From this Grass Earth
I watch the heat build
and rise in waves
over this silver sage steppe;
clouds, pink and lavender-hued
converge on the lip
of those hills
to the east.
Wait for the heat
over this hard-pan
on black wings
streak through the night
as it settles,
I settle, disjointed
* * *
Fall, it seems, has snuck up on us. It has written itself all over the landscape: in the curing grasses, the gradual ting of yellow on the branches of cottonwoods along the rivers, and the thin film of frost covering our tent in the morning. We have just begun to see the horses’ breath as we have our coffee in the morning and wait for the dew to burn off. We spent a particularly cold day holed up watching hay equipment crawl by as ranchers hurried to get everything up before the first freeze. The horses are beginning to grow in their winter coats and Pearl has taken to bucking in the most phenomenally mulish ways to alert everyone of the coming winter. We’ve heard talk over the last month from every place we stop in of an early winter, and it seems to be the case, with over a foot of snow accumulating just a couple hours drive from us. All the hawks are molting, and every kestrel we’ve come across has been puffed up in an effort to stay warm on telephone wires. The geese have begun to bunch up and herald in the changing season with their gabble. We’ve dug up our coats and gloves and have made good use of our slickers riding through rain and sleet.
In the last several weeks, we have crossed over the Yellowstone River, I-94, and the Keystone XL pipeline (currently under construction), three major arteries that cut across the state and much of the Great Plains. Each corridor has an effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
We crossed the Yellowstone against a backdrop of badlands in Terry, MT. The Yellowstone, first called the Elk River by the Crow and Blackfoot Indians, is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. We camped on its northern bank for several days, wading in its swollen waters and letting the horses rest after a long push. We rang in my birthday with a visit from friends from Wyoming and Colorado with a fire on a drizzly day. It was rare to look up at the sky above the river without seeing a flock of geese, a great blue heron, a few sandhill cranes, flocks of white pelicans, or a bald eagle crossing over. It’s a wonder to think that what we now consider to be “a lot of birds” may pale in comparison to the abundance that once flanked the banks of the river. After moving out of the Hi-Line, where native prairie dotted with black cattle stretched to each horizon, rangeland began to give way to wheat fields near Circle, and we rode by our first irrigated cornfields in Terry along the Yellowstone River Valley.
Owing to having remarkably calm horses that are, by now, very used to traffic, crossing I-94 on an overpass went off without a hitch. The horses were far more interested in getting to the swell of smooth brome on the other side of the overpass than the semi’s zooming below at 85. We met up with the Powder River about 18 miles south of the Yellowstone. It has become one of my favorite rivers. Much of the open savannah-like forest on either side of the river is still intact, whereas much of the wooded area on either side of rivers throughout the West has been lost. The land is converted to irrigated crops, and damns impede flooding and the natural regeneration of cottonwood stands. Huge swaths of trees still skirt the reaches of the Powder, a free flowing river, and the sunlight slants through their yellowing leaves in the most wonderful way. The open forests that line the part of the Powder we’ve ridden along so far, much of it rangeland, has been remarkable. It has been nice to have a tree or two to tie the horses to, sit on the bank next to a campfire and watch the deer run across the Powder’s shallow waters as the sun sets and things turn cold.
Here in Broadus, MT, we cut over the Keystone XL pipeline. As we rode closer to town, the only traffic was from trucks with South Dakota plates coming back from work on the line. The line, visible because the track where it lies hasn’t been reseeded to grass yet, stretches clear to the horizon. We’ve chatted with landowners whose property the pipeline has gone through, some with different views. The first time many of them realized that the pipeline would cross their land was when they saw surveyors out in their pastures. Trans Canada, the foreign corporation putting in the pipeline, has received the power of imminent domain from the U.S. government. The pipeline will transport crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands south to the U.S. gulf coast. Tar sands oil is difficult and energy-intensive to produce, and leaks and spills would have enormous implications for the health of rivers, aquifers, wildlife, and communities along the route. The pipeline is a topic that has created enormous political, environmental, and indigenous friction.
Everyone we have met in this part of the country has been remarkably kind. During a windstorm, some folks picked us up and shuttled us down the road where they put us up for the night. On one hot day, just north of Mizpah, Sebastian rode up to a house to see if they had any ice cream they’d be willing to sell, and we were loaded down with ice cream cones and popsicles. We can’t count the number of times we have been offered cold drinks from passersby. Bags of grain and carrots have found their way to the horses, and homemade cookies and vegetables from gardens have made it into our saddlebags on several happy occasions. In these towns it seems everyone has a good grasp of which neighbors have horses (most) and might have corrals for us to keep our motley herd in.
With the coming winter hot, or rather cold, on our heels, we have decided to continue to go up the Powder River into Northern Wyoming in lieu of heading southeast from here. Given the early winter, the weather could quickly become dicey for our horses and the both of us. We plan to make it to Big Horn, WY in about a month, and will keep the horses there for the winter. From there, we’ll see what Spring holds…
Here are some photos from the last few weeks. Enjoy.