GOVE COUNTY, Kan. -- My passion for pronghorns began riding a dusty backroad in Colorado, on a family vacation in the mid-1970s.
Looking right, I saw a brown and tan dot heading in our direction. In no time, the buck pronghorn, the first I'd seen, was maybe 30 yards away and running parallel to our old cab-over camper.
As dad sped up, so did the pronghorn. For probably a quarter-mile it kept the pace. About the time dad said, "We're going about 45," the buck kicked on its afterburners, charged ahead then crossed in front of us on the open range road. It ran from sight, racing only its shadow.
The images are still vivid.
I was in western Kansas two weeks ago renewing my long-lasting appreciation for pronghorns while hunting them with a muzzleloader. I shot a buck, but more importantly I got to spend some days with North America's fastest mammal, on a wide-open landscape they're so perfectly adapted to roam.
Only the 70-mph cheetah is considered consistently faster than pronghorns. Pronghorns have been clocked at 60 mph or better, and they can reach that speed faster than some small-motored cars. We're talking animals that could have left Seabiscuit or Secretariat in their dust.
They can cruise at about 40 mph for miles and seem less-winded than me taking the stairs to the newsroom. In June, I watched a fawn with legs like drumsticks, surely not a month old, sprint across the prairie faster than a deer, as it followed its doe.
Not only can they go far and fast, they seem to simply love to run. Many times I've been watching a distant herd when, for no apparent reason, one started to run and the others followed.
They often do such pleasure cruises in follow-the-leader fashion. Rather than in a straight line, the lead animal cuts and turns across the landscape. The others almost always follow the same twisting course, like the flocks of fall blackbirds we love to watch snaking across the sky.
Their vision, said to be equal to eight-power optics, is as impressive as their speed. I have many times lifted my binoculars and seen pronghorns a mile away, already staring at me.
Those big baby-browns and oversized organs are wrapped in a package that, to me, makes them the prettiest mammal in Kansas.
The pronghorn's tan-over-white, two-tone coat is striking, and the latter often stands in brilliant contrast to the pastels of the prairie. Alarmed, the hair on their platter-sized white rump patch rises to shine vividly. It's as if they're taunting you as they rocket away.
I find the country they roam stunning, especially where native prairies stretch to the horizon. I enjoy treeless vistas, and watching miles of assorted bluestems and Indian grasses bobbing in the ever-present wind. Those who drive by see little. Those who walk those grasslands see wild flowers and a myriad of wildlife ranging from prairie dogs and passive tarantulas to golden eagles and mule deer bucks with racks the size of rocking chairs.
And I love to sink my imagination into what the land looked like in the times of Chief Dull Knife, Custer and the big herds of bison. I like to linger at the slight remains of an old stone homestead, built with the hands and hopes of homesteaders who tried, and usually failed, to convert some of nature's greatest grazing lands into crops.
That pronghorn country is so open means there's not much time for boredom on a hunt. Rather than sitting in a tree, seeing nothing but more trees for hours, most pronghorn pursuits involve minutes trying to locate a herd, then often hours trying to hike, crawl and slither amid grasses and cactus to get within range.
But I got lucky and walked around a rock outcropping and saw the buck I shot about 150 yards away. The 13-inch horns were about two inches shy of the best buck on the ranch. Twice that morning I'd tried to stalk his herd, both times a Roman-nosed old doe caught my scent or sight and bolted with the rest of the herd in tow.
After the first blown stalk, especially, she led the group in a straight line for more than a half-mile, then started the crack-the-whip line that showed they were running for fun.
I enjoyed even my failed sneaks. What's not to love?
(c)2013 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)
Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services