Road Trip: Postcards from New Mexico

Last Thursday morning, I drove out of Salida in Red, aimed 572 miles south for Silver City to speak at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word.

It was a glorious fall day, with blue skies and warm temperatures, the kind of weather that makes me feel like hitting the road and never stopping, which of course I can’t do because I don’t actually have that kind of stamina. (The photo above shows the blaze of color in the cottonwoods as Red and I crossed the Alamosa River near Antonito, Colorado, in the southern end of the San Luis Valley.)

The landscapes I love showed off their fall colors: rabbitbrush in autumn yellow contrasting with purple asters, and aspen leaves splashing the mountainsides with gold and orange. I sang along with Sting, Lyle Lovett, Dar Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, and Rosanne Cash. And I thought about writing and nature and why I do what I do for my talk. 

Four hours along, I stopped at Santa Fe Community College to see my hermana de la corazón, Dawn Wink, head of Teacher Education at SFCC and author of the novel Meadowlark, and her sweetie, Noé Villarreal. 

An hour with the two of them sped by so fast, I was late leaving for Albuquerque, where I was due to spend the night with friends who once lived nearby in Westcliffe and then Colorado Springs, but have since moved to Albuquerque, luckily for me and my trips south.

I made up for my tardiness by giving Doris and Bill ideas about how to jazz up the walled yard at their new place, which has good bones, but could use more diversity and interest. I do love playing with plants!

The next morning I hit the road again for the remaining four-and-a-half hour drive to Silver City, first heading south down the Rio Grande Valley, a rift valley lined with skinny desert mountain ranges, and then heading west to wind up and over the Black Range of the Gila Mountains, on a two-lane that is so curvy it is not at all fast, but is quite fascinating as it ascends from creosote-bush desert to desert grasslands with tall sotol, to oaks and then junipers and piñon pines, and then into cool mountain forest, and then back down through those life-zones again on the other side. 

The road also goes right through the area of the Black Range Fire, which roared hot and huge over those high ridges two years ago. I was thrilled to see the steep burned slopes were thigh deep in native grasses and wildflowers, the native plant community rising phoenix-like from the ashes of what had been a truly scary fire. 

Native Sideoats grama grass growing hip-deep along the road where the Black Range Fire burned in June, 2013.

I reached Silver City that afternoon in time to check into my very comfy room in the wonderfully restored Art Deco Murray Hotel, and then to go to a talk by Sharman Apt Russell, one of the most thoughtful writers I know. (I’ve reviewed several of Sharman’s books on this blog, including Theresa of the New World, a magical-realism novel about the daughter of a Spanish Conquistador; and Diary of a Citizen Scientist, about Sharman’s adventures learning tiger beetles and field science.)

I’ve known Sharman for more than two decades, but we rarely end up in the same place at the same time, so after her talk we walked and talked, and then talked and ate dinner, catching up on our lives and our writing. 

Yesterday (was that just yesterday?) was my talk with author and environmentalist Susan Zakin, whose time in Madagascar and Africa, among other places, has shown her the dark side of global capitalism and its affect on this world and human culture. 

There I am talking… (Photo by Susan Zakin–thanks, Susan!)

I talked about the power of restoring nature at home as a way to reconnect we humans to our health and to the community of the land; Susan Zakin talked about the globalization of environmental issues. As it turned out, we were really talking about the thing from different angles; we complimented each other’s points beautifully.

(If you’ve not read Susan Zakin’s books, start with Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. It’ll make you laugh, groan, get angry and make you think, often all in the same chapter.)

Sharman was our moderator, and after the enthusiastic audience finally let us go, the three of us headed to lunch and continued our conversation. That kind of connection is exactly why I would drive a thousand-mile round-trip in four days to go to a well-run writing festival. And the Southwest Festival of the Written Word is definitely a well-run and inspiring experience, from the programs and presenters, to the book sales and the venues.

I capped off my at the Festival by going to hear my dear friend Denise Chávez, that afternoon. 

La Honcha (we were co-honchas–heads–of the Border Book Festival back when Richard, Molly and I lived in Las Cruces) read/performed from her newest novel, The King and Queen of Comezón, a salute to lust and love and the itches that continue to trouble us to the ends of our lives. Comezón is funny, lewd, frank, and poignant, a wonderful ramble of a tale that only Denise could come up with. 

After hugging Denise on last time, Red and I hit the road again, headed east over the Black Range before turning north toward home. The view from Emory Pass over miles of New Mexico reminded me of the magic of the Chihuahuan Desert and its mountain “islands” of forest.


Later, the sun set in an explosion of color that only happens in the desert, where airborne dust tints the light in a particularly intense, cinematic way.


Tonight, I’m home, having driven 1,072 miles since Thursday. Tomorrow, Red and I light out again, headed west toward Redmond, Oregon for the Women Writing the West Conference and other events. I do love a good road-trip. 

What I mean by that is, it fills my spirit to drive through the “Big Empty” as Susan Zakin called the wide spaces of the inland West, landscapes I find fascinating to ponder, country with horizons so wide my mind expands commensurately. Driving the long miles through these largely open spaces, I am free to think and dream and feel, to open my mind and heart to whatever is next. 

I’ll keep you posted as I go… 

Home Again: Gratitude

On Wednesday morning, I woke at Jackson Lake Lodge in Northwest Wyoming to gray and gloomy light. The temperature outside was 39 degreesF and the patter of rain on the roof included an odd shushing sound. I looked outside and saw that the rain was mixed with wet flakes–snow. 

I had planned to make the 600-mile trip home gradually, over two days. Until I saw that snow in the air and had a sudden longing to be home in Indian Summer.

So after a visit with Diane Spencer, a friend from my Forest Service days who just happened to be staying in the very same lodge on the same night I was with her partner, Bob Hacker (we found each other thanks to Facebook postings), Red and I hit the road for home. 

By the time we crested Togwotee Pass (photo above) it was snowing hard. We wound our way downhill and out of the storm, and headed across southern Wyoming into howling winds.

And I do mean howling. Just outside Rawlins a flashing road-condition warning sign warned of “rollover hazard” and gusts of 65 mph. Fortunately, Red handled the wind well.  

Double-rainbow over the Yampa River Valley south of Steamboat Springs, Colorado

By the time we reached Steamboat Springs that evening and saw the gorgeous double rainbow in the photo above, I was tired and the sun was slanting low. But we were only four hours from home (out of a ten-hour-total drive) and I was determined to sleep in my own bed that night. 

I backed Red into the garage at eight-thirty in starlit darkness, unloaded travel stuff, put things away, and settled in. I slept nine hours that night–I guess I was pretty worn out! 

On Friday, I celebrated my 59th birthday with simple gratitude to be home in my own cozy place, with wildflowers blooming all around.

Part of my front-yard native mountain prairie in its almost-fall bloom…

That feel of gratitude has stayed with me as I’ve caught up on emails, begun summer’s-end cleanup in my yard, and spent time hand-cutting invasive thistles and other weeds as part of the Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project.

I am grateful to be home, and grateful to have a home to return to. I feel for those who have lost their homes, especially in the devastating fires in northern California

I am grateful that my country is not torn apart by war. I feel keenly for the refugees streaming into the Balkans and Europe from the Middle East and parts of Africa where life is perilous, as well as for the refugees from Myanmar, for all people exiled from their homes and searching for a place where they can live and work in peace. 

I am grateful to be able to hit the road, whether for work or pleasure. I feel fortunate to have Red, my compact truck and also my shelter for nights when I camp out. 

I am grateful to be able to write. My wish for my birthday is that Bless the Birds, my new memoir about living well even as our lives end, will find an enthusiastic publisher in the months ahead. And that the new book in my mind, which I call Meadow, will begin to take shape this winter. 

Tansyleaf aster and blanketflower, two native wildflowers beloved of pollinators=, growing at the edge of my rock garden.

I am grateful to have a passion and talent for restoring nature around me. The work that Richard and I put into reviving what we only half-jokingly called our “decaying industrial empire” and our block of creek inspired the Salida Trail Restoration Project, which benefits our community, as well as Earth itself. 

Mostly I am grateful to simply to be here, walking about, as Richard used to say, “on the skin of this Earth” with love and awareness for the gift of life. 

Thanks for walking with me. 

Road Trip: Postcards From Along the Way

Tonight I’m in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, about 800 miles from home. At this time of year, the elk wander right into town–no matter traffic and people–to graze on Gardiner’s well-watered lawns. I spotted these two cows and a calf-of-the-year a few minutes ago as I walked to the grocery store.

After two long days on the road and teaching an intense work, I’m tired. But I wanted to share some snapshots and thought from along the way, a digital version of postcards from my trip.

I left Salida last Thursday afternoon, aimed for Lafayette on the congested Front Range, a three-hour drive, to stay with friends there. They took me out to dinner at 95a Bistro to celebrate my birthday a week early–thanks Nan and Dave, and Cathy for joining us!

Friday morning, I hit the road promptly at eight-thirty, headed north to Fort Collins to pick up Lauren Springer Ogden, plantswoman and garden designer extraordinare. We were bound for Cody, Wyoming, to teach “Wildscaping 101” at Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center on Saturday. 

For the whole eight-hour drive between Fort Collins and Cody, Lauren and I were so engaged in talking about habitat gardening, horticulture, geology, kids, families, the trials of freelancing, and life in general that I completely forgot to take any photos until we drove into the Bighorn Basin, about an hour and a half south of Cody. That’s the Chugwater formation, a gorgeous ridge of rust-red sandstone rising out of the high-desert shrublands in the photo above. 

When we reached the retreat center that evening, we were welcomed warmly by Connie and Jay, the center directors, and ate a lovely dinner outside in the shade with the two of them, plus Habitat Hero gardener Stephanie, and her son Gabriel. Dragonflies zipped around the six of us in the dusk, and owls hooted in the distance. 

I woke before dawn the next morning–yesterday, though it seems longer ago–and watched sunrise color Heart Mountain, my favorite of the peaks around Cody. (It’s the twin-humped peak in the distance through the window screen in the photo above.) 

And then came breakfast, and teaching, followed by lunch with the excited and inspired workshop participants, who continued to pepper us with questions. Late in the afternoon, I drove into town and visited with friends.

That evening, a very generous friend–thanks, Anne!–treated us to dinner at The Local, an outstanding new Cody restaurant. We ate fabulous freshly prepared seafood and lingered over wine and dessert.  

The sun was setting when Lauren and I drove back to the retreat center. (The photo above is the view from the guest house.) 

This morning, we hit the road again, aimed for Chico Hot Springs to meet Dan and Andra, friends and also publishers of Rocky Mountain Gardening magazine, for lunch. We headed west through Wapiti Valley with its brooding volcanic cliffs and hoodoo-like spires, into Yellowstone National Park through the East Entrance, over Sylvan Pass and then around Yellowstone Lake, past Fishing Bridge, through Hayden Valley, past Canyon, over the divide by Bunsen Peak, down through Tower Falls, Blacktail Ponds, and into Mammoth Hot Springs before exiting the park at Gardiner, where I am tonight, and driving north along the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley to Pray and Chico Hot Springs. 

I was so busy driving that familiar route, reminiscing about the days when I worked at mapping pants and habitat in these wild and gorgeous landscapes, and pointing out familiar sights that I completely forgot to shoot any photos until we stopped for the first bison jam in Hayden Valley, where the herd in the photo above (about 50 adult bison, plus calves) was assiduously ignoring the roadside lined with gawkers. 

We reached Chico Hot Springs in time to stroll the grounds of the historic lodge/hot springs/spa complex, including a really lovely (and well-fenced to keep out the elk) kitchen garden, with luscious heritage tomatoes ripening in the greenhouses. Then Lauren treated us all to lunch by the hot springs, where we ate and talked until it was time for her to head north to Bozeman with Dan and Andra, and me to drive south to Gardiner for the night. 

Paradise Valley near Chico Hot Springs this afternoon…

After a summer of intense activity, I have absolutely nothing on my schedule for the next few days. I need to be home by Friday–my 59th birthday–but between now and then I have the rare luxury of time to wander these beloved landscapes, let my mind empty of deadlines and schedules and destinations, and think about the next book. 

I’ll also be thinking about Bless the Birds, which my agent submitted to what she calls “the first round of lucky editors” last week. Please wish me and that story of my heart whole boatloads of good luck in finding a great publisher! 

Blessings to you all, and thanks for walking this journey with me.

Road-trip: Time to Think and Teach and Learn

In early June, when my doctor grounded me pending significant improvement in my health, the one trip I worried about missing was my planned drive to Tucson to teach at Canyon Ranch Institute last week. It wasn’t that I was so excited about driving to Tucson in late June when I knew daytime temperatures would be in the hundreds, it was the chance to work with a group of community garden organizers from around North America, plus CRI staff, on how gardens and parks can contribute to community revitalization and wellness. 

So I applied myself to reaching the improvement goals my doc outlined. By last Monday, I was on-track, free of pain and feeling well. That afternoon, I loaded my gear into Red and hit the road, singing along with Nora Jones as I headed southwest. 

My destination that night was a campground in Mesa Verde National Park, that “green table” rising above the desert. The drive there is five hours without road construction and without stops. Because I ran into lots of the first and did the latter, it took me six and a half. At six-thirty that evening, I was very glad to back Red into the shade of a Gambel oak grove at the campground, open the back and perch on the tailgate with my feet up, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lyrical and thought-provoking Braiding Sweetgrass over my simple dinner. 

Feet up, book in hand, Jetboil stove heating water for tea, hermit thrushes fluting voices echoing…

As the sun set, cool air flowed downhill through the campground and hermit thrushes fluted their sweet solos from the tops of the tallest oaks around the campground. I slept well and woke to those same thrushes fluting before sunrise, a lovely way to begin the day. 

As I drove farther south and west that day, past Sleeping Ute Mountain, through Four Corners, where the desert was the most wildflower-spangled I have ever seen it, and then across the Navajo Nation from north to south, I had a lot of time to admire that spare landscape, and think about my writing and what I wanted to teach in my “Planting Wellness” workshop at Canyon Ranch

Red sandstone buttes and unusually green desert grassland (that’s Indian ricegrass with the billows of straw-colored seedheads) on the northern Navajo Nation.

Mostly, I thought about what I bring to this work of writing and teaching. I have always struggled to define my message in just a few words. (In writing, that’s called your “elevator speech,” the pitch you can make to an agent or editor in the few seconds it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor. An elevator speech might be about a single book or your whole body of work.)

Over the course of the long day it took me to drive from Mesa Verde National Park to Show Low on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, with stops in Cortez (for WiFi and hot chocolate), Ganado (to visit Hubbell Trading Post National Monument, a stop I highly recommend to see a working reservation trading post, watch a Navajo weaver at work, and tour the historic trader’s house and farm) and Petrified Forest National Park (even if you can only drive the single park road and stop at a few viewpoints to see the vivid striped layers in the painted desert and the huge petrified logs are scattered over the ground, another highly recommended stop), I had a lot of time to think. (The day’s drive took me ten hours, including stops.)

Painted Desert from an overlook at Petrified Forest National Park (mid-afternoon, which is not the best time to shoot a photo, the temperature already a sizzling 98 degrees F).

Ideas bubbled through my brain over the course of the day and those scenic but not peopled miles (the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles, about the size of the state of West Virginia, with a population of a little over 180,000 people scattered over that huge area, so while the landscape is spectacular, traffic and towns are rare).

I realized as Red and I crossed the high mesas clothed with silver-green sagebrush somewhere between Chinle and Ganado that my mission as a writer, plant biologist and person is really pretty simple: To heal earth and we humans by restoring the community of the land–nature–and our connection to that community, and to each other, and our own hearts and spirits. I do that work through my words, the plants I plant and the relationships I nurture at home and in my everyday life. In sum,

I plant wellness by restoring nature, and help other humans grow their own wellness. 

By the time I reached Show Low and my comfy motel room, I was exhausted by the drive, the heat and thinking. 

The next day, Wednesday, Red and I headed downhill, dropping nearly a vertical mile from Show Low (6,300 feet elevation) toward Tucson and the hot desert, traversing the layers of rock and plant communities from the cool and airy pine forests on the rim to the saguaro-studded desert far below.

The Salt River Canyon

On the way, we dropped into the Salt River Canyon, one of my favorite drives in Arizona, and stopped at Boyce Thompson Arboretum west of Superior and the man-made mesas surrounding the open-pit copper mines to walk among the saguaros and other cactus and shady mesquite trees before the day got too hot to enjoy it.

“It’s only 99.8 right now,” said the state park staffer encouragingly as I set out, “still under a hundred degrees.” Only by two-tenths of a degree, I thought, but I didn’t quibble. I wanted to get in my walk before I shriveled in the heat.

That night, I stayed with my friend Patricia and her dog Joy, who live two blocks from the house where my parents lived for 20 of their 26 years in Tucson. I drove by my parent’s house–the saguaro in the front yard is starting to look like a big cactus, and the mesquite trees we planted in the back yard to restore the bosque habitat are clearly thriving–and felt a tug at my heart. 

The rest of the week flashed past in teaching at Canyon Ranch, and working with the CRI scholarship winners and the staff–an intense and inspiring time, full of insight and take-way nuggets. My second night there, a thunderstorm rumbled in and poured rain for perhaps half an hour. The desert came alive with fragrance and movement and sound, quail whinnying as they foraged, lizards scurrying about, doves cooing and hummingbirds zinging past. 

That rain marked the beginning the summer rainy season and delivered the gorgeous double-rainbow at the top of the post. I felt blessed to be part of it all. 

Sunrise after the rain

On Sunday, I hit the road again, driving through landscapes familiar to me from my parents’ time in Tucson and our years in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am taking the trip home by slow stages, honoring my promise to my doc to practice a new pace for my life, one that allows me time and energy to savor all I see and do.

It feels good to slow down, and especially good to know that once I make it home, I can settle in for the summer with time to read and think, meet some writing deadlines, rest and continue my work on healing me and my home ground–as well the earth itself and all who inhabit this glorious living planet.

Home in the place I love to work at what moves me, challenging body and mind, restoring heart and spirit. I am indeed blessed.

Cleveland sage, one of the West’s medicine plants, blooming at Canyon Ranch.