The Prairies of Laramie
The Prairies of Laramie
"Prairie" is a French word meaning meadow or grassland, but its far more than that. The prairie is full of ravines sometimes brim full of dark chokecherries ready for the picking by early autumn. The prairie is home for the sage hen, jack rabbit, antelope, prairie dog, badger, western meadow lark and coyote. Nothing is more refreshing and nostalgic than the sound of coyotes yelping at a prairie moon rising above a remote western town. And nothing scents the air quite so pungently as sage, especially damp sage after a fresh spring rain. If one has a bit of luck, he may mind rings of stone fifteen feet in diameter called "tipi rings" marking ancient campsites of Plains Indians like the Arapaho or Cheyenne.
I know of no better place to acquaint onself with a prairie having many different qualities (hence prairies) than Laramie, Wyoming up on a high hump of the planetary rim over seven thousand feet above the sea. Walk one mile out of Laramie and you're on it, and it stretches for hundreds of miles beyond. The prairie skirts up to the edge of the snow-glazed Rocky Mountains with a carpet of flowers, sagebrush, rabbit brush, yucca, prickly pear cactus and grasses. It is no exaggeration to say that on the prairie land is mostly sky. Just walk the nineteenth-century Overland Trail west of town and you'll be convinced of it. Then there are lakes by the tens of dozens. Another body of water, a twisting one, is the Laramie River. I remember looking down at the prairies from an aircraft window. The most striking thing about the brown autumnal prairie is the curving Laramie River looking like a human capillary furnishing the skin of the earth with nutrient. Then there is the gleaming-stone prairie a dozen miles north of town where round reddish-brown stones coat the ground like miniature loaves of bread.
Winter comes early up here in Laramie with winds that would put the South Col of Mount Everest to shame. I remember skiing cross country with my son past an ancient cottonwood tree onto the frozen, windy prairie in a late afternoon sun. Rich and I skied down icy ravines and step laddered up opposite sides to glide across flat stretches and take off our skis on exposed, stony slopes, and put them back on to ski down even steeper, icier ravines. It was like being on some Himalayan expedition; the wind howled forcing snow to drift around sagebrushes stretching onward toward an infinity of moonscapes.. We took refuge in the shelter of an old cowshed. To the far west the Rockies rose with constant mystic strands of snow banners waving outward like prayer flags at an Asian temple halfway around the globe. Wind-blown boards from the cowshed laid scattered about, becoming all the more gnarled and bleached by a strong sun in thin air one and a half miles above the level of the sea.
To the immediate east rose the Laramie Range, once called the Wyoming Black Hills. Dark pine-fringed canyons snaked their way down, looking like spiritual entrances to Mother Earth. From high up on an even windier plateau of this range, one can readily see across the clear prariries to the Snowy Range of southern Wyoming and the Rawahs of northern Colorado.
From all directions comes power for the human spirit. Black Elk, holy man of the Ogalala Sioux knew that the north brought a spiritually cleansing wind and the south brought sun, growth, fertility and warmth. The east brought peace and illumination while the west brought storms and conflict. One can sense the truth of all this while sitting out here in early winter facing the warmth of a southern, glowing sun. We were thankful for the cowshed as the wind became even more fierce. In the distance Mother Earth rose eastward with her dark and winding canyons filled with frail aspen and dried chokecherries.
Northward stretched an immense open space with vast bands of whitened land spread out to the pale blue of sky. Constant wind whipped the snow into ripples looking like the ice cap of distant Mars. Only this Mars had oxygen. Surely it was time for my son and me to return home to the warmth of a crackling fire, a hot meal and the laughter of my Irish wife.
Spring does come by slow degrees to the open prairie, sometimes far too slowly for those of us with cabin fever. As the snow melts leaving thin windows of ice here and there, tips of sagebrush emerge from underneath the ice panes to slowly turn green. And if it should rain sometime early in April, the sagebrush will scent the entire region with pungency. When one smells sagebrush on the wind and hears coyotes yelping, just maybe spring has arrived. But hold your horses! At 7,200 feet snow can fall on the prairie even as late as June. It is then that the prairie most resembles alpine tundra. Between melting snow patches, tiny flowers like white sandworts and purple pasque flowers bloom all over. Rosy finches, pippits and western meadowlarks cheep, chirp and warble under the bluest skies imaginable. This is the time yuccas come to full bloom with stalks of creamy blossoms perhaps surrounded with yellow-flowered prickly pear cactus. It doesn't take long to spot a herd of antelope running super-fast and leaving dust clouds behind. Prairie dogs will stand guard by their homes down under the earth with no fear of rattlesnakes as the prairies up here are too alkaline from ancient seas--so akaline that snakes just don't like it as it irritates their flesh.
I threw another stick on the fire as my daughters looked on from the warmth of their sleeping bags. We camped up in the Laramie Range overlooking the vast summer prairie land. I told them that at one time the entire valley below was filled with bison that was a great place for summer grazing. Arapahos and Cheyennes once hunted them here where they, too, camped by fires outside their tipis. The bison fed and clothed them and furnished them with tools, utensils and ceremonial implements. Bison hides covered their tipis, sometimes painted with symbolic designs. Four and seven are sacred numbers to this day for Plains tribes, and four times seven is the number of ribs the bison has making it a very sacred creature. Imagine what the prairie looked and sounded like in those days!
"Where are all the bison now, daddy," Maureen asked.
I put another stick on the fire and told them as the nation expanded westward the bison (buffalo) were killed off by hunters and soldiers in order to deny the Indian of his food supply.
"Why," asked Michelle.
"Because we needed their land. But things are more hopeful now. We're beginning to appreciate tribal cultures and the bison are coming back. You've seen them in Yellowstone and Custer State Park. There's a professor at Rutgers who has suggested that the entire western edge of the Great Plains (where agriculture is marginal at best) be reverted to a "buffalo commons."
"That's good," Maureen said.
"Well girls, we'd better get some shut eye. Sleep tight."
The next morning a most beautiful summer sunrise awaited us. First the distant Snowy Range turned sligtly pink, then rose, then bright red and then the rising sun turned them into gold. At last the sun shone in our eyes as we awakened to a new day.
These prairies are also known as the Laramie Plains. Great Plains usually refers to the vast open lands 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountains; while western prairies usually refers to the rolling,open lands within the rain shadow of the Rockies.
* This essay is a modified excerpt from my out-of-print book Where Land Is Mostly Sky (1997).