Finding solid ground in Saskatchewan

Sometimes, being a runaway and accepting the kindness of strangers brings you home again.

Filmstrip0001You look up from your breakfast cereal as a 7-year old and your mother tells you you’re a helium balloon.

“You will always need a hand to hold that balloon string,” she says. “Or you’ll just drift away on the breeze.”

My mother knew early on that I would never really be settled. To make it in this rigid world, I would need ties to something solid.  When her steady hand vaporized in a terrible accident, I knew those ties wouldn’t likely be human anymore. I made it on my own, and settled in with what I could live with:  horses, dogs, wildlife, career.

On left are the first horses of my life, strolling through small town Midwest like you do. On right is the last horse, when he and my nephew were about the same age.

I earned my way and gave back a lot of volunteer time. I traveled, learned new outdoor sports, and almost bit the dust a few times. When my first career betrayed me, I found a new one to support my home, hobbies, and animal companions.

Then slowly, I lost one animal after another to age and illness.  After awhile I didn’t replace them; it was tiring being the Noble Queen of Death. Twenty years after he arrived, my last horse died in agony at my feet this spring. I watched him chained up into a truck bed and hauled away. Now it’s just me, the wildlife, my doubts, and my job.

After Larkey died, my unmoored balloon went adrift. The first week, I donned my barn clothes by habit every morning, but there was no one to feed. I didn’t go out to his paddock when I got home from work. There was no one to turn in, and nothing but signs of struggle there.

I was wracked with guilt about the ten thousand lost moments when I could have done something better for him after his brother died. All the times I worked too long, rushed chores, and left him to eat dinner alone. Sometimes I left him alone for my travels.

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I spent the whole first summer at my new house cleaning out and repairing the barn. It is nothing fancy, but I am very blessed as a once poor kid to have a home of my own.

I tried to reimagine the barn. I planted flowers in his feed bins. I left the doors open day and night because closed, it looked like a tomb that might trap him if he ever decided to come back.

LarkeyFlowers07012018Still, nightmares drove me sleepwalking to feed ghosts in the barn. Reassuring daily routines ended. I had failed Larkey. I failed all of them. Everyone and everything.

Before I drove myself crazy, I did what comes naturally: pack up and go. I’m guessing most folks don’t take two back-to-back 1000- mile road trips to Saskatchewan just to get away. But that first drive in June meant hours to daydream, the ghosts disappearing in between the highway lines flowing past the rearview mirror.

IMG_3672And Saskatchewan welcomes wandering souls looking to lose themselves to endless sky and mysterious lands. The northern reach of the Great Plains, southern Saskatchewan is scoured by ancient glacial floods and swept constantly by wind. Where the land is not broken for crops, dinosaurs sleep in shallow soil beneath the bones of bison and the stones of tipi camps.

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I could live there. Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park, rainbow after a storm.

On a few high plateaus, forests cluster against potential invasion by the surrounding plain. The Frenchman River bends upon itself in a tight ribbon, winding through dry country on its way to meet the Milk and the Missouri.

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A thousand miles from my house, the Frenchman River winds through a windswept, peaceful landscape.

After storms roll over the land, emerging sunlight light illuminates the rivulets of long-evaporated torrents. After the wind and lightning, sometimes stinging hail, you can step into the low sun and let grief rise on the wind and draw into the retreating clouds.

EastBlockStormLest you think I wallow in drama, know that I am damn good at putting on a face and going through the motions. I made it through college finals two weeks after my mother was killed. I lent a shoulder and an ear to anyone who needed it when a friend shot herself. I’m a pro. I don’t cry.

And I know how to occupy myself while the worst of the hurt fades.

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Need perspective on how trivial your life and cares are? Hold a 65+ million year old fossil.

So it made perfect sense to return to Saskatchewan when a budding Parks Canada paleontologist told me that Grasslands National Park hosts a fossil hunting week in August.  Hunt for dinosaur fossils? Sure, never done that. Never met a live paleontologist.  Hang with the visitors and locals who come for barbecue and music on Saturday? Perfect. I could have fun playing science tourist, put on a face, and forget.

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Familiar beefy butts of ranching horses.

Then my mask got knocked a little sideways when the horses started arriving for the Saturday wagon rides.  These are tourist rides. Not long rides, but long enough to make you wonder how the backs of westward-bound pioneers did not break as their wagons rumbled across on the prairie. At the turnaround point, a young interpreter gives a short talk about grasslands. Other local folk bring their horses and ride along.

A rancher with one arm packed in a sling rode a white horse. No, they don’t need shoes here, she answered.  It’s dry enough that their feet don’t go soft and sag, get bruised by rocks and then abcess. And shoes would be terrible fire hazard, with metal spraying sparks from rocks. Of course, I said. She knew what rain rot is, and why our West Coast horses wear blankets when the skies cry all winter.

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Left to right, a Clydesdale, Percheron, the dun horse, and a good ol’ fashioned bay Quarterhorse. Oh, and really uncomfortable people on a wagon.  There is a reason pioneers were often seen walking beside wagons.

Then there was the dun horse.  I know what dun is: a gene that dilutes the hair color but leaves a pattern of dark hair in a dorsal stripe and ear tips. Tail and legs can be dark, with a “primitive” zebra pattern on the lower legs. I know this from books, but I’d never met one. It’s a different color, subtle, maybe not flashy enough for some of the more chrome-conscious horse folks I’ve known.

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The dun horse on right- you can see the leg striping.  I forgot to ask why everyone cuts tails short- we spend a lot of time and money on tail bags to make them long. Lots of folks here talked about riding rodeo, where long tails could be a problem.

I asked Mr. Norris if he was raising his horses, but no, he said they were bought. The family had given up on horses and used ATVs. He still rode. He asked me if I had horses.

“No, lost the last one. Likely bad colic, couldn’t do anything by the time I found him. You know how it goes.” I looked away at the hills.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

We got back from the short, joint-wracking ride with time to spare before the barbecue. I sat on the porch of my rental tent cabin and watched the wagons and riders leave again. After they returned, a jackrabbit thought triggered me to grab my camera and go down to the gathering place.  I found Mr. Norris and his dun horse.

“Do you mind if I take a photo or two of your horse?” I asked. “I do some art, and I’d like to sketch your horse.  I’ve never seen a dun before.”

I couldn’t tell him I lacked the heart to put my own to paper or canvas.

He helped me get the horse’s attention, because a horse will always back its ears up and lay them flat when it sees a camera.  They’re not like kids today, who spring into a pose when a lens appears. It’s beneath horses to clown for cameras.

Then Mr. Norris handed me a rein and just said, “Here, hang on to this.” He walked away.

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Study of the patient and helpful dun horse.

I wouldn’t get on someone else’s horse unless expressly invited, but I wondered anyway. Instead, I did post duty and held the horse, carrying out what even the most outwardly polite, well trained horse appreciates: ear scratching.

“Getting on that widow maker?” asked a wagon driver.

I smiled and rubbed the horse’s neck, watching for the eyelid droop that signals a polite horse is grateful.

When Mr. Norris came back, I handed the reins back and thanked him.

He swung up into the saddle for the next ride along and said, “You know what Winston Churchill said, right? The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Or in your case, a woman.”

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You can see the park fire danger sign behind these Percherons- level at “extreme”. There is a reason these big guys aren’t wearing shoes!

And it finally stopped. The bleeding inside, the catholic guilt. Something closed up, something quieted down. Without meaning to, Mr. Norris and his dun horse rode off with my ghosts and buried them somewhere in the sunburnt grass, the dusty ancient floodway, lying out there with the dinosaurs and the bison bones.

I went to the barbecue, and sat peaceful for the paleontology talk and music by local folk. It was like being back in small town Midwest again, only with science.

When I drove into my yard a few days later, the barn stood peeling in the sun. It was just a messy, neglected building needing painting and a good cleanout. Barn swallows, garter snakes, and bats ruled it all summer. Mud nests bulged from rafters. Occasional domes of guano ate at the concrete aggregate in the aisle. Feathers drifted in puffs of breeze.

Dusty water buckets and empty brush bins leaned unsteady in crooked stacks. The tarps still laid balled up on the floor from that last numb run to the dump with blankets and halters.

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It was just a barn again. Labor Day was coming. I could start cleaning it then.

I closed the doors.

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Road tripping

Road trips are my salvation.

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May 2017- The road trip is my salvation.  I live a typical West Coast life, with long work days peppered by emails or filled with meetings.  Every day I commute for a long time on a slow train, having long ago tuned out the automatic announcements about feet on the seats and unattended packages.  There is always something undone at work or at home.

Driving a big, lonely interstate across three states means a chance to unwind in the continuim of big scenery winding by. I can mull over my life, let the daily chores go, shed the herky jerky of everyday life.

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We need more of these:  Animals’ Bridge on the Flathead Reservation, protecting wildlife from our speeding cars.

Of course it would be quicker to fly, and maybe more sustainable, in the parlance of green guilt. But the airport experience would mirror my everyday life and I would arrive too quickly, as preoccupied as when I left home.

And if I flew, I would miss humanity’s roadside expressions. Displays catch the eyes of passing travelers, whether to declare a position, share history, prompt a laugh, send a greeting, or mourn a tragically departed loved one. You may be just a make, model, color, and license plate passing by, but everyone knows that for the near future, there is still a human being in that vehicle.

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So I drive for two days each way to visit Montana and Wyoming.  For some distance, I take Interstate 90 to cruise through spacious, sunny Eastern Washington, unraveling.  By the time I hit Idaho, I’m gone. I’m just an anonymous person with no real concerns except good tires, a reasonably full tank, and a place to sleep that night. I have food and camping gear if the last part of the equation falls apart.

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Because we have dinosaurs here.

On the first day of my May road trip, hardware worked into one of my dealer tires on their last jaunt before an upgrade to better tread.  I ended up at an Osburn, Idaho gas station on a Saturday evening by the air hose,  listening to a faint hiss. A nice gentleman in a worn truck, worn coveralls, and beatup work boots kindly offered to show me how my can of fix-a-flat worked.  He said he would drive on the stuff for weeks and I believed him.

Within 1/3 mile rolling forward, the gel expanded, the low tire light turned off, and I was back on my way 100 miles at 70 mph to Missoula.  At Walmart on Mothers’ Day, I cooled my heels over an atrociously salty and fatty breakfast while the tire shop repaired the breach.  I wondered which rocket scientist though biscuit gravy went well with eggs, brilliant orange cheese, and tater tots.  I wondered why I ordered it.ServiceManager

The repair cost me $10,  I never got to meet the tire center manager- apparently Johnny Depp.

Real life intruded once more on a remote gravel road in Montana.  My cell phone started ringing, a surprise considering my location; apparently cell phone towers really are everywhere. I answered it because the area code was home, hoping my horse was not in trouble. Instead, I found myself on the side of the road talking to my county’s prosecuting attorneys office about the upcoming trial for the young woman who, inebriated and traveling at high speed, clipped the plastic bumper cover off my car.  The accident was a lucky miss- if she tried to navigate the corner I would likely be dead, not parked among curious cows in open range country discussing trials and restitution.

I finally got back on my way to daydream and to get used to being a human being again. I had two weeks to be that way before the long drive home, and re-entry to the universe.

When I re-enter, I am not the same person who rocketed away.  The road trip shapes and shifts me a little bit each time, and I come back subtly transformed. One day, maybe, that transformation will be a complete shift into another universe.  Forever on the road, thoughtful and watching humanity reach out from the roadside.

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Except the author is Sam Walter Ross, not Holmes.  Ross was described as writing “poetry for the common man.” So be it.
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Honey, it’s open range country and I can roam where ever I want, and you have to stop for me.  Get it?

Morning on the prairie: imagining a million buffalo

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September 2016- It’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

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Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

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If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

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