Day 2: Cattle Land
Date: April 19, 2012
Journey: Lincoln, NE to Fort Collins, CO
Total miles: 1,033 miles (39.6mpg)
I.The Next Morning
I woke up dry. Not a bad way to start the day. It hadn’t rained much the night before as had been forecasted, or if it had, it wasn’t evident. I seemed to be the first person up. It was 7:45.
If I was a dishonest son-of-a-bitch, I would have regretted putting money in the box the previous night. I probably could have gotten away without paying if I left early enough. The $20.75 seemed like a lot of money to pay simply to sleep in one’s vehicle–but I felt safe and I was not disturbed by cops or prostitutes, so…
I drove to the front to see if anyone was around to let me into the bathroom and sell me some fresh fruit. Before I had time to exit the car, a man came up to me with some change. “You over-payed,” he said. “Do you have the passcode to the bathroom?” Thirty minutes later I was semi washed up, contacts back in. (They had been falling out in the morning because my eyes dried out). I went into the store and he and I had a little chat about traveling. He liked to travel every now and then since there wasn’t much offered in Nebraska. It also gave him an opportunity to meet people and get past the stereotypes he heard about (like those about New Yorkers being dirty and rude). That’s one reason I liked traveling to, I told him. He liked Lincoln better than Omaha because it didn’t have that big city feel. He like a lot of people I would talk to later, never moved far from their place of birth. This only recently became a primary topic of contemplation.
II. Entering Colorado
I was happy to be back on the road. I felt anxious being off it. The open road was a non-place–a space where inhabited myself. Solitude. It was also a medium for adventure, something which I long associated as synonymous with “being alive.” In eight hours, around 4:00pm (due to a change in time zones), I would be in Greeley, CO. I hadn’t heard many nice things about it until recently when after my friend from Texas had moved there with her mom and boyfriend. I’d finally be able to pass my own informed (albeit limited) judgement.
After following the ever-important Platte River for (like the pioneers had) for several hundred miles, I arrived in Colorado early in the afternoon. I had remembered from a previous geology road trip–didn’t I mention that I’m a nerd?–that the east was pretty barren and flat. Barren, yes. Flat, no. I was in the foothills of the Rockies–if you’d even call them that. My gas was almost out, so I filled up my third tank in Julesburg. Luck had me at the one pump that I’d have to pay inside. I really disliked doing so. Was it the inconvenience? The human interaction? But this time it felt a little different because I was a stranger in town and it was an opportunity to meet a local.
The man at the stand was a large, thick black man with a stained white uniform. He was also the owner. I asked him, like everyone else I would talk to later, what he thought of his home. He liked Julesburg. In fact, he was born and raised there and had owned this business for about 35 years. He had family around, which was one reason he stayed, but that wasn’t the only reason. He, like the man at Camp-A-Way, would travel, but only as breaks from the everyday. He hit the clubs up in Denver. He liked that city a lot. We said our farewells, and I was back on the road. But now I could sense the mountains. I was in the West!
I really admired the horizons in Nebraska as I did Iowa and now Colorado. But at some point that day, I was hit by the obvious realization that I was not traveling on the same Oregon Trail as the original pioneers had. It was a different place completely. The place that once was, that was romanticized was for all practical purposes extinct. The fertility of the wheat fields were a distraction from the eradication of the mixed grass prairies, of which only 2% remain. People have much more sympathy for trees than grass.
This wasn’t just a product of the industrial revolution. The pioneers had brought the beginning of the end with them. An entire past and ecology had been erased from the flesh of the earth–the prairies and all their inhabitants: the peoples, cultures, meanings, stories, and languages, all gone. Well, not completely. Certain endangered languages, cultures, and species were being conserved by future generations, but in isolated pockets that were more like memorials, monuments, museums, and old-folks homes than sustainable and “restored” beings. I tried to imagine how different the horizon was for the pioneers and indigenous people before me and the century-old line of trees bordering the interstate. Was it lonely and populated back then, too?
Nebraska’s landscape along I-80, unlike Iowa’s, was populated with some animals. There were ranches. As always, I felt ambivalent passing them by. The cows had space, natural food, shelter, clean air and water, and families. It would not be a stretch to describe such beings as “happy.” Their was little direct human interference for most of their lives. Beautiful. I’ve long been struck by the beauty of large ungulate animals, especially bovines. Is it a prehistoric instinct of the time spent watching, chasing, hunting, and dreaming about them for tens of thousands of years of my human history? I loved the way they inhabit the land: in communities and with most of their time eating and resting. Maybe not so much for their sake, but mine. Just by watching them, I was becoming-cow. Ruminating on life, food, and the land.
I really appreciated being able to see them, to see animals other than the occasional bird, the road kill, and insecticide on the windshield. But someday soon, in a year or less, they would be “road kill” to. A semi with a livestock trailer passed me as I looked out onto the ranches. Inside were a couple dozen or more, some looking back. What was in those cows’ eyes? (I wondered if I had done the same in Iowa–taking a photo from the car–, if I would have been a potential target of the new ag-gag lawsuits that were made to threaten activists with even exposing illegal farming practices.) I wanted to see cows pigs and chickens, but not (only) in a context in which they were to be slaughtered and exploited. I wished to see them as I passed them on the road in healthy relationships with humans in which they were not objects to be consumed for profit. I’d like them to be happy and free as possible in a way that is good for our culture and land and our so-called “humanity.”
A previous conversation I had with a friend suddenly became relevant: the importance of animal sanctuaries as a space for positive human-animal relationships. We had brought up the taboo: what if we did not spay and neuter rescued animals? What if we allowed them to nurture a new generation? Before we even answered, we imagined outrage at even the suggestion for “letting” more farmed animals in the world when so many needed rescuing and their were limited spaces and human and and financial resources. “Irresponsible!” I could imagine other activists yelling. Yet, do we hold ourselves to that same standard? How many children are suffering and need homes and resources, yet we (selfishly?) bear our own children? We call our reproductivity a right. Is this speciesist? Animal others are killed “humanely” when they are “overpopulated,” while poor and orphaned children are given a fighting chance, so there is a difference. I bookmarked the thought for a later time.
(Please comment if you have a position on this, btw. I’m curious.)
To be continued in part 2…