Accepting the Inevitable…

“What’s up?”

I point toward the sky. The mailman laughs.

“Same ol’ same ol’,” he says. “Nothin’ changes.”

“Not that anyway.” We have jokes that have now been running for 3 years.

“Beautiful weather though,” the mailman says. He knows I like the cold and snow and this 70 degree crap is not my thing. He’s baiting me.

“It’s OK if you like comfortable temperatures and stuff.” I was mowing the lawn when he pulled up with my mail which contains two packs of seeds. Clearly I’ve surrendered, but the local greenhouse won’t open until May 6. That’s when we can be confident we’ve seen the year’s last hard frost

“You’re a c-r-a-z-y lady. Have a good weekend!” He’s off, and I finish mowing.

I think about San Diego. In the first few years I lived there I missed cold and snow and mountains so bad that if it did snow in the local mountains, I HAD, at least, to see it. I remembered dashing up No Name (now known as Kwapaay) at Mission Trails Regional Park to reach the top before dark, so I could at least see the snowy Cuyamaca Peak (see above) 35 miles to the east. I remembered sitting on the damp, red earth, leaning up against a rock just looking at the snow peak until I couldn’t see it any more. And the snow was good up there. Good X-country skiing, fascinating version of winter. When I moved up there, my life improved.

I don’t know what the deal is between me and cold and snow. During my recent booby-trap cleaning spell I found a letter from my best friend in middle school. It’s clear, from the fact that she tells me what the homework is, that I’ve been sick at home for quite a while. This happened every winter; strep throat. I can’t take penicillin so, back in the 60s, it was largely a matter of keeping me in bed until the bacteria went away. I had already gotten a damaged heart from a bout of scarlet fever when I was small. I always missed at least a month of winter. I guess I should dread it.

Today I resigned myself to the inevitable arrival of spring. I appreciated the cheery nod of my daffodils and told my emerging peonies that they could think about blooming this year. The lilies I planted for Lily T. Wolf have poked up through the dirt. Everything’s on schedule. I hope soon to have a bunch of topsoil to finally fill my raised beds on which I plan to do nothing more exotic than scatter wildflower seeds but I like the birds and the garden is near the lilac hedge and bird bath. Birds are already nesting in the hedge.

Hummingbird nest

Hummingbird Nest

Our growing season is short and the whole world seems to be shouting, “Carpe diem!”

Fairies wear boots

Extra Points to Anyone Who gets the Black Sabbath Reference in my Fairy Garden




A Walk with Bear Alone

Most of the time I take Dusty and Bear on walks together, but once in a while I just take Bear. As Dusty is in his 11th year, there’s every chance that a time will come when it will be just Bear and me on the trails. I don’t want that to be strange for her, and, for a while, she was afraid to get into the car if Dusty weren’t there.

As someone once said, when you walk with people, the people are the focus of the journey. When you walk alone, nature is the companion. Walking with Bear has all the benefits of a solitary ramble, but I have a responsive and protective companion. Our walks are often leisurely and meandering. We stop to listen to and watch birds, hear the frogs in the vernal ponds, take in the changes in the landscape that is now very familiar to us.

Bear loves these walks. Her “livestock guardian dog” mentality clicks into full alert status, and she stays very close to me instead of going to the end of her leash to explore. Because she’s mellow and doesn’t bark, I’m more relaxed knowing that if we meet another dog or people, there won’t be the bone-chilling Doberman Dusty bark (of friendship, but still…)

We just came back from just this kind of walk. We saw robins and bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, Canadian geese and an egret. The shadowless white sky of high clouds shone soft light on the slowly greening Chamisa. My hikes in California taught me how to look at an “ordinary” place and I’ve come to like them best. My big white dog and I strolled along the path, feeling the wind, happy to be out there beside the river and between the ranges of snowy mountains.

There’s a stone monument/picnic area where we stop at the end of a walk. There I pet my dogs and enjoy the moment. I sat down on “our” stone bench, and Bear and I watched a robin hunt. A pair of blue birds joined her hopping on the ground.

A young man who had been fishing in the slough came toward us and Bear became alert. “I have a ridiculously friendly dog here,” I said.

“That’s good,” said the man, walking so he avoided Bear.

“What do you catch in there?” I asked.

“I was hoping to catch some browns and rainbows, but the river is too low. It’s higher in Del Norte.”

“I think they’re irrigating,” I said, “Last week the river was four times that high at least. Well, good luck somewhere else, man,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said and headed toward his truck.

Now as you read those words, you cannot hear him, but to me his voice was music. There is a Spanish accent in northern New Mexico and in this valley that stirs home-strings in my heart. He spoke in that tone, with that inflection.

“Bear, you want to go home?” I asked the big dog who straddled my knee, her version of sitting on my lap. She didn’t seem to care much. I guess she was fine just like that.


Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a guy from National Public Radio. It was in response to a long phone message I had left at their request — on Facebook they’d posted a bulletin saying they wanted to hear from people in rural areas to find out what we need. I called.

He had to look me up in order to contact me, and he found my email. He emailed to see if the email reached the woman in Monte Vista who had left the message and asked for my phone number. I sent it, then tried to reconstruct what I’d said in a rather impassioned phone message. I wrote down all I remembered (I don’t have strong aural learning skills even with my own words) and then found the sources that had informed my understanding of the problems in the San Luis Valley. I was ready.

I was surprised when he called and wanted to know how and why someone would move to the Back of Beyond from a place like San Diego.

It’s true that San Diego is high on the list of “most desirable cities.” When I lived in San Diego, it was NOT in the “most desirable” part. It was a barrio known to have the highest crime rate in the city. It was San Diego’s version of East LA, in fact, it was East San Diego. After 17 (happy) years there, I moved to a mountain community 35 miles east, 45 miles from the airport. I had a great house and I lived in the mountains. If I’d had the money to stay there after retirement I probably would have. It was a life that worked. I’d been in Southern California for thirty years and it was, kind of, home. But it was expensive to live there. The cost of living had shot up during the recession and just heating my house for one winter cost nearly $2000. I couldn’t stay.

Meanwhile, I had been out here. I had given a couple papers at conferences in Colorado Springs, reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I had not wanted to leave Colorado in the first place. That happened because of marriage… The moment I knew what I had to do, I was in Colorado Springs. I filed my papers and knew that I would make big changes soon and it would be terra incognita.

So I explained to the man that my choice of Monte Vista was actually random. I knew how much money I had to live on and there was a house here that I wanted to live in. I told him I’d never been here before, but when I came through the San Luis Valley on my way to see my house I knew I wanted to live in this beautiful place ringed by mountains. Monte Vista — as I saw on that first journey — seemed to be a livable small town not too far from hospitals and stuff like that.

I knew back then that I had to go somewhere. This place was beautiful. I’d meet people in the course of time, meanwhile I’d write, walk my dogs, shake off 35 years in the classroom and find my feet. I had friends 3 hours away. It was up to me if the thing turned out good or bad.

“How did you pick Colorado?”

“I was born here.”

“In that area?”

“No, no, I’m from Denver.”

“Did you find it hard to make friends?”

“No, not at all. Here I have a social life. Back in California that was difficult because I worked so much. People here are friendly and we need each other.”

“Have you and your neighbors helped each other out?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s how things work.”

I wasn’t very lucid on the phone because I was so stunned and I don’t do phone if I can avoid it, anyway. I don’t think of my decision as extraordinary at all and was a little taken back that he did, that he thought there was a story in my story. I found it very difficult to describe the beauty and wonder of this place, not just (just?) the landscape but the human scenes I witness — and am part of — often. The tiny congregation of the Episcopal church, faithful and lovely, my friend playing the organ in the golden morning light streaming through the stained glass window — a church built by English pioneers so their children could go to a “proper English village church.” My friend’s husband putting the blade on his AWD and pushing the snow out of the alley so I can get out of my driveway after a big snow. Getting a ride to the Ford garage 20 miles away in my neighbor’s 1955 T-bird that he’s had for fifty years!!! Three older ladies (my friends and I) standing in the cold, clear water of Medano Creek beside the sand dunes, laughing like children at how funny our feet look in the water, the cowboys on horseback in the distance with their dog who — I think — should’ve been named Shorty. Sunsets that defy both photography and description. 20,000 sandhill cranes hanging out against a backdrop of snowy peaks. Bald eagles flying over me, their shadows grazing my shoulder beside the Rio Grande where I walk my dogs almost every day. The guy at the post office who hands me a package and says, “What is it?” and I tell him it’s a cable to hook my computer to my TV and he answers, “Que suave!” The small herd of bison out by the hospital, munching grass at the end of a summer rain storm. Horses in a pasture, kicking up their heels in the snow. Snow.

I go with friends to a restaurant. There’s live music. The retarded guy who lives nearby is at the restaurant. He goes up to the singer and makes a request. The singer smiles. The retarded guy takes a seat on a stool beside the singer who strikes a chord on his guitar. It’s a song I thought was corny and stupid back in the day. I learn it’s been made the Colorado state song. The retarded guy sings with all his heart, smiling a broad smile. The friends beside me sing, too. As I watch that duet, aware of the gentleness and familiarity behind it, I can’t believe my good luck at landing here.

That feeling has not changed.

More Cryptic than T.S. Eliot

Yesterday my friends and I returned to Penitente Canyon to finish our hike. There we  saw this sign, one of the most puzzling bits of signage in my experience. I have never, in all my hiking, seen such an absurd and confusing sign. The words were bizarre and what did the 10 mean?

BLT-Lagunas-30OCT08-12_smallIn the mountains of California where I hiked most, there were no signs like this anywhere. There was a trail head. There were markers where trails intersected (such as the Pacific Crest Trail intersecting the Big Laguna Trail) and that was it. Not even on mountain bike trails.

In Switzerland, there are universal markers (universal for Europe) on rocks and trees and the ubiquitous and reassuring Wanderweg sign. Sometimes at an intersection of trails, the Wanderweg signs will tell you what you will find in each of the various directions. Trails are marked more like ski areas. Yellow — a nice walk for anyone. Red and white — 57400374moderately challenging. Blue and white — technical skills are needed (minimum self-arrest with ice axe). I am familiar with those. (That’s not to say I haven’t been lost on hiking trails in Switzerland.) Our hike yesterday in Penitente Canyon would get a red and white sign in Switzerland.

OH well. My hiking style has always been to know where the sun is, find distant landmarks, have and use a map. Even so, it looks like I’ll have to learn a new trail language.

Flumoxed by this “Trail Confidence Marker” I decided I should do some research. I’m NOT in Switzerland or in California, I’m here and that sign is here, too. Turns out the sign is exactly what it says. It’s a sign to tell the person looking at it to be confident they are on a trail. My research says they show up when there are numerous trails. The “Trail Confidence Marker” was at an intersection of three trails. That made the sign the most ambiguous thing there as far as I was concerned.

Now I know these are mostly used by mountain bikers to navigate through a landscape that’s a lot faster than it is for hikers. That explains why it’s high, very new, very bright and in a location that for someone on foot would not diminish anyone’s confidence.

It’s interesting to me that the earth is different depending on how you’re traveling it. A map for trains is a different earth than a map for bicycles or feet. The speed through which we move through the world determines the map we’re using.

Here I am negotiating a trail that, three years ago, I could not have gone up or down.

Bones in the Dust


I’m living in the land of the Conquistadores. Just a few miles to the west is one of their actual trails. I’m kind of reading a book Old Spanish Trail, North Branch by Ron Kessler. It includes journals from many of the men who found themselves on this trail, guys like Don Diego de Vargas, Roque Madrid and Juan Bautista de Anza. Los Conquistadores seem to have been more along the lines of Los Exploradores except for the people they killed along the way and so on and so forth. It was the times.

A couple of weeks ago, unable to find a place to hike where Dusty would not bother someone, I decided “Why not? It’s just right there!” There’s a beautiful marker and a plaque with drawings and a legend on it by the highway (my street) and from it a road and trails. Mostly used by mountain bikers, but supposedly for hiking.

It is in no way a beautiful landscape. Rabbit bush, sand, gopher holes and, if I were a rattlesnake, I would live there and bring out my whole family from wherever to join me. It’s desolate and filled with bones of large mammals — cattle or elk or deer, I don’t know. There was broken glass everywhere from kids having fun with shotguns. The trail was beautifully maintained by the forest service, though, and I could see biking on it.

The strange thing about it was the haunted feeling that I can’t explain. Except for the distant sound of cars and trucks on the highway, it was silent. No birds hunting, no water running, nothing. The sky was huge, the mountains felt distant and, for some reason, maybe sensing my discomfort, the dogs stayed right next to me. We went as far as we had to and turned around. I didn’t want to explore more trails or find out how to get to the arroyo to the east. I didn’t want to discover anything about it.


I have thought a lot since about the conquistadores and the press they have gotten in recent decades. When I moved to San Diego in 1984 and began teaching at San Diego State, there was a dorm/apartment named El Conquistador, shortened by everyone to “El Conq.” Over time a ballyhoo was raised that the name El Conquistador was racist and glorified the oppression of the native people by the Spaniards. It was renamed. Everything connected with the Spaniards became stigmatized — sometimes for good reason.

With these Spanish Conquistadores came Spanish people, many of whom never planned to return to Spain, among them Spanish Jews. It wasn’t easy being Jewish during the Inquisition and these people, though practicing Catholics, many of them, probably had it in their minds that they would just get OUT of there before the next purge.

Who these early settlers WERE was unknown until 2001 when Hispanic women from the San Luis Valley showed up in Denver with a particular kind of breast cancer that’s attached to a particular genome that is known to belong only to Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.

To learn more about them, here is an article in Smithsonian Magazine

The Old Spanish Trail goes beyond this haunted sand. It follows the edge of the San Juans where there is water (streams, springs and, of course, the river) through the place I hiked with friends a week or so after my wandering in the Haunted Hell-scape. Penitente Canyon SHOULD feel haunted, but it didn’t, to me. I’ve only seen a bit of it — going back tomorrow, I think. On the edge of the canyon are wagon tracks — cart tracks — of the Old Spanish Trail.


My experience in this landscape is that it’s unlikely anyone conquered anything. I imagine the Conquistadores as small, lost dots of humanity struggling to figure out where the hell they were and, naturally, foisting their world on this one in the certainty that comes from fear. I might call them “Los Hubrisitos” but I don’t think that’s a word.


After a long cold afternoon working on eliminating more stuff from my life, I took my camera out to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge to take pictures. I didn’t want to interfere with the people who have paid good money to see the cranes — and they are already here. That’s the best thing that can happen to my town. I also got to see some of the work that’s done to prep the refuge for visitors. One field that the cranes really love is right now being mowed to crane-specific levels so that when all the people come for the Crane Festival they’ll be able to watch the cranes graze close up. This is the first time I’ve been able to take photos with my good camera so… And, honestly, cranes don’t do much until they do something and then you’d better be ready to focus fast.

You’ll see all the Canada geese with them. I didn’t see any Snow geese this time, but last year there were several.

Arid Valleys = Heaven

“You call this desert? Plants grow.”

My Saudi students had a point. In their desert, that wasn’t the case. On a school field trip, we hiked up to a seasonal waterfall and oasis, a small spring in the cleft of a fault line, the kind of spring that was everywhere in this desert and everywhere in the Laguna Mountains to the west. The Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego the result a “rain shadow” created by that small range of mountains. Because of their altitude, they keep most of the years moisture for themselves. I’ve stood on mountain trails that rim the desert and have had one hand in rain and the other in sunshine. It’s a very clear line.

My student was right, really. The place is arid, but not barren. It was hard for me to call it a desert, too. In spring the bottom — the desert floor — was covered in flowers. Every living thing in that place was an opportunist, though most of the flowers had a predictable season. Not really “spring.” It was more, “after a few weeks of rain.” Some plants — the Ocotillo for one — would bloom if any water hit their roots. Their blossoms are bright red “flames” at the end of green candles.


Flash flooding is common. The thunderstorms that hit the Laguna Mountains in winter often made it over the top. One year a localized rain was so heavy that hundreds of palm trees in this very oasis — Palm Canyon — where I’d hiked with my students years before were washed down to the bottom of the valley, onto the flat. Hiking with a friend after the flood, I was stunned to see them, huge trunks wedged between boulders.

I camped in various spots in that desert many times, usually in a VW camper van my ex and I had for a while. It was fun to look at the stars — we bought a telescope — and hike through the washes and the rocky canyons.

I live in a similar place now, though several thousand feet higher in altitude. The San Luis Valley is in the rain shadow of two mountain ranges. Storms from the west get tangled in the San Juan Mountains and storms from the east get caught in the Sangre de Cristos. This valley is “littered” with springs where the two ranges pull apart. It is also arid but not barren.

Both places have been home to humans for thousands of years. Both have rocky outcroppings where ancient people left “messages.” Both are home to “borregos” — mountain sheep. In both places, a “river runs through it” — narrow feeder streams of the Colorado River thread their way along the eastern edge of the Anza Borrego, while the Rio Grande meanders through the San Luis Valley. To the far east of the Anza Borrego is a dune field where Hollywood directors have often filmed desert scenes. To the far east of the San Luis Valley there is also a dune field — Great Sand Dunes National Park


Great Sand Dunes National Park

I used to escape San Diego whenever I could to go to the desert in the winter. I like the wide vistas, the sunshine, the emptiness. And now? I live in the largest alpine valley in the world.

P.S. I also just realized that I have written a compare/contrast essay, so if you’re an English teacher and want to use it for a class, be my guest. :p


I was driving east on US HWY 160 on the weekly road trip to the big city for groceries — Alamosa, Colorado. It was a semi-bleak February morning, Sunday, somewhat early. I was armed with the coupons they’d sent in the mail, a bunch of good deals, as it happened. The envelope was covered with pale pink hearts against a dark pink background. There were even free things in there; free juice — my favorite brand, other stuff. Added up to a savings of more than $40. Not bad.

I hate shopping, but it’s a 25 minute drive and I have satellite radio in my car. It’s a luxury for which I pay $6/month. I was listening to the 60s station — uncommon for me — Paul Revere and the Raiders had just regaled me with “Kicks” (but they don’t keep getting harder to find). After that? The Association, “Never My Love.” I don’t think I’ve heard that since it was on the Top 40, and, for some reason, the song filled my car even though it’s not a song I ever liked.

I looked around at the mountains all around me, the white, white fingers of fog filling a high valley in the Sangre de Cristos, layers of random clouds all negotiating the future like a bored couple on a Sunday afternoon. “Shall we rain? Shall we snow? What do YOU want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” I thought of my novel in progress and how much fun it was last week when I finally FOUND the story. I thought of how I could organize the vastness of the narrative and got a good idea.

The song kept playing.

The mountains right now are snow-covered, white and indigo. I thought of my piano teacher in Nebraska who consoled me when I had to move away by saying, “Just think of the mountains, how much you love them and how happy you’ll be to be there again.” The family was moving back to Colorado.

The song was still singing, a full-on love song, and I remembered the moment I realized I was a writer. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in Nebraska, probably 12 or 13. I had my dad’s portable typewriter sitting on the closed case. Not a bad desk for a kid who liked to sit on the floor. I was writing a poem. I was SO happy. It was a love poem to the fields and forest where I hiked and played, to storms and seasons, to natural features, foliage, wind and sky.

The song moved closer to the ending, and then I saw it. I have always found a way to be near any mountains, out in any nature, that happened to be around. I have always written. Life without love? No.

What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you…
Meanwhile, I move we return to celebrating this egregious paper holiday of disappointment in the Roman way. Bonum Lupercalia!!

Purdy Pictures

For the first time in nearly 3 weeks I got to take the dogs out to the slough by the Rio Grande. It was tough going for me. The trail was snowy, and I wasn’t in any hurry, anyway. Beautiful day. Lots of cool tracks and, according to Bear, wonderful letters left by a wide variety of creatures over the intervening period.