Into the Great Wide Open
On the whole, managers of the National Grasslands tend to meet the couple of hundred inquiries they receive from hikers each year with some skepticism, fairly certain that only a handful of people would really appreciate a day or two ambling across these vast, empty spaces. And with few or no facilities, obscure road systems, and the general lack of water, perhaps they're right. Yet I found walking the prairies of Colorado and New Mexico to be a wonderful experience. Lightly rolling oceans of grass and forbs stretch forever in every direction, stroked by the ever-present fingers of the wind. In spring these landscapes are peppered with the reds, lavenders, and lemons of globemallow, daisies, and buttercups, while in late summer and early fall they explode with miles of smiling sunflowers. And all around there is sky. Sometimes it appears soft and tranquil, other times fierce. But always it floods the senses with its sheer enormity. It is the undisputed master of the scene, the caller of the tune to which, season after season, the prairie must dance.
Day Hike in the Kiowa National Grasslands
While there are almost no true native prairie mixes left in New Mexico (or in most other parts, for that matter), this walk through the Kiowa National Grasslands in the northeastern part of the state does give you a good sense of how diverse grasslands can really be. The sand pastures we'll be wandering are particularly significant in that they're in very good shape, despite the region having been so thoroughly ravaged just 60 years ago. In fact, this area supports the only bluestem climax community to be found for miles, making it as close to the real"Old West" prairie as you're likely to see.
Our walking road will carry you past a thick mat of vegetation, a clear indication that the 15 or so inches of rain that falls here each year is enough to maintain a rich community of plants. Look for a mixture of side-oats and blue grama grasses, as well as prairie shoestring, snakeweed, groundsel, and narrowleaf yucca. As for prairie birds, you should be able to spot rough-winged swallows, brown thrashers, kingbirds, mockingbirds, loggerhead shrikes, lark buntings, northern orioles, horned larks, magpies, western meadowlarks and, if you drive along these roads in the summer, wave after wave of lark sparrows. Grasslands can be especially beautiful to the ear, since the birds who live in these open spaces tend to let loose their territorial songs while flying, something that the birds of the forest rarely do.
As the walk continues, look for fine collections of sand and little bluestem grasses. At 2.3 miles, just before our turnaround point at a windmill, you'll see an old gnarled tree standing stark against a wash of sky, the only one visible anywhere on this rolling sea of grass, shrubs, and forbs. This lonely sentinel seems like a perfect backdrop to the tales of heartbreak that occurred on this prairie during the 1930shopes and dreams shattered by severe drought, overgrazing and the plowing of thousands of acres that were never meant to sustain intensive farming. In the early 1930s, this area needed 84 schools to serve its ballooning population; today it needs only three. The scant remains of these sad timesabandoned homes, mineral-poor lands overrun with snakeweed, parched windmill towers creaking in the prairie windscan still be seen along many of the region's back roads. They are a sober reminder of how fragile our dance with nature really is, how easily this intricate tapestry can come unraveled.
Prairie Chicken and Pronghorn: Home on the Range
There are plans to reintroduce the prairie chicken to the Kiowa region, once a plentiful presence in the area ecosystem. Before the infiltration of settlers from back east, this beautiful bird numbered in the millions, ranging from Texas into Canada and eastward all the way to Ohio. Indeed, they were so numerous that early marksmen could often bring down several with a single shot. Many are the old reports of the prairie chicken courtship rituals that occurred each year. The birds danced, flashed their tail feathers, inflated orange air sacs on either side of their neck, and of course"boomed," producing a low, dull roar that floated through the crisp February air, often being heard a mile or more away. These mating theatrics took place on special stages, or booming grounds, which some researchers believe were used over and over, perhaps for several hundred years.
One of the most striking creatures of the western grasslands to this day is the pronghorn, which you may well see grazing on the lands surrounding this walk. To say that the pronghorn is remarkable is a gross understatement. It is the fastest mammal in the Western Hemisphere, having been clocked running close to 70 miles per hour for very short periods. A distance runner as well as a sprinter, it can maintain slower speeds for 15 miles at a time, which tends to leave many of its predators panting in the dust. (Pronghorn fawns can run at speeds in excess of 25 miles per hour when they're just two weeks old!) Pronghorn are able to exist comfortably with little or no water, getting what they need from the plants that they eat. These plants, by the way, tend to include all of those that other animals won't touch, including several thorny and even poisonous varieties. Both male and female pronghorns have black horns, the sheath of which is shed each year. The horns of the female, however, rarely grow more than 4 inches long, while the male's often reach over a foot. In times of danger, the animals stiffen the glistening white hair on their rump patches, an act that serves as a warning to other members of the herd. Pronghorn, incidentally, are often referred to as antelope, which they are definitely not. Unique to North America, they have been given their own family name, Antilocapridae, which translates into "antelope-goat."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication