Last week, Richard and I put 630 miles on our new Subaru Forester in just two days while taking my parents on another drive-a-scenic-byway trip. This time we headed northeast on I-76 from Denver, following the South Platte River across the rolling shortgrass prairie to Julesburg. Once we got away from the suburbs and climbed up out of the shallow South Platte River valley with its irrigated fields, we rolled with the gentle waves of the prairie, the dry tan grassland hugging the soil like a close-napped carpet.
By the time we dived off the twin ribbons of asphalt at exit 170, ten miles short of Julesburg to take the South Platte River Trails byway, the prairie had ever-so-subtly changed. The grasses were now knee-high and taller, and there were more kinds of them, forming a patchwork mosaic in hues from straw to gold to palest orange-going-peach. We had left the extreme aridity of the shortgrass prairie behind, a region so dry that the dominant grasses only venture a few inches above ground while their roots extend as deep as six feet into the sheltering soil. And we had entered the edge of the mid-grass prairie, a slightly wetter belt where grasses grow tall enough to wave in the wind.
As the sun dropped lower over the wide horizon that evening, we circumnavigated the rectangle of the South Platte River Trails byway following rural roads on both sides of the river. We saw the site of the fort featured in the movie "Dances With Wolves" (through the film was shot in Montana), the site of Colorado's only Pony Express Station, a gorgeous and peaceful stretch of the South Platte, and Julesburg and Ovid, two small Plains towns.
The highlights: Pony Express State Wildlife Area, a small patch giving onto the placid curving ribbon of the South Platte, dotted with the golden flames of cottonwood trees in their fall best. The wonderfully kitschy teepee-shaped picnic shelters at the Colorado Welcome Center at the Julesburg exit, and the severely beautiful lines of the enormous red brick beet sugar refinery and its antebellum-plantation style office - vacant since G&W Sugar went bankrupt in the 1980s - in Ovid.
We stayed that night in Sterling, sixty miles upriver on the Platte. The next morning we headed off on the Pawnee Pioneer Pathways byway, a route that meanders on two-lane paved and gravel roads through the prairie between Sterling and Greeley, a hundred miles west. Whole swaths of this route are wide-open grassland with nothing to interrupt the view of the miles-distant horizon.
Highlights of that route: The groups of pronghorn, tan as the shortgrass prairie, that we spotted here and there. The Prairie Cafe with its sign "buffalo served here" in tiny Stoneham (no store, gas station, or other services, just a small cluster of wind-blasted houses, a grain elevator, and three churches). Three pied-billed grebes happily swimming in one small puddle of creek many miles from any other body of water larger than a windmill-filled stock tank. The sight of Pawnee Buttes rising above the undulating prairie like miniature mountains. The ghostly line of giant wind turbines that follow the receding bluff in the hazy distance far beyond the buttes themselves. Walking the trail to the buttes in the chill wind of an approaching fall snowstorm, smelling the moisture on the wind and listening to the glorious silence of the open prairie. Seeing kit fox prints pressed neatly in the pale dust of the trail.
And best of all, many miles to the west where we dropped off the open plains and into the crowded farmland encroached by suburbs, the migrating sandhill cranes. Richard, who was driving, spotted them and simply pointed at the sky. There, high overhead were hundreds of cranes circling in a huge gyre. We stopped on the side of the highway, got out and watched. They circled, wide wings outstretched, long necks and legs extended, higher and higher, sometimes turning into the sun and nearly disappearing, then coming around again so that we could see their ever-smaller silhouettes. Now and then I could hear a fragment of their rolling, wild "khrrrrrrr! khrrrrrr!" calls in the intervals between the trucks rushing by on the highway. As the gyre of cranes began to form Vs and head southwest on what must have been a layer of high-altitude winds, I heard crane voices again. I turned north, and there was another group, this one flapping straight south and lower. We watched them pass, the music of their rolling calls washing over us as they flew overhead, aimed south for the winter.
Hours later, after we had dropped my parents at their apartment west of Denver, we were winding our way up into the Foothills toward the first of three mountain passes we cross on our way home, when I looked at the sky and saw another gyre of sandhill cranes high overhead, wide wings outstretched as they circled, gaining altitude. I pointed them out to Richard and he alternated between watching sandhills and watching the winding highway until the birds were directly overhead and out of view through the windshield. I opened the sunroof and we followed them until they disappeared from view entirely. We sped on, all of us aiming in our own way for home.