Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Secret Place

 The canyon became my secret little place, a rugged defile that started out as a shallow sandy wash but quickly etched itself into the Permian sandstones and limestones of the Colorado Plateau.  I discovered it on a cold December day while walking along an unremarkable arroyo that wound, like so many others, through sage and saltbush and cow-beaten grasses along the edges of Squaw Flat.  But within a half mile or so, I could see that this one was somehow different from the rest.  The shrubby landscape quickly gave way to cottonwood-lined banks as the wash became a creek and the creek became a gorge.  And along those banks were occasional masses of ice, attached like burls to the sides of the streambed and bedecked with rippled icicles.  These were clearly frozen springs.

Beaten back by the frigid shadows, I made up my mind to return in a few months to see if my initial observations were correct.  And I was not disappointed when, in early May, I once again headed down into the canyon.  The cottonwood trees were now leafing out into galleries of green.  And the frozen globs of ice were now free flowing springs, alive with bright water.  In about a mile I reached a point where the cottonwood canopy closed in and fresh water came bubbling out of the creek bottom, creating a small but lively stream.  I drank from the spot where the water emerged from the earth….and it was the best water I had ever tasted.

On future trips I would continue to explore further and further down the canyon finding small waterfalls, deep pools lined with wild orchids, and large arching alcoves full of pale canyon columbines.  I began taking my friends there whenever I got the chance.  And if I were with a woman, the wildness and seclusion of the place created a primal playground where we could take off our clothes, make love, bathe in the cold pools, or simply catch a nap on a shaded ledge.  It was my Eden on earth.

As the canyon cut itself into the planet’s skin, it became more and more rugged.  The creek bed narrowed and was often overgrown with reeds.  Steep talus slopes descended on both sides, full of angular boulders and scree.  There were places in the blue-gray limestone where one could find hundreds of fossil brachiopods and crinoid stems.  On one occasion, near the source of the biggest springs, I found several arrow heads and part of a yucca woven sandal under a small boulder, being careful to put them back where I found them. 

One summer day I spent an entire afternoon by a single, shallow pool reading Robert Graves’ I Claudius.  Another time I decided to rescue as many stranded tadpools as I could, carefully removing them from cutoff pools with my Sierra cup, and releasing them downstream.  Cindy and I waited out a rainstorm one April afternoon in a protected alcove . Then there was the epic trip where Phil and I took mescaline and hiked far down into the cut earth, nearly to the Colorado River, only stopping because of a formidable drop off.

In those few short years when I was intimate with the place, the canyon came to represent all that was awesome, provocative, exciting and enabling.  The power of raw nature.  The miracle of water in the desert.  The gift of silence and serenity.  And while I may never get back to my special place any time soon, I know that it is still there.  And I am grateful for having spent some of the most supreme and enlightening moments in those rocky recesses where the water always flows and the ravens soar through a timeless space.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Saving Daylight

 The leaf guys came by this morning.  That would be the big city truck with attached vacuum hose that sucks up the piles of fallen leaves my neighbors and I have diligently raked into the street.  The city crews won’t be back again for another two weeks but the leafy mounds will return almost immediately.  The big cottonwoods on our property are still mostly leaf laden.  So is our apricot tree.  But with every gust of wind, the foliage falls.  And before long, all the deciduous trees on our street will be bare.  It happens so quickly.

I am not sure that I made the best of this autumn though I gave it a good shot.

I made a mad dash west in early October.  Up to Salt Lake and then across the Great Salt Desert under a wild and powerful sky.  Snow flurries on the fringes.  Thick rain on the road to Wendover.  Clouds stacked like spaceships hovering over the Great Basin.  But an icy blue sky by the time I reached Reno.  After that there was a week of mad dashes over the Sierras and around the bay area.  In one day I caught the sunrise on Lake Tahoe’s eastern shore, watched local fisherman in the early afternoon at Moores Landing on the Napa River, and settled in for the night at my sister’s house in Santa Rosa.

The next day I skirted the edges of the bay as I drove toward the delta, homing in on Mt. Diablo, giant windmills, and the farmlands outside of Oakley.  My sister in Brentwood took me out to Shermans Landing where the Sacramento River more or less empties into Suisun Bay.  Later in the week I was in my old Sunset District neighborhood in San Francisco under a flat, urban fog.  Spent a Friday night with friends walking through Golden Gate Park and admiring western art in the DeYoung.

Then there was the long drive south on Interstate 5 along the California Aqueduct, through towns like Buttonwillow and Avenal.  A night in Barstow, a morning scramble through Las Vegas, and a blessed return to the Colorado Plateau country through Zion Canyon and Kanab, Utah.  A night of film noir with my friend Mike. Pictographs on the Paria Plateau. Ascendant fall color in Capitol Reef.  And the triumphant return to western Colorado, just in time to herd the first falling leaves into the gutter.


There is never enough time in October. Autumn is the short season, the quick inhalation before winter.  And if the falling leaves and long shadows aren’t a strong enough reminder, there is always the setting back of the clocks.  That annual ritual that signals the end to my solo peregrinations and the beginning of a sort of hibernation.  I have never been one to embrace the coming of winter.

But saving daylight is certainly important.  We need all the daylight we can get in this world and then some.  We will save it up, use it sparingly for a few months, then unleash its full glory upon the spring mesas, the summer mountains, and the autumn arroyos that are the best of the American West.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bozos On The Bus

I once read an interview with Oliver Hardy where he revealed how his comic characterizations were based on the time he spent as a young boy in Georgia, watching people in hotel lobbies.  He would just sit there for hours on end absorbing the interactions and character traits of perfect strangers. What was true back in the early part of the 20th century is just as true today, I think, as I sit in the lobby of the Adoba Eco Hotel in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota.
What I am looking at mostly are late summer tourists queuing up for the buses that will soon take them to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, Devils Tower and points beyond.  These folks could very well be the sons and daughters of those we made fun of forty years ago in our young Park Service days.  But the fact of the matter is that “they” is now “us” and the demographic has changed noticeably over the years. 
What I am looking at, of course, are aging baby boomers so what I am seeing is different in many ways from the fat and fifty crowd of a generation ago.   There are many more minorities getting on the bus…and interracial couples, and gays and lesbians.  The very same people we marched in the streets with in the Vietnam era.  Some of them still retain that youthful glow and glamor.  Some have become disabled.  And quite a few are still fat and fifty or older… but they represent a far broader cross section than was seen even a decade ago.
Last month at Yellowstone I accompanied a 73-year old woman to the Old Faithful Lodge where she had worked as a young lady over 50 years ago.  Her face lit up when she found the old dorm room where she had lived that one summer.  Another couple was returning to the place in the Tetons where they had spent their honeymoon.  But many others were seeing these magnificent places for the very first time. 
And even though the Firesign Theatre group claimed that “we are all bozos on this bus”, we are all still seeking a respite from our daily routines   We are all getting on the bus, finding our seats, and heading off into the past and the future at the same time, united in age and experience, looking for adventure, human interaction, perhaps romance, or perhaps a lost chunk of our youth left somewhere out there on the American road so many years ago. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Primal Mornings

Being an early riser has been much more of a blessing than a curse.  This is especially true when traveling.  The early risers get the empty roads, the uncrowded restaurants, the once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings.  We get that soft pastel light that sneaks upon us from the east, growing ever brighter until long shadows etch the landscape.  If I am driving west, I am driving into the shadow of my car.  I am the first to spot the pronghorn on the open range.  I am privileged to see the plateaus limned in smoky amber.  I can stop at a cafĂ© in Austin, Nevada and it is just myself and the waitress and the smell of fresh toast.

When I was younger and camping out with my friends, I was the first one up.  I made the coffee and drank the first cup while listening to animal sounds in the chaparral and the snoring from nearby sleeping bags.  I walked to school along quiet streets lined with apricot and pepper trees.  I once helped my friend Steve Baltzer deliver morning papers through the streets of Los Altos.  I was thirteen years old and reveling in the freedom of speeding through suburban streets on my bicycle, throwing papers at houses still asleep.  It seemed like we had the town all to ourselves, that we were co-conspirators in owning the morning.

Recently I was staying at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.  I woke up restless at 530am, quickly got dressed, and headed outside where a dim dawn was just forming on the horizon.  Old Faithful Geyser, normally thronged with tourists, had two people sitting on a bench waiting for the imminent eruption. I joined them in the silence, and then the magnificent roar and rumble of steam and water.  The thermal plume climbed higher, silhouetted against a honey colored sky.  With only the three of us there to delight in the spectacle.

Later, along the Firehole River, the sun still not awake, I walked a primordial landscape of bubbling pools, steaming hot springs, and sulfurous air.  Then and there I was a man out of time, a man for all time, wandering the primal mists and mud pots of the geyser basin.  A bison bull came out of the forest to graze beside a sputtering cone.  And the first rays of sun spilled down the roof of the Old Faithful Inn.

I am blessed to be an early riser and not a slave to an alarm clock.  I get there first and I enjoy my time alone.  There is something in that pre-dawn light that is pure and deep, and full of hope for a new day, even if the later hours may disappoint.  I always have the morning.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

School Daze

     School was back in session yesterday here in the Grand Valley.  I could hear the laughter and excitement of young voices coming from the elementary school playground just a few hundred yards from my house.  It is such a pleasant sound.  A harbinger of fall.  A soothing cacophony of delighted squeals and unbridled energy.  One of life’s more welcome audio intrusions, like the sound of a far away train whistle in the dead of night or a muffled fog horn in a thick coastal dawn.   It is the sound of innocence, hope and joy.
     This is the same elementary school that my daughter attended in what seems like only a few years ago.  Yet this morning I walked her to high school for the beginning of her senior year.  She never seems to mind my company, and I am always happy to share that half mile of easy conversation and companionship.  I know that all too quickly this opportunity will pass as she moves into college mode and adulthood.  So I am intent on reveling in every minute we can spend together be it the daily school walk or curled up on the couch with her watching Mythbusters.
     My senior year seemed so bumpy in comparison.  I was uncertain of the future but knew that I did not want to participate in an “unpopular” war in southeast Asia (as if there could ever be a “popular” war….I dunno, maybe World War II if I had to pick).  I was trying to grow my hair long like the Beatles.  I was learning that marijuana was not going to make me into a drug addict.  I was concerned about losing my virginity. And I was witnessing the rise of a youth culture intent upon being heard.
     My daughter takes it all in stride.  She ignores the awful for the enlightening.  She delves into quirky science.  And she questions the absurdity of this society.  She is not an activist.  She is a learner.  An observer. She walks with me, holds my hand, and humors me in my old age.  Yet it seems like only yesterday that one of those exuberant voices rising from the elementary school playground in the late summer air was hers.  All those yesterdays that just keep piling up.

Monday, August 5, 2013


       Weird Chris picked the three of us up just north of Zuma Beach.  It was the summer of 1968 and we were hitch hiking back home to Santa Cruz.  He drove a pea green Ford van all gutted and tricked out in feathers and beads and weird psychedelic art.  His buddies Wes and Joel giggled in the back, passing the weed around as we hauled our tired asses into the vehicle.  Phil was just out of the army and traveling with an enormous duffle back and narc-short hair.  Steve had his old Vietnam field jacket and a pipe.  I had my camera and pack. We all had sleeping bags too. We were grateful for any ride.

 We had just spent several days in a big house in Palos Verdes, with a gigantic swimming pool and a hilltop view of the L.A. Basin.  Phil’s aunt had put us up or maybe put up with us as I tried to rekindle romance with Phil’s sister Nina.  She had absconded to this southern California retreat to reassess things and just get away from the bay area for awhile.  So we smoked dope and swam all day in the fetid heat and listened to the Cheap Thrills LP by Big Brother and the Holding Company.  But in a few more days we were back on the road.

        Up the coast we drove, now six strong and smoking up a storm on wheels.  Up past San Luis Obispo, through the hot San Marcos Pass and out to the coast again at Cambria.  Up Highway 1 with no planned destination other than to keep moving north.  Until the late afternoon caught up with us near a place called Willow Creek, one of the few stretches of coastal highway where a road descends to the beach.  The rest is all imposing cliffs of shale and serpentine rising like a dry wave to the crest of the Los Padres with occasional green arterials winding down through gullies and narrow canyons full of redwood and fir forest, ferns and alder trees along shiny, singing water spilling eventually into the sea.
      And Willow Creek was a fine example.  We stumbled from the van and on to the dark sand beach, but it was the creek that drew us in.  Upstream we hiked through blackberry brambles and wild hemlock, around boulders of marble and jade, staying close to the cool water.  Maybe a half mile or so before we came upon a lively cascade over a rock face by a deep pool and a boulder on which someone had painted the words “Life Is” in glowing paint.
  We took that as a good omen so went back for our bags and camping gear, and then returned to the “Life Is” rock to set up a quick camp.  I don’t remember much about that evening but I’m sure we smoked freely and that I slept well.  I slept so much better back in those days.
 And the following morning we bathed in the Life Is pool, hung out in the sun for awhile, and then piled back into the van to continue north.  Laughing on wheels and looking ahead. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Los Altos Lost

Here I sit on a Sunday morning whilst the girls are at church, having just watered the garden and eaten a few ripe tomatoes off the vine.  In two weeks, I'll be sitting on a bus bound for the Badlands, leading a tour of the Northern Rockies but looking toward the west.  

Been thinking about Los Altos a lot lately and the old bay area days.  I've said it before but I am so grateful that my parents decided to move down that way in the mid-50s.  Had I grown up in San Francisco, I'd be an entirely different person now, though who knows if better or worse. Would growing up in an urban environment have made me more competitive?  In the predator/prey relationship of young boys, would I have been the prey?  Or would I have been a hustler?

Just got lucky, I guess.  I look back an amazing 50 years now, and I remember the summer of 1963 hanging out with friends, walking the railroad tracks just outside of town.....the old Vasona line…feeling like a mid-century modern Tom Sawyer. There was the intimacy of the small town, the proximity of open space, the golden humming hillsides. 
I had my first girlfriend too....a sophomore named Marilyn who lived in a big, sprawling house up in the Los Altos Hills.  Her family owned five cars, swimming pool.  She was way out of my league and I think she knew that.  We were a hot item for a few months, but she broke up with me that summer.  I was devastated, of course, as only a lonely teenager can be.  But I had my friends, and a warm summer of apricot wind, and that intangible feeling of the world opening up to me.   
 It was a sad day when the railroad tracks were torn out to make way for the Foothill Expressway, when the last fruit orchard was removed to make way for subdivisions, when Hal’s Record Den moved from Main Street to the new super-mall on the El Camino Real.  It didn’t all happen overnight but the changes came soon enough.

But 1963 was a year unto itself.  As my late friend Jim said about it
“the last great expression, for us, of innocence and childhood."   Most of that changed too in the fall when JFK was assassinated, and our world went south.

Little Los Altos, tucked away from the world for so many years, was my isolated Eden, my salvation from a bigger reality and now, half a century later, a still warm village of memory.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Last Tango in Durango

My assignment was to drive to Durango and meet up with a representative from the Western Energy Project to photograph potential oil and gas leases near national park boundaries…in this case, nearby Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico.  Just to keep things interesting, I took the long westerly route.  That first day's drive through Moab and down along the edges of the canyon country added an extra hundred miles or so but I had all day and I wanted to see the desert in bloom, and reconnect to some rock art, and just once again be amazed at the diversity of this country.  Just outside of Cisco, Utah the globe mallow and sego lilies were in a blooming frenzy, covering the normally barren landscape with color.

South of Moab, I took a detour toward Newspaper Rock, not far from my old Canyonlands haunts in the Needles country.  As I dropped down the Dugway, the canyon of Indian Creek came alive in bursts of lime green from new spring foliage.  Cottonwoods.  Box elder.  Gambel oak.  After a brief stop at Newspaper Rock, I drove a little further along highway 211 looking for other rock art sites not marked for the general public.  In spite of the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend, there was very little traffic.

From the edges of Canyonlands I turned around and drove up Harts Draw, over the Abajo Mountains through aspen and fir forest before dropping down again into the pinto bean farm country of western Colorado and the hustle and bustle of Durango. Magnificent dynamics in the highs and lows of the landscape.

I met Ti on Friday morning....a lanky young man in his late 20s, I would guess.  Easy going.  I didn't feel any condescension or discomfort.  With his maps, we drove down several county roads looking at potential drill sites and their impacts on the Mesa Verde view shed.  And I took my photos of same.  We spent a large part of that first afternoon in Mesa Verde before heading south to Farmington, New Mexico which is the total antithesis of a Colorado mountain town like Durango.   Farmington is rife with industry.  Pickup trucks.  Cheap hotels.  Fast Food.  And drill pads and well sites everywhere.

 Hot.  Dusty.  Ugly.  Probably the worst way to enter New Mexico, "the land of enchantment".  Be that as it may, on Saturday we drove down to Chaco Canyon and once we were actually in the park itself, it was hard not to get caught up in the depth and level of sophistication of the people who once lived there.  I wandered alone through abandoned doorways at Pueblo Bonito before taking on the moderately strenuous hike to Pueblo Alto, an un-restored ruin site with unobstructed views north toward possible drilling rigs. 

The rest of the day was spent on more back county roads looking at drilling leases.  Not a pretty site.  But maybe some of the photos I took will be persuasive enough to help the Western Energy Project people with their cause.  I was able to get a nice early start on Sunday morning for the drive back to Durango.  Incredible clouds in the sky as the sun rose just south of the Colorado border.  I linked up with Tom, an old park service friend of mine, for breakfast in Durango.  I've known Tom since 1971.  He is my oldest NPS friend and, like me, long since retired and now living in Pagosa Springs.  We don't see each other all that much so it was nice to have the time with him.  And then, of course, there was the spectacular finale for me....the drive up and over the Million Dollar Highway through Silverton, Ouray, over Red Mountain Pass, Molas Summit, and finally descending into the familiar angular country of theWestern Slope.  And the dark hulk of Grand Mesa which always embraces me like a vagabond son.