I used to think it was the mountains that gave Colorado its enormous sky. In fact, it’s the mountains plus their flat, easterly neighbors, the grasslands. Raised on the foothills of the Rockies in the northeastern town of Fort Collins, I always figured the endless horizon to the east was Nebraska or Kansas, those corn states I could laugh at or groan through on my many trips out east. The flat land flat enough and the straight highways straight enough that bored drivers could read while driving.
Whether returning to my home state with eyes freshened by four years of Michigan claustrophobia and a Swiss autumn at the alp-perched L’Abri fellowship, or my recent drive through Colorado’s Pawnee Grasslands revealed something astounding yet obvious to me I am not sure. However caused, it wasn’t until the other week that I realized, absentmindedly staring at the state map we’ve had for years, that Colorado is topographically divided in half. Or nearly so. The state famed for its peaks is just as much occupied by its eastern plains.
Fellow Calvinites, if you, like my unfortunate college roommate and Michigan native have never been farther west than—what did he say?—Iowa!, then you have never lived. Granted the 20-hour plus car ride from Grand Rapids to Colorado is not the ideal road trip (particularly in one shot). However, numerous drives, train rides, and even some flights home have made the trek dear to me. The drive in particular provides the ideal pace with which to head west. Once you squeeze your way out of Gary, Indiana, leave Chicago behind and get the warm asphalt of I-80 under your wheels, then things really begin to open up and flatten out. One can finally breathe.
Although I have, in the strange fondness born by familiar misery, grown particular to I-80’s arduous stretch westward, not all share this (just ask the same roommate I dragged home one summer). After Nebraska, anything is a welcome sight, especially the towering range of the Rockies.
Those peaks are in my bones. Whenever I travel I sense some inner compass that always seeks the West, the space beside me the Rockies always filled. One could also say they’re in my lungs. My first months in Michigan I felt a vague atmospheric pressure a fellow Coloradoan later identified as claustrophobia. With trees thick around me and hills hiding the horizon I felt trapped and disoriented. In time I acclimated myself with common directional landmarks, but never in my time at Calvin did I breathe like I do under Colorado’s big sky.
The Rockies lift this dome but, I have realized, it is the grasslands that stretch it. I-80 takes you through Wyoming and drops you at the intersecting I-25 just north of the Colorado border, so I had never traversed northeastern Colorado until the local newspaper recommended a wildflower hike about an hour away. My girlfriend Anna and I headed to the Pawnee National Grasslands in search of the acclaimed Pawnee Buttes.
Passing through the “I’d-never-live-here” farm towns of Severance, Eaton, and Galeton, we headed northeast and entered a landscape beautiful yet eerie. The last sign of civilization was the road sign that read “No gas for 60 miles. Be prepared.” We were, and so drove a long stretch of open road seeing only a car or two. Finally we began to see three things: cows, the distant buttes, and oil business.
Environmental defense of the grasslands has recently gained an audience as the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has heated up. And although the inability of the USDA’s Forest Service to regulate this practice is disturbing, the issue is much too complex for me to muse upon here. Rather, I’d prefer to share the impression I had as we saw unmanned rig after unmanned rig drilling the ground and burning off natural gas.
What could have been an abiding sense of solitude and quiet as we drove further into the grasslands was unnerved by the activity of these rigs. It was a disturbance the cattle herds lacked. One could argue cattle are just as much our imprint on “pure” nature as is oil infrastructure, but that wouldn’t remove the unease we felt. Awed by the view that stretched to Wyoming, we paused over the flames that spotted the plains and the wide trucking roads that cut the land.
The buttes themselves seemed to rise up in protest, simply by virtue of their ancient beauty. Our hike was hushed by the setting sun and the audible chewing of cud and despite the intrusions I felt, for a moment, a pleasant peace, a tinge of reverent agoraphobia, and gratitude for the discovery of Colorado’s other half.
Still, such peace passes. On July 8th commissioners from northeastern counties will meet to further discuss an unlikely but supported secession from Colorado and the formation of a new state. Reported motivations include avoiding heavy state legislature regulations on agriculture, oil and gas and the recognition of rural needs. Although constitutional guidelines—the consent of Congress and the Colorado General Assembly—make it near impossible for this movement to succeed, a renewed appreciation of this forgotten land can’t hurt.
So come, I bid you; journey westward. Breathe and visit the 51st state.