For years I’ve wanted to see the Pawnee Buttes, which jut up about 300 feet from the surrounding prairie of the Pawnee National Grasslands. I had long wanted to see the buttes and one of the surviving remnants of the Great Plains of America.
The Pawnee Buttes figured large in James Michener’s great historical novel of Colorado, Centennial. Early in his career he taught at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the only city within 100 miles of the Pawnee National Grasslands. He did his research for Centennial out there and called Pawnee Buttes “Rattlesnake Buttes” in his book.
My other inspiration to see the high plains for myself has been reading the novels of Kent Haruf. They are set in the farming communities of northeastern Colorado. The best of his books is Plainsong, which is interlocking stories of the inhabitants of his fictional Holt, Colorado.
But few people here in Boulder have made the trip to Pawnee Buttes, much less to travel out on the prairies that compose one-third of our state. I mentioned the buttes to three people at the diabetes support group on Wednesday evening, but none of them had ever heard of them.
Catherine and I had prepared to see them in July 2006. But it was too hot then, with temperatures predicted at well over 100 degrees, as I well remember. So we cancelled the trip, and she never made it.
One of the problems with the Pawnee Buttes is that this area out in the high prairie of northeastern Colorado about a dozen miles from the Nebraska panhandle is too hot in summer and too cold in winter. And in the spring one of the best hiking areas on the nearby cliffs in view of the buttes is closed because eagles, falcons, and hawks are nesting there.
I got there yesterday during a brief window of good weather after thinking that I had solved the problem of where to spend the night. I had failed to find a single hotel, motel, or even a cabin for rent closer than Fort Collins, 70 miles due west of the buttes.
The Forest Service campground at Crow Valley is 30 miles west of the buttes, but they require reservations by mail in advance. That wouldn’t work for me because of the vagaries of my life and of the weather.
But when I called the Forest Service on Wednesday, a ranger told me that they permit camping anywhere within the grasslands as long as I camped more than 200 feet from a road or windmill. I was amazed that they don’t require a fee or even a permit.
I was especially surprised, because a month or so ago I had read someone bemoaning the fencing of America where we no longer have any place when we could pitch a tent without paying — or so he thought. The ranger had told me that I would even be able to find a site near trees. But after driving all the roads around the buttes, I didn’t find a single tree on public land. I did find lots of cattle on the open range as well as cactus everywhere. This is the place that found for my very temporary home on the range last night within view of the buttes and just two miles from the trailhead:
En route to the buttes I made only two stops. The first was at the Crow Valley campground, where I stretched my legs on the nearby Bird Walk Trail. I did see some birds, although too fleetingly to identify.
My second stop was at the only place to eat closer than Fort Collins. It was a deli in the market for the tiny farming community of Grover, population 154.
Beyond Grover, the pavement stops, and the road over the pure prairie is pure dirt for the next 20 miles. When I arrived at the buttes around 3 p.m., rather than hiking the trail, I first pitched my tent for three reasons. I knew that the light for photography would be better later. Also I wanted to stake out the best site that I found. Thirdly, I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t have to pitch my tent in the dark, while I knew I could hike in the dark (with my little flashlight) if I had to.
Then came my hike to the buttes. This four-mile out and back hike was what I most wanted to do on this trip. When I got to the trailhead, I found no other vehicles there and no one else on the trail.
The hike to the buttes themselves was pleasant with good weather and a trail much less rocky than I am used to nearer the mountains. At least the weather was good at first, but I noticed ominous storm clouds overhead on the way back. I had heard the foul weather prediction for today, but discounted it, since yesterday started so beautifully.
After my short hike, I got back to my tent in good time to cook a hot dinner of my favorite trail entree, Kettle Chili from Mary Janes Farm. It’s tasty, easy, and fits within my daily carb allowance.
Then, as expected, it grew dark. But as not expected, it began to sprinkle. So I went to bed at 7:30.
When the sprinkles turned to rain, I was snug in my sleeping bag. But I wasn’t at all prepared for the wind.
Today, however, I read the Forest Service warning that, “If you choose to camp, select your site remembering that high winds are common. Seek sheltered areas and stake your tent well.”
While I had staked my tent well, sheltered spots were nowhere to be found. And the wind buffeted my tent so much that it shook almost constantly.
No way could I sleep in that storm. So I did something I’ve never done before. I struck my tent in the wind, the rain, and the dark.
While I knew I could manage the rain and the dark, I wasn’t sure about managing the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to keep my tent, rain fly, and ground cloth from flying away. I did lose a sack that blew out of my SUV, but that’s no big deal.
At 10:30 I drove off with everything shoveled loosely into my SUV. I arrived back home at 1:15 a.m. after completing a 300 mile roundtrip yesterday.
The adventure left me in even greater awe of the pioneers who about 150 years ago crossed the Great Plains in much worse weather. Those endless miles of grass and cactus and only a rare butte weren’t a great one-day trip.
Yesterday I saw something of what they experienced for months.