Wandering but not lost

“All who wander are not lost.”

That familiar bumper-sticker sentiment fits particularly well right now, as I write from the snug confines of Tortuguita, my “little turtle” teardrop trailer, parked next to the staff lodging at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming, where I am working for the second summer in a row.

Ring Lake Ranch is an extraordinary place, tucked in the deep, glacially carved valley of Torrey Creek at 7,500 feet, bordering Ring and Trail lakes, bounded by the public land of the Shoshone National Forest (where I worked as a young field ecologist, mapping the plant communities). It’s a spiritual retreat center run like a rustic guest ranch, with educational and inspirational seminars, wonderful food, fly fishing, riding, and hiking. (I work as the housekeeping coordinator and hike leader.)

The view across Trail Lake into the heart of the Wind River Range from near where Tortuguita is parked.

The ranch is special to me personally: I drove up the long dirt road to the ranch in late August of 2019 to teach the final seminar before the ranch closed for the season, knowing almost nothing about the place, and was immediately adopted by a gentlemanly, white muzzled, stub-tailed bird dog who craftily introduced me to his person, The Guy. My life changed for the good in that instant.

Dawn creeps down the canyon walls toward the ranch.

The Ranch offers, as its website says, “renewal in sacred wilderness.” And lives up to that, though not without challenges.

This year, the staff gathered on a beautifully warm, sunny week to open up and clean buildings not used (except by pack rats and mice) since Labor Day last year. We renewed old friendships and began new ones, settled into our living spaces and worked long days readying cabins for the volunteers who arrive every year to help us with big projects before the ranch opens for the summer.

All was going well until…. it snowed. The first time.

Spring in the Rockies is notoriously fickle.

Then the crew of volunteers charged with assembling the yurts for additional staff housing (one yurt has my name on it) discovered that the yurt kits had been shipped without the several hundred pounds of steel brackets that hold the timber frames together. The yurt manufacturer promised to send a tech out with the steel the following week to help erect them. So the crew pivoted to other projects, of which there are many.

And then a volunteer tested positive for COVID. Believe everything you have heard about how contagious this variant is: By the end of the week, despite masking and vaxxing and boostedness, we had ten staff and volunteers who tested positive with COVID, including me. (Two more have tested positive since.) I moved out of the staff apartment where I was bunking until my yurt is finished, and into Tortuguita, which is tiny but quite cozy if you don’t have a summer’s worth of gear to store, which I do.

The first batch of guests arrived on Sunday afternoon, along with the second, more serious snowstorm. It snowed all night Sunday night and part of Monday morning, and then turned to steady rain. We need the moisture, but…. The mud gets tracked everywhere, and I can attest that it’s not easy to be sick in a trailer where the bathroom is a dash through the snow away. I was fiercely feverish for two days, but now I am on the mend. Weak, but improving.

A big change from the photo at the top of the post!

Getting the ranch open for the summer has been rocky, but no one has shot anyone, and we’re not being bombed. Our challenges pale against the news of the world, especially of the two most horrifying mass shootings, first the racist massacre at the supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and more recently, the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.

I’ve asked myself what I can do to counteract the killing. And my honest answer is just this: Be a light in the darkness. Stand up against hatred, and do my best to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and love. Those every day actions may seem inconsequential. But they matter. A lot.

As I wrote in “Picking Up Roadkill,” an essay that has been included in several anthologies:

“A civilized society is created as much by our private, every-day acts as it is by the laws we pass and the contracts we sign. Our personal behavior sets the model for what we expect of others.”

It feels like humanity is wandering and quite lost, but there is something each of us can do: Be the best humans we can be. Live with love in our every days, in our every interaction. Our own behavior contributes to turning the tide of gun violence, war, climate change, racism, and all manner of other ills.

Be a light in the darkness. Be the model for the world you want to see. Be fierce in defense of the world we all love. Your individual actions matter.

Tortuguita with her canopy out before the snowstorm.

Blessings to you all from my COVID-isolation pod high in the Torrey Creek drainage of the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

The Power of Each of Us

I’m back in Salida after four days and 1,077 miles on the road, this time driving to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to help celebrate the life of Ann Palormo, a dear friend who died suddenly in early November. (That’s Ann on the right in the photo above, eating pizza just baked in her neighbors’–the Teich family’s–new horno, outdoor oven.)

I wouldn’t have undertaken that drive in such a short time, especially after returning from my writing fellowship less than two weeks ago, and being in the maelstrom of details of buying and sell preparing for a move that is (gulp!) now just five weeks away. But Ann’s daughters, Cynthia and Melissa, asked if I would speak at the celebration, and Ann was one of those people who gave so much to the community and to me, that I couldn’t say no. 

I met Ann, then Development Director of KRWG-FM, public radio, not long after Richard, Molly and I moved to Las Cruces in the summer of 1990.  

Richard and Molly on an evening walk on the irrigation ditch bank near Mesilla, where we first lived outside Las Cruces.

That fall, I followed a longtime dream and proposed writing and reading a weekly five-minute commentary on nature for KRWG. After then-music-director Tom Huizenga (now a music producer and reporter for NPR in DC) decided I was educable, my show, WILDLIVES, went on air. Ann almost immediately recruited me to volunteer to staff the phone bank for the fall pledge drive. 

I’m an introvert. My idea of hell is to spend hours at a time in a noisy room talking on the phone with crowd of people around me cheering and shouting each time someone calls in with a pledge. Yet there I was, doing my part with enthusiasm. 

Because Ann convinced me not only to agree, but to give my best to the effort. 

That’s how she was. Ann was smart, thoughtful, passionate about contributing to the community, and extremely persuasive. It’s not that she had a glib tongue, she simply couldn’t hear the word “no.” She waited until your response turned not just to “yes,” but an enthusiastic yes. 

Ann worked as a fundraiser and community-builder for New Mexico State University for 26 years, first for the radio station and then for the university Development Office. Outside of work, Ann brought her passion and talents to a wide array of community organizations from the American Association of University Women to El Caldito Soup Kitchen, and from the Habitat for Humanity and Girl Scouts to the Renaissance Fair and Master Gardener Program. 

She was a connector, someone who had a genius for linking people and what they had to offer to the causes that could use those skills and resources. And having fun while doing it. She gave her own time and resources too, volunteering for and donating to many more community organizations than I can remember. 

As I said in my comments at the celebration, what made Ann so inspiring, and the reason all of us were so willing to contribute to the causes she was passionate about, was her belief in the power of individuals to make a positive difference. Ann knew that politicians come and go, and the national pulse tends to swing from extreme to extreme; what’s important in the long term is what each of us do in our daily lives.

She lived her belief that our individual, grassroots contributions matter because they form the “common” ground in the word community. She believed we each had something contribute; her role was to nudge us to make good on our contributions, to work together to build a healthy community.

As I made the long drive north again, I resolved that I would honor Ann’s life by being the person she believed we each could be: someone who will work in her own way to make the world a better place. It takes each of us, working together, to grow a kinder, more compassionate world.

We each have something this world needs. There’s no better time than now to find our cause and be the people Ann knew we could be: committed, caring, funny, and passionate about working for good. 

Thanks for believing in us, Ann. 

(Click on the photo to, as printmaker Sherrie York says, “embiggen” it and read the message on the billboard I see whenever I drive south to New Mexico. That’s my cause: restoring this earth and in the doing, we humans too.)