Ours was a barren knife-edge thrusting above the shortgrass prairie where it washed against the foothills of Denver’s Front Range. The eastern side dropped sharply down a talus slope studded with stunted pines and thickets where towhees wheezed their burry calls, while the opposite side was gentle declination sliding into a narrow valley before rising steadily into the higher foothills. A solitary snowcapped mountain rose in the west above succeeding ranks of hills sandwiched into distortion like the thin bellows of an accordion.
Dakota Ridge was reached by a trail zigzagging up the hill’s face, but the first third of a mile was straight up an old fire road. From there it branched to the right and ascended at a slight cant. Most people went that way. I always pushed to the summit and followed the ridgeline a quarter-mile or so to the bouldery scrape where we made our stand. Besides getting the worst of the elevation gain out of the way, the ridge gave expansive views of land and sky that my eyes ceaselessly roved. Arriving at the top, I’d drop my pack under a juniper and take up a position along the cliff. I’d sweep the southern horizon with my binoculars, gazing with a steadfastness that can only be described as obsessive. We watched for something out of the ordinary, something foreign, something moving. We watched for migrating raptors.
And more than that—the long silent hours, the often grueling conditions, the dominative view and the unflinching scrutiny of all that lay beyond us, created a hyper-reactivity that placed us in two realities, that of the near and the far. While our corporeal bodies inhabited the ridgeline, our thoughts, our consciousness, our spirits, were borne away in unimaginable flights to the farthest reaches of land.
A proper road trip should have only a minimal concept of destination and no time constraints for reaching it. Though in the past I’ve always tended to micromanage our forays with the mistaken idea that any variable is too many, our last excursion was done in a spirit of adventurism that was both refreshingly liberating and absurdly naive. I would call it planned nonplanning but that implies intent rather than a complete breakdown of time management. Time is indeed manageable but only if time is available. Such was not our case. Last Monday we headed out with four days off, two potential destinations in as many states and a map to only one of them. If that’s not a proper road trip, I don’t know what is.
Iowa! It was our first time there and shockingly close to home. As I confided to Lori, this proves my abysmal lack of geographical knowledge of states east of the Missouri River. Or north of Kansas, for that matter. I blame my upbringing in the West, where states are big honking landmasses stretching to eternity. Living in Colorado and New Mexico, I knew where I was in relation to other neighboring states. In Kansas, I know only that it’s four hours to Oklahoma, six to Colorado, nine to New Mexico, and thirty minutes to Nebraska. Missouri is somewhere around two hours away, I suppose. Two and a half. Beyond that, everything’s a guess.
It’s time to dust off my old highway atlas. In retrospect, the Loess Hills of Iowa could not have been more personalized for our interests. Besides being a geological oddity found only along portions of the Missouri River and in northern China, it has the Midwest’s only hawkwatch site, situated on a steep ridge overlooking the checkered fields of the Missouri River Valley. Throw in inexpensive rental cabins, deep deciduous forests, exotic flora, scenic byways and wineries—all within three hours of home—and we felt like we’d stumbled upon Shangri-la.
But most impressive was the observation deck rising 55 feet from the edge of the bluff. It was impossible to not compare it to Dakota Ridge, where I’d spent so many hundreds of hours. The tower not only offered 360 degree views but at its base was a nature center with climate control and flush toilets. We never had it so good.
I was a birder first and a hawkwatcher second, and if I now identify myself as the former it’s only for convenience. Not all birders are hawkwatchers and not all hawkwatchers are birders. Most birders actively seek out birds, while hawkwatchers stand for hours, days, weeks, months on barren outposts, freezing, shivering, roasting, burning, windblown, sunburned, bug-bit, beset with boredom, eye strain and sudden bouts of pulse-pounding excitement, just to watch a bird fly by.
Not land, mind you. Fly by. Here one minute, gone the next. Adios.
At Hitchcock Nature Center I was suddenly back in an element I had almost forgotten. It was a homecoming of sorts, and as we began climbing Lori said “Don’t wait for me” and I was off, dashing up those stairs, all 64 of them, until I gained the crows-nest. The view was breathtaking. To the south the narrow band of hills rolled like a dragon’s spine toward Council Bluffs, and to the west the Great Plains unfolded into infinity. Small farms and terraced fields reached eastward to an indistinct horizon. But it was to the north I looked. Without conscious thought I lifted my glasses and scanned the sky in a wide arc.
Rain moved in that evening. The following day was stormy but sun broke out in the afternoon. We again climbed the tower and met Jerry Toll, leader of the site, who asked if we would remain as long as the storm would allow and take atmospheric measurements and log sightings. For two hours we watched before thunderstorms sent us packing. A cold front had arrived, but the next day promised northern breezes and a break in the weather.
There was no dawn, only a slight paling. Heavy fog blanketed the hills. Water dripped from the railing and beaded on the big 20X nautical binoculars mounted on a stand as we joined Jessica Hannan at her post. Coffee and small talk faded into the mist. Several hours later a breeze whispered through the trees and the fog began to lift. Patches of weak sunlight spotlighted fields golden with dryland corn and the soundless glide of vehicles on I-29. Through the binos I followed the ridgeline down to a hawk winging toward us. In an instant it all flooded back. The distance wasn’t that great, but it was farther than any road could ever take me.