Near the end of my freshman year in college, my mother called me to say she’d seen an ad for a job that seemed up my alley: a tour guide at some kind of local historical museum. Neither one of us had realized there was a historical museum in that area, only a few miles from our Aurora, Colorado neighborhood. (Yes, that Aurora—my dear hometown.) But I agreed that the job description, while somewhat vague, sounded intriguing. I called the number in the ad and made an appointment for an interview.
Driving there the following week, I was perplexed; the directions I’d been given said to continue east on a road I knew quite well—east, out of our neighborhood, past the fringes of the suburbs, right out of town, it seemed. The asphalt turned to dirt. A yellow prairie stretched before me, quiet under an enormous wall of sky that rose up from the undulating plain. My little car bumped and jolted. Prairie dogs chirruped at me as I passed. Another dirt road forked off to the left, near the sign I’d been told to look for: The Plains Conservation Center. I’d arrived.
It wasn’t a historical museum, after all—at least, not the little spruced-up house-turned-museum I’d been expecting. It was a wildlife refuge. 2000 acres of open prairie, I was later to learn, home to a vast array of wild creatures, some of which I’d never heard of before. Burrowing owls, hognose snakes, pronghorn antelope.
Ah, those pronghorn. They aren’t antelope at all, not really—that’s just what early settlers mistakenly dubbed them. They’re the second-fastest land mammal, behind the cheetah. Gangly brown deer-like creatures with white rump patches they flash to signal danger. I’d grown up just a few miles from this place where they did, in fact, roam, just like in the song that mislabels them, and I’d had no idea.
I parked next to a small, unassuming building and went inside, nervous, already burning to land this job. The sky was so big out here, so impossibly blue.
The Center’s director was a warm, affable woman named Cheryl. She greeted me cheerily but almost immediately upon meeting me and learning that I was a drama major at a small liberal arts college across town, dashed my hopes—kindly—by explaining that the interpretive tour guide position was usually held by a biologist or natural historian. I was eighteen years old and looked about fifteen, a book nerd studying acting, with no science or natural history background whatsoever.
“Well,” I said, with more confidence than I felt (acting, you see), “I’m good at speaking to groups, and I’m really good at memorizing material. So if you told me what to say…”
I don’t know what made Cheryl decide to give me a chance. She was a remarkably kind person whose eyes had a genuine twinkle. “All right,” she said. “I tell you what. Take this—” and she handed me a three-inch-thick binder— “and study up, and if you come back next Saturday you can give a trial tour.”
I flipped through the binder, which was crammed with articles and fact sheets about flora and fauna and mineral composition and the Homestead Act and a number of other things I’d managed to graduate near the top of my high-school class without studying. I went back to college and, during a busy pre-finals week when I was supposed to be cramming for exams and writing papers, buried myself in that massive black binder.
The following Saturday, I returned for my audition—that’s how I thought of it, an audition. Cheryl introduced me to the five perky Girl Scouts (Brownies, actually) and their mothers whom we would be hauling out into the prairie in the back of a wagon. Cheryl drove a battered farm truck along a rutted path through the swaying grasses, pulling over at strategic spots and pointing out things I should show the little girls: the tufted head of a great horned owl, barely visible in a nest at the top of a cottonwood tree; a kestrel perched on a fence post; a golden eagle wheeling overhead. I’d hop out of the cab and scurry around to the side of the wagon, jabbering to the Brownies about these birds as if I’d actually known they existed a week ago. (I hadn’t. Great horned owl: who knew?)
I was terrified, but I was having fun. The little girls were as full of ooh and ahh as I was. I mean, this landscape—I’d undervalued it my whole life. I’d seen it as blah, barren, bland. Plain, like its name. It was not the Shire, nor Narnia, nor Prince Edward Island. It was not Pern. Somehow it hadn’t, until that day, even compared to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s various midwestern prairie landscapes, which seemed infinitely more interesting than those dull fields out here where nowhere began.
Now I saw how ignorant I’d been. These plains were teeming with life. I saw more species of wildlife that day than anywhere outside the Denver Zoo. And the smell of sagebrush on the wind—oh, I was smitten, I was swept off my feet as surely as when Anne first encountered the White Way of Delight.
On the way back to the Center’s little office/classroom building, Cheryl suddenly gasped and stopped the truck. “Look at that!” she cried, pointing at—was it a snake? A very long, very fat snake writhing and twisting in the buffalo grass a few yards away. I blinked, trying to figure this snake out. Was its tail…forked? Did it have—no, that wasn’t possible—yes, it did. It had two heads.
It was two snakes, you see. Bullsnakes. Mating. Cheryl was practically whooping with excitement. This is not a sight human beings ordinarily witness in the wild. “You have to show the girls!” she crowed, and I jumped out and pointed, and told the five-year-olds everything I knew about bullsnakes while trying to skirt the details of what those snakes were doing exactly. “Everything I knew” wasn’t much. But no one cared, because SNAKES! RIGHT OVER THERE!
Back at the Center, Cheryl pulled me aside. The twinkle in her eyes was cranked up to eleven.
“Since they saw bullsnakes,” she whispered, “we should really introduce them to Perry.”
“Perry?” I quavered. Something told me he wasn’t a guy who happened to know a lot about snakes.
“Our bullsnake!” Cheryl beamed. “He’s very friendly.” She darted into a room I hadn’t seen on my first visit—a large open space with a row of tanks along one wall. Tanks. Full. of. Snakes.
(And frogs, and lizards. But I didn’t meet them until later.)
Perry was the biggest snake of the bunch. Over five feet long from tip to tip, which meant I only had a couple of inches on him. He was as big around as my arm. Maybe bigger. I was pretty scrawny. Cheryl gestured for me to scoop him up. The Brownies huddled together, wide-eyed and wary, their mothers shifting anxiously in the background. I gulped and reached into that cage.
I’d never touched a snake before. I expected clammy and slimy. But Perry was cool and smooth to the touch. He coiled loosely around my wrist, flickering his tongue.
“He’s smelling you,” Cheryl explained. Then that big old snake surged forward and tried to crawl right up my shirt. “Oh, he always does that,” Cheryl laughed.
The Brownies looked like they might run for the door. I realized suddenly that this was their first snake too, and they were five years old. I didn’t want them to be terrified. This meant I couldn’t display my own terror. I pretended I was one of those intrepid creatures who absolutely adores all wild and frightening things, the more serpentine, the better—a sort of Jane Goodall, only with snakes.
Perry poked his head out the top of my shirt and flickered his tongue at me. The Brownies burst out laughing. He really was kind of…cute. That funny wide mouth and round, staring eyes. I fished him out from under my shirt and held him out for the girls to feel. They were giggling, crowding close. Perry had won us all over.
After the Brownies left, I said to Cheryl all in a rush, “I had no idea snake-handling was a part of the job!”
She chuckled. “Well, you said you were an actress. I wanted to see how good you were!”
She gave me the job, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I worked there for two summers, falling harder in love with that landscape and its wildlife every minute I spent on the refuge. Down a little curving path from the Center we had three small sod buildings—a reconstructed blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and sod house. A big part of my job was taking school groups through the buildings, talking about pioneer history and the Homestead Act. We’d play school in the little one-room schoolhouse, the kids delighting in working math problems on their slates. On special event days I got to dress up in a gingham frock and a bonnet, and the kids and I would churn butter and make johnny cake in the iron stove.
To this day I carry the Plains Conservation Center, big as it is, inside me wherever I go: its sweep and wonder became the landscape of my imagination. Its wild things taught me to look more closely at every patch of land I happen to live upon. Its ten thousand secrets, and the clean smell of sage, and the whimsy of tumbleweeds scuttling ahead of the wind, and the kildeer crying and the meadowlarks rejoicing and the burrowing owls blinking gravely from their low perches beside the paths—oh, these things are so woven into the fiber of my being that when, a few years ago, I sat down to write a story about a girl living in Edwardian England, the whole thing up and transplanted itself to the Colorado prairie. It belonged there, where a big piece of my heart will always be.
That novel, The Prairie Thief, hits the shelves on August 28. It takes place in the 1880s, and things happen in it that could never happen in real life. (Let’s just say it involves an entirely different kind of Brownie.) But its setting was inspired by those sprawling acres of prairie, right down to every tough blade of buffalo grass. I dedicated the book to to the Plains Conservation Center, of course. How could I not? I wasn’t a biologist nor a natural historian; I was barely even an actress; but I was, it turned out, a prairie girl to the core.
Our Week in Books: Tuesday
How Cool Is This?
Q & A: What’s in a Name?