On the Zocalo of Oaxaca, MX

Oaxaca Puppets.1 First came the puppets, 2 stories tall, marching down the street.  Under, around and behind them came bands of brass and drums.  Swirling among the bands and the puppet carriers were the youth and sponsors, dressed in their cultural finest.  This festival honored the youth from the Zapotec and Mixtec villages and communities of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Soon, the Zocalo was brim full of color and flash.

Oaxaca Celebration Announcements were made, hands were clapped and everyone settled down for an afternoon of performances.  Lo siento, but I don’t speak Spanish, so I couldn’t understand what was said.  I could only enjoy and save through my lens, the afternoon of music, slapstick and dance.

There was a slapstick comedy based on a children’s tale, with an evil witch complete with magical powers–  Oaxaca Slapstick Performer There were dancers on the plaza —

The festival went on well into the evening.  We had to leave early the next morning for home; we went to sleep to the sounds of pounding feet on the Zocalo stage just beyond the doors of our hotel.

Tell me what! Tell me who! and tell me how!

Here’s where the big cat sat for a few minutes watching; how small a sign for so large an animal.  See these digs on the edge of the road? This is where that cat bounded down, rear feet sliding down the mounded dirt, digging divots in the soft substrate, front feet barely landing before the cat was across the road.  Look around. There are cat tracks in the duff between the “sit” and the bound.  There are other cats’ tracks on the other side of the road and trailing into the bush.  Make up our own stories about what these animals were doing together: play? Mating dances?

javalina hair - hunter-killed

Javalina hair

Who’s hair is this, left in piles along the edge of another little road?  And what to make of that black, odd-shaped pile of something?  A javalina met its end here and was gutted out.  The questions are: how and by what?  and where is the rest of the critter? Follow the disturbed leaves and soil up and across the road, under the bush, across the stream bed and over under that oak.  Not hard to see – if you know what to look for. And the question remains: what killed this animal?  If a mt lion had made this kill, it would have look like this: [scatter/scrabble/draganddisappear].  If coyotes had killed the javalina, this is how things would look: [dragdrag/gnaw/scatter].  That’s not what happened here.  This javalina was killed by a hunter over there, gutted, skinned and probably stripped of best parts of meat. Here are the tell-tale signs: knife marks.  Coyotes probably dragged what was left here and chewed on the rib ends.

deer lay

White Tail Deer lay

There were many more opportunities during the weekend to sus out tracks, to tangle with strides and pace, to dance left or right foot and front or back, to read that the rabbit leaped away or where the deer rested in the sand. Gopher mounds versus javalina rootings. A branch chewed off by small teeth and scrapes on branches by young antlers.

 

Stories upon stories told by tracks and scats and sign.  Learn to read the sign to read the stories.  Look around.  Expand my view.  Go from ground level, nose a few inches above the soil, to circling the sign, to searching the surrounding landscape to get the bigger picture.

This is what I learned in an advanced tracking workshop.  I thought I knew a little bit about tracking – emphasis on “a little bit.”  I spent a weekend getting tested and evaluated.  Whether I passed or not wasn’t my concern (I did), and how I would manage without my tracking book (that was the hardest constraint to master).   What I learned was, first: what I don’t know.  Then to listen, watch, absorb, sort and remember.

Casey- racoon track morphology

Racoon on the Gila

When the rain comes…

Jay on Oak.2-17-18

Scrub Jay on Scrub Oak

Here in the ecological intersection between high desert, pinion-juniper and coniferous forests, sitting on the Continental Divide, people speak of “moisture.”  As in: “we sure need some moisture, it’s so dry.”  We welcome any kind of moisture–rain, snow, heavy fog.  Well, perhaps not fog, since it does nothing more than wet the leaves and leave garlands of itself girdling the mountains.  When it rains, this is the only place I know where we all run OUTSIDE to stand under the falling drops, faces tilted upward.

Golden Oak.2-17-18When the rain comes in late winter-early spring, the gray or scrub oaks turn golden brown and begin to drop their leaves. Gray/scrub oaks do not shed in the fall like  respectable deciduous trees in the East. Oak leaves hang on green until a little spring rain triggers the growth cycle of new buds, causing the old leaves to color, dry and fall away.  When we moved here, I learned quickly how both flora and fauna are rain-dependent; both time their reproduction cycles to the season most likely to provide moisture and food to sustain the next generation.

Grasses after rain.2-17-18There is a feast of colors when the rain comes. Rain intensifies colors in amazing ways.  Maybe that’s true everywhere and I just never noticed before.  Dry fields of grass just look like…well, grass!  Various shades of tan.  Nothing particularly exciting on the color palate.  After a couple of days of gentle rain, grasses show true colors of gold, gray, gray-green, and most particularly, red.

 

Wet lichen.2-17-18

 

 

Complementing the rainbow of grasses, wet lichens become emerald jewels against the rough bark of pinion trees and branches.

 

 

 

Fragrance of juniper.2-17-18The rain frees a fragrance that is unique to the Southwest.  You catch it the moment you step outside anytime there’s been enough of a sprinkle to wet the leaves.  After a steady farmer’s rain,  the air is sharply saturated.  Follow your nose to a halo of scent.  If it were visible, it would be a shimmering ether; even not visible it permeates the atmosphere, intoxicating.  More than ozone, here, it is literally the smell of rain: the Juniper tree.

 

 

 

 

With this rain event, we have received an average across the area of 2 inches, a hopeful sign where we worry about the threat of summer wild fires.  I stand outside and soak in the moisture; I walk and look and breathe.

 

On Twin Sisters Creek

Twin Sisters_

Twin Sisters in the background

Three people striding along, hiking poles marking their yards.  Two helmeted men pass on mountain bikes, as I pull Pumpkin off to the side.  Greetings exchanged, I recognize one of the riders: Happy Sunday, we smile.  Pumpkin insists on a bit of a gopher hunt, off in the grass.  Something over there is unseen but smelled, heard; she stops on point, ears forward.  C’mon, Pumpkin, here’up, pup.  At the intersection of trails, here is a couple with a small canine, pick-up-able.  “Which way are you going? I’ll take that way.” A jogger with her dog,  on leash but curious.  She pauses and the dogs’ noses touch briefly; a bit of Labrador in both, hers black, mine mahogany.  Another mountain biker, slowly negotiating the narrow trail through the grasses and across the stony stream bed.  Move Pumpkin into the weeds on the side and receive a grateful nod.  She’s off again on a nose-hunt.  Pushing through the grass, snuffling, stopping to sneeze out the dust.  Through two gates and a couple of miles down the trail, we come to our turn-around point.

Target Practice.Ft BayardThis old metal frame is another bit of  Fort Bayard history.  According to my historian friend from our Tuesday hiking group, this frame was in the service of target practice for the Buffalo Soldiers.  Behind the frame is a bit of hill embedded with wooden boards that served as the backstop for the balls that pierced either the targets or with poorer aim, the metal frame itself.

On our way back to the trailhead, we are passed by yet two more bikers, these with a dog off leash, panting along in pace with them.  The dog hesitates slightly at sight of Pumpkin but keeps moving in response to the demand of the bikers.

We encounter a hiker unfamiliar with this trail.  Once I’ve told him where the trail goes and where it intersects with trails more familiar, we chat for several minutes.  Knees, hips and legs — an organ recital typical of folks our age; a touch on politics, just enough to admit that he is Libertarian and tends to avoid political discussions (altho he brought it up) and an avowed tree-hugger (me, since he mentioned having a few as friends).  Actually I just wanted to make sure he knew what specific topics to avoid as he avoided the general topic of politics.  3.7 miles later, we were back at the truck, sharing a granola bar.

It was a beautiful Sunday as so many of our days are, here in the high desert of the Southwest.  It was a good day to be on a trail along a creek lined with magnificent old cottonwoods, with the Twin Sisters in the distance in one direction, and the Stars and Stripes flying over the veterans cemetery, visible just over the ridge, on the grounds of the old fort.  Our public lands.  We are healthier, physically, emotionally, spiritually because those lands exist, because we can hike them, hunt them, bike them, bird them.  It’s a fact!

Wagon Ruts of Ft Bayard

High on the side of the hill, the slick rock has preserved a bit of the history of Ft Bayard, Grant Co, NM.  

The fort was established in 1866 and manned primarily by Buffalo Soldiers as a protection for settlers in the region against the Apache.  Ft Bayard has a storied history, though it is now unused and falling into ruin.

At the time of the Buffalo Soldiers, Ft Bayard was powered by wood.  The surrounding hills provided an unending (or so it seemed) source of trees to be cut and transported down to the fort for firewood; wood hauled in wagons with wooden wheels, which had iron rims.

Even stone cannot resist repeated friction forever.

 

Ups and Downs

CDTrail over Goat Canyon.1-30-18

I don’t like “up” very much. To be honest, it depends on how much “up” there is, and whether “up” is complemented by “flat” and “down.”  Too much “up” pushes my breathing and burns my thighs.  Working against me on “up”:  I grew up at sea level; I never hiked much until moving to 6,000 feet; I’m not 40 anymore.

It was another Tuesday, another foray into the Gila National Forest with the “Tuesday Group.”  Our hero route suggestion-er proposed Goat Canyon, a favorite of his, and frequented by us individually and as a group.  It lies next to Saddle Rock Canyon, and a canyon over from Black Hawk, and so on.  These Gila hills are only hills because of the canyons that define and divide them!

A Forest Service road climbs out of Goat Canyon up to a ridge threaded by the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  While ones of us (often me) frequently request not too much “up,”  this morning we were more interested in sun, given that it was about 19 degrees at 8 am.  Off we went to Saddle Rock, and up Goat Canyon we headed.  The canyon itself is  beautiful, approaching “slot” width in places, heavily trafficked by cow and atv, and bounded and strewn with the amazing variety of rock that makes up the skeleton of the Gila mountains.  Still shadowed, the canyon air was chill and, chilled, we set a fast pace.

We reached the Forest Service road and started up.  Oh no.  Really “up.”  I kept hoping that every turn would bring us to “flat” or even, maybe, a little “down” where I could catch my breath.  Every turn opened up more “up.”  Shortly, I was the last of the line, with another hiker graciously keeping me company, despite my breathy assurances that he could go ahead and I’d catch up.

It’s a truism about hiking groups:  the faster ones stop to wait for the slower.  By the time the slower ones catch up and want to rest a minute, the faster have rested and set off at pace again.

We finally reached the end of “up” and the crossing of the CDT. Turning up the trail, we moved through native rock gardens, little groves of oak and pinion, and shouldered the hills on trails wide enough for one pair of feet.  But the views…oh, the views.  This is why I keep breathing through “up”–because my senses and soul expand with the views.  With the space and blue and clouds and distant mountains.

We who live snuggled up to the Gila National Forest are fortunate.  Our Forest, with its three Wildernesses, its cliff dwellings, forests, plains, rivers, elk, mountain lion, wolves, is not under threat of shrinkage, of undoing.  But there are other public lands that are.

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall led a group of 18 Democratic senators in introducing Senate Bill S. 2354 to enhance protections for national monuments against the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on public lands. The America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States (ANTIQUITIES) Act of 2018 reinforces Congress’ intent in the Antiquities Act of 1906: only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.
If you are a public lands advocate — or simply a public lands user — this is a Bill to love.  More importantly, it’s a bill to support.  19 Senators will not be force enough to get this through.  But 51 would be.  If you have a moment, think views and trails and critters.  Think future and preservation and protection and national heritage.  Write you Senator today to thank him/her for support or encourage him/her to think “up.”

Dragonfly

 

Dragonfly

A dragonfly. A circle. A hand and other signs carved into rock millennia ago by the Mimbres people.  The Dragonfly Trail is one trail among many on the edge of the Gila National Forest, part of the Elk Preserve and edging Ft Bayard.  Three miles from the edge of town, five from my driveway.  Miles to walk, think, study, meditate, and encounter.

We just got a new dog.  ‘Bout time, I say, having watched our last die of stroke and lethal injectionPumpkin in May of 2017.  This is Pumpkin, a 3 year old female.  She was listed by Albuquerque Animal Shelter as a Chocolate Lab mix, and mix she is indeed, right down to her natural bob tail.  For the nonce, she’s a little scraped up from a scrap with her former home-mate, another female dog with whom she didn’t get along.  It was the fight that determined her surrender and our fortunate adoption.  We knew she had to be ours, because…well…our last three Labs have been named after food groups.  Blackberry. Black Pepper.  Nutmeg.  So when I saw her listed as Pumpkin, her fate and ours were pre-determined. At three, though, she has rather more energy than Nutmeg had at 15.  And I did say that I needed the motivation to hike more often.  So on day 2 of her residency here, we headed for Dragonfly Trail and her introduction to the wilder side of her life-to-come.

Over the course of about three hours, Pumpkin had near encounters with several other dogs, whose owners graciously put them on leash or took them off trail so that we could pass, unmolested and unmolesting.  She also discovered the remains of a deer: backbone and ribs with one leg attached.  Not sure if the deer met its demise from four-legged or two-legged hunters, but Pumpkin found the bones interesting.

I’m assuming that she lived a city life before coming to us.  Now, she has a world, not just of deer, but of coyote, fox, bobcat and the occasional mountain lion and bear to discover. Oh, and rattlesnakes.

What riches our public lands, like the Gila National Forest and Dragonfly Trail, provide: an immersion in natural systems, a meditation of colors and sounds, a chronicling of human presence.  And great places to take a new dog.

 

Ode to Tuesday Group

hiking CDTrail

It’s Tuesday morning after Christmas.  We meet as usual at 8 am and discuss, first, where to hike, and then, carpool details.

Where to hike is always a fun conundrum.  Gila National Forest is crisscrossed with hiking trails.  Some of them are quite challenging, climbing and crossing ridges and shouldering mountain tops, dropping into deep-walled canyons. Each week, we head for one of the more accessible trails, often choosing to pick up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and follow it for 2 miles; we stop at that point for fuel, turn and head back.

We’re a good group, reasonably well matched in hiking endurance and strength.  We’re a fluid group: whoever shows up at 8 am, hikes.  Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes, like today, 13. We’re also fluid in our trail habits, changing conversational pairs as we trudge up and down rises and maneuver rough spots.  I may find myself toward the front, with voices falling away behind me.  On “ups,” I step aside to breathe, and catch up at the end of the line, chasing voices.  It strikes me, the more removed I am from the conversations, that we sound like a gabble of geese.

When we’re stretched out, there may be no visual contact from one little cluster to the next. There is a sweet silence walking the trail alone, watching feet, glancing down stream beds and up side canyons, noticing birds popping up from the grasses, watching cloud formations.  But recently, there have been a couple of situations where, in one, vehicles got separated and ended up stopping at different points along the CDT; in another, hikers got separated, resulting in three-hour backtracking and a 911 call for Search & Rescue.  Today, we carefully tracked each other, waiting in a little flock on the trail for the trailing chicks.

National Forests are managed for multiple uses; the Gila National Forest is no exception.  We often pass mining tailings, test digs and old mining pits. There is frequently infrastructure for cattle grazing, including water tanks and old corrals.  Today was no exception. quartz mine.CDTrail An exposed chunk of quartz and a myriad of quartz chips scattered the ground at an old mine site.  The quartz was not the target for this mine, but some rare earth mineral contained in the quartz.  Because that mineral is slightly radioactive, we avoided picking up pieces of the glistening rock to bring home and joked about glowing in the dark.  Up the hill from the quartz mine, grazed a couple of cows.  Other cows complained in the brush.  We were blocking their direct path to water. old mine on CD Trail

Next Tuesday, the second day of the new year, will be another opportunity to explore the National Forest that is our back yard.

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

 

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