The title for this column came about as a result of my physical and mental ramblings about the countryside. Lately I have spent more time getting to know and understand the fields and ditches surrounding the section lines in this neighborhood.
After a busy school year and several summers where I have scheduled two or three lives into one, I decided to spend some time enjoying my own backyard and the surrounding area. One of my summer goals includes getting up early and taking off for a good hour or so of walking, observing, and thinking.
I do not know about anyone else in the house, but the dogs have loved my plan. Though they would love to, both of them cannot go at the same time due to the older dog’s bad hips and the younger dog’s poor discipline. As a result, I take the older dog for a “short” hike around the drive—a walk of about a mile for me, two or three for him after he chases up a rabbit or two and busies himself marking an assortment of weeds and grasses. Looking at the world through his eyes, I see the abundance of rabbits and small rodent homes in the neighboring countryside. His nose is not particularly sharp, and pheasants often surprise him when they erupt skyward right under his nose.
After he enjoys his spin around the pasture, I return to trade dogs. The younger female waits patiently at the front window with her nose pressed against the glass until she sees us coming back up the drive. Then that purebred hunting dog blood percolates full speed. She can barely contain herself as I let the older dog in and turn her loose for her longer ramble.
After doing “donuts” in the sandy drive to show me how happy she feels to go with me, we venture off on whichever road suits our mood that day. A male mockingbird has made a habit of sitting in a cedar near the road and remarking on our journey with an amazing musical repertoire. Another feathered friend, this time a cardinal, perches on an overhead line or in a nearby hackberry tree to join in the chorus. If the dog were not so intent on following her nose to new adventures, I suspect I would find myself spending my walking time watching those two crazy birds at their choral competition.
Early is the operative word here. These walks need to begin no later than seven to fully enjoy the morning. I guess the cool air or maybe the need to find breakfast brings out critters I do not see later in the day.
My favorite walk involves a short hike south to the next east-west section line and following it west. From there a person can see
Riga and under perfect conditions nearly to
Ogallah. To the north, a dark green
shadow of trees marks Big Creek’s
winding path through the pastures and fields, and beyond that, lines of cars
and trucks snake along Interstate as they head east and west. To the south and
west, I see Round Mound, a fine marker for any traveler journeying across this
part of the plains.
At the corner where I turn to take this path, I can easily believe I stand at the center of the universe at the point where the great blue bowl of the heavens joins the horizon line in a giant circle. Every time I stand there, I think of Per Hansa’s wife Beret in Giants in the Earth and wonder why she feared this vast openness so greatly it eventually drove her insane. Certainly she was exposed but at the same time so was everything else as far as she could see. She could see all the world had to offer from any direction she turned. Perhaps seeing so much of that world frightened her. Despite her reservations about the open prairie, I never fail to feel a huge sense of delight and reverence when I take in that view.
After the brief stop for me to get my bearings and for the dog to check out any scat left behind in the middle of the road by a neighboring coyote to mark his territory, we head west. Wheat and big blue stem grass wave to our south and a buffalo grass pasture lies to the north. Pump jacks dot the pastures before us dipping their heads like prehistoric mosquitoes bent on sucking the very marrow from the earth.
Nearly three quarters of a mile up the road, I see the ruins of someone’s dream. Hand-turned porch posts and the neatly spaced trees lining a drive no longer used attest to the care its former inhabitants gave to the home place. Now cattle use the corners of the old house as scratching posts and other creatures have made homes in the recesses and crevasses that time has worn into the structure. I know it would not be difficult to find out who lived here, but I prefer the freedom not knowing gives my imagination when I think about this old farmstead.
Along the way, the dog detects the scents of quail and pheasant that we have heard calling in the cool air. Unlike the older dog, this one finds and follows scent trails, pointing several birds during each walk. She looks back at me as if to say, “What’s up here? I have done my job. Do yours.” No matter how good a dog is, it cannot understand the concept of hunting seasons. It simply follows the dictates of its senses.
Watching her racing through the Walk in Hunting Access, I realize we should have named her Tigger instead of Reebok. Filled with sheer joy, she literally bounces, ears flying and legs drawn up, through the tall grasses. Meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows scold her for interrupting their morning. For a moment I long to join her, though I cannot imagine the intensity of the scents she enjoys.
Speaking of Tigger, just the other morning a bobcat bounced through the wheat field … in search of dinner I suppose, or maybe the joy of the morning filled it like it fills our little red dog. On an already perfect morning, seeing something so unexpected added a bonus.
Sometimes we find surprises on our walks. Deer, coyote, and skunk tracks are fairly common. They merit a pause and a look, but not much more than that. However, every now and then I spot the trail left behind as some snake crossed the sandy road in search of better grub. On occasion, tiny rodent prints indicate a tiny passerby. This time of year, I sometimes note a tiny set of hoof prints following larger prints, and I know there’s a new fawn nearby.
Something is to be said about getting to know one’s neighbors, whether they be human, beast, bird, or plant. These morning journeys give me the chance to introduce myself and to discover exactly who and what shares this little space I call home. Seeing them through the eyes and noses of two very different dogs provides a vantage point I would miss if I walked alone.