January 16, 2024

A Walk on the Prairie

Our day ends as it has for decades at a location known to us simply as “Grandpa’s Place.”

I think one of the reasons I have enjoyed hunting the Great Plains states of Eastern Montana and the Dakotas for the last 40 years is the walk on the prairie. You can’t fully appreciate it by driving through. You have to walk it. Immerse yourself in it.

On rare days when the wind doesn’t blow, the prairie can be silent enough to almost hear your own heartbeat. Farmers here swear that on those windless days in July you can hear the corn grow.

As you walk the Plains, you will notice antiquities that tell a story of eras that are now wind-blown, dusty history. You will also notice sublime details of beauty. Looking about, you might see wooden windmills that creak in the prairie wind although the blades no longer turn, a silo that stands starkly alone like an exclamation point against the sky marking a homestead and lives that once were.

If you look deep enough into some of the shelter belt tree lines that surround these old homesteads from the relentless prairie winds, it’s almost like viewing a timeline of farming from horse drawn to mechanized plows, as each successive advancement pushed yesterday’s technology into the trees to rust.

There is an old wooden schoolhouse that we use as a landmark for one of our favorite hunting spots. No one remembers the teacher who taught the three basics there or the students who learned them, yet the structure still stands — a simple one room, uninsulated clapboard structure, once painted white, heated a century ago by a pot belly wood stove.

The Plains are harsh yet arid, and many pre-1900 wooden buildings survive as a result.

There is a late 1800s farm house whose shell still stands just south and west of the original family farm. It is solitary and rises out of the prairie like a ghost testament to someone’s dreams and ambitions. There is nothing else around it for miles.

Every time I see it I am reminded of a line from John Prine’s song, “Angel from Montgomery,” which goes: “If Dreams were Lightning — Thunder were Desire — This Old House would have Burned Down a Long Time Ago.”

Continuing our walk, we pass tiny wildflowers, chokecherry, and Western Meadowlarks perched most precariously on a single straw of wheat. It is hard to resist the temptation to simply lay down in the lush prairie grass and stare up in the sky and wonder how our hardy ancestral pioneers survived at all out here.

I recall a wise old proverb that seems an appropriate explanation: “Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.”

Then, while on my back staring at the sky, my dogs circle back looking for me and begin licking me in the face, reminding me we are hunters and not philosophers. So we move on. Along the way we are walking in the shadow memory of countless Lakota Sioux that went before us and the vast herds of buffalo that once sustained them.

Our day ends as it has for decades at a location known to us simply as “Grandpa’s Place.” Although most of the structures and vestiges of life there are gone, save the rusty remnants of a Model A pickup truck, we know that a most successful family in the area sprung from that very spot and thrives nearby to this day.

Sitting on the tailgate of that pickup facing west, we watch the sun set over the prairie as we have countless times. Our tired dogs mill around the truck and finally lay down in the grass. The twin steeples of what is surely the most beautiful cathedral on the Great Plains rise prominently in the distance above the hill in front of us.

A couple of raucous rooster pheasants begin to cackle a few hundred yards away. The youngest dog raises her head and tunes her ears. She is ready to go again, looking at me as if to inquire when. The two veteran dogs are confident there is a tomorrow. They pick their heads up for a moment and then drop their nose back on paws with a sigh. They have had a big day.

Sitting there with my face warmed by the last of the day’s sun and my back cold from the creeping darkness and night chill behind me, I am reminded of a couple of lines from Stephen Vincent Benet’s Poem, “The Ballad of William Sycamore ”:

“The hunter’s whistle hummed in my ear, As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer, With the whole wide sky above me.”

“Go play with the towns you have built of blocks, The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox, And my Buffalo have found me.”

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