Monday, October 25, 2010

A Walk in the West

Note: I wrote this essay one fall when I realized I had never written about my home before. It went through several variations but this edit is the most recent and my favorite. Enjoy!


It is an early morning in late Fall, and still dark in the basement room where I sleep. I throw on a pair of overalls and a warm shirt and trudge sleepily up the stairs. It is cold; the cold of a house still sleeping. The woodstove is dark and quiet, and the only sounds are the hum of the refrigerator and the gentle snoring of my dog, Zeb, back in the pantry. Outside of the windows the sun is beginning to brush the treetops and the long ridge of Basin Mountain is awash with the pale pink of sunrise.

My summer season at Grand Teton National Park ended a month or so ago; November is half gone already and autumn is slowly giving in to winter’s chill. I had expected to be elsewhere at this time of year, but all of my job applications fell short, lost in the federal shuffle. Perhaps there is still a chance that a park will hire me, but I am starting to lose hope. It is strange to be here, to be home again. But this is what seasonal life does, it gives me a taste of life on my own for months at a time but then I am always drawn back here.

It drives me a little crazy some days, even though it is a wonderful place. I feel that my parents have earned a break from their children now that my younger brother is off at College. However, after taking a job at the local ski-resort, I have accepted my situation and try to stay out of the way and help out whenever I can. So this morning I am up early to feed the animals and build a fire in the woodstove.


I can see my breath as I pick up two flakes of hay and measure out the morning grain for the horse. Zeb trails behind me and looks for an opportunity to dart in and harass her when my back is turned. The cats, Victor and Jack, meow and rub against my legs as I fill their food bowls and break the thin layer of ice which covers their water.

The sunlight is beginning to hit the tops of the ponderosa pines near the horse pen and the light on Basin Mountain is now the color of honey. It is noticeably warmer as I go to split kindling. Our woodpile is in a small shelter attached to the side of the barn and separated by type: oak burns long, pine burns hot, aspen burns fast and ignites easily. We have mostly Aspen here at the house because the Excelsior lumber mill in nearby Mancos charges only $30 per truckload for its scrap wood.

Going to the Excelsior mill is a fascinating experience that has become a family tradition. The pile of lumber there is sometimes 20-30 feet high and you have to climb onto the top to throw down some of the choice pieces of wood; logs for the fireplace, rounds for the stove. From the pile you can see other pickup trucks, often from the nearby Navajo reservation, with other families loading their trucks to the very top sometimes using vertical pieces of scrap wood to brace the sides of the stack. After the wood is loaded and paid for, we always go to eat at the Absolute Bakery for lunch and drive home to unload and get warm.

I pull the axe out of one of the stacked rounds and take several of them out to the chopping block where I split them into pieces that will fit into the stove. Using the hatchet, I shave kindling off of one and pick up a handful of wood chips for tinder. Walking back into the house, I set down my load of wood and take off my coat. I light the stove as sun begins to shaft into the eastern windows and I boil water for tea and scramble some eggs. I love to drink my morning tea while looking out the windows of the house. In summer I would sit out on the deck in the mornings and watch the world wake up around me, or sometimes sit back in one of the wooden rockers and watch lightning crackle over Basin Mountain just after sunset.

The stove is ticking as I finish breakfast and the house is beginning to warm up. Zeb is whining to go out on a walk. I shrug on my coat and we leave the house. No one else is awake yet, but hopefully the house will be warm and cozy by the time they are.


I walk up the driveway, Zeb gallops ahead excitedly, a chewed-on stick hanging from his mouth. After closing the green metal gate behind me, I step off the road into the forest. My family’s land sits in an ecological transition zone between Piñon-Juniper woodland and Ponderosa Pine forest, so all three species are plentiful. The ponderosa, giant, long-needled “orange-bellies” that smell vaguely of vanilla or butterscotch tower above the squat Piñons and the feathery, blue Junipers. We are lucky to still have so many Piñons left on our land, as much of the surrounding forest has been killed off by climate-change, in the form of pine beetles.

I am following a faint game trail, my boots crunching over the snow crust that still stubbornly clings to the hollows and patches of shadow beneath the trees like a negative reflection. The dry winter grass rustles in the clearings, pale imitations of now nearly forgotten summer greenery. The Gambel Oak, grows twisted and stunted beneath the larger pines and the holly-like Oregon Grape grows in patches beneath them in broad splashes of burgundy. The oak leaves still hang from the branches despite being brown, curled, and dead. A breath of wind rustles through them and the resulting sound reminds me of rain falling on a still lake in midsummer, or the muted hiss of seeds falling through the hollow interior of a rainstick. The music of the world is not wholly original, and often repeats itself in unlikely places.

I cross a dry ravine, lined with mossy sandstone and make my way up the other side where I encounter a fence. I don’t pay much attention to fences, perhaps at my peril, and I quickly duck between the strands of barbless wire and continue up opposite side of the canyon. There is an instant change in the forest and I am able tell immediately that the owners of this land keep horses. The forest floor is devoid of grass and thickly covered with a cushion of pine needles and the occasional horse dropping. Everything is closely cropped and groomed. I see a burst puffball forms a star pattern on the forest floor like a dying flower or a spent explosive on a forgotten battlefield.

Nuthatches and Chickadees twitter in the forest canopy, and one pecks half heartedly for insects now long gone from beneath the pine bark. I sit down beneath one of the orange ponderosas and try to imagine what it would be like to peck at a tree. I try to picture my face lengthened into a stiff beak which I would bang repeatedly and methodically against the pine bark. No hands. I couldn’t do it, even were I properly equipped. I would likely kill myself trying. But the tiny birds that call above my head are well adapted to the task. They possess and thin and delicate bone called the sclerotic ring, a tiny pale circle that cradles the birds’ eye and holds it in place with a intricate maze of tendons. When the bird is pecking at the pine bark, the ring is absorbing the shock and without the ring the bird’s eyes would explode against their orbits on the first or second peck.

The ponderosas’ dead lower limbs curl downward on the first 20 feet of trunk, rendered obsolete when the branches above them began to screen out the sunlight. I remember walking through the woods with my little brother when we were children, breaking off these lower limbs, jumping for the ones that were out of reach. We would use them for campfires, or building forts, hacking a kingdom out of the wild frontier of our backyard. No green grass or manicured gardens for us, we were content with rocky soil and tall vanilla-smelling trees. Still are, for that matter; although my brother is in Seattle and far out of fort-building range.


I walk in and out of ravines and notice that it is getting quite pleasant in the forest. Zeb is getting bored and has started to throw the stick around for himself. Suddenly, I see a helmeted head cruising above the hilltop and I assume it’s attached to a horseback rider. I duck down and grab Zeb who is crashing through the brush like a wounded animal. The rider slides out of sight without seeing us and we hop the fence that marks the property’s edge unnoticed.

I blink in the sunlight on the road, and there are several trash cans out for collection, each with their respective house number and color. Transmission Lines cross over head. Standing still, I can hear their faint buzzing like a disturbed hornets’ nest. Zeb and I veer right and walk in the cleared swath of land that runs beneath the lines; before long, we crest a hill. Looking West, the swath continues into the distance before vanishing over the ridge that hides the village of Hesperus. County Road 125 winds in and out of the trees parallel to the lines before vanishing as well; a steady climb, it makes a good bike ride.

I can see the LaPlata Mountains to the North, the nearest range of high mountains to my home, 20 miles away as the crow flies. I know them well. Silver Peak is in the center and can be seen from most areas of the county. I have climbed to its summit a few times, but recently it has become more difficult, as someone new has purchased the land at the trailhead and threatens hikers with a gun to stay off his property. Not that this fazes me; I have about as much regard for gun toting landowners as I do for fences. Nothing kills a wild place faster than boundary lines. Besides, there are always ways of trespassing undetected, especially in the mountains.

Silver and its neighboring peaks are actually the lowest in the range and hide the higher peaks behind them, including the highest, Mount Hesperus, the Northern Sacred Mountain of Dinetah, the ancient Navajo homeland. It is said to represent darkness and death, as north is the direction of evil. I, however, think it’s pretty.

Not much grows beneath the power lines and rotting stumps mark where trees had stood prior to the clearing of this open corridor. I pass a lone Juniper, blue-green and shaggy, covered in sea green berries that smell of gin. Awhile ago, I found out they are not berries at all, but tiny pine cones covered in a sticky wax. Most berries are female and, when mature, they burst open, spreading their seeds on the wind. The male cones, often on another tree, look like blue flowers and it is from them that the pollen clouds come in the spring, sparkling itchily into my sinuses.

Zeb sticks his nose into the hollow of every bush and frost heave, his snorting sending up tiny puffs of dust. There is more dried grass here and some stalks still have their seed heads. I pick one and roll it between my fingers, thinking of how the seed heads of grasses are actually miniscule arrangements of flowers, protected by two nesting covers called the lemma and palia. These ‘glumes’ surround the flower head which, when taken apart and magnified, unwind in a series of zig-zags, like an accordion of tiny florets.


I learned this in Systematic Botany, which my professor had been teaching for 35 years. I graduated the year that he retired and I was lucky to be in one of the last classes of his career. I learned to classify plants in the Linnaean sense, using a pair of dissection needles and a large scope to separate and count all of the parts of the flower: Androecium, Gynoecium, carpels, calyx, corolla, et al. The new style involves DNA analysis, and new techniques such as cladization and reclassification of many orders. It is far less involved, and distinctly separates the scientist from their organism of study… As science advances, it becomes increasingly less attached to the natural world. This has been a sobering realization for me and I found that, the more I buried myself in the numbers and graphs, the less I could hear the music that plays beneath the surface. There will always be a part of nature that can never be quantified, measured, or fully under-stood. It is in this way that things can still be truly wild.

I am a lover of Ecology, the science of connections. To me it is the closest science can get to understanding the music. When I think of the song I hear whenever I am surrounded by shattered stone and whispering trees, I envision a mighty orchestra with no instruments; just tier after tier of players, all holding hands and looking at the floor. From them the music comes in waves, singing in the spaces between them in a magnificent harmony. Some of these virtuosos live and breathe; they experience happiness and sorrow, hunger and satiety. Some of these players sit cold and immobile, in crags of granite whose fingers pierce the sky and cleave the clouds, changing the weather to suit their whims. Still others sigh and sway with the breeze, reaching ever skyward with each passing year. Whether the song comes from them, or the bonds between them, I cannot say. I simply have a vision of a silent auditorium, filled by musicians with linked hands, from whom flows the ever-changing music of the spheres.


I duck through another barbless fence and stumble on a dainty set of deer tracks. They come as no surprise as I see deer most days, usually as a pair of ears or upturned white tail out of the corner of my eye. The grass becomes shortened and I know that I am on horse property again. I tread carefully, Zeb not so much so, and climb another hill, needles and pinecones crunching underfoot.

There is a snag at the foot of the hill, an old ponderosa that died of natural causes but that has not yet toppled. It still defies gravity, even in death. Snags are wonderful home for many different birds, and they can also be a home for other things as well. My family had a large snag that was threatening to fall on the house and, upon cutting it down, hundreds of black beetles poured from the gaping trunk, clinking like quarters

Across the draw, between the tree trunks, I can see Silver Mountain looking icy in the distance. I climb toward the gap and look into the valley below. It is wide and grassy, with a creek cutting deeply into the valley floor. A small lake lies at the bottom surrounded by Cattails and Rushes. The lake harbors a great deal of waterfowl, both local and migratory and looking to its far edge, I remember a cool spring evening that I spent creeping along the muddy shoreline trying to get a closer look at a snowy egret that seemed to glow against the murky lakewater in the fading light. Zeb was there as well, and we finished up that walk watching the sun set behind the mountains.

The valley which we are descending is surrounded by more tall, stately Ponderosas and would have made an ideal campsite back in those distant, time-fogged years when this was still an open country, and the frontier line was creeping it’s way west. This kind of the forest and meadow environment is common here on the western slope, the fringes of the vast red deserts, of Utah and Arizona. God’s country. Abbey’s Country. My country. In the rabid race to get from desert to mountain these vast (or once vast) forests of sweet-smelling Ponderosa are often overlooked by most tourists and even locals

Colorado boasts some of the largest and most pristine swaths of Wilderness and National Forests in the state, but a careful study of the map will reveal that much of the land that is preserved in the these systems was unusable in the first place, either being too arid in the case of the desert, or too cold in the case of the mountains. The ideal place to live is these pine forests like the one swaying over my head right now.

Unfortunately, this also holds true for much of the wildife in the area that use the Ponderosa for winter refuge. This is observed most readily by driving down highway 550 any winter day and watching the herds of elk wending their way nervously around the sprawling ranch-houses and tightly clustered developments in the Animas River Valley.


Zeb and I walk down the frozen creek bed, deeply gouged into the valley floor, a classic example of overgrazing. Once the willows on the banks of a stream are eaten and/or trampled by cows, even the smallest rivulet can carve a respectable canyon in a few short years. Zeb runs ahead and snuffles wetly in the ooze on the lake shore in hopes of finding something to roll in. He returns somewhat wet, but thankfully not reeking. We continue along the shoreline, Zeb’s tail swishing back and forth like a flag. Grass pokes through the snow crust crunching under my feet, small holes ring each stalk where the sun warming the grass has melted the snow around it until every blade pokes from its own tunnel like a leaf-shaped tube worm. Scrub jays laugh gleefully at me from the branches over my head. There are still a few mullein stalks that have withstood the winter storms and stand stiffly at attention on the edges of lake.

I walk down to the edge of the lake and look over the water, glassy still this morning. There is a muskrat burrow on the far side, in the side of the dam. Muskrats are funny little animals, like miniature beavers, and I recall the last one I saw. It was a couple months ago in Grand Teton, the day was sunny and hot. I was kayaking lazily down the Snake River with a number of my coworkers. The water was crystal clear and you could see sunlight shafting all the way down into the muddy benthos. I glanced to my side as I drifted and spotted the muskrat; it was not moving, just floating along and you could see its leathery little legs hanging limply beneath it. I watched and it stirred as I drew alongside and paddled lazily away. Apparently it was doing just what I was, that is, enjoying another sunny day on the river.

But that time is past and that muskrat is probably fast asleep in its burrow by now, the winter snows have long since crashed over Jackson Hole like a breaking wave; and I am far from there, my adult life temporarily on hold as I drift in the limbo of my childhood home.

I hear a startled squawk and the rush of wings and look through the cattails I can see a cloud of disturbed blackbirds fluttering peevishly from a bunch of reeds from which a waving blue-grey tail protrudes. I call Zeb and he prances proudly over to me. I shake my head and give him a scratch between the ears.

We cross the marsh at the head of the lake and start up a hill on the other side, pausing to look at a cow skeleton so weathered that it has been reduced to a scattering of bone chips. I discovered it several years earlier and have returned to the spot periodically to see what became of the bones in their slow return to the earth.


Zeb and I crest the hill and I look around us. To the south, past the lake, the valley widens and merges with the headwaters of Wildcat Canyon. Cars race wildly down the road, tiny dots on a black ribbon in the distance. The horizon is the steady crest of Basin Mountain. It looks snowy on that northfacing slope but where Zeb and I stand, the sun is beginning to beat down and the morning is losing its chill.

Strangely enough, there is, in fact, a basin below Basin Mountain; it is called Ridges Basin, but will soon become “Lake Nighthorse” which is planned as a drinking water and agricultural reservoir, as well as a recreational mecca of the four corners. Not that it takes much water to excite us folks around these parts; we’ve been known to walk out of our houses and half drown from standing out in the rain, our faces turned skyward in bewilderment.

Ridges Basin was originally a large and unknown swath of prairie with waist high golden grasses covering several square miles. Around the central creek, cattail marshes flourished and were home to many species of waterfowl and migratory birds. It was ranched, for a time, by the Bodo family, one of the oldest in the region, and then donated to the Colorado Division of Wildlife as a refuge. For years, it was forgotten and rarely visited; although I had been there as a child with my family, for a picnic. It was a beautiful window into the region’s past.

As with many forgotten corners of the west, the basin was deemed useless because it was not being used. By us. Soon, after much protest, the ground was broken for “Lake Nighthorse” and the Bureau of Reclamation name of “Animas La Plata Project” was attached. Many cars sported “Stop ALP” bumper stickers for a number of years. Some still do.

I returned to Ridges Basin several years after the start of the project, again with my family, but this time it was to retrieve our horse which had escaped our land through a break in the fence. We located her standing right below the fledgling dam, staring at the monolithic edifice in puzzlement.

I look away from Basin Mountain and try not to think about it.


Zeb and I make our way down the other side of the hill, dormant but still aromatic bitterbrush crunching under my boots. There is more snow on this northern slope and I nearly lose my footing several times. We reach the bottom and walk out into the center of the large valley that leads upward from the tiny lake. There are still rushes around deep holes caused by cattle wallowing in the summer. Much of the edible grasses are still cropped short from the cows of summer, though there is still dried cheatgrass here and there. It was originally named by old timers who observed that the grass took over and out-competed the native grass and matured several months earlier than is typical, soon dying and becoming unpalatable. This “cheated” livestock out of their summer forage, thus the name. It is nearly impossible to get rid of, although burning the area (usually three times), seems to work alright. Sounds like an exorcism.

Another valley comes in from the east, and Zeb and I follow it; me noting more interesting grasses and Zeb snorting in Prairie Dog holes.I look at the ponderosas ringing the valley and drink in the quiet serenity of the clear morning. The mountains glow in the distance, shining and magnificent. I am sure that the eagles are diving for fish in the upper lake, coming to rest in the top of their pale snag on the shore and fluffing out their feathers to dry them in the sun.

There are a few sparse, dry clumps of blue grama grass here and there, their heads curled like huskies’ tails, and a grass so fine that it covers the still frosty ground like a creeping mist. Raised burrows of pocket gophers spiderweb through the meadow, made last winter beneath the snow, they remain like an exposed subway with the city gone.

Zeb and I step back onto the dirt road and continue down the lane, I take off my coat and let the pale winter sunshine warm my back. We are soon swallowed by the forest again and I listen to the sigh of the ponderosas while Zeb trots ahead. We are soon walking down the driveway; looking to my left I can see down the hill and across the canyon to where we had been just an hour before. A crisp wind brings the smell of woodsmoke which I can see curling from the chimney as the house comes into view. I am sure my parents are awake by now and, as I stride up the front steps to join them, I realize that being in limbo is not such a bad place to be. I scratch Zeb’s head and we go inside.


A postscript: Just a few short weeks later, I received a call from Big Bend National Park in south Texas, where I worked the rest of the winter.

-Charlie Kolb, Hesperus, Colorado
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