So much has changed. Where once bighorn sheep scampered up sheer rock ledges a two-lane paved road now winds skyward, disappearing into blind curvated tunnels, hanging precariously on the outermost edge of Scott’s Bluff and ending at a broad parking lot where the immensity of the Great American Desert inserts its presence to become a livid, breathing entity. The sheep are gone and the buffalo and grizzlies, and the Brule Sioux, too. In their stead is a city spreading like an oil spill, a steady stream of tourists making the pilgrimage to the summit, and the road itself that takes us there.
It’s not that the bluff is all that high but that everything else around is so flat, plus the dry western air cuts the haze making distant objects appear closer than they are. It’s almost an optical illusion and one that confounded many an emigrant, though it wasn’t until I made a reverse emigration and saw firsthand the obscurant nature of humidity that I understood their plight. I was born with the long view.
The incident with the helpful park ranger unsettled us. While it gave us fodder to snipe at Chod, who as a budding wildflower expert and docent at Konza Prairie Biological Station hardly qualifies as a greenhorn, it also conjured a question no man likes to ask himself: how do I appear to others; and more specifically, how do I appear to people of authority?
Clearly, we must have looked like cretins if the ranger felt we couldn’t distinguish prickly pear from pine needles. Or was, in fact, the ranger at fault? Fresh out of school perhaps, armed with a puppy dog eagerness to please and a little knowledge of the local flora and fauna (a little knowledge being a dangerous thing), proud of his starched uniform and shiny badge and an unquestionable authority among the humanity crowding the peak, and yet utterly incognizant of the various classifications of tourists. Had Chod been wearing plaid shorts, black socks and leather wingtips, the ranger would have been well within his bounds to offer identification pointers. But to us grizzled veterans weighed down with thousands of dollars of photographic and optical equipment and dressed shabbily to boot? Open your eyes, man!
We descended in a huff and with much conversation about the pretty blonde ranger manning the front entrance. Had she been the offending party things might have turned out better, though it’s possible our fragile manly feelings would have been crushed all the more. At any rate, we parked at the visitor’s center and got out and immediately festooned ourselves with cameras and binoculars. A little blue bird zipped past, the second time since our arrival, but this time I tracked it to the top of a tall ponderosa.
“A blue grosbeak!” I shouted, and lowering my binos found a pimply-faced ranger materialized before me. Chod and Jim backed off as if the fellow were contagious, leaving me to fend for myself.
“Are you birders?” he asked.
There are many ways to answer such a question. Some are even polite. I stared at the apparition and choked out a weak “yes.” It was all he needed. He launched into a checklist of the birds we might find and where we might find them, from purple finches (most assuredly not) to rufous-sided towhees. Those, he declared, could be found in the thick shrubbery behind the amphitheater, and jabbing one arm for directions, asked if we’d like him to personally lead us there.
An awkward silence fell as I struggled to get past the towhees part. I was entangled in it, snared in an internal argument over how many years had passed since the bird had been called that. A decade? More? And shouldn’t the ranger be more up-to-date with bird nomenclature? I blinked and found the young man awaiting a reply and the codgernauts beyond and on their amused faces the dead certainty of hell to come.
I thanked the ranger and told him we could find our own way around. As he skipped off to be friendly and informative to other unwitting tourists, Chod sidled over and asked, “Seen any rufous-sided towhees?”
I told him graphically and succinctly where he could put his towhee.
Wyoming at last, sagebrush to the horizons and the mountains ahead. We entered Torrington and stopped to buy gas.
“I got drunk here once but I don’t remember much,” Jim said.
“That’s the way it usually works,” I said.
The old trail leads on to Fort Laramie and Register Cliff where T. Parker scribed his name in the soft limestone over a century ago but clouds were building and we pushed on to the campground above Guernsey. Before making camp we continued to the overlook where in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps erected a massive shelter house with a 360-degree view. Lori and I discovered the place years ago and it was my intention to share the majestic view of Laramie Peak through the monumental archway. As intentions go it was excellent but the sight ripped the breath from my lungs and I could not breathe but gasped helplessly while something within me crumpled.
“How could I have left this?” I asked of no one.
Some questions are never meant to be asked. Teetering on the lip of a vast and deep depression, I struggled to pull back, cursing my inability to enjoy the land without being hammered with emotions. There was a pittance of success but a dark cloud hung over me until bedtime, when at last I crawled into my sleeping bag and inhaling deeply of the wet sage promised myself that tomorrow would be better.
(To be continued)
(To be continued)
My first group birding event was the CBC of '05. Lisa Weeks and I were paired together in the River Pond area when I spied a towhee, and yelled out "RUFOUS-SIDED TOWHEE" Lisa calmly and pleasantly corrected me.
Having only an old Peterson guide as my birding companion for the years previous I, as well as the towhee, was blissfully ig-no-rent of the change in name...
Say, Brandon, you weren't working at Scott's Bluff—nah, forget it. My mistake. Sorry.
Tom, I am glad I wasn't dressed the way you described. Oh what a sight that would have been. I got the bigest belly laugh out of Part 4. Laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes.
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