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Sanctuary

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.

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42 comments

  • Your ruminations are sublime and candidly expressed. Thank you. Photos are a wonderful bonus. May sanctuaries flourish!

    CATHY BEARD
  • You didn’t mention seeing any Lesser Prairie-chickens. Were they out there?

    Jill
  • Well said, Dan; well spoken. Just had my annual Christmas lunch, with a dear friend (5 years younger than me) and, as I helped her to her car, I could not help but be grateful, for all the many blessings, that continue to come my way. Each dawning is a glory.

    Georgene
  • ‘Dan O’brian, this is a good one! Glad you got to go and have good friends to welcome you. Also glad you have great friends and family to ‘Watch Yer Back’ in So. Dakota. The “Shaggies” may be low maintenance but horses are “High” and fragile as fine crystal.
    Have a good winter and hope the Buffalos winter well also. Best to you and Jill and Kin!

    Kenneth James & Leslie Terry
  • Loved that description, “even more dangerous hot air emanating from Washington, DC.”

    Whatever happened with that Alpha Male buffalo you got with your 1st batch of buffaloes that you described in ‘Buffalo for the Broken Heart’?

    Toni Stimmel
  • I always enjoy your writing, but where was Jill while you were gallivanting around in warm weather? Your mentioning the 20 gauge shotgun reminds me of my dad in central SD, who always used a 20 gauge double barreled shotgun. His philosophy was that if you couldn’t hit a pheasant with a 20 you had no business hunting and if you couldn’t hit it with two shells, you damn sure had no business hunting.

    James E. Swab
  • Glad you enjoyed your stay in the land of enchantment! It is going to be in the 50s again here in Los Alamos, NM. Too warm, too dry, but still the best place in the world to live. Come visit here next time, Dan!

    Liz Aicher
  • Belated greetings and best wishes for your 70th, Dan. We are grateful for many blessings in our lives and you are one of them. Good to know you are taking care of your body and spirit. Thanks, Fee & Jerry

    Fee Jacobsen
  • Thank you for sharing and for the Buffalo and regeneration of yourpart of the Great Plains. Winter does seem to lend itself to introspection and winding down, or maybe winding up unfinished things. Nice you can get away for a while. Take care.

    Cheves Leland
  • 72 and know what you are feeling

    Bill bates
  • ~○~Blessings on your 70th year on this earth. ~○~Thanksgiving this year was my 55th.
    May we keep sowing hope and joy and peace so we may continue to be thank full!

    Kim Hughes-Baus
  • Thanks for the reminder about the importance of recharging one’s batteries every once in a while. It’s so easy to get caught up in the business of daily life and forget about such things.
    Happy New Year.
    -Craig

    Craig Spencer
  • Very enjoyable writing. Waiting for the next novel…
    Take care, Dan.

    Nicole

    Nicole DUPRE
  • Inspiring! Happy New Year to you and the Wild Idea Buffalo family!

    Cori Mueffelmann
  • As usual, this really hit the spot. Like hot coffee on a cold morning. Like popcorn at a movie. Like Hyacinths For Thy Soul.

    sylvia rankin

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