At Walsh, Colorado, which was a skosh more developed and busier than Kim, I drove south on a secondary country road, crossed the North Fork of the Cimarron River, and continued south to the junction of Highway 51, where I headed east. In short order, I temporarily jettisoned an hour of my life when, entering Kansas, I entered the Central Time Zone. A brief jaunt south on Highway 27 took me to a bridge over the Cimarron River. There, I parked my truck, hoisted my pack, and headed east along the river’s bank in search of a suitable campsite.
I was expecting a plains version of a “wilderness experience” along the Cimarron. After all, I was in the heart of a national grassland, with all the reasonable measures against excessive development I presumed this federal designation implied. And I had taken Truman Capote at his word when he wrote, in In Cold Blood, that western Kansas was “a lonesome area” that Kansans from the eastern half of the state called “out there.”
However, I was initially disappointed. Sure, there were some undeveloped expanses of native grasses “out there,” but there were also acres of agricultural fields; dozens of scattered oil pumpjacks, their horseheads bobbing monotonously; and numerous aboveground pipelines presumably carrying natural gas. But I suppose Capote is to be excused: his observation was drawn in 1965, when he was living in Brooklyn Heights; after Brooklyn, New York, I suspect anything would appear to be a “lonesome area.” In any event, there was far more development here than in Kim and Walsh.
More disappointments: I expected the Cimarron River to be nestled in a modest canyon like the one that contained the Purgatoire. Instead, the river was in a mere crease in the landscape. In addition, this being spring, I expected the river to have a respectable flow, but it merely pooled and trickled intermittently as it wound its way eastward. In this regard, perhaps I should have studied my various regional maps more carefully: the Cimarron is revealingly known as the Dry Cimarron throughout New Mexico, where it begins just east of the city of Raton. It is only in Oklahoma and then Kansas that it begins to be identified as simply the Cimarron. Greater precipitation east of New Mexico? Perhaps.
(A totally separate Cimarron River originates, appropriately enough, in northern New Mexico’s Cimarron Mountains and enters the Canadian River east of Springer, New Mexico.)
On the other hand, where I was camped, the river was blessedly fenced off from thirsty livestock that are in the habit of pissing and shitting as they drink. And, after I came to terms with my disappointment and calmed down, the fundamental wildness of the river and its surroundings began to reveal itself. Like always, like everywhere in nature.
I heard meadowlarks, mourning doves, killdeer, and red-wings. I saw deer prints in the sand. I marveled at the evidence―the riverside tree trunks wrapped high in a poultice of mud, grass, branches, and rabbit carcasses―of a powerful flood that had occurred on this insipid watercourse. I looked up through the gaunt, arthritic springtime limbs and branches of old cottonwoods.
As dusk approached, a breeze arrived, causing the river’s pools to shiver and lending depth and mystery to the place. At night, through my tent door, I saw a waxing moon in the western sky; I heard the velvety hoot of a great horned owl and the sirens of distant coyotes. And I reminded myself that I was terribly fortunate to be where I was, and that I ought to allow a place to unfold at its own pace. The following morning, I left the Great Plains with three days of accumulated space in me, enough perhaps to pry the mountains back home a little farther apart.