Access: A Personal Journey into Shared Lands

May 12, 2021

…it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.

–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said: ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me.

–Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land

Land and Wild Cracks: Platte Basin

Since before I can remember, I’ve had a memory that isn’t mine.

I am inside an empty home, on a hill, surrounded entirely by grasses. Windows spill aliveness from the landscape into the barren structure, lighting up its unadorned corners and a small wooden table. Beyond these open windows, I am aware of only sky, endless prairie, and a certain sense–intangible yet resolute–of belonging

In the memory, that brush with relation balances me within a primary, permeating sense of fluidity. The air, incandescent and almost palpable, carries the spaces between what I can touch and what I see. An alloy of connection wells up in it, rich in vitality and unknowing. It flows gently amidst unconquered space and unclaimed time.

The land is bright and the memory glistens. Radiant, golden, luminous.

I do not know the origin of this memory or the basis of its mysterious resonance within me. I was raised on the edge of the Great Plains. Perhaps it grows from the literal grounds of my childhood, reaching up, from soil to sunlight, from a different time into the periphery of my present consciousness.

The landscape I was born into was cut into sections and widely buried under agricultural fields long before I arrived. Fifty-two percent of the surface of Lancaster County, Nebraska, where I was raised, concedes to seasonal plantings of corn and soybeans. In the county to the north, where I attended grade school, seventy-four percent is devoted to that single use. Year round, the fields can be identified by one of five colors; overturned brown earth, green corn, green soybeans, brown corn, brown soybeans.

It is the vitality of the memory, not the fields, that feels like my first home.

But even today, there are cracks in the monotony. Places where fine textures and patterned colors reveal diverse versions of the past and the present. Intact prairies scatter hills and line roadsides. They sometimes coalesce into larger arrangements of community. Wild wooded draws cut across everything. These are like calcified vessels, not freely flowing with the full vibrancy of a healthy prairie, but not willing to wither and blow away.

Bewildered, certain, I seek out all of these, searching for glimpses of that radiant connection between earth and sky. I slow down near peripheries and hone in on the amorphous wilds where machines do not dominate. Across the American landscape, I continually redirect the depth of my gaze; I observe, I adjust, I look again. Every day, I witness desolation. Every day, I witness traces of deep and expansive connection.

Perhaps finding home is a matter of awareness. Perhaps belonging blossoms through sustained and quiet focus.

I am asking.

****

The first people, those whose stories the land now barely records, were highly mobile. Paleo-Indians began gathering and hunting on the Plains at least as long ago as mammoth and camel grazed here. When the ancient rivers of today began to gather themselves from beneath receding blankets of ice, these early Americans followed them. Through changes in climate and culture, one element of residents’ relationship with their home on the Great Plains has remained constant.

Movement.

The recent cultural mythology of manifest destiny represents only a smudge in the unbroken traces of motion that illuminate the Plains. Journey and return lie like seeds in the soil and psyche here.

The government’s nineteenth and twentieth century ploy to steal and settle “new” territory, and thus erase old and other ways of existence, has degenerated across most of the vast Inland West. Whether homesteading policies were ever intended to permanently disperse additional inhabitants, or were primarily invoked as a wedge to dispossess those already thriving there, is a question for history.

This country–inherently survived through fluidity, interconnectivity, and movement–does not offer itself readily to a stationary life on one hundred and sixty acres. The specific knowledge and relationships that governed particularly successful varieties of Plains existence were uprooted when communities were violently displaced from their traditional territories. After, the seizing of lands explicitly promised to sovereign indigineous nations further undermined the potential for any community to live gracefully amidst the Great Plains.

The failure to subdue the region into a different kind of homeland became evident immediately in some of the more indomitable locales. Elsewhere, the concept corroded over generations, steadily devolving into the massive monocultures of industrial agriculture.

The present day Plains exist in the tidal zone of a churning sea of industry. The eastern edge of the region overlaps with the westernmost edge of the once expansive tallgrass prairies. In their native range, these ecosystems have been nearly entirely uprooted. As one moves west from the Missouri River, ghosts of the tallgrass gradually fade into viable swaths of mixed-grass prairie, which in turn open up to vast undulating bodies of shortgrass. Those shortgrass ecosystems continue across the highest reaches of the Great Plains, mostly unbroken, all the way to the coniferous forests of the Rockies.

I don’t own a single acre of land anywhere in the world. Not in Nebraska where I was born nor in Alaska where I live today. My lack of legal title to property means that I am barred from entering eighty percent of the Platte River Basin. In my home watershed of the Central Platte, I am hemmed out of ninety nine and a half out of every one hundred acres.

The policies and precedents which brought my ancestors here also threaten the veracity and resilience of my North American existence. No matter my convictions of attachment, obligation, and reciprocity to the communities that support me, by the legal system of the United States of America, my home does not belong to me, nor do I belong to my home. Where can I and others forge relationships with our home–the water, creatures, and places–when our right and opportunity to do so has been systematically overlooked?

Amidst the rutted results of manifest destiny, islands of public land shelter the dream of a different kind of terrestrial community.

Travel through the Great Plains slowly enough and with the right range of focus and notice this: anywhere the cloak of industry rips apart, no matter how small the rip, life springs up. Sometimes the bouquets emerge from privately held soils, as backyard prairies or cattle ranches or personal places of respite. Often they are intentionally claimed for a wide constituency of life, human and more than. Regardless, they offer guidance and possibility beyond the presently reigning order of our society and economy.

The publicly accessible places are both inspiration and canvas to our social imagination. They are where we are each invited to observe, learn, encounter, celebrate, mourn, find sustenance, find solitude, and find belonging. They are the lands where We The People root our bond with the wild world that sustains us.

I made a map that represents all of the publicly accessible places in the Platte Basin.

I sought to create a guide that will help me and others find the places where we are free to touch earth. The map weaves together what this smattering of places looks like when laid out at an apprehendable scale. Each irregular shape of color on the map represents not only a piece of ground where I, and others, and other species, may choose to roam; it also paints a symbol for the web of life we may encounter there.

Topography fails to depict the true variation in the Great Plains, a life-scape that varies with season and at scales both expansive and microscopic. This map is color-coded by ecoregion. Designated by the EPA, ecoregions describe areas of similar biotic and geologic character. Their names paint vivid pictures of the kind of diversity one may witness across the Platte River Basin … Rolling Sagebrush Steppe … Pine Bluffs and Hills … Front Range Fans … Wet Meadow and Marsh Plain … In my experience, each of these places looks and feels as unique as the ecoregion name suggests.

This map of publicly accessible lands reveals only a few elements of the character of the Platte Basin. Much more can be investigated on this website, and even more awaits uncovering under sky and on foot. For all who view it, I hope this map and project catalyzes a personal journey to discover home in our shared lands, in sacred moments, and in the wild cracks.

Journey: Seeing Trees

I incessantly long to be embraced by a wide open sky. This is why I’ve come.

In recent years, I have practiced life amidst spruce and birch forests, crystalline salmon streams, and alder packed glacial valleys that nearly burst with blueberries at the end of every summer. I traverse crumbling scree mountains, encountering raven, ermine, mountain goats, more wild creatures, more regularly than I can name. I harvest dangerous and powerful Devil’s Club and the sweet balsam buds of windthrown branches. The traditional lands of the Dena’ina people challenge and sustain me. Today, Alaska collaborates in the creation of who I am and who I will become.

Space and time make a groundwork for our relationships to Places. In time, a place does not diverge so much as accumulate. And in space, all places connect.

Even as I respond to the alluring sway of the boreal North, I continue to dream of grass horizons and thunderstorms, summer nights lit with stars instead of the midnight sunlight, and breezes carrying the scent of sun-baked pine. I dream about who I am as a woman shaped not only by encounters with raven and bear, but also with bison and meadowlarks. Like the sandhill cranes who share my pilgrimage from the Platte to the Kobuk, my homes take form according to my movement.

Migratory, nomadic–we are not vagabonds–we are bound.

I feel the weight of these irrevocable connections daily. My family, chosen family, neighborhoods, and more-than-human ecologies in each place I reside have nurtured and continue to nourish me. I am obligated to return this generosity. I honor this work and offer myself to these communities, to celebrate life in them with my life, and to protect them. But what am I to protect them from, and how? That question requires conversation, and conversations can be hard from a distance.

To intimately know the needs and gifts of the places with which I am tied, I must surrender my time to the journey.

*****

For one week, I will use the map of publicly accessible land to traverse varied faces of the Platte Basin, to acquaint myself or revive my familiarity with the wild pieces of this home. For my friends who will ask, and to make space for what is nebulous and hard to grasp, I chisel the longing into a finite objective.

In each region, I will search for a tree of significance.

The rarity of large trees in a vastness so beautifully shy of them makes individuals stand out all the more. Perhaps because fires historically rolled across the expansive grasslands and killed most trees, many of the ancestral trees I’ve spent time with in the Plains emanate both self-assurance and humility. Standing in the orbit of one of them, an oak or maybe a cottonwood, I notice their quietness and a radiating peace. These trees are good to rest near.

Like an ancient ritual, I believe this pilgrimage in search of those who root in a land of movement will help me focus my presence and sharpen my time. The mythic beings transpose the space of the Plains into something surveyable. The cumulus of a canopy reflects, in closer proximity, the designs that burst in bulky white above the horizon–distance made approachable. The shade of a large tree marks an outline around the unhindered sky–an opening revealed.

I aim to carve a path that cuts away from roads and assumptions, a way to lose myself and discover myself within the splintered fragments of this once sweeping wildness. I have no real recreational or research agenda, apart from seeing the character and being enveloped in these places. My true objective remains ambiguous even to me, but I know it is about familiarity and longing.

*****

After a good deal of my beseeching, my dad, Steve, packs a bag to join me. For decades, he’s worked as an arborist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He cares for the trees in many of the same publicly accessible places I hope to visit. Decades ago, he also taught me how to hug a tree. Though my humble father would balk at the idea, he qualifies as a guide for this adventure as much as any expert could.

When we set out, there are warm, edge-of-the-Plains winds, gusting thirty miles an hour. Not parched though they’ve crossed deserts and risen over mountains, not wet though they have ballooned above the Gulf of Mexico, the unique air emerging here carries distance and fusion in every pulse.

We hop on I-80 and start our journey west, opposite the water, tracing origins.

Compass: Oak Creek

I was raised on the edge of the Great Plains.

Rolling, loess hills and valleys, relatively near to where the once expansive, sweet tempered waters of the Platte finish their steady crossing from the Rockies, and unite with the mighty Missouri. Both pulsing flows are mostly sedated, made momentarily docile with concrete, but indications of their natural dispositions shape the land as they mean to flow. Zooming in, from the height of a satellite to the view of a hawk, I grew up very near to where the north branch of Oak Creek joins the flow of its main tributary.

The valleys which yield to these quiet and ordinary streams hold worlds.

Childhood in Raymond gifted me a railroad line. The tracks, not technically accessible to drifters, unofficially usher a shared passage away from the surrounding grid of gravel. Paralleling main street, the iron trail leads into a place where the thin ribbon of trees along Oak Creek expands into a bow of open meadows and woodlands. As a boy, my dad ran cattle in this oak savannah. Two or three times a year his family drove their cows along the grade, moving them between their farm on one side of Raymond and the woodlands on the other.

When he became a father, he began taking my sister and me to the same woodlands. To get us there, he would carry us on the back of his bicycle or pull us along in a sled behind him. We still call the area “Rex’s Woods” in honor of the man who first offered our family access to these trees and clearings.

When I was between the ages of eight and twelve, I would occasionally pull out one of my dad’s handkerchiefs and set a snack, a thermos of water, and a book in its center. I’d fold the thin fabric, soft with salt and wear, into triangles around the goods and tie the bundle onto a stick. Proudly, I’d ramble alone past sentinel Oaks marking the edge of town and into the heart of the woods.

After a while of walking, the gleaming rails departed from rock and grade and floated out, suspended over the incision of Oak Creek. I’d leave the beams and press through sun-bleached grasses, waist high on a slight girl. At the base of a gnarled, old tree I would spread my hands and push against the pliable blades until a new weaving radiated around my little cove. Sheltered from the wind by the surrounding green walls, I would press myself against the knobby earth and disappear into this nest woven of grass and filled with sky and sunshine.

The elements of the Plains may seem simple, but enchantment stirs in their raw convergence.

A gravel grid attempts to organize this place, brittle and feeble beneath the limitless, voluptuous sky. Though relegated to move in straight lines and right angles, I’ve run miles and miles along these roads in quiet communion with wind and hawks. During an early morning outing, while everything was still dark, I once saw my bounding shadow radiate in uncountable directions. The slushing of gravel beneath my cadenced footfall suddenly ceased. I traced the connection between darkened pebbles and sky. In the center of a linear, north-south road, I stood surrounded by my shadows lit by stars.

When I was twenty-six, I lived on the rim of the valley, surrounded by a tiny patch of never-plowed prairie, the glimmer of cottonwoods, and a small yard of buffalo grass. One afternoon that languid summer, my dog Seldom and I left home to kayak a few of the nearby bends in Oak Creek.

I’d been watching the water level each time I crossed a nearby steel tresselled bridge for several weeks. Though not at its highest point that particular afternoon, the water gushed above its typical flow. I designed to put the boat in the creek, paddle with the current into reaches unknown to me, hopefully avoid any strainers, and take the boat out a few miles downstream, when I again intersected familiar terrain.

I shouldered the kayak below the bridge, vegetation scratching at my bare arms and legs and face. When I reached the place where the steep gradient of the embankment rolls into a silty current, I aligned the boat and prepared to shove off.

I’ve paddled many miles of waterways in the Platte Basin. I doubted if the stream would even remain deep enough to buoy the boat. But as I slipped the kayak into the water, the hull submerged. I called Seldom onto the stern, hopped into the seat, and began navigating for the deepest line along the narrow channel.

Though the day above us was bright, the air felt cool surrounded by muddled water and sheer loam walls. Seldom crawled forward from the back of the boat and hunched wearily between my knees. He shivered, becoming wetter with the drips of each stroke. I moved cautiously, quietly. We floated a mere fifteen feet closer to the planet’s core than the banal sweep of agriculture from which we descended. No map would even chart the elevation change. According to my Nebraska atlas, we simply traced a serpentine blue line a few centimeters, as it cut organically across a grid of gray, but Seldom and I were in a different wilderness. Fox, turtle, hawk, and owl, among other fluttering companions, silently observed two creatures and a boat pass through their home.

The true nature of Oak Creek does not fold into the neat markings of any map.

My home on the edge of the Great Plains is in the traditional homelands of Pawnee people. When I was growing up, these predecessors felt legendary. So unreachable that I imagined their world and mine as disjointed histories, lives that were lived in adjacent worlds. With time and in steady revelation, I’ve come to understand that the creeks depicted on maps of traditional territories, places good for camping or gathering wood, and the flowing waterways I trace, or more often merely intersect, are the same places, the same flowing bodies. The histories my young imagination isolated and severed from this place fell face down in the very real, sacred and desecrated mud. Though much has violently redirected and eroded this continent’s lifeways since European invasion, millennia old life lines flow like its waterways.

Life on the Plains is dynamic and enduring.

One night, at an age when I could read but considered tree climbing and rock hunting more enticing ways to learn about the world, a thread of this living tapestry unrolled across my toes. I crouched in our gravel driveway as the sun descended, past sunset, past even a hint of twilight. The sky seemed dark, viewed from within the small town’s halo of streetlight. I focused my eyes on the liminal space beyond, where the darkened edge of lamplight succumbed to true night and a forever dome of starlight. At the edge of that sublime and sparkled darkening, Oak Creek coursed on.

Transfixed, I listened into the riverine obscurity. The sudden yips of coyotes–chattering and hunting– pierced the worlds of streetlight and starlight without discrimination. Their presence bloomed. It dissolved the former bounds of my awareness, remaking the world and my place in it, less fixed and more completely.

Even in Oak Valley, I am acquainted with only fragments of this land’s character, its life, and its various veins of heartbreak.

Since that moment, I have experienced countless occasions, always when the sun is away, the same mingling of awe and fear, as the small halo of my awareness stretches beyond the periphery of any previous understanding. Though I have grown older and continue listening and learning, my response has shifted little. Perhaps I fear I have ignorantly or brazenly crossed some mysterious Wisdom; I still tremble. I retreat to reverence.

Whenever we steady ourselves through the passing of day into night, days into years, and seek to know a place better, deeper, to become cognizant in some way to its fullness, we better plead for mercy in the unveiling. What the land holds is more than we ever will be able to carry or destroy. Best, we hope to be recognized, that we may be also held within its thickly layered time.

This wild and storied earth is our abiding reference.

I am oriented by my place of first belonging. Every step I take between and beyond these horizons extends this layered story out, into the broader watershed, continent, and planet we call home. As I observe, participate, love, and seek to understand the world and who I am in it, no matter where I am standing,

I am of the Oak Creek Valley in the Platte Basin of the Great Plains.

Trip Report 1: Cottonwood

As the engine of the little white Tacoma cools and ceases to tick, I try to conjure energy. I’m at the start of a long awaited journey, sitting at the literal gate of the first publicly accessible area I plan to explore–the first of many–and I hesitate to get out of the truck.

I feel lost in the wake of such an extended approach. A tiny bush flight out of roadless Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, two jet flights, an overnight in Raymond, Nebraska at my childhood home, and two more hours barrelling the truck along an asphalt line between industrial croplands. All to arrive at this moment.

In the final instant before I board a plane, I reach out to rub its smooth painted rivets and inhale as much outside as I can gather from the tarmac or boarding tunnel. I rehearse this ritual as a gesture of farewell to the place from which I’m about to be severed and as an extension of myself. I breathe the air filled with tiny signs of all that gives rise to this place, knowing my next breath to mix with the living amalgamation will be thousands of miles and countless watersheds away. What more can I do to navigate such blunt upheaval?

I sought assurances as I catapulted south, but even topography blurs into oblivion from 20,000 feet up. Once I returned to human sightlines, I watched seventy miles pass by my window each hour, a moving photograph unmarred by smell, sound, or scratch. No refuge reveals itself in such high-speed appraisals. No lively exchanges call forth a primal or familiar part of me. Just getting here has left me as scattered and diminished as the litter along the highway.

But I am here. My dad and I sit at the entrance of the Leonard A. Koziol Wildlife Management Area. A county road paralleling the floodplain of the Loup River led us to this closed gate. From the gate, we may continue by foot. I am heavy with an overwhelming lethargy. I believe the buoyancy of my soul has not yet caught up and wonder if I will be able to atone for this speed my mind can barely register.

I take deep, gentle breaths, attempting to reopen my senses.

My empty inertia,
my escaping focus,
…sounds of other life…

A velvety hush. Staccato shrills. And brief melodies animate a no longer static world. I discover that in stillness, my perceptions recalibrate to the speed of life. I begin to notice the animacy around me.

I fill a small backpack with water, a snack, and two botanical guidebooks. Do these prepare me to encounter the country? In my reeling, I feel uncertain about everything.

We climb over the fence.

The path abruptly enters an ankle-high inundation. The water runs free of sand and silt, filtered as it winds around a maze of grasses. Prairie rivers like the Loup are sisters to the braided rivers that flow from the toes of glaciers across taiga and tundra deltas. Their capricious kind cut countless paths according to the tilt of the continent. They soak the soil in wide swaths, immersing the land far beyond their banks.

Like turquoise beads braided into a macrame bracelet, resultant wet meadows have long lined the Loup Valley. Over the last century, most have been drained or dried up as prairie rivers were made narrow, straight, and diverted. In places where the water table comes especially close to the surface, some meadows still saturate. They shimmer with palpable verdancy in a landscape knit of grass, water, and drought. These heirloom jewels provide home to a menagerie of species, those grounded here and those passing by.

We scout for places to leapfrog across the aqueous webbing, then continue along firm mounds of mud and river stones. Traipsing through the muck, I sink a little nearer to my experience five and a half feet over the ground. The subtle demand that I navigate wet earth and gravity with my body reassures me of my physical dexterity.

No trails lead to where I believe the biggest trees will be. Aside from two-tracked lanes, there are no trails. Following one of the lanes, we come to an upland prairie meadow. Green lances cut the front of my thighs as we make our way through. Fires, intended to mimic disturbance regimes of healthy prairies, allow this community to maintain its glamorous, yet indecipherable order.

Around the periphery of the upland meadow, I notice age-old residents traveling through. Butterflies continue to incorporate this prairie into their sweeping dance which transcribes their home.

I aim for the river. We drop in elevation and at times onto all fours to crawl across half-standing woodlands. Near the channel of flowing water, several expansive cottonwoods reside. The trees grow in a gathering of many kinds. Carefully evading brushes with stinging nettles and poison ivy, we reach the grove. One of the biggest trees has fallen over. Cottonwood do not typically have a very long life, though the trees assembled here might be five or even ten times my own age. I walk across the smooth inner bark of the fallen tree, hop off near the base, and stand on the sand. We watch the river.

I hike over to another and wrap my arms around a small reach of its massive trunk. I consider the crowns of these cottonwoods, the way the elders protrude into the varied and voracious currents high overhead, how they take their shapes and let loose limbs in response to those pressures. Their bold embrace of the sky soothes the chagrin of my abrupt arrival. The crackle of their fluttering heart leaves reassures the part of me that longs for space to breathe. We turn and begin the plunge back through the understory, up the hill, toward the gate.

Our wandering feels uneventful. Yet gazing up into the sparkling crowns of those trees summons something in me innate and familiar. They have a pulse that beckons and settles my soul.

Trip Report 2: Red Cedar

My eyes flash between a DeLorme Road Atlas, the Nebraska Public Access Atlas, and the screen of my phone. In spite of their extent and seeming detail, none of these maps tell me how to reach Wapiti.

Nebraska recently designated Wapiti Wildlife Management Area as a place belonging to its people and wildlife. The name the state attached to these hills takes from the language of Cree people of the Northern Plains. Elk roam these hills today, yet the name for wild elk as spoken by Pawnee, Cheyenne, or Lakota–people historically and culturally grounded here–goes unbestowed, unwritten on signs, unspoken in directions, and unknown to me. I sense the thinness of more than only my maps.

We leave behind the whirl of I-80 and climb into the Loess Canyons. I feel myself relax into the tight folds of the country. Sunshine tumbles playfully through a maze of bluffs. The songs of nearby meadowlarks and a whistling breeze slip past our open windows. They soothe my underlying sense of urgency to get out of the vehicle.

I doubt the prospect of ever finding the entrance, but we roll slowly along the gravel and allow the land to reveal itself. A dirt lane slips away from the county road we’re following. Nearby a sign, half covered by grasses, reads, “Wildlife Management Area – Open to Hunting and Fishing.” I wonder if it is also open to seeing trees.

Hatched with range fencing, the landscape now designated as state-owned and public reveals an obvious ranching heritage. Even the lane which accesses Wapiti sidles between a herd of cattle grazing on both sides. We pull back the rings of wire securing pasture gates as we encounter them, and tug them closed again after we pass. The ranch two-tracks simplify dissected tablelands. Canyons taller than a horse, carved in the earth by uncountable passages, slice long curves through the three dimensional maze of terrain. We pass through one of these chronicles. It leads us up to the highlands and then across an outstretched bluff to the north. Near the pinnacle of the mesa, the thin mixed-grass prairie becomes ragged and we discover a tangle of red cedar carcasses.

Modern Nebraskans habitually dismiss this tree as noxious and invasive, yet it roots from a history on the Plains we might recognize. Juniperus virginiana, the tree is not a true cedar of Himalayan and Mediteranean lineage, but closely related to the stoic and wind-gnarled junipers of the Inland West. Generations have witnessed its aggressive prosperity. It is a native member of the more eastern prairie communities that’s been unintentionally transformed into a prairie-hungry beast by settler lifeways.

The trees piled here have been cleared for restoration purposes and left in long rows to be burned when next winter’s weather and snow cover allow. The massive linear piles evoke battlefield fences from the Civil War. The resulting landscape, both where the trees once stood and where they now lie, seems flatly chaotic, like a village after a raid. The presence of so many cedars surely undermined the diverse plant community which preceded their boon. Yet their demise does not immediately redeem former way of life.

The plight of the red cedar grows not from its urge to root, but to follow and carve out new opportunities. As a result, it needs to be checked. When the prairie fires burn and the native grazers and their predators and all their kin return, how many red cedar trees will grow here? Time will tell, but not yet. I am not sure if the Plains are harsh, or if that is a perception of this moment and our exchange. Regardless, the gift of welcome amid widespread existential tottering seems inescapably ephemeral.

We backtrack to find a way around the piles. Eroding bluffs drop abruptly into soft walled ravines. We slip and jump our way to the sandy bottom of one, losing track of the horizon. We’re getting to the heart of Wapiti, and it beats with honesty.

The transcendent tempo meets us as we descend via erosional passages. We proceed reverently into the inscription of the gulch. Nooked into the canyons, noble red cedars grow taller than the rim. Verdant emerald mosses make light of the dryness which surrounds us. Several stumps of what were once even larger red cedars provide a home to communities of lichen.

Old cemeteries in the Plains are often lined with alleys of grand cedars. Their roots embrace the dead, while their shredding bark and scaled foliage revel in even the harshest realities. Captured by the never-plowed prairies inside the cemetery fences, the trees do not spread and individuals acquire the rugged habit of other native trees. The farm where my dad grew up was situated below a hilltop with one such graveyard. He tells me now, “One of the things I remember about these trees is how in the heat of summer, cedar shade always seemed so much cooler than the shade of other trees.”

We climb part of the way out, crouching beneath the tight understory of mature junipers, pressing our hands and knees into layers of duff. Here, amid the shadows and speckled light of an old cedar forest, in the perfectly breaking country above the Platte, we rest into the dissonant welcome this moment offers.

Trip Report 3: Green Ash

A young snake slips back into the prairie from the sinuous path. The creature had been warming in a steady stream of morning light. I eye Seldom, call him closer, leery of the less benign rattlers who might also be meditating beneath overhanging grasses.

We have escalated into the High Plains.

The elevation is free of jagged ridge lines, but cactus and yucca grow here. Gilded sunlight cuts sharper. Strapping space stretches his limbs, reclines, and takes a late morning nap in the hammock between horizons. Willowy time loosens her skirt, breathes deeply, and wanders away to look at rocks. The pair uncoils, and the world feels less dense.

I feel rapturously alone. It’s my first taste on this trip of high-proof High Plains solitude, a stiff, undiluted liquor that intoxicates my soul. But is it solitude I desire when I ultimately crave uninhibited mingling with the sky?

We trace a path that spirals up into the tablelands. Wagon ruts, visible as a gully etched into the top of the hill, transmit the thread of a moment. Sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. The air clouded with sandy soil milled by iron wheels. Wagons creaking and thrashing. Many of those walking alongside the wooden rigs regarded the place as some relieving or disappointing piece of a faraway emptiness.

The ash trees have all disappeared. Perhaps boring beetles delivered their demise in the 1980s, or perhaps it came much earlier, around the time the settler name of this spring took hold. Other trees now greet the sweet water which continues to well up here. Eastern red cedars hybridize with rocky mountain junipers. Cottonwoods reach far higher than the ash trees of settler lore ever would have.

The name “Ash Hollow” drapes one significance loosely over millennia of meaning and matter. I wonder where other names for this place are invoked, and by whom. Artifacts in a cave above the wooded cove have been traced to nomadic inhabitants over 10,000 years ago. The Massacre of Blue Water Creek occurred just two miles away in 1855, during the same era that the ash trees grew here. There must be more names for this place where water is born.

In the morning air, I meander the creek bed. I find the petrified bones of this ancient place and notice among the stones a piece of a tooth. Gauging its shape against other fossils I’ve recognized, it might be from the mouth of a bison. It could be of Bison bison, whose relatives grazed nearby until they went the way of the once abundant ash, or it could be of Bison antiquus, one of the ancient bison that grazed on the grasses watered by glacial outflow. Size would be the difference, but the fragment is small. Either way, the surviving token of existence now belongs to this place derived of air and rock and dweller.

The Plains are stationed upon deeply founded geologic stability. Ice moves across their surface. Mountains break upon them. Rivers tear through them. For thousands and thousands of years, humans have moved across them too. The bedrock of the Plains is unmoved.

This creek trickles down a bed of scattered pieces extracted from time and reincorporated into a snaking source of life. Slipping along its contours, I struggle to follow the impossibly jumbled story of weavings and unravellings and relations. The creek holds all of these pieces together, generously.

Conjured by their legends and remnants, a chorus of ghosts join my solitude. As I cool my toes in the fresh water that seeps to light here, we mingle together beneath this wide open sky.

Trip Report 4: Ponderosa Pine

The winds follow us like curious coyotes and will reappear in the night.

At noon, a soft breeze prevails in the Wildcat Hills. This country of rocky escarpments shelters spacious groves of ponderosa pine and true western juniper. The soothing, mischievous smell of sun-baked pine colors the air as it warms and lifts away from the rocky earth. Elegant spherical cacti bubble up between clumps of short grasses and sage. Everything here, every body and every message, is sharp and alluring.

We claim a campsite at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area before heading out to explore the rugged terrain. A few trails trace breaks around the smaller, state managed area, but a landscape of unplanned wandering converges beyond the bounds of the park. Adjacent conservation easements devote a large area to the autonomy and unique character of this place. Such an assemblage is somewhat unusual. The essential continuity of the Plains appears loose and unraveled under contemporary land management in much of the Basin.

The lack of paths through these ridges and coves feels fortuitous. A trail would only inhibit where we can so easily proceed according to our whims. The freedom we claim through our self-directed movements and unprescribed focus leaves us with only space. We choose a direction and begin following the land to its ponderosas. I cannot resist the sweet invitation of pine duff on a sunny day. Our movement is slow and not straight.

This is how we arrive in a landscape that is unknown and begin to situate its pieces and inhabitants and ourselves within it.

We see whole reaches of the land as one body, giving attention to the small, human-sized features that offer themselves, the hiding places and the overlooks. We travel over and within the land at once, all senses running in a mode of high reception. We mindfully catalog the earth’s minute contours and the materials that crunch beneath every footfall. We notice how the surface gives way in a silent puff or chatters as tiny pebbles skid between hard surface and sole. To make sense of these uncountable, nearly unconscious observations, we align them according to the larger valleys toward which a raindrop would be carried and the high points from which the soil might have crumbled. All of this may only begin to touch the surface, but it is not nothing, to orient in a new land.

We spend the day this way, until we grow sufficiently tired and content with our reckoning. An hour or two before sunset, we head back to camp.

Weather in the Platte Basin comes from the north, the west, and the south and moves vaguely eastward. By day, the approaching energy remained scattered. Bits of each direction hid in the darkened bellies of clouds and between the crooks of pine branches. As twilight approaches, the atmospheres beckon the energy into a ravishing display, lifting massifs of thunderheads along multiple horizons. Like mushrooms forcing themselves from a wet forest floor, storms surround us. The breeze also forgoes earlier gestures of reserve and comes powerfully into the broken highlands. At times, air pierces like thousands of sharp arrows, penetrating the weave of even the tightest jacket. This wind pushes bluntly against my sleeping bag, and seems to travel through my tissue in its force.

The gusts spin new life into our campfire. To the east and southwest, lightning mimics the glinting flame. I lay motionless under the stars, fully exposed to the intimate turbulence of these atmospheres. Sparks catch in bursts and each time the fire erupts like a sideways geiser. Embers swirl wide arcs around my gaze before acquiescing to the encompassing darkness. Perhaps unwisely, for the aridity here makes wildfires a dangerous possibility, I am unafraid.

In a void where unease might otherwise climb into my throat, I find tranquility woven with awe.

The bodies of the landscape we surveyed a few hours earlier change. The larger world they fit into and from which they derive, the world of many unified bodies and voids, I now sense as tangibly as this storm. The landscape in this moment is the storm. Each tree, rock, and passerby, elements in a freely flowing, amalgamated existence we struggle to see and cannot name.

Across the Plains and its high country, the skies have not been fragmented.

I am pulled into the unrelenting power of a storm wielding all powers but rain. As the energy envelopes me, it spreads far beyond my knowing. It travels the veins of my relationships and communicates in ways I cannot trace. A lover writes to me. A distant friend dreams of me. We all, I am certain, move always according to winds. In a country where sky touches earth, we simply cannot hide. Or resist.

The breath of the wild presides.

Trip Report 5: Limber Pine

We aim for the mountains, earth shapes now emerging from the edge of ethereality. We steer along roads that, according to the maps, follow passes and will lead us to Vedauwoo, a popular site in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Warmly colored ribs jut east from the spine of the Rockies and mostly, it is these rocks that draw people here.

On our way through Laramie, I seek advice from staff at the National Forest office. I tell them I am looking for big trees. The first forest ranger I speak with thoughtfully considers my request, then asks a coworker. He spends many of his work days in the remote places of the forest, but when faced with my question, he too asks around. Soon, most of the staff left in the office as their time to clock out draws near are collectively racking their brains, sifting through histories of the area they’ve digested in lore or report or gleaned from their personal experiences. They concentrate on where they have seen large trees and recall the few places that have not been logged.

Most forests around Laramie were folded to the ground in lumber harvests over the last century. To find truly old trees, we need much more than a half day of walking. Given our abbreviated timeframe, we decide a scenic trail around the Vedauwoo climbing area offers a ready opportunity to discover countless significant trees.

Three kinds of pines prosper here: ponderosa, limber, and jack. Douglas fir and aspen also thrive in multitudes. These trees collectively shelter a picturesque understory of shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. Mushrooming granite cliffs and boulders interspersed the idyllic communities. So neatly do the rocks emerge from surrounding vegetation, this place might be a North American cousin to the curated serenity of eighteenth century gardens.

Unlike the tiny bits of leftover country I’ve had access to elsewhere in the Plains, this public landscape has no notable boundaries. I feel immediately at ease, similar to the experience of entering a very old library, tastefully constructed and continuously well occupied for a long period of time. Like colonnades, the cliffs and tall trees provide a new and welcome variety of assurance. I lean into it, exhale, pause.

The entrance, a wide dirt and smoothed stone path which takes an hour or two to stroll has been crafted specifically to bring people into the forest and keep them from becoming lost. The path invites witnesses to the beauty of pine forest and forest floor and rocky mountain and enables visitors to move through this place with little, if any, preparation.

Yet the ease of entry does not help me enter into relationship with this well-woven landscape. I am not obligated to orient according to the features or forced to find myself within it. The circular trail ensures I will return to the truck, where I started and with which I will leave. I feel grateful for the facilitation, and yet I am thirsty for direct communication with more-than-human world, however muddled and onomatopoetic our first awkward conversation may be. As a conversationalist, I’m not showing up to converse according to the ways my attention roves, my body moves, and my intuition navigates.

I long for a more ready chaos, a way to lose the path and find my way into uncorralled encounters.

If I desire to know this place and be known by it, I must exchange something of myself in the process. With a path before me, without the challenge of navigation persistently tugging at my attention, my adventure flattens into something utterly tame and prescribed. Perhaps what’s gone stagnant here is merely my sense of wonder. The same offering required of me to find wonder amidst the corn and beans, is required for me to truly find wonder in the mountains and forests. To my surprise, I am not sure if the piecemeal wildness of the eastern basin, or the expansive but networked wilderness of the western basin, affords me more opportunity to see the life of the landscape. The veils of mystery may sit nearer at hand in the east, but this also makes them all the easier to begin to pull away.

Even when fully encompassed by natural wonder, I must choose to look, with genuine curiosity and unknowing, beyond human invention.

By night, winds whip into a fury against the world. The air quakes with rain and power. In the mountains, at last, the rain falls. My shelter holds firm against the atmosphere’s quest for balance. When at last the sky finds repose, I step out to consider the new air that the storm has delivered.

The eastern sky glows with eerie twilight, a luminescent blue, as if ready to erupt into dawn. My watch reads just past 11pm. The opal light steadily intensifies, like a train engine approaching in slow motion. I bask, transfixed as an unshadowed moon lifts free of clouds below me, somewhere over the Plains. This Vedauwoo has not been orchestrated.

Almost as quickly, the train engine of the moon rushes farther west, where the moon is rising somewhere else, and the treasure of dreamy light flows past.

I am standing again in a campground, surrounded by rock and forest, in a world now polished with ordinary moonshine.

Trip Report 6: Bur Oak

If I were to traverse the basin toward ever higher and more arid country and then stay, or if I were only to follow the water’s submission to gravity and relax into the verdancy where river bodies coalesce, I would curtail my migratory inheritance. I am drawn in more than one direction. I know I will not stay.

Now I return to the eastern edge of the Great Plains, to the Oak Creek Valley, to a particular assemblage of hills at the top of this watershed. I have been visiting these trees since I could follow my father’s ambling footsteps.

The rich earth in which they root tells of a million moments I have daydreamed of beholding. The topography grumbles a story about a once lively edge of Pleistocene glaciers. The soil chatters about how bedrocks of other lands, crushed to pieces and delivered by ancient ice, mix with the roots of decomposed and living bluestem. When I come to Oak Glen, I can never quite decipher if I am experiencing my ready memories or the land’s.

In a half-broke ecosystem of unbroken sky, the firmament and the stories in the Great Plains weave a continent together. Beyond the land, part of it, creatures with which we share a common form of animacy speak up. Using their bodies and collective life, the moving ones unite spaces, while the rooted ones thread through time.

People, I believe, have the capacity to do both, but we must learn with our years how to try. The creatures with migrational drives or roots for instincts teach us how to try with grace.

After an hour of wandering, I approach one of the Oak trees. Years of accumulated twigs and acorn remnants crunch underfoot. I am caught up in the rush of desiccated, late summer leaves crackling in the breeze. I circle, surveying its edges and making a shape by the assemblage of its tangent angles. The giant body possesses a map of the Plains in time, not space–a knowledge I cannot fathom–and offers me only one ready lesson.

I have left myself little time to learn.

In response, I bargain. Perhaps if I align my physical presence with the tree’s, I may at least glimpse some new orientation. I clasp my fingers around one of the lowest branches, heave a leg up and over, twist and lever myself until I am sitting atop the first branch. I climb higher. Limbs enwrapping limbs, body pressing body. I pause and listen to the hum of leaf rush from inside the canopy. For a breath, maybe two, my fluttering heartbeat syncopates according to the solidity and vibrancy of the Oak.

It occurs to me that the places I perceive a “crack where life springs up” do not reveal sanctuaries where wilderness survives, but moments that I have successfully ripped through the sphere of my dissociation.

The mother and disaster and passion that is wildness lives everywhere.

Whatever separates us from that truth, I am confident of this: wind will fray it, sun will fade it, night will overtake it, life will tear through it. The day we find ourselves revealed, vulnerable, and listening, the Great Plains will be here. Everywhere, we will find wildness.

For now, public spaces quietly usher us beyond our isolation. In their innate vitality, we find our place in a more inclusive story. The sparkle of little bluestem or the whistle of a meadowlark guide us toward visions of grasslands and wooded draws in a place that would burst if the horizons drew any closer.

Somehow in such moments, we glimpse and indirectly send our intimate attention into the whole, living, wild world. These “protected” lands protect us, offering us hope beyond ourselves.

*****

I come from the Great Plains, and I keep leaving. Returning occurs unconsciously. Often, I only realize I have circled back when I again must depart.

I move through the world as the Plains have taught me.

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PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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