Cozied up around the campfire, the crew decides to wake at 4 a.m. tomorrow. A collective sigh. Some gaze up towards the stars, some at the fire, and others at the time. It's awfully early, but for the crew, studying the sage grouse's magical mating ritual is an opportunity not to be missed.
Next, they assign leks. Eric and Tim will go to the far north lek along the sketchy two-track, since they already know the route. Elizabeth and Elaine will take the 3.5-mile hike to the south lek. Kait is tasked with the challenge of going to all four leks near the main road, and Ryan will bike up to the lek two miles from their current campsite.
The itinerary settled, they spend the remainder of the night playing guitar and singing around the fire, dreading the early wake-up but looking forward to watching the birds dance. What follows is a journal entry about lek research from each Landmark crew member, and a video of the grouse getting funky at a lek.
I'm slowly, reluctantly roused from a deep slumber by my alarm. Is it 3:55 already? I swear we just went to bed. Five more minutes. Just five more minutes, then I'll get up. The alarm sounds once again--4 a.m. OK. No time to waste. Those grouse aren't going to count themselves. My tent-mate wakes with a groan, and we pack up our camping gear.
By 4:30 I take one last look at our bare campsite as we drive into the darkness. Elizabeth and I are dropped off, and we suppress our yawns as the truck pulls away, leaving us alone in the darkness. We pause, staring out into a vast landscape of shadowy hills. The last few stars glow faintly on the horizon. Beautiful. Serene. Still.
We follow a meandering ridgeline as the sky brightens, slowly lighting the prairie. No cattle, no people, not a building or fence in sight--just rolling hills and scattered sagebrush. Eventually we descend into the valley where the birds are undoubtedly starting their dance, somewhere still out of sight. The sun crests the horizon and bathes the land in a soft glow. A pronghorn watches our approach from a distant hilltop.
Quietly, we hike through unfamiliar territory. Raising our binoculars, we catch a glimpse of the male sage grouse displaying, their white chests a beacon in a sea of grey-green sagebrush. Setting up the spotting scope, we count 30 males and a handful of more camouflaged females. Unaware of their observers, the grouse continue their peculiar and enthralling dance.
As we watch, miles from the nearest gravel road and with absolutely no development in sight, we consider that we could be the only humans to gaze on this place in... months? Years? Decades? We admire the birds a few minutes longer before leaving the valley to meet up with the rest of the crew. It's hard to complain about 4 a.m. alarms when you get to immerse yourself in this world of beauty, tranquility and wonder.
The first car has already slipped off into the moonlit prairie, and Eric and I wait at the bare campsite so as not to abandon Ryan in the darkness. While Ryan prepares his bike, the suspense brews; I feel the anticipation of waiting for the starting gate to burst open.
When partnered for transects, Eric and I like to create competitive goals. This morning, we're set on defeating the time of our prior journey to the northern lek. I study our opponent: its techniques, where it has wavered, and how I can strike during this lapse. I see that we have an unfair advantage because, indeed, we are the opponent. I see everything I have analyzed and conclude that I'm loopy from getting up at four in the morning. "I'll be fine, you guys can leave," fires the starting gun, otherwise known as Ryan.
And we're off! We drive south, away from the northern lek. Our counterintuitive plan gives us an early edge over the opponent, who previously attempted to drive toward the lek, eventually reaching an impassable point in the road. We loop around to the west and find a new road to cut north. The road deteriorates and periodically we hop to examine dips and ruts.
Eventually we encounter a series of hills steeper than most we've driven on the prairie. On top of that (or rather on the side of them), are large ruts formed by water running down the sloped road. Slowly, we power up the hills and balance the car across the tilted ruts. As we coast down the other side, the car slides and rotates but then regains traction. Next, we must find the vague pull off to park and set off overland--if we get it first try, we'll be ahead of the opponent. These trials will not hold us back from glory. At the end awaits the great northern lek, where bountiful sage grouse perform their awkward yet majestic dance.
My phone alarm screams at 3:45. Why am I getting up this early again? Don't these birds ever get tired? I reluctantly dress, and then begin to pack what I can while still inside my sleeping bag. Time to find the stove in the work truck and make coffee. I see Eric's light on in the other vehicle. Water on the burner, I break down my tent. The others emerge from their comfortable dens, and we shuffle around in silence.
By 4:30, everything is packed, and the first vehicle is ready to depart. I take one last sip of coffee before passing the mug to Kaitlyn. Not long after, Tim and Eric start the meandering drive to the furthest lek, leaving me alone with just my bike, pack and headlamp. I pedal, chasing the puddle of light the headlamp throws out in front of me.
The ride is dark but flat and with few obstacles. I check the GPS to gauge when I'll arrive: Half an hour until first light, and I only have a mile left to go. I pedal up one of the few hills on the route, lost in my own thoughts. As I crest the hill, I encounter sage grouse scattered all over the road! I hit the brakes, jump off and slowly back down the hill as the birds pause mid-dance to decide whether this strange creature is threatening enough to warrant an exodus.
Losing track of time, I'd arrived sooner than I thought, as the lek is only 30 yards away. I creep slowly around to the north to get a good vantage. The birds hadn't flushed, so I settle in just before the sun peeks over the horizon look west to enjoy the pink and orange sky, and watch the sage grouse doing their bizarre dance in the golden light. Oh right. This is why I get up at 3:45.
9 a.m. We are finally all piled back into the vehicles, ready to caravan for an hour down dirt roads and back to the crew house. Ready to jostle and bump through potholes and ruts and patches of clay earth sculpted by rain. After spending most of the morning in a hurry, driving from campsite to drop off point, then from there to four different lek locations, and then back to the pickup site, it is nice to be able to ease into the passenger seat, relax a little and let my mind wander.
With warm spring air pouring in the window, I think back to the activities of the morning. To the cascade of feelings so unique to the experience at hand. To the genuine dread of getting out of a warm sleeping bag, the awe of seeing the night sky filled with an infinity of stars. To the fun of darting around back roads at dawn.
There's something about waking up to the same stars that bid you goodnight--about waking in a tent in the middle of the prairie that creates a lens through which you see the rest of the day. The dart of a jackrabbit, the waddle of a porcupine, a glimpse of pronghorn on the horizon, the excitement of a lek, and the overwhelming beauty of the sunrise on this stark and serene landscape.
These sensations jumbled together to create a feeling of pure happiness that will follow me through the rest of my day. As the hour drive home passes and our little ranch comes into view, I soak in the morning around me and revel in the joy it brings. How truly lucky I am to be here.