Spring in the Rockies

Last Thursday, on a gloriously warm day with just a hint of cirrus cloud in the southwestern sky, Richard and I tossed bathing suits, towels, and picnic basket in the car and set out for a soak in our favorite hot springs, followed by a field trip to see the Rocky Mountain population of sandhill cranes, some 20,000 tall, long-necked and long-legged birds who spend a couple of months in the San Luis Valley in late winter, resting, eating and socializing–and calling in their throaty voices–before heading farther north to nest.

The soak, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs in the northern San Luis Valley, was blissful. The pool we prefer, outdoors with a view of the entire north end of the crenelated wall of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, was empty. (I did not take my camera into the springs with me, but there’s a great photo on Joyful Journey’s web site.) The water was 106 degrees, just hot enough to be relaxing, but not so hot that I turned boiled-shrimp-pink. A chorus of migrating red-winged blackbirds, several hundred of them, tuned up with loud “churr-ee!” calls in the cattail marsh and cottonwood trees near the pools.

After our soak, we drove south to Monte Vista, and the marshes of Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, sandhill crane-central at this time of year. As soon as we turned into the gravel tour route through the refuge, we rolled down the windows and opened the moonroof. The rolling, throaty call of hundreds of cranes poured into the car. We grinned at each other. “It’s just as wonderful to hear them as it is to see them,” said Richard.

There’s is a sound that once heard, is not forgotten–a tremulous, wild rhythm that beats like the pulse of life itself. In The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, my book with photographer Glenn Oakley, I described the calls of a flock of a thousand or so grazing cranes:

A solid ribbon of “Khrrrrr, Khrrrrr, Khrrrrr!” rolled over us, a call often described as “bugling,” though it lacks the brassy character of that instrument. It’s a husky and seductive sound, haunting and melodic, especially when issuing from hundreds of throats.

Last Thursday, Richard and I tilted our heads to the sky, and watched sandhill cranes wheel overhead, their wide wings extended to glide upwards on the rising air currents of thermals as they gained altitude. Long necks outstretched and long legs trailing, they soared ever-upward, calling and circling in huge gyres until they reached some layer of air where by a consensus we can’t know, they formed straggling Vs and glided off, still calling. Flock after flock, in some cases a dozen or two cranes, in others, hundreds, circled upward and then glided northwest until they were just dots in the sky, until they were gone.

“They’re headed out,” I said. Richard nodded.

Urged on by the warm day–it was nearly sixty degrees there at Monte Vista–and cues we humans cannot discern, the sandhill cranes were catching favorable winds to move on to the next stop in their spring migration. Near us, cranes grazed in a field, now and then flapping their wings and calling as flock after flock took off, on their way out of the valley. 

Pretty soon we headed on our way too, bound over Poncha Pass for home, sated with soaking and the springtime ritual of the crane migration.

The next morning, we were reminded forcefully that it was still the last day of winter by the calendar when we woke to a blizzard blown in on a wicked southeast wind. The day dawned 28 degrees F, and the temperature dropped steadily from there, falling ever-so-gradually as the snow piled up. (That’s the view from the couch out through the beautiful scuptural arbor Richard created to mark one entrance to our garden.) The metal roof of the house creaked as snow avalanches slid off with solid thuds, and Richard shoveled our block and a half of sidewalk four times, keeping ahead of the heavy, wet blanket of snow.

We watched flock after flock of migrating birds fly past, no doubt trying to find their way out of the blizzard. A hundred or more robins beat by, almost invisible in the blowing snow, then a flock of bluebirds, and finally, a dozen horned larks, denizens of mountain grasslands, landed in our restored prairie front yard and clambered about on the dried stalks of grasses and wildflowers sticking out of the snow, seeking seeds to eat.

Saturday, the first official day of spring, dawned gloriously clear with a bluebird blue sky and a distinctly non-springlike temperature of minus five degrees. A blanket of crisp white covered the visible world from the raised beds of our kitchen garden to the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos in the distance. (Note that those peaks are not visible in the blizzard photo, taken at almost the same angle!)

By mid-day, the sun had begun melting the snow on the roof, the gutters were singing, and the air temperature had risen almost forty degrees. Still nowhere near Thursday’s high of 62, but definitely an improvement.

Sunday was even warmer than Saturday, with the high topping out at 58 degrees. Richard and I took the row cover off the bed containing spring spinach, spicy greens, and lettuce in the
kitchen garden to give the tiny plants some sun. And inside, the tomato and basil seeds I planted last week in flats and set in the sunny patch created by the south-east facing sliding glass door in our bedroom decided that spring had come in earnest and began sprouting.

That’s a yellow pear tomato sprout above (sorry it’s not quite in focus–photographer error!), and a teeny-tiny pesto basil sprout below.

It’ll be a month or so before they’re large enough to go out into the garden, even with the shelter of insulating teepees of walls-o-water. That’s just as well, given the erratic nature of spring weather here at 7,000 feet elevation, oscillating from 62 degrees one afternoon to a blizzard the next, and minus five at dawn one day to a balmy 58 degrees the following mid-day.

It may be spring in the land of brain cancer too. Richard is three days into his second cycle of intensive chemotherapy, and he’s tired, but still feeling well. This despite the massive daily dose of temozolomide, the ondansetron to keep ahead of the nausea from that chemo drug, the acyclovir to keep any viruses at bay, and the sulfamethoxazole-trimeth combination to ward off bacterial infections. (Just writing the drug names makes me feel sick.) He’s eating a diet rich in anti-cancer foods including broccoli, olive oil, turmeric, organic fruit, red wine, and protein high in Omega-3 fatty acids (see Dr. David Servan-Schrieber’s book Anti-Cancer for details–and thank you, Nancy and Dave Mayer, for recommending it!); taking probiotics to support his stomach flora and fauna battered by the chemo drugs and antibiotics; and meditating, doing yoga, and getting aerobic exercise. He looks good. So we’re both feeling cautiously optimistic about his prognosis.

Maybe it’s the sunshine after the blizzard, maybe it’s the lengthening days, maybe it’s the memory of the haunting wave of sound as flock after flock of sandhill cranes took to the air while we watched last week. Maybe it is spring at last. I surely hope so!