Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister suggested she and I visit the Pawnee Buttes, 85 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 cities of Pueblo and Greeley.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I had crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as, in the words of Willa Cather, 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 are some 300 feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stand in appalling solitude on a sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounds them for scores of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seems inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They have a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, and sphinxes; for me, they particularly recall the ferry boats I occasionally rode in my childhood.  

On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took a mere 20 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.  “[T]here is something very restful about the horizontal line,” wrote desert sojourner 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 queer 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.  

These buttes and plains are also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writingfor starters, merely scribblings in a cheap notebooktheir seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  And more.  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.[1]

[1] Brooklynite Truman Capote’s reaction to the Great Plains―in his case, those of western Kansas, when he was chronicling events there that would result in his masterpiece, In Cold Blood―was not unlike my own.  Capote biographer Gerald Clarke writes: “Even the location, a part of the country as alien to [Capote] as the steppes of Russia, had a perverse appeal. ‘Everything would seem freshly minted,’ [Capote] later explained, reconstructing his thinking at the time. ‘The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather.  All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.’”