An overworked city boy hits the High Plains

For most people, Colorado is a state that conjures up majestic mountain vistas, forested hills dotted with golden aspen trees and streams teeming with cutthroat trout. Few notice “the other Colorado.” Leave it to an overworked office slave, yours truly, to discover solitude and universal Zen meaning.

[One of the Pawnee Buttes.] The eastern plains of Colorado are harsh steppes of cactus, short grass and stream-cut badlands of yellow crumbly clay. Here, time is measured in terms of ancient geologic periods. A wristwatch seems an absurd artifice in this land. Out near the ghost town of Keota, about an hour east of Fort Collins in the middle of the northern Colorado badlands are the timeless guardians of this austere land – the Pawnee Buttes.

The buttes are eroded columns of sandstone some 300-feet tall and a quarter-mile apart that stand on this silent land like the decaying feet of some forgotten 10,000-foot-tall Native American Colossus of Rhodes. Thrust up from this landscape, the buttes resemble big stone mushroom clouds without the cap – atom bombs frozen a few seconds after detonation under a big sky full of immense tumorous thunder clouds.

Light years away from the fluorescent-lit madness, the Pawnee Buttes sit in country so still and so devoid of civilization one can easily imagine this is the edge of time. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the site of the Pawnee Buttes was a vast sea between 90 and 70 million years ago. Eventually, as the earth’s surface began to move, the sea drained, and streams crossing the area deposited sediments which hardened into sandstones and siltstones. About 5 million years ago, the entire region was uplifted thousands of feet and powerful streams caused tremendous erosion. The tops of the buttes represent the pre-erosion ground surface.

There are few signs of man here – strands of barbed wire and classic western windmills pumping cool water into tin tanks. But not much else. No sound, beside your own, and few people. It’s so quiet you feel like you’re in a movie theatre and you shouldn’t talk or you’ll be shushed by one of the tiny horny toads camouflaged on the ground below.

Perhaps ancestors of these toads ran across other ancient denizens of the area. The Pawnee Buttes are considered one of the finest sites for vertebrate fossils in the world. Over 100 species have been recovered. In 1870, O.C. Marsh of Yale’s Peabody Museum led the first scientific expedition to the buttes to collect fossils. Several other expeditions followed. Finds included several species of horse (including three-toed and dwarf versions), rhinoceros, ancient swine and camel, a hippopotamus-like animal, turtle, large vulture and cormorant. (Artifacts over 50 years old are protected by law and must stay put.)

The Pawnee Buttes are ringed on the west by cliffs inhabited by free raptors, eagles and falcons. A sign at the parking area warns you to stay away during nesting season, which is from March 1 to June 30. Disturb these birds and you’ll no longer need those contact lenses with the radium-green tint that makes you look like one of the Children of the Corn.

Antelope and dung beetles join the raptors in inhabiting this land. Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung (what else?) down the middle of the footpath attest to the unspectacular raw natural ecosystem that has existed undisturbed here for eons. In some absurd way, I thought of shuffling useless paperwork at the office.

Climbing the northside of the western-most butte, handholds in the cool, chalky wall lead to the “mezzanine level.” The view to the east from the trail revealed the spooky sun-baked but green, tawny plains extending forever toward Nebraska. In the immense silence I thought how noisy my life was. What would we be like if we lived in this slow quiet, even for a moment?

My primary reason for visiting Pawnee National Grassland, this outpost on the High Plains, this Roger Dean existential landscape, was to relish the quiet. No Van Hagar, no car engines, Nintendo or drunk neighbors yelling at each other. Even the wind was truant on by visit. My ears hummed with the welcome thunder of quiet.

If you visit, do me a favor. Leave the boom box, pager and cellular phone at home, as I’m probably camped out in the shadow of the buttes.
Story and photo by Joe Falco