Yesterday, travels took me from Norfolk, Nebraska to Custer, South Dakota. Passing through on Highway 20, small towns would pop up and then disappear again. In the more thriving communities, little restaurants, crowded with locals thus denoting the presence of good food, appear in the downtowns. Gas stations, a general store, an auto parts place, and granaries are the most common monuments to a population. In between these places where between 30 and 3,000 gather and call home, the grasslands sweep. The heart of Nebraska, not the land of the flat fields some might imagine, holds miles of cattle country. Dotted with herds of cattle, horses, and a few trees, bluffs create complex patterns of light and dark – playing with shadows created by the spring sun.
This is an austere land. It is not the gentle slopes of the Appalachian foothills or the relaxing sounds of the river slapping against the shore. The wind whips through the grasses, moving them like a sea of reeds. Snow is making its last stand against the warmth of the earth and sun by melting so slowly into the soil. Cattle gather around feeding troughs, and windmill powered water tubs. New spring calves follow their mommas, close enough to run to the safety and comfort of her side, and yet far enough to do a little exploring of their new world. Farmers and ranchers are out working on repairing fences, helping with the birthing of spring calves, and preparing fields for the new growing season.
Rocky buttes start showing themselves, severe and beautiful testimonials to the strong bones of the land. Pines adhere themselves to little soil, forming braided roots that cling to the anchoring materials. Growing so slow and powerful over the rock itself to split and move the surface away for new growth. Craggy bluffs and box canyons hold hiding spots for the antelope, and wayward cattle that simply don’t care to participate in the cattle drives. Antelope, their white and brown coloring stands out to the eye as a color slightly out of place. One, then two, eleven, fifteen – there they are out among the cattle. Horse tails are caught in the wind and blown aside softly, creating beautiful images of how the wind moves.
This land was once filled with herds of buffalo. They moved along the grass lands and created a dark contrast of color from the light prairie grasses and their coffee colored fur. Decorated with the seeds of different flowers and painted with the red mud on their hooves and heads from scratching on the ground, I can imagine them sallying forth across the land, moving in groups of thousands. It is the land that supports strong animals, ones that can survive and thrive in severe conditions. I am in the land of buffalo.