Sunday Services in the Church of the Big Empty

Spring is here. It’s nearly 70 degrees F/21 C, and the wind is blowing. Services were quieter than they’ve been for more than a month because the largest part of the choir has moved on to points north leaving only the geese to make up the horn section. Otherwise, the meadowlark is leading the chorus with occasional interjections from red-winged blackbirds and frogs. We only had the opportunity to welcome one car, but the man and his wife were clearly VERY happy to be out though there isn’t a lot to see at the moment (outside of everything, of course).

Much to my amazement, Bear has learned to listen for bird songs and will stop when she hears a meadowlark. She’s incredibly attuned to my behavior. Still, her particular interest remains scat, and she alerted me to several different varieties today for which I’m unutterably grateful.

You can see from the featured photo that it doesn’t look a lot different from winter out there yet, but at the base of the little plants green is emerging. I’m looking forward to sunset walks services out there in the summer.

On our way out there, my heart gave a little leap to see hundreds of Angus cattle in the distance and MANY tiny puddles of black amongst them. Along with the little black puddles were a couple of white puddles; livestock guardian dogs. I remembered the first Great Pyrenees I ever met. He was in Descanso, CA, my little town in the mountains outside of San Diego. He was a working dog who would occasionally walk into “town” from the little farm where the people raised sheep and alpacas. Town in Descanso was a two pump gas station, convenience store, post office and deli all in one building. I was coming out of the post office and had just turned up the street toward home. An immense, incredibly filthy, very furry fluffy white dog came strolling up to me. I stopped. He leaned against me, and I thought, “This must be a Great Pyrenees. What a wonderful dog!”

When I started walking home after our “moment,” he strolled along with me until the fork in the road. His way was straight ahead and mine was to the right. Now that I know more about these dogs, I realize how incredibly honored I was.

Most people know the Great Pyrenees. Bear is an Akbash dog, a dog bred in Turkey for the same purpose as the Great Pyrenees in Europe. In Italy they have bred the Maremmano-Abruzzese, also a big white dog, to guard the sheep and goats. All of these wonderful beings have been friends to man for thousands of year. Top to bottom: Great Pyrenees, Maremmano, and Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog ❤

They’re Still Here

Bear and I went out to the Refuge, and there was NO one to welcome meaning we had THOUSANDS of acres in which to practice social distancing.

We parked in a different spot because I was hoping to be able to get closer to the cranes, but that wasn’t possible. At first I thought the cranes had taken off but no. They were just staying on the ground. Out where they were hanging out, it was pretty windy. Wonderful walk.

Bear made the point that getting all jazzed up over a feather is really silly when there is copious crane poop everywhere. I told her it was a matter of perspective, and I don’t share hers. She attempted to change my mind with the argument that there’s more poop than feathers, and I just said, “Always the same story, Bear.”

All those little gray shapes in the middle distance near the water are cranes… I need to go out there with a real camera

We stood and watched the cranes for a while. They are just hanging out, having fun and staying out of the wind. They’re dancing and it seemed to me their dance ripples through the line sort of like “the wave” at a ball game. According to American Bird Conservancy, Sandhill Crane dancing, “… is thought to strengthen the bond between pairs and may also reduce aggression between birds.”

I think they dance for joy. Here’s my evidence… OK it’s sketchy but the significance of joy is beautifully expressed here by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire. I’ve photographed my actual book from which I used to teach Critical Thinking and Nature Writing. Along with the cranes I hear frogs, geese, ducks and all manner of birds… Spring… Abbey is writing about why the frogs in vernal pools sing. He gives a theory I can definitely get behind…

When the cranes head out — soon, I imagine — most will stop somewhere along the Snake River in Wyoming/Idaho but some of these very birds go all the way to Siberia! How do they decide who’s going where?

As I walked along with this wonderful dog I thought I should take up bird-watching which would mean the major change to my life of remembering to carry binoculars.

Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to find movies that don’t involve “luv” or crises or anything annoying (go ahead, YOU try it) and so far I’ve (re)watched Second Hand Lion and The Big Year. OK The Big Year has a LITTLE luv in it, but the focus is a competition between three guys to see the most birds in one year and thereby win “the big year.” In one scene they’re in Whitefish, MT and hear Sandhill Cranes. I don’t know why that scene isn’t a LOT longer… 😉

Also on my list are Local Hero, The Big Lebowski and Genius. If you have any suggestions please comment. I’m looking for movies that are not romantic comedies and are not focused on overcoming some terrible adversity. It’s part of my stragedy for getting through this thing day-by-day, succeeding in that “one foot in front of the other” thing that is, ultimately, life. Sadly, I know all the Monty Python movies by heart… 😦

Our caper this afternoon, in total solitude, out there in that beautiful place with the wide trails and changing light? Wow. Ducks are nesting in the cattails beside the ponds. Geese are fiercely marking off territory in their watery world. Red-winged blackbirds screech, wrens, blue birds and, in the distance a raptor — golden eagle, I think — dove for something on the ground. Successfully, apparently. I watched for a long time and didn’t see him come up again. I pictured him shredding something there in the golden grass.

Other beautiful things? A field of cut grass, blue mountains in the distance and hundreds of black cattle scattered throughout. Gorgeous. A big white dog leaning against a pile of hay while his cows feed from a couple of bright orange troughs. A lone green tractor waiting to go to work tomorrow, behind it blue foothills and a snowy peak. A tired mom and her two VERY tiny (smaller than Bear) newborn calves. Every day, at least once, I thank EVERYTHING for bringing me here. I still can’t believe my luck. It’s my gold watch, my “thank you, good and faithful servant.” ❤

Social Connection

I’m alone a lot, mostly by choice. I have friends I value very much, but less need than some other people for social contact. The Internet — this blog and Facebook — are pretty good at supplying me a lot of what I need. I like writing and I imagine in a perfect world I’d write and people would write back, but… I’m a legit introvert and too much, too concentrated, social interaction and I’m exhausted.

But I need some and, even for me, this isolation thing is a little difficult. I miss the occasional adventures I have with my friends/neighbors — Elizabeth and Karen. I miss Lois’ visits from the Springs and the chance to go up there myself, or to Denver to see other friends. I miss talking to the kids and letting them “walk” the dogs. I even miss random chats at the supermarket, sometimes with strangers, sometimes running into people I know. However, I realized that what I DO get now, what I can GIVE right now, has an intensity and authenticity borne of our mutual knowledge that we’re all in a fucked up situation. Great article here in The Washington Post.

Today Teddy and I headed out to the Big Empty to practice Extreme Social Distancing. On our way, we passed the kids who came running to the fence. I stopped Bella.

“What are you guys doing?”

“I was playing. Where are you going?” asked the little boy.

“Out to the Refuge to see if there are any birds.”

“Can you come out of the car so we can see Teddy?” asked the little girl.

“I can’t. Not until this stupid virus is over.”

Their faces fell but they understood, and nodded. “I miss you guys a lot and I love you a lot,” I said.

“Us too,” they said, in unison.

Damned virus.

When Teddy and I arrived at the Refuge it appeared to be empty except for, in the distance, trucks belonging to the wildlife guys/young women. The cranes were very active. I think they are preparing to head north soon because there is more flying high in their crane vertices. I watched several of these moments. I sat down on a rock for a while to watch them take off, rise, and circle into the breeze of a pure blue sky, soaring, higher, higher, higher.

When they stopped, I got up, turned around and found they’d left a gift for me.

I haven’t picked up a feather for years. Long ago, I picked up every feather, loving, especially, to find hawk feathers. I adorned the inside of my truck, turning it into a mobile medicine bundle in which I burned white sage. But today I brought home the gift from the cranes. It’s a kind of company. ❤

Heaven is Inspiring…

In my wanderings down Monte Vista’s summer streets, visiting with neighbors, politics often comes up. I don’t like talking politics, but I’ve been astonished by the fact that people who probably voted for completely opposite parties share the same idea. The San Luis Valley can take care of itself.

Of course, it really can’t, but to an amazing extent it does. Whatever’s going on, people step up. Puppy mill? We don’t want that. Have to negotiate on that? OK. Result? People need to make a living, people here need Australian shepherds, but damn, that puppy mill is NOT going to be a “puppy mill.” It’s going to be a responsible, professional breeder. Dog pounds are primitive and inhumane? OK. Let’s just change all of ours to rescues, no-kill shelters. Let’s involve the schools to help care for the dogs. Let’s raise money from our neighbors. Let’s have fairs to show off our dogs. Let’s drive them to a bigger city where there are more adopters. ALL of the shelters in this truly impoverished part of America are no-kill shelters.

Now they’re working on cats.

The city is a mess? Lets march down the streets one evening a week, wearing rucksacks and carrying trash bags and clean it up. The food bank needs donations? Let’s just do that. The shelters need people to see the dogs? Lets walk them where people can see them. Need new decorations for crane festival? Let’s rope in the local artists and get people and businesses to sponsor these steel cutouts that we can auction at the end of the year.

One of the painted steel cranes adorning the streets of Heaven

I’m useless in this whole thing. I don’t even try, but just as a band is nothing without listeners, maybe the wonder of my valley would be less without my appreciating it.

And now we have a virus and two rural hospitals with very small satellite clinics, and where are filtered masks going to come from to protect the health care providers? What? These businesses are having to lay off their employees? Wait a minute… Hmmmm…

Read about it here. ❤

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. 🙂


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. ❤

Another Hard Day at the Office

Bear and I showed up for work at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge a little early today. As I’m walking better, I’m hoping to go farther. 🙂

The Refuge was pretty empty. I can’t say that’s because it’s Wednesday or because the cranes have left (no idea), or because of the virus, but we didn’t have a lot of welcoming to do, but we were prepared. When the opportunity afforded itself, we put our hearts into it. It’s not all about quantity, though. The ones we DID wave at were very high quality; very enthusiastic about smiling broadly and waving back. I think we earned our pay.

I heard cranes but didn’t see many. A front is coming in. It’s vaunted to be carrying up to 20 inches of snow. Not for us, though. We’re just going to get wind and a half inch. I don’t care. Bear and I are heading HIGHER soon.

The wind was rehearsing, and I am hopeful its performance will be right up there with the greats. On the little segment of road that faces due south it was tough going for me. I was happy to turn west.

Bear, as always, walked back to Bella (my Jeep) with my hand on her back. I love that so much. Crane tourists love to see that, too, and it gets the best waves and smiles.

A white pick-up parked beside the road not far from the entrance. As I got closer, I saw it was a ranger or a BLM or a parks and wildlife truck. I had a little twinge of paranoia. The sign says leashed dogs are OK, but what if?

As I neared, the truck started moving and pulled up beside me. One of the wonderful things about this day and age is that WOMEN are often behind the wheel of those trucks. ❤ This was a young woman of about 30. “Is everything OK?” she asked.

“Oh yes. I’m great.” I WAS great and I smiled.

She grinned and drove off.

I have decided NOT to think of the possibility that when I walk I look like I’m suffering but, instead, to think that maybe she thought I was a Crane Tourist whose vehicle had broken down.

On the way home, Mohammed’s Radio played the song that came on when I first brought Bear home for a “test drive.” I think the song persuaded me to keep her. I don’t like Wings, but I always listen to this when it comes on.

Crane Tourists

Bear and I headed out yesterday afternoon once the wind whipped up (god forbid we go when the wind ISN’T blowing!) to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge for our semi-daily (Teddy gets his turn on other days) constitutional and to evaluate the condition of the surrounding mountains. It’s been a week since the Crane Festival and, though it was Sunday, I expected fewer people. Plus, you know, virus…

I was wrong. NOTHING scares away the Crane Tourist. There were easily a half-a-dozen cars.


Bear and I have kind of figured out a route for us when there are people there. We take a little path made for walkers — 1/2 mile through scrub along a little wetlands. In this spot a couple of weeks ago I heard meadowlarks. Because of the wind, most little birds are hunkered down, so it was quiet in there yesterday.

Then, I caught sight of a raptor and stopped to watch a red tail hawk battle the wind. Even when they are doing that, they seem to be having a good time. He was flying into the wind, his wings pulled. He flew over us then (hope hope hope) and went on. “Nothing there, that selfish human has her dog leashed.” We emerged at the other end of the pathway to see a young couple picnicking by their flat tire. They waved. They were not your typical Crane Tourist though they did have a Subaru. Subaru is the car of choice for Crane Tourists.

At this point, the cranes are hanging out by a pond about 1/2 mile from the refuge entrance. Cars passed Bear and me — we always step off the dirt road and turn to face the cars. We wave, passengers and drivers wave. They drive on to where they see the other cars parked and we keep walking.

The wind was blowing from the south, hard, and obscured the sound of the cranes. I know there are thousands in that field around the pond. We get closer to the parked cars (a crowd, four) and I see the Crane Tourists with their binoculars and long camera lenses. I can imagine the wonderment on their faces as they watch the cranes dance. I love it.

Pretty much what they were doing yesterday…

I’m walking further and faster, but it still hurts. I try to extend my reach without causing myself pain. I’m at the point where I can walk two miles without pain, or much pain. I have a very high pain threshold, and I’m sure it’s why I have sustained so many injuries over the years. My body can yell at me, “WTF???? I’m WARNING you!!” and I just say, “Huh?” and keep going. I’m trying to be smarter. I need this vehicle for the foreseeable future and a future without walking? That may happen. I don’t know. But not NOW.

We reached our turning-around point and, though I want to keep going, I don’t.

I saw a man walking toward me. NO one walks here except me. How strange is this? He was another Baby Boomer (Crane Tourists tend to be Baby Boomers). He was a little shy of Bear, but they made friends and we chatted through the wind at a distance of 6 feet. He and his wife live in Boulder. He said that it’s expensive but there’s good hiking and good yoga. He said he liked it down here and he listed off all the birds he and his wife have seen at the Refuge and at Homelake. We talked about the natural beauty of Colorado and how our job is to fight for it and to enjoy it. 

Just a few of them…

At one point hundreds of cranes took flight in the distance. The guy from Boulder openly expressed his delight, “That’s it! That’s what we’re here for!” meaning why he and his wife had driven down from Boulder. That expression of delight is pretty much the point of the whole thing, life, the universe and everything. Crane Tourists.

“Look for an eagle,” I said. The cranes’ mass flight which thrills us so much is usually a response to a predator nearby, most often an eagle hoping for an easy meal. Sure enough, there it was, flying off toward the south, disappointed, hungry.

Bear and I continued on our way, watching the light changing over the San Juans, cloud shadows moving over the greening chamisa. I saw two killdeer — my first. They’re lovely.

Bear and I punched out, another shift as the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge Welcoming Committee behind us.

When I got into Bella and turned on the radio, it played this song. It seemed to describe my life perfectly. I mean, seriously? Who ever knows? I thanked the fates, again, that the wind blew me here, to Heaven. ❤

Celebrating Bear’s Fifth Birthday

A dog is a dog. OK, we all know I LOVE my dogs and ADORE Bear, but she is not a person. When it comes to celebrating her birthday, I do something with her that has cross-species resonance.

Last night it snowed — a tiny bit — but it was the frosting on Bear’s “cake.” (Her “cake” is life.) When I got up, snow was falling. “Happy Birthday, Bear,” were the first words that came out of my mouth. As she is a dog, the best way to make the morning special is not to do anything unusual. Bear, more than many dogs, thrives on routine. The predictable keeps her peaceful and happy. Livestock guardian dogs are like that. Anything out of the ordinary could be a large predator after her flock. Teddy doesn’t mind change, but Bear hates it.

Just after noon, Bear started giving me THE LOOK, a look that signifies, “You’ve had lunch. Let’s GO!”

Party time!

As we drove out there, Mohammed’s radio played Seals and Croft, “We May Never Pass this Way Again.” I don’t know if it’s the virus or the beauty of early spring here in Heaven or Bear’s birthday, but I kind of misted up. I don’t even like the song.

Windy. 50 degrees (12 c more or less) but the wind was cold. There were a few crane tourists and many, many cranes. Focusing on cranes keeps people from seeing some other amazing creatures such as a bright mountain blue bird fighting the wind. I have the luxury of observing ALL the birds at my leisure.

Here’s the birthday girl celebrating.

“Great party, Martha!”
“Thanks, Bear.”