How Do You Know When it’s Fall?

My friend Lois is here for a visit, and the dogs and I couldn’t be happier. Last evening we took a stroll out at the Refuge and then ate at Ninos, one of the local Mexican restaurants, the one in which I — seven years ago — tasted the green chili I had missed in California. I haven’t been out at night in about a million years so coming home to real “country dark” was kind of surprising and also informative. I learned that the batteries are dead in two of my outside motion sensor lamps.

The beans survived three freezing nights in a row with nothing but frost burn on some of the more exposed leaves. This is slightly strange because the beans are not “keeping each other warm.” At this point I think they could be doing anything.

Yesterday Lois and I were talking about the arrival of fall, like when does it really begin? This was the result of a (pretty funny) debate she was having on FB with a family member who is polemical and punctilious to a fault. As we drove out to the Refuge I said, “I know it’s fall when the cows come home.” It wasn’t just the idiom, either. At the beginning of fall the cows really DO come home from grazing in BLM lands, spending their summers in the mountains. They are excellent at keeping low-level forest growth from getting too thick or too high. Awesome sub-contractors for this task. The sheep come home, too, and some of the gates at the Refuge are open to let the hoofed animals cross from farm to pasture. South of the Refuge, a few days ago, I discovered a small herd of goats protected by a vigilant llama.

Well Trained

Once-upon-a-time trains ran from town to town here just as they do in Europe, local trains. When I was an elementary school kid, they were still running in places, and one of them was between the suburb of Denver where I lived — Englewood — and the next town — Littleton. Of course, Englewood and Littleton had been towns in their own right, until Denver pushed itself out to the netherlands.

All through the San Luis Valley are attractive turn of the 20th century buildings, most painted yellow and brown, all of them sitting beside the railroad tracks. The little depot in Monte Vista is a pretty one. I wish the trains ran now because if they did, I’d probably go to my high school reunion.

Parked tank cars by the golf course are good hiding places for deer…

Now many of the tracks around here are privately owned and maintained. They are rented out for $$$$$ to house coal cars for the most part. There are also three historical trains in the area, one of which, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, runs cars from the City of New Orleans. It runs from Alamosa to a little spot up in the Sangre de Cristos where there’s a concert stage. I took that journey with friends the first summer I lived here to hear John McCutcheon. It was a beautiful trip and we bought fancy seats on the train so it was pretty plush. The other two trains are the Cumbres/Toltec that goes over a breathtaking mountain pass but costs $$$, and the Durango/Silverton — probably the most famous of these old trains. It goes through amazing scenery as well.

I think my favorite train of this nature was in California and it was actually pretty lame. The Southern Pacific. It goes out of an old train yard in Campo, CA, a dusty small town south east of San Diego not far from Tecate, Mexico. The prices to ride this are more along the $ lines. It was fun to take the stepsons and niece on this train (fun for me) and I dimly remember maybe having taken students. For a while it crossed the border into Mexico — its original route, but when GWB put up the giant border fence, it ran to the fence. That was a little grim, actually, seeing a giant, black fence stretched across rugged terrain in the middle of nowhere. There are so many amazing attractions in Southern California, that this little train museum in the desert struck me as a version of “the little engine that could.” It can’t, but it’s still there. ๐Ÿ™‚

Campo Train and a little of the landscape

My neighbor, Bob, Elizabeth’s husband, is a serious and legit train guy. He has bought and restored entire cars. His brother owns long lengths of track in the San Luis Valley. A little train used to run from South Fork nearly all the way to Creede on the old narrow gauge. Stupid me, I put off riding it until I was settled, so even though I was in South Fork for a month before moving into Monte Vista, I didn’t ride it. I didn’t know that the next year would be its last year. BUT, Elizabeth took me up to follow the little train on its last run. There’s a little conversation about my phone case which looks like a box of watercolors.

“Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death!!!”*

I’ve been looking longingly at the iPhone 12pro Max or whatever it’s called. It’s $1000+. And why? The camera… I mean here I am going out to the big wide animal world and taking photos with my phone of animals no one can see in the photos. Clearly I need a new phone!!!


I have two very nice digital cameras, one of which fits in a pocket. Because of this you will finally get to see what I see.

All in all a pretty good day. I saved myself a thousand bucks and had nice walk with my dog. Along with the waterbirds, we saw the Harris hawk and yes; the eagles are back. A golden eagle took flight from a refuge sign just as I turned a corner leaving the refuge. I watched as she flew and dived and hunted for about a mile as I drove slowly on the dirt road with my window down. ๐Ÿ™‚

*Title of a Dead Kennedys album.

Pondering Cranes and the Animal/Human Relationship

The Sandhill cranes are still here. It’s amazing and wonderful. Teddy and I headed out yesterday and, for Teddy, the biggest excitement (except going with me) was flushing two ducks out of a ditch. He didn’t mean to, and I didn’t mean to, but those guys startle easily.

When we were at our turnaround point, the cranes, thousands of them, suddenly took to the air, calling loudly to each other and the world below. It was a spectacular show, but what interested me most was seeing whatever had set them in motion. I did, though not close enough to identify it exactly. A large hawk or eagle was flying low and fast away from the pond, having given up on what he must have thought would be an easy meal.

After watching five hours of nature documentaries (BTW this is NOT a good strategy for relaxation; stick to film versions of Jane Austen novels), I started thinking about the Romantic poets and the so-called “Romantic Era.” Is that where our attitude toward nature changed? There are writers who argue that it is, that until the early 19th century humans regarded the whole big mess of kill-or-be-killed reality as an adversary. I can’t accept that kind of blanket perspective about anything, but it’s probably true that before there were tunnels through mountains, mountains were less appealing, more obstacle than wonder.

The argument kind of hinges on how many early cultures ultimately began raising food on farms rather than gathering random seeds and chasing the woolly mammoth. Thinking about that, I began to see a small domestic farm as a refrigerator. “Grog, honey? Next time you go out, maybe you could bring back a live prairie rooster and hen? You were saying that there are hardly any prairie hens out there any more! I think we could just build a little enclosure and feed them and have the hens we want and their eggs, too!”

WHAT??? Are you impugning my hunting skills?”

“No no nothing like that, but you said it was getting harder and harder to find them.”

I’m sure it happened EXACTLY like that. Word for word.

In any case, no one has domesticated the Sandhill crane. They are hunted in various parts of the United States, but apparently are not easy prey. Ask any eagle.

“Though not quite as prehistoric as dinosaurs, sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living species on Earth, with fossilized specimens dating to 2.5 million years ago. Over those roughly 250,000 generations, the birds have gotten pretty wary. Thatโ€™s why successful crane hunters have big spreads of hyperrealistic decoys, spend more time patterning birds than they do actually hunting them, and take care not to overhunt specific areas.Outdoor Life “Stealth and Decoy Tips”

Thinking about this led me to think about how many early people regarded their prey animals as gods. The plains’ Indians believed that a buffalo they were able to kill was giving itself to them.

That makes me think that we have always seen the beauty in the wild creatures around us, maybe even mores in the days when we lived together with them. And Sandhill cranes are VERY wary, though, on my last couple of forays out into their world, they have flown directly over me as if they finally got the message that I’m not going to kill them. I believe they are every bit as observant of me — more even — as I am of them.


I’m one of the (rare?) people who doesn’t like white starches. Not a big fan of bread. Don’t see the point in rice. Potatoes? Nah. Pasta? Well, a little better but…

Still it’s fall and chilly, and I make good potato soup, so when I put in my order for groceries I specified, “Four red potatoes.”

This is the second largest potato producing region in the USA. I could see my valley thinking, “Four potatoes? What’s WRONG with you?” At the store, I was given a five pound bag. (1/4 kilo more or less) Damn. What am I going to do with that?

Wrapped around the top of the little bag was one of those plastic things and attached to it was a tag. I love the tag, so I’ll share it with you.

There is nothing less suspenseful than a potato, though they can create a lot of suspense for the farmer depending on what the weather is doing. I love watching them grow, I love their blossoms in the field, I love the festival in September in their honor, but EAT them?

So last evening I looked at the sack. “Damn. That’s a lot of potatoes.” I decided to make scalloped potatoes with cheese, what fancy people call Au Gratin. I happened to have a substantial chunk of Gruyere from Switzerland so, following my grandma’s “recipe” I took two potatoes and my little Japanese casserole dish and began to put the thing together. I smelled one of the potatoes after I cut into it just to have the experience of smelling the dirt of my own valley. Fresh potatoes carry some of the fragrance of the ground where they’ve been grown. I inhaled the fragrance of the San Luis Valley — my own garden — after a rain or in snow melt.

When the concoction was cooked, it was my dinner. It was really, really, good. Here’s the recipe which isn’t very precise. It’s my grandma’s recipe and I learned it from my mom.

1 medium red potato per/person.
Scald milk (more or less 1/2 cup/serving)
Slice potato in thin slices.ย 
Layer in buttered covered casserole (one potato/layer)put chunks of butter on top of each layer, like a tablespoon.
Sprinkle a scant tablespoon of flour over the layer of potatoes
Slice your favorite cheese over the flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Bake covered in a 350 degree oven until the potatoes are tender
Take off the lid, turn up the heat to 400 and let the top brown


The Easel

Yesterday I drove along the 18 miles of Road T in Saguache County Colorado. That was after some 20 miles on the US Highway 285 and before another 15 miles on paved Saguache County Road T. Saguache County is the first county north of my own, Rio Grande County. I was heading to the old mining town of Crestone — now arty-farty spiritual center — to buy my easel.

Nothing notable about the deal — except getting a $500 easel for $100 — but driving toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains takes my breath away. They resemble the Alps in the way they rise from the valley floor, rugged and young.

The easel is large and it was a struggle to get it into the house, but I did it. But then — as happens — I realized I had to move stuff out of my studio and THAT led to moving stuff out of my living room. It’s interesting how when you get a small piece of new furniture you might end up re-arranging everything and cleaning.

I don’t know yet if in this picture the gray will turn to blue…

I haven’t figured out everything about it yet — the main thing I still have to work out is adjusting the up/down of the tray on which the painting rests. I see how to do it, I just haven’t been able to do it! I’ll make it work for this big painting, but it won’t work for a smaller one but if I never manages that, a cool thing about this easel is it can go flat, like a table.

Now my little studio has three work “surfaces.” A dedicated drawing table, the table of all work, and an easel. Pretty up town, I’d say.

OK, this isn’t much of a video, but I thought, since I have this fancy new upgrade I should try it…

Of Cows and Cranes

This is my new friend. I don’t know her name, but she’s the most beautiful cow I’ve ever seen. She and her pals — several cows, a bull and a year-old calf — were hanging around in the shade behind the four trees at the refuge, behind the fence. It was Bear’s first close encounter of the Bovine kind, and she behaved perfectly.

“My” cow beginning to get curious, “Who’s that lady? What’s up with that big white dog?”

As I was communing with my new friend, two Sandhill Cranes flew over my left shoulder.

I’m not sure it gets better than that. Sure cleared away the clouds and cobwebs from last night’s presidential debate. I mean if the most beautiful cow in the world wants to follow you home (and she followed me along the fence as far as she could) life’s just pretty amazing.

True Fall Day in the Big Empty

This morning was maddening. Among other annoyances, my prescription service called and left a voicemail telling me to call back and giving me a Fort Knox like series of numbers with which to do that. Once I managed to get through this labyrinth of arbitrary numerals I reached a long pre-recorded message telling me the importance of taking my medications regularly and on time. I was furious! One thing we older people do not have is TIME. The morning wore on with one minor stupid problem after another. I finally looked at Teddy and said, “Let’s go.”

We sought refuge and found it.

The wind was brisk. The air was cool. The colors had changed in just a week. Aspen trees on the San Juans were already turning from gold to the gold/orange of aspen leaves about to fall. Song birds threw a chorus from the distant willows next to the pond. A couple of raptors tried their luck with starlings. The starlings won. I heard cranes in the distance. Teddy, wore his new and vastly improved harness.

He was so happy to be out that every few feet he turned around to tell me thank you, jumping up for hugs and dancing around my feet. Finally he accepted his good luck. He began his job of smelling everything that had passed on the road and spotting rabbits and chipmunks that were invisible to me

At our turnaround point I just stopped. The morning was completely silent. Country silent. It was magnificent. I don’t know how long I stood there, but long enough for the noise of our silly world to retreat and long enough for whatever disturbance I presented to disappear. Teddy alerted me to three Sandhill Cranes flyings low in front of us.

As we walked back toward Bella, I saw the image I want to paint on the big canvas a friend gave me years ago. It’s something I saw this past March, but passing the spot, I was reminded and I began to see the painting take shape in my mind’s eye.

The Lazarus Tree

Because the cranes are here and it’s chilly, I took Teddy out to find some refuge. It was a little challenging because there were cattle grazing next to the fence and Teddy is a herding dog. When he sees cattle he becomes incredibly excited and barky. This is breeding time for the herds who are old-school enough to rely on bull action and I noticed at least two in the field.

Other than the cattle, the first thing I saw was this patient osprey perched on a sign, looking for an easy meal.

Besides the osprey, there was a golden eagle circling the distant pond of geese and cranes. Winter is coming or whatever season is next. It’s hard to know with summer proceeding as it has been.

I kept driving until everything around us was Refuge and then we stopped and took our walk. In the distance were lots of geese and, I believe, a few Sandhill Cranes. Teddy’s level of alertness is incredible. He even sees birds in the reeds that I can’t see at all. I think when he gets better at this walking with Martha thing he’s going to be a great companion, spotting creatures near and far.

When we’d finished, I decided to take a road trip to see “the tree” from my painting. Teddy was happy because he likes riding in the car with me and listening to me sing. He is the only sentient being on the planet who likes that, so who am I NOT to give him that opportunity? We threaded our way along the “streets with no name” except things like “2 E and 5 S”.

I spotted the tree from quite a distance. It stands alone on a rabbitbrush plain. As Teddy and I approached (Singing “Africa” by Toto) I saw that the “dead tree” is not dead at all. I am renaming the painting “March” “Winter Tree.”

Teddy and I wound our way home, looking for a potato cellar I’d seen from a distance (no luck).


Thanks to the summer snow storm, which officially dumped 16 inches on Monte Vista, I have a huge mess to contend with. Half a tree broke off my neighbor’s excrescent elm and landed in my yard. Luckily, it didn’t break the fence. Another giant chunk of the self-same excrescence is looming dangerously over my garage. I’m waiting until next week to call anyone (since I can). The meteorological rumor is that next week temps will be in the 70s and the sun will be shining. And who knows? I might overcome my terror of chainsaws and take care of the branch in my yard myself (doubtful).

The City of Monte Vista was out yesterday cutting trees away from power lines. I’m bristling at what I’ll have to spend to deal with those trees, but it’ll be better than paying for a new garage roof. It’s just the kind of nagging problem that seems to have kept humanity going for thousands of years.

Like everyone else, Nature is easier to love when she’s being nice to you. On the bright side, the mountains are beautiful and Bear is blissful and no one will need to water anything for the rest of the year. And…

In other good news…