Morning at Chimney Rock

Ernie and me beside our tent.

Prairie Journey Travel Blog

Next morning. We rise at 6:30 am, climb out of our tent, rub the sleepy out of our eyes and stretch our arms up to the sky to welcome the morning. It smells fresh with sage. Coffee’s brewing in the old black kettle and young breezes drift cool across our cheeks. We look and see the sun rising half-way up and Chimney, too, still here.

Remembering last night. We hunkered down by the fire, talking, talking, about how they called her Tall Lady, called her that in the late of the night, the pioneers did. Chimney stood before us, her full skirt adorning a slender torso. We were her court-in-waiting, and she our queen.

Our fire flickered shadows, gray as ghosts, then burst into the glow of long-ago lanterns, everything becoming eerie, mystical, and Chimney transforming into a night beauty, right before our eyes.

I thought then how much I like the name, Tall Lady. Surely, as the pioneers gazed out at her in the moon-slivered nights, that name came to them. It fits.

We sat silent then and listened to cicada sounds. They spread out over the prairie evening, like a song, and coyote pups were yipping and howling. We got all sleepy-eyed then, put ourselves to bed, and slept deeply.

It must have been something about the cicadas, the coyotes, and Chimney beside us. Thinking about our ancestors, how they lay here 150 years or so ago, on this same hard ground, and I got all quiet inside. I dreamed something beautiful, even though I can’t quite remember what. But I must have, because I woke up, and a poem was coming to me, coming slow as the night winds, but steady and clear.

Here’s the poem I wrote this morning. It’s the beginnings of the one that my character, Savannah, wrote when she was at Chimney.

Chimney sits
big as sky
shining in the sun


buffalo grazing
wagons ho
but gone now


rising from the earth
like fresh-baked bread
making for a pretty morning.


Climbing Chimney Rock

Murph driving the covered wagon.

Prairie Journey Travel Blog

It’s late afternoon by the time we arrive at Chimney. We set up our tent and sleeping bags while Murph unloads our food and cooking supplies. Murph says that in the 1850’s, pioneers camped exactly where we are, with Chimney in full view and a spring just over the hill, an easy walk to fetch water. There’s no spring here now. It’s long dried up.

I try not to gawk at Chimney, mouth open, but it’s too beautiful and I can’t take my eyes off it or ignore the feeling I get when I stare. Chimney Rock- it’s a masterpiece. I have to look. Goose bumps pop out then, all over my arms and legs, and I kindly laugh at my body, grateful for it letting me know how I feel.

At dusk, Murph makes a gravy stew, filled chunks of beef, carrots and potato. We hear it, bubbling and boiling in the cast iron pot that hangs on a metal tripod over the wood fire. Murph piles on more wood. The fire gets hotter and we wear the smell of smoke, all of us do, Doug, Ernie, Murph and me, too, as we fill up our bellies with the stew, sweet to the taste..

After dinner, we hike over to Chimney, a quarter of a mile through rough grasses and across wild sage and yucca, growing in spikes cut like cactus. The scent of sage makes its pungent way into our nostrils, our bodies, and slowly we become conscious of how rich and right it is, and even familiar. Pioneer sensations, like hand-me downs, belong to us now.

The climb is steep and slippery on the sandy clay rock and we hold onto big boulders that jut out, then climb higher and rest on grateful ledges, slipping here and there as we go farther up. Tiny rocks crumble and fall with us, then we catch ourselves. We look over the big rock’s edge and see that it is possible to fall off completely. It’s a long way down.

Murph carries a shotgun. Rattlesnakes make their homes on Chimney, he says. Growing up in Texas, our family often visited my Aunt Lynn’s ranch near San Jacinto. Rattlesnakes crawled all over that land – the ranch hands carried shotguns, guarding us as we ventured outdoors. So, rattlesnakes on Chimney feel oddly reminiscent, and I am selfishly thrilled. I want something in my story to happen on Chimney Rock – something dangerous, something big. And here it is – rattlesnakes. It’s a gift and I take it.

We can only go so far up the pyramid of the rock, says Murph. It’s getting steep and dark. Soon the rock goes vertical and the chimney is not for us to climb. Still, before we hike down, we must look out into the beyond and give it all a good gaze. We see the rock named Biscuit and it is shaped just so. There’s Pregnant Lady, too, gracefully reclining, her belly full. I see her face, and it’s looking up to the sky, cloud blue by day, star black by night. Lucky her.

Buffalo no longer graze here, but Murph says 50,000 did in 1850, the whole valley brown with bison. The Platte’s in view too and I picture a whole slew of prairie schooners (the official name for covered wagons) and oxen, plodding along beside the river, wagons moving forward, slow and steady, like winter pushing at spring, determined and unstoppable.

I’m so close, I’m almost there, back in 1850, and I sigh and think, I’d sure like to be with Savannah, not just in my imagination, but on the real trail, right in the midst of the journey, rattlesnakes and all.