In which Katie forgets how long she has been gone, finds the bird capital of the world, and considers staying on the road forever.
I have some embarrassing news to report. My last post was a complete lie.
I got my count wrong. I was off by a day. I lost one somewhere in the yurt. Frankly, I was too busy writing and stoking my pellet stove and cooking farmer’s market veggies and drinking wine in the shower to keep track of how long I had been in the hut. Healthy, I know.
On Friday, I traded the playa lakes and flat extra-terrestrial expanses of western Kansas for the sloping sandhills and wetlands of the central region. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Refuge combine for one of the most crucial stopover areas for migratory birds in the Central Flyway. I’ve seen five whooping cranes in the two days I’ve spent there, a small percentage of the 100,000-plus birds that experts estimate are currently passing through.
Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms are both surrounded entirely by agricultural land. Much like the rest of the Central Flyway states, 98% of Kansas is privately owned. This means the cranes can spend their nights in the wetlands and marshy grasses of the Refuges and then spend their days eating leftover corn and other crops elsewhere, without being disturbed by onlookers getting too close. Sure, we congregate on the roads with our binoculars and spotting scopes, and we definitely slow down the flow of traffic. But at least we don’t trespass.
Birds have their own rush hour, too. From sunrise until about 10:30 and from 4:00 until sunset, the skies around Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms are alive with hovering clouds of ducks, geese, pelicans, cranes, herons, plovers and a bunch of other species. The cacophony of honks, squawks, chirps and whoops makes a stroll around the area sound like a Black Friday morning at the mall or a crowd filing out of a concert. Quivira is like Woodstock for all those who identify as avian. That includes most avid birders who somehow act like the birds themselves.
Cheyenne Bottoms has a free campground and is located about 45 minutes from Quivira. I stayed at the same campsite two nights in a row. It was full of hunters when I arrived on Friday afternoon, and it stayed that way until this morning’s departure. I’m almost positive I was the only girl there. All the guys had their impressive array of pop-up tents and portable grills and huge trailer campers. I wanted to call Cabela’s and get their advertising agency down there for some footage of all the equipment and testosterone puttering around. It was opening weekend of duck season, so the campground was packing enough firepower and bird shot to take down Godzilla.
Last night, I slept under a clear sky with a blue harvest moon. On Halloween. On the night we turned our clocks back. I was hoping there would be some cool spell or chemical reaction that this combination would set off, but I don’t think I woke up in any sort of alternate universe.
Despite what every female-centric travel blog told me about staying at campgrounds overrun by men in camo, I felt extremely safe the whole weekend. And honestly, if these guys had wanted to come snatch me up, they would’ve been forced to dig me out of my cave of belongings first, and that would have taken way too much time. The moon flooded the grounds in a milky glow all night long, perhaps further dissuading any shenanigans.
I am a devout sunrise and moonrise enthusiast. I will pull over on the side of shoulder-less roads to take pictures of streaky watercolor skies or larger-than-life lunar events. I am always frustrated by how poorly my cameras capture both, and try as I might, words don’t do them justice either. But I can confidently say that Kansas has the most dramatic skies of any place I have ever been. The early mornings and late afternoons at Quivira brought tears to my eyes. I’m so grateful to have visited down here when I did, both to see the migration and to experience some late-season summer nights.
Eventually, I got fed up trying to capture these phenomenons digitally. More than once, I have resorted to photographic memory, dropping my phone and camera down to my side and keeping the scene locked away in my brain for my enjoyment and my enjoyment only. After my long haul to southern Nebraska, I started feeling more comfortable driving at night. And as of about six hours ago, I actually started looking forward to the show that dances across the sky after 5:30. I have grown.
I will go out for one last early morning sit tomorrow to scout for whooping cranes. I plan on being Oklahoma-bound by noon. I have already covered almost 3,500 miles, which means my original estimate of 5,000 round-trip will be way off. The truck is covered in bugs and mud, and the windshield has achieved a certain level of grime that will require elbow grease and a gas pump squeegee, but I have come to find great comfort behind the wheel. I understand why people who set out on the road for long periods of time have difficulty reentering stationary society at first. I enjoy the daily uncertainty of where I will sleep when night falls.
Tonight, I landed in a budget hotel for a long-overdue shower and access to laundry facilities. Tomorrow, I will likely touch down somewhere in Oklahoma. But who really knows?