Navigating in the Fog

Sometimes life is like the drive I took recently on my way home from Santa Fe to Cody. It's 775 miles from place to place, and no, I don't make the whole drive in one day. I left Santa Fe on one of those glorious late fall days in the high desert of northern New Mexico, with warm sun melting the night's frost off the silvered leaves of the rabbitbrush and big sagebrush, and the piñon pine and juniper needles crisp against blue sky. 

Dawn warms up the arroyo I often walk near where I stay in Santa Fe. 

The weather gods were kind as Red carried me north through northern New Mexico, up the wide expanse of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (Colorado's wildest and most magical desert region, and one I wrote a book about with photographer Glenn Oakley), and then on north up the Arkansas River Valley where Richard and I lived for so long.

Even 11,000+ foot high Fremont Pass wasn't bad, considering the time of year. (Okay, it was snowing, but the pavement was partly clear.) From there on, we had smooth sailing until Rawlins, Wyoming, where the wind began to howl from the west in great walloping gusts.

Still, the roads were clear, so I got cocky, thinking I'd get all the way home without hitting really bad conditions. Red and I tacked sideways to the wind across the Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits in two, following the ridges that surround this in-draining bowl of salt-crusted desert. If the gusts were a mite strong, I thought nothing of it, even when we turned west directly into those galloping waves of air.

The sun was shining, I told myself, and the roads were clear. And we were four hours from home. What could go wrong?

When Red and I dropped over Beaver Rim into the Wind River Basin, the wind quit just as abruptly as if switched up. The air was still as glass. As we headed downhill into Riverton, the temperature dropped too, from the low 40s into the teens. Hoarfrost coated every surface, sparkling in the sunshine.

I'd like to say I had the first uh-oh thought then, but I didn't. I was tired and eager to make it home before dark, so I kept Red going, her tires humming as the miles sped past. I didn't read the weather-signs until we crossed the frozen, snow-covered expanse of Boysen Reservoir, about two and a half hours from home. I looked north toward the low ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains and the v-shaped gap of the Wind River Canyon, where we were headed. 

Boysen Reservoir

A gray layer of cloud hung along the lower edge of the Owl Creeks, muffling the canyon itself. Uh oh. 

Red and I turned north at Shoshoni, and soon drove under that cloud. Within a few minutes, the sun's warmth vanished, ice crystals formed on Red's antenna, and even with the heater blasting, cold seeped into the cab. 

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

A few miles later, the cloud–which I now realized was ice fog–closed in around us and visibility dropped to half a mile (the photo at the top of the post), and then only a few car lengths. (I quit shooting photos then.)

I slowed Red and crept on, hoping no one came up suddenly behind us, or wandered into our lane from the other direction. Ten slow and icy but mercifully accident-free miles later, the fog began to lift, and we approached the winding canyon. 

The winding canyon lies ahead, but at least I can see…

The black ice lessened, and I began to think things might improve. Through two dark and icicle-hung tunnels carved in the ancient rock at the core of the range, Red and I emerged. And voilá!


I could see blue sky ahead. Around the next bend, the fog and ice cleared away entirely. 

By the time Red and I wound our way out of the canyon and crossed the Bighorn River, the sun had warmed the truck cab and we were whizzing along again. 

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us… 

From there on in, it really was smooth sailing, and I pulled Red into the driveway just as dusk deepened to darkness, having avoided hitting several hundred mule deer and a larger number of pronghorn on the last segment of the drive. 

My life right now feels very much like I'm still creeping along in that ice fog, hoping it lifts soon and I will see sun and blue sky ahead. (And be able to see the road I'm on!) The fog is partly the events in our country (although the mid-term elections brought a glimmer of smoother sailing ahead) and around the world, where climate change is now enough of an in-your-face catastrophe for humans and other species alike that perhaps we'll take it seriously. 

The fog is also personal. Back in late summer when I finally finished the house and put it on the market, I got cocky and felt like the road ahead was clear: the house would sell quickly, I would pack up and hit the road in my tiny, energy-efficient motorhome, and winter in a warmer climate. Then Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my path turned to helping care for him, sorting out his legal and financial affairs, and serving as his personal representative to implement his will after he died.

My time at The Mesa Refuge earlier this month came as a real blessing. Those days with no charge but to write reminded me that no matter what is swirling around me, I have things to say that need to be said now. (Special thanks to my Mesa suite-mate, Syrian-American writer and human rights lawyer Alia Malek, for her thoughts and questions clarifying my thoughts.)

And now, here I am back in Cody and in the fog again. It snowed today. My house hasn't sold, and I am still working on implementing Dad's will. I am also writing. 

I think I can see a blue cast to my personal ice fog, as if it will clear. Or at least lift a bit. What is clear is that I am moving south to Santa Fe in a few weeks to get out of Wyoming's winter before it impacts my health again. I'll return this glorious sagebrush country come spring, and in the meantime, I hope someone buys this beautiful house. It's ready for someone new to love it, and I'm ready to let it go.

And I by then I will have a new book well under way, one about plants and gardens and climate change. So each day I write my way onward into the fog, in the faith that I am going where I need to go, clear roads or not. 

Family and Windshield Time

I didn't blog last weekend because I was in western Washington with my family. It's so rare that the whole Tweit clan can gather (only Molly was missing) that I wanted to soak up every moment. Even my middle niece, Sienna, and her husband and kids were there from Germany, where Matt is on detail with the Army Corps of Engineers. I haven't seen them in three years! 

I left on Friday morning and intended to be leisurely about the 14-hour drive, stopping in Coeur D'Alene, in Idaho's Panhandle, for the night. Only when I got to Coeur D'Alene, it was only five o'clock and the temperature was 97 degrees. Not ideal weather for sleeping in my truck. I pressed on to Spokane (98 degrees) and continued west across eastern Washington in heat that just didn't let up. So I just kept driving. 

By the time bug-splattered Red and I crossed the Columbia River upstream of Yakima it was nine o'clock, 95 degrees, and the sun was close to setting. I calculated through a gritty brain (I had been driving for 12 hours by then) that I had about two and a half hours to go if the traffic in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor wasn't too horrible. 

I texted my brother and Lucy, his wife, that I was aiming for a late arrival. "So if you see Red in the driveway tomorrow morning, don't wake me up!"

They texted back that they couldn't wait to see me. "But drive carefully!"

I made it to their house on Tumwater Hill at a few minutes after eleven. They were still up, so I got to sleep inside in a real bed, always a plus. 

The next day was a mellow morning, and then we all–Bill, Lucy, their youngest, Alice, and I–headed out to Ocean Shores for the weekend, where most of the rest of the clan joined us. (Dad and my eldest niece's husband, Duane, couldn't join us there.) We feasted on fresh Dungeness crab that night (I was too busy cracking legs and eating the succulent meat to shoot a photo), and ate at a seafood shack that Heather and Duane had discovered on an earlier trip. (Great choice, Heath!)

Some of the clan around the big table at the seafood shack (I couldn't fit everyone in the photo!). Left to right, my youngest niece Alice, who is channeling her uncle Richard and studying economics; my brother Bill; my sister-in-law Lucy; Sienna and Matt; Colin, middle son of Heather (who is sitting next to me and not in the photo); and Fiona, Sienna and Matt's eldest. (Not in the photo: Porter, Sienna and Matt's youngest; Liam, Heather's youngest; and Heather.)

In between meals there was beach-time (Porter and Colin even braved the cold waves, agile and fearless as seals), explore-the-nearby-playground time, put-together-ridiculously-hard-puzzle time (my great-niece, Fiona is the artistic one and a puzzle champ), and just hang-out time. 

On the Fourth, half of us went to a lunchtime picnic at Panorama Dad's retirement village, and then we all gathered at Heather and Duane's gorgeous new house on Lake Tapps, outside Sumner, for a barbecue and fireworks. (Where I had such a great time I also forgot to shoot any photos.)

At the Panorama picnic: Sienna on the left, Matt next to her with Fiona in front, Bill with Porter in front of him, Lucy peeking over Dad's shoulder, and Dad showing off the walker he is using at 88 to help straighten up his spine (he's pretty stooped, but he'll be 89 in two weeks, so he's not doing badly). 

By the time I set out for the long drive home the next morning, I was feeling full of family and love, and ready for some quiet windshield time.

I'm an INFJ-A if you know the Myers-Briggs system of personality types. (If you don't, you might find the test and descriptions of personality types at Sixteen Personalities illuminating.) The 'I' stands for introvert. I'm not an extreme introvert, but I do need a lot of quiet thinking and digesting time. 

So instead of retracing the 14-hour route on Interstate 90 I took on the way to Washington, I took a longer route home. I dropped south to Portland, Oregon, on I-5, and then east through the Columbia River Gorge on I-84, over the Blue Mountains, and south and east through Boise, across southern Idaho, and then north along the back side of the Teton Range, and home through "The Park," as we refer to Yellowstone here where the nation's first national park is our backyard. 

Mt. Hood in the distance over the Columbia River as I headed south to I-84 and the Gorge. 

That's a drive of about 1,300 miles, instead of the just-under a thousand miles on the westward leg. Not a distance I could do in a day. 

Going the longer route gave me more windshield time for thinking, and also meant I got to travel a loop, rather than out and back. I like seeing the West's open landscapes, the more variety the better. 

It took me two full days of driving, and I spent the hottest night I've camped in Red's topper in a Walmart parking lot in Mountain View, Idaho, where the temperature at sunset was 97 degrees F, down from 100. (I was just too tired to drive on, and once the air cooled down, I slept pretty well.)

Still, it was a lovely time. I'm a reader of landscapes, parsing geology and landform, asking myself why these particular plants grow here but not there, or these plants are absent, pondering the human pattern of occupation, both historic and present day. I observe and think about what my observations mean, what the landscape and its patterns have to say to us. There is a lot to look at between Tumwater and Cody, and thinking about all I saw kept me pretty occupied. 

Driving into the Columbia River Gorge on the west end… 

And driving out on the east end. What's different about these two ends of the Gorge? And what explains that difference? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself in reading landscapes. (Leave a comment at the bottom of the post if you guess the answer!)

I also spent time on my daily gratitudes, which include being grateful for these mostly wild and open landscapes and the many ways they inspire me. And being grateful for the time with my family, as well as for being able to come home to the place that is the home of my heart: Northwest Wyoming.

I thought about Richard, because he was always up for a road trip, and because he would have loved this family gathering (we talked about him over the weekend–my family misses him the way I do, like an ache in a limb you no longer have). And because part of my route home was on our Big Trip, the 29-year-late honeymoon drive we took two months before he died. 

Richard greets the redwood forest on The Big Trip (September, 2011)

And I thought about the question that preoccupies me this year more than other because I will turn 61 this fall, the age Richard was when he died: Who am I in this post-Richard life? 

It's a question that's been on my mind ever since November 27th, 2011, when I looked out at the slender silver sliver of new moon cupping Venus in the western sky and he was no longer there to share that sight. 

For the first three years after he died, I focused on digging myself out of the financial hole that brain cancer and losing him left me in. With the help of family and friends (special thanks to Andrew Cabe, Grand Pound, and Maggie and Tony Niemann), I finished and sold Terraphilia, the big house he built for us but never quite got around to finishing, and his historic studio building, which he began renovating but didn't finish either. (There was always an interesting sculpture challenge to solve first…)

Then I was focused getting my little house built, and on returning to freelance writing, along with writing the first half-dozen drafts of Bless the Birds, the memoir about learning to love the end of life that I still haven't finished. (I has taken a lot longer to get the story right than I imagined.)

And now, I'm home in Cody and realizing again how much of who I became over those almost 29 years together was because I was half of "us," "Richard 'n Susan," a pair so close we often finished each other's sentences, a pair mated for life. 

Richard 'n Susan, in the landscape he loved so much, and I loved because it was a home we could agree on, the Upper Arkansas River Valley in southern Colorado.

Without the other half of that pair, who am I? 

That is what I am working on finding out.

I know that I am most at home here in the sagebrush country on the east edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That plants are my "people." That my mission in life is restoring and celebrating this earth and its vibrant web of lives, plant by plant and word by word. And that love is perhaps my greatest strength. (Earning a living clearly is not! Still haven't figured that one out.)

That's a lot, don't you think? 

But it's not everything. I'm still discovering parts of me I had forgotten for decades. This figuring out who I am as Woman Alone, the "just me" me, is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting quest. 

I am very grateful to be home to do it. And to have such a warm and welcoming home to return to. Seeing this house come back to life is so heart-filling. Maybe that's what I'm doing too: Coming back to life. As just me. Whoever she is. 

My bedroom with new windows (same style as the old, just tight, thermally efficient, and the glass is so clear!), a new floor, and new paint. It's the first room in the house to be finished… 

Road Report: 4,680 miles later…

I'm pretty sure that Red sighed with relief when I backed her into the garage late Thursday afternoon, home again after going 4,680 miles in the previous three weeks. (And five of those days we didn't drive anywhere. That's an average of 275 miles per driving day, which doesn't sound too bad until you add it all up!) 

The last leg of the trip, US 285 southwest from Denver to the Upper Arkansas Valley, was the slowest. It's mostly two-lane road, and the leaf-peepers were out in force because the aspen colors were at their height, as in the photo above, which I shot as we cruised (slowly) over Kenosha Pass, at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.

I didn't mind the slow folks, but some drivers did, and hip-hopped their way up the long lines of cars and trucks, passing in dangerous spots. I'd rather be patient and get there alive, thank you very much. Besides, it's easier to shoot good photos of the gold and orange mountainsides when you're going slower… 

I've said that windshield time is fruitful thinking time for me. So what did I learn in all those miles and hours on the road?

That I love the inland West and its rumpled, lava-covered, faulted, eroded, folded, and up-tilted landscapes; its spare and wild and wide spaces.

Split Rock Historic Site, near Jeffrey City, Wyoming

And that I love them best in autumn, when the leaves are turning brilliant colors: the scarlet fire of bigtooth maples in Utah's Wasatch Front, the quaking aspen turning whole mountainsides gold and orange, the river-side boxelders and their lemon-yellow leaves. And the shrubs: smooth currant in blaze-orange, brighter than any hunter's vest; burgundy chokecherry, Woods' rose ranging from russet to rust; crimson red-twig dogwood, and lemon dogbane. 

Scarlet groves of bigtooth maple on the mountainsides above Spanish Fork, Utah

The landscapes, the colors, the people I worked with, the time with my family; even the houndstongue and knapweed I dug out by the roots in Yellowstone on my 60th birthday reminded me of why I write, and why I work with plants. I love these landscapes, and I not only want to show others their mysteries and magic; I want to leave the places I touch in better shape than I found them. 

My work in life is to weave we humans back into the fabric of this living world in a way that we can be useful planetary citizens, that we can feel like we belong here. My work is also to restore that living fabric of nature wherever I can. I use those metaphors of fabric deliberately, because I think of this earth as a global tapestry in the sense that we're all connected, all part of a living, breathing, pulsing web, an organic network that makes this planet the luminous place it is. 

I came home to my front meadow in glorious bloom, and the flowers crowning the rabbitbrush here in the valley echoing the lush gold of the aspen blanketing the mountainsides.

Part of my front meadow–the gears are industrial relics Richard planned to use in sculptures

To tomato, cucumber and squash plants that needed harvesting and cutting back; a flood of emails and messages to respond to, and deadlines for workshops and webinars and writing. 

And to the feel of change in the air: the change that is autumn, the time we harvest summer's fruits of all sorts and prepare for the coming winter; and also the changes I sense in my life path. I can't articulate those yet, but I know they are ahead. 

This morning I woke to frost on the deck and crisp 30-degree-F air. The peaks were dusted with snow from the previous night's storm, and the aspen were brilliant against that white lace. 

I spent the first half of the day doing fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park and habitat garden I designed and helped create for the City of Salida 16 years ago, and the second half of the day working in my own yard. The time in the company of plants and people who take joy from these sun-powered beings soothed me and settled my spirit. 

I feel ready for whatever is ahead, whatever lies beyond the bend in my life-path I cannot quite see now. And I am conscious of one other gift of all of those road-miles: I am happy to be right here, right now.

Blessings to you all!

Road Report: Red, the “micro-RV”

Red and I left home almost a week ago, headed some 1,500 miles to our eventual destination, my brother and sister-in-law's house in Olympia, Washington. I gave myself four days for the trip, including two nights with friends Julie Weston and Garry Morrison in Hailey. 

Our first night out was an experiment in free camping: at Price, I pulled Red into the parking lot of the Walmart, and headed for a small collection of motorhomes and trailers at the far corner of the lot. Actually, I parked near the smallest, and then called to the couple sitting in folding chairs by the trailer, "I figured the small motorhome section was the right place for my micro-RV." They laughed and waved. 

I stretched my legs by walking across the lot to the store and buying some chocolate chip cookies milk for dessert with my dinner-on-the-road. When I finished eating, my neighbors were still sitting out and watching the last of the colors in the sunset, so I walked over and offered to share my cookies.

They happily accepted and as we chatted, I learned they were headed by slow stages from Wenatchee, Washington, to Alabama, to visit family. They asked where I was headed, and about Red, my "micro-RV." 

My "nest" in Red

After our cookie course, I headed for my cozy nest in Red, and they headed into their trailer. I slept well, woke early, and spent time writing in my journal while snuggled in my sleeping bag before climbing out to cook my tailgate breakfast (oatmeal) on my little JetBoil stove.

I ate as the sun crept its way across the valley toward Price, and was on the road, aimed for Spanish Fork, Utah, followed by the congested I-15 corridor through Salt Lake City and then on north to where I-84 takes off northwest into southern Idaho. 

My destination that night: Hailey, Idaho, and the home of friends Julie Weston and Gerry Morrison, where I would spend the next two nights. My time there was a lovely respite: we talked writing (Julie) and photography (Gerry), and they took me up Mt. Baldy at the Sun Valley ski area, where they are both fearless black-diamond-run skiers in winter. 

Gerry shooting a photo of Julie atop Mt. Baldy

We ate lunch halfway down the mountain and explored the historic Sun Valley lodge and surroundings. Back at their house, I spent some time removing in invasive musk thistle and mullein from the draw below their house in thanks for their hospitality. 

That evening, Gerry and Julie treated me to an excellent local-food dinner at CK's in Hailey, which lived up to its reputation as the best restaurant in the valley. After dinner, I read to them from the latest revision of Bless the Birds, explaining my editing decisions to give Julie some ideas for her own memoir. 

Dawn over the Indian Creek Valley outside Hailey, Idaho

The next morning, I said goodbye to Julie and Gerry, and Red and I hit the road again, bound for Hermiston, Oregon, and another WalMart parking lot. As Red hummed west on US 20, aimed for I-84 and on northwest, I realized that it was five years ago, almost to the day, when Richard and I headed for the West Coast on The Big Trip, our last long road-trip together. 

Five years. And here I was, driving almost the identical route. In Red, the truck that Richard never knew, in the life I never imagined–without him.  

As I drove down the Boise River Valley, across the wide and powerful Snake River at the Idaho-Oregon border, climbed the steep, sagebrush- and grass-clothed hills of far eastern Oregon, continued up and up into the wide intermountain valleys, and then wound over the Blue Mountains with their summer-green larch trees spearing through the darker coniferous forest, and thought down into the high plateaus above the Columbia River, I thought about those decades with the love of my life, and the path I've taken now that I'm solo. 

Saturday morning I woke early in Hermiston, and hit the road for the end of this leg of my journey. I headed first to Lakewood, south of Tacoma in western Washington, to meet Molly's bus from the airport, and then south on traffic-clogged I-5 to Olympia, where we've spent the weekend with my family. 

Molly Cabe, Alice Tweit, me

Sunday morning, Molly and I went for a run with Alice, my youngest niece. I kept up with the two of them for 4.2 miles, and our reward was my sister-in-law's fresh-baked popovers when we got back–thank you, Lucy!

And as Molly, who just walked by and put a kiss on the top of my head, said, "and then we ate for 24 hours straight." That's about it. The Tweit clan in gathered yesterday evening for dinner (we're missing Sienna and Matt Bryant, my middle niece and her husband, and their two kids, Fiona and Porter, who are living in Germany now).

Cousins: Molly; my eldest niece, Heather Roland; and her youngest sister, Alice (we miss you, Sienna!)

We ate, we laughed, we talked politics and travel and birds and kids; then this morning we hung out and ate some more (Bill's blueberry coffeecake this morning, followed by Lucy and Alice's gazpacho for lunch with Alice's fabulous kohlrabi-apple-mint coleslaw). 

I helped Bill weed the garden and pick tomatoes and green beans for dinner, and harvest rhubarb for tonight's crisp. Tomorrow morning, Red and I hit the road again, first to take Molly to the airport bus, and then on the long drive east for the next leg of the road trip. 

But for now, I'm sitting at the dining table in the midst of family. The house smells like pizza crust as Lucy prepares dinner; Alice is on the couch resting and Molly just came downstairs to toss crust. Bill is off fetching Dad to join us for dinner, and life is very sweet. 

Windshield Time: Hitting the Road Again

This Tuesday afternoon, Red and I will head west on US Highway 50, bound for Olympia, Washington, for a family gathering over Labor Day weekend. It’s a 1,450-mile-drive on the route I’m taking, and I don’t like to drive more than 6 hours in a day, so it’ll take me a few days. 

Along the way, I’m stopping to visit a former writing student, Julie Weston, and her photographer husband Gerry Morrison in Hailey, Idaho. (If you’ve not read Julie’s absorbing new mystery series, here’s my review of the first book, Moonshadows. The second book, Basque Moon, was just published and got great pre-reviews.)

Saturday noon, I’ll pick Molly up after she flies into SeaTac airport from San Francisco and we’ll share the drive to Olympia together, always a treat. I’m fortunate: she likes to hang out with me, and I her; and like me, she loves a good road-trip.

Me and Molly on a road-trip in southern New Mexico in February

After the extended weekend with the extended Tweit clan, I’ll take Molly back to the airport and then set off to my next stop, The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in northwest Colorado, where I’ll spend time working in the interpretive garden Richard and I designed  during our residency at Carpenter in 2010 and 2011.

(Carpenter Ranch was also our first stop on The Big Trip, our last real road-trip together, two months before Richard died.)

And then I’ll head home for three days, long enough to do my laundry, give Red a rest, and meet a couple of writing deadlines, before loading up and hitting the road for Chico Hot Springs, Montana, where I’m speaking with Lauren Springer Ogden in Rocky Mountain Gardening’s annual Live! event.

By the time Red and I make it home late on September 21st, I figure I’ll have driven about 4,700 miles in a bit over three weeks.

Why drive thousands of miles cris-crossing the West? I could fly to Washington, for instance, and still meet Molly. It would be a lot more efficient use of my time in one sense, and would keep me from being so crunched on writing deadlines, and on preparing my talk and digital presentation for the Rocky Mountain Gardening event. I could also fly to Montana, saving myself about 1,700 miles of driving on that leg. 

Partly it’s the time versus money equation. Flying means spending a lot more cash than driving, because when I’m not staying with friends on the road, I’m sleeping in my cozy mini-camper in Red, often in some very discrete parking spot that costs nothing. 

Partly it’s that the timing of these various events allows me to make a two-branched road-trip through some of my favorite parts of the West. And of course, visit friends along the way, which I couldn’t do if I flew. (Thanks to Julie and Gerry, and Jay and Connie Moody, who I’ll stay with when I pass through Cody on my way to Chico Hot Spring.)

I’ve always loved a good road trip. When I drive, I get to follow my own schedule (within certain constraints). 

There’s the element of serendipity: I never know what I’ll discover. What junction might lure me off the main route; what wildflowers will be blooming, which hawks soaring in lazy circles overhead. Who I might meet, what cafe or vista or trail I might discover. 

Heading west on US 50 between Gunnison and Montrose, Colorado. How could you not stop and take a hike among those pinnacles?

Road-trips through the West’s open spaces are great “windshield time” for me, time for my mind to wander, for connections to surface and ideas to grow out of the spaciousness around me. 

I can happily drive for hours and miles in silence, watching the landscape go by, my imagniation wandering, or listen to my iPhone playlist, which ranges from Sting to Dar Williams, and from the haunting a capella of Anonymous 4 to Bonnie Raitt’s hard-rocking blues. 

And partly it’s the time of year, which has me itchy and restless, wanting to hit the road. Richard’s 66th birthday would have been in mid-July. August 8th and 9th (yup, there’s a story there!) were our 33rd wedding anniversary. And my 60th birthday is coming up soon. 

Just after Richard’s 60th birthday, when he was feeling great and we were hoping brain cancer was behind us, we learned his tumors had returned; he went under the knife for his second brain surgery that August. A year and three months later, he died. 

Richard Cabe, swimming in the ice-cold, swift waters of the Arkansas River on his 60th birthday. 

So as I head west on US 50 Tuesday afternoon, I’ll have all of those things in mind. And then I’ll let the rhythm of the road and the hum of Red’s tires carry me along. And see what the miles bring… 

Life Lessons from Windshield Time

The drive home from my working weekend in New Mexico was a little more exciting than my windshield time usually is, in part because of long stretches of road construction and drivers who behaved like they had never seen orange barrels before and either drove VERY slowly down the middle of the two-lane highway so to avoid those scary edges, or drove VERY fast, weaving around the other traffic. 

And also because of the weather. Cumulus clouds clogged the sky in a way that reminded me of the Navajo saying: It takes many sheep before the rain comes. (The sheep in the clouds in the photo above are beginning to flock over June-green prairie.)

As those cloud-sheep gathered, I drove through the streaming virga (curtains) of a few hard showers, loving the smell of rain on dry soil. And then, about an hour from home in the high desert of the San Luis Valley, the sheep grew into towering cumulonimbus clouds, and the wind began to gust, slapping the truck. 


As I drove toward this virga, it thickened and shut out the sun beyond it. And then, when I was directly under it, the dark cloud let loose and marble-sized hail began to smack Red's already-cracked windshield and explode like rifle shots off the roof and hood. In moments, the visibility shrank from miles to yards, and the pavement went from dry to slippery with thousands of hail ball-bearings.

I slowed from 70 mph to 45, and then to 35 as the curtain of hail narrowed the visibility even more and my wipers began to gum up with slushy ice. The hail begn to piled up, and an oncoming truck suddenly shot off the now slippery road, fortunately coming to a stop upright and undamaged. A car followed it. I slowed and both drivers waved, so I crept on, squinting through the hail to see the road ahead as best I could. 

A few loud minutes later, the car that had been half a mile ahead of me metamorphosed in the banging curtain of hail, stopped dead in the middle of the road. I rolled down my window, but that driver waved me on too, so Red and I slalomed around it, and kept on going. 

A long mile or so later, I saw sun ahead, and thought to shoot a photo of the hail (and my gummed up windshield wiper, as it passed by). What looks like sand in the roadside ditches is actually hail, and the pavement is awash in hail, now beginning to melt. Whew!

That little storm was definitely more exciting than I prefer my windshield time to be, and I hope all emerged unscathed as Red and I did. 

Mountain weather is definitely unpredictable. But that's true of all of life, really, isn't it?

We like to think we are in control and know what's ahead. But we aren't and we don't. 

So perhaps my windshield time yesterday was simply life-practice. Here's the wisdom I take from it:

  • When the hail of life hits without warning, don't panic and drive off the road. Or stop in the middle of the pavement. 
  • Take a deep breath and continue on at a reasonable pace.
  • Stay alert; offer help whenever possible.
  • Be open to wonder, even if it's the cacophony of hail on a steel truck roof and the cracking of ice-balls on the windshield. 
  • Watch for the sunshine ahead. No storm lasts forever, even though the moments in it may feel like that. 

On Thursday, I'm hitting the road again, this time bound for Wyoming and an adventure that makes me a little anxious. First a weekend in Cody teaching "Design With Nature" at Thomas the Apostle Center. That I'm looking foward to. 

Then I head for Yellowstone National Park and two weeks of volunteering on whatever ecological restoration work the Park Botanist would like me to do.

Why am I anxious?

First, I'm not young anymore. It's been 35 years since I last worked in Yellowstone. (I'll be sixty this fall.)

Second, I'll be camping in Red for two weeks, the longest I've gone without sleeping in a bed and having indoor plumbing for… well, decades. 

Third, Yellowstone's roads may be clogged with millions of visitors in summer, but go a quarter mile off the road, the crowds vanish, and wilderness takes over. I revel in that wildness and the level of being present it asks of me, but I also know from personal experience how easy it is to go afoul of the big predators, or simply fall and never make it out.

So I'm going to keep the windshield-time life lessons from yesterday's hailstorm in mind. I won't panic.

I'll slow down, stay alert, be open to wonder, and no matter how bad the storm, I'll look for the sunshine ahead. 

I'll also do my best to post about my adventures, but I don't know how often I'll have internet access. So if I'm quiet for a few weeks, don't worry. I'm off on an adventure, doing the planet-healing work I love, and refreshing my essential stores of wonder and joy. 

Field Trip: Desert Wildflower “Super-bloom”

Saturday morning, I packed my gear in Red, my pickup, and hit the road for a marathon field trip to the shale mesas of far western Colorado to see a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular display of spring wildflowers. I left town at a few minutes after nine in the morning, and backed Red into the garage at just after seven-thirty that night; in between I drove 458 miles and spent several hours wandering back roads ogling so many thousands upon thousands of wildflowers that I was almost jaded by the time I headed home.

Oh, another several hundred orange globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) flowers, backed by a waving expanse of needle-and-thread grass (Heterostipa comata) with perky sue (Tetraneuris ivesiana) coloring the distant hillsides bright gold. Yawn…

(That's what's blooming in the photo at the top of the post.)

I hadn't intended to do the whole trip in one day, but when I got the alert from Colorado Native Plant Society (thank you, Jan Turner and Jen McGuire Bousselot for the heads up!) that the desert blooms on the mesas above the Grand Valley were spectacular, I looked at my calendar and realized that the only day I could reasonably play hooky was Saturday, and the coming heat wave would soon end the display. 

Was my 450-mile drive and the dregs of exhaustion I can still feel worth it?  

Definitely: I am still cruising on the high of seeing what normally appear to be barren shale slopes lit up with millions of wildflowers, blooms that only occur en masse like this after an unusually wet winter and spring, on plants that manage to compress a whole life cycle–sprouting from the clay soil while it is still wet with spring snow, and growing, blooming, attracting pollinators and setting seeds–before the soil bakes to concrete-hardness with the late spring heat. 

Here are some of my hundred-plus photos so you can see for yourself:

Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) and Cutleaf blanketflower (Gaillardia pinnatifida), the gold flowers with maroon centers. (The burgundy grass is cheatgrass, an invasive annual from Eurasia that is incredibly flammable, leading to frequent fires and larger cheatgrass invasions.)


Yellow perky sue, orange globemallow, pink and white sego lily (Calochortus nutallii)


The sego lilies came in rose too, and you can see ants sipping nectar from the base of one cup-shaped blossom in this clump.


The Indian paintbrush was blooming like crimson flames. 


Oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogenum ovalifolium) with pom-pom balls in white touched with pink.


Short-stemmed lupine (Lupinus brevicaulis), the whole plant no bigger than my thumb


Jones desert-star (Amsonia jonesii) filled dry washes on north slopes with its fragrant, starry flowers.


The cactus were blooming too, including this prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha), in the less-usual magenta-flowered form. That's I-70 in the background, and the Book Cliffs in the far distance. 


And this mini-barrel-shaped cactus, Colorado hookless cactus (Schlerocactus glaucus), a species only known from the shale mesas of western Colorado. (I think the white daisy-like flower is sand aster, Chaetopappa ericoides, but didn't key it out.)

Every time I came around a ridge or over a mesa, there were masses of wildflowers as far as I could see, like this vista:

Those are the usuals, pink and white sego lilies, scarlet globemallow in orange, and yellow perky sue. Plus you can't see the charming fuzzy seedheads of desert parsley, already done blooming, or the rattlesnake grass with its rattle-like flower-heads, the tiny white easter daisies, or the charming little blue annual flowers on thread-like stems with yellow centers that I should know but can't remember… 


Just another view of wildflowers everywhere, and Book Cliffs hazy in the far distance…

By three-thirty, it was 87 degrees and the wind was gusting up to 50 mph. I decided to ignore the wildflower display and just head for the paved road and the long trek home. Except I kept seeing new species.


Like this spiny sagebrush (Picrothamnus desertorum or Artemisia spinescens) with the ghostly white branches from last year and its yellow flowers, blooming a clay pan where the soil was already dried into cracks deep enough for me to insert my middle finger in all the way–these are tough plants!

One more photo–this time of Red, my trusty companion whenever I get the urge to play hooky and make a ridiculously long trip to see more wildflowers than anyone could ever imagine…

My smile of delight carried me all the long way home that night. In fact, I'm still grinning two days later. It was definitely worth the trip. 

Recognizing and Honoring My Limits

Yesterday afternoon as I drove the four-and-a-half hours home from Santa Fe and the Hillerman Writing Conference, I said to myself, “It’s Sunday. You need to write a blog post.”

But by the time I crested Poncha Pass, half an hour from Salida, I was exhausted. At home, I unpacked and made myself a simple dinner. I opened my laptop, wrote in expanses from my trip, read the news, and dealt with emails and messages. That was all my brain could manage; I had no writing in me. 

(The photo above is the view from the top of the pass, with “my” mountains, the Sawatch Range, in the distance over the ridge.)

As I returned from my regular Monday run tonight, a four-and-a-half-mile route that included a lovely sunset on the return leg, I said to myself, “You didn’t write a blog post last night. You’ve got to do it tonight.”

Sunset from the Monarch Spur Trail tonight, with the Arkansas River Canyon in the distance. 

So after harvesting the last broccoli florets from the frost-nipped plants in my front-deck kitchen garden, I came inside, cooled down and changed, and made myself dinner including that uber-local broccoli steamed and tossed with butter and toasted pecans, plus half a baked yam, and a quesadilla featuring a fresh tortilla from the San Luis Valley and Rocking W Cheese’s smoked gouda from western Colorado. 

While I ate, I tried to think of what to write about. Nothing came to mind, probably because I’m still worn out from heading to Colorado Springs Wednesday afternoon to teach my Memoir 101 workshop, driving home Thursday night, and then hitting the road for Santa Fe and the Hillerman Conference Friday morning, and not getting home until yesterday evening. Plus a full day of work today, followed by my run. 

Thinking about that brought my Aha! moment. I am doing precisely what I’ve promised myself I won’t do: Ignore my limits. Just because I “should” write a blog post each week doesn’t mean I can.

In the past five weeks, I’ve driven over 5,000 miles, presented at writers conferences in three cities, taught workshops in two more, and spent time in six states. Both my long road-trip in October and this shorter one have been fruitful times to think, enjoy a lot of gorgeous western landscape, hang out with various clans of my writing tribe, to teach and be inspired by workshop participants, and to visit friends and family. 

Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River last Friday evening–seen through Red’s windshield, of course…

And the combined trips have worn me out. All of that driving–what my friend Terry Carwile calls “windshield time”–and all of that stimulation and interaction have taken their toll. I’m tired. 

It’s time to notice my limits and honor them. Not to mindlessly press onward just because I should do something. 

Of course, here I am writing a blog post. But as I do it, I’m understanding and recognizing my limits.

And honoring them by keeping it short. So I can practice not pushing myself.

Once I post this, I’m going to to smell the mini-roses in the fair-trade bouquet I bought yesterday to brighten my drive home. Then I’ll toss on a jacket and go outside to admire the spangle of stars in the moonless night sky.

Because I am grateful for the gift of this life. Because I want to remember to love my moments, and live them with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand… 


Coming Home to Rain and Beauty

After driving 4,652 miles in the past three weeks, through six states, plus presenting at two writing conferences, and spending time in three national parks, two national wildlife refuges, and I forget how many state parks and natural areas, and hunkering down for two very productive writing days in a little town within sight of the Pacific Ocean, I am home again.

(The photo above is a line of cottonwood trees golden with autumn along a wash in the sagebrush desert northeast of Moab, Utah. The brilliance of their leaves in the gray day caught my eye and reminded me of how much I treasure my time on this glorious planet.)

Along the way, I visited friends, had the gift of a long lunchtime conversation with the writer Barry Lopez, and spent a few wonderful days with the Washington contingent of the Tweit family. I camped out under some of the starriest skies I’ve ever seen, with the Milky Way a brilliant river running from horizon to horizon, and stayed in a few sketchy motels, a resort at an eerily green golf course in the high desert (a conference hotel), a cozy motel where the booming waves of the not-so-Pacific-Ocean lulled me to sleep, plus spent a night at a grand and historic hotel on the rim of Crater Lake.

The beach at Yachats, Oregon, below my motel. 

I talked about writing, and place, and the unraveling–and restoration–of this earth and we humans; I ate impromptu picnics as I drove, savored delicious meals at the homes of friends and family, and relished dinner at an Italian bistro with my brother and sister-in-law before they took me to “Recent Tragic Events,” a play very much worth seeing, as my belated birthday present. 

I heard sandhill cranes call as they migrated overhead, ducks chuckling as they settled down at night, trains passing, waves crashing, and the hum of Red’s tires on the road over the howling of the wind. I smelled rain-wet sagebrush, briny ocean breezes, dead fish on the shore, diesel exhaust, fried clams, roasting coffee, and damp evergreen forests.

The forest at Cape Perpetua Natural Area, on the central Oregon Coast.

I walked along the Snake River, crunched over the cracked mud of dry Malheur Lake, strolled the jagged rim of Crater Lake, hiked the soft duff under whitebark pines on the Pacific Crest Trail, trotted on sand packed firm by the waves on the beach at Yachats, toured the flowers of my sister-in-law’s garden, and watched the muddy Colorado River slip past massive red sandstone cliffs…

The Colorado River just north and east of Moab, Utah, near Arches National Park.

Tonight, I sit at the kitchen island in my cozy house with the welcome sound of a fall rain pattering on the roof, a blessing after eight weeks with nary a drop falling from the sky. The cheerful flames of a fire in my little gas stove warm the house and my spirits. 

Tonight, “home” is one of the sweetest words in the English language. A word that sounds as comforting as it feels to be here.

I’m eating a bowl of soup from Ploughboy Local Market, enriched by tomatoes and broccoli just harvested from my front-deck garden, and pondering all I saw and experienced and felt in my days on the road.

I did a lot of listening while I drove. For the first thousand miles or so, I listened with music in the background, a random selection from my iPhone that I boosts my mood through the long miles. For the next three-and-a-half thousand miles, I eschewed even that favored music and listened within, following the tracings of thoughts, intuitions, and feelings.

Sunset over the Klamath Valley from Crater Lake Lodge

There’s a lot going on inside me. I’m 59 years old, a widow nearly four years now, and I am still learning who I am and what I want to be when I grow up. The thinking time in all those miles, the being away from my usual routine, resulted in a new understanding of my mission in life. And some ideas about furthering that mission that may be wild or may be brilliant–sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference!–which I’ll be writing about in coming weeks. 

When I arrived home, I found a gift, a painting by Catalina Garretón, an artist and textile designer who stayed at Treehouse on a Terraphlia Residency while I was away.


Catalina’s painting of “hózhó,”  an interpretation as exquisite as an oriental screen or a glimmering tapestry. 

As I look at her canvas with its images of mountains and leaves from the cottonwood tree outside the studio window (the tree for which Treehouse is named) and the colors of earth and sky and sagebrush desert, colors echoed on the walls of my house, I think again of how lucky I am to simply be able to take part in this life, to “walk the skin of this earth,” as Richard used to say.

And how much I want my days on this planet to reflect that kind of beauty in Catalina’s painting, beauty in the sense of the Navajo word “hózhó,” which means a state of being in life. “Hózhó” also means harmony, balance, and wholeness. 

Whatever is ahead in my life, I am determined to walk it in beauty, with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. And to use my time to heal this earth and we humans, wherever and however I can. 

Bless you all for walking with me. 


Road Trip: Fear and Traveling Alone

In the past twelve days since I pulled Red out of the garage on October 1st to head south to Silver City and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, I’ve driven nearly 2,500 miles, presented at two writing conferences, seen some gorgeous country, met inspiring writers, and gotten to hang out with dear friends. (The photo above is Crater Lake at dawn seen from the historic lodge at the South Rim, where I was two nights ago. Now I’m on the Oregon Coast at Yachats.)

Along the way and over the miles, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about my work. This morning, I finally could see MEADOW, the next book, clearly enough to begin drafting a book proposal, which was a great relief.

(Having a book rattle around in your head but not being able to conceive it clearly is kind of like being tapada, which can be translated as ‘blocked.’ In a particularly well, personal way that’s not at all pleasant.)

I’ve also realized and accepted some important things about myself and this unlooked-for solo life. The biggest came on the second day of the westward leg of this road-trip, when I stopped at Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in southern Idaho. I had driven six hours already that day, coming nearly 400 miles from Price, Utah, and was headed on to Boise for the night, a destination I had calculated would leave me with a reasonable drive to Redmond, Oregon, the next day, the site of this year’s Women Writing the West Conference

I stopped at Three Island out of sentiment. On The Big Trip, the belated honeymoon Richard and I took ten weeks before he died in 2011, when we (actually I, since the glioblastoma in his right brain no longer allowed Richard to drive) drove a 4,000-mile route to follow the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California, we stopped at Three Island Crossing for a picnic one hot September day. 

Although Richard’s right brain was crippled by the tumor and his body swollen from high doses of steroids, he was happy to be with me, happy to be on the road, happy to be alive. “I’m a lucky guy,” he said right after I shot the photo below. 

Richard at Three Island Crossing, arms upraised in his habitual expression of joy, September 10, 2011

It’s not that he was fooling himself–he knew his life wouldn’t last long. He was just determined to enjoy it while he could. So he did. 

When I exited I-84 last Tuesday late afternoon and wound my way through the tiny town of Glenns Ferry and out to the state park, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. I paid the entrance fee, drove past the campground and the new Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (closed by the time I got to the park that day), and parked at the exact same table in the now-deserted picnic ground at the edge of the Snake River. 

For a moment, I sat without moving. My heart whimpered, but then the view of the river, the shade of the big trees and the peace of the place soothed me. I got out, walked to the picnic table, laid my hand on it and repeated something I say every night to Richard’s spirit, “Thanks for being you and loving me.”

Then I wandered to the river’s edge and idly watched a Clark’s Grebe riding the current until it arced forward, long neck curving gracefully, to dive under the surface for a fish. 

When I turned back to Red, I spotted the cluster of tiny cabins in the shade by the edge of the picnic ground. Richard and I had considered staying at one of the cabins. The porches with swings facing the river looked awfully inviting. But by then, as he said, “my bladder doesn’t always communicate with my brain,” so a night in a cabin with no plumbing was just not possible. 

Last Tuesday night, I had an impulse to stay the night in that peaceful spot as a sort of tribute to Richard and me and all we shared. That would add a long hour to the next day’s drive, but what the heck, I thought. If they were still available for the season, I’d do it. 

Idaho State Parks photo

They were, so I did. I travel ready to camp, so it was easy to transfer my sleeping bag, water bottles, picnic basket and camp stove to the little cabin. 

I spent the evening listening to ducks gabble from the river, fish jump, grebes chuckle, blackbirds chatter, flickers call, and sandhill cranes “Khrrrr! Khrrrr!” from the distance as they migrated south high overhead.

Snake River at dusk, Three Island Crossing State Park

As the sunset faded and the great-horned owls took over from the daytime birds, a fishing skiff puttered by in the river. Voices drifted downhill from the campground, but I had the picnic ground, cabins and the riverside all to myself. I rocked on the creaking porch swing, the travel-stress melting away. 

A multitude of stars began to appear in the kind of darkness only found a long ways from cities. I identifed constellations, planets and more. 

And then my fears crowded in. I went inside the cabin and turned on the light, which I realized shone like a beacon, proclaiming for all to know that it was occupied. By me, alone. 

What if someone came down the deserted park road to cause trouble? I worried. The park staff had gone home for the night, the campground was too far away. I was a target there alone, and the cell phone service was questionable. What would I do? Where would I go? What if someone vandalized Red in the night? How would I find help? 

(I have a very vivid imagination.)

Once I had Richard’s solid form to comfort me. Now I don’t. I locked the cabin door, found my flashlight and set it by the bed, turned off the light and crawled into my sleeping bag. 

And then I did something I’ve never done before. I embraced the stream of fears, gave each thorough consideration and thought about what I’d do. I realized that I’ll always have a vivid imagination; I’ll always have fears. It’s just part of who I am, a skinny, freckled gabacha nearing sixty. 

Me on a solo ramble up the Pacific Crest Trail yesterday morning

I’ll also (I hope) always be the kind of person who doesn’t hestitate to take off on a solo road trip, to camp alone. The fears don’t have to keep me from reveling in the time out on the road, away from other human beings; the time in the tonic of the wild on my own. 

The owls continued their soft duet. A big fish splashed from the river. The night air flowed in cool and moist through the window screens. 

I got up and checked to make sure Red was locked. I looked at the night sky and breathed in awe at the river of the Milky Way pouring from black horizon to horizon. 

And I went back inside and slept soundly. At home on my own, fears and all.

The Snake River at Three Island Crossings State Park.