Occasionally during quiet moments, my wife asks, what am I thinking? And usually the answer is: nothing. She seems surprised by the fact that my mind appears to be blank; and, I guess, maybe I am too. But there was one particular time when I wished she were there to ask about my thoughts, when I was at our cabin watching a soaring group of American white pelicans high above the Illinois River valley. The sight of this species never fails to inspire a vivid recollection of a trip I once took nearly twenty years before across the prairies of North Dakota.
Most folks probably associate pelicans with a place such as Florida rather than Illinois, let alone North Dakota. But the plains of North Dakota are in the main part of the American white pelican’s breeding range. Yet as strange as pelicans flying over the low, rolling hills of North Dakota seemed at the time, that memory is merely an entry point to another recollection of a much more quintessentially “western” experience.
I was on my way home to Illinois from the Pacific Northwest, eager to cover the miles on the remote Great Plains where speed limits seem almost nonexistent. But after Montana, even in the comfort of my Dodge minivan, I needed a rest; so I fixed my sights upon Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Nearly a decade before I had briefly stopped there after a job interview in Colorado, on my way to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, when I first saw the pelicans in North Dakota, and I always planned to return for a real visit. This was that time.
My focus was the 29,920-acre federally designated wilderness area within the park, where a large herd of bison roamed free. A trail system led through the wilderness area, a rugged grassland and savanna landscape alongside of the Little Missouri River and its system of bluffs. This was very open country, impossible to get lost. And so, I saw no reason to stay on the trails. I wanted a better look at the bison herd, so I climbed to a nearby bluff top for a panoramic view of the flat plain below. I found a natural seat on the ground, just below the bluff top, leaned back, and relaxed.
Below me, the bison herd went about its peaceful business of grazing. Individuals slowly moved along apparently at random as they ate; but even so, the herd as a whole seemed to move together in a definite direction. I noticed they were gradually getting closer and closer to a large black-tailed prairie dog town. The prairie dogs were getting quite agitated as the bison got closer, appearing at their holes briefly, then barking and going below, only to appear again after a very short time. Sometimes they would run for their lives in panic from hole to hole, while the bison were oblivious, not showing any care where they placed their feet or wallowed in the dusty soil. The low frequency, rolling grunts and bellows of the bison echoed against the hill sides like living thunder, and I shut my eyes and quickly fell asleep.
When I awoke, I stood to stretch, and was shocked to alertness by a grazing bison just above me on the bluff top, no more than twenty feet away. I slowly crouched and remained still, knowing that getting too close to such a large, powerful animal would be extremely dangerous, not to mention foolish; a slight turn of the head, and those sharp horns would show no mercy. But after a few minutes, I looked around and the animal was gone. How could it simply vanish into nothing in such an open landscape? I planned to be very wary and careful on my hike back to the campground. Meanwhile from where I stood, I could see below me that the bison herd had moved, and was now centered directly over the main hiking trail. For safety’s sake I had to find another route.
The bluff sides, though, were very steep, except where I initially climbed up several hours earlier, wherever that was. For a while it seemed that each time I tried a route down the bluff, my path ended in a sheer drop. Then just as I seriously began to think about retracing my original route (backtracking is always my last resort on a day hike), the bluff side’s angle showed itself to be a little less steep. And so I carefully slid and partially crawled down the rather slick ground to the level prairies at the base of the bluff. [Wet, Missouri River soil, called “gumbo,” can be more slippery than ice, as I discovered a few days earlier on this same trip during a rainstorm while driving a muddy road in Montana…but that is another story.] And then it was an easy walk back to my campsite, with the bison herd left far behind.
Those were adventurous times, indeed, still riding high on the indestructibility and optimism of youth. Though I might be a bit more cautious these days, given the same opportunity, I like to think I would follow those same pathways again. Seeing pelicans soaring over the Illinois River valley on a cool October day, and knowing they probably came from the high plains out West is a direct challenge. Will I sit and watch or get up and do something? What I do know is that when I see those birds, my mind is anything but blank.