Anniversary Journey to the Big Empty

Six years ago today I saw the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge for the first time.

Strangely, it wasn’t until this year that it became “my” place. That probably wouldn’t even have happened if it hadn’t been for two things. 1) Off leash dogs at the spots where I usually took my dogs, 2) the virus and the need to walk freely without worrying about human contact.

Once I started taking Bear and then Teddy to the Refuge, no other place had any appeal. The big spaces, the changing mountain views, the weather, the birds, the whole THING. Yeah, it’s just a couple miles on a dirt road but WHAT a couple of miles!!!

This afternoon it suddenly clouded up, the wind started blowing, and I thought, “A-HA no mosquitoes!” I saddled up Teddy and we took off.

“Yay! Martha!”

Dark dark sky over the San Juans as you can see in the featured photo. Big peals of rolling thunder. Amazing changing light over Mt. Blanca. Holy fucking shit. And then, to put the final wonder on this wonder I saw dozens of…

Sandhill Cranes!!!!!

As it happens, Facebook told me yesterday and today that in past years I have seen cranes the first time in “fall” around the first of August.

You can see how dark it was where Teddy and I were walking! The sun shone on Mt. Blanca

The thunder and lightning got a little close and I swear I actually ran.

I’m happy the cranes are back. I’m happy we got to go out in a storm. Walking Teddy is so much easier out there than in town, so that was also great. When I got home, this song came on Mohammed’s Radio. Seriously.

Celebrating Five Years with Bear

Five years ago yesterday Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog came to live with me, Dusty (RIP) and Mindy (RIP). I had a lot of doubts about this adoption but Marilyn of Serendipity had had experience with Great Pyrenees (at the time, I thought Bear was a pyrenees/husky mix). She encouraged me not to hesitate, that Pyrenees were gentle, loving low-energy dogs and it would be great (if I wanted to live with a big hairy beast who would ultimately weigh 100 pounds). ๐Ÿ™‚

My big fear was that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with a puppy. I was then (and remain) mildly ashamed of growing older and having to contend with worn out body parts, knees, hips and the like. You know. I’d been an avid trail runner until I was 53 when my first hip had gone too far south for me to ignore it. Life then became a process of discovering what had happened to me and getting it fixed. After that, though I was supposed to be back to 100%, I never was again. And, as I said, I was and remain, vaguely ashamed of this.

I brought Bear home for a few hours as a “test drive”. She instantly made friends with Mindy, my sweet, elderly Aussie. Dusty was clearly disposed to tolerate her but not necessarily to LIKE her. He was still mourning his Siberian husky sister/mom, Lily, whom I’d had to put down four months earlier.

Bear — observing what they did — peed and pooped outside. Everything about this dog indicated she wanted to be here. I had to take her back to the shelter that day, but I took a deep breath and put down a $50 deposit claiming her as my dog. I brought her home soon after.

As I got to know Bear I saw I didn’t have a pet. I had something else. I love Siberian huskies because they are so independent, but their exercise needs were way beyond my abilities. Bear is at least as independent as a husky, but unlike huskies, she wants to get things right and please her human in a spirit of cooperation and tolerance. While Bear is an autonomous being, she’s one who instinctively cooperates, very different from a husky.

I also learned that she is an Akbash dog, a livestock guardian dog originally from Turkey, that can have blue eyes. They are similar to Pyrenees in their job, but as a dog breed they have longer legs and are generally more slender having, as part of their ancestry (3000 years ago) “wind hound” and “sight hound” — something like grey hound or Afghan dog. Bear “only” weighs 75 pounds.

As I researched livestock guardian dogs I was soon in awe of their role in the world. That Bear was going to be an old woman’s pet and not wandering the Big Empty protecting goats and sheep from bears and coyotes seemed a little unfair to Bear. Several months after she came to live with me, I got to see a couple of those dogs out in the middle of nowhere with a large herd of sheep. That image evolved into a Christmas card.

In my research I learned they needed to be carefully socialized, so from the time she was a puppy, I got her out there where people are. The only time I see her livestock guardian dog behavior is when there are other dogs. Since the time we were charged by a cattle dog, and Bear felt (she was probably right) she had to defend me and Dusty. When she’s leashed, other dogs are NOT to be born. Off leash, it’s another story, or if the other dog is introduced properly. She didn’t hurt the cattle dog, but he has never charged us again.

I also learned that while the Akbash dog (and the Pyrenees) can be fierce, fast and strong, they are very low energy.

So, to celebrate what I view as Bear’s “gotcha'” day we went to the Refuge in the early evening. We’ve had rain for five days and it was just a JOY to get out. The sky was magnificent, the air was fresh, the sky was washed clean.

Maybe best of all, soon after I arrived, I saw cranes. They are beginning to make their way back to their winter home, Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. You can imagine my heart lit up at the sight and sound of these wonderful birds. “It won’t be long now, Bear,” I said. She just smelled some poop.

Gift from the Big Empty

The sky clouded over before noon which meant that it was probably going to rain at some point. So far it hasn’t, but I saw it falling on the San Juans to the west. I looked at Teddy and thought, “It’s his turn today.” All about fair play here at Casa di Marta, Orsa e Teddolino. I put Teddy’s bug-deterring bandana on him and we drove out to the refuge which, lately, has been more like additional torture.

Today it was a refuge. The sky was overcast, and a cool breeze was coming off the rainy San Juans. For July it could not have been better. Nary a mosquito or deer fly to molest us on our peregrination.

Here’s what I saw when I stepped out of Bella.

Mt. Blanca

There was no need to hurry. No thunderstorm on the offing. No biting bugs to chase us away. Just a perfect day. I’m deeply grateful. I needed it.

The geese are gone. Some of the black birds have gone. All that remain around the pond and in the willow-tree slough are a few red wing blackbirds, tree swallows and lark buntings. But at our half-way point I noticed the slow flap of a large winged bird flying low over the grass. It was a female red tail hawk. She flew low and slow over me to see what my story was. I was so happy to see her that I got tears in my eyes. For some reason, I regard them as friends.

Teddy and I kept going, in absolutely no hurry, savoring the freshness of the day. A car passed us. An old guy kind of waved — I think people are getting disgusted and jaded at this point. Or maybe it’s all the politics. I shrugged. I know what my job is.

“This is great, Martha!”
“Isn’t it, Teddy?”

On our return, I stopped to enjoy the wind and the silence. I was stunned when a mountain blue bird flew past, not 8 inches from my face. I’m sure the wind carried him there, but it made me happy. A lot happens in places like the Big Empty if you just stand still for a while, as the hawk and the bluebird reminded me.

Milkweed in full flower

Thank you everyone for the moral support his morning when I was discouraged about writing my blog during these times when nothing happens (and nothing happening is a good thing…) Every writer wants to write words that are meaningful to those who read them. โค

Bitter with the Sweet

“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening this way,’ and trying harder to make it happen some other way.” โ€• Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

I had all kinds of hopes when I moved here. I imagined hiking long mountain trails to pristine lakes and riding my bike on oh, wait, same thing. Even though I had to go thumbs down on two nice houses — one with stairs and another with a claw-footed bathtub I couldn’t climb into — I didn’t connect THOSE problems with the unlikelihood of my hiking long mountain trails to pristine lakes, etc.

It wasn’t long before those hopes shriveled. They grew again when I had my left hip replaced in 2018, but, they’ve retreated in the meantime. I was thinking yesterday how absurd it will be when I have two metal knees and two metal hips. I do not know if I will change my name to C3PO or not, but it’s something to think about.

Meanwhile I fight daily to keep moving. I was wondering yesterday as I rode the Sainted Bike To Nowhere where it gets me. Then my little brain said, “Where might you be WITHOUT it, Sweet Cheeks?” That was a good point. Where would I be? I’ve been fighting to sustain a life-long activity level. Humans can learn to like almost anything (as I’ve learned) and I actually LIKE riding the Sainted Bike to Nowhere. I wish I also had an elliptical, but I don’t have the money or the space.

I have no idea what the future holds, whether I’ll put my legs under some more knives and robots or what. I walk pretty well for now, and that’s the main point, for me anyway.

Last night I dreamed about the Big Empty, the surrounding fields flooded in the spring (irrigation) and the cranes and geese settling in for a while. I was standing on a road looking at it thinking how beautiful it was and how strange. It was — in the dream — as if I’d never seen it before. It was reminiscent of the first time I saw it. Then I thought, “If I could walk better, I probably would not have had any interest in this landscape or this place. Very likely, I would have missed it.”

The featured photo is the first photo on my phone. I took it the day I saw the Big Empty (Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge) for the first time, August 2, 2014.

Love Letter to the Big Empty

End of Day in the Big empty

The painting is End of Day in the Big Empty. Some pretty amazing oil paint in this painting. The gray in the sky, the gray-blue in the mountains and the blue in the water are all the ultramarine blue made of lapis lazuli called sometimes “Lazurite.” I was afraid to start this painting but at every turn it seemed that color was offering to help me. I really love it. You can see all the fantastic things it can do.

The bright blue in the sky is cerulean blue hue by Gamblin; hue means it’s pre-mixed with white. The intense, joyous yellow in the background, where the late afternoon sun has broken through the clouds, is Indian yellow over-painted with flake white replacement. Flake white is an old, old color known also as lead white. Gamblin came up with a way to make a very close approximation without lead. I really didn’t see the differences in whites until I did the very snowy painting. I’ve discovered doing this painting why people loved lead white so much. It’s just “friendly.”

The green in the trees and the brown in the foreground are both from my collection of natural pigments — the green is Verona Earth (natural green ochre from the Lessinian hills) and the brown is Cyprus Umber (dirt from Cyprus). Toning down the Indian yellow is Iron Violet, made from water pollution, by Gamblin Oil Paints. It’s a fantastic color and has a big part in this painting. Along with toning down the Indian yellow, it’s the purple in the mountains, the sky and the water and the reeds toward the back of the pond. I hope they keep making it.

The painting is 20 x 16 inches on panel.

Painting this was more than just doing a painting. It was an incredible experience. I cried when I finished. So strange. Then this came on Mohammed’s Old click wheel iPod.

Quotidian Update 7,002,639.1.a

Bear hurt her right leg. I think her paw, but I’m not sure. Friday she was limping for real and didn’t want to move much. I tried to explain that we needed to ice it and she should keep it elevated, but my explanation never penetrated for some reason. She categorically refused to do what I advised, and, instead, just laid around on the floor. It was better the next day, and the next, and the next, but she still doesn’t want to put her full weight on it. Still, she’s running around the yard with Teddy and acting pretty normal, so… I’ve asked her to explain what happened so I could make a good decision about taking her to the vet, but no. Completely uncooperative.

I thought she might change her mind when she saw that I was putting Teddy into the car meaning we were going to the Refuge yesterday, but no. She was disappointed. She knew it was her turn. I explained that until she can walk normally on that paw I’m not taking her for a walk. I reiterated my advice about R.I.C.E. and she just gave me a blank stare with those blue eyes and went back to chewing her rawhide.

Dogs can be so intractable.

In other news, the Refuge is in mid-summer mode. Stuff is blooming like crazy. The bees are taking advantage of huge, fragrant banks of yellow clover, so fragrant the air is filled with their sweet, spicy scent. There are also at least two types of milkweed blooming right now.

The little geese are nearly full grown. There are only 3 remaining from the original 5, suggesting that a couple of the little goslings were food for a predator. In March, there were three goose couples setting up housekeeping. Then, in May, there were broken eggs on the road. Two of the couples are long gone, having lost their little families.

Everything out there is present and accounted for. Plenty of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds and what I thought might be the Colorado State Bird — the Lark Bunting — actually is.

The Rio Grande Wildlife Area — where I have taken my dogs most of my time here in Monte Vista — will reopen in two weeks. It closes between late February and mid-July every year to allow waterbirds to nest and raise their young. Until this year I didn’t appreciate that though the dates are “set in stone” and the same every year, they are not arbitrary. I’ve seen the whole cycle of goose courtship and breeding. Nature is a clock. As much as I like the wildlife area, I’m not sure I’ll be going back until winter. If hundreds of cattle are grazing there again this year, it won’t be much fun. I don’t mind the cows, but it’s not a lot of fun navigating around hundreds — if not thousands — of cow-paddies.

“See, Martha?”

An hour and a half ago, Bear let me know what time it was. I had no desire to argue with her because a cool north wind was blowing through the Valley. It was a good time for us to seek Refuge.

Bear and I each wear mosquito repellant bandanas which, when the wind is blowing, aren’t really necessary, but it’s undeniable that we look cool.

I took inventory of the water birds — the ducks — mom, dad and ducklings — were all in a row, more or less…

The duck family. Hazy today from fires to the southwest and blowing dust. We couldn’t see the mountains to the east. A milkweed plant is blooming in the foreground.

And on the other side of the road, the geese and their teenage goslings were swimming in a pond more sheltered that the one the ducks enjoyed.

The yellow headed blackbird who has been so defensive of something has abandoned his watch which could mean the eggs have hatched and the babies have flown or that something happened. I’m going to believe the first because he’s been good company and fascinating to watch for the past month or so.

It was just a glorious, cool, windy afternoon with a dramatic sky. Bear and I were in Heaven. Then, on the way back I noticed a car and became a little wary. I never know if there’s a dog. But it was something else, and very sweet. A solitary woman was reading all the informative signs. Finally she stopped and parked and took the little nature walk around the small swamp. She had a camera with her. From time to time she stopped to take a photo or read an informative sign. I felt very happy seeing her because I knew she was learning something new about that wonderful place and I knew a lot of birds were down in there.

I think I saw the Colorado state bird for the first time — I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem impossible. It’s a nondescript little sparrow called the Lark Bunting. The male is black and white during mating season and brown during the rest of the year. This reminds me of guys who pretended to like what I liked until we became a couple and then they never did my stuff with me again. Like the Good X who pretended to like skiing, but once we were together, he just liked going to used car lots to drive old cars and going to the swap meet… ๐Ÿ˜‰

There was a lot more carnivore scat than I’ve seen lately. Some of it, I’m sure, from the two wandering farm dogs. One pile looked like bear, but I don’t see that there’s much for bears to eat. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen badger scat, coyote and possibly bobcat scat. Bear’s poop inventory is probably more accurate than my guesses.

Existential Angst

I’ve accepted (really? forever? for now?) that some days are better than others. Not in general — I accepted that a long time ago — but vis-a-vis this virus and the weirdness. Yesterday was one of those days. Zero. Zilch. Damn. “Deal with it!” yammered my psyche.

“Yeah, sure, but WHAT am I dealing with?”

“The fear of death, sweet cheeks. The fear that there is no future. ‘No future, no future, no future for you!!!'”

“Whoa. That’s heavy.”

“Yeah, well, there it is. ‘The future is uncertain….'”

“Shit so those aren’t just deep words in a Morrison song?”

“No, babe.”

Damn. So what do you do when you suddenly realize that you are afraid of death, and you are sure your dead mother is going to come and get you in 8 years? Seriously. This is some disturbed shit. My house isn’t haunted. I am.

Lots of people have said their dreams have been weird and scary since C-19 appeared on the scene. Mine too. Not always but often.

“This is when people need faith, sweet cheeks. You have to have the faith that it is going to be OK. You have to keep doing the things that make life meaningful. Just think, if this had never happened, you’d have been putting together a talk for the Rio Grande County museum to tell people about Swiss immigrants to the San Luis Valley and you would be reading from The Brothers Path and The Price. You’d be doing a timeline mural together with Louise. You’d have learned a lot of new things about the magical place where you live. Faith, Martha Ann, is DOING IT ANYWAY.”

“Denying the uncertainty?”


Once again the lesson in life is “Do it anyway.”

Tired of the existential questing I asked Bear if she would like to go with me out to the Refuge after dinner. The light was beautiful, the wind was blowing, sure the day had been hot, but it seemed that evening’s angled light might redeem everything.

Cool, Windy Day <3

Looking East toward Mt. Blanca. Note the cool mammatus clouds on the left, facing!!!
Looking West toward the San Juans

Teddy and I headed out to the Big Empty on the spur of the moment because I had a theory that it would be cool at the Refuge, and the wind would be blowing. I was right. I do know my world. Fantastic skies the whole time. I don’t know anywhere where you would find — in one 45 minute walk — a variety of cloud formations like I saw today. I’m sure such a place exists, but where? Mongolia? Montana, certainly. Canada’s wide open spaces? I would add Iceland, but Iceland hates me. Fuck you, Iceland. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The goslings of the two geese families have grown, and some of the babies didn’t make it. There are feathers in the carnivore scat along the road which probably explains that. The “little” ones now look like small versions of their parents. The Yellow-headed Blackbird who appeared so tame the other day behaved similarly today and I now think he’s guarding his nest. It should be up off the ground, but even so since it seems they build their nests in reeds, it would not be very high. He’s vigilant but very chill about his guardian job. I kept Teddy from testing the bird’s patience, though. I’ve studied that bird at length at this point and he has a sharp little beak.

I also decided that my Indian name shall henceforth be, “She Who Walks in Bad Weather with Dogs.”

Changing it to; “She Who Walks with Dogs under Wild Skies.”

Live and Learn, Dammit

My Summaryllis is Blooming

“Say uncle, say it, say uncle and I’ll let you up.”

My cousin sat on top of me holding my wrists to the ground. I’m 5 or 6 or 7 or something. Uncle WHO?? and WHY???

“Martha Ann, it’s just a word that tells the person beating up on you you’ve had enough. That’s all.” Thank goodness my dad could explain things…

I’m so there right now.

Yesterday I wrote (and deleted) a blog post that made the point that if Offal is NOT re-elected, Biden will have a big job unifying this horrific mess in which we live. I stand by that, but…

My opening argument was that the Confederate Heroes in the nation’s capitol should be left there, that history shouldn’t be sanitized (notice how I didn’t say white washed. I’m SO getting this…). Thanks to Rebecca at Wild Sensibility, I did a little research in a direction I never had and learned that those statues were not left over from the “olden days.” I was laboring under the misapprehension that they were put up as part of the reconciliation at the end of the Civil War. I only knew who a couple of them were (Robert E. Lee), but I learned that, like many of the statues in public spaces, parks, throughout the South, they were built during Jim Crow times and were really nasty people.

Thanks to segregationist Southern state legislatures in the early 20th century, eight statues of Confederate leaders currently reside in the National Statuary Hall Collection on Capitol Hill. They include Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, and Lee, whose Charlottesville monument was the focal point of this weekendโ€™s strife. These bronze and marble figures, standing in the center of American democracy, pay tribute to the same authoritarian forces that congressional leaders eagerly denounced.

The Atlantic

I was upset and ashamed at my own know-it-all arrogance.

When I was a little kid, we went in the 1957 Chevy from Denver to the very tip of Florida. All along the way, my dad was giving lectures to universities about using computers. In one southern city we toured the house of a slave-owner (to the best of my recollection) and I saw an attic where slaves were chained. I’ve known most of my life that these were pretty terrible people.

How could ANYONE not see that? I have always — on some level — assumed everyone could see that. Yesterday I realized that I have been wrong for the past 63 years.

Another shocking revelation about the world in which I live, something that probably every single person has seen and I haven’t. I congratulated myself a little for being so innocent and naive at this point in my life, but…


Yesterday was watering day. My next-door neighbor, Monica, whom I seldom see, has the same watering schedule and we chatted for a while. She’s fun to talk to. We both decided we’re tired. We’re tired of the virus, of the social upheaval of the past two weeks and the past 3+ years. Her son used to be the grounds keeper at the golf course. We talked about golf. We talked about how depressing and stressful the mask thing is. She said, “If you don’t wear your mask, people in masks give you the evil eye. If you do wear your mask, anti-mask people give you the evil eye.”

She’s a nurse. Her opinion is that the virus is not as horrific as we’re told it is. I said that my theory is that we don’t know how it’s going to affect this person or that. “I have to wear a mask all day,” she said. “It’s really awful. Are you staying active?” She knew about my long dog walks long before she knew me because her son used to live in the house where the kids live now.

“Yeah. I’ve been taking the dogs to the Refuge because it’s no fun walking around here right now. You can’t really talk to people.”

“I know!!!”

“I liked that, hearing peoples’ life stories.”

“It’s wonderful just to visit. Yeah, and no, we can’t now.”

“No.” Small town. Family, neighbors, neighborhood, town. It’s like the circles that spread from a stone thrown in a pond.

“Out at the Refuge it’s funny. Once in a while a car goes by and the people inside wave like…” I waved as if it I were seeing the greatest movie star.

She laughed. “I see that. It’s all ‘A human! A real human! Look! A woman with a dog! A trained, domestic dog! Wave!!! Eagles? Elk? Who cares! There’s a HUMAN BEING. Get a picture!’.”