Traveling through Spring

No, I haven’t fallen off the edge of the Earth, but my link to the digital world has been frayed. Our connection with the internet been more “off” than “on” for the past few days. Being disconnected reminds me of how much I’ve come to value the communities we form in cyberspace, and how connection and community–whether virtual or real–sustain us, wherever we are.

The road trip that Richard and I returned from earlier this week gave us a wonderful dose of community–both human and wild. It began last Thursday, when we set out over the mountains on the first leg of our trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I was opening speaker at the Wyoming Master Gardeners Conference. We drove as far as Boulder that night and had dinner with a dear friend (thanks, Vince!) at the Boulder Dushnabe Teahouse, a gorgeous place that commemorates Boulder’s sister city, the capital of Tajikistan in central Asia. If you’re ever in Boulder and want a lovely meal using local foods in pan-Asian recipes, or just a spot of tea or glass of wine, visit the teahouse, a gift from the sister city and its Tajik artisans.

The next morning, after a lovely quiet time spent writing and reading at BookEnd cafe in Boulder Bookstore on the flower-filled Pearl Street Mall (that’s the tulip beds in front of the cafe above), we headed north, stopping briefly in Windsor to trade a six-pack of my tomato plants, grown from seeds by Rene’s Garden Seeds, for two pots of daylilies bred by a gardener and fiber artist friend. (Thank you, Cathy and Mike for the daylilies, the garden tour, and the directions that took us by the ponds with pelicans and avocets!) After Windsor, we zipped west to Fort Collins to deliver more home-grown tomato plants to publisher, editor, writer, and fiber person-extraordinaire, Deb Robson. Despite our hurry–my talk was scheduled for after lunch that same day–both stops reminded me as Richard drove us north over the high plains in howling spring winds of how fortunate we are to have such a warm and sheltering community of friends.

Wind aside–and quite a wind it was!–the Laramie County Master Gardeners put on an excellent conference, with speakers including Shane Smith, Director and founder of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and its pioneering therapeutic gardening program, entomologist and bug author Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University, plant historian John Freeman, and Roger Swain, author, former science editor at Horticulture Magazine, host of PBS’s “The Victory Garden” for 15 years, and all around brilliant and funny guy. My assessment of Roger is not swayed one bit by the enormous compliment he paid me in his keynote speech when he declared that my memoir, Walking Nature Home, is the best book he’s read recently. (That’s me and “the man with the red suspenders” below. Bless you, Roger!)

By the time Richard and I headed west out of Cheyenne on Sunday, I was worn out, but felt warmly welcomed by the community of Wyoming gardeners. As we headed over the Laramie Range for Laramie, where we met 27 years ago in graduate school, I thought about the community of the land too, and how much it has changed since Richard and I lived
there. Heading out of Cheyenne, one of the most obvious changes is the
gleaming white towers and blades of the huge wind turbines. (Did I mention the wind in Cheyenne? It’s
impressive in its constancy and strength.)

Some of the turbines are visible in the background of the photo above poking over the distant ridge, but what interested me most were the light dots you can see in the middle ground–pronghorn antelope grazing on the new green grasses of the high plains. Pronghorn are notoriously skittish about the lights and noise of development, going out of their way to avoid oil and gas drilling rigs and wells, for instance, but they seemed undisturbed by the wind turbines in the distance.

From Laramie, we continued west into the wind and snow-squalls to Saratoga, Wyoming, site of our favorite hot springs and our first and only date way back when. The sagebrush plains of southern Wyoming are wildlife heaven in spring, especially when they’re splotched and splashed with snow melt water. In a bit over a hundred miles, we saw at least 300 pronghorn in small groups here and there. We also saw mule deer, a marmot or two, a few coyotes, countless ducks, geese, phaleropes and avocets; white pelicans and meadowlarks and horned larks; Swainson’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, harriers, kestrels, osprey, and bald eagles… Not everyone appreciates the sprawling openness of southern Wyoming’s sagebrush country, but to my eye it is a beautiful wild community, especially when the sagebrush and grass are greening up and the ephermeral ponds brim with water and wildlife.

After our soak in the steaming hot pool at Mineral Hot Springs at Saratoga, right on the banks of the North Platte River, we were so relaxed that we practically slithered back into the car. We inhaled the picnic lunch I prepared as Richard drove us south up the North Platte River Valley toward Colorado on a route we’ve taken many times over the decades we’ve journeyed together.

In North Park, we turned aside at Lake John, west of Walden, Colorado, to see if the nesting colony of white pelicans had returned from its winter haunt in northern Mexico. Snow still etched the surrounding hillsides, and the peaks of the Park Range in the distance were crisp white with a fresh blanket from the latest storm, but the pelicans were indeed back, and fishing avidly, as the one with the open orange beak in the photo above shows. The white-faced ibises were back too, and the ducks–lesser scaup, redhead, mallards, wigeon, and coot–and horned and western grebes… What a splashing abundance of life!

From North Park and its vibrant community of waterfowl and willows turning blush red and chartreuse with spring sap, we climbed up and over snowy Rabbit Ears Pass, and then headed south up the Yampa River in rain and snow showers, over another divide and down to the Colorado River at lonely State Bridge, and then up and over yet another snowy divide and down to Interstate 70 at Wolcott Junction. From there we headed up the Eagle River Valley into the snow at Vail, where we spent the night. In the pause between ski season and summer tourism, the resort town was almost deserted, a community eerily empty.

The next morning we wandered the still-snowy terraces and nooks of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, admiring the design of the paths, rock work, structures like the bridge above with its twig panels, and plantings. The garden’s a beautiful place, even under snow, and there were a few early flowers blooming in warm spots between south-facing rocks, like the tiny Bulgarian saxifrage below, a cushion plant with fingernail-sized flowers, that is native to the mountains of eastern Europe.

By the time we headed west again on Interstate 70, and then south up the Eagle River to Tennessee Pass, the divide with our very own watershed, and then down the Upper Arkansas River Valley, we were sated with sights and sounds and smells and ideas. We made it home in time to water our kitchen garden, parched by several windy days, evaluate the damage from three nights of hard frost (so much for the early asparagus stalks and the broccoli sprouts), unpack, and go to bed.

When we woke in the soft light before dawn the next morning, we looked out the sliding glass door of our bedroom and saw the first blossoms of whitestem evening primrose, an annual wildflower that wanders our yard from year to year, its seeds spread by harvester ants. The flowers open in the evening like big white saucers, aiming to attract night-flying sphinx moths to sip the nectar they offer and in the doing bring pollen from other whitestem evening primrose plants to fertilize the blossoms. By mid-day the next day, the night’s flowers have crumpled like sodden tissues, their chance at reproduction over. But when we saw them at dawn, the blossoms were still full and pearly as the light. What a beautiful welcome home from the community of our reclaimed industrial property!

Last, some good news:

Walking Nature Home is a finalist for the Colorado Authors League Awards! The awards are presented at CAL’s annual banquet May 11th, so keep your fingers crossed for this book of my heart.

Also, it’s almost time for “Wade in the Water,” Colorado Art Ranch‘s next artposium, on May 21-23, a weekend of ideas, inspiration, workshops and talks by artists, writers, scientists, and others. “Wade in the Water” features author Craig Childs, Colorado Supreme Court Justice and water poet Greg Hobbs, and environmental artist Basia Irland, along with a host of workshop presenters, including artist and journaller Sherrie York–and me. The artposium takes place right here in Salida, at the SteamPlant Theatre and Conference Center right on the banks of the Arkansas River, in collaboration with Salida’s Art Works. Join us!