Walk with a Friend in the Big Empty

Yesterday afternoon my neighbor and I took off for the Big Empty with Bear. It was a glorious cool day with wind, but not the kind that knocks over trees. We had a good time. She’s a wonderful walking companion. And, she has a good eye. Soon after we started out she spotted a feather. It’s a tail feather from a Northern Harrier Hawk. I asked if she wanted it and she didn’t. But I did. I wanted it to keep my Sandhill Crane feather company. I didn’t want to carry it all the way — I know it’s a feather and all but I didn’t want to smash it or lose it along the way. I set it carefully in the grass hoping it was fixed well enough not to blow away.

Karen is curious about things and I really like that in people. We took Bear’s favorite little loop and Karen got to see Yellow Headed blackbirds for the first time. At the end of our hike one of them posed on a reed fewer than 5 feet away from us for a very long time. “They’re not very afraid, are they?” she said.

“That’s the whole point of a wildlife ‘refuge’.” I thought about a talk she and I had had a little earlier. I’d told her I got into going out there because it was open, empty, beautiful, quiet, a natural world I didn’t know much about, there’s no virus, no riots, nothing but itself.

On the way back talk turned to current events. Where I live, BLM means “Bureau of Land Management” and I’m pretty sure people in the West have to take a minute to translate BLM to Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t even know any black people,” said my neighbor.

“I don’t think there are many out here.” I thought then that a lot of America — in area — is like that. It’s not a matter of exclusion, either. There aren’t many PEOPLE out here. Then I thought of the so-called “fly-over” areas that make up a lot of 45’s base, and it hit me that it’s exactly things like THAT that alienate people out here from people in cities. While American cities are in turmoil people out here are worried that they aren’t going to have enough water to bring the crops to harvest. Our biggest problems in the past 24 hours have been a massive power outage that affected 2700 people and below freezing temperatures just when the first cutting of alfalfa hay is on the horizon.

Fly-over regions feel “ignored.” A rancher I know and respect very much said that 45 is the first president to care about farmers. This is categorically NOT true, but it takes a LOT of noise to penetrate the Big Empty — partly because of the wind, and partly because a guy on a tractor for 10 or 12 hours a day or out with his stock is NOT watching the news. Maybe that guy saw 45 yammer about “Our great farmers” twice and never saw Obama say anything. That doesn’t mean Obama didn’t say (or do) anything; he did. It just means the farmer didn’t hear it. If a tree falls etc.

The “big city” of Alamosa had two marches in support of George Floyd. Compared to other spots in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is pretty urban. It has a university and a community college (branch). The Walmart is there. There are 9000+ people there. It’s a good bet that the people in Alamosa are better educated than the average just because the professors are there. An urban life is definitely more techno centered than a rural life as far as news media is concerned, anyway. The demonstrations — judging from photos, I didn’t go — were, except for one bizarre event — small and peaceful. People walked down the Main Street with signs and other people stood on the curbs. I don’t know who was supporting the march and who was not, but if it had made the TV news it would have shown a very different world.

My friend asked me why I thought all this was happening now. I told her my belief that this is the moment that African Americans were fighting their OWN civil war, that I didn’t believe anyone could give another person freedom because that person could take it back. I told her I believed it was phase 3 of the liberation of the slaves, a “war” that had to take place but that I don’t like it. I told her it made me sad, that I thought about all the African American students I’d taught and how it was a wild spectrum of motivation, preparation and comprehension, that it wasn’t just about us white people understanding the Blacks, they had to understand us, too, because we’re all on the planet together. I told her I liked the birder in Central Park a LOT and I wished I could invite him out here to see the Cranes, but then, I said, “Maybe he’s been here already.”

“It must not be easy to be a black guy who loves birds,” she said, “I saw a black professor of ornithology and I thought that was very strange.” I nodded, thinking about how we are all inured to expecting African Americans to be in THIS place and not THAT place, to be good at basketball but never have tried Nordic skiing. I thought about how I KNOW there is an attitude among some African Americans that there are things white people do, but that black people don’t. It isn’t just white people stereotyping. Inclusion involves so much more than we think of at first.

We got near the place where I’d stashed my feather. We both walked slowly along the road where the feather should have been. It wasn’t there. My amazing friend crossed the road, thinking the wind could have picked up my feather, and found it caught in the grass on the other side of the road.

I think we’re both glad we live here.


Being There in the Alley

The other evening, with Bear on the golf course, I was ready for the imperatives of the time. I had headed out wearing a ski buff and was prepared to lift to cover my face although there are few people around. About 20 minutes out, I spied a man and his daughter coming our way.

I stopped, pulled Bear close and asked her to sit, my usual way of preparing Bear to meet new people. I’d mostly forgotten the “great imperative” of our moment. I lifted the ski buff. The man said, “It’s OK, it’s OK. We’re going to walk around you.” There was PLENTY of room, like the WHOLE golf course. He was very concerned that I was afraid.

I kind of woke up inside to something. “Thank you,” I said.

“She looks happy,” he said, looking at Bear who was disappointed at not meeting the people, but putting a good face on it.

“This is her happy place. Have a beautiful evening!”

“You too.”

I wanted to cry, touched by that man’s consideration of an older woman who appeared to be afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I’d mostly forgotten where we are right now and when I remembered I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s just weird.

Monday, when I got home from my ramble in the Big Empty, I was in a great mood in spite of the stupid woman who was letting her dog run where she shouldn’t. My neighbor hurried over with a flash drive on which the whole mailbox accident had been recorded. I asked her how she was and she said, “Meh.” I kind of teased her about feeling “Meh.” Later, I felt bad about teasing her. Godnose we humans have myriad reasons for feeling “meh” in normal times. I texted her apologizing. She said it was OK for me to tease her, but…

Yesterday we met in the alley (as per usual) and shared about this “Meh” thing. Tuesday I was “Meh.” We talked about the virus which turned out to be the source of our “Meh.” As she said, “Everyone has an opinion about what we should do.”

That’s true and moreso in her case because she has grown kids with families (and opinions). I explained my position which is the virus is nature. “I wish we’d had more snow last winter, but I’m not out demonstrating about it.”

“That’s a good point,” she said.

“Lot’s of people are never in nature. They don’t really know what it is.” I might have said, I certainly think it. We talked about the farmers. We’re sure they might be wearing bandanas against the dust out there planting potatoes, but are they “social distancing”? Why would they be? My “Big Empty” is a postage stamp in this immensity. We talked about how lucky we are here. We haven’t faced a lot of the shortages people have faced in other places. We don’t have crowds of people living here. She shared how she likes some of the changes to her life, changes I understand. I made some of them by choice when I moved here.

Nothing earthshaking in the conversation, just camaraderie. JUST camaraderie…and empathy. I’m more convinced every day that the best thing we can do for each other right now — and maybe all the time — is just BE there.


“Oh yeah, I’ll Tell You Something”

Englewood, Colorado. I’m at the hugging-the-parents-around-the-legs stage of life. Dad and I are Christmas shopping. I can only hold two of his fingers, my hands are so tiny.

Lincoln, Nebraska, eighth grade science field trip, sitting in a planetarium watching the show with Rex Bennett whom I’ve known since fifth grade. My first romantic hand-holding. “I think he likes me!”

At the Roxy Theater in Bellevue, Nebraska, my brother and I are there for A Hard Day’s Night. The small-town theater is packed with teenagers. I’m 14. The kid next to me reaches for my hand during the movie and we hold hands all the way through. I don’t even know him. A little voice tells me it’s wrong to hold a strange boy’s hand, but I don’t let go.

My dad’s in a coma. I am doing homework (reading, English major, you know). I feel a movement, a slight squeeze on my hand. I look up at him to see he’s come out of the coma and is looking at me with all the love in the universe. We stay like that for a while, savoring the moment and the envelope of love. I notice his IV needle has come out. I call the nurse. ❤ ❤

My niece, two years old, a little girl I barely know. We’re playing in a park near my brother’s house. She tells me there is a bear in the pine trees at the end of the park. I ask “Where?” and while she points, I get on all fours and roar. She puts her hand on my back. I walk on four “legs” on the grass for a while, Andrea’s hand on my back much the way I place my hand on Bear’s when we walk. Ultimately I have to stand up. Andrea reaches for my hand and we walk home. I love her so much. ❤

Arches National Monument. Francesco and I run across the slick rock to a look out from which we can see the Delicate Arch. The road below is closed and this is the only way. It’s almost dark. We can’t stop. We have a mile to go. We hold hands to keep each other near, safe, and on the trail. ❤

I am walking to my car after a day teaching at San Diego State. As I cross the bridge that goes over the highway to the parking lot, I am approached by a dad and his tiny, red-haired girl. She looks up at me. I look down at her. She lets go of her dad and puts her hand in mine. Dad laughs. “I guess she wants to go home with you!” My hair is also red.

I hold my mom’s hand in the hospital about a month before she dies. It’s sweet even though she thinks I am someone else.

My Aunt Martha is in the nursing home. She’s telling me the story of her adult life, how she’d made her decisions and why. “I love you, Martha Ann.” “I love you too, Aunt Martha.” ❤

Sometimes the weird little eventualities of growing older are painful — not physically but psychologically. On our recent exploration of the town of Del Norte, my friend has one of those moments of embarrassment, confusion and regret. In her usual gentle way, she confides her feelings. I take her hand. She squeezes mine. I say, “It doesn’t matter.”

I’m watching a movie on my lap top, sitting on my sofa. My big white dog comes in from outside, jumps up onto the sofa, and puts her big paw on my leg. I put my hand on her paw. ❤

And now a stupid but appropriate song…


And I Just Keep Learning One Difficult Lesson after Another…

The Monte Vista Crane Festival has been going on all this weekend and I’ve had house guests — my friend Lois and her developmentally disabled (and awesome) son, Mark.

Yesterday morning we went out to look for the cranes. It was the first time I’ve experienced driving at the Wildlife Refuge with the tourists. It was interesting. Lots of immense rented SUVs. There were fewer cranes in the usual places, but it was a gorgeous day if you like warm air, clear skies and that sort of thing.

Field of Cranes in front of the San Juans

After that we went to the Craft and Nature Fair. Among the exhibits was a raptor rescue from Albuquerque. I was involved with an organization like that in San Diego and I was so happy to be so close to the birds again. I talked a long time with one of the women working there. It was an incredible, engaging conversation about teaching kids to love nature by exposing them to these amazing birds.

I love Mark so much, but it’s difficult sometimes to tolerate the reality that he cannot look forward to the consequences of his actions like “normal” people do. I love him for his own sake, but also for the sad fact that some of the things he does remind me how lucky I am to understand WHY you do this and not that.

Yesterday Mark set his shoe on the table. I yelled at him, “Get your shoe off the table! You don’t put shoes on the table!” In my mind’s eye, I saw where that shoe had been, walking around on dirt comprising ground cow dung, elk droppings, spit, urine from various ambulatory beings, godnose. You know, dirt.

He looked shocked — I’m not a person who yells at people, or dogs. Bear ran outside and didn’t want to come back in. Bear’s breed is just like that. Mark was chagrined. I felt weird. Lois and I had to cajole Bear back into the house, and Mark went back to listening to music.

I thought the rest of the night how our knowledge and understanding of how to live life builds incrementally in immeasurable particles. I thought of how important reasoning is in our ability to navigate life safely. It’s actually a pleasure to be able to think.

In the early evening we returned to the Refuge, this time to a more distant spot, a barley field that had been mowed to attract the cranes. There were three school buses of Crane Tourists, and thousands of cranes in the field. There was also the 360 degree spectacle which is sun set in the San Luis Valley.

Most photos were taken by my friend Lois. My photo is the cranes in the field.


You Say Hello…

In my life “Good-byes” fall into four main categories — those I can’t avoid, those I instigate, those that are instigated by others, and those that happen slowly over time, kind of an “evolving door” rather than an exit.

The first “good-bye” I couldn’t avoid was the death of my grandmother Beall which happened when I was 10. I didn’t understand any of what was going on at the time, honestly. There was the adult world of grieving daughters — my mom and her sisters — and the quiet world of confused cousins, my peers. It was just strange. But it was my first experience with death. The second was to be my cat, Henry, who came home one day with a broke back and while I was at school, my parents had him put to sleep. It was right and completely different from my grandma’s death, not so much because it was just a cat, but because there was a clear injury. I’d gone out to the garage to let Henry in and found him like that. He tried to jump up into my arms as usual.

The next was my father’ death which resembled Henry’s death far more than it resembled my grandmother’s. I had the chance to say “Good-bye” to my dad one afternoon and from that I learned that, if you can, control that moment so you can hold within your heart a perfect memory, a perfect image.

After that, over the years, there was what anyone in this temporal existence expects. One death after another. One permanent good-bye followed by another. Grandmother, mom, aunts, dogs, dogs, dogs, friends. You can’t always say good-bye but after a certain time, “Good-bye” is part of every “hello.”

I’ve had to break up with some boyfriends, divorce some husbands, and end a few friendships intentionally. Those are hard good-byes. They can involve packing up some future-ex’ crap and putting it in a wheel-barrow in the front yard. They can involve difficult phone calls, “No, Sweet-cheeks, I really mean it. I’m tired of you calling me and venting about your horrible boyfriend and not doing anything about it. I’m not your sob-sister. I’m your friend. That guy treats you horribly. If you hadn’t told me all these stories about him over the years, it would be different. I feel used because you don’t do anything about it. I don’t want to hear from you anymore.” Ending friendships can involve “ghosting,” leading to numerous “Why don’t you call me back?” messages which you answer in your mind, “because you kicked my dog, you excrescence.”

And, of course, there’s being dumped. In my life that’s probably been no weirder than in anyone else’s.

Then, you know, people move away. People’s interests change. People’s lives evolve. A lot happens in our lives, and the silent “good-byes” often have no bad feelings. Maybe there are going to be thousands of miles between you or that our lives that — once similar and synchronous — are now wildly different.

I have a few friends with whom I’ve been connected for more than fifty years. The friendships have survived because someone has held on — loosely. Our lives have gone in their own ways over the decades, but the connection remained alive. Some of these friends are old boyfriends (now literally, senior citizens) which is actually kind of cool. Whatever the connection was back in the dim recesses of time, something more important than the feelings of being “in love” was born and endured. My best woman friend from the 70s is still my friend today. We never agreed on everything — in fact, we disagree on a lot of things — but we value the other deeply for certain ineffable qualities of being that we never discovered elsewhere.

“Good-bye” is inevitable and while I’m not sure that every good-by opens the door to someone new, it’s useful to believe it does.


That Was the Year That Was

Recap of 2019 — I bought Nordic skis in January and skied (Langlaufed) maybe 10 times before the snow melted. 

One of the happiest days I can remember is the first day I took them out and found I could still ski, even after 20 years. I got to take Lois out in February and we had a blast. We had SO MUCH SNOW it was a dream come true for me and Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog. Winter also brought Bear and me a small herd of mule deer to watch and kind of hang out with daily — from a distance.

The Tracks of my Deers

In the winter I did some watercolors (of which I’m very proud) of the world in which I now wander and an oil that is, I think, my best so far. All of these are of the Rio Grande and the San Juan Mountains which I watched changing every day I took Bear out for a long ramble. Winter 2019 was a spectacular winter for me.

Storm on Windy Peak

In late June, I lost my Dusty T. Dog after 14 years. I. had adopted a mini-Aussie pup, Teddy Bear T. Dog a few weeks before losing Dusty. 

Because of all the snow we got, the snow melt was record-setting, and I got to see “my” river in flood for the first time. Really, really amazing

Rio Grande in flood at Shriver/Wright

The year brought a few visits to Colorado Springs to see friends, to get my new hip checked, and a pilgrimage to Denver with Lois and lunch with one of my oldest friends, Ron, and his wonderful wife, Joni, in my old hood which had not completely changed. (I was happy). From that came a deep understanding of my life, the changes, the distance I’ve traveled — heart, mind, soul and feet — and the consistencies of which I was unaware, leaving me grateful for old friends, new old friends and my own courage. ❤

At the Narrow Gauge Book Co-op

I had the incredible experience of writing As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder (and another book, Fledging, with its very tiny audience of three people including me, but a beloved project nonetheless). Reading Baby Duck at the Narrow Gauge Book Co-op was a little scary, but it turned into a very sweet event, supported by my incredible friends. The reading, the newspaper articles, and all that experience ended up entailing was great — including being on the Radio. (Video will NOT kill this radio star, believe me.) 

In November/December I had the opportunity to participate in a group art show at the Rio Grande County Museum with other San Luis Valley artists. I exhibited and sold books (I sold four) and read from Baby Duck again, this time to a different audience. It was wonderful, inspiring to me as a writer. Along with the show, I got to know the women who run that museum and I like them very much.

Some health weirdness, but who, at 67, does not have to deal with some of that? The weirdest was the horse-fly bite in June. 

Adventures with friends — some lunches in various and sundry places .In early spring we went to Creede and wandered around that lovely town. We tried the new restaurant in Del Norte, and went to studio tours in South Fork and Crestone. December brought Christmas lunches, tea parties and dinner with precious friends.

Health Food lunch in Crestone

The year brought only a few good walks with the dogs, not as many as I wish because of an injury I sustained in late September that has taken almost 3 months to heal. But now it’s healed just in time to Langlauf which I’ve done twice already this winter. Karen and I were finally able to ski together after talking about it for 3 years!

There’s much more, but this is long enough already. Thank you again fates for conspiring to bring me here, to Heaven, where I am and have been so incredibly happy. ❤

Reading a Friend’s Reflections

I’m reading a book written by a friend. The book is about some of his solitary journeys, mostly in Alaska. The writing is often beautiful and sometimes I’m able to perceive its beauty. The thing is, he writes in Italian.

In one of the stories he writes about arriving at the cabin he leased for several years and where he will spend five weeks. To get there he has to hire a hydroplane. In this segment the hydroplane has two other passengers. When they see that he is being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, they begin to caution him about the dangers of being in the wilderness alone.

One of the things I KNOW about this person is that would piss him off. We hiked in Arches National Monument very late one afternoon through dusk into night. Our destination was the Delicate Arch overlook. The road to the Delicate Arch was closed, and we wanted to see the arch, so we walked and ran. We had to hurry. On our way, a man tried to stop us telling us we’d never get there in time to see it and we’d never find our way back in the dark.

I thought my friend was going to belt the guy for interfering and slowing us down. I was pretty sure we’d find our way back in the dark. As for the Delicate Arch? NOT seeing it was not as important to me or my friend as trying. Did we get there? We did. You can draw your own conclusions about whether we got back.

My friend has written in his book that the last thing he needed to hear when he’s dropped off in the actual middle of true nowhere is a couple of strangers cataloging the risks. He knows the risks, and he is apprehensive, but how useful is fear when he’ll be there for five weeks alone?

As I read my friend’s words, I thought about Reinhold Messner saying in his film for Outside Magazine “My Life at the Limit,” that it wasn’t climbing Everest without oxygen that scared him. Doing it alone scared him. Solitude scared him and that was what he was conquering, not the mountain, not the lack of air to breathe.

I’ve never had to confront solitude like that, but my whole life has been pretty solitary, mostly by choice. As a kid I was constantly trying to get out by myself somewhere, the woods, the bluffs, the hills, the mountains. That and wanting a dog seem to have been the consuming forces of my life. When I got my first REAL dog (Truffle) I understood what the combination meant for me. Freedom. I could go ANYWHERE with a big dog. It was a liberating partnership.

My friend has described himself as a misanthrope. Maybe he is. That’s something no one but him can possibly know. I’m not. I like people, but there is a difference between solitude in nature and experiences in nature with friends. I like both, but probably I like solitude in nature (with a dog) best (though I never turn down a chance to hike with a friend because it is fun). I have been stopped on many trails by people asking if I were afraid to hike alone. My answer was always no, that I was more afraid NOT to hike.

Still, I have no experiences that compare with being dropped by a hydroplane at a remote Alaskan cabin where I will stay for five weeks, except, maybe, my whole life. That’s something to reflect on as I continue reading these stories.


Cross Country Ski Trail of My Dreams

Today we went up to Dick Boyce Cross Country Ski Area which is pretty close to my house — maybe 15 miles on paved and good gravel roads. I learned how to get there when, as I tell Bear, the good times return. The trail is totally within my range of abilities and is two miles RT. I had good cell service all the way along it. That matters since sometimes I’ll probably go alone.

We talked briefly about “What’s your next writing project?” and I said I had no idea.

One of my friends said, “Write about three ladies who go hiking together.”
I said I couldn’t because right now I’m in the middle of that story and it’s a very sweet one.

We’d had a kind of deep and earnest talk earlier about maybe we shouldn’t bitch about getting old(er). I said I don’t really bitch, and that sometimes remembering I’m 67 going on 68 helps me remember that I’m not 30, that I used my body hard, that stuff happened to it, and I have to figure out where I am now because I can’t go back even to what I was when I was fifty. I said I sometimes feel like a failure until I remember I’m nearly 70. In earlier days, before my hip surgery, when we took off together, many things were difficult for me, and my friends were there to witness and help. I told them today I can do anything now, but I have a problem with apprehension; I’m a little afraid.

Elizabeth said that’s natural and to be expected.

Karen says she feels like herself until she looks in the mirror. I laughed because the other day I looked in the mirror and said, “Well, I could be a lot uglier.”

I guess that’s kind of an affirmation.

Deep inside, for me, what matters is continuing to try to find wonderful things to do. I think I share that with my friends. Each of us found a treasure, too. 🙂

Potato Cellars and Tea Party

Potatoes are the main crop in this marvelous valley where I get to live. A few months ago one of the historical organizations here in the San Luis Valley of Colorado posted a video on Facebook of a young woman, Zoe Rierson, who is writing her Master’s Thesis on the Potato Cellars of the San Luis Valley. I am fascinated by them. I saw my first potato cellar soon after I moved here as I was driving between South Fork and Monte Vista. I thought it was beautiful. It is the one in the featured photo and like many of these structures, it is made of adobe.

Potato cellars of this type are unique to the San Luis Valley and have recently been listed as important structures that are vanishing from Colorado. This is listing is good because it could lead to some of them being preserved and protected.

I shared Zoe’s video on Facebook, and my neighbor and I talked about it. I told her I’d love to do paintings of the potato cellars.

It turns out that Zoe is a friend of my next-door neighbor, and today my neighbor hosted one of our tea parties and invited Zoe. We got our own little presentation and it was absolutely fascinating. We also know where to go to find more of these potato cellars.

It was a wonderful afternoon, and we’re planning an “adventure” with a picnic lunch and watercolors. Here’s the video 🙂

Day Trip to Creede, Colorado

Yesterday my friends and I had an adventure to the old mining town of Creede, Colorado. It’s a very busy tourist place in summer, but it isn’t summer yet, and the big challenge was to find a restaurant that was open and then open on a Monday.

It’s still late winter up there — the snow is melting, but the fields are still snow-covered and the mountains, of course. It was a beautiful drive. Lunch was good — but even the little restaurant where we ate was very busy getting ready for tourists by expanding and remodeling while it was open. After lunch we decided to “see the town” (one street).

Not far from our restaurant an old (meaning my age) hippy, skinny, tan and working with his shirt off (it was 50 degrees/12 C) was busy working on the stained glass windows of Creede Community Church, taking off old glass exterior windows and replacing them with a new kind of plastic with rubber gasket things to keep the stained glass windows dry.

We went inside the church — a beautiful frontier church with curved pews and soft light. Where a choir might be there was a gigantic flat-screen TV. I wondered what function it played in the church. A lot of the churches around do not have their own ministers (or “vicahs” as my Episcopalian Aussie friend says ❤ ) and the church leaders often visit two or three churches on a Sunday and, even then, maybe not every Sunday.

The guy had a friendly blond Labrador named Jasmine who came and talked to us. I answered in dog and scratched her back.

From there we wandered up the street, into a very lovely gallery/shop which was full of boxes of new merchandise they were trying to unpack and inventory. There are many beautiful things in that store — from jewelry to handmade garden sculpture. I saw some collages and encaustic paintings by my friend Perla. From there we went up the street. San Juan Sports had boxes of nice stuff out on the sidewalk, stuff they wanted to clear out and I found a sweatshirt I liked.

We pressed on, looked at what the repertory theater is offering this coming summer and savored the fact that the town was empty.

Creede is a comparatively rich town, but it also has a lot of citizen loyalty. I always think of my little town when I’m not in it, and I thought of all the charming things that Creede has done that we could do. One is this little park built where once there was a building.