headed down along the center line of the Great Plains a day a storm was to come in, to my simple, quiet, and familiar haunt on the Texas/New Mexico border.
I fled like a battered coyote for a lair I knew was safe. I loaded a pack with a change of clothes, a pile of unread books, and neglected manuscript of a future novel into the back of my Toyota 4-Runner. Fargo, the cocker spaniel, and Shiner, the English setter, leaped into their traveling crates and the old 20-gauge shotgun went barrel down in the passenger seat.
A mixed herd of mule and white-tailed deer trotted across the driveway in front of me as I pulled away from the ranch house. A small flock of sharp-tailed grouse fluttered at the top of the trees. They were eating cottonwood buds, a sure sign that colder days were eminent. I would not see another deer or a grouse until I pulled onto my friend’s ranch in New Mexico. I’d been making this trip for 40 years but have never felt the regenerative power of it until this year. It’s a long trip across a lot of desolate, abused farmland, oils fields, cattle feedlots, and industrial slaughter plants. Over the year, the blight on those hundreds of miles of American’s midsection has worsened as the land wears out and the people grow poorer. Eight hundred miles with no sign of wildlife, except four confused pheasants on a Kansas roadside.
Of course a highway is not a good place to see healthy grasslands and there are, no doubt, scores of pockets where diversity is holding on. There are a few other farmers and ranchers who understand the true value of the land is not what you can exploit from it. But still, the trip was made longer by the lack of the prairie life.
When I reached my friend’s house, I was met by a battalion of mule deer. Thirty, forty, maybe fifty stood gun-stock still along the side of the road, as if to inspect the vehicle for the intent in the driver’s heart. I must have passed the inspection because they let me pass into the island of diversity that, for me, balanced the southern end of the Great Plains.
My friend is a taciturn man of great intelligence and environmental wisdom. He moved to a battered New Mexican ranch forty years before and set about building the sanctuary that I was seeking. His wife was visiting her family in Wisconsin and his kids were newly out of college and off exploring the world. He shook my hand and pointed to the small, adobe guest house. “She’s all yours,” he said. “Lots of quail this year. Let me know when you go out. I might tag along.”
And that was about it. We talked over dinner most nights. Ran down the list of the world’s problems but did a lot of simply sitting in silence. We hunted quail most days but only for an hour or two, as we are both too crippled up to be gung-ho and we could only eat so many quail.
I was there for almost three weeks. Watched the wintering birds in the bushes around the guest house, napped in the sun, and every day I grew stronger. I read a couple books and finished up a new draft of that damned novel manuscript that had been bugging me for months. I left New Mexico in the middle of a seventy-degree day and headed home, toward what they said would develop into a Great Plains blizzard. At Amarillo I could see the beginning of the huge cloud bank and I knew that 2018 and my seventy-first year were in that fog. The snow began just north of the Oklahoma panhandle and it didn’t bother me at all.