Joy and Sorrow Merge in the Colorado Prairie Sunshine

By Dennis Smith

I’m as awed as anyone with the majesty of our Rocky Mountains, but if there’s anything more humbling than a September sunrise on the Colorado short-grass prairie I have yet to see it. What, at any other time of day, seems a bland and boring, cactus-choked moonscape transforms at sunrise into an eye-popping panorama of astounding beauty. When the sun comes up on the grasslands, the whole prairie becomes awash in a sea of miraculous color — as if some master hand was painting the sky above and the earth below right before your eyes. It’s the kind of thing that can put a lump in your throat and leave you dazed with wonder.

One September morning three years ago, the boys and I were bumping along a dusty prairie road on our way to a water hole where we knew antelope would hang out. We were volunteer guides with Outdoor Buddies, an all-volunteer organization that provides a variety of hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor experiences for at-risk youth, disabled vets, mobility-disabled folks and others who may be deprived of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Our guest hunter for the day, Paul, suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that left him confined to a wheelchair and physically unable to squeeze the trigger on a conventional rifle, but he dearly loved to hunt. Not to be deterred, he had a hunting rifle fitted with an electronic device that required him to first sip, then puff, a breath of air through a small flexible tube to activate the trigger. It also required someone to steady the rifle on shooting sticks for him and another to arm the electronic switch before he shot. He drilled us on the procedure until he was satisfied we knew what to do, and then he took us hunting. We had to take his vehicle, a highly-modified four-wheel-drive van that accommodated his high-tech wheelchair and allowed him to shift, steer, accelerate and brake with electronic levers. It was a marvel of technological ingenuity and he drove it like a NASCAR champ.

He also took great pleasure in scaring the hell out of us with his driving skills, laughing like he hadn’t a care in the world. His joy was infectious. It was coming on daylight when Paul stopped the van on a rise overlooking the water hole and shut the engine down. The sun was creeping over the horizon, a blinding white orb that set the sky on fire and cloaked the land in a blanket of purple, crimson, gold and orange pastels.

The four of us sat there, staring in wonder and disbelief at the beauty of it all. Paul turned to us and said, “I may never see anything this beautiful again.” His remark puzzled us until we learned Paul’s illness finally claimed him later that year. It’s the kind of thing that puts a lump in your throat and leaves you dazed in sorrow.

Dennis Smith is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer whose work appears nationally. He lives in Loveland.