With the smoke and the fire and the stars at night

Up again in the morning bright

With nothing but road and sky in sight

And nothing to do but go...

—old hobo poem

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Memories of a Better time

Cool house in Field, Canada, in Yoho National Park 
I'm finally on the road, or at least I will be as of tomorrow morning. My car struts have been repaired, I'm almost finished packing, and all I have to do now is throw a few things in, stop in Grand Junction for vet certificates, and then hit the trail. 

It's been stormy and rainy and almost feels like an early autumn. The tent camper across the river has moved on, and my brother arrived this afternoon to petsit for me while I'm gone. 

Autumn on the flanks of Mt. Sneffels in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
 My brother and I had dinner together, and I confessed that I was thinking of going to Maine instead of Alaska, sort of a last minute reconsideration—in fact, the idea occurred to me mere minutes before I said it.

He, in his infinite patience, said that would be a nice trip, but why not Alaska? I told him I'd been having trouble sleeping ever since I'd decided to go. 

Of course, we had to analyze this, and it came down to the fact that I don't find sleeping in my car very comfortable, nor do I relish the thought of driving so many miles (3200 one way).

But none of this really made sense, as I've never let a few miles or mere hardships stop me before, so, in true amateur shrink fashion, we delved further into my lack of confidence. 

There was a time (not all that long ago) when I never questioned anything that had to do with possible adventure. But it seems that after fracturing several vertebrae two years ago my confidence has taken a beating, and perhaps rightfully so.

And so, maybe I really need to take this trip just to prove to myself I'm still kicking, though some days I'm not sure I really am.

In any case, I'm heading out on the road less gravelled. Happy trails until we meet again.

Update: Morning brings a new wave of enthusiasm, and I'm off to Alaska!

Second update: After one week, I've had over 1,000 new comments, all spam, so I decided to turn commenting off for now. I also won't be blogging much for awhile, as there's no internet where I'm staying. Here's hoping you all have a great autumn!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Not Much Strutting About

Maybe my next rig, though it would take some work...but the price is right.

My plans to head north have been stymied for a week, due to the fact that my struts are shot—given the roads I drive, I'm not a bit surprised.

I knew this when originally planning to leave, but after reading a few accounts of people broken down on the Alaska Highway from suspension problems, I decided to go ahead and get them fixed, which means a departure date of next Wednesday. 

In the meantime, knowing that I'll soon be car camping (which means I'll have a tent but will probably sleep in my car in bear country) has added to my appreciation of having a nice bed and shower and all the accoutrements of civilization. Hearing that it snowed in Yellowstone the other day has also made me appreciative of being inside.

What adds even more to my heightened sense of luxury is the fact that I have a new neighbor. The dogs alerted me to his presence a couple of evenings ago. I could tell they were watching something across the river, but it took me awhile to figure out what it was.

Someone set up a tent between the river and the steep bank below the highway. Even though they're in the shrubs and trees, they're in full view of the houses on the opposite high bank, yet are very hard to see if one isn't already aware of them. 

It's the kind of place you camp only in desperation, or if you have a service job in a town with expensive rent, like Glenwood Springs, Colorado. And the fact that the monsoons have started makes things pretty wet. 

But back to my trip to Alaska. I've read that a lot of the services along the Alcan shut down in early September, so maybe I'll get lucky and get stuck up there.

They also say that visitors to the north country leave a little bit of themselves there, and I hope it's true, since I wouldn't mind losing a few pounds. 

But I'm just anxious to get going. That wanderer's gene just won't let me be. (Maybe I should write a country western tune while I'm waiting...)

My first trailer, a brand-new Casita

Desert Sweetpea near Moab

Sunday, July 20, 2014

It's Now or Never—Heading to the North Country

(Photos in this blog are by Alaska's Jason Grove.)

Tomorrow I head north. How far north? Maybe Point Barrow, if I'm lucky. It's rare that I can find a pet sitter, so it's now or never. I was going to just head for Montana, but life's short and the road goes ever on and on...or as someone once said, enjoy life and don't die before you're dead.

I did a graduate geology course a year or so ago where I had to analyze the geology of Alaska's Brooks Range, and it would be cool to see it in real life. But, my main destination is Fairbanks, where I have an aunt and uncle and tons of cousins. I'll then hopefully head for the Kenai area, where I have even more cousins.

I had three sets of aunts and uncles and their families head north from Colorado many moons ago to work in the oil patch and to attend the University of Alaska (geology). One uncle was one of the first drillers on the North Slope, and one aunt started a travel agency in Fairbanks. 

Of course, my real goal is to see the venerable brown bears, of which the grizzly is a subspecies. My uncle tells me they occasionally see the grizz at their cabin outside Fairbanks, so I'll start there, unless I'm lucky enough to see some in Canada on the way. 

One cousin built a cabin with her husband in the Brooks Range that could only be accessed by float plane (she was a bush pilot). They built it with windows high off the ground so bears couldn't get in, and yet still had many wild stories to tell. They've since sold it, but I'm not sure I would've wanted to stay there anyway, being the chicken that I am.

I'll be car-camping and taking only two dogs, Weezee and Cassie. Moki has elected to stay home with my brother, who will be watching the cats for me. It's over 3,000 miles, and I'm leaving in the morning, so I'd better start getting ready. (Still looking for my passport.)

The wilderness is calling....

The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see." 
—Ed Abbey

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Zen of Bears

Brown bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska. You can watch them live here. The sockeye salmon are running in July, so the bears congregate at Brooks Falls and put on quite a show, which I can watch for hours. Don't miss it.

Spending my teen years living near Colorado's San Juan Mountains, I have many fond memories of exploring with my dad, who was a railroad buff and liked to go check out the old narrow-gauge tracks and trestles. He also just enjoyed being in the high country, and that's where we saw what I truly believe was one of Colorado's last grizzly bears.

These are screen shots I took while bear watching.

We'd driven up the rough road that followed the west fork of the Cimarron River, then got out and leaned against my dad's old truck, enjoying the wildflowers and skunk bush and the rippling sound of the river, not to mention the spectacular mountains.

We were very close to where my favorite photographer, Jack Brauer of Ouray, Colorado, took the photo below.
 Cimarrons,Colorado,San Juan Mountains, Redcliff, Coxcomb, West Fork, sunset, photo

My dad caught a glimpse of movement in the meadow across the river and got out his binoculars, and we took turns watching a beautiful cinnamon-colored bear foraging in the grasses. We watched it for some time, long enough to take note of its huge size, thick muscle hump on its shoulders, and dished face (all characteristics of the grizzly). 

My dad had been to Alaska, where I have numerous relatives, and he knew what a Brown bear was (the grizzly is a subspecies of the Brown). He didn't say much, and we eventually turned around and headed back down the road.

I don't know why, but neither of us ever really mentioned that sighting to anyone. Grizzly bears supposedly didn't exist in Colorado, and the last known one was killed in 1979 in the San Juans not terribly far from where we were, by bear standards. Our sighting was in the early 1970s.

The grizzly killed in 1979 was a sow that had birthed two cubs, according to an autopsy by wildlife biologists. Where was the father? 

Others have since seen grizzlies in Colorado, but the bears remain elusive and are called "ghost bears" by those who believe they may actually exist but have no real proof.

Eating sockeye salmon

I've since had several other close encounters with bears, but never a grizzly, which is fine by me. But I've always been fascinated by them. 

They seem like the perfect combination of skill, intelligence, and size, all working together to make one aware that humans really aren't the apex predators. Fortunately, most bears steer clear of us.

Grizzly bears teach one humility, and those who go into their territory with hubris are sometimes set straight, as in the case of a man killed in Yellowstone who refused to listen to the rangers, telling them he knew all about bears.

If you're wondering what the range of the grizzly in the U.S. is, this site has some interesting information, including a few accounts of grizzlies sighted in Colorado and Utah not all that long ago.

Anyway, I've read everything I can find on bears, including meeting Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years (an excellent book) and seeing the videos he took in Glacier National Park.

I'll be heading out next week to camp first in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, then on up into Montana, hoping to see the grizz (but only from a distance).

But you can be assured I'll be sleeping in my car, not my tent, as I still haven't bought another rig. But no worries, as I won't be feeling any hubris, and I always carry bear spray, which statistically has a higher percentage of effectiveness on bears than a gun, as the bear can still charge even if shot but the spray makes them run away. Anyway, wish me luck, though I'm not sure if the luck would be in seeing one or in not seeing one.

Cimarrons,Colorado,San Juan Mountains, Redcliff, Coxcomb, West Fork, sunset

Monday, June 30, 2014

Colorado's Ruby of the Rockies

My latest mystery (The Ice House Cafe, not yet finished) is set in the little village of Redstone, Colorado, about 40 miles from where I'm staying in Glenwood Springs. Redstone is known as the Ruby of the Rockies and has lots of fascinating history

A view of Chair Mountain above Redstone.
I practically lived in Redstone for a number of years, going there on my almost daily bike ride from the town of Carbondale, so I have lots of fond memories. I haven't been there for some time, so decided to go today.  

Further up the Crystal River Valley from Redstone is the tiny town of Marble, which was my actual destination, but my progress was thwarted by a truck that appeared to have gotten itself high-centered at the Marble turnoff, blocking both lanes.

The Redstone coke ovens are currently being restored. They once supplied a high grade of coke to the smelters in Pueblo, Colorado.
As I drove around the tiny village, I recalled lots of fun times—riding sleighs in the winter, staying at the nearby Avalanche Ranch, and walking the Redstone Boulevard in the magical summer and winter evenings, even seeing a bobcat once. I had many fine cups of coffee at the Ice House Cafe there, once the old ice house, as its name suggests.

But one of my fonder memories is of my mom and the Redstone Castle (it's an amazing place). The story has two parts:

Part 1: Once upon a time my mom and I were in Scotland and found a castle not on the map (my Mom loved old castles). The gate was open, so we drove up the long driveway, then got out and toured the extensive and beautiful gardens. 

It wasn't until we knocked on the big castle doors, hoping to tour the interior, that we realized it was a private residence. The owners were very kind to us, but I bet they still tell the story about cheeky Americans walking around their private grounds.

A peek through the trees at part of the Redstone Castle. It has 42 rooms.
Part 2: With the previous incident in mind, you can understand why my mom protested the entire time I drove us down the private road to the Redstone Castle. I kept assuring her it was OK, that nobody would notice us and we would get away with it this time.

I pulled up right in front of the castle and got out and opened her door, practically pulling her out, telling her, "Look, Mom, the door's open, let's just go take a peek."

I can't believe I actually persuaded her to go inside the open door. (In retrospect, I think maybe she was too lenient of a parent.)

My mom in Scotland. She was 60 at the time.
Of course, the castle was at that time a fine restaurant, but she didn't know that. When we walked inside and the hostess asked if we had reservations and I said yes, I think my mom was about ready to kill me. But she was a great sport and didn't, probably because it might look bad on her record to kill her kid on Mother's Day.

The Crystal River is aptly named.
Cottages in the old manor style on up-valley.

Anyway, back to today—after some exploration and letting the dogs get out, it was time to leave Redstone and head back to the house in Glenwood Springs.

I'm still having trouble adjusting to being in such a big space and tend to spend most of my time in one room. At least that one room has beautiful views, and I often see 
bald eagles and blue herons flying by. 

The cats are loving being able to run around inside, and I have a couple of bears who try to raid my trash cans every night. I actually saw one of the rascals yesterday.

I went from my 70 sq. ft. cargo trailer to this 2500 sq. ft. house above the Roaring Fork River. The river is about 50 feet straight below.

I'm not sure how long I'll indulge in this luxury, but maybe all summer, if I stay as lazy as I seem to have become. I think entropy is winning...and I will admit that living in this small castle has been nice, though I do miss the Big Empty and will eventually have to heed its call. 
The Redstone Castle

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Deluge of Rascals

Quoth the Raven

I noticed a high of 70 degrees was forecast for Moab, so I made a quick trip over the other day to get my mail and check up on Broken Feather and Quoth. I had my usual fare with me—nuts, fruit, some lunchmeat, and dog biscuits—but I was woefully unprepared for the deluge that awaited.

Evening in Paradise

As I drove by the campground, I could see there was hardly anyone camping, only two tents with no one around—well, no humans around, I should say. I caught a glimpse of something black hopping around on the picnic table where the campers had foolishly left their food box, probably thinking it would be safe from critters there. You can guess what was going on...

As I drove by, the rascals spotted me and the chase was on. I drove about a half-mile away to a spot where I like to let the dogs out, and the nearby juniper tree was soon filled with the little black bodies of Broken Feather, Quoth, and their offspring—three young ravens! You can tell it was their offspring because they were in that phase where they follow the parents around squawking and demanding to be fed. A pretty raucous bunch.

Little hoodlums in training (the photo’s a bit fuzzy, not the birds).

I’ve known Quoth and Broken Feather for about four years now, and this is the first year I’ve seen more than one baby. The birds aren’t small anymore by this time of year, but still have that svelte look that the young of most species have (including humans, when we don’t feed our kids too much corn syrup).

Biologists say that some species have large numbers of offspring when times are hard, as this helps ensure the survival of the species. Kind of the opposite of what one would expect. I hope my raven friends aren’t having hard times, though I suspect they might be from the drought. If so, they had a little respite when I showed up.

I threw out some goodies, then decided to take the dogs to another spot over the hill for a hike. When I arrived, Quoth and Broken Feather had left the youngsters and taken a shortcut and were waiting in a nearby tree, cooing to each other. 

I could almost hear them talking about how nice it was to ditch the kids for once. Maybe it was my imagination, but that tree seemed to have the same kind of ambiance a fine restaurant would have when couples are out for a night without the kids and waiting for the food to show up.

I threw out more goodies, then took the dogs down the wash for a walk. When we got back, the goodies were gone, but the birds were still in the tree. I knew they’d cached everything—I’ve watched them bury food just like a dog does.

We all got into the car (excluding the birds), and as we left, I threw out more goodies. They didn’t even wait for the car door to close before they were filling their craws to go cache some more—saving for a rainy day, which we should have plenty of this summer, as we’re now in an El Nino cycle.

Not a good photo, but the view out my window of Mount Sopris, almost 13,000 feet, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I managed to climb it back in my better days.

The weather was beautiful, and I hated to leave, but we were soon on our way back to Colorado, leaving our raven friends to fend on their own in Paradise.

(And those tenters owe me for saving their food box, though I may have already been too late.)

Sunset in Paradise

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ain't Happy Without Lonesome

Well, yesterday came and went, and when it came, I owned a cargo trailer, and when it went, I didn't.

This post will be short because I need to spend the rest of the day contemplating whether or not I'm only happy when I'm unhappy, and if so, how to get unhappy again, because I'm happy I sold the trailer. 

It was just too small, especially since I prefer sleeping in the Great Outdoors, and it's hard to beat a huge big sky when you're drifting off...all those stars...or that stunning sunrise when you wake...but you do need shelter once in awhile (see my last post, Everything Ran).

I like simplicity, and all these trailers that come and go in my life, well, this was number six in just a few years, and some have been pretty nice, but it's starting to not be so simple. Or maybe it is—I simply like change.

Anyway, I went from a 72 square foot cargo trailer to a 3,000 square foot custom house above the Roaring Fork River and beneath the ruby red cliffs of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It belongs to someone who's not using it at the moment and is letting me rent it for less than half the market rate.

I'll call this home for awhile, who knows how long, as I already have itchy feet after only two weeks. I guess it's just too nice and I'm starting to feel a little happy, so it's time for a change. As they say, a cowboy ain't happy without lonesome. I'm no cowboy (though I do still own a horse), but I do think I'm happiest way out in the Big Lonesome. Or would that be unhappiest?

Maybe I just need wings. Will I get another trailer? Right now, I have no idea, but if something cool comes along, maybe. But for now, I'll stay put, at least for a few more weeks. In any case, change is inevitable, it's just a matter of time, because I hate housework—and the same old same old.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Everything Ran

Yesterday, the skies opened and it felt like the world was being washed away—and everything ran. If you live in the desert, you know what that phrase means—and it often means trouble.

For me, it was both scary and awe-inspiring, and I'm sure a few of my kangaroo rat friends didn’t make it through this one. It was bigger than any I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been through quite a few of these big desert rains. The skies opened up and all the water came at once. The dog bowl sported about an inch of fresh water when it was all said and done—an inch in about 20 minutes.

A sego lily grows tall in the shelter of a narrowleaf yucca.
I was actually contemplating if I was in a high enough spot or not and if I should grab everyone and make a run for it. The water almost came to my door, but not quite. The wash next to camp ran and made a horrendous noise. 

After the water ran on down the slickrock in wild and exuberant waterfalls on its way to the Colorado River, all that was left was a damp smell and a few inches of a reddish foam everywhere, like someone had added bubble bath—pure, organic, and all natural Mr. Desert Red Bubble.

It changed a lot of things, including the landscape. One of my beloved sitting rocks on the edge of the wash is now too high to reach, the sand beneath it all washed far away. I spent a lot of time on that rock thinking about things, not the least of how swiftly things can change. 

After camping for three months in the redrock, tomorrow I’ll leave for Colorado, where I’ll stay for a month or so in an actual house with showers and all that, then, if things go well, I have a plan that involves the Great White North. But I’ll be back once or twice before then to see how my friends, Quoth the Raven and Broken Feather, are doing.

Lithic scatter from long ago near my camp (probably Fremont)
But, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, so we’ll see where the flash floods wash me to this time. I’m not much of one for poetry, but change always makes me a bit poignant, so here’s one from my book, Uranium Daughter:

By the Light of Wild Moon

Looking around me
at the little ash table where I sit and read the paper,
at the musty alcove where I pull off my boots each day,
after taking the dogs down to the river,
down to wild water, flowing endless in this canyon dream.

I wonder, will this little wild house miss me
after tomorrow, when I’m gone?

Or just pragmatically embrace the next
like a fickle wild lover.

This in a string of places
that for me, flow like the river,
as each eddy changes to rapids
in a riverway of never ending movement.

Looking for solace in what cannot be still.
Searching for starlight by the light of wild moon.

Sunset over the rim

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reclining in the Desert

I was sitting in my tent in my expensive leather Lane recliner when a six-year old boy wandered into my camp. He was part of a group camped nearby, and he had a penchant for bringing me old bottle pop-tops he'd found. Since I myself had found some cobalt blue glass, which was no longer made after the early 20th century, I knew the camp had some historic roots, so I wasn't surprised at the old stuff he was finding.

I thanked him for yet another pop-top, and he said "You're welcome," then turned to go. He turned back and added, "We have a chair just like that at home."

"They're pretty comfy, aren't they?" I responded.

"Yup," was his reply, and he was soon gone. I smiled—I don't think he had enough life experience to consider how unusual it would be to see someone with a heavy leather recliner in their tent. (Some might use a different word, something more like "weird.")

The chair has a bit of history, though one not nearly as old or interesting as the blue glass or pop-tops. I bought the chair when I had my house in Moab, and it was so comfy I hated to part with it when I got rid of everything, so I gave it to my brother, thinking at least that way I'd get to sit in it once in awhile. 

When my brother left Logan to return to Colorado and I leased his house, it came with the chair, as he had no way to move it. I brought it to the desert with me in my cargo trailer and put it in the tent, thinking I would eventually take it back to my home base in Colorado (assuming I ever finalize the deal).

I kind of liked the idea of having my own "writing room," and I pictured myself sitting in the tent wearing a smoking jacket and leather slippers, drinking coffee and writing books, kind of like in a Sherlock Holmes movie, all in the big comfy chair. Of course, that never happened, and the chair ended up having the sole function of holding my tent down when the spring winds came through, which was a noble enough purpose, though not the one intended by its makers.

Then the kangaroo rats drilled a hole through my tent floor and started partying in the chair, a fact I was made aware of by seeing their little footprints in the half-inch of sand that had blown in through the tent fly. I decided I needed to make some changes. Rat parties are fine, as long as they keep them to their own quarters. (Which reminds me of the time I was sitting in the outback by a campfire and had a kangaroo rat come up and sit on its little haunches right next to me for quite some time, as if pondering by firelight the existential nature of the universe.)

Much to my delight, a friend of a friend with a pickup was returning to Colorado after mountain biking and offered to take the chair, so off it went on a new adventure. 

Who knows when I'll see it next and what stories it will have to tell? 

Update: A good friend read this entry and sent me an email I'd like to share:

"Your story reminded me of the time Ken and I went ice fishing at Stagecoach, outside of Steamboat Springs (Colorado). It was a beautiful winter day, sun shining, about 35 degrees, when I see someone dragging something across the ice. I thought, wow, they sure have a lot of stuff to lug around out here on the ice. As he got closer, I discovered it was a recliner chair mounted on snow skis! The guy finds a good spot to stop, drills a hole, sits down, kicks back, pops a beer and began his fishing adventure for the day. I can't remember if he caught anything, but he sure got a good day's rest that Sunday afternoon. That's my kind of fishing."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Somewhat Serendipitous Meeting in the Outback

I've been back in the desert of southeast Utah for a month as of yesterday, but it doesn't seem like it's been that long. Maybe it's because I'm now on Desert Time (also known as Redrock Time)—that time zone that somehow exists in its own plane.

The view from my back door.
I once wrote a story that consisted of letters home from a paleontologist out in the bone camps of southern Utah, and even though I no longer have a copy, it seems like it consisted of a lot of star gazing and philosophizing about Deep Time and all that rather esoteric stuff geologists enjoy. 

The past month here seems like it was along the same vein as the story—pondering beautiful night skies and wandering about looking for trace fossils (dino tracks) while visiting with good friends and trying to pretend I'm no longer a part of civilization. Combine that with Redrock Time and you're bound to lose track of a lot of things, including what some might call your sanity.

Anyway, I was out today wandering in the Cedar Mountain Formation north of town when I saw a woman coming my way carrying a Jacob's staff. A Jacob's staff is a surveying tool used by geologists to measure cross-sections while in the field (as well as strike and dip), as in the photo below.

Anytime I see someone doing something interesting, I have to find out more, so I struck up a conversation with her. Come to find out, she's a prof at a large university and is studying the Cedar Mountain Formation, which is the major dinosaur-bearing formation in this part of Utah. 

I sort of have an infatuation with the Cedar Mountain, being the lost soul that I am (I've been told it's more normal to have infatuations with celebrities and the likes). We stood and talked until an incoming hailstorm ran us both reluctantly back to our vehicles. 

I thought about this as I drove off and wondered what the odds were of meeting someone way out in the Outback who could answer all my questions about the local geology. It seemed pretty serendipitious.

But by the time I got back to camp, I had decided the opposite was true. Where else would you meet someone with a common interest than where that subject is best represented? It would be more unusual to meet someone in a scuba diving suit on the top of a mountain than it would be to meet them in the ocean.

In any case, it was a fun way to spend an hour or so. I had the same thing happen not so long ago when I was over at the Crystal Geyser out of Green River—two hydrogeologists from a big Eastern university were there doing research, and I learned a great deal from them that day.

It's way easier than signing up for a class and paying for it, that's for sure.

This is Tiva, a beautiful and very smart Native American Indian Dog who paid me a visit along with her buddy Kai and person Susan.