Ski Bum Revelation, II

Those of you starting out in life or making your way over the GREAT BRIDGE of life’s productivity, saving the world (I, for one, am grateful) well, maybe this post is not for you, but I think it is. I retired three years ago and moved back to the Rocky Mountains which I had missed more than I can ever describe for the 30 years I lived in someone else’s paradise. Don’t get me wrong. I was very happy in Southern California and found a Coloradoesque life for myself in the wonderful mountains that rim San Diego. I learned to see and love the coastal sage and chaparral, my great teacher in so many ways, but I always, always, always missed the mountains.

Once I retired and came back, I launched myself right into what I thought I’d want to do as retired person. I have arthritis in my knees, so I figured I needed surgery and/or I was a cripple. I never had enough time to paint, so I figured I was an artist. I had an unfinished novel, so I figured I was a writer.

Over the course of this three years, my understanding of myself has changed, shifted. Images of myself that I held up there peeled away. You might think it’s all about self-discovery when you’re young, but I’d say for me there’s been more of that in the last three years than any other time since, well, ever. I don’t have that stuff in front of me, all that “Que sera, sera,” stuff. A lot of my stories have ended and I know how they turned out. For example I know I’m not going to be anyone’s mom and I’m not going to make a million bucks or save all the people in an impoverished country. No one expects anything of me any more, except to creep inexorably downhill physically, to be more out of touch with technology than I am or ever will be, to be not all that bright. It’s funny, but after you do a pretty good job through your working years, there will be people (usually younger) that don’t realize that you once were where they are and YOU MADE IT THROUGH.

There was a point in life in which dreams turned into imperatives such as “Holy shit, do I earn enough to make my house payment?” I remember, sometime in my 40s, telling my brother that all I did in my life was “patch things up and hold them together.” He, for his part, was impressed that I could do that! ūüôā

So now…the other day, riding the stationary bike and watching a movie,¬†The Last of the Ski Bums, I realized that I was happier skiing than doing any other thing in my life, ever. And I wasn’t very good at it. That’s important. Skiing, in and of itself, was just great, sublime, exciting, beautiful. Snow, high mountains, speed. Wow. I decided then and there that in my next life no one’s going to hijack my aimless existence with their idea of purpose. No sirree.

Then… Well, I work out a lot. Simply being able to walk requires that the muscles of my legs are strong so my knees work like knees should. I don’t know what I was doing, but I found myself in a skiing maneuver. And I thought, “Damn. I can do this. Godnose that next life idea is unpredictable. I might come back ¬†wombat or armadillo or something. Or a child in the tropics where there is no snow and no hope of any. I can’t hang my ski bum dreams on some next life. I missed out this time, but putting my money on my next life is really too big a gamble.”

So I did research. Lots of people ski with arthritis. Since I was never any good, I can probably have a pretty good time on the baby slopes, maybe even blue circles! There are braces people wear on their knees. Then I remembered reading something on the website of the local ski area, just 50 miles away and no mountain pass involved, Wolf Creek, (which, BTW, usually gets the most snow of any ski area in Colorado). Their ski school has classes for “Baby Boomers.” A lift ticket for “seniors” is $25. I might not be the only one living out their Late-life Ski Bum Dreams


Adventure to Natural Arch

The weather forecast was sketchy. “90% chance of rain, but that’s at 5 o’clock. We have time.” my friend, E, clearly, wanted to go. So did I. So did K. I’d even cleaned out my car and removed the dog proofing so people could sit in it.

My car is not an SUV. It’s a simple Ford Focus with a sport package. For a Ford Focus, it’s hot looking. It’s metal-flake gray and inside the seats are leather, black and maroon. ¬°Que suave!¬†And, anyway, the roads up there are well-cared for gravel and dirt. What could happen?

The afternoon seemed hospitable enough. Blue sky, white fluffy clouds, but once we were out of town E looked out the window of the car and said, “There’s a storm building.”

“It’s building a big city down there, not a village,” I said. I’m so funny.

K had several pages of directions she’d printed off the Internet, one of which said, “It’s extremely difficult to find the Natural Arch.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” said K.

I had written directions on a piece of paper. I handed them to K, who sat in the passenger seat, and said, “Just read these to me as we go. It’ll be fine.”

I wondered how the guy who wrote the article got lost going out there, first because there are not many roads, second because the BLM had done a good job with signage. Still, it’s a pretty remote spot, wait, everything here is remote. My bad.

I drove, we talked, exclaiming over the landscape, the beauty of the rocks (my friends truly love rocks), talking about the geology and how we were driving across a giant ancient caldera.

“It hasn’t exploded for millions of years, but it could,” said E.

I didn’t actually think so, but what do I know? Am I in charge of cataclysmic geological events? No. I told them about the big earthquake I’d enjoyed (truly)¬†when I lived in Southern California. A huge wave had passed¬†under the feet of a friend and I while we were hiking. It was amazing and truly wonder-full. “Of course, there was an earthquake almost every day out there, I said.

“Did you feel them?” asked K.

“A lot of times I just heard them, a loud bang of thunder inside the ground, kind of a loud ‘boom’ in the wrong place.”

We reached the end of the road. I looked around for a trail that would lead to the Natural Arch and saw no trails anywhere.

Sunny day

Looking across the valley from the Natural Arch at the start of the adventure

“Where is it?” asked K.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Then K looked out the window, “It’s right there!” Sure enough, the arch loomed above us, a hole punched somehow in the giant caldera that is the La Garita Mountains.¬†

The day was still beautiful and sunny where we were, but the clouds to the south were dark and they were moving. There was a trail up to the arch, so we all headed up. I don’t mind uphills, but downhills are difficult with my severely arthritic knee. I think the big problem is I’m afraid of falling, not the knee. K and E each went up — E forged her own trail and K went up the existing trail. I followed as far as I was sure I could get back down and I turned around.

Meanwhile, the storm kept building, now faster, to the south. It was on the move, too. About the time my friends reached the arch thunder began to roll. I thought of my lower clearance vehicle and some of the ruts I’d navigated around on the way up. “Damn,” I thought, “we had better get out of here.” Lessons learned, no doubt, from¬†Into Thin Air. (ha ha)

My friends had the same thought, so we all “hurried” down. We got back into the car as the storm struck.

The drive out was fantastic. The storm was wild, pelting the car with graupel and rain. The light changed constantly and the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains moved closer, magnified by the humidity. The road was a mix of small ice balls and gravel and I was glad. If the rain had come down like that, it would have been soup.


For me, that drive was the best part of the adventure. People might have found the storm inhospitable, but I thought it was a welcoming committee. And I got to see what my car can do. We passed some amazing rock formations, reconnoitered the location for a future adventure, and saw a stone and adobe ruin built against a small outcropping.

Tortoise rocks


The San Luis Valley has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and while that small building was probably built in the 20th century, it was essentially the same as you would find at Ca√Īon de Chelly.

We weren’t ready for the afternoon¬†to end, so we stopped in Del Norte for coffee and to plan future adventures.

Del Norte

You Load 16 Tons…

I’m about to find out the exact, precise, functional weight of a ton of topsoil. It may happen that this will be dumped in my driveway some time today. This means¬†I will begin hauling it into my yard and dumping into a raised bed.

It’s a story like this one. One thing leads to another in increasing scale…

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

I bought the raised bed kits the first year I moved here. Then, feeling¬†daunted by the whole prospect of putting dirt into them, I took them apart, put them away in the garage, and went on with my life. All was well until last fall I decided to repair the leaking roof (replace) of my garage. This led to the Great Garage Clean-out and THAT led me to haul the raised bed bits outside. I looked at them and thought,¬†“The easiest thing to do with these things is use them.”

That led me to think about what to plant.¬†The¬†answer was obvious;¬†“Wildflower seeds!” I like stuff to bloom, but I don’t want to work very hard. The bed is near the bird bath which is next to the bird nursery that is my lilac hedge. Before long the wildflower seeds had arrived and are now waiting in my kitchen for the dirt to get here¬†and for me to fill the raised bed.

The problem of the dirt led me to think, “How am I going to haul that dirt from wherever they dump it to the raised bed?” I thought¬†yearningly of a wheel-barrow¬†that¬†I left in California, but there’s no going back. I found a miraculous wheel barrow on Amazon (cheaper on eBay) that does (nearly) everything a strong guy can do. It’s a wheelbarrow, a dolly, a rock hauler, and a snowplow. It can be converted to a wagon.¬†I doubt I’ll pursue that direction, but it’s still cool. I am most interested in the wheelbarrow and snowplow features because it’s been a while since I played with dollies. (Ha ha)

It was easy to put together, with none of the problems I anticipated dealing with Allen Wrenches and various other so-called “tools.” That made me happy.


Worx Wheelbarrow/Dolly

And, the box in which the wheel barrow was packed was a good addition to my Earthworm-friendly, cost-effective, corrugated cardboard weed barrier.

Then there is the compost. I have a composter. I never composted before now. Of course, during the winter, the composter was an outside freezer, but most of the time it’s been composting leaves and coffee grounds. Some of that will go into the raised beds, too, but not much. Wildflowers don’t especially appreciate is rich, fertile soil.



My first garden ever was in Denver, behind my apartment building on Downing Street in Capital Hill. At the time I was living with my second husband AND my brother and life was often pretty annoying. The manager of the property — a really great Irishman named Jimmy Hobbs — came to me one day with a $20 bill and said, “Go to Sears and get some plants. You might like to take care of that garden.” There was one at the end of the parking lot. “No one’s taken care of it in years. I’ll put the tools out for you, too.”

My first reaction was, “Huh?” But I spaded up the soil. The ex went with me to Sears (that story will be another blog post, “How I Taught My Husband NOT to Look down Other Women’s Shirts by Getting Out of the Car at a Red Light and Walking 2 Miles Home in Sandals”).

The garden turned out to be a sanctuary away from the husband and the brother. Who knew they wouldn’t want to hang out there? I think Jimmy knew. I think he understood the craziness of my living situation and gave me a way out.¬†The garden became¬†my peaceful, happy place and things grew.

My garden has retained that purpose in my life. I’m not a serious gardener. The only food I grow are tomatoes and basil.¬†My garden is¬†just¬†a small thing where something good happens in the uncertain maelstrom of life.

Butcher Hogs in China and Crops in the San Luis Valley

When I lived in China, there was a sound that I heard almost every day. At first it was terrifying, but over time it was one of the background noises of my life, along with the guy collecting rags (he had a song) and the guy peddling charcoal (he had a song). This sound wasn’t music. It was the sound of a hog being butchered.

Pigs in China (back then, probably not now except in the countryside) just walked around like everyone, everything, else. Chickens, water buffalo, goats, children, university professors, students, us. They foraged in the food trash around the market at Shi Pai and on the outskirts of a farmer’s field. Until that last moment (which must have come as a huge surprise) they lived a pretty good life.

The sound of a hog being butchered is pretty nerve rattling. The hog screams bloody murder as the knife is jabbed into its jugular vein. The blood from the butchering is a delicacy and I had to eat/drink my share. I never thought about whether this was “humane,” it was simply how things were.

On the Eve of Chinese New Year, a hog is butchered as fire crackers are shot off. Nothing could be more auspicious. I spent my one Chinese New Years Eve in a bedroom beside the courtyard where this was going on, the sound of hundreds of explosions and a hog screaming for his life. I know now that I should have watched this happen, but at the time I was so sleep deprived and so sick from the boat trip over to Hainan Island, that I actually thought that my hosts were rude.

Chinese pork was delicious, far better than anything I’ve eaten in the US. I suppose from all the walking around, foraging and hanging out in town those pigs did.

I really like pigs, and so did a lot of the Chinese I knew. Some people with whom¬†I spent an afternoon in Haikou City had a pet pot-bellied pig who was a member of the family.¬†My grandfather had a sow who was a pet. She followed him everywhere. He always sold the piglets, but the sow stayed with him for years — until she ate something at the dump that killed her and her little ones.

Out here there are pigs and as my town — my valley — uses Facebook as the main medium for selling things, piglets and bigger pigs are now up for sale.


I wish I had a farming background. What do I know? I know how to go to an art museum (whoopee). I don’t know how to feed a baby goat or a lamb with a bottle. I don’t know how to care for new born pigs or plant potatoes. It’s struck me since I first moved here that people (some) assume I think I’m better than they are just because I’m a city person. That’s so far from the truth. I moved here on purpose; this was a choice I made. Sometime in the¬†first few months I lived here I made a sincere comment about the Potato Festival and the people I was talking to (I said the Potato Festival was great) thought I was being facetious. They could not have been further from the truth.

I love the Potato Festival. The potato festival is a harvest festival. There are potatoes and farm machinery; kids get to enter potato decorating contests. There’s home made ice cream and a train made out of oil drums pulled by a tractor. Come on. Only an idiot wouldn’t see how wonderful that is, in the park up the street, under the blazing blue September sky, the San Juans in the background? Kids are having fun. Farmers are taking it easy. Amish are selling baked goods and speaking the Bernese dialect of Switzer-Deutsche. It is WONDER-full.

Right now, just outside of town in a newly plowed field is a sinister looking machine for breaking up dirt clods (I think) and eliminating weeds (I think). Last year that field had been planted by now. I’m watching to see what goes into it. At the Home and Garden Show (10 booths) I saw a tire for a sprinkler. It never occurred to me that these massive sprinklers need tires even though I see tires on them whenever I pass them. $200 a pop, between 8 and 10 tires on a sprinkler arm.

Yesterday I waited at a red light and watched a truck loaded with potatoes make the left turn. The driver was a Navajo in a red shirt, wearing a cowboy hat with a ribbon around the brim with a feather hanging from it. He looked at me as I looked at him, and I could only hope he saw the admiration in my eyes.

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.