The title sounds like the name of a Zane Grey novel, but it is an apt description of my recent experience on the Tallgrass Prairie. The TGP, only a two hour drive from home, has always been one of my favorite places to photograph. It’s mostly deserted, except on weekends, with photo ops galore; landscapes, bison, birds, and butterflies to name a few. In this spring of 2012, I was itching to go again, but something always came up; a commitment here, a doctor’s appointment there, and the physical therapy sessions twice a week for my poor old shoulder, still aching from the rotator cuff surgery. Or it would be too windy, too hot, or no one was seeing any birds. But on Tuesday it all came together. Highs in the 70’s and lows in the 50’s, sunshine, only moderate wind, and all sorts of neat bird sightings; Scissortail Flycatchers, Dickcissels, Eastern Kingbirds, and Nighthawks, all posing on old fence posts, begging me take their portraits.
My usual MOP (method of photography) on the TGP works like this: I arrive in late afternoon just as the sun gets low in the sky and the light takes on that magic golden hue. From experience, I’ve learned that any bison photos taken between ten and three are by default, doomed for the Delete button. I take photos until dark, drive to a nearby state park, spend the night (sleeping in the back of the pickup), have a spooker, eat a sandwich, and hit it again bright and early the next morning. That again was the plan. It didn’t happen.
First stop was a bridge over a small creek that meandered through the woods, one of the few water sources on the prairie, but I couldn’t get excited about it. Some yellow flowers growing among sandstone boulders warranted a stop, but after a grab shot or two, I moved on. I began to get the feeling that the TGP roads seemed especially rough on that sunny afternoon (the prairie roads are miles and miles of dusty, very dusty, white gravel) with large hunks of rock banging off the under carriage of the pickup. Then, a new sound, coming from the right rear. I knew what it was. Flat tire. Not only flat, but shredded. What with all the noise from the gravel road and my poor hearing, I had not detected the problem as early as I should have. Sum Bitch.
Well, at least I had a spare even though getting it out from beneath the truck was not without its problems. The particular part of the changing operation I was most concerned about was the lifting of the old tire off and getting the new tire back on the lug bolts The tire is heavy and weighs much more than the still recuperating shoulder had dealt with to date. Furthermore, the action of lifting up and out was the one movement that the medics had cautioned me about. “The connection of tendon to bone is tenuous at best. One wrong move, and we undo all the work,” the doc had warned.
But in a bad news, good news, kind of thing, and just as I had reached the scary stage, a big truck with dual wheels on the back comes along with the name of a ranch on the door. The driver is wearing a western style shirt, blue jeans, boots, and a deeply tanned face. I jumped on his offer to help.
“We see lots of damaged tires around here,” he says. I ruined four of ‘em in less than a year. It’s this damned big gravel Osage County has put on the roads.”
He refuses money for his help, as is the custom around these parts, and I go on my way. I was uneasy about continuing down these treacherous roads without a spare, but what the hell? It’s a beautiful afternoon, I just got here, and what are the odds on having two flats in the same day? As it turned out, the odds were good, or from my point of view, very bad.
The sun was barely touching the horizon. I had just made a killer shot of a Common Nighthawk on a rusted fencepost as well as a singing Dickcissel in the top of an evergreen tree. Not that I could hear it singing of course, but its beak was moving. I was at the far northwest corner of the TGP with at least 35 miles to go before finding a campsite and relaxing with a shot of bourbon and branch water, when I felt the pickup swerve to the left.
Oh no! Oh Sweet Baby Jesus. Not another flat! But it was. And very flat. And I was out of spares. And the cell phone read… “no service.”