KIMBALL, Neb. – A dozen or so years ago, as autumn provided an especially lovely October day just ahead of a pending winter storm, I wrote about every season having a “last, best day.”
This year autumn seemed to linger. We’ve had a few little bites of wintry weather so far, but in the main our 2017 fall has been extended, dry and balmy.
Winter weather usually arrives here before calendar fall expires. In fact the same thing happens pretty much everywhere in this hemisphere, at least north of the tropics. The farther north you go, the earlier winter arrives and the longer it lingers into calendar spring. Our planet’s weather doesn’t seem to care much about our calendars, though in an ironic twist of fate, we rely utterly on nature – the celestial mechanics of Earth’s axial tilt and its orbit around the sun, as well as the moon’s orbit around our planet – to write our calendars.
On a late-November Sunday, with the shortest day of the year rapidly approaching, one would normally expect the weather conditions to be coldish and windy, with perhaps even a lot of snow on the ground.
But Sunday was absolutely gorgeous. It was warm, the sky was deeply blue with only scant, fleecy cloud cover, the ground was mostly clear of snow, and a light southerly breeze was wafting gently across the prairie. It was definitely time for a prairie hike.
I prepared carefully. Hiking the prairie in autumn is potentially risky, particularly in and around the rock strewn gullies I love to explore. Snow and ice can lurk in shadows, and where the season’s slanting sunshine does fall, thin mud layers can form atop frozen soil. A wrong step on treacherous ground can lead to a slip, fall and tumble – and potentially – a mobility reducing injury. An injured, immobile hiker will be in big trouble when the early sunset allows the true, cold character of the December prairie to regain its iron grip.
For a prairie hiker, one who relies on his feet to get him in and get him out, boots and socks are of penultimate importance. I wear Wigwam Ingenious socks and Danner Pronghorn boots. They’re top of the line and priced accordingly, but worth every penny.
I double-checked my rucksack to ensure the appropriate survival gear was there; first aid kit, fire starter, hard candy, spare water, and a hand-crank/solar emergency cell phone charger. I added a few odds and ends to bring up the weight of the ruck. Part of the enjoyment of such a hike is the physical challenge, and I delight in undertaking excursions the few of my peers would essay.
I grabbed my rifle, pistol and camera and headed out.
Why carry the shootin’ irons? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees me the right to keep and bear arms, but does not spell out the ethical responsibility of owning and operating a lethal device. That responsibility is on me.
The skill set required to carry and use firearms, including the rigor of a maintaining a responsible mindset, requires practice. Everything I do on a hike is predicated on weapon safety and discipline. The rifle and pistol and their ammunition, like the bulging rucksack, increase the load I carry, and that increases the exercise quality of my hike. I could carry rocks and a crowbar for the exercise enhancement, but I’d have to give up the discipline of responsibility. Finally, I might have to employ my weapons in their lethal capacity. The chance of such a situation occurring is tiny, but a weapon locked up miles away is useless should such a situation arise.
Shouldering my rucksack and taking up my rifle, I set out. Muscles and joints complain at the unaccustomed load and my foot-eye coordination is terrible. I keep stepping on small rocks and other foot-twisting features of the prairie landscape. My heart begins to pound and my ragged breathing is anything but even and efficient.
But slowly, so slowly, my mind and body respond to the challenge. After the first mile my tread is sure and steady, coordinated unthinkingly with my peripheral vision. My heart rate stays up but my breathing is even and steady. The coolish air flowing in and out is a wonderful sensation. The slanting rays of November sunshine are warm and comforting and the sweat of exercise flows freely. I begin to revel in the experience of hiking the late autumn prairie.
There’s little green in the landscape, and that provided mostly by the fading color of the yucca. But on close inspection, there’s still active chlorophyll at the base of many grasses and forbs. Above ground level though, the prairie wears her autumn coat; dull and whitish-brown, yet gloriously beautiful as it glows with feathery brightness in the sunlight. The air is clean and clear and devoid of any smell, the fading season having driven away the fragrance of fall – sumac and stink grass and sage. Insects are absent from the scene, as are birds of prey, though sparrows and larks abound.
As I hike and breathe and sweat, the peaceful beauty I’ve been craving steals gently into my heart. The frown of human concerns vanishes from my face, replaced by a giddy, happy grin. An intense joy bubbles up from deep inside. I am indescribably blessed to be here, to be witness to the natural beauty surrounding me.
I think about the lines I wrote a dozen years ago. Is today the last best day of the season? Who knows? Who cares? It is or it isn’t. Naming the day isn’t what I’m about. I’m not here to tell the future, I’m here to witness the present, to sop up the every bit of wonder I can. Being part of the here and now is far more significant, far more fulfilling than self-absorbed speculation. Being in the moment, unbound by yesterday or tomorrow, is potent medicine.
And it’s amazing medicine. I walk an uneven prairie at age 50-mumble, left foot and ankle nearly as good as new following last winter’s infection and surgery, very much alive and kicking. I delight in the absence of pain, the memory of which still serves to remind me that I’m mortal and limited. I won’t always be here, but I’m here now. I breathe deeply and easily, my heart sends blood coursing through my veins, I bear the pain. I am far, far from my mortal limits. This experience is a gift, and I will never regret taking the time to mark the moment.
I stop and slowly turn, drinking in a complete prairie horizon and soaking up the soft autumn light. This is peace. It may be late autumn, with the discomfort of cold winds on the near-future weather menu, but those things are not here today. Re-centered, I go in beauty. It is enough. Perhaps it is everything.
I climb to the top of a steep hill and take in the view. To the north and south, wind turbine blades slowly rotate far away, on the edge of the world. I drop my load and sit, leaning back against my rucksack, rifle across my knees. The breeze is cooling, evaporating moisture from my sweat-sodden clothing. A muted growling of high bypass turbofans tumbles from the sky. The contrails are far overhead, stark white lines across a towering, deeply blue sky.
As evening comes on and the air quickly cools, I watch clouds begin to creep in from the west. The bright, white sun goes first orange, then red as it nears the horizon, painting the southwest land and sky with glowing sunset colors.
As the cold creeps in it’s time to go. I don a sweatshirt and light gloves and take up my ruck and rifle. I’ve come more than six miles and the same distance will return me to my parked pickup. As I set off, my legs are stiff and a bit sore, but motion soon remedies that situation. As I move and stretch muscles and joints and regain my hiking rhythm the pain recedes to a dull ache. After a time I return to my starting place. I’ve hiked a bit more than 12 miles, with a cumulative elevation change of nearly 6,000 feet over that distance. Who says Nebraska is flat?
As I drive away I murmur a prayer of thanks for the day and the experience. Without a doubt, I am profoundly blessed.
Winter is coming, bringing ice and snow and bitter cold. But on Sunday, the day was sweet.
Every season has a first best day.