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.


Denver and Rio Grande Railroad

In the middle nowhere on CO 149 is an old-school railroad crossing sign. You have to pay attention to see the narrow gauge tracks crossing the high meadow pasture.

What’s the story?

No one knows how human geography is going to pan out long term. The man who built the tracks had big dreams of a narrow gauge train over the mountains to Denver. I, personally, wish his dreams had come true, but instead we got the Cold War, and the Interstate Highway system. That man could not have known how it would eventually go with the automobile (or passenger planes), or that horses and trains were not going to be the foundation of human transportation forever. He could not have known that — in the future — a small mining town butted up against a cliff would not become a thriving metropolis, that its rich vein of ore would be exhausted or that the bottom would fall out of silver. The train ran well into the 1980s. 

And I could not have known the geography of my own life that would bring me to Monte Vista, Colorado, or that I would live across the street from — and be friends with — a man who loves trains so much that he and his brother collect old train cars. I could not have known that his wife and I would stand in the rain one lovely early summer day waiting to see a small engine cross that mountain pasture with my neighbor as engineer, blowing its horn, sounding for all the world like a big engine, echoing a time gone by.


P.S. Obviously, I took the video with my phone. In the video my friend asks me about my iPhone case which looks like a watercolor box that’s been used. I do lose it sometimes when I’m painting and have all kinds of colors out all over the place. :p


Classic Architecture of the Old West

“That’s a false front, honey.”


“Here, let’s walk around the side of the building, see? It’s not a big two story building at all. It’s a false front. They put that front up there to look fancy and have a place to put their sign.”

The picture above is of Dillon, Co in the 1880s. 

There were a lot of things like that when I was a kid that I don’t see much any more — pressed tin ceilings, pneumatic tubes in department stores, elaborate brass cash registers, player pianos — but if you think about it, the “old” west (1880s) was only 70 years before I was born. My mom and dad, born in the 20s, in Montana, were born into the rag-tag end days of the Wild West and the deadly glamor of Prohibition. My dad’s dad and mom made bathtub gin.

In my town — not too surprisingly — there are still “false front” buildings and they’ll probably remain as the whole town was declared a national historic site back in the 1990s. Not that every building is historically important or every building falls under the purview of the rules regarding national historic buildings, but many of the buildings downtown were hand built by stone masons of local stone and they are beautiful.



You can see a few false-fronts though they’re not so obvious from this view — our movie theater has one.




160 Reprise — 2 Year Anniversary

Silence is pretty rare on my street which just happens to be US 160, a highway that goes from the Navajo town of Tuba City, AZ or “Holy Cow, this is the last Denny’s for thousands of miles!” through “We ARE in Kansas, Toto. Where’s Auntie Em?” all the way to Missouri. Look on the map. It’ll show you.

It’s 4000+ (damned sexdaily) 1400+ miles…


I have been on or near the 160 nearly every day since September 20, 2014, when I arrived in Colorado to stay.

The noise is seasonal. It picks up around Memorial Day when the summer people from Texas drag their giant 5th wheels or pilot their humungous motorhomes up into the mountains above Creede. They leave behind dollars and the tendency of people who live up there to say, “Y’all.” The noise begins to die down a week or two before Labor Day. On snowy winter mornings it gets very close to silent. Even the sound of the most dauntless semi-truck is muffled by those flakes of holy white cold.

In Tuba City, where I arrived exhausted on September 20, 2014, at about 8 am, I stopped at Denny’s to use the restroom and I ordered a milk shake. It was my first inkling of the sweetness of the life that lay ahead. I emerged from the lady’s room and a young Navajo woman in a Denny’s uniform was waiting with my shake. “Here you go. You look so tired. Are you sure you want it to go?”

“My dogs are in the car, and I have a long ways to go.”

“Take care of yourself. Drive carefully.”

I went through Kayenta and looked off into the distance and wondered why SOME of the formations were “Monument Valley” and others weren’t. Who decided? I saw Shiprock in the distance, but that was not the direction I would take. That day I drove through a tiny bit of New Mexico before entering Colorado. I saw wild horses running along beside the highway through the gorgeous wild landscape of the high desert.

I was very excited when I reached the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign — though at that particular entry point, in late September, Colorado isn’t very colorful


Welcome Sign in the Four Corners Area

The first Colorado “city” is Cortez and from there I passed Mesa Verde, Mancos, Durango, Pagosa Springs, climbed and dropped over Wolf Creek Pass and down into South Fork which was where I stopped and stayed for a month.


South Fork, CO Rio Grande and Fall Trees

Old cars are popular where I live and if there is an old car show in any place in the San Luis Valley, I get to see them all in action as they are driven past my house. This is also low-rider land and I get to see them, too. This time of year trucks loaded with potatoes pass in both directions, which is strange. Why don’t they stay where they are instead of doing this potato exchange?

The loudest of all are snowplows, but it’s a sound I find comforting, especially in the night. My first winter here, when I heard my first snowplow scrape the highway, I thought, “I’m home.”

That’s not a Southern California sound.


Snowplow on a Pass — I don’t know which one.





I Heart Deserts

“This isn’t desert. I take you to Saudi. There is desert. No plants.”

Arab students on a school field trip to the Anza Borrego Desert. How to explain to a desert dweller that the word “desert” has a scientific determination that doesn’t include “no plants?”

I like deserts. I like the light in the deserts, the mystery, the discomfort, the harsh little plants that are often incredibly fragrant, the opportunistic blossoms, the creatures who live there. It’s all great to me. The first couple of years I lived in San Diego we had a VW pop-top camper van and that was great for camping in the desert. Good clearance, good traction, self-contained sleeping quarters — sure it smelled a little like gasoline back there, but hey…  I wish I had that camper now.

When it rained, the ocotillo would blossom — red and beautiful and attracting hummingbirds. In spring the desert would be carpeted with wildflowers. Rainstorms could bring down enormous palm trees in flash floods. Deserts are just one extreme after another and sometimes that extreme is extreme heat under which everything waits as if under the hand an oppressor. One of my favorite spots in the Anza Borrego Desert is Mountain Palm Springs. I have hundreds of photos of it on my dead laptop (rip). The one below isn’t mine.


Where I live now it’s called a “desert” too. I am sure none of my Saudi students would buy that driving by fields of blooming potatoes and waving barley, electric yellow canola blossoms and clover fields, such as those we passed yesterday to reach Great Sand Dunes National Park. The stream running in front of the dunes is sometimes high and fast enough for people to ride a boogie board or inner tube. All around it are mountain plants and animals — antelope, deer, elk, mountain lions, etc. and, uh, mountains. The dunes are eons of sand blown across the San Luis Vally from the San Juan Mountains on the western edge and trapped by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

And, of course, this is my all-time favorite movie. 🙂


Short Mountains

I’m 5’1″ and I used to be cute, I mean cute as in young woman cute not cute as in old lady cute. I’m also very smart. I know this because it’s been measured numerous times and I really had no significant problems surmounting the hurdles of academic life even though I didn’t try very hard or like it very much. I’m also (here’s a nasty word) “creative.” I’m also very serious about what matters to me BUT I might laugh about it and enjoy it. In spite of being small, I was always, also, physically strong with good endurance and speed. I am also very independent, generally optimistic, like to laugh and have a comparatively “out there” (meaning irreverent) sense of humor. In short, I’m a formidable entity in a short body.

None of this is bragging. I look at it all as the result of a genetic soup that I had nothing whatever to do with. I only hope I did pretty OK with it because it was a nice gift. One of the most difficult parts of this, though, was (and is!) being taken seriously by other people. The men with whom I worked — those in my generation in particular —  could be very obnoxious. Because I am little and cute, many of them actually patted me on the head, stood too close, and often hit on me. Female co-workers disdained me because I was not as “serious” as I should be (hard to be “serious” when you spend every day of your life doing EXACTLY what you love to do) and they (unconsciously?) assumed that a petite, playful person who likes to laugh is not working, does not care, will not do well, is not paying attention. Somehow, on some level, I believe I came across as a child to my colleagues.

Over the years I’ve realized that small, happy people are often underestimated.

But, in South China, I was a pretty average height. It was great. Standing on a bus, I could easily reach the overhead railings. Riding the bus, my 6′ husband – for whom life was simple in the US – had to stand under the ceiling air vent and open it in order to stand up straight.

Still, in China, I got a lesson that showed me that I shared the bias against “short” things.

One afternoon, as I was lecturing in one of my writing classes, smiling and happy as usual, one of my students raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, why you smile all the time? You think we’re funny?”

“No. I don’t think you’re funny. I think you’re all great. I smile because I’m happy.”

“Why you happy?”

“I’m teaching, which I love and want to do, and I’m in China which is a dream come true for me.”

“You’re happy to be in CHINA?”

“Oh yes, very happy.”

“You like China?”

“I love it.” Suddenly LOTS of hands were raised.

“How you love China and love America, too?”

“How you love China? Life is very hard for you here compare to America.”

“Why you happy to be teaching?”

I explained everything to my class and watched their eyes widen and smiles grow.

“You think China beautiful?”

My heart was in my mouth. “Yes.”

“America is not beautiful?”

My heart rose to my eyes, thinking of the Rocky Mountains which I sorely missed.

“America is beautiful, too.” My heart spilled down my cheeks. My students saw it.

“You homesick, teacher?”

“No, but I miss the mountains. Let’s get back to our work, OK?”

They were then talking amongst themselves and the head of the class (every class had a “head” in China at that time) then stood up and said, “We want to invite you to see something, teacher. Will you come with us?”

“After school?”

“No. Now.”


We packed up our belongings and left the classroom. We walked past the village into an area that was being built into a park. At one point in the area a moon gate had been built. A moon gate (if you don’t already know) is a circular gate, an opening in a wall, that might be for going in and out and might just be there to frame a scene. This was to frame a scene. Above the arch were four characters, an actual Chinese poem. They were, “Wind, Sky, Water, Mountain.”

风 天 水 山

A pretty lame poem in English, but in Chinese characters it looks pretty and placed where it was, it exactly described the order in which people would naturally observe the scene beyond the moon gate. We stood in the wind, under the sky (Heaven), in front of the gate was a pond, above the pond the large hill behind the agricultural college; a mountain.


My students, understanding I missed the mountains, had brought me to see one. What a gift, one that took me half a lifetime to understand. At that point, I had not learned to respect a mountain under 10,000 feet. I underestimated them and called them hills, but in time I learned not to underestimate any mountain, even the short ones, or a poem that is only four words long.


Moon Gate, West Lake, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Asia

Not “my” moon gate, but a famous moon gate in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. You can see there is a “poem” over the arch. 🙂




…Same Perfect Day…

I wrote this last year, last February. I would STILL want the same perfect day. It wouldn’t have to be this trail, but I love this trail so I’ll go with it. It’s wonderful that now I am back in Colorado — something I didn’t imagine as I wrote this in February 2014 — and I have no homework to grade any more. There is also a dog to add to the list of hiking pals — my puppy Bear.

The daylight hours are long and it is still early summer — mid-July. I get up and all my dogs (from the beginning of having dogs) are around me. I make a smoothie and a cup of good coffee, sit down at the computer and DON’T grade homework. I work on my novel in a minimalist style, of course.

When I finish writing for the day (which will be a very long day of daylight) I change clothes, fill my backpack and some dogp-acks with water bottles and head to the mountains. I have my own hydration pack, but that doesn’t help the dogs much.

The mountains are cool, comfortable and rattlesnake free. In fact, it isn’t even “my” current mountains, it’s the Rockies. We drive to the Hessie Townsite trail head and walk about 1/2 mile through ankle-deep run off to the trail head. It goes up a little hill (which doesn’t feel little at 7000 feet) and then continue climbing, though not as sharp a climb, next to a roaring crick (in Colorado they’re cricks not creeks or streams). We cross a bridge and look down at a waterfall. We keep going up a corderoy road (rail road ties laid into a dirt road to keep it from being muddy, miners built and used these). We reach Lost Lake. It’s as beautiful as ever. All of us (and it would be about 20, considering all the dogs I’ve ever had) are enchanted, but we’re not finished.


Devil’s Thumb

Because it’s a perfect day, none of this takes any time, even though we don’t hurry. We return to the main trail and join up with the Devils Thumb Trail. We pass a few patches of snow and walk through some (it’s late July) and finally reach a bowl at the literal end of the trail. It’s above treeline. There is a big difference between trees and tree line. The high alpine tundra is still in winter, but I love its windswept emptiness. I climb up to a saddle to the right of Devils Thumb and look down on North Park, feeling like Sir Edmund Hilary. I am on the top of the world with all of my best friends (who, in this perfect day, neither poop nor pee to mess up the ecosystem).


Climate Change

Daily Prompt High Noon At noon today, take a pause in what you’re doing or thinking about. Make a note of it, and write a post about it later.

Uh, no. Writing a blog post is my first activity of the day.

Yesterday I bit the bullet and went to Walmart in Alamosa. I don’t like Walmart much and I don’t like shopping. As last week I spent driving around the state of Colorado, I was also not all that eager to get into the car, but I felt the ticking of time. Spring is here. It’s April. If I don’t get that stuff in the ground, I might as well forget it. I also didn’t want to repeat the snow shovel embarrassment. I didn’t have tools. No leaf rake. No shovel. I felt nostalgic for the wonderful pickaxe I left behind in CA, but maybe I could replace it.

This isn’t California. People aren’t lining up for a parking place and then fighting over it. As everywhere, Walmart was full of people on Saturday, and the Saturday before Easter, even moreso. There was a huge banner saying, “Our Garden Center is Open!” I was happy, but it didn’t look very open. Within the chain link barrier that controls the migration of bags of peat moss and decorative bark, everything was tightly wrapped in green plastic.

I grab a cart in the lot and head in. It’s an obstacle course since, naturally, there are all kinds of things piled prominently in front to catch the attention of the impulse buyer. I’m here because of that. Last week when my house guest and I stopped here to buy dog food for the local shelter, I impulsively bought peonies and lilies…

All I really want to plant are iris, but not till fall, I understand. In CA I just put stuff in the ground (or in a pot) whenever I found it. Here? There’s frost, frozen ground, fourteen below and other obstacles to whimsical gardening.

I make it out to the Garden Section and find it’s more or less bereft of products. A few tired forced-for-Easter hyacinths and tulips, some pots, some bags of potting soil, lawn fertilizer. I think, “I have a lawn. Oh man, I’m going to have to deal with that.” Soon? Already dandelions are smiling sun-ward and I grapple mildly with the idea that I must kill them or pull them out. My mind wanders momentarily to family discussions between mom and dad about how to contend with weeds in the lawn; poison or the dandelion digger in the hands of a kid? For the past eleven years I had a dirt yard. Dirt doesn’t burn and dirt is low maintenance and has minimal watering requirements — perfect surface for drought-stricken California. Of course, there were the deadly foxtails that came up unbidden every spring. I fought with them constantly and dreaded their burrowing in my dogs’ fur or climbing up the narrow channels of their ears or nostrils. Foxtails can kill. No joke.

Nothing in the garden center, not that I need, anyway. I know I’m jumping the gun, but my bags of lily bulbs and the peonies say “Plant between mid-March and mid-April.” I have a week. I go back inside and find a sharp shovel and a leaf rake. A woman and her husband look around with expressions like the one I feel I must have. “Not much out yet, is there. I’m just looking for peat moss,” says the woman to me.

“Me too,” I say.

“Maybe it’s outside.”

“I looked and didn’t see any, but maybe I missed it. Maybe we’re jumping the gun.” Her husband smiled quietly behind her. Ah. There was their whole relationship. Well, she’s a lucky woman.

“There’s all that stuff wrapped up out there. Well, they can just unwrap it,” she says and they head out the door to that world of dismal faded bulb plants and philodendron. I pick up two bags of potting soil. I can mix that with the dirt outside to give my new little friends a better chance and warmer ground.

The leaf rake gets stuck in the shopping cart and a young man passing by un-sticks it for me. “Turn it around and it won’t get stuck.” “Thanks,” I say, remembering where I am in the anonymity of Walmart. I’m in Alamosa. People are friendly. It still shocks me.

There are already some crops in the fields between Alamosa and Monte Vista. I don’t know exactly what crops are grown all around me. Potatoes and barley. What else? The immense sprinklers have begun trekking slowly over the newly green mystery.

I suspect that I’m going to end up getting a green house. I know that my California clock isn’t going to change. I know I’m never going to believe that I can plant something in May and have any chance of seeing it ever.

I feel alien and strange here now. The excitement has worn off. It’s still beautiful, but I’m not part of it. Will I ever be? Do I want to be? I don’t have answers for either question. I’m probably fine as I am. In the supermarket I heard two big guys — tall and old — discussing cattle. I love that, but all I can do is love that. I never owned a cow and it’s not the same to simply like them (I do). I eavesdropped while pretending to be in a torturous dilemma over the choice of butter.”I had a heifer,” said one, “but I sold her. I regret that now.”

I imagined regretting a cow. “Cattle can be expensive,” said the other one, “they don’t always pay off. I’m still running them, but every year I think it’ll be the last.”

“That’s true, but she was a good heifer. I can’t replace her now for under $500.”

“I got some cattle a year ago for $150 a head. Some old boy wanted to unload his feed cattle.”

“Were they healthy?”

“Yeah, they were fine. That was a good deal. Can’t always find one like that, though.”

I get home with my potting soil and tools. I spade up a patch of dirt by the front door for the peony and mix in the potting soil. I lay out the peony rhizome careful not to set it too deep. It’s already leafing out. I see a woman running across the street, an older woman, and I wish I could run across the street. She comes to my gate and Dusty barks his head off in protest? Welcome? I go over to meet her. Another nice neighbor. Retired teacher, works as a substitute for the school district here. I hear her life story. People tell me things; it’s always been that way. I know the inevitable question about church is hovering in the conversation and sure enough; down it comes. I have an answer for it and I use it. Still, I think that question is more personal than, “What color are your underwear?”

I like her and hope we talk again. I return to the second part of my job; planting the lilies in memory of my Lily. Six stargazer lilies. I hope they grow.


First Photo Challenge

All I needed to get me into this was a bad pun on a bad knock-knock joke from 2nd grade…

Who’s there?
Banana who?
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana again?

Above, Squirrel on My Fence, My Golden Retriever (RIP) Kelly O’Dog, Sunset in Monte Vista, Fall on the Rio Grande in South Fork, CO.

Two Blood Oranges and a Grapefruit, Watercolor by Martha Ann Kennedy

Two Blood Oranges and a Grapefruit, Watercolor by Martha Ann Kennedy