Thursday, December 9, 2021

Where the Buffalo Roam

 I made an unexpected trip to Colorado this month. My parents were in a car accident in late September, and while I wasn't able to go out in the immediate aftermath, I was able to squeeze a trip in between the end of one kid's cross-country running season and another kid's wisdom teeth removal (my first nibble on the Sandwich Generation). It turned out that delaying my trip allowed me to be more useful than I might otherwise have been, fretting outside a hospital room. Instead I was able to help around the house and take my mom to medical appointments and get out and about. Useful is what we most want to be when someone we love is hurting. Visiting after they were home also allowed me to spend two weeks with both my parents, whom I hadn't seen in three years.

I chose to drive there, due to the pandemic, the rental car shortage, and the illusion that I could control the situation by not being beholden to an airline's timeline. Curry and I made this trip many times before kids and a few times with them, and I did it once with just the kids, when Milo had his driver's permit and was keen to take on as much of the driving duties as he was allowed (his favorite, Wyoming--"Speed limit eighty!"). But I'd never done it alone, and oh, was it a long trip. I listened to many audiobooks. I saw many miles of corn. I developed a Pavlovian response to highway interchanges wherein my palms immediately began to sweat, even if there was little traffic and clear signage.

I also saw many strange things going down the highway: An entire molded fiberglass swimming pool. Several windmill blades, each far longer than its truck and trailer. Fedex trucks towing three trailers (the only sign of a trucker shortage; there was no sign of a supply chain shortage as I passed by millions of tractor-trailer trucks each day). A truck that appeared to be full, if the signage on the outside was to be believed, of ice-cream tubs filled with bacon grease.

I found that in the states where the billboards for Jesus were the largest, so too were the billboards for strip clubs and sex toy shops. In Iowa a farm had mounted satellite dishes on every fence post along miles of highway, each painted in a different brightly colored design, a drive-by art installation. In Kansas, I hit a tumbleweed almost as big as my car. It splintered into a million tiny shards like a dandelion clock blown in the wind.

And in Colorado, on my way out of town, I stopped and visited the bison. My first year out of college I spent as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Aurora, and for one of our projects we worked on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a chemical-weapons-facility-turned-nature-preserve in one of those particularly 20th-century ironies where the only undeveloped land is that which is too toxic for people. My team spent our days there digging up Russian thistle and planting American plum (oh, the Cold War symbolism). The place was pretty much a windswept plain of grass and weeds, with roaming mule deer, burrowing prairie dogs, and a few settling ponds that had been recently remediated for organochlorine pesticides, dioxin, PCBs, and other terrible things under Superfund. Sometime in the twenty-five years since I worked there, bison have been introduced, and I hadn't had a chance to see them yet.

So despite the lateness of the hour when I finally rousted myself from the embrace of family for the long trip home, I stopped by on my way out of town, and walked along a trail until I cam within sight of my quarry: the American bison, a herd of at least 60 or 70 animals, beyond a very tall fence. Most of them were lying in the grass, enjoying the view of some strange-looking clouds and the mountains beyond the brown haze of Denver. A few wandered from clump to clump of fellow bison, and the young ones pranced around, and every time one moved, a thin column of dust rose, and you could imagine the dust cloud a great herd might have generated when migrating across the plains. I stood for a long time, sketching and feeling a mixture of awe at this magnificent remnant of our continent's past and melancholy that this is it--this small herd, penned in by a very tall fence and developments encroaching from every direction (despite the Superfund site and the nearby dog-food factory and feed lots). Yet, despite their diminished prairie, despite their limited range, I'm glad they're there, and I'm glad I took the time to stop and say hello.

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