Church of the Big Empty

Bear and I just got back from church. It was a GREAT service. Very comforting, inspiring with lots of time for reflection and solving problems. The congregation was there in numbers I’ve never seen, including some of the members who seldom make an appearance at the midday mass.

When we first arrived, church appeared empty which was fine by us, but soon, as we rounded a little trail, I noticed how many parishioners were in attendance. Hundreds of cranes took flight all at once and in the distance one of our members — a female elk — was running free and fast in the distance. I suspected a predator lurking and sure enough. A golden eagle. I don’t know what startled the elk, though, and she was moving too fast for me to extract any information. I saluted her and thanked her for showing up, letting her know it meant a lot to me. Naturally, she didn’t hang around long enough to get the message except through magic of a type that I truly believe works.

Bear and I continued on our semi-solitary (we have each other) way, worshipping under the light, appreciating the virga, letting all the fears and dreads fall from us (me). Since I anticipate walking there for the duration, this is a great opportunity for me to teach Bear how NOT to get bitten by a rattlesnake so we practice NOT sticking our noses (her nose) into bushes. The scampering creatures are out as evidenced by their obviously used, freshly made, little holes.

Walking back to Bella with Bear after the Service

I had the opportunity of figuring out some of the logistics of what I am afraid will be a week without plumbing. It’s amazing how many things you can think through while you walk under the open sky. I also realized this morning that it’s as fucked as it’s likely to get so I should wash everything I need to ahead of the destruction/construction. I’m grateful to a reader of my blog — a former plumber — for explaining what’s going on out there. I also had time to figure out the shopping problem. I will order ahead and go pick it up. This is my plan for Wednesday.

We have a few elite long-distance runners (Olympic runners) here in the San Luis Valley and one of them was training. That kind of runner has a very different physique than I. I’m always fascinated by how nature built us in so many different ways, often custom designed for whatever sport we might end up loving.

Church wouldn’t be church without appropriately chosen hymns. I got to listen to a couple of choirs and a few soloists. The deacons were there at the end of the service to thank us for coming and invite us to come back soon.

The Deacons

I learned this hymn as a little girl. It’s one that often goes through my mind as I worship in my Panentheist fellowship of everything. We only had the opportunity to welcome one car of crane tourists, an elderly man and his wife. Waves between people mean a lot these days.

Driving home, I checked on the Pyrenees and noticed that the livestock trailer is in the yard, maybe a sign that they’ll be taking the cattle up to higher country soon. The Pyrenees was guarding a haystack. A man approached on his bike — only here (and places like here) would you see a bike-rider wearing a c’boy hat. He waved. Now we wave. ❤

Lamont and Dude Discuss Existential Doubt

“Lamont, you want a sandwich?”

“Whaddaya got?”

“Your favorite. Turkey breast, bacon, provolone and avocado.”

“That’s not my favorite. That’s Clarabelle or whoever’s favorite. You just can’t forget her, can you?”


“I don’t know her name. I can’t keep track. It seems like there’s one perky blond after another traipsing through here.”



“You’re in a mood.”

“Who wouldn’t be?”

“It’s actually cool you were a Columbian Mammoth. Why are you so hung up on being a wooly mammoth? Besides, who’s to say you WEREN’T a wooly mammoth? It was a long era.”

“That’s a good point, Dude. I don’t know why it matters so much.”

“I think I do, but if I say, you’ll hit me.”

“Just say it. If I hit you, you’ll get over it. You can always run.”

“You hate to be wrong. Especially about your earlier lives. You hate it. You’re afraid you might be, might be…”

“Might be what? We’ve BEEN giants. There’s no ‘might be’ involved there AT ALL.”

“You’re afraid you might be the fake you’ve been accused of being so often by the mainstream press and the scientific community.”

“I know I’m not a fake and you know it, too.”

“But still. You’re human. There’s always that lingering, existential doubt.”

“So you think I MIGHT have been a wooly mammoth in some iteration I can’t remember?”

“What if I leave out the avocado?”

Lamont and Dude are characters I came up with a few years ago. They have the uncanny ability to remember many of their past iterations which gives them an uncanny perspective on life the universe and everything.

Went for It

Underpainting sky and tree; painting the road.

My house’ plumbing is seriously fucked up. I’ve attempted to deny it for the last few days, but today it became impossible. I had to clean large brushes which means a lot of water into the kitchen sink. It seems (and I pray) my house has two separate lines draining into the main line with the sewer line being lower and the line from the kitchen/laundry being higher. In any case, it’s only clean water from the kitchen and laundry that is draining into the back yard. Even so, I know from my life experience with home-ownership, nothing gets better and I’m not an expert.

Monday I’ll be calling a plumber and soon thereafter I’ll be going further into debt. A reminder that life’s little crises do not suspend themselves because of the corona virus.

Yesterday was a dark day for me but through it I discovered where I stand in this situation, and I guess I needed to figure that out. One of the things I determined in that dark night of the soul was that I have a lot of oil paint, some new brushes, and I might die way ahead of schedule. This sounds pretty awful, but it’s actually a good thing to remember. In the words of Jim Morrison, “Well I got up this morning, and I got myself a beer. The future is uncertain, and the end is always near.”

My version of “beer” seems to be paint.

To quote Jim again, “I guess I like it fine, so far.”

Habitats in my Habitat

I’ve had some cool pets over the years. Not mine to start with but I often ended up with them for a while. I’ve been the co-human and temporary-human for snakes, spiders and a green iguana.

One of them is more than twenty years old now, a ball python was who only recently “sexed” and re-named Samira. Until last winter she was known to all and sundry as Mr. Slithers.

A ball Python — not Samira. She’s much larger

I had the pleasure of snake-sitting Samira for a while my friend returned to Europe for a long visit with his family. This meant I had to procure live meals for her. My little pit bull LOVED that show. When I came in the door with the rat, Persie could smell it. She would start jumping up with joy. (Terriers are terriers.) I would say, “You want to watch TV, Persie?” and she’d dance all around me. We’d go into the room where Samira (then Mr. Slithers) was living and I would drop the rat into the tank. Persie would sit, eyes rapt on Samira just like a kid from the 1950s watching Saturday morning cartoons. If Samira was hungry (and that was usually the case) she would employ her hunting stragedy. I know what Persie wanted was the rat, but, as long as she could watch the show, Persie honestly seemed happy to let Samira have it. Of course, if Samira didn’t want it (this happened maybe once) Persie got to hunt it in the backyard.

Besides Samira, in this menagerie were the green iguana (Wilma), the Nelson’s milk snake, Sydney, Ananda, the red-tail boa and the ill-fated rosy tarantula, Kinky Boots. There were more. There was a tarantula named, uh, Martha, and a nasty poisonous spider whose name I have forgotten but whose little tank I managed to clean.

Ananda — the snake around my neck in the featured photo — was a baby red-tail boa. These guys grow to be immense as you see below.

Alice Cooper and his Boa

But while Ananda lived with me he was a little guy and very “affectionate.”

If you’re going to have a snake, it’s important to handle them often so they are used to people otherwise, well, you might be using your imagination a lot reading this post anyway. Ananda hung out with/on me whenever I was home. He liked to make a hammock of my t-shirt, going in the left sleeve, across the back, and resting his head in the right sleeve. He was so tame that one day as I was grading papers, he decided to shed. To shed, a snake needs a certain texture that’s rough and resistant but not too rough (a nice rock, a log). He bumps his nose against the resistant surface then drags himself across the rough surface to take off the old skin, sort of like taking off panty-hose. I was sitting there, expressing dismay over comma splices and employing my red pen as needed. I felt Ananda on my head. It was a hot summer day and my hair was up in a twist, held by a barrette. Suddenly, there was a hard pull on my hair. OW!! I wondered what was going on up there. I got up, went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and saw Ananda was shedding. I know it sounds gross (and was in a way), but from a snake’s point of view it was kind of an honor to me. Snakes seek privacy and safety when they shed. It’s the time they are most vulnerable to predation. That Ananda felt safe shedding on his human was a huge compliment.

If you have animals like these in your life you have to adapt your own habitat to theirs, but you also have to make a good habitat for them.

We adopted Wilma, the green iguana, from a neighbor whose kids had HAD to have her and then didn’t care for her. She was pretty young, but not a baby. She had a giant tank with large branches to climb on. I found a towel made a good “substrate” because the texture was perfect for her, and it was easy for me to clean. True, it didn’t look like the forest or something and wasn’t all that scenic, but Wilma was happy. What she liked MOST was going outside with me. She loved — and needed — real sunshine and fresh air. I planted a hedge of red hibiscus for her because hibiscus flowers are one of the favorite foods of these animals. Feeding them can be the biggest challenge.

Wilma looked like this. ❤

They grow quite large, and anticipating that, my friend found her a home with someone who was able to give her a much better habitat than I/we ever would as she grew.

Sydney was a sweet young milk snake who really LOVED me. I won’t go into the details, but there was NOTHING he loved more than a nice warm bath/swim being dried by a towel. Milk snakes are a variety of king snakes. Sydney, and many other king snakes have the coloring of a coral snake, red, yellow and black, but the bands are in a different order and they are not venomous.

Nelson’s Milk snake like Sydney

One of the great benefits of having gotten to know Sydney was improved snake identification in the “wild.” Knowing all these creatures taught me a lot about the beings I was surrounded by on my hikes but seldom saw. I saw a lot of snakes on my rambles — most often rattlesnakes — but sometimes king snakes and rosy boas. One day I was hiking in the Laguna Mountains and had the privilege of seeing this beautiful, rare, very shy little guy:

San Diego Mountain Kingsnake (Laguna Mountain Kingsnake

I don’t know if we should make pets out of these wonderful animals, but since we do, the best we can do is make sure they have a good life. I do know that my life would have been less without having had the chance to live with them.

Going for It

It hasn’t been a good day. In fact, for me, it’s been the worst day since all this started. That makes sense as it generally takes me about 3 weeks to get cabin fever and I’ve been mostly holing up for that long. I spent the day napping, thinking, drinking water and humidifying the house since it’s negative humidity here in the Back of Beyond and the wind is blowing in 45 mph gusts.

After a quiet day of just NOT looking at the news, reading a book and taking a nap, I decided to unwrap a large Ampersand panel I bought a long time ago and to try the tree painting on that. I’m more used to painting on panels than on canvas.

My easel is crappy, but I need to use it for this. I set it up and sketched the painting. I instantly felt better. I don’t know where I’m going with this or how it will work or even what I want it to look like, but who cares? It will be fun to try and to struggle with it.

The Beast Beyond Our Fires

I used to wonder how anyone could “like” sleeping. I never liked or disliked it, but now I like it. For those few hours there is no virus, no impossibly stupid news, none of this exists. Last night (in an effort to keep me asleep) my imagination sent me two Siberian Huskies who, on their own, moved into my house with Bear and Teddy. They were beautiful gray and white ones like Cody O’Dog. They had the intelligence and independence of every Siberian Husky I’ve known who had a half-way decent puppy-hood and love from a knowledgeable and experienced human.

Obviously, I didn’t want to wake up. Huskies are wonder-dogs in themselves, but they also represent a time in my life when I could run in the mountains. That’s really the ONLY thing for which I would turn back the clock and I wouldn’t even care that it was running in the hills that brought to my current walking limit (for now? forever?) of 2 miles and (because that’s not enough) my ride the bike-to-nowhere reality.

For those of you who have never been trapped at home before, I’m an expert having been stuck here twice in the last year due to injuries. I’m happy with it, but that took a little stragetizing. A routine helps. Exercise is necessary. The bike-to-nowhere is not boring if you get in the habit of riding it — and watch a movie or a bike riding video. My favorites are “Bike the World” which are free on Youtube (uninterrupted, too) and silent so you can listen to whatever you want. The routes are great, many crossing mountain passes such as the Gottard or the Furkha. My favorite at the moment is “Crossing the Picos Europa.”

Extroverted people have a bigger adjustment than I have. I wouldn’t be hanging out with people much under normal circumstances, but shopping would not be the sketchy thing it is now.

Last night I was thinking about a lecture given by Michael J. Preston in my very first class in college. It was Middle English Verse Romances, an upper division class that he’d given me permission to take. I won’t say I “got it.” I didn’t, but in the fullness of time I became a Swiss Medievalist Historian.

Life is weird.

On that day Mike Preston said, “You have to understand what life was like for people in the Middle Ages. Night was DARK. Dark like none of you have ever experienced. I have experienced it. I grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington.” We were to hear about that farm a LOT. He then went on to say something more (I paraphrase because it’s been 50 years), “Outside their houses, away from their fires, were brigands and thieves. But that wasn’t all. There were beasts – wolves and bears — and some that lived in their imaginations. Beasts and demons waiting, waiting, to prey on them. They knew nothing about disease or its causes; it was just another one of the faceless monsters lurking beyond their fires, blood-thirsty, unpredictable, diabolical, invincible”

Artist’s conception of Grendel

Last night, as I read the order finally passed down by our Governor, Jared Polis, telling us to stay home except for the usual, uh, exceptions, I thought of that lecture. I’m not living in Western Washington on a farm, and we have street lights, but it’s dark in the San Luis Valley. We’ve even been named — or parts of us have been named — National Dark Sky Areas. Out there in the Big Empty, where I walk so happily and peacefully with Bear, night is very dark. Then I thought of all of us hunkered down in our homes, and the scary beast beyond our windows.

Pondering Painting a PICTURE of a Tree

I have a painting in mind and it involves an old cottonwood tree growing next to a dirt road in the Big Empty. The painting is from a photograph I took last year in a moment when I saw a painting happening in front of me.

Trees, however, individual trees, are not easy to paint. I did OK on this painting, though. It’s tiny, 7 x 5.

Cottonwood tree in a March Blizzard in Descansso, CA

The tree I’m hoping to paint doesn’t look much different from this one, but as it will not be in snow, the demarcation between branches won’t be as easy and THAT, for me, is the big challenge. The other challenge is that I imagine this painting as a very large painting. Maybe THE painting for the big canvas — 4 ft x 6 ft — that’s been languishing in my “studio” for the past two years, but probably not. Such a large painting will take a lot of paint and I don’t think oil paint manufacture and sales is on the list of necessary businesses. Canvas takes more paint than panel, too.

This is the photo, but I cropped it wrong and shortened the road between the viewer and the tree, so when I paint it I’m planning to put the figure a ways down the road so she doesn’t look like she just got out of my car to take a photo of a tree. One of the things that bothers me about the concept, though, is it might be too Andrew Wyeth. I don’t see the Big Empty in the same way Wyeth seems to have seen his world. His painting reflect it (to me) as kind of a bleak place filled with intimate neutral-toned relics of human life. His paintings of nature convey — to me — a troubled relationship between man and nature.

This is an awesome tree, but…

Andrew Wyeth painting

To me many of his paintings say, “Ethan Frome.” Shudder. It’s not that I don’t SEE that in the numerous dilapidated farms in my valley, the numerous log cabins, the frame and adobe buildings where someone tried to make their stand and find their dreams. The thing is there’s no way to know what happened (unless it’s obvious that there was a fire). As sad as a ruined cabin appears, it’s entirely possible that the people who built it and lived there were very happy.

So, in my painting, I want to capture the isolation of the Big Empty, but also my friend’s (and my) feeling when we saw that amazing tree. There was nothing bleak or sad about it.

Postcard from the Big Empty and Farmer Appreciation

It’s blowing like an MF out there and we have a red flag warning, but Bear and I are undaunted social distancers, and we showed up for work at the Refuge like always though there was NO ONE to welcome except one stoical magpie.

Bear and I ready for work (you can see the wind because all my hair is on ONE side of my head)

Bear spent some time studying history, checking to see what changes have transpired along the little trail since last time. There were more than I could ever have imagined. Sadly, she can’t express in detail all of her discoveries.

The sky was magnificent in all directions and changed constantly. Snow is coming in and lenticular clouds hovered above the Sangre de Cristos.

Farmers are plowing which means this windy time of year there is a LOT of dust. Because the gusts were so ferocious, if dust obscured the mountains, it was only for a few minutes. I can’t say it was pleasant walking in 40 mph gusts but it’s oddly like walking uphill. At times Bear walked behind me and I was happy to shelter her from the wind some little bit. I honestly don’t mind at all struggling against what nature is doing. I would have missed so many wonderful things in my life if I didn’t want to hike in the rain or walk in the snow and wind. I guess that’s love. ❤

Because there was literally NO ONE there out there, when we’d finished our “job,” I drove the whole loop. I saw only one crane. You don’t survive as a species for millions of years without knowing enough to stay out of the wind. The geese objected, a few ducks took flight. There were nearly surfable waves on the ponds. A couple of blue birds fighting the wind but soon gave up. In a remote small pond I saw a family of small, brown ducks.

It’s become my ritual to slow down as I pass the farm with the working Pyrenees to see how he’s doing. I’ve observed that when his cattle move, he moves to remain close to them. I send him every good vibe I have in my heart whenever I see him. I also noticed three obviously friendly (with each other) bulls in a separate field. Beautiful creatures.

A word about farmers. My family was farmers for many, many, many generations. My mom’s was the first generation for probably a thousand years that had no farmers. As for me, I have an affinity for it in my heart, at least. It’s one of the things I love about living here. I love seeing a lone tractor in a waiting barley field. I love the animals and watching them every day through the seasons. I love all of it without any direct knowledge of it except that I know it’s a hard life with no real down time. In these anxiety laden and uncertain times, the farmers where I live are out there, not “social distancing” but doing what they always do. Growing food for Americans. When the Potato Festival Rolls around in September, it’s a highlight of the year for me and everyone else. The scary (thunder storms, hail, drought) hard work of summer is nearing an end. Harvest is underway.

If there is any parallel in human life to the uncertainty we’re all facing right now, it’s the uncertainty farmers face every single year, setting forth not knowing what the markets will be, not knowing what the weather will bring, not know if there will be water. So, you know, thank a farmer.

P.S. I walk REALLY fast with a 30 mph gust at my back. 🙂

“You Don’t Want to Know”

Long long ago in a cabin outside Bailey, Colorado my friend, Sonia, and I found a Ouija board in a hidey-hole where her childhood toys were also stored. We pulled it out, found the little triangle thing that moves and reveals. Being 19 or so, we were very interested in who was going to be the love of our lives. I loved someone (he may have been the love of my life but that’s another story that I probably told somewhere on this eternal blog) so I was trying VERY VERY hard to TELL that triangle where to go.

We “scryed” for about an hour — until 1 am because that’s the kind of thing you do at midnight. I was very stressed by the whole thing. I felt in my bones I’d done something very wrong. I didn’t sleep and when morning came, I went up a hill to think in the very wet grass and the dew-dripping branches of a spruce tree.

“It’s not your business,” said a voice inside or outside of my head. I’m not going to take a position on that because I’d look psychotic. “You’re going to live it,” said the voice. “It’s my business, not yours.”

And now I know, from my vantage point near the end of the story I was trying to scry, that the Ouija Board might have been trying to tell me by racing all over that board.


I was raised by people who didn’t show their feelings. They also had contempt for (and fear of?) people who did. My mom said, “You’re not a cowboy. You’re a Mexican” speaking not of my nationality but of my personality, my nature. She meant that I was emotional, showed my feelings. Since I love Mexican culture and Mexicans in general, and had to acknowledge how at home I felt in the more Latin world than the cowboy world, I didn’t argue. I got her meaning. Learning as a kid to hide my feelings made it difficult for me as a grown-up to fully understand myself and what was going on around me.

The Montana cowboys in my family had the idea that feeling (and showing) emotions was losing control. The most stark example I have of this was when my mom was in the hospital heading toward death. They did a scan of her brain and discovered that she had been an alcoholic for many, many years. The doctor called me to tell me this and that my mom couldn’t live alone. I was shocked. I didn’t know she was a drunk. She was very skillful at hiding it. When I hung up the phone, my aunts wanted to know what the doctor had said, but I was crying. I was going to tell them, but for that moment, I couldn’t.

“Quit yer’ cryin’,” said my truly loving Aunt Jo. “You have work to do.”

Crying at that moment wouldn’t prevent me from the work I had to do, finding my mom a place to live and the rest of it. The way I’m constituted, going THROUGH the emotions would make it easier. I needed to physically feel my feelings, the shock and the sorrow in the message I’d just heard.

Do I think it’s better to feel emotions than not? Yes, I do. I learned in therapy — and from subsequent life experience — that emotions have information for us. Knowing what they have to tell us helps us make choices.

I feel a lot of that cowboy stuff around me now. We’re cowboys out here; it’s all “chin up” and “put a good face on it” and “What can I do to help?” — great in its way but… I know people feel things. I do. Not fear, particularly. I’m not really afraid of dying except for what will happen to Teddy and Bear, but I realized on my walk with Teddy this afternoon that I’m very angry as well as sad. I have a dear friend in Italy where this nightmare has been raging.

My mind and heart a storm of feeling, I decided to head out to The Big Empty, the best “shrink” I know. When Bear wouldn’t let me catch her (I don’t know what’s going on with her lately) I took Teddy and my bad mood to the refuge. It was Teddy’s first trip out there.

Teddy Scratching…

On the way, Mohammed’s Radio, clearly realizing my desperate condition, played “Rocky Mountain High” as a way to say, “Hey, Sweet Cheeks, you’ve lost the big picture here. I’m here.”

There were a LOT of Crane Tourists today. Most of them stay in their cars and drive right past the cranes but OH WELL. There was one car that was NOT Crane Tourists, but a couple who was there for exercise. Not both of them. One of them was clearly an elite runner in her late fifties. The driver of the car drove beside the runner reminding me of some people I saw at the lake last year who drove beside their leashed dog while he exercised by running beside the car. The runner drove Teddy nuts. As a herding dog he felt the necessity to go get her and bring her back to the fold. He’s the kind of dog who would chase cars.

There were many cranes. I heard frogs for the first time this spring. Geese and redwing blackbirds. No meadowlarks or bluebirds today; no Killdeer. It was a glorious clear day out there. New snow on the mountains. A couple of hunting (and disappointed) bald eagles.

Then, in a pond near the road which is a favorite spot of Canadian Geese and cranes, I noticed a gander taking a gander (ha ha) at me, apparently. He started swimming toward me calling and calling and calling. A bunch of his buddies were following along. What? Teddy was captivated and would’ve gone for him, I think (I’d have bet on the goose).

We watched and I wondered WHAT that goose (who kept swimming toward me) was actually after and THEN when he got near the bank, I heart a crazy goose commotion from a patch of high reeds. It looked — and sounded — like he’d intentionally swum into enemy territory!

The goose. Farms on the way to the refuge.

Back at Bella, Teddy securely fastened in (he’s so small he has to ride in front with a doggy seat-belt), I turned on the car. This time *Mohammed’s radio blasted me with a song I don’t think I’ve heard since high school, a song I didn’t like, even. But, today, it seemed to be the Valley reminding me where I am and how I feel about it (and it about me? I believe so…). I just sat in the car, looked out at the Big Empty (which I love so much) and cried.

And felt better, with clearer thoughts and gratitude for where I am, for the people in this valley who have stepped up in a hundred different ways to help their neighbors, for the landscape that makes my heart soar all the time. “You live here,” the Big Empty said, “This Heaven is your home. The right emotion is gratitude.” I cried some more.

I’m just not a cowboy.

*An explanation of “Mohammed’s Radio,” When I was a teenager I (and many others, I’m sure) looked for relationship help in pop songs. I know, I know, pitiful but really, at 14? 15? (“Cherish is the word I use to descriiiibe, all the feeling that I have hiding here for you insiiiiide” right?)

From there evolved the semi-serious theory that the car radio is kind of an oracle. It isn’t but still it’s surprising how often the car radio is on the money.

P.S. The pretty mountain which stands somewhat alone in the center of the featured photo is Mt. Herard. The strip of gray/tan below it is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. ❤