I turned 43 years old this month and brought in my next year with an overnight camping trip on the wide-open expanses of the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Unlike last year when I was too stressed out to even celebrate, this birthday was full of calmness (other than the wind which nearly blew us off the prairie.)
All year, I worked hard to re-prioritize various aspects of my life so that I could stop feeling so overwhelmed. This meant saying no to a lot of projects and requests and sometimes disappointing people. It meant spending less time on activities I enjoyed a little in order to make room for things I loved a lot. It meant that, yes, I would miss out on some opportunities and activities, but the reward would be a life that felt closer to my heart and less stressful. Activities like yoga, art and adequate sleep were back in my weekly routine. Pulling into our campsite, I felt light and free knowing that I had rid my life of many of the distractions that had been weighing me down. How wonderful it felt to have no agenda other than to relax and take in this new place with Doug.
We pitched our tent, set up camp and drove the desolate dirt roads that make up the Pawnee’s 21-mile birding tour. With no agenda, we let curiosity be our guide–stopping our car and getting out to explore whenever we saw something that caught our eye. We watched horned larks and McCown’s longspurs devour huge meaty grasshoppers and a saw a green, algae-filled pond that bubbled with squirming salamander tadpoles in its soon-to-evaporate water. Doug took photos of windmills and the landscape while I stopped to sketch.
When we returned to the campground, the winds died down and we made madras lentils from scratch on the camp stove, ate birthday cake and watched the abundant bird life singing from the cottonwoods around our site. As the temperatures tanked, we burrowed into our sleeping bags in the tent, but not before gazing into the vast night sky. With little light pollution, the stars were so bright that it was hard to pick out some of the usually prominent constellations.
The blazing morning sun belied how cold it was when we woke up the next morning, but soon hot drinks were on the stove and we were ready to start the day. After packing up camp, we drove to the popular Pawnee Buttes hiking trail. On the way there, we stopped to scan a prairie dog town along the road for burrowing owls. Much to our amazement, we spotted one in less than a minute! I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to see one of these birds. It was a first sighting for us and a big birthday treat for sure!
Though I will always be a mountain girl, it was wonderful to be visiting the plains for a change. When I was a child, I was captivated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. My family went on many a road to trip to visit the places she lived. It had been a long time since I had been back to exploring a prairie landscape and the wide-open spaces surrounding the Pawnee Buttes Trail were awe-inspiring.
When we reached the trail’s terminus, Doug spotted a horned lizard at the side of the path. I took out my sketchbook and sat down to record the shape of its head, curves of its tail and spiny body. Had the creature not run off after ten minutes, I could have drawn it for hours. Here I was taking this little moment to sketch this little lizard, yet the peace I felt was as boundless as the prairie surrounding me. I could not think of one thing that would have made my birthday more special. I was in heaven.
It was time to head back to the city. We bounced down the washboard dirt roads and then finally made it to the smooth pavement of bigger highways. Soon we saw the familiar cityscape of Denver. It was hard to believe we had only traveled 100 miles to get home–the grassland was a different world.
In the days of bucket-lists full of exotic trips, it is easy to think you aren’t living life to the fullest if you aren’t voyaging to far-off locales. It’s not that one shouldn’t dream large, but family needs, lack of money, medical issues– including surgery recovery– and other things can make that safari to Africa or a climb of a Mexican volcano hard to manage.
Instead of feeling bad about what you are unable to do at a certain time, make it a priority to get out on some local excursions. Who’s to say that living fully has to happen in distant lands? I found a treasured moment hiding in six square inches of grass on a vast prairie only two hours from my home. I wonder what other incredible things are to be found right outside my front door?