Road Trip Part 1: Paradise on the Platte

photo 1(23)
Crossing over…

In early February, I got a call from an old friend in Southeast Arizona whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. She’d heard I was moving (and yeah, also about the divorce and leaving my job), and wondered if, being somewhat untethered by other obligations however briefly, I might want to pay her a visit and see some of the work she was doing for a watershed restoration project down in the Chiracahua Desert.

Now, I’m not much of a desert girl, but after six winters in Minnesota (during which I learned I’m a much happier person if I commit to wearing long underwear every day), getting to a warmer clime for a week or two, seeing things growing and flowering (even on otherwise inhospitable plants), and eating lots of green chile seemed like a really fine idea.

Still, it was a full month (filled with packing and moving, stresses and negotiations and endless hours on the road) before the trip blossomed as a genuine possibility in my mind. The date for leaving was set not quite a week in advance, and all the fine details about animal care and car tune-up and eating all the leftovers came quickly after.

The day before I departed south- and west-ward, I drove the seven-hour round trip north to Minnesota to deliver the dog to my ex, pack my garden tools, and give him a tour of what herbs were popping up in the gardens that he could eat. Then, to stretch my muscles a little more (and because I couldn’t stand the look of the thing), I spent another half hour or so cutting back and cleaning up perennials in the triangle prairie garden I planted last summer.

Needless to say, I didn’t plan on leaving first thing the following morning. But the majority of that calculation didn’t have anything to do with the time I’d spent on the road the day before. It had to do with cranes.

I’m not a big subscriber to the whole “Bucket List” mentality–maybe because there are lots of things I have wanted to do before I die that turned out (so far) not to be a big deal whether I did them or not. But, after explaining that to my kid and describing my own list as “stuff I’ve really wanted to see or do if ever I get the chance,” he turned to me and said, “Mom, I think that’s pretty much a Bucket List.” Damned teenagers.

One thing I’ve really wanted to see for a long time was the migration of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska, and it turned out my timing for this Arizona trip took me right through that area, and at just the right time.

DSC06431

I arrived at the Crane Trust outside Grand Island in the early evening, about an hour before sunset. I’d called a couple days in advance, but there wasn’t any room in the viewing blind for that evening, so I just used their bathroom and asked where to find the public viewing bridge. Maybe you wouldn’t think that a place in the middle of Nebraska would be spectacularly busy on a Monday night, but all the viewing blind slots were packed, and so was the viewing bridge–a long, wooden platform constructed just off the highway about a mile south of the Crane Trust Center.

photo 2(21)

DSC06422

I got there just early enough to secure the last parking space in the little dirt lot, and then the roadside started filling up, too. It was a little scary because trucks were cruising over the Platte River bridge at about 50mph, blaring their horns at the bird-watchers wandering in the road, their eyes to the sky rather than on the fact they were about to be flattened by oncoming traffic. Oy vey.

The other problem with the viewing bridge is that not only are you right by the road, you’re also massed in plain sight, and people are talking and laughing and generally not paying attention to the fact that cranes are shy of people, and all that ruckus makes it extremely unlikely that a single bird is going to come in anywhere near where you’re perched.

DSC06436
This is as good as it gets, folks…

Still, I would not call it a waste of time. Among the many beautiful prairie rivers, the Platte is a real stunner, especially in the spring, at sunset, with a thunderstorm in the distance and the prehistoric cacophony of tens of thousands of cranes coming in to roost (albeit far downriver of where you happen to be standing). Satisfied with the experience, I got back in my car, and headed west just before sunset, intending to put a few more miles under me and toward my ultimate destination. And then…

The road from Grand Island to Kearney (and beyond) is flanked by cornfields between the interstate corridor and the Platte, and it is in those cornfields that Sandhill Cranes forage during their brief March visit. As I pulled onto I-80 and drove into a sunset blazing beneath deep blue storm clouds streaked vivid with lightning, I noticed patches of grey and sparks of red flashing from the fields. Cranes are shy of people, yes, but they’re not shy of traffic blazing by at 75 miles per hour.

As I rocketed along beside semis and passenger cars and pickup trucks, hundreds and hundreds of cranes–in twos and threes and fives and more–were lifting off from the fields alongside the interstate, swooping just a dozen feet or so over the traffic, back-lit by the sunset, heading toward the river.

It. Was. Amazing.

So, here’s me: laughing, crying, singing, hollering random lines of ecstatic poetry, driving 75 miles per hour down the interstate toward Kearney, Nebraska, squinting through a bug-spattered windshield at a prairie sunset and the lines on the road I’m sharing with fully-loaded semis, when the actual thunderstorm hits.

And now, I am blinded simultaneously by a torrent of rain and its refraction through blazing colors and there is this crazy huge THING in the distance looming across the road, and I think maybe there are a few other things on that Bucket List that I might want to get to, so I get the hell off the road.

photo 3(13)
The Great Platte River Road Archway

And that, my friends, is just (most of) the first leg of the road trip adventure.

Next stop: The Great (No, Really!) State of Kansas.

Settled In

photo(14)

The past two months have brought many changes–from terminating my position at a well-respected sustainable food and farming non-profit, to leaving my second marriage, my little farm and gardens and flocks, the rural food co-op I tried to help steer out of rocky financial waters for the [second? third?] time, to exiting Minnesota–the state I called home for over five years.

I’ve come back to Southeast South Dakota, to a community I’ve called home more often than not over the past two decades, and specifically to a site I came to know while tending market gardens for my CSA and farmers market customers.

It took a couple of years to exorcise my feelings for this farm after I moved away: I wept more than once–occasionally, to my embarrassment, in front of complete strangers–while describing the process of leaving. Now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how little I knew it, having in the past weeks taken a fuller measure of its acres of bluffs and ravines on long jaunts with the dog, and hours spent cutting invasive cedars and searching for the skeletons of remnant prairie forbs poking through the thick mat of brome. Then, I only had eyes for the few acres of soil I turned and tended.

Since the announcement of my impending return, a number of friends and acquaintances have expressed their pleasure over the fact, and have suggested that we get together when I am “settled in.” Granted, I have been on the road frequently, and back up in Minnesota almost every week (last week more than once) to retrieve my belongings and tie up loose ends. On Super Tuesday, I left in the mid-afternoon, drove the three and a half hours up to the old farm, filled the car with art and houseplants (and enjoyed a convivial glass of wine with my ex), then headed to Clinton to caucus before turning south again–arriving back where I’d started an hour before that day turned to the next.

My landing here is potentially temporary, so “settled in,” to me, is approximately where I am now. Not quite all my possessions are relocated, but the dog and cats are with me, and my houseplants sitting in front of a sunny window. My tractor and most of the garden tools still need fetching,. and I’m trying to figure the logistics of transporting the greenhouse spans. I don’t have a job yet, but I offered myself up for a few shifts at a little fair trade shop in town, after sensing from the ladies who work there the same friendly tension I felt as manager of the primarily volunteer-run co-op I left in Minnesota: How soon is too soon to pounce on a potential new volunteer?

One of the volunteers I trained before I left, who had recently moved back to the area after many years away, shared that the transition had been more difficult than she’d imagined. Sure, she knew a lot of people from her youth, and even people who, like her, had gone off to the Cities to pursue careers and then returned–to retire, to care for aging parents, to settle the farm affairs. But, weaving herself back into the fabric of life in that small rural community, where relationships and social circles and guest lists were so, well, settled in, was difficult.

She ended up finding more comfort in the new relationships she kindled than in the ones she’d counted on from the past. It turned out for her that settling in meant something very different than she’d envisioned–letting go of those who had built up a surfeit of rich relationships without her, and creating a vibrant new network of people who, like her, wanted to share ideas and experiences they’d gained while away.

Armed with that experience, and others like it (while not implying any disingenuousness on the part of friends), it occurs to me that settling in can function counter to expectations–the more “settled” a person is, the less likely they are to form or re-kindle relationships, and the more likely they¬† have established new patterns that exclude. For that reason, and my tendency toward restiveness, I am determined to avoid settling in for as long as possible.

To wit: a recently planned excursion to the New Mexico/Arizona border area to visit a few ecological restoration organizations and projects–on a route that crosses paths with the Sandhill Crane migration in progress, and near the lekking grounds of Greater Prairie Chickens. More than the grand vistas of the canyons and deserts (which are exciting in themselves), these moments of witness, and of connecting with people who are working to heal and protect the environment are what I yearn for most of all.

But, of course, I’ll be returning to my South Dakota roost from that adventure (and others, I hope)–not to settle necessarily, but to seek out new connections, new understanding, and a deeper knowledge of this place I once believed I knew so well.