From where I stand, the high plains can be seen for eighty miles to the east and more than one-hundred thirty miles from north to south. The curvature of the earth is apparent from this vantage, unobstructed and two-thirds of a mile above. To the south a series of foothills rise, the sun casting successive layered shadows throughout the day as far as I can see. A few cumulous clouds pass overhead from the west and toward the plains.
The rocks on which I stand ascend the mountain behind me, where a massive outcropping dominates the dome. The great city sits below me, thirty miles away.
One hundred fifty million years ago, a great inland sea covered these high plains, extending more than six hundred miles from east to west and more than one thousand miles from north to south. During this period, the sea fluctuated but was relatively shallow, warm and tropical, and filled with abundant marine life. Lush tropical vegetation grew along its shores and prehistoric carnivores and herbivores fed or grazed there.
As the sea retreated, decaying plant and animal matter were trapped in the clay residue and became vast deposits of layered sandstone. About sixty five million years ago, the mountains began to rise and the sandstone tilted upward, creating an exposed ridge at their eastern foot. The ancient sandstone contains the embedded fossils of distinctive prehistoric plant and animal life.
A hundred and fifty years ago, bands of Indians still roamed the high plains where they lived freely, and hunted and camped for hundreds of years. Although the tribes fought over territorial rights, they were all sustained by the plentiful wildlife. Then the settlers began to arrive, starting in 1858, and homesteaded the land, their paramount rights being asserted through patents granted by the federal government.
The Indians were removed from most of their ancestral land and the settlers began raising fruits and vegetables and tending their cattle. The land was fenced and sections of barbwire still run from tree to rock to post in a haphazard fashion in some areas around me. I find wire embedded in the trunk of an old dead tree.
The early settlers were a diverse group, composed of miners, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and those seeking to start a new life in the West or a refuge from the impending civil war. Numerous lawyers were also among the first to arrive. Some of those early lawyers engaged in mining and merchandising, but most elected to continue with their chosen trade. After all, much work needed to be done: legislative bodies needed to be elected, laws needed to be drafted, courts needed to be formed, churches needed to be organized and schools would soon be required. All of this was done because there was the opportunity to create a great city where the high plains abutted the mountains. The work was completed without compensation or reward, because there was little that could be given or received by those involved.
The mountain on which I stand is granite, weathered and fractured over time, and a rocky ridge descends southeast toward the high plains. The spine of the mountain contains veins of quartz that periodically surface along its route. The south side, being exposed to the harsh sun and strong westerly winds, contains a mixture of spruce, juniper and ponderosa, interspersed among large rock outcroppings. The north side, being more sheltered, has clusters of spruce and lodge pole pine, as well as large patches of aspen.
Mule deer regularly traverse the mountain, grazing on the native mountain grasses and the needles and leaves of younger trees and plants. Herds of elk appear and the trunks of most Aspen trees show signs of their extensive gnawing. Solitary red and gray fox appear in the early morning or late afternoon, searching for a daily meal. An occasional bear passes, looking to supplement a diet sparse in fruits, berries and nuts. A mountain lion is seen among the rocks at the top of the mountain. Nocturnal and elusive, their presence may only be known by the devoured remains of a deer. Hawks begin to circle overhead. Has there been a recent kill?
A dark green moss grows on sheltered rocks on the north side of some trees, shielded from the blistering summer sun. Young seedlings flourish in clusters, under the protection of the larger trees or bushes. Some of the old and sturdy trees have been toppled by strong winds, though, which gust unexpectedly off the Continental Divide to the west. Their roots are violently ripped from the ground. During the spring, these winds also blow clouds of pollen off the conifer forests to the south. Many of the trees show signs of lightning strikes, the bark often stripped in a spiral as the charge descended.
In the late, fall bull elk spar over mating rights to cows, their antlers fully grown and most prominent at this time. When a large bull appears with a chunk of black plastic entangled in his antlers, the cows become frightened and run away. By spring, their antlers have been shed and new ones begin to grow, small and fuzzy at first. By June or July the calves are born. Weak at first, they stagger about as they learn to survive. An old buck arrives looking tired and alone. His face is gray and he has broken, deformed antlers. Do deer born here instinctively return to their birthplace in later years? I doubt this one will survive the winter.
By spring, the birds will arrive. Mountain bluebirds and chickadees’ young are soon born and then fall or are pushed from the nest. Unafraid yet vulnerable, they must gain the strength to find shelter in the bushes. A few hummingbirds flit about seeking any available wildflower nectar. I am startled when they are attracted to my bright red shirt. A flock of noisy magpies arrives and drives the other birds away.
The summer solstice appears a degree north of the great city below me. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, appears to the south, a degree north of a prominent knoll on the high plains. The sun always sets behind me: in the winter over the range of mountains to the south and in the summer behind the rock outcropping at the top of this mountain.
The moon appears at random points, but generally south of the great city. Due to refracted light, it appears much larger when it first rises over the horizon. A full bright moon dominates the night sky and my attention. The stars are out now and a planet is visible. A well-known constellation catches my attention to the north, but lights from the great city dim its splendor. What was it like, I wonder, before the great city was built and the lights turned on?
The great city below me is a few degrees to the north. It is at the confluence of two magnificent Western rivers, often traversed by early settlers, miners and adventurers to the region. This is where so many spend their lives in the universal quest for recognition, prominence or wealth. From this vantage, the great city seems so small and inconsequential though: its assemblage of large and grand buildings swallowed by the vastness of the high plains and the infinite sky above. At least that’s how it appears to me, from where I stand.
By David L. Erickson