One day in May of 1979, my sister and I visited the Pawnee Buttes, eighty-five miles northeast of Denver, on the Great Plains. Until that day, my explorations in Colorado never took me any farther east than the edge-of-the-plains city of Pueblo. In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination. Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as the surface of sheet iron, nor the occasional polyp of a high-plains farming or ranching community held any attraction for me.
Until, that is, the day I visited the twin buttes, which, along with their surroundings, entranced me. Standing within a half-mile of one another, both breast-like formations were some three-hundred feet high. Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stood in appalling solitude on the green sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounded them for dozens of miles in all directions. Their lonely presence seemed inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky. They had a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, sphinxes, the ferry boats of my childhood. On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took about twenty minutes. Spreading from its southern base was a maze of deep, barren arroyos: a mini-badland, nervous intaglio to the butte’s serene cameo, that extended for a quarter-mile before surrendering to the insistent plains smoothness.
It took me another twenty minutes to climb to the butte’s anvil-like peak. From this eminence I saw the Great Plains as never before. Its implacable flatness calmed my soul. (“And there is something very restful about the horizontal line,” wrote John C. Van Dyke in 1901. “Things that lie flat are at peace and the mind grows peaceful with them.”) The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a weight upon the land, a powerful presence. My reaction to the Pawnee Buttes and their spacious surroundings anticipated my fascination, a decade later, with the mesas of the high plateaus of New Mexico, Arizona, and southeast Utah.
The buttes and plains were also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writing―for starters, merely in a cheap notebook―their seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word. (Again, Van Dyke: “The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful.”) Forget the storied Rockies: since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.