The Prairie Sea

I may never get used to this landscape. Every hike I’ve ever been on, until now, has involved trees. Usually lots of them, shading the path, sometimes blocking the view, but still familiar and grounding and somehow comforting. I never would have used those words to describe the trees on my dozens of hikes on the east coast, but now they’re gone, and I miss them.

One of the benefits of living in Fort Collins, and especially on the western end of town, is that we’re minutes from the foothills. For the past two weeks, I’ve taken one day where I drop Jack at school and then go hiking on the Foothills Trail on the edge of town. The trail starts behind CSU’s stadium, so it’s not very exciting at first. But soon it rises a bit and starts rolling, and the prairie dogs pop out to give me their cute show, chirping and peeping at each other. It’s all probably intended to be threatening territorial talk, but it sounds adorable to me, their little blond heads raised as I approach.

There is no tree cover whatsoever, no shelter, no shade from the punishing sun. Even at 9am in early September, the heat here has been brutal. I never thought, having left the southeast, that I would have to deal with heat. Yes, it’s a dry heat, and yes, that makes a big difference, but the difference usually involves shade. It may be 95 degrees, but if you’re in the shade, you can actually sit outside comfortably. But when there’s no shade, you’re out of luck. The cactus plants seem to like it. But even the sunflowers at the trail’s edge are wilting. Tiny green-breasted birds, just slightly larger than hummingbirds, pick seeds from the blackened heads.

It doesn’t take long to get high enough on the trail to afford a view over my new town. There’s Prospect Road, where Jack’s school is, a straight line like a river of light out to the eastern edge of town. Looking out over the town, I feel a deep and surprising affection for this new and alien place. I feel like I belong to it, and it to me. It doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like surrender.

On the eastern edge of town, the world ends, or seems to. The prairie stretches out to the eastern horizon, like an ocean of rolling yellow grass. Despite Colorado’s mountainous reputation, Fort Collins is technically considered High Plains. And the eastern third of the state is grassland, like Kansas and Nebraska, its eastern neighbors. We live just on the edge of two worlds, like we did on the coast.

As I climb, I can see further. The sun grows higher and even hotter. I stop and drink some water, and a woman passes me on her way down. “There’s a snake at the top!” she warns me. “Turn around here!” She doesn’t need to tell me twice. I know these hills have rattlesnakes. And the steep trail has winded me. Thankful for the downhill ahead, I turn and head home.

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