Over the past week, Richard and I made the six-hour round-trip drive to Denver once, and also drove to Ouray, in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, a seven-hour round-trip. So we’ve put in some serious “windshield time,” as our friend Terry likes to say, referring to the long distances we in the rural West drive since we choose to live far from cities and mass transportation.
Richard and I do our best to minimize the travel–which is not easy, since his cancer treatments are based at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in distant Denver. When we can’t avoid the trips, we drive the speed limit, optimizing our Subaru Forester’s gas mileage to save energy and lives. (Of course, the Forester gets its best gas mileage when we’re at home: it lives quietly in the garage, while we walk or bike most everywhere!)
Oddly, some of our most tranquil times in this crazy and scary journey with his brain cancer have come on these cross-the-mountains drives, when it’s just the two of us in our cocoon of car. Cell phone reception is spotty in the rural areas we traverse, and we usually don’t bother with the distractions of the radio or even music. We let our minds empty of clutter, and talk about whatever comes up. Or we don’t talk at all, sitting side-by-side in companionable silence, holding hands and watching the landscapes we love, looking for wildflowers and wildlife, birds, weather and stars.
All the windshield time this week has produced some surprising wildlife sightings, like the young bull elk in the photo above, still in velvet, grazing within a few feet of US Highway 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon, just above Denver. We pulled off in a pullout directly across the highway and I got out to shoot this photo. The elk raised his head and looked directly at me, squealed a short bugling challenge, and then continued grazing and watching the stream of cars and trucks roar by. Turkey Creek Canyon provides a natural route directly from the plains to the high country of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, hence the highway–and the elk, as the canyon is also is one of the main migration routes for wildlife moving between winter and spring grazing at lower elevations to mountain meadows for summer and fall. This guy was obviously on his way uphill, but to get there, he was going to have to dodge through four lanes of heavy traffic, and jump the concrete barriers dividing the uphill and downhill lanes. I hope he made it.
An hour and a half later, as we crossed Red Hill Pass, the middle and lowest of the three mountain passes we traverse on our route between home and Denver, we spotted this bighorn sheep on the shoulder of the highway. She (I think this is a young bighorn ewe) was licking something from the gravel within about two feet of the highway edge. The passing traffic clearly made her nervous, but not enough that she was willing to desert her lick. Knowing bighorns’ fondness for salt, I’d guess she had found a pocket of road salt from winter highway maintenance. If so, by making the highway safer for humans in winter, we’ve made it more attractive to wildlife like this bighorn sheep, increasing their chances of getting killed. I live for the day when we design highways with wildlife safety in mind too.
Perhaps the oddest wildlife sighting was the blue grouse (now properly called “dusky grouse,” but I like the old name better) in the photo above. This guy was skulking–there is no other word for his stealthy and deliberate progress–across a county road up the Cimarron River in western Colorado. On our way home from Ouray, we digressed up this side road looking for spring wildflowers in sagebrush country. As we headed back downhill to the highway, we spotted this guy and Richard stopped, waiting for him to cross. And waiting. And waiting. It took him several minutes to cross the dirt road, so intent was his progress. Looking at this picture, you can see that his mind was not on traffic at all–notice the puffy yellow “eyebrows” over his eyes, the ring of feathers raised to reveal orangey skin at the base of his neck, and his upright tail. He’s dressed in his finest I’m-a-stud courting plumage, stalking a female grouse. His strutting route just happened to cross a county road. Good thing it was Richard and I driving along, not someone who might have aimed for him. We gawked, wished him good luck in his quest, and headed on our way.
Our windshield time has also brought us some gorgeous wildflower sightings too, including the blazingstar or stickleaf in the photo above (this one is Mentzelia multiflora, I think) that we found growing near the roadside. Like evening primroses, these flowers open in the evening and close as the day heats up; unlike evening primroses, which wad up into crumpled tissue masses after just one night, each blazingstar flower can open multiple times until it’s pollinated. The plants are covered with sticky, glandular hairs, hence “stickleaf.”
And this ruby-red-flowered clump of claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatas) that I spotted as we whizzed past at 60 mph on a steep south-facing slope at the foot of Monarch Pass. The whole hillside was dotted with healthy “old-growth” clumps of claret cup cactus, some with two dozen or more fat stems in full bloom, their blossoms the deepest red of any I remember ever seeing. We call our valley high-desert, and I know that’s true (we’ve had a whole four inches of precipitation so far this year, and if that’s not a desert climate, I don’t know what is!). But to see these huge clumps of cactus growing at 8,400 feet elevation is mind-bending. And to calculate how long it takes a claret cup cactus seed to grow into a clump of two dozen stems, each 8- or 9-inches tall and 2.5-inches in diameter in our arid, cold-winter climate–fifty years? seventy-five? a century?–is humbling.
We scrambled up the slope and walked among the claret cup cactus yesterday evening on our long drive home from Ouray. Male broad-tailed hummingbirds buzzed us with trilling wings as they zipped by, attracted by those deep red blossoms, a yellow warbler sang “Sweet-sweet-sweet” from the creek across the highway, and the sun went behind a knife-edged ridge thousands of feet above. Richard bent down to admire one particularly huge clump of cactus stems, and I shot one last photo. And then we scrambled back down the slope, crossed the highway hand in hand, and drove home.
In this crazy journey we call life, with wars and oil wells spewing and global climate change and highway traffic that doesn’t slow for elk and brain cancer–with all each of us has to deal with every day, I am grateful for the beauty we find along the way. Those claret cup cactus and blazingstar flowers, the blue grouse intent on finding a mate, the bighorn ewe and the young bull elk, reminding us that life in all its exuberant diversity continues–not unaltered, but regardless.