By Chad Love Photo by Logan Hinners
“Driving down a corduroy road, weeds standing shoulder high, Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance, at the hundredth meridian...where the great plains begin.”
The Tragically Hip - “At the Hundredth Meridian”
I am standing beside a lonely state highway in far western Oklahoma on the border of my home state and Texas, straddling the symbolic line between two worlds. Not the worlds of two adjoining states, but two older, larger worlds, first detailed by the enigmatic, one-armed geologist John Wesley Powell on his historic 1869 exploration of the American West.
Powell’s most enduring contribution to American history is what I’m standing on, and as geographic and climatological novelties go, it is—if I’m honest— a bit of a letdown. There’s no marker to indicate its existence, much less its importance, just an endless expanse of grass stretching both north and south. But as the historic demarcation line between the arid west and the temperate east, the meridian 100° west looms large in both the environmental and cultural history of the nation.
West of the hundredth, rainfall historically stays around 20 inches per or less. East of that line, rainfall averages above 20, increasing the farther east you go. And on that simple hinge of geography and climate hinge, much history has been made.
But history is not why I’m here. The dogs are whining, so I step over this lonely, mostly unnoticed and forgotten boundary and begin walking back to the truck. I’m heading west, into the arid country, searching for bobs on the ragged edge of their western range, somewhere out beyond the meridian.
I’ve always been drawn to the margins. There’s something inherently fascinating, and poetic, about the struggle for existence in that transition zone between two different worlds. Perhaps it’s something about the adaptability—and sheer durability—of life in the face of long odds.
And I don’t think there’s a better example of that adaptability than the bobwhite quail.
I grew up hunting them in the blackjack oaks and pastures of the Oklahoma Cross Timbers region, kicking up birds along brushy, overgrown fencerows and in the fecund lushness of central Oklahoma’s mixed-grass prairies.
But it was the bobs of the far west that grabbed my imagination. The birds were different somehow; wilder, tougher, grittier, sparser, more wide-open like the landscape they inhabited. I marveled at them and couldn’t wrap my head around the fact (and if I’m honest I still can’t) that the same bird I could find in a Southeastern longleaf pine forest or a Missouri blackberry thicket or an Oklahoma shinnery mott was the same bird occupying the prickly pear, soapweed, and cholla country of Comacheria.
Think about that: Eastern New Mexico is about as far removed as you could possibly be from, for example, the Red Hills of Georgia and Florida, and yet crawl out of your tent on a cold December morning somewhere out there on the Llano Estacado and you can hear that same familiar whistle greeting the sun. I find that endlessly wondrous and fascinating.
So I became hopelessly hooked on western bobs. I would drive west, sometimes north, but always out beyond the meridian, pushing into the lonely shortgrass country where both people and bobs live on the ragged edge.
I'm not sure what — if anything — I ever gained from these peregrinations. The hunting was tough, the birds few and smart and fast, but I always came back thirsty for more. The opiate of space and imagination, and the possibility of that perfect bird in the perfect moment in the perfect place, will do that to you. Drugs? Hell, I couldn’t find a harder, more addictive drug than western bobs if I tried.
There’s a certain isolated, lonesome windmill on a certain piece of isolated, lonesome public ground that I make a point to camp under, alone, every bird season, early on when it’s still warm enough to sit out under the stars with a cold drink and watch the sky fade to night as I ponder the twists and turns and vagaries of life. I pitch my tent there in the softening late-afternoon shadow and take in all that lonely silence, hear all those ghosts whisper on the wind. Have you ever heard the wind keen like a lament for the dead? That’s the voice of the plains, speaking to you, telling their story.
The quail have their own chorus in that song, and that is why I return year after year, out here where every ruin was once a dream. Just beyond my tent on these sparse western grasslands lie eons of hope and memory and life and heartbreak and betrayal and folly, all now hidden, entwined in the roots of grass.
Sometimes, when you’re following a dog walking just above all that entombed history, it whispers to you, telling its story on the whistle of a tough, ragged-edge bobwhite.
Just remember to always keep what it says secret.
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you liked it and would like to read more great quail content, become a member today!