Heading north on paved Weld County road, ahead to my left a cloud of dust reveals two pickup’s making their way on dirt road toward the intersection ahead. In the field between us 4 pronghorn antelope sprint as fast as they can, parallel with the trucks. Tapping my brakes slows the car just enough allowing the antelope to hurl themselves up the bank and across the road before me with a power and speed leaving a lump in my throat. Normally antelope run away from cars – at speeds up to 60mph. 20 minutes ago I passed a herd of 30 on a distant hill, barely looking up from nibbling on prairie grass. These were close enough to see the fear and determination in their eyes, frantically running for their lives, spooked by the trucks they ran against.
What set this trip in motion was a desire to return to the small, unincorporated community of Carpenter, Wyoming just over the Colorado state line. One fine evening a few years ago I stumbled across Carpenter in beautiful Eastern Plains light. An old quonset hut lining the street kept me wondering what tones its weathered, wooden planks would present through a red filter on my favorite black and white film.
With a population of 94 Carpenter isn’t a big town; more reminiscent of a single-strip, movie set western town. One almost expects to see a dusty cowpoke making his way into the frame on horseback, searching for the sheriff – or the saloon. There’s no saloon – but while standing in the middle of an empty Main street working, a young man on a horse back appears a few blocks away, slowly trotting away from my camera. The lonesome sound his horse’s hooves made on pavement not quite drowned out by a gentle, Sunday afternoon Wyoming breeze.
Mourning Doves and pigeons keep me company, cooing and fluttering about. A few cars drive by, we both wave. The Sheriff passes, slowing as he notices me – but doesn’t stop. A lawnmower runs in a field somewhere behind me and sheep feed on hay bales just beyond the fence.
Clouds gather above the grain elevator creating a breeze causing me to look up. No rain yet, but wind drops the temperature 15° and dirt swirls beneath my feet. Lightning is a real thing out here and when storm clouds appear you pay attention.
I’m in Carpenter a few hours then fold up and head south, back over the Colorado state line into Weld County. The richest agricultural county east of the Rocky Mountains, Weld County’s 2.5 million acres (at 4,000 square miles it’s twice the size of Delaware) is considered a “Right to Farm” County. Colorado’s leading producer of beef cattle, grain, sugar beets and the state’s largest dairy producer, its agricultural produce generates more than $1Billion a year. Weld County is wide open, peaceful and one of my favorite places to get lost. Not at all in line with what happens in Denver and the rest of what could be considered a pretty liberal state, Weld County is somewhat infamous for reoccurring talks of secession. Weld County is it’s own thing and it’s why I love it.
Colorado’s grasslands are an unheralded portion of the state so famous for its mountains. Rich in life; plants, mammals, reptiles, and so many birds… a glance at Southern Plains Land Trust’s web site reveals a list of birds larger than the other categories. At least five different types of owls alone, including Burrowing Owls, Barn Owls, Long Eared Owls and the Great Horned Owl. Last summer a Great Horned Owl regularly perched on our roof at home. Late one night letting the dog out before bed I sensed something move in the field beyond the fence. She froze, sensing it too. A massive creature emerged into the air, flying silently overhead with a wingspan of at least my 6-foot outstretched arms.
It’s difficult to get close to animals on the prairie; they can see you coming a long way off. Especially raptors with their keen eye sight. Photographing birds is difficult. They’re small and fast. It takes a certain something to devote the time, energy and resources to pursue these beautiful creatures for sometimes only a fleeting glimpse – or if you’re fortunate, the opportunity to make quality photographs. So when photographer friends Frank Hildrebrand and Joe Kipper offered their work for this story the only response was a humble thank you.
It might seem like there’s nothing going on in the grasslands when you drive though at 70mph. One reason is it’s such a vast, open landscape with nothing to form a sense of scale or relationship with. But a richness of life belies the austerity presented at the surface.
Colorado’s grasslands once covered most of the state east of the Rocky Mountain’s Front Range. Back then massive herds of free-roaming bison and pronghorn, as well as huge prairie dog colonies, deer, elk and top predators including gray wolves and grizzly bears freely roamed. Today half of Colorado’s short grass prairie has been engulfed by agriculture or other uses – such as oil and gas – representing the largest loss of Colorado ecosystems. Now the most conspicuous animals on the prairie are domestic cattle. Pronghorn and prairie dogs are still present, though in dramatically reduced numbers. The former grizzly bears and wolves have been replaced by the maligned and shot from the road coyote.
Species of conservation concern still inhabitIng native prairie habitats in Colorado include Burrowing Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plover, McCown’s Longspur, Chestnut-Collared Longspur, and Long-Billed Curlews, as well as Northern Pocket Gophers, Ornate Box Turtles, Massasauga Rattlesnakes, and Texas Horned Lizards. Bobcats, Badgers, Jackrabbits, Porcupines, Swift Foxes and White-Tailed Deer round out the Mammals in what might otherwise appear a bleak and lifeless landscape. But the true joy of the grasslands for me are its quiet, wide open spaces. Whatever the opposite of kenophobia is, I have it.
Another front builds to the West and the wind picks up. The road is empty for a mile in either direction and I climb out to watch. The storm is distant, no lightning yet. Pump jacks and small tank farms dot the open landscape with no sound – except the birds, their Spring songs a friendly presence in otherwise lonesome country. As I frame up, two shapes emerge from the bottom – moths in a mating dance. As the shutter releases I object, then make a second frame. Later upon review I prefer the delicate, love struck moths against the ominous distant power of the storm.
Near the end of the day as light fades I come across an abandoned homestead. Wondering how old it is I try to imagine the family living here; their aspirations and excitement when the farm house was originally built. Perhaps the children were involved in 4H. Mom an organist at the local United Methodist Church, dad a rancher. Sitting around the kitchen table in the evenings with the radio tuned to the farm report, then Paul Harvey, the wind beating the snot out of the windows.
Spring time, roosters crowing and sheep making whatever sounds sheep make. Cowbells clinging and chickens clucking. The wind blowing through large, swaying cottonwoods. For many years, perhaps, this was life. Then comes the day the trucks are packed and the decision is made to leave. And go where? “Town?”– Briggsdale (pop. 809) about a half hour south? North to Wyoming? Where do you go from a place like this, secluded in the country, peaceful, unobstructed, largely self sustaining? Was there excitement? Resignation? Sorrow? Today there’s not much left to hint. Being on private property it’s photographed from the road. What I wouldn’t give to wander around inside…
Grover is quiet. A park in the middle of town across from the school provides a nice place to sit. The bathroom is still closed for the season. Locating a good picnic table in the shadow of the town’s water tower I trim and light a Queen B. How fortunate, having photography to carry one to such places. Were it not for the camera I’m certain I’d have not chosen to spend this day here. And what I would have missed…
In the still, sounds around me mature. Nearby someone fires a gun; regularly, like target practice – somehow producing soothing, rhythmic base to the symphony emerging. A spigot from the outhouse dribbles water on its concrete pad. Mourning Doves sing. House Sparrows, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles and a variety of blackbirds including Brewer’s, Yellow-headed and Red Winged, as well as European Starlings all chime in from leaveless cottonwoods surrounding the park. A robin balances on barbed wire fencing surrounding the water tower, gently correcting as gusts take her one way then another. Two more fly over head, their flight calls and shadows visible on the unmowed grass revealing their presence. I look across at the row of white vans parked outside the grade school, no one to shuttle, no children on the playground. It’s Sunday, but still – Covid shut it all down.
I love Colorado – home for most of my life. Sometimes lately it seems we get a bad rap with the legalized marijuana. A couple years ago returning from South Dakota’s Badlands I stopped in Rapid City for a Starbucks. Sitting in the comfy, wood paneled, Hotel Alex Johnson lobby I couldn’t not hear a conversation ten feet away. A young man and woman, apparently engaged in a job interview and rev’ed up on caffeine stumbled onto the topic of Denver. Laughter began as stories flowed of “thick clouds of pot smoke everywhere you go.”
I’m no eves dropper but I couldn’t ignore the boisterous conversation deriding my home state in the otherwise silent lobby. After finishing up an Americano I politely approached the table and, excusing myself – told them that not everyone in Colorado was happy about the drugs.
Have a wonderful day.