“I can’t imagine making that drive over the mountains twice in just a few days,” a friend commented today. “No wonder you’re exhausted.”
“That drive” is the 135-mile commute between our small town in the mountains and the VA Hospital where Richard is treated in Denver. It’s three hours in good weather, and because much of the drive is at high elevations–really high elevations, as in over 9,000 feet above sea level–you can’t count on the weather cooperating.
Our house sits at 7,030 feet above sea level, and three mountain passes rise between it and the city. The first, 9,346-foot-high Trout Creek Pass, forms the divide between our valley and South Park, a wide bowl of high-elevation grasslands that tips upward toward the north. (Yes, the real wind-whipped, lonesome landscape that inspired the hit television show…)
South Park is a gorgeous expanse of open country ringed by higher peaks, home to wildlife large and small including elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, ravens, prairie dogs, and mountain bluebirds in summer and golden eagles in winter. (That’s the view from Trout Creek Pass across the southern half of South Park in the photo above, a vista that never fails to take my breath away.)
In summer, South Park is a gorgeous green expanse of native high-elevation prairie, dotted with wildflowers. (The swaths of hot pink wildflowers in the photo above bear the inglorious common name of alpine lousewort.)
In winter, when the wind blows incessantly, the driving is often treacherous, with whiteouts and black ice. Even then, there’s always something to see on the transect across these high mountain grasslands, whether it’s the sinuous wave-shapes of the snowdrifts, or the stark calligraphy of black raven winging across dazzling white ground.
This last trip, we hit the wild ungulate quadrifecta, spotting all four possible species of large, hoofed grazing wildlife. Our sightings began with herd of 150 or so mule deer grazing in a hayfield at the foot of Trout Creek Pass. The wind was howling across South Park, so while we spotted a coyote, lots of ravens, a ferruginous hawk, and some prairie dogs standing sentinel by their burrows, we weren’t sure we’d see any other species of large wildlife.
Until we passed a herd of about 200 elk, mostly cows, resting in the grasslands near the tiny town of Jefferson in the north edge of South Park. And just beyond them, a handful of pronghorn antelope. (I didn’t get a shot of the latter: the pronghorn photo below is from the previous summer.)
We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for seeing the wild ungulate trifecta (three species: mule deer, elk, and pronghorn) and then after going up and over 10,000-foot-high Kenosha Pass, we spotted a small herd of bighorn sheep nibbling on new green grass right outside the “town” of Grant (a post office/general store, defunct restaurant and a towing service plus about six houses).
That gave us the wild ungulate quadrifecta, a rare experience for the commute. Our delight at seeing all four species of wild grazers carried us up and down the ridges of the Front Range, past increasing numbers of houses dotting the forests, down one of the many canyons that lead out of the Rockies and onto the Plains, and across the city.
This commute to the hospital is a long one, and the drive can indeed be exhausting. But the grace notes along the way–whether elk and ravens, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, mule deer and indian paintbrush, or the sky-blue flash of a male mountain bluebird like the one perched on the speed limit sign in the photo below–never fail to remind Richard and I to slow down and appreciate the moment.
That’s a welcome gift, wherever life, and the road ahead, may take us.
On the brain cancer front, the steroids have reduced the swelling in Richard’s right brain enough that he’s practicing his juggling again. He naps a lot, but when he’s up, he’s clear-headed and feeling good. On we go…