This is Natural. This is not.

Here are two pictures, taken a very short distance apart on a trail along the Gila River.  Which belongs?  Which does not?

Fair warning: I am going to rant a bit. Live up to that tag line I believe in: A Public Lands Advocate.

I have been hiking and camping our National Forests, National Parks and National Monuments for the last several years.  In fact, that’s what motivated me to start sharing my stories and photographs.  Mostly, my stories are about my personal experiences, my photographs share my awe and wonder.  Occasionally I lapse into “trainer” mode. I try to avoid “preacher” mode.  Today, I’m all of those: storyteller, trainer, preacher.

I am wedded to the Gila National Forest, including the Gila River because that is my door-step. I have found my solace and soul here during these last difficult months when we are socially distant from our friends and family, not traveling, zoom-stuck and zoom-weary. If you’ve read any of my stories this year, you have traveled these trails with me, my dog and a friend or two.

It seems we are not the only ones moving into the Forest and along the River. Folks are coming from neighboring states and from farther away. Sadly, many who are finding their way this way are not here for the quiet and solitude that a Wild and Scenic River or a Wilderness experience can offer. They come, rather, in clusters and groups and occasionally, hordes.  And it’s not so much that folks are coming. These wildlands and waterways are, after all, open to all of us; we all own these public lands.  It is what folks are leaving behind when they go.  Here are the most recent pictures I’ve taken of the trash that they’ve left.  Trash that includes human waste (I blurred one part of one picture that was explicit).

And here are some excerpts from recent news coverage in our local paper of what others who, like me, are passionate about our wildlands, have found—and removed.

She pointed specifically to trash littering the sides of forest roads, recreation areas, and stretches of the Gila River. [She] invited the Daily Press to visit the Mogollon Box Day-Use Area last Friday, where about 150 to 200 people were posted up in a variety of groups, both large and small — but nearly none below the state-mandated size of five or fewer.

…half of the 20 people we spoke to were from elsewhere. Ohio, California, Arizona and Texas were a few of the states folks visiting the Gila last Friday called home.

…10 pounds of trash that [she] picked up during a 30-minute walk… Toilet paper and unburied human feces were seemingly everywhere on the riverbank, just yards from two sets of bathrooms maintained by the Forest Service.

Besides the obvious problems of trash and waste ruining the aesthetics of the outdoors, and noise pollution disrupting the peace that at least some visitors are seeking, there’s the issue of wild creatures getting used to trash as a food source.

What happens when people leave garbage…is that skunks, bears and other critters habituate to it. Having those animals getting used to being around people — that’s cute to some degree, but only until there’s a bear jumping on someone’s car.  Silver City DailyPress, 6/15/20

If you are escaping to the Gila National Forest.  Or to any Forest. Or Park. Or Monument. Or Bureau of Land Management wildland, here are the guidelines for Leave No Trace.

7 Leave No Trace principles to minimize impact:

Plan ahead and prepare

Travel and camp on durable surfaces [Note—Respect USFS signs for no motorized vehicles, including ATV, UTV and dirt-bikes.]

Minimize campfire impacts [Note–open fires are currently forbidden in the Gila National Forest]

Leave what you find

Be respectful of other visitors

Dispose of waste properly

Respect wildlife

Please be a Public Lands Advocate.  The animals depend on you.  The rivers depend on you. The forests depend on you.  I depend on you.

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 .

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Want to ensure the future of public lands? Take the kids…

Blake, 7, makes a clean cast.  Hunter, 4, gets some help from Dad with his red fishin’ pole.  Deegan, 4, a family friend, alternately watches and pokes around among the rocks.  Clint, the dad, becomes animated when I mention that I’m writing stories about protecting public lands; he has stories of his own to share.  He lives nearby and takes regular opportunities to hunt and fish on Colorado’s public lands, both federal and state-owned; he’s a fierce proponent of public access.  We became so engaged in our like-minded dialogue, we didn’t notice right away that Deegan–the little guy without a fishing rod — had wandered off.  A quick end to the conversation while Clint went in search of the youngster, but not before agreeing with my sentiment that one important way to ensure the future of public lands is to introduce our kids to the magic of water, forest, hiking trails, and in this case, fishin’.

In this campground on this weekend, there was a plethora of kids enjoying themselves. Bikes, skateboards, walks along the shore during the daylight hours and campfires and s’mores at dark.  Kids having fun while memories sink into their subconscious, to resurrect during gloomy days and sad moments.  Their parents may never talk with them about the value of this land and these opportunities.  But it’s not necessary.  Memories will be enough, reawakened at some point in the future when it’s important to remember and speak out.

Big kids enjoy a weekend on the water too.  I wonder what they would say if I posed the same question to each that I posed to Clint.  I can only hope that they would feel as strongly that this state park and the nearby National Forest deserve their voice.

State Parks deserve love — and protection –too

stormy sunset from Island View.Heron Lake St Pk

From our campsite lakeside at Heron Lake State Park, near Chama NM.

So much of our attention today rides with the 27 National Monuments under review by the Dept of Interior.  And budgetary woes threaten to yank the supports from under our National Parks; indeed that is already happening.  Some Parks have considered selling branding to monied corporations in order to keep bathrooms operating.

We’re at Heron Lake State Park on our way up to Colorado.  The park encompasses the Heron Lake Reservoir, with 200+ campsites, boat ramps and kayaks for rent.  It’s well kept and quiet.  These last days we have been one of 4 occupied campsites on our entire loop.  I’m sure it’s not always this empty.  The park  has erected a number of osprey platforms around the lake, one within sight of our loop, others along the trail that wanders between campgrounds.  “Our” nest has a successful pair with one chick; another nest has parents with two.  It’s said there are Bald Eagles here; my birdwalks scored Western Grebes, Green Tail Towees, Canada Geese, Killdeer, a flock of Black Headed Grosbeaks and a family of Flycatchers.  Those were just the ones I got close enough to identify.  There are elk and deer in abundance and where there’s prey, there’s predators: the camp host told me that a mountain lion completes the wild picture around the lake.

Our state parks, like Heron Lake State Park here in northern NM are just as vulnerable to misappropriation by a greedy-few politicians who see an opportunity to enrich their patrons and curry favor. And vulnerable as well to a failing or slowing economy when opening a state park to oil, gas and other extractive industry is the obvious way to raise the money to keep the schools open.  Yet, the fate of state parks may fall under our collective radar at a time when we are worried about our national public lands. Come and visit.  Fill some of these campsites and put in on this wake-free lake.  Bring binoculars and cameras–the longer the lens the better–to check out the Ospreys.  Or go and visit your nearest state park to see what it has to offer!

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