Manzanita Refuge

manzanita.1

Montana. Wisconsin.  Oregon.  Alberta. Saskatchewan. Just some of the license plates on the cars and motor homes in the private RV park where we stopped for a night in Yuma, AZ.  These snow birds migrated for the winter to the warmer climes of the desert.

Snow birds crowded the Fry’s Wholesale Food, pushing carts down unfamiliar isles with bemused expressions.

Two hours west of the crowds and noise and busy-ness of an urban area and 4,000 feet in elevation gain, we tucked ourselves back among the Manzanita and Oak in Cuyamaca State Park.

This state park adjoins the Cuyamaca Wilderness Area, a California wilderness set-aside, which in turn adjoins the Cleveland National Forest.  Miles and hectares of wildlands, some open to exploring by 4 wheels and much only open to 2 feet.  Our campground was on the edge between wheels and feet.

For Thanksgiving week, when schools in San Diego Country are out, the campground was about half occupied.  We almost had the place to ourselves.  And in fact, our campsite, sited on the edge of the campground in a grove of Manzanita, was isolated enough that we were visited in the middle of one night by a mountain lion and a bobcat.  I know because I found their fur-filled scat within 75 feet of our RV.  Mentioned the evidence to a park ranger and he said they know of a juvenile lion hanging around the area.  Given the cottontail bunny that visited us several times in camp, and the amount of fur in the scat, I’d say the lion, and the bobcat for that matter, have a full buffet without bothering us two-leggeds.

The hike up Pine Ridge trail offered great views into the Wilderness Area. water course Down in the valley, there was a water course lined with golden-leafed water-loving trees, paralleled by a fire road.  The mountainsides were pine-covered with polka-dots of yellow where the occasional oak tree caught fire in the afternoon sun.

The pines are Coulter Pines, a relative of the Ponderosa Pines that cover the mountains of New Mexico.

I have no argument with the snow birds whose 40 foot motor homes crowd the plentiful RV resorts; that’s a lifestyle they choose and enjoy.  Mine is of a different calling. Wildlands, mountain lions and their scat, pine trees, silence: that’s mine.

For folks like me, our public lands are critical to our health and well-being; public lands managed by local, state and federal agencies but belonging to all of us. These are sacred lands, deserving of our awe and protection.  Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are – in your kitchen at home or camped under a Coulter Pine.  #publiclandsworthprotecting .

Smokey Bear to Bear Tracks

I grew up in metro DC in the 50s.  That was the heyday of Smokey Bear.  Smokey was a native of New Mexico, a victim of a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains and rescued by a fire crew; he was brought to the National Zoo in DC and served as an iconic image for the US Forest Service, in service to fire prevention–his image still lives on in memes and posters.

I was reminded of Smokey last weekend as my tracking group left the Gila River, headed home.  The question came up whether bear were ever seen along that particular stretch of river.  The answer was yes, but not today:  no food to be had, and bears would be concentrated where there would be lots of mast to eat up for winter fat.  Not sure how we jumped to talking about Smokey, but there you are.  We jumped back to the topic of bear tracks, their size and appearance, and the likelihood of seeing them.

Could I have imagined, standing in front of Smokey’s cage in the late 50’s, that I would one day live in Smokey’s home state and learn to track his natural cousins?  Hardly, yet here I am.  I took a certifying class in tracking, found a new avocation, and have been collecting tracking data for citizen science projects for the last several years.

mt lion ed for blog

Cougar track

This particular day, my group and I went out to the Gila River for the sheer pleasure of walking very slowly and staring at the ground.  We almost didn’t get out of sight of our vehicles, captured as we were by evidence of critters small and large left in the dust of the road. Four-leggeds are lazy; they’d rather walk roads and trails just like  two-leggeds. We did make it on

 

down the trail and came across a typical latrine where fox and then coyote and lastly fox left their calling cards perched on a flat-topped rock in the middle of the trail. Marking, or as a friend would say, posting on their Facebook page. Reaching the river course, we found where bobcats had walked along the river bank, back when the river reached the bank, and left us a story of stalking in the dried mud.

Spotted skunk track

Spotted skunk track

At the muddy edge of the river, we crawled around with rulers, books and glasses trying to identify a plethora of footprints. Raccoons galore and bits of crawdads that had been caught, washed and munched.  More coyote and someone’s large dog.  A rodent, but what kind?  A ringtail cat? No, the claws are too long.  Maybe a little bitty skunk?  Photographs on my cell phone to bring home and puzzle over with my tracking bible and online query.

And here’s the motivation for so much crawling, puzzling, measuring and photographing.  The reason for all this tracking for citizen science projects.  To paraphrase a well-known politician, It’s The River, Stupid.

The Gila River is the last wild river in the state.  The Rio Grande has been tamed for agriculture from just about the northern border of the state.  The Gila itself disappears into irrigation ditches by the time it reaches the Arizona border.  We are fighting, for the third time in as many decades, an existential battle to keep the river free from diversions and dams to ensure that the endangered fish, birds, lizards and turtles continue to have a place to live.  In addition, the Gila River flows through the Gila National Forest, including the Gila Wilderness, which is also under existential threats from fire to fighter planes.  We do what we can with what talents we have to contribute to protecting the River, the Forest and the Wilderness. #Publiclandsareworthprotecting !

road to Gila bird area

The road into the Gila Bird Area, Gila/Cliff NM

 

Traveling Silver on a Persian Carpet

Colorado Mountain Fall

I have a dear friend who is a wonderful artist.  Many of her canvases use as background, patterns from a Persian carpet: colorful and vibrant context for birds, plants, animals and dreams.

The Mountain State of Colorado, this month, is a Persian carpet of color.  We didn’t plan on coming to CO to leaf-peep; we had  plans for a pilgrimage to a favorite Bears Ears destination and Colorado happened to be between us and Valley of the Gods.

We struck gold as soon as we reached the base of the Rockies, well north of Ghost Ranch.  Went from O’Keefe’s soft, rounded and abstract hills of lavender, peach and butterscotch to Colorado’s toothy peaks, foothills and fields of marigold, rust, and garnet.

Stopping at Mancos State Park, we settled into a camp site surrounded by oaks of many colors.  I never imagined that oaks could clothe themselves in such a variety of bronze, gold and rust-red.  And yet, here they were:  three oak scrubs just outside our camper window were dressed in three different warm hues. Quaking Aspens adorned the mountain sides and alpines meadows, uniformly brilliant, sparkling in the sunny breeze.

We weren’t alone in the campground.  Slow walks around the almost-empty loop of sites provided interactions with our 4-legged community.

The trees blaze with the passion of autumnal formal dress.  Grasses blush red at their bases and burn brighter yellow toward the tops of their stems.  Even cattails are burnished.  A feast of colors.  A Persian carpet of patterns.

 

Ghosting after O’Keefe

Stormy Pedernal

We pulled into camp in Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM just ahead of the storm front.  While Nick headed in for the start of his 3 day retreat, I started my 3 days of exploring the famed landscape that dominated Georgia O’Keefe’s art for decades.  Or, I would have started exploring but for the thunderheads that moved in and kept me within running distance of our rv.

I am not conversant in O’Keefe.  She remains, for me, an iconic but abstract name in the world of 20th Century art, like Frida Kahlo, Dali or Pollock.  And yet, it’s impossible to live in this state and be unaware of her images of the high desert heartland and her impact on the psyche of New Mexico. So here I am, camera in hand — or rather, on-neck — ready to see for myself.

Clouds are a photographer’s best friend.  Over the next 48 hours, the formations and patterns were pure Southwest, giving me wonderful context for the landscape.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I was taking shots of O’Keefe’s guiding spirit mountain, Pedernal, when I watched and tried to capture the moving storms, clouds, fog and clearing sky.  Pedernal Clearing

The story told later was that O’Keefe had a dream that God told her he would give her the mountain if she painted it enough; she painted some version of this mesa almost 30 times.  I’m glad the mesa is still there for the rest of us to capture in our own forms of expression.

I did a few little studies in black and white, which seemed natural given the gray, rainy skies.

Typical tourist, I took an afternoon bus tour that left public-access behind for a drive through the red hills that O’Keefe hiked daily,  where she painted the same scenes at various times of day, and on one or two occasions, painted various times of day on the same canvas.  And like all the other tourists, I took pictures of the same formations, hills and canyons O’Keefe painted.  Then, in processing my images, I decided to have a little fun.  I found online a couple of her paintings that were highlighted by the tour guide, locations which I had also photographed.  And I tried, using my processing software, to come close to the effect that she created with oils, pastels and watercolors. Here’s O’Keefe’s original Cliff Chimney, followed by my approximation, followed by my more typical processing.

Because there are so many ways to explore and understand a landscape, I went from 4 wheels to 4 feet — that is, I followed the bus tour with a horseback tour of the same limited access ranch area.  Where the bus had to stay to the road, the horses were able to meander among the hills, drop down into the arroyos, circle the outcroppings at a much more deliberate pace.  This guide/wrangler didn’t hold photos of O’Keefe paintings for our appreciation and elucidation; she told us the local origin story of a monster snake coiled around a big mesa, which ate interlopers, about mad witches after which the ranch was originally named, about the cattle rustlers who made a living and a killing there, and the bad turn of a gambler’s card that cost him the deed to the ranch.

Fall-ing in Saddle Rock Canyon

Saddle Rock Canyon, September 2017

Autumn is unwrapping her colors in Saddle Rock Canyon. Willow and Walnut are beginning to glow, just a little bit.  Soon they will be in full golden glory.  Cottonwood hasn’t started her costume change yet, but when she does, her heart-shaped leaves will glitter in the breeze like gold coins. Poison Ivy somehow manages to change each of her three leaves a different shade such that her tangled vines hanging from rock cliff are a panoply of red and orange.  A brilliant red dress of a vine creeps up the granite face–she’s one of the first, along with Ivy, to go scarlet in September.  Jewels of tuna now adorn Prickly Pear, giving me dreams of jelly and syrup.

Saddle Rock is a riparian canyon, protected for restoration, on the edge of the Gila National Forest just outside Silver City.  It’s popular for hikers, birders, trackers, photographers and just plain-ol’ ooglers because it’s close, though it requires a steady driving hand and high clearance to get through the sandy track back into the canyon area.  It’s neighbors are Goat Canyon (tho I’ve never seen goat one in there, just cows), Tuff Canyon, called so by my hiking group because of the fascinating tuff formations, and a network of other intersecting canyons, arroyos and slots.

Saddle Rock and its neighbors are a few of the gems in the Gila.  Our 3-million-acre National Forest is not under the same threat of abuse as other National Monuments both in New Mexico and the rest of the country–land and sea.  Yet, hiking,  birding, tracking, photographing and just oogling our Forest gems reminds me how precious all our public lands are and how critical they are to the health and wealth of the larger environment, thus to our own benefit.  And it seems that millions of Americans agree with me; all except the US Secretary of the Interior.  Willow and Walnut, Cottonwood and Poison Ivy, and Prickly Pear can enchant us with their autumn displays; they depend upon us to speak up on their behalf.

6 degrees on the road plus new friends.

 

Hotchkiss farmsPer Wikipedia: “Six degrees of separation is the idea that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.”

Six degrees works on the road.  Even more surprisingly, we found 2 degrees of separation in Gunnison, Dolores and Mancos, Colorado and in Mavreeso campground in the San Juan National Forest.

We asked the barista at The Bean Coffeehouse in Gunnison if we could hang out for awhile, taking advantage of their internet, since we were by that time totally bereft of decent signal.  Which led to the question where we were from, which led in turn to her exclaiming that her sister lived in Gila, NM, right up the road from us here in Silver City.  Well, she lived there in the past for several years, but had now moved on to some small community in Utah.

Chatting with our neighbors in an RV park in Chama, we learned that their son and his boy scout troop had biked from points west, through Silver City, across the Black Range at Emory Pass and on through TorC to Alamogordo NM. Quite a ride for a bunch of kids; parents rolled along comfortably on 4 wheels.

The camp hosts in Mavreeso came through Silver City a few years ago to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  They tried to find the old downtown, but missed the signage — a common problem, as our Main Street organization tells us — and left unimpressed with the commercial strip that is Rt 180.  They were, however, impressed with how “big a town” is Silver.  That is, big compared to their small Texas home town of around 800.  Goes to show, it’s all in your perspective; I came from the sprawling DC metro area so by contrast, Silver City is small.  There were others in other campgrounds who have been to Silver City or know someone who has lived here.  This is all fascinating: you have to come to Silver City on purpose; you don’t just stumble upon our corner of the world, tucked up next to the Gila National Forest.

And then, in Dolores and in Mancos, CO, we dropped the name of a friend of ours here, and made instant new friends of our friend from the years he lived in Mancos.  One of my biggest regrets of the trip was not accepting the invitation of the old guy, a Korean War Vet, to come to his house for a cup of coffee.  After a month of taking the slow roads through Colorado, I still had not slowed down enough to see friendship when it stood on the sidewalk.

Sometimes, there are no degrees between you and the folks you encounter.  We were sitting in our rv in Thirty Mile Campground, Rio Grande National Forest when I saw two familiar figures walking past our campsite.  A couple of fellow camper/travelers were making a similar trek through the San Juan Mountains and happened to pull into the same campground.  We got together a pot luck supper and shared stories of the roads past and roads to come.

irrigating_ While in Heron Lake State Park, NM, I learned from the folks in the next campsite that there was an Osprey nest on a platform nearby, where the parents had one chick.  We chatted about ospreys, state parks and national forests and generally the state of the world of public lands.  Later I took some pictures of the osprey mom (the chick was too small to see over the rim of the nest) and the neighbor gave me her card and asked that I send her a copy of my photo.  When I did, I received in return an invitation to visit them if we were in that area.  As it turned out, we were passing very nearby on our way to Grand Junction CO, so accepted her invitation.  This couple opened their home to us, fed us, and gave us a tour; we talked for hours about water and wild fires, travel, hiking and biking.  They live on 35 acres where they grow alfalfa.  We learned a lot about irrigation by pipes, water brought down from the reservoirs on top of the mesa; we walked out that afternoon to see how the pipe vents are opened and closed to “move” the water from one area of the field to another.  I would not have guessed that much of that area of Colorado is high desert, and what was lush and green was only so thanks to irrigation (the picture at the head of this story is an example of this rich farmland).  Reminded me of the Rio Grande valley down our way. We headed out for Grand Junction the next day, leaving behind a heart-felt invitation to come down to see us, and let us show off our National Forest and local highlights.

There’s a memoir, Blue Highways, by William Least HeatMoon, that we both read in the last year or so.  Our hope as we planned our meanderings through Colorado campgrounds, small towns and public lands was that we would experience something of our own blue highways.  In six degrees and less, we succeeded.

 

More than grand landscapes: Colorado in the details

Castle Rock Rainbow.Crawford State Park

Connection to the wildness of the land, I think, comes through the intimacy of the details:  a flower, a riffle in the river, the reflection on the lake.  The closer in I have to lean to decipher a footprint, the more real the critter that left that track becomes.  Watching my feet as I hike serves two purposes — keeps me from tripping over a root, for sure; but also brings to my attention the richness of the purple in that wildflower, the lichen of many colors coating the granite underfoot, and the remains of  one who came before. The last sunglow on a tree trunk and sunshine through virgas, rainbows and stacks of rainbows make tangible the details of light. Stillness of breath and movement allow the true owners of this landscape to reappear from their sequester to pursue their own initiatives. If I pass through this wildness gabbling like so many geese, I distract myself from my surroundings and the reason I’m here in the first place. To be at rest here is to be unseen, to not intrude where I am the interloper. Then I become part of the grand landscape.

 

 

 

May the Forest be with you, to borrow a phrase…

West Dolores River, Mavreeso CG San Juan NF

…from the coffee mugs we bought at a US Forest Service office.

Fraternal twins hug the West Dolores River about a mile apart.  Small and intimate, they invite lengthy meditation, listening to the many voices of the river, breathing in the fragrance of water and green, and watching the firs and spruces do nothing obvious at all.  Mavreeso Campground and West Dolores Campground keep a low profile among the trees in the San Juan National Forest, not far from the town of Dolores, CO.

Trails lace up the mountain slope through fir, aspen, and open benches covered with wildflowers.  The trailhead for Lower Stoner Mesa serves up an encounter with Christy sitting high on Diva and a brief conversation about trail ups and downs and getting a horse some exercise.  Forest trail lesson: who yields to whom?  Motor bikes yield to hikers and to bicyclists and we all yield to horses.  And even horses yield to the bear who has been regularly lunching in the serviceberry patches that crowd the trail.

 

Late afternoon brings out a flock of Cedar Waxwings hawking swarms of insects over the river. They start at tea-time, hawk on through the dinner hour and right up to dusk.

This treasure in the Forest seduces us to spend days connected to the real world and disconnected from the digital sphere.  Mavreeso will beckon us back each time we pour coffee into a mug…May the Forest be with you

#publiclandsworthprotecting  #sanjuannationalforest

In Silhouette–Colorado National Monument, NPS

Colorado National Monument-Big Horn Sheep Ewe

She was standing high on the cliffs, silhouetted against the morning light. Just as I was gaping up at her, we rounded a curve on the very curvy Rim Drive to find two more sheep on the road, neither of which seemed in a hurry to let us pass.  We took advantage of a pull-out so I could get out my camera and my really-long lens.  I doubted that the ewe up on the cliff or the two on the side of the road would still be around by the time I got lenses changed and out the door; it’s my experience that by the time I finish camera-fumbling, the intended subject has gone.  Not this time, fortunately.  The ewe had moved around slightly to keep an eye on the two below. and gave me plenty of time to fire off a number of shots.  I tried to get a couple of shots of the two sheep as they moved off into the brush, but just as I framed them up, two women on bikes rode around the curve, into my frame, and with the innocence of not-photographers, asked if I was getting anything good.  All I managed after the women rode on was to get two sheep rear-ends.

Colorado National Monument-Independence MonumentColorado National Monument-Wedding Canyon_

Colorado National Monument is an amazing treasure right on the edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The Monument, created in 1911 and now part of the National Park Service, is 1500 to 2000 feet above Grand Junction, CO.  It’s not large as Monuments go: 20,500 acres which include a visitor center, a campground, the Rim Drive and lots and lots of sheer-cliffed canyons and formations.  And amazingly unknown:  in 2016 there were barely 400,000 visitors, many of whom just make the drive through, stopping at overlooks and enjoying the view.  Since 1919 when NPS started keeping visitation records, Colorado NM has seen only 23 million people pass through.  Compare that with Grand Canyon National Park, which sees about 6 million people per year, and 205 million since 1919.

We had a lovely campsite right near the rim on a loop that had fewer than 1/2 dozen other campers among lots of empty campsites.  That was the last-minute loop.  The reserve-ahead loop was slightly more populated, but not by much.  Sadly for us, it was unusually warm, with daytime temps over 90.  Since the hiking trails are exposed, it made exploring beyond the campground and visitors center a bit…uncomfortable.  We came down off the plateau a day early and headed for our next stop, a little higher in elevation and, thus, a little cooler.  I’ve put Colorado NM on my list of places to come back to.

Traveling Silver on the edge

Traveling Silver at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

From Gunnison, you have two choices.  You can follow the South Rim of the Black Canyon and visit the official visitors center, the drives and the overlooks and end up in Montrose CO.  There are campgrounds and ranger-led walks.  And LOTS of people.   Or you can wend and wind your way up the North Rim. Breath-taking, literally.  Edgy, again literally. Almost no people.  Those that are making this trek, are driving slowly, as much to avoid becoming part of the view as to enjoy the view.  It would be so easy, with a little too much speed in a large vehicle, to get first-hand experience at just how sheer and deep those canyon walls are.  This passenger was, fortunately, on the mountain side rather than the canyon side.  Still, full disclosure here, I was jelly and squish from vertigo.  Made it a little hard at times to enjoy the ride.

Still and all, I wouldn’t have missed it.  Those that knew the choices, encouraged us to take the North Rim and I’m glad we did.  Coming breathless down the other side, we landed in Crawford State Park, which not coincidentally is just a mile from Black Canyon Rd, the only road that goes up to the North Rim ranger station, campground and drive.  This road to the rim is deceptive; it’s one that sets you wondering what the first Europeans thought when driving a team and wagon across the mesa to suddenly and abruptly come to the edge of the world.

Once on the rim, there are a couple of terrific hikes.  We took the one that leads to Exclamation Point, and further to the top of Green Mountain.  Just beyond the trailhead, we passed the sign for the boundary of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness, a 15,000+ acre wilderness that protects the canyon rim-to-rim for 14 miles and is contiguous with the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness to the north.

Exclamation Point is a comfortable 3 mile round trip along edges (I’m much better on foot than in a vehicle when the land drops away) and through the trees.  At the point, beggars await a handout with alert ears and twitching noses. There is a rim drive as well that offers several overlooks with railing and information boards.  The walls of the canyon are so close in some spots that you can see and be seen from the overlooks on the South Rim.  If someone was looking north with binoculars, they would probably see you wave.

Black Canyon defies description, for all that I’ve tried to describe the experience of driving and hiking a bit of it.  It’s deep, yes.  Jagged and raw, indeed.  Definitely black — dark for lack of light and due to the geological makeup.  It roars with the voice of the Gunnison River in its depths.  These are inadequate things to say about a ditch that would have inspired Dante.  You kind of have to get on the edge yourself.

#publiclandsworthprotecting #publiclandsinpublichands

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