A Little about the Geological History of the Big Empty

Yesterday out at the Refuge I stopped to take photos of the sign beside the entrance. You can see from the way it is written that it strives to appeal to kids.

I figured since everyone who reads my blog is getting an education in this little-known remote valley, I might as well share something I find amazing. When I think of a valley, I think of something cut by a meandering river. That’s what I learned in 8th grade geology (one of my favorite classes ever because it lent itself to drawing pictures). But this immense valley is an immense rift valley. One of the most common rocks lying around is scoria; hardened lava, bubbles and all.

The Valley formed BEFORE the river. There are places in the southern end of the valley where the Rio Grande is busy cutting into the surface, but generally, the Rio Grande just comes down the mountain and the valley — already here — says, “Slow down, river, look around.” And that’s what it does. Looking at my town from space you see something that looks like an OLD river.

The Star is more or less my house, the golf course, etc. It’s a little difficult to find the main thread of the Rio Grande

My prize winning story is published in the literary magazine put out by the Friends of the Alamosa Library. That publication is Messages from the Hidden Lake. Since I feel a strange connection to this place — and have since the beginning — that title resonates with me, alluding to a time when the Sandhill Cranes were coming through, but human beings were not. I love science because it opens windows to things that we, trapped in time as we are, couldn’t see any other way.


Big Empty Update

I know my readers are on pins and needles about what’s happening out here in the Big Empty, so let’s get right to it.

Not much.

The biggest change is the temperature. It’s in the seventies (19/20c) and that’s hot for my poor Bear who is now taking a nap on the cool tile by the front door. Snow is in the forecast for parts of Colorado, even this part. 40% so cross your fingers.

Most of the action right now is Canadian geese, frogs, horny magpies and symphonic meadowlarks. The snakes ARE out, something I know from spying a substantial amount of large snake poop. Yes. I’m interested in scat, too.

All I can tell you about the snakes in question is that they are large. They could be gopher snakes and they could be prairie rattlers. Bear has made a lot of progress with the new “command” (one doesn’t command Bear; one advises) “No, Bear, Rattlesnake.” With Bear, the command voice has to be saved for something very serious.

I went out prepared to pull my ski buff over my mouth and nose in case there were other people there, but the tourist rush (ha ha) is definitely over and there was nary an SUV for Bear and I to welcome. I like it that way, though I sincerely love the fact that 20,000 Sandhill Cranes can command that much attention. How many lives have changed as a result of a visit to this paradise? How many people have looked beyond their camera and perceived the wonder of a species that has endured for millions of years actually being in THIS world with US?

I thought about the innumerable animals that have gone extinct during the Sandhill Cranes’ long existence. I thought of all the scientists who have pondered the cause of the extinction of animal X and dodo Y. I thought of how COVID-19 has put us at the very base of survival strategy for any species which is, “Avoid danger!” I thought of the mama ground-squirrel I watched years ago defend her four tiny babies from a rattlesnake, a battle she actually won. The snake basically said, “Fuck it. This is WAY too much trouble,” unloosed his coil and slithered off into the black sage.

As I walked, I also thought of how today has been a semi-normal day, with a chat with the mailman. He was wearing a mask, and said, “If I go to work I’m in trouble and if I don’t I’m in trouble,” and then shrugged. Today, for the first time after 6 years of conversations, I noticed he has only one functioning eye. What’s wrong with me? On the way out to the Refuge, I got to talk with the kids — from the car. “Bear wants to come out,” said the little girl. Bear was whimpering in the back of Bella. Clearly she wanted out to see the kids.

I also thought about the best hikes of my life. That’s a catalog I love going through. I realized I no longer feel sad or resentful that I can’t run or easily go up and down hills. I realized that the immense sky and mountain vistas of the Big Empty have soothed my feelings of loss. This landscape is even older than the Sandhill Crane species which is still ancient enough to have witnessed major changes to the form and shape of my Big Empty. A sea once filled the valley and fossils of its creatures now rest on the top of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. With changes like that all around me, how could I expect to remain the same?

“You have to start bringing water, Martha.”
“OK, Bear.”

Heaven is Inspiring…

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

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

Now they’re working on cats.

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

One of the painted steel cranes adorning the streets of Heaven

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

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

Read about it here. ❤

Celebrating Bear’s Fifth Birthday

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

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

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

Party time!

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

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

Here’s the birthday girl celebrating.

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

Can’t Take it for Granted

If you live out here in the Wild West water is a THING. In fact, it’s THE thing. I live in a desert. We get less than 7 inches of precipitation a year. Fortunately, a river runs through the valley, and, beneath my desert is an ancient lake. Aquifers as well which is why this is such a great place to grow things in spite of the short growing season.


Denver and other big cities on the “Front Range” are lusting after our water and some of the ranchers and farmers in my valley are lusting after money. If you’re interested, here’s an article that explains the struggle. The endless tug-o-war of life in the far west. I think most of the gun fights in the old days were probably not over gold or women but water.

The Rio Grande is parted out all the way down to El Paso, but some years there’s not enough snowfall to ensure water for everyone. This year will be OK. Though (as is common) the valley itself didn’t get as much snow as it gets some years, the mountains have a good snow pack.

This kind of fluctuation is just what nature does, but climate change is, of course, making the whole situation worse. Winters are shorter, drier and warmer — less water. But since I no more know the solution to climate change than I have a cure for COVID-19, I will leave this post and wish you all a happy Saturday. My friends and I are off to the Crane Festival today.

The featured photo is sandhill cranes grazing in a barley field under the loving arms of a giant sprinkler.


It’s a Small World, After All

Yesterday I learned that my little town had a POW camp during WW II. It’s a little hard to imagine this, German soldiers being brought all the way here, but they were. In fact, Colorado had several of these camps.

My friends and I went on an adventure yesterday to Del Norte (our primo destination) that involved lunch, a short stop at the fabric shop, and a long stop at the Rio Grande County Museum. I guess I’m just going to take you with me.

I picked them up at my neighbor’s house and we hit the road in Bella. Lots of chat in the car and me driving, looking at the mountains, noticing a herd of buffalo close to town that I’d heard of and never seen. Stock around here have a lot of different ranges and are trucked from place to place as well as sometimes driven on horseback. I didn’t say anything because my friends were pretty involved in the conversation.

We had lunch at the comparatively new Colorado Grille. Why the “e” I don’t know, must be residue from the days of “shoppe” etc. Lunch was good, the conversation was better. The waitress called me “honey” and I’m afraid the moniker has stuck. It is pretty funny. She was perky beyond all rational levels of perkiness, but what can you do? My brain was a little fuzzy when we set out, I think from all the books I’m contending with, but it cleared up over lunch, thank goodness. From there we went to a florist shop up the street.

There one of my friends engaged a young cowboy (about 9) in a chat. I just listened until she suggested he call me “honey.” Neither he nor I was having that. He’d been to the dentist and was relating the import of that experience to my friend who very charmingly drew him out. Cowboys around here pretty much start at birth. Later on I heard him walking, dragging the heels of this c’boy boots the way my mom would yell at my brother and I for doing, but it’s a great sound for a kid. “Don’t drag your heels! You’ll wreck your boots!”

Then we went to Kathy’s Fabric Trunk because I needed ribbon and elastic for my epic sewing project. Kathy has a daughter who is severely disabled and spends time in an elaborate chair under the watchful eye of a Labrador retriever. As we got there, she was on her way out. The Labrador and a little shit-zu/pekingese mix met us at the door. They came right to me. Kathy hugged my friends and when the dogs were finished acknowledging my presence (I honor that Lab with all my heart) I said to Kathy, “I’m kind of a dog person.”

“I noticed. So did they,” and she hugged me.

I got my “notions” and we headed to the museum.

The biggest treasures in that museum are the people, Louise and her husband, Alex. I love all the things that are there, but I love those two people more. They’re good, they’re passionate about their home where both their families have lived for many generations, they have incredible knowledge. Alex is struggling with dementia, but he KNOWS he’s struggling. Sometimes he knows me (no one knows why he would, but he does) and other times he doesn’t. But he always tells me a story.

Yesterday he told me about being stationed in Europe during the Korean War. My best guess is that the story took place somewhere that was German controlled during WW II possibly the Alsace. Alex had said he had been sightseeing with buddies in Holland, Belgium, and “other places.” He told of being in a town that was circular. That’s pretty common for medieval towns that have survived into the present, labyrinths of concentric, narrow streets. Alex said he and his buddy couldn’t find a way out and they asked all kinds of people for help but no one spoke English.

They finally found a man who could help them. Alex then asked the man, “Where did you learn English?” and was stunned to hear that the man had been a POW in Monte Vista, Colorado. What’s more, he’d known Alex as a little boy. The town was even smaller then and the POW camp was essentially in Alex’ neighborhood.

I came home and wanted to know more about the POWs. I haven’t found much, but I haven’t talked to the people at Monte Vista’s historical society. I found a fascinating article on POW camps in Colorado, though. Most of the POWs were captured in the North African campaign. They worked during the harvest season in the potato fields, taking the place of the Americans who had gone to fight.

The Featured Photo shows sketches done by a German POW. The Rocky Mountains, the Colorado State Capitol, and a tunnel — I think it’s the Moffatt Tunnel.

Here’s a link to the entire article in case I have piqued your interest. https://www.historycolorado.org/sites/default/files/media/document/2018/ColoradoMagazine_Summer-Fall1979.pdf


Clouded Post

Because of all the mountains, the river and the immense sudden plain which is the San Luis Valley, the sky is always amazing. EVERYTHING can be happening at one time on any given day. I’ve witnessed “snow bows” from thunder snow over the San Juans while, behind me, the sun shone happily as if rough weather were relegated to some distant place, not this one. The wind can be blowing like a MF where I’m standing and I can look some twenty miles down the valley and see the calm fluff of drifting light cumulous clouds. One day, as rainbows dropped gently from hanging virga, I saw the face of Kris Kristofferson in a gathering mammatus cloud formation.

At that moment I understood how God became a bearded face in the sky, but seriously? Kris Kristofferson?

Lenticular clouds are a mountain phenomenon. That fancy word just means lens shaped. I had never heard of them until I went to the little town Mt. Shasta, CA for surgery on my right hip. Some online advertising for that mountain town had many pictures of lenticular clouds over that spectacular volcanic cone. Yeah, yeah, I know that lots of people go to the big city for joint surgery, but my doctor was there. From the window in my hospital, I had a view of Mt. Shasta. And, for major surgery, it was a great experience.

Lenticular Cloud over Mt. Shasta in California

Lenticular cloud formations are common here because of all the mountains and the constantly moving air. From a distance, a chain of lenticular clouds appears smooth and languid, stretching out over the peaks.

One day I was walking out in the big empty as a lenticular cloud moved over me during its formation. The way the air moved beneath it was strange and powerful, with a distinct uplift. I didn’t realize what it was until I looked up and saw the underside of a disk-shaped cloud with fuzzy edges. I stood still and watched. It wasn’t going to pick me up or anything, and I just felt lucky to have the experience.

The featured photo shows a string of lenticular clouds over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. A modern potato cellar in the foreground.


February 29, 1972

On February 27, 1972 I was at Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. They were from Chicago, had rented a large cabin and we were all having a GREAT time. The next day it snowed heavily, and I was gripped with a terrible and irrational apprehension that we wouldn’t be able to get back to Denver that day. I had an exam the next day, as I recall. Still, it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I was bossing everyone around, putting cardboard under stuck wheels and generally being a pain in the ass. We made it back to Denver and, safe and snug in my dorm room, I went to sleep.

The next morning — a bright and shining day — I went to my 9 am history class. About 30 minutes into it, someone from my dorm called out my prof and he came back and asked me to come with him. I walked with this woman back to the dorm office where my Aunt Martha was standing. I knew everything just seeing her there.

“Martha Ann, you dad passed away last night. It’s for the best.”

I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t for the best. He’d suffered a lot during the last two years from deterioration caused by MS. My aunt went up to my room with me and I packed.

I didn’t feel anything until I saw him in the casket at the mortuary. I reached into the casket to hold his hand as I had innumerable times at the nursing home when he was in one coma or another. The hand was cold, unbelievably cold, and then I knew that all my love really COULDN’T save his life. My aunt Kelly and uncle Johnny were with me and took me out of the room and sat with me until I calmed down. After that, I held it together, helping my mom contact family, taking clothes to the mortuary, even reading from my dad’s favorite poem during the service in Colorado Springs. I was pretty OK until the funeral in Montana when the casket was placed in the ground when I lost it again. Fortunately, my grandmother was there and we sheltered together in the limousine.

My dad died at 45. I’m 23 years older than he was when he died. Sometime in my late 30s I realized I was about to live the life my dad couldn’t. That meant something to me.

When this day rolls around every four years I’m a little messed up. Luckily, this time, I was here in the San Luis Valley, and it exerted all of its magic for me today. I had reason to write a blog post that meant something to me. Then I went to the Rio Grande County Museum with some notecards to sell, but also to see how the new show — Colorado and the Suffrage Movement — was doing. Louise, who runs the museum, is an amazing woman, and I sense we share a common heart. She told me about some of her new discoveries and then her husband, Alex, came in. Alex has lived here forever, his family has lived here forever. He’s a pretty incredible person, too. We talked about runaway horses, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ventilation of potato cellars and much, much more. I love learning about this place, and I left feeling a little intoxicated.

From there I drove west to take a photo of another potato cellar I hope to paint, one that’s in terrible condition. I went to the store and came home to find that one of my stories (originally published here in my blog) won first prize at a contest I entered in December, a contest held by the Alamosa Library’s literary magazine, Messages from the Hidden Lake. There was a party last week, but I forgot about it. 🙂

After lunch, I took Bear to the golf course so she could roll in whatever snow remains (there was some). On the way I stopped to talk to the kids and their mom. I heard yet another amazing story about her dad, on horseback, in the mountains, going over a little ravine and his horse fell on him. His dog — a dog like Bear — Zip — stayed with him and protected him until help came more than 12 hours later. Zip even wanted to get on the helicopter.

Bear and I took a wandering ramble nowhere in the world of smells that is Bear’s somewhere. Fifty cranes flew over us, calling to each other. On the way back, the little girl was in the yard and we had a long talk about little brothers. She told me that sometimes she and her little brother (two years younger, just like my brother and me) have terrible fights. I told her my brother and I did, too.

“What do you fight about?” she asked me.

“Oh, you know, ‘Get out of my room!’ ‘That’s not YOURS! It’s MINE!'”

She nodded in profound understanding and told me about a time that her little brother helped her clean her room.

“Yeah, that’s a good brother,” I told her.

“Once my brother hurt my feelings. He said he didn’t love me.” She looked sad.

“He didn’t mean it. That’s just little brothers. You know, my brother was my best friend.”

She nodded. “Yeah, but someday we will have our own families and won’t live together any more.”

“He’ll still be your brother.”

She smiled and launched into a wonderful long story about a game of pretend they’d played after seeing Frozen. It was wonderful, involving, as it did, an evil snow man and an enchanted forest.

All this has been the gift this miraculous valley has given me on this day that comes every four years, a day on which I cannot help but feel sad.

Featured photo: My dad and me in his basement office. We built the shelves together, framed and paneled the whole thing. I was 12. In the photo below, I’m 11. You can see I reached my adult height early. My dad was 5’8″.

My dad looks kind of pissed off, but he wasn’t. 🙂 Bellevue, Nebraska, 1963

Duck or Elephant?

My mom and dad were always telling my brother and me to lie on our backs in the yard and watch the clouds go by. Along with this I was encouraged to see animals in the clouds, but this often led to arguments with my brother about what was in the cloud. It’s kind of like dating or politics. It’s “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” thing.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals anyway. I see patterns everywhere. I have tile in my bathroom that, when I first moved here, looked to me like a poor guy carrying an immense boulder — or the world — on his back. He looks up at me with his tiny face as if he is asking for help. I can still find him if I look, but now I see other things or nothing at all but tile. I think I saw that guy because that’s how I felt when I retired and moved away from California.

When I was 41 I asked myself a dangerous question. I was riding my bike down a single track that I loved and knew well. I looked over at the hill to my right behind which the sun was setting. There was a strange green glow above the hill, an optical illusion caused by the red of the sun. I thought, “What’s real, anyway?” That question dragged me down the rabbit hole of a major depressive crisis.

Since then I’ve come to understand that’s the question we should ask all the time, the question that liberates us from illusion in all its manifestations. I’ve also learned we — or, any rate, I — can never live in a world without illusion. It’s a constant battle.

Yesterday I took Bear out to the Wildlife Refuge. I’d heard cranes when I stepped out my back door and decided that a long walk in that wide and empty place was just what we needed. Well, what we always need. The sky was amazing. In every direction are mountains of different altitudes, distances from me, geologies. Above the various ranges were different kinds of clouds. Over the La Garitas to the northwest were sinuous lenticular clouds, stretching out under the wind and the convection of warm air rising from the earth. I didn’t take a photo because all I had (or have most of the time) is my phone and the clouds would not be all that visible in a phone photo. I found myself thinking about their beauty and how they were formed and not whether or not they looked like sea lions. There is, for me, more wonderment in reality than in pareidolia.