Last week a friend and I drove out to Pawnee Buttes, in the Pawnee National Grassland. This is on the prairie in northeast Colorado, not far south of Wyoming and Nebraska. It was a warm but lovely day. The grassland is beautiful: lots of miles on dirt roads; beautiful undulating hills; and the isolated buttes themselves. The only downside is the sheer number of oil and gas facilities out here, along with the accompanying truck traffic. In a time when it’s imperative that we phase out fossil fuels, I was discouraged to see the amount of fracking and other fossil-fuel extraction on this, one of our national treasures.
This afternoon I drove up to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, located about 15 miles north of Fort Collins and about 10 miles south of the Wyoming border. The last several miles are on a very well graded dirt-and-pea-gravel road. I went to the north parking lot, where there was only one other car, and walked a short trail to a site that overlooks a former archaeological dig, now restored to prairie. This is some of what I saw. I’m still working on an identification for a couple of the plants. I’m also a bit puzzled by the rocks atop the fenceposts—are they decorative, or do they have some sort of significance I can’t read?
The sense of remoteness and the solitude were gratifying, very different from the isolation of being at home. It was a beautiful, unusually cool day for August and it was windy; my ears actually got cold. I was fine in a T-shirt but began thinking longingly of earmuffs; what a strange sight that combination would make! A hat or scarf would have done the trick. I want to return to this area soon with my Olympus and my binoculars.
Note: I have since learned that the purpose of the rocks is to divert water, thus preventing deterioration of the tops of the posts. Thanks to Michael Bliss for telling me this.
These photos were taken at the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area, just south of Fort Collins, Colo. This acreage, which has never been plowed, is bounded by two major roads to the east and west and by housing developments to the east and north. It’s lovely country, but the traffic noise is omnipresent. When I had walked about 15 minutes, it began thundering persistently, so I backtracked to the parking area. I didn’t get photos of the many flowers still in bloom, many of them very small and easy to overlook.
Fuji X-10. I should probably download some kind of photo editing app for my iPad since I’m posting these on the road. Would like to have taken those highlights down a notch.
Every time I’ve driven past Salina, Kansas, on I-70, I’ve taken note of billboards for Rolling Hills Zoo. Today I finally checked it out. It was mid-afternoon and hot, so most of the animals were napping in their dens or in the grass—barely discernible lumps of fur. After walking for awhile I got too hot, so I boarded the zoo tram at the next tram stop. I was the only passenger the whole way, so at every stop I talked to the young driver. He might have been 18. He might have been 16. He said he’d volunteered at the zoo for the past three years and this was the first year he was allowed to drive the tram. At our first stop he got off and stood by the tram looking at the giraffes in their enclosure and said thoughtfully, “I think this is the best place in the world.”
It is a beautiful place: gently rolling hills (the name is true) with trees everywhere and enclosures that allow the animals privacy if they don’t want to see humans. I told the boy that I was especially interested to see the crown crane, my favorite of the crane species. He said that it used to live in the giraffe enclosure and that he enjoyed just watching the things it would do. “It has a definite personality,” he said. “I notice that more about birds than mammals, maybe because I keep birds.”
Specifically, he keeps parakeets. “In the beginning I was hoping to breed them,” he said, “but you can’t tell the sex of a parakeet until it’s about a year old and it turned out I had all females.” Since they were laying unfertilized eggs, he once gathered about a dozen and made an omelet. “It was pretty small,” he said. He made a shape with his hands about the size of a little saucer. “They tasted just the same as chicken eggs, but instead of yellow they were almost transparent on the inside.”
This was a first for me, to meet someone who’d eaten a parakeet omelet. That alone was worth the stop. I wish now that I’d asked his name. He said his favorite part of working at the zoo was educating people about conservation, and that he hoped to go into conservation as a career.
I left the tram at the Wildlife Museum that’s a part of the zoo. This place has spectacular dioramas, but I was most interested in a special exhibit of frogs and toads. A video was playing and I heard the words “Southern Illinois University researchers led by Karen Lips discovered that frogs in Central America were dying off from the chytrid fungus….” That’s not a verbatim quote, but it caught my attention. Years ago, as the editor of SIU’s research magazine, I had interviewed Karen and learned about the alarming disappearances of amphibian species around the world due to this fungus, coupled—scientists think—with environmental stressors that have made the species especially susceptible to it. Karen and her team had chanced to be in Costa Rica and Panama at the very time this die-off was happening, and documented the event.
The exhibit included a large lighted panel with photographs of frogs and a quote from a Paul Simon song that, coincidentally, I’d been singing along to in the car just the day before:
“There is a frog in South America
Whose venom is the cure
For all of the suffering
That mankind must endure.”
He was talking about the dart-poison frog, of course. The song, “Señorita With a Necklace of Tears,” is on the album “You’re the One.”
Day 4: Lawrence to Hays.
My hair has been whipped into a Medusa-like appearance thanks to the high winds here in western-central Kansas. Tonight I’m staying in Hays, and although one thunderstorm developed behind me as I was heading west, more storms are expected. I’m used to Kansas being windy, but this is unusual, and high-wind advisories have been issued.
I left Lawrence at 8:30 a.m. and got on the tollway headed for Topeka. The land opened up to the sky and I began to feel I could breathe freely. This landscape suits me much more than the landscape along I-70 in Missouri, which feels overgrown with trees and stifling. I hightailed it to Manhattan and the Konza Prairie. For years, on trips to see my parents in Broomfield, Colo., Steve and I noted the big sign along I-70 that announces the Konza Prairie. But I didn’t know much about it until I interviewed SIU plant biologist David Gibson, some of whose research involved prairie restoration out at Konza. This is a Nature Conservancy site administered in cooperation with Kansas State University. I walked for about half an hour along the main nature trail. It wasn’t far enough to get to the true prairie section, but it was peaceful and pleasant. Thinking of nature reminds me of how loud the cicadas were in Lawrence, even in heavily commercial areas, whereas here in Hays there are some kind of screaming, squabbling birds. I’m not sure what they are; they look something like crows, but their heads are differently shaped and they splay their tails.
After that short spell at Konza, I headed for KSU’s insect zoo, which specializes in tarantulas, walking sticks, katydids, cockroaches, and scorpions (the latter I passed by; reading “The Pearl” did it for me and scorpions, which I despise). Now that I think about it, more than half of the critters residing in the insect zoo are not insects at all. They’re other types of arthropods—arachnids (tarantulas and scorpions) and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes). (In confirming this online, I discovered two odd facts: Because all centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, no centipede species has 100 legs. Furthermore, no known species of millipede has 1,000 legs. So neither type lives up to its name. I feel compelled also to quote this from the Wikipedia article on centipedes: Even nonvenomous centipedes are considered frightening by humans due to their dozens of legs moving at the same time and their tendency to dart swiftly out of the darkness towards one’s feet. A 19th-century Tibetan poet warned his fellow Buddhists that “if you enjoy frightening others, you will be reborn as a centipede.”)
Lunch was a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish at the Bluestem Bistro, and a couple of chocolate-covered pretzels at Cold Stone Creamery. Then I headed out of town, intending to take a secondary road all the way past Salina to Lucas. But K18 was detoured onto I-70 because of road construction, and a good thing too. If I’d taken it, I never would have gotten to Lucas in time to make a quick tour of the Grassroots Arts Center. This quirky little museum preserves and displays outsider art (the more common term than grassroots art, and a better one, I think, for these self-taught artists truly are outside the mainstream, and their art often takes the form of large outdoor assemblages).
The docent told me that the museum is in Lucas because four such artists had lived and worked there. The museum tries to track and save outsider art installations across the country; too often, upon the artist’s death, these pieces, which are typically made of unconventional materials, are discarded. Two of my favorite pieces at the museum were full-size replicas of a car and a motorcycle made of thousands of aluminum pull-tabs from soda cans. Not for nothing is the artist, Herman Divers, described as “the master of pull-tab construction.”
I took many photos here and also at the town’s Bowl Plaza, which is the entrance to their public restrooms. (“Bowl” refers to exactly what you might think.) The mosaics in the plaza are made from pieces of colored bottles, bits of old porcelain plates, and other miscellaneous objects. The restrooms themselves also have mosaics; they’re supposed to be gorgeous and are actually listed in the AAA tour guide as among the state’s attractions. That sounded laughable until I saw the beauty of the outdoor mosaics. I wonder if these are the only restrooms in the United States so honored. Unfortunately, they were closed for repairs when I was there. But I hope to return to Lucas on the way back home.
This region of Kansas is called Post Oak Country due to the use of quarried rock posts instead of wood for fenceposts. The interstate from roughly Manhattan to Wilson also is paralleled by hundreds of wind turbines. As I drove a back road up toward K18 and Lucas, these gradually petered out. In a couple of places an old-fashioned windmill to bring up water for stock tanks was juxtaposed against the landscape of turbines. The drive from Lucas back to I-70 winds through sculpted bare hills reminiscent of some of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, though in a different palette. Trees line the creeks and cluster in hollows; at Konza Prairie I learned that these are called gallery forests.
Then the road curves around the east end of Wilson Lake, which had whitecaps today from the wind. To the east the land drops off from the road into a huge valley; to the west is the lake. There are two or three parks and wildlife areas here that I’d like to check out on the way back. The light from the hazy sky—today has been very hazy, I suppose from the high winds picking up dust from the gravel roads—gleamed off the lake. (Note: The haze, which persisted to the Rockies, turned out to be pollution from the wildfires in the West Coast states.)
I stopped in Wilson, “the Czech capital of Kansas” with “the world’s largest painted Czech egg,” for supper, a piece of pecan pie. I didn’t have to go out of my way to drive by The Egg, which was propped up on a corner lot with what looked like makeshift, rusty metal braces. The world’s largest painted Czech egg should have a better setting than a weedy lot, it seems to me. Say, a corner-lot-sized park with some flower beds. That would be a big improvement.
Then it was down the road to Hays, with clouds and sun ahead of me and dark thunderclouds behind me. My legs and feet are sore from driving and walking. Road-trip fatigue has set in early, since I’m toting a ridiculous amount of stuff into the motel each night, even while leaving things in the car. That’s the biggest disadvantage of a solo road trip. Well, aside from the mixed-up jumble the suitcase becomes as dirty clothes mingle with clean clothes. And not knowing the good places to eat. And road construction. And the driving itself. But otherwise, I love road trips!