Snow, Cranes and Wind

Last year Colorado had a drought. This year, thank goodness, no. But…

In my youth, I remember avalanches most often as a phenomenon of fall snows, when the base laid by an early snow had melted and refrozen and more snow fell on top — basically a slippery slide for future snow layers. This year is the heaviest avalanche year on record, not just down here in the San Juans, but up there in the sexy parts, Summit County and nearby environs (Black — High Avalanche Danger — in the map below).

The Rocky Mountains are generally not as sharp and pointy as the Alps and avalanches are somewhat less common, but they do happen. In ski areas, avalanches are triggered ahead of opening in the morning.

As I’ve followed the stories of the avalanches, I’ve been amazed at how many people interviewed believed that avalanches in our mountains are ALL manmade. Several people (in cars) were trapped in an avalanche yesterday — all are OK.

Meanwhile, here in the San Luis Valley (Alamosa and environs on the map) spring is forcing itself upon me. Yesterday, right on time, my crocus bloomed.


My friend E and I headed out in Bella (my new Jeep) to see cranes. It was an intensely windy day and it was a little difficult to find the cranes, but we did. I don’t have any great photos since I went out to look more than shoot pictures. There were thousands of cranes in a barley field on the far east side of the wildlife refuge. They were a lot of fun to watch.

The wind was blowing like a mofo and E and I just enjoyed it. E has a wonderful capacity to be enthusiastically in the moment, one of the great things about her. The featured photo is primarily of a cloud at war with the wind. The wind from the east is blowing it toward the San Juans. At this very spot, it has crashed into a Chinook. The only camera I had was my phone.


The Chinook from hell is blowing across Monte Vista right now, evaporating snow, drying mud and throwing spring in our faces. It might snow tomorrow, but it won’t last. Temps last night were in the 40s — normal for May.

I took the dogs for a walk on the golf course yesterday afternoon so Bear could enjoy the last bits of snow. The course will open as soon as the ground is dry and the snow is gone. As soon as we set foot on the course, the groundskeeper — a nice young guy I like and whom my dogs love — came out of his shed to talk to me, to give me the news that dogs are no longer going to be allowed on the course.

He felt bad about telling me, that was clear, but it was also clear that he’s pretty pissed off at people who walk their dogs and let them poop everywhere. I can’t say Dusty has never pooped on the golf course or that I’ve always picked it up, but it’s rare. Dusty’s preferred locales for pooping are the alley or the street. Bear never has. I know this because she’s always leashed.

“I have to clean up all that poop,” he said, exasperated. “People let their dogs poop on the greens.”

“My dogs don’t poop on the course,” I said, an irrelevant statement. “And, I carry bags.” I reached around to my back pocket for an illustration and remembered I’d used it already. I shrugged. “But that doesn’t matter.”

“You’re not the only one who walks their dogs here.”

“I know. It’s OK. I love this golf course. I love to see people playing here sometimes a whole family, kid in a stroller. There’s a guy who plays with his golden retriever.” Ooops, I think.

“Yeah, that dog doesn’t poop on the course, either. Great dog. I’m sorry,” he said, standing there petting Bear. “I’d like to let you keep walking your dogs here, but if I did, then how could I keep anyone else off?”

“No, it’s OK. I really understand. It’s been great all these years to have this, but it’s a golf course, not a park.”

“The city wants to turn it into a park.”

Ah, finally I get to the bottom of the feud between the golf course and the city. I, personally, think my town needs a real, legit, large park with a trail around it, a long trail, not the silly little walkways that exist on the other park(lets) ALL on HWY 160 and NONE of them fenced. But even I don’t think “my” golf course should be a park. I think “my” golf course should be a golf course. I’m even OK being forbidden to walk my dogs on it. I never thought it would last.

We talk about the animals who regard the golf course as a giant empty field for easy predation. The foxes who live in the wood pile belonging to the man who lives just north of the course and how they kill the hawks while the hawks are busy hunting for worms on the grass. The deer this past fall. The deer, elk, moose, coyotes, raccoons, beavers and, allegedly, a badger. “I don’t mind them,” he said. “They’re supposed to be here.” I realized then that poop was occupying his mind. The course IS full of various kinds of animal poop. What do you do with a golf course that is bordered by the Infinite Wild?

“You can walk your dogs here for the next two weeks,” he said, remorseful, scratching Dusty’s ears. “I’ll just pretend I haven’t talked to you about it. I’m really sorry.”

No one is invisible in Monte Vista. I don’t think we can pull that off. I can hear some of the other people, people I KNOW take their dogs there to poop, say, “I saw that white haired lady with the two big dogs. Why can’t I?” Probably they know my name.

I told him thanks and said it had been great for us during the time we had it and I’d see him next time we had a real snow. He looked sad. “Go ahead today. Have fun with them.” Bear was leaning against him.

The dogs and I had a great walk, Dusty even went two miles without pain. We walked our favorite walk (we don’t even walk ON the course but on the roads laid out for carts) out into the Big Empty. I watched the storm come over the mountains and thought about the four paintings I’ve done of that scene, each one better than the one before.

As we walked, I was thinking of other ways to get out there. That’s why god made maps.

At home I posted what happened on Facebook partly to let people know about the new rule and partly, naturally, to garner sympathy. What happened from that is the opening of a discussion. The young woman who introduced Bear to me is busy organizing pet loving people and rescue organizations in the San Luis Valley. Another friend has forty acres just outside of town. She owns the kennel where Dusty and Bear stay when I leave town. My story put a bug in her ear that maybe she could build a dog park. It could be that this will all lead to the construction of something my town really needs.

Meanwhile, I now have a mountain car and lots of anti-nausea meds for my big white dog.

Magical Valentine Across Time

I spent six of my formative years — probably the six most formative years — in a small town in Nebraska. I loved it there. It was a Norman Rockwell world with ice cream socials held after Little League games at one church or another, a world where kids were free to go everywhere by bike, where the public swimming pool was surrounded by woods, and winter ice-skating was on a pond in the middle of a forest.

It really was like that. This isn’t just nostalgia. I was a happy kid.

Besides the town and the life it provided my brother and me as kids, I liked all the opportunities my mom and dad put in front of me. Life was great. I didn’t know then that the preparation for life I got was, a lot of it, going to fall by the way in the social tumult of the sixties and seventies, family tragedies, marriage, divorce, grad school, all of it.


Most of my education was in public school. Then, because my parents hoped that the rigor of a private school would help my incorrigible little brother who refused to learn anything in public school, I went to Brownell/Talbot, an Episcopalian school in Omaha, for sixth and seventh grade. It was a combination of girls’ finishing school and college prep school. My brother was “uninvited” after the first year, but I flourished and found my first ever real friend. It was two very happy school years for me.

I was also a Rainbow Girl. Rainbow is, “A Masonic fraternal order for girls of teen age.” We wore formals to our meetings. We had “dinners” for our parents and for visiting Rainbow Girl Lodges and visiting officers — local, state and national. They were always beautiful events with centerpieces, table favors and name cards, all handmade by us girls. We were taught that this kind of extra-effort showed others that they mattered to us.

The girl I was from 12 to 14 imagined that all these thoughtful, petty things would be part of my adult life mixed in with world travel, art, adventure and athletics. I guess I imagined 45 hour days and did not fully understand the freedom of childhood. 🙂

By the time I was fifteen, that world had vanished not only from my actual existence (we moved away from the little Nebraska town to the vastly more sophisticated Colorado Springs), but almost from my memory. By then, fate was taking my family to some dark places.


My friend Elizabeth invited me to join her and her husband for a Valentine dinner at the local Methodist church this past Saturday. I was nervous because it would mean meeting new people, but I trust my friend and she said it would be fun. When I asked if I could wear jeans, Elizabeth said, “It is kind of fancy.”

I wore my “best” clothes which are velvety, brown cords, a black cashmere sweater and a gold necklace. I haven’t had REAL fancy clothes in a looonnnnggg time. Besides, I couldn’t imagine the dinner being very fancy. This is Colorado, after all…

Monte Vista United Methodist Church
Erected in 1922 in the Prairie architectural style it features fifty-four original geometric stained glass windows and a fifty-seven pipe Estey organ.

The Methodist church is a splendid arts and crafts building. I’ve wanted to see it for a while. Luckily, we arrived when there was still enough day to light the amazing stained glass windows.

Half of this massive cube of a building — built of glazed bricks — is the sanctuary. The other half is a meeting hall where the dinner was held.

Candles and fairy lights, a dozen beautifully set tables, red tablecloths with white lace over them. Centerpieces, handmade table favors; our red, cloth napkins, rolled to look like roses, sat in our coffee cups. Silver. The hosts — people from the Methodist church — wore tuxes and formals as they served us dinner.

We found seats at a table with the minister of the Disciples of Christ church and his wife. The minister stood by his seat until we three ladies were seated. I have not seen that kind of chivalric behavior since I was a girl, but I saw it many times that night.

Dinner was lasagna, salad, and cherry cheese cake. We were served red or white sparkling grape juice (these are Methodists, after all) by the minister of the church who wore a tuxedo and a red bowtie. From time to time, an elegantly dressed Methodist would come and check that everything was fine at our table.

That dinner was a REAL Valentine. Not only was I with some of my favorite people here in Colorado, but I was in a beautiful place surrounded by living relics of a lovely, gentle life I thought had vanished. The sweetness of it sank deeply into my heart, and I thought, “It’s been here all along.”

Handmade Valentine Quilted Wall Hanging (Photo by Elizabeth Shank)


This time of year families gather together. For many years, I traveled to Montana, first with my mom, dad and brother to stay with my grandmothers. Then, as an adult, I flew up to Montana from San Diego to be with my mom and then, after she died, I flew to Montana to spend Christmas with my aunts. 

There was a period in there when I broke off with my family — I made some choices I had every right to make, but my mom disowned me, leaving me feeling confused and ashamed. I can’t say the estrangement was a bad thing or a bad time. I now believe it was necessary. In those years I belonged to a new family, this family was in Zürich, and for a few years I flew “home” to Zürich for Christmas. I look on that time as one of the sweetest and magical of my life. 

My mom and I attempted to make amends after one of my cousins died suddenly of a brain tumor, and my mom realized it could have been me. From that came one of the three times she ever called me on the phone (it was my job to call her) and asked me to come “home” for Christmas. I did. It turned out to be the last Christmas of her life. It was a strange, joyless Christmas for both of us. We didn’t like each other. I wasn’t the daughter she wanted, and I had never found anything in common with her, feeling only a sense of duty and the wish for love. My aunt Dickie called me up while I was visiting my mom and attempted a heart-to-heart about my mom’s drinking. But, as my aunt Dickie didn’t want to bad-mouth her sister, and this is the cowboy American west where some things were just not spoken of directly by the older generation, I didn’t get the point. I didn’t even get it when my mom almost crashed the car into a curb… I would learn the truth three months later when a scan of my mom’s brain revealed brain lesions from alcoholism.

The years of Christmas with my aunts were wonderful, fun, warm, friendly, loving, and I savored those times knowing they would not last forever. All of my aunts are gone now and my reflection in the mirror is a collage containing features and expressions of all those people. Interestingly, only the bird finger on my right hand resembles anything about my mom. Go figure.

I think there’s a point in most of our lives — especially those of us who don’t have kids — when we’re the sole survivors. I don’t mind. I loved my family and I miss them, but I’ve understood for a while that we all stand on a curb watching the passing parade. It’s an interesting parade because though we stand and watch, we are also in it, moving at different rates of speed toward the moment when we turn a corner and are no more. 

Ultimately, I found my home in a place on the map my family only passed through. I could have come sooner, but I guess I wasn’t ready or didn’t realize what “home” was. I love Montana, but the winter nights are very long and I like sunshine. I ended up in exactly the right place for me. I began to get an idea about 10 years ago and a search that began in 2002 for a job in Wyoming became a search for home in a small town in Colorado where I could live on the rather frugal income I’d have when I retired. I also wanted mountains, to live at a high elevation, to have snow and sunshine. 

I found it.

And, family, too. Family-less, the blank spaces in my life have been filled by those to whom I have an affinity and they to me. Some are close, some are more distant, but the heart-ties are the same or even more wholesome, cleaner, without some of the loaded expectations we have of family. 

25 years ago I was given a collection of Rumi’s poems by a woman who was a very precious friend and soulmate, both she and her husband. I felt she was my older sister, and in the passage of time, her husband — who was born the same year as my dad — offered me affection and support very like my dad would have if he had been alive. In that collection of poems, I read this one and decided to use it as instructions for finding the right direction.

Anyone who genuinely and constantly with both hands
looks for something, will find it.
Though you are lame and bent over, keep moving toward [it]. With speech, with silence, with sniffing about, stay on the track.
Whenever some kindness comes to you, turn that way, toward the source of kindness.

Meeting the “Anti-Bear”

Bear and I took off yesterday into the gorgeous, chilly Monte Vista afternoon and encountered my neighbor who lives down the street. She was by “our” golf course with her tiny, white Bichon/Poodle mix. He’s the “anti-Bear”. The two have wanted to meet  for a while. Usually the little guy just barks hello at us through the front window of his house as we pass by. I wave and we press on.

During my early rehab from hip surgery, I finally got to talk to this neighbor. Sometimes she’d walk a bit with me, holding her dog in her arms. 

He leaves messages for Bear along the grassy area by the high school and she leaves some for him. In a way, they’ve “known” each other for years. 

“How are you doing now?” my neighbor called out. Unlike dogs, we rely on speech.

“Great!” I said. I still get a little weepy when I answer that question. Maybe I always will.

She leashed her dog. If anyone asks, I tell them that Bear is very gentle and friendly.  I also recommend that, if they want to meet Bear, it’s better if they come to me because Bear can pull me down in her excitement to meet them. If I stand still, I have control over her.  I didn’t have to tell my neighbor. She understood that.

I told Bear to “Sit!” and “Wait!” Bear was perfect, though her tail was sweeping the street at 100 mph. My neighbor came toward us.

Bear met the little guy as my neighbor held him up in her arms. It was incredibly cute. We chatted, and the little dog rested his paw on Bear’s head. “She’s like a horse to him,” said my neighbor. True that.

Bear then did something she hardly ever does. She very slowly and deliberately jumped up on my neighbor. My neighbor has a well-reconstructed club foot, and she’s very slender. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Bear’s usual thing is to sit on her haunches and hug a person around the knees. I was amazed by my neighbor’s incredible calm. But Bear moved slowly and gently and didn’t push on my neighbor at all. It was as if she just stood up beside her. The two dogs touched noses, and Bear got down.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “She doesn’t usually do that.”

“It’s all right.” 

I scratched the little guy behind the ears, appreciating the virtues of tiny dogs.

Then we were each on our way. “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” I said, proud of myself for remembering.

“You too!” my neighbor called back. When Bear and I passed their house later on our walk, the little dog was conked out on the back of his favorite chair with his face toward the front window. 

I have a lot of respect for “silly looking” tiny white dogs. My mom had a toy poodle by the name of Misty. Misty had been left with my mom to dog sit. When Misty’s owner came back from her vacation, Misty wouldn’t go home with her. She wanted to be my mom’s dog. 

Misty was like Miss Piggy’s poodle, so when I went over to my mom’s to watch The Muppets (I didn’t have a TV) Misty sat beside me on the floor. One afternoon, my mom and I took Misty for a walk on the ditch bank behind my mom’s condo. Three BIG dogs (German Shepherd, Rottweiler, mysterious big dog) came toward us. Misty (leashed!) leapt out of my mom’s control and chased the three big dogs away.

Many a large, brave spirit lives in a tiny body.

Walking Martha

Bear’s Bliss fell last night, so today Bear and I went tracking ungulates on the golf course. Moose, elk and deer.

When it snows, I can SEE what Bear smells. We get to be a team. I see footprints and , where snow has blown against a cottonwood, even urine splashes on trees.

There are a lot of low leaves on the elm and cottonwood trees between the second and fourth holes so we started there. If there had been no tracks, we’d have left the golf course and wandered out into the fields beyond the driving range where, often, we find fox, raccoon and deer tracks and sometimes animals. But we were lucky.

Tracks and tracks and tracks. Rabbit, squirrel, domestic cat and

Moose??? Elk??? Whitetail Deer???

My personal jury is out on that one. I’ve seen moose tracks on the golf course before, but these seemed a little small, though the right shape. Whitetail deer, possibly. They are around here, too.

Bear caught scent after scent. It was nice for me because I could look ahead and see where she was going. When there’s no snow, I might be yanked in a random direction — random to me.

Once we’d exhausted the tracks, and Bear had several chances to roll in the snow, it was time to check messages. On the map that’s the straight line at the bottom, on E. Prospect Avenue, right in front of Monte Vista High School. Many people walk past there with their dogs, and Bear has many messages to collect — and leave.

My dog walks me, and I love it. It’s never a brisk walk, but Bear is a constant reminder to stop and smell the elk urine.

P.S. Yes, my golf course looks like a glue gun

“What IS That?”

A few years ago my friend Lois and I went to Switzerland. We stayed in the tiny village of Obfelden (I still managed to get lost there), in an 18th century barn (refurbished) belonging to an Australian woman who taught in an international school near Lucerne. It was great and I want to go back and hope to but…

When we got there, one of the first questions we were asked was, “We looked up Monte Vista on Google. What are those circles?”

Really, they do look like they were made by aliens when you look at the satellite view.

Generally, land is measured in acres, half-acres, sections, and something vague called a “parcel.” I hear that phrase a lot less now than I did when I was a kid. The grownups (in Montana) would say, “That was a nice parcel we had down by the river.” Of course that was confusing but language is too dangerous for children.

So, this morning I looked up parcel as it pertained to land. Maybe (I wondered) it’s a legit measurement.

A quarter section is 160 acres (65 ha) and a “quarter-quarter section” is 40 acres (16 ha). In 1832 the smallest area of land that could be acquired was reduced to the 40-acre (16 ha) quarter-quarter section, and this size parcel became entrenched in American mythology. (Wikipedia)

These days when I see farm land advertised, it’s measured in circles. “Working farm, barn, outbuildings, newer house built in 2000, four circles producing.” The circles are made by Center Pivot Irrigation machines which work basically like compasses across the land. It’s an effective and efficient method of water delivery and automatically leaves part of the field fallow which is important for not draining the soil of nutrients. The water “rains” down on the crops. The fields are plowed in whatever way is best for what is growing there — for potatoes there are deep ridges that catch and hold the water taking it to the roots.



Potato field in the San Luis Valley and Center Pivot irrigation


It seems to be a good method for dryland farming. I know that in more rain-rich areas farms are still measured in squares.

The satellite image above is centered just north and west of Monte Vista. The dark, jagged line is Rio Grande and the trees lining it. You can see some square “parcels” in the farms nearer the river — mostly pastures and grassland for grazing in winter, not land under cultivation.

It just looks like home to me.

If you’re curious, here’s some good information.

My Home IS on the Range

That’s a loaded word, “home.” You can’t go there, according to Thomas Wolfe, but you could look in its general direction, angelically.

One night in an Irish bar in San Diego, where I had been taken by my date, an Irishman who’d been my student, I was introduced to a man who, after looking at me quizzically through blearily drunken tired eyes and hearing my name said, “Och, and when were ye last home?”

“He means Ireland,” said my date. I nodded, didn’t know what to say. “Home” as Ireland? Never been there.

So what is this “home” of which you speak?

When I was a kid, home was always Montana, wherever we lived. “We’re going home for Christmas,” my mom would say, and I’d wonder where in hell we were when my mom said, “Come right home after school.” Parental language is designed to keep kids off balance. In a part of my mind, Montana is still “home” but I will probably never return. The people who made it home are all dead.

In 2014 my friend Lois picked me up at the airport in Denver. I was going to look at a house in Monte Vista — a town I’d never seen. To get there, we drove over Poncha Pass and dropped down into the San Luis Valley. I knew immediately that I was home. The light was right. The mountains were right. The emptiness was perfect. I found a house that fit me perfectly. For the first couple of years, I frequently wondered if I had died and gone to Heaven.

But I got to Heaven without dying, and I was finally home.

My dad’s favorite singing cowboy brings it all…home.

Monte Vista Skies

Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog has had a proclivity for getting car sick which makes her a bad bet for my hiking buddy. This morning I decided to drive my ballot to the county seat and put it directly in the County Clerk’s box. What if I gave Bear the chance NOT to get sick on a 28-mile round trip jaunt?

Tricked her into getting her leash on (she knows when we’re supposed to go and when it might be a vet trip) and off we went.

There’s a storm coming over the mountains, already snowing hard at the summit of Wolf  Creek Pass and at the ski area, so the sky was in the early stages of storm drama. Fantastic.

Bear didn’t get carsick, and I didn’t want to go home. The Sandhill cranes are still here, so we turned down the road to the refuge. One of the signs on this road is an Amish Buggy warning sign.


The first time I saw this I thought it was a joke, but it’s not. There’s a (comparatively) large Amish community in Monte Vista’s rural area. Over the weekend, one of these buggies was hit by a pickup, and the horse was injured. I see no reason at all for a pickup to hit an Amish buggy.

So we got to the refuge and there were many cranes off in the fields. They’re on their way to New Mexico and I can imagine they know a storm is coming at least as well as I do. I took Bear to a viewing area where there were no cranes. She deserved a reward for riding 50 miles without getting sick, and I wanted to photograph the sky. We had a lovely walk and a big flock of cranes flew overhead, calling and cooing and bringing joy to my heart.

cranes 2

I just LOVE them.



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When ON the Course of Human Events…


Yesterday I got a canister of bear spray — it’s pepper spray. The canister is a lot larger than I expected — between 10 inches and a foot — and it has a holster. I don’t see me strapping that on and going to walk the dogs at the slough. I was hoping it was a simple four-inch can of spray with a holster I could clip to my pocket or pack strap in front, but this… I don’t need it for a bear. I need for a grubby man who makes me nervous and scares Dusty.

So, last evening, as I took Dusty T. Dog and Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog for our usual walk around the hood and high school, I noticed the golf course was empty. Really empty. Two cars in front of the club house. A familiar high school golfer walking around with his bag to the holes that challenge him.


They close next month, but right now the course is beautiful. In the beginning of the summer — May, June, most of July — it was aching from the drought like everything else was, but six weeks or so of regular rain and careful tending…

Why was it empty?

“Don’t look a gift course in the mouth,” I said to myself.

It was really good to be back. I’m pretty sure “Grizzly Man” won’t take daily walks there and as much as I love the slough, the views from it don’t compare to those from the open plain of the pasture, I mean driving range. As for animals, I’ve seen more at the golf course than at the wildlife refuge. This isn’t cold comfort at all.