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

 

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.

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