It’s a Sunday morning in late October. In the predawn darkness, Harland and I drive through the entrance of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The visitor center is closed – the parking lot empty. It’s cold, about 30 degrees, and we linger in the warmth of the truck. Ahead of us is a long walk with our heavy camera backpacks.
A light is growing on the eastern horizon. We exit the truck and shiver pulling our hoods up. A few minutes later with backpacks hanging from our shoulders and tripods in hand, we set off on the gravel trail.
Up the first hill to the large limestone foundation barn we hear a noise. Why, it’s the resident yellow tomcat come out to greet us! He loves visitors and we stop for a minute to chat with him and pet his thick fur. But we must be on our way – the light is growing to the east.
Past the barn and corral where the retired grey horse lives. He’s nowhere to be seen. We round the curve and go through the gate into the first pasture. It’s metallic clang is jarring in the grey stillness. Tom has followed us this far and we encourage him to return to the barn where it’s safe from coyotes. He finally stops and watches us as we round another curve.
Past the pond we start up heartbreak hill. The trail is in bad shape – washed out from heavy rains back in the late summer. We pick our way carefully up, up, up the hill. We named the hill “heartbreak” due to it’s length and evil habit of becoming much steeper the last 30 yards. Finally we reach the top and stop, panting, our breath fogging on the still cold air. Now the eastern horizon is red gold. Harland decides to stop here to photograph the sunrise.
I continue on the trail eager to find the bison herd. A half mile later, I’ve reached prairie chicken curve. The sun has nipped above the horizon now. I pull out my cellphone to take a pic:
It warms the hilltops leaving the valleys in shadow:
I round the curve and walk towards bison hill. On either side of the trail are signs the bison have been here: shorn grass where they’ve grazed, flattened round areas where they’ve rested, and manure. I climb to the top of bison hill hoping to see the herd on the far side. As I reach the top panting scanning every direction.
But my hopes are dashed. No herd in sight. However, the view is worth the climb:
Back atop heartbreak hill where I left Harland, he’s clicking away capturing the early morning light.
While a half mile away on bison hill, I’m taking a video:
Soon, the sun has risen well clear of the horizon and the light is getting harsh. I decide to turn back.
Back down bison hill and toward prairie chicken curve. My knee is bothering me, a sharp pain with each step. I injured it over a year ago and now it complains bitterly from my morning hike. But there’s no way to get back to the truck except one foot in front of the other. I plod on.
Another half mile and a body appears near the trail.
Done taking pictures, Harland is enjoying the warmth of the sun.
We head back down heartbreak hill and around the curve toward the corral where the retired grey horse lives.
And there he is!
I leave the trail to walk over to to the fence reaching over to pet his soft velvet nose and have a short chat.
After rejoining Harland we walk a little further before we reach the clanging gate again. But by now, it’s been propped open, ready for the day’s visitors.
Passing the barn again we don’t expect to see the tomcat. By now he’s probably curled up in the barn, sleeping in the straw.
Finally we reach our truck where we remove our packs and get in sinking down gratefully into the seats. There are more vehicles in the parking lot now, probably hikers out on the trails.
We exit the parking lot, leaving the prairie behind, but taking a piece of it with us in memory.