Old Forest New Forest

It’s amazing the lines and boundaries that a forest fire draws.  From the images you see in the media during a raging fire, you can imagine that the fire burns down valley and up-mountain clearing everything in its path, evenly and equally.  Not so.

We live snuggled up against the Gila National Forest.  The Forest trails are my go-to for dog-walking, friend-hiking, animal-tracking, and mind-settling.  Especially when it’s hot in town, I head up-hill.  It might be almost 80° at 7:30 in the morning when I leave my house at 6,000 feet, but at 7,000+ feet elevation on a Ponderosa-forested trail, my bare arms are chill at 63°.

The Forest has a history of wildfires, some of which have burned thousands and hundred-thousands of acres, some coming within too few miles of town. Whitewater-Baldy 2012. Silver Fire 2013. Signal Peak Fire 2014. Other years, multiple small fires burn a few hundred to a couple of thousand acres. Right now, eleven smallish fires are burning on the Gila. 

The education for me has been to see that the fires don’t take everything.  They create a patchwork quilt of burned-to-sticks mixed with barely-touched forest and gradations in between.  There is, once the embers die out, a succession over the next years, life that returns to the most badly burned areas, including plants, insects and birds.  In fact, there are birds that come just for the insects that erupt from the fallen logs and dead standing trunks.  Rewilding at its most elemental. Up Signal Peak Rd.burn area.2.7-14-19

I experienced again this patchwork effect in the last couple of weeks.  Week 1, with the Thursday Group, we hiked up McMillan trail, a narrow trail that heads uphill from the back of McMillan Campground.  Although the creek that drains this upward-bound canyon is dry now, it ran with early rains and snow melt, feeding a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines plus a lush understory of wildflowers and poison ivy. We passed an old tree trunk, split and harboring many years of rodent-chewed pine cone bits.

ancient tree w rodent nest.McMillan trail.6-2019

An old tree inhabited

Not quite two miles up, we turned on a side trail that led into a grotto backed by a stone cliff streaked with desert wash, the stain left on the rock from falling water. This is old forest at its best.

Week 2, a friend, Dog and I went up Signal Peak Rd a short way and diverted onto a little-used forest road to the left.  Heavily forested, with a few dispersed campsites not recently used, cool, green and fragrant.  We spotted bowl-shaped spiderwebs holding the sunlight.

Openings in the canopy let us look up the side of the next hill, a mass of rock and hoodoos.  Others have traveled this road as well: turkey, elk, cow and a large black bear, all leaving evidence in the muddy spots on the track.

Having never been up the length of Signal Peak Rd to the fire scar and the fire tower, I decided to drive a ways up, not necessarily to the peak, but to find the transition between old forest and new forest.

It wasn’t too many miles before we broke out of the Ponderosa into the recovery area.  The first in the line of succession is grass, mullein and wildflowers, which were there in abundance.  Next in the line is NM Locust, typically the first tree to recolonize a burn scar in our forests.  Depending upon the elevation, aspen may come next, though that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  In the minds of many people, tragically, the vanilla-scented Ponderosa take decades to return.  And yet.  And yet, it won’t be many years before there will be nurseries of little ponderosa, gathered as a bunch of children in clusters among the Locusts, until they come to dominate.  At least, that’s the plan.

I got to thinking that McMillan Campground and trail must be pretty close to the burn area on Signal Peak, even though there are such stark differences between old forest and new.  I got on the Forest’s website and pulled up the satellite map.  From green to burned is a distance of one ridge, a slight few miles.  On the other side of the burn is another favorite hiking area still intact, Meadow Creek, just another ridge away. Here’s the satellite image with the trail marked, the Signal Peak Lookout circled and the burn scar highlighted.  But look now, because it’s coming back.  It won’t be the same for a long time but it will be—and is—wild again. McMillan Trail and Signal Peak

Four on the Floor…er, Mud

On Friday morning, three of us plus dog went to the Gila River Important Bird Area (IBA) which is part of the Gila National Forest and about 30 miles from home.  We are barely-better-than-beginning trackers, and we need more practice identifying the evidence our 4-legged neighbors leave behind. Pumpkin digging

Dog has no such need, but goes because she loves the smells, the company and the opportunity to dig for a gopher or two.

We carry books and rules and phones with cameras. When I remember it, I also carry a small reflector that can be used to direct more light into a track under examination. We walk looking down.  We pause often and study the ground.  We skim over grassy and debris-covered areas, preferring the silt, sand, mud fresh and hardened, even gravel and ant-hills.  That’s where we have a chance of seeing tracks and sign. Although same would exist in the grass and among the fallen oak leaves and pine needles, it would take a tracker far more expert than us to notice, let alone identify tracks in that substrate.  [Substrate: a fancy term for the ground we walk on.]  We’re even known to get down on our hands and knees to blow debris out of a possible track or to sniff at possible sign for telltale marking odors.  Believe it or not, dog is pretty patient, only straining slightly at the end of her lead. Her trade-off is that we are patient while she digs into gopher and mole holes and tunnels or slaps around in the river.

We’ve gotten pretty good at the big guys.  Bear tracks, canine and big cat feet and scat: we see those pretty regularly and they are easier to identify.  It’s the medium to smaller folks’ tracks and sign that resist for-certain identification.  So we study and puzzle and flip through our books and open up our phone apps, measure and photograph and debate.  To document a track or sign in our official transect, reported to Sky Island Alliance, we have to have a consensus of three.  On our informal forays for our own benefit, we do the best we can.  I have to say, we’re getting better.

This outing netted us four tracks that we agreed upon.  Black Bear.Gila River IBA.6-7-19A black bear paced back and forth along the river bank.  We found a relatively clear track for a front foot, and deep impressions where the bear stepped down a slight rise in the gravelly sand.

At another point along the river, we found a dance-party of mountain lion tracks: front and rear, going in multiple directions in a small area, as though the big cat was square dancing.  mountain lion.Gila River IBA.6-7-19Of course, there could have been more than one cat, but we couldn’t read that much in the mud.  Unfortunately, the very best track, a large front foot, got overstepped by dog who came poking her nose in to see why we were all on our knees. 

 

Our other two finds were a spotted skunk and after long debate, a white-nosed coatimundi.  That last is still a bit up in the air, because the group of trackers to whom I submitted the picture of the coati track for confirmation were 2/3 in agreement and 1/3 of the opinion that the track belonged to a jackrabbit.

Oh, and this is the Important Bird Area and the trees were a glory of birdsong.  We didn’t identify — or even really see one bird.  I’ve learned you can’t look down and up at the same time!

It was a one-dog night!

Black Canyon map

Black Canyon is carved east to west between the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the Gila Wilderness.  It connects the Black Range and the Mogollons in the Gila National Forest, a 3 million acre respite in southwestern NM.  It’s remote, as any spot in the wilderness should be. There is one road, North Star Mesa Rd, that winds and twists and hiccups up the sides of ridges, runs along the tops of mesas and ridgelines, and slithers switchback down into a series of canyons.   A high clearance vehicle is de rigueur; AAA isn’t about to come to the rescue of a low-slung sedan that scraped its oilpan loose on the rocks in the road. Washboarding is unavoidable because the road is too curvy to skateboard over the washboard ridges at speed.  Since there’s no there, there, sliding across the black ice of washboard gravel can spin you out over the edge of the hill and down several hundred feet.

But it’s worth the trip.  The campground is set along a perennial stream, shown on the Gila National Forest map without a name.  At the entrance to the campground from North Star Mesa Rd, there’s a dam that plays a part in the project to reintroduce the native Gila Trout.  Trail #94 starts at the lower end of the campground and follows the creek for a while, then peters out.  Because it’s a challenge to reach, and the road isn’t one typically used to get from here to there, the campground is lightly used.

Our wilderness inventory tribe hasn’t camped together for a year or so, because our inventory work has finished and the results fed into the Gila’s forest planning process.  It was time to get out and reconnect with each other and with wild places, to enjoy good food, good wine and lots of conversation.  Our group went in for a two-night weekend. This time, I brought my dog.  She’s a 4 year old 55 lb half chocolate Labrador Retriever and half Black Mouth Cur, more hunter than retriever and all muscle and curiosity.  She’s an affectionate dog, a well-mannered dog.  I can brag because I adopted her this way, and take no credit for her good behaviors.  She’s never camped before and I wondered how she would fare in the woods with all those wild smells and sounds, and how she would sleep in a tent.  I took her collapsible kennel and bed so she’d have something familiar come bedtime. When it was time, she didn’t hesitate to go into the tent, although the zipper door was a bit puzzling to her.  Nor did she hesitate to curl into her kennel, take her bedtime treat and settle down.  And I cozied into my sleeping bag and settled myself down.  Until about midnight.  I woke up reaching for my extra blanket, pulling it up over my sleeping bag.  It occurred to me that if I was that cold, I wondered how the pup was doing, so I reached into the kennel to check.  Sure enough, she was in a tight little ball, shivering.  After trying unsuccessfully to cover her inside the kennel with a jacket, I gave up and invited her onto my cot and into my sleeping bag.  A happy girl she was, snuggled up and hugged. It was about 34° when we woke up at dawn; no wonder we were both grateful for the other’s heat.

The next night, I borrowed a comforter from a friend who had the luxury of a camper.  We thought, if we covered the dog’s kennel with the comforter, it would help keep her body heat in and ensure a warmer night in her own bed. That worked and we slept well until about 3 am.  Once again awakened reaching for my blanket, I checked her in her kennel under the comforter, and once again, she was balled up and shivering.  So, once again, invited into my sleeping bag and curled in my arms she was. At dawn, my fellow campers, bundled in puff jackets, hats, scarves and mittens against another 35° morning, greeted me over coffee, teasing about a 1-Dog night.

My dog and I took a bit of a walk on the dirt road that ran through the campground. On the top of a hill above the creek, we were attracted to movement in the creek below.  She went on alert and I peered over the edge to see what had her so focused.  A group of four or five mature javalina were working their way upstream.  It became obvious that they were very aware of the dog. Still, they moved no more warily for her distant presence, but did keep one eye uphill.  She was pointing with focus, but showing no intent to rush down the hill to confront the animals.  Good thing.  One dog and one or more javalina, and the javalina will always come out on top.  They are non-threatening when left alone, but vicious if challenged.  I had her on leash, but that would have mattered little if she really wanted to course downhill after the javalina; she could have pulled the leash right out of my hand and me onto my nose. We turned back to the road, only to confront a black bear coming down hill directly toward us. I saw the bear a split second before the dog did, and so was prepared if she decided to charge.  Instead, she saw the bear and froze.  That gave me time to call to her loudly and back us both up, away from the bear.  Bear saw us, and, halting with a paw raised for a next step, studied us for seconds that seemed like minutes.  I continued backing us slowly and talking, which gave the bear time to decide it didn’t really need to get down to the creek just at that moment, and to turn and lumber back up the hill.

I wonder if the dog will expect black bear encounters and sleeping bag snuggles on every camping trip from now on.  Probably. Pumpkin.5-14-19 (2)

 

Continental Divide Trail in Two Acts

From the CDT.3-25-19.edAct 1

One of my favorite stretches of the CDT near home is a forested section of the trail, cutting just under a ridgeline at about 6400 feet elevation.  It’s my go-to place when the temperature encourages hiking in the shade.   The trail dips and rises – on the dips, it passes through pinion and juniper and crosses erosion streamlets, and on the rises, Ponderosa pines dominate.  A gentle place, a refuge from the busier sections on nearby Gomez Peak and 80 Mountain.  The dog and I walk a couple of miles each way at a leashed-dog pace.

Last week, I looked for Spring.  Little signs.  Tiny blooms and grass.  Signs were there, but not in abundance; not yet.  There was plenty to entertain a dog’s nose. And grab her ears’ attention, for that matter. Nothing that I ever saw, but she knew “they” were out there.

I noticed a White-breasted Nuthatch, an “ass-up” bird as my Ornithology Prof called it.  The Nuthatch was shopping up a pine tree trunk, gleaning among the crevices in the Ponderosa bark.  My eye followed the bird, past the bird, up the trunk and higher into the early Spring blue sky, where a Red-tailed Hawk was also shopping for dinner, soaring in circles, eyes down.  The dog was sniffing a chipmunk hole so I had a moment to watch the sun firing the red tail as the hawk moved between me and the light.

The clouds on this day were herringbone and cross-hatch.  They moved and morphed into jelly fish and mares’ tails.  A full sky and a good camera would have made this photographer happy.  As it was, it was lovely to check out the clouds at each break in the overstory.

I had plenty of incentive to look up and around.  Normally I would be watching the ground, noticing the tracks left by neighbors who passed recently: mule deer, fox, dog, bicycle, horse, once a mountain lion.  But now, the trail is crossed, edged, saddled with the destructive tracks of cattle.  This section has been pristine till now.  This is Forest Service land, and cattle leasing competes with recreational uses.  Now, there is a leaseholder who has moved cattle into this section.  Seeing the impact of those animals’ passing, even understanding the mission of multiple use, makes me sad and discouraged.  It’s hard to be poetic about cow tracks.

Act 2

Later in the week, and on a cooler, windy day, dog, husband and I went south to another section of CDT, off the appropriately named Gold Gulch Rd.  This is another favorite section, mostly thanks to the incredible views from the open trail at an elevation over 6300 feet.

Husband hikes at a different pace and with a different attention than me.  He’s not leashed to dog who waits for no human – except when smells dictate pauses.  He fell further behind than usual, so after waiting for a few minutes for his hat to top the rise, dog and I went back down the trail.  He was alternately bending over scratching in the dust of the trail, and standing up staring at his hand.  Caught up, he held out a bit of gold.  Not enough to start a gold rush, but enough to give us a little rush of discovery. Would have been nice if it were big enough to pay the mortgage.

The land is covered by mostly bear grass, scrub and pinion/juniper, it’s more exposed, and Spring is making more of an appearance.  locoweed.CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19One of the many forms of locoweed is in bloom and tiny yellow sprigs are popping.  This is not an area where we get the glorious wildflowers that are stunning hikers across the Southwest, but at 25 miles from home, I’ll take what is offered.

The dog’s nose perked and dragged us both off trail about 50 feet.  I caught her just before she buried her teeth into the scavenged remains of a javalina, officially known as a collard peccary.  No bear here, no wolves, possibly a mountain lion kill shared afterward by coyotes.  More likely a hunter took this animal, stripped it of meat and dignity, and left its bones, hide and head to the sun and wind.  I know hardcore trackers might bag the head with incisors intact, take it home and clean it, saving the skull.  I was satisfied with a few pictures and an observation documented on iNaturalist.Javalina.1 on CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19

Here, we are within 50 miles of the southernmost end of the CDT.  From the rises, we stare at Big Hatchet Mountain, the mountains of the borderlands, the Floridas.  To the east, the blue haze of the Organ Mountains;  Cookes Peak stands alone; to the west, glimpses of the Peloncillos. Years ago on a little mountain in my home state, I saw a family with a young son come up the trail to the edge of the rock and look over the farmland 900 feet or so below.  He turned in excitement to cry, “Hey mom hey dad.  We’re bigger than the world.”  Exactly the way I feel up here!

 

A Muddy Butt and A Diamondback

The Gila River-2

Gila River through the Bird Area (2016)

The recent rains made for expectations of good tracks on the river’s edges.  We headed for the Gila River’s Bird Area, books and rulers tucked into backpacks.  Along with us came the dog.  I wasn’t certain whether one energetic dog would have the patience for three humans standing around staring at the ground for minutes at a time, but she did need the exercise.

The river was running really high and some of the edges were under water.  There was one wash and several spits that were above the water line; they had been flushed by run-off and were rain-slick with mud.  Since the light rain the previous evening, critters large and small had been dashing and dancing around, leaving a plethora of foot prints behind.  The dog added tracks of her own, fortunately not overwriting the tracks we were most interested in deciphering.

As a highlight, we found absolute evidence of the resurgence of beaver on this stretch of the Gila River.  We’ve seen the beavers’ signature tree stumps, chewed to points.  And there’s a beaver dam under construction just a mile or so downriver from where we were exploring. But here, we found tracks – impressed in the mud just since last night.  Our “take” for the morning: beaver; two different skunk species—hog-nosed and striped; raccoon; great blue heron; spotted sandpiper; and squirrel. We might have found more, but for time and a dog’s tolerance.  We documented and submitted all but the sandpiper and squirrel to iNaturalist to become part of the scientific database.

The only downside  was when my backside went down into the mud.muddy butt Gila River bird area 10-26-18.ed

The next day took me in the opposite direction, down into the Chihuahuan Desert and in the shadow of Cookes Peak. We went to explore the remains of Ft Cummings, one of a string of forts originally built through the southwest along the Butterfield Stage line and set at critical water sources.  These same forts were later instrumental in, first causing and as a result, defending against the Apaches in the 11-year Apache wars.

There’s not much left of Ft Cummings: a few bits of adobe wall; a cemetery hill whose occupants have since been moved; parts of the stone structure that was the stagecoach stop; and a springhouse that is not only still in use but has been brought into the 21st century by the addition of solar panels to pump out water for the cattle that are grazed on this piece of desert.

Stopped in the old corral area, where we thought to sit on the walls, water ourselves and have a bite of lunch.  I wandered to the end of one wall to look for a seat in the shade under the only tree tall enough to cast any.  There was already somebody stretched out.  With due respect, I allowed as how he (or she) had first rights to the spot.  Nonetheless, he (or she) decided to remove him (or her)self into hiding until we interlopers stopped staring, left the corral and a snake’s peace was restored.

rattlesnake - Ft Cummings

The earth is flat — until it’s not!

We cross a saddle in a ridge from the trailhead and pass into the Gila Wilderness. Lying before us is almost three miles of flat mesa.  Walking across that wide meadow of grasses and wildflowers, we follow a narrow trail, pitted by mule and horse feet, rocky and muddy thanks to impact of monsoonal drenching.  The views are expansive from the slight rises, and intimate in the dips. I can tell we are approaching the edge of nothing when I start seeing, instead of the trunks of Ponderosa, the crowns.  Through the crowns, a blue haze of air. The trail tends away obliquely, making me wonder how far this mesa goes and when it will drop away from under my feet.

Old Truck on Aeroplane MesaWilderness isn’t empty, not of people and not of things.  To the right of the trail, silhouetted against the sky is a relic: a 40’s era truck driven out to the edge of the world and abandoned, fodder for curious hikers’ wonder and speculation.

Then we are there, where the flat becomes vertical. Approximately 1500 feet of rocky switchback trail lies between mesa and river bottom.  Meadow and Gila River.2.edThere’s an overlook where we see our destination, a river-side meadow specked with the white kitchen tent secluded under a clutch of pines. The scary aspect of the view is that we have to get down there. As we pick our way among the trail rubble, we hear the mules coming with our weight of tents and bags.  The outfitter calls down to us, “Move to the downhill side.  Mules spook if a critter is above them.  Is that you behind a bush? Move out where the mules can see you.”  I step down and out of the way, and watch the outfit step on by us, more surefooted than I am, for sure.  Then, we work our way on down to level ground, off the sun-exposed cliff-side and into the shade.

Our first night around the campfire and under the Milky Way.  There’s a flicker on the far horizon that isn’t city-generated.  By mid-night, planets, stars and campfire are overwhelmed by a strong storm cell that parks overhead for the next several hours.  Lightning flashes my tent-sides bright, and thunder rolls overhead and on down the valley.  The storm is centered right overhead and the ground vibrates under my sleeping mats.  What’s to do except lie awake and in awe.  Saturday morning, we stand under the kitchen tent, sharing storm stories, drinking cup after cup of coffee and looking anxiously for spots of clearing overhead.  Suddenly, Lightning-struck tree.1

WHAMBOOM — a lightning strike about a football-field distance away.  We all duck and, on straightening, see the smoke and steam rising from a single pine tree on the edge of the woods at the far side of the meadow.  It still stands, but has been split in two and its roots boiled up out of the ground around it.  Splinters scatter on the newly-bared earth.  I’m not sure any of us have ever been that close a witness to the power of lightning’s electric impact.  Over the course of the morning, we go in ones and twos over to look at the result: at the split tree, the splinters, the upheaved earth and the scorched ground scar.

It’s late summer and in the meadow, along the river edges and under the pines, the earth explodes in bloom.  We count perhaps two dozen species of wildflowers, all native because how else would they be, out here in the wild.  Purple, orange, blue and more blue, seemingly a dozen shades of yellow, we wade hip-deep in color.

A diversion is suggested: a hike up river a mile or so to see a beaver dam.  Beaver are coming back on the Gila; they are cutting trees, dragging them distances and lacing them across the river to catch up and slow down the flow.  We find the dam stretching across most of the river’s width.  A cheerful rush of water through the branches, a pond held up behind and extended wetlands.  While we stand on the edge, a ripple surfaces and crosses the pond.

The day comes to leave the magic meadow retreat.  Roll the sleeping bag and mats, drop and pack a dew-wet tent, sort my day-pack to its lightest possible weight and sip a last cup of camp coffee.  Slowlyslowly climb up the cliff from river to mesa; take a last look over the edge at the kitchen tent, to be broken down by the outfitter the next day; face forward the long trail across flat earth and over the ridge to the trailhead.Down from the Saddle

There are additional images on my flickr page, linked below.

Favorite trail tales

 

Little Cherry Creek RdLittle Cherry Creek Road, Gila National Forest, early on a hot Sunday morning.  Third hike in as many weeks on this rough little two-track north of Pinos Altos.  It’s a good place to bring the dog, a good place to bird, a good place to find water in the right seasons and critters in any season.  I start at appx 6500′ elevation.  At a mile I’m over 6800′ and if I walk up the track to the intersection of track and trail, I’ve topped 7800′ — a 1300′ gain in a little less than two miles. It’s not a tough hike, though, despite the gain: gradual up with plenty to distract from any climbing discomfort.

 

Hoodoos define the walls of the canyon at the low end; they lean over the creek bed and crowd the oak, ash and other  deciduous trees.  Slabs of rock dip toward the track, laced with green lichens and, sometimes, desert varnish; shelves and overhangs provide cover and crevices for critters to shelter and burrow.

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb.6-10-18

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb

Another couple hundred yards up the track and Ponderosa  pines come to dominate the hillsides, still mixed with Gambels Oak.  The understory is a mix of green shrubs like gooseberry, elderberry, sumac, many of which are fruit- or berry-bearing.  Wildflowers can be plentiful, though not so much this year, thanks to the drought.

At 7,000′, the Ponderosa are mixed with fir on the hillsides that pinch the creek and track.

On this day as on my last two hikes up Little Cherry Creek Rd, Pumpkin pulls right and left — she’s kept on lead — running her nose on the ground gathering every scent of human, domestic and wild footprint.  A very brave chipmunk dashes across the road, tail straight at 12:00, right under the dog’s nose.  Can I blame the dog for her lunge at the critter and efforts to follow it over the side of the hill into the weeds?  And I know that when we come back down, the dog will remember exactly where that chipmunk disappeared over the edge; she’ll stop once more to strain to the chase.

I pished up a pair of Red Faced Warblers.  They darted among the pine branches to points right over my head, pishing being a very seductive sound, where they peered down at me.  I’m told that the warblers have moved down-mountain from the fire a few miles further north and a few hundred feet higher in elevation.  Normally, there are a few warblers along this track; now with the fire, there is an abundance.

I don’t know whether to count myself lucky: probably so, since I had Pumpkin with me.  Reports of a sow black bear with two cubs have come from two friends who have hiked that area in the same time frame as my forays.  In one encounter, the sow tried to move her cubs off in a different direction, but one curious cub headed straight for the human.  Mom grunted something comparable to “come back here right this minute” and the cub did turn and run back.  On the same day that I was just there with my dog, another friend and his wife, higher up the trails from me, unexpectedly confronted the bear and cubs.  This time, one cub ran straight up a tree.  Same little rebel?  I wonder.  Mom got very agitated, communicating warning to my friends by bouncing and huffing. They backed slowly, with a can of bear spray at the ready.  I always wish it was me that saw the critters; I usually just find their tracks and scat.  Pumpkin is a hunter with a strong instinct.  I know how she reacts to chipmunks and rabbits, even lizards.  I don’t think I want to find out how she would react to Momma bear or babies.

So I will satisfy myself with “encounters” like this:Puffball.6-10-18

 

Chocolate, Mole and Mezcal, Oh my!

 

We were picked up outside our hotel early in the morning for an all-day adventure called Traditions Cuisine.  Antonio and Ana were our hosts for the day, shortly to become friends and fellow-adventurers.  First stop was Teotitlan del Valle, about 45 minutes from downtown Oaxaca.  And first stop in the village was the village market, held once a week and a center for all things food, crafts and household goods.  Among the produce, we found the makings of Caldo Xóchitl con Flor de Calabaza or Squash Blossom Soup, which uses the blossoms, stems, leaves and squash of the plant, with a few chiles to spice things up.

juxtaposition of centuriesWhile in the village of Teotitlan, we paid a quick visit to the village church. What stood out was the incorporation of an old section of a Zapotec building or wall into the wall of the church.  The Spanish were resourceful — or terribly destructive — when it came to reusing materials from pre-Spanish buildings and walls to build their churches and administrative buildings.

We were invited into a private home to see–and participate in–how chocolate is made, starting with roasting the cacao beans on a traditional wood stove, although stove is something of a misnomer.  It is an open wood fire in a brick enclosure with a wide terracotta plate on which the beans are stirred until they darken and crack. Once “shelled,” the cacao beans, with added cinnamon, are crushed on a metate until the resulting paste is graced with a couple handfuls of raw sugar.  Fresh chocolate is mixed with hot water for a sweet drink; the rest is dried into small blocks. At home now, I’m shaving my chocolate blocks onto my morning oatmeal!

Hot chocolate was just an appetizer for mole and lunch.  Dahlia has built an outdoor kitchen where she cooks for her extended family and for those of us she hosts for mole negro demonstration and mole-covered chicken lunch.  Mole much anticipated since I have been making my own version of mole for awhile.  Oy, did I have a lot to learn about making traditional mole.

Mole - Roasting chiles and tomatoes for mole negro

First, I’ll need to build myself one of those open fire stoves and obtain a large terracotta cooking tray.  Next, a metate and mano.  While many of my ingredients showed up in Dahlia’s mole, my results come nowhere close using an electric stove, oven broiler and immersion blender.  At least I brought home the requisite Mexican chocolate, which proved to be a more minor player in Dahlia’s mole negro than in my own.

I think what surprised me more than anything during Traditions Cuisine was learning that these women, and women like them throughout Oaxaca, cook on these open fires, using metates and manos on an everyday basis.  Most do not have or do not often use , indoor kitchens with stoves of either gas or electric, both being quite expensive.

The day ended with parts a and b for mezcal.

I had not tasted mezcal prior landing in Oaxaca, the drink not being a bar familiar on the East coast, nor a dinner companion for any of my friends in New Mexico.  At a Oaxaca restaurant earlier in the week, I “kissed” a shot as instructed; one doesn’t throw back a shot of mezcal. Part a was a stop at a distiller of mezcal. We saw each step, from the pit where the agave hearts are roasted, to the grinding pit where a big stone is hauled around by one-horse power to crush the roasted piñas, to the fermentation barrel to the still.  Not sure that the Mexicans call it a still, but if you’re from the South, it’s a still!  The longer the resulting mezcal is aged, the smoother it is; and of course the type of agave used to distill into mezcal makes a difference as well.

Tasting mescal at an agave farm

Part b was a tour of a family-owned agave farm and nursery.  This farm is pretty young and since agave plants don’t mature for seven or more years, this farmer has a few years of patience and loving attention ahead of him.  But he has been harvesting agave on another family farm in the hills, and a relative doing the distilling, so we were treated to another tasting.  After some debate on how to get an unmarked bottle of clear liquid through TSA at aiport security points, I bought a bottle to bring home.

We balanced our day of living Mexican culture and cuisine with a trip to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit the archaeological site of Mitla ( Lyobaa to the Zapotec people), which was the main religious center for the Zapotec, pre-Spanish.  Many of the walls and buildings stand on ancient platforms, all constructed with rock that fit together so perfectly, no cementing was needed.  The Spanish, who arrived in the 1520s, deconstructed many of the walls and repurposed the stone into their chapels and church buildings.   Under the overhangs that protected the original Zapotec walls from rain, the cochineal-based painting is still visible, outlining the stonework symbols and including faces and fantastic figures.

The rest of our week was spent in Oaxaca city, eating, people-watching and enjoying the daily entertainment on the Zocalo.

Scamps with Tails

I kneeled (knelt?) down to get a better camera angle on the little guy scooting up the bamboo post.  Next thing I heard was a lot of giggling from behind me and, glancing over my shoulder, saw the attendant grabbing a long prehensile tail and pulling.   Some little scamp had jumped up on my fanny pack and was unzipping one of the pockets!  If he’d been successful, he would surely have enjoyed my emergency-snack LaraBar!  There’s no doubt that those little fingers would have had the snack wrapper torn open in no time.

The Guadalajara Zoo is on par with the zoo I grew up visiting: Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC.  It is a smaller version of the San Diego Zoo, with trains to zip you from one end of the zoo to the other and an overhead SkyZoo, a cable ride with gondolas.  A highlight for me was the walk-through enclosure that housed a dozen nimble-fingered monkeys, neighbored by another walk-through enclosure that was home to an extended family of lemurs.  The day we visited was unusually warm so many of the animals were lulled by the heat to somnolence.  But not these little monkeys.

Guadalajara, like most of catholic Latin America, has a number of interesting and stunning cathedrals or temples as they are sometimes called.  A second highlight for us was the Expiatory Temple or Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, listed on TripAdvisor as the #1 must-visit.  Truly an amazing and breath-taking architectural achievement.

The Guadalajara Cathedral is on the main square in Guadalajara Centro; it also houses, in what may have been the monastery, a museum of sacred art.  Up a final set of stairs and opening from a small gallery dedicated to primitive art of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a door leads to the roof of the cathedral overlooking Centro from the pigeons’ viewpoint as well as a perspective from the foot of the smaller dome and steeple.

I stopped at a busy fruit and vegetable market to buy local fruit. Mangoes were fat as cantaloupes, the berries were picked not 1/2 hour away, and pineapples were fragrantly beckoning, and all at amazingly low prices compared to what we pay here for raspberries, blueberries and, lord knows, for fresh pineapple.  I couldn’t figure out the system, couldn’t read the signs and couldn’t ask for help.  All was in Spanish, of course.  I tentatively stepped up, caught the eye of one of the vendors, and pointed at what I wanted.  I can at least say uno and dos.  The vendor bagged my choices but instead of handing the bags to me to go pay, she gave me instead a little slip of paper with a stamped number.  I stepped to a window on the side of the market; or I should say I stepped into the crowd at the window on the side.  There seemed to be two lines and everyone but me knew which line to be in.  One and then another and then two more people noted my stamped number and tried to point me in the right direction — all in Spanish, of course.  Somehow just by the energy of their helpfulness, I ended up in the right line, got to the window and handed over my number.  That cashier retrieved my bag and told me what I owed; need I say…in Spanish, of course.  Previous experience led me to proffer a large bill and gratefully receive my change with my purchases.

Mangoes

I’m not complaining that many on the street and in the markets did not speak English, or very little.  I’ve traveled enough to know that English is not a forgone assumption and Americans shouldn’t expect that everyone should speak as we do, even though many American tourists do expect just that.  I was reminded that, before heading south of the border, I didn’t spend enough time  brushing up on my elementary Spanish from years-gone-by Adult Ed classes. And people everywhere — on the street, in the stores, at the markets — are willing to help and forgive if we at least have a set of basic phrases, mostly “Please” and “Thank You.” Plus, I know the Point and Pray method of cross cultural communication! Mi Español no es mui bien; lo siento, solo Englais.

Vibrant and Thriving on Lake Chapala, Mexico

Walking the dogs.Ajijic

Walking on the malecon, Ajijic

Fly into Guadalajara and take a 30 minute taxi ride for $420 MX pesos to towns that live alongside Lake Chapala: Chapala and Ajijic.  Find a little boutique hotel or rent a temporary home, don sturdy walking shoes and a wide-brimmed hat and start exploring.  Lakeside on the malecons is for people watching. Ajijic’s malecon is one of two town centers where everyone, local families and expats alike, get out to stroll, dog-walk, picnic and play.  Chapala makes room on its malecon for a couple of carnival-type rides and any number of vendors.  The town squares are shaded with huge trees, circled with cafes and graced with classic Spanish churches and chapels.

The lake is for fishing.  People with pop-bottle hand-lines hang off the end of the piers and walkways or fling nets from waist-deep. but they are clearly outfished by the egrets, herons and pelicans that stand on lake edge, pilings and boat rails or skim the lake surface with deep bills.

Ajijic, with its large expat community, is artistic and yummy.  Street art hints at the art, crafts and unique clothing waiting inside the gallery doors.  There are over 100 restaurants with cuisines representing most of the wider world, including Thai, Sushi, Italian and Spanish.

Finally, there’s nothing like ambling through the golden hour and sitting lakeside to watch the sun set over the water and the Sierra Madres.

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