Flatlands

Seeking solitude, birds, and new perspectives on the wide and empty Colorado prairie in the age of Covid-19

Those of us who love these Colorado mountains often forget about the vast space to the east. It’s impassable, unthinkable, an ocean. But that is exactly why I wanted to go there as these pandemic restrictions began to ease up in the Centennial State. After spending three months obeying stay-at-home orders and only hiking, running, and biking as far as we could go from our front door, we needed space. But the mountains are not the place to go right now on a weekend. There are crowds cramming every trailhead, most of them seemingly oblivious or simply defiant when it comes to wearing a mask on the trail or practicing social distancing guidelines. Joining that fray just seemed wrong, and as much as I love to get on the water, the idea of going to a lake or reservoir under these conditions on Memorial Day was simply unappealing.

So I spent a night studying maps. I found mysteries to the empty east: state wildlife areas along the Platte, stands of trees in the midst of grass and irrigation apparatus, ghost towns, forgotten battlefields. We woke up with the sunrise and headed out seeking birdsong. And we found it out off I-76, a highway where most drivers flirt with 100 mph and pay no heed the seemingly boring terrain all around them. But the grasslands hold secrets.

We pulled off and rambled down a dirt road to the Brush State Wildlife Area, an oasis of still water and cottonwoods surrounded by agriculture and hot, open land. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has built simple concrete platforms here, where anyone can sit and engage in the simple pleasure of seeking that rare bird, or simply taking a breath. (The spot sees more traffic during hunting season, and I remember that it is the fees that bird hunters pay that supports these spots and funding for wildlife). A flight of kingbirds greeted us, their yellow bellies flashed as they flitted to the branches. We spotted a pair of Bullock’s orioles. A red wing hawk soared above, as did several turkey vultures.

As much as I love outdoor recreation, it felt good to discover the type of place that is not clogged with fast-paced adventure junkies like me. It felt so right in the midst of all this fear and uncertainty to be somewhere that felt so deeply away from it all.

But it is impossible to escape. Out here in Morgan County the pandemic has been at its worst in Colorado. We stay away from any contact and I wonder how these towns will survive. The remnants of the Dust Bowl are everywhere here. And that is another gift this place can give you in tough times, a reminder that life can be very hard, but there’s a strength beyond our world of constant social media and business that has dealt with worse and we will endure.

Cover Photo: KIERAN SCHNITZSPAHN IS READY FOR ACTION AT THE BRUSH STATE WILDLIFE AREA IN EASTERN COLORADO. photo by DOUG SCHNITZSPAHN

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