Joe's Discovery Blog

Welcome to Facebook users clicking from Joe's FB page , and to others who are exploring our website.  Joe is posting his new essay introductions and photos there, linking to the complete essays here.

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December 17, 2018

~~ Star Stuff ~~

           Lying awake at 3 AM on a cold December night, I suddenly realized this  was the night of the Geminid meteor shower. I arose, stood at the  bedroom window for fifteen minutes and watched as a dozen or more  threads of light painted the darkness like liquid silver running down  the blackness of eternity. The stars shone brightly, Venus rising in the  east, but Orion already out of sight to the west. I couldn't remember  where the constellation Gemini was located. I should know since this is  my birth sign as if I believed in such things.

          Some streaks  were faint, fading before my eyes could shift to full focus. Others  left a lingering blue white trail.  They came from all directions,  angling down, running horizontally from east to west, west to east.

           I thought of what these trails of light meant. They were small grains  or larger pebbles of stardust. They might have been circling the sun for  millions of years. Their ancestors could have even brought microbes of  life to Earth billions of years ago. They have been falling and  streaking for as long as Earth has been here, slowly adding iron and  carbon, oxygen and hydrogen to the accumulation of star stuff that built  our planet. Where did they come from? Did they leave another planet or  were they blown into the universe as some long exploded supernova fused  its hydrogen and helium into all the heavier elements? That is where we  came from long, long ago. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are made of star  stuff. I was watching new life slowly building up as atoms and  molecules which eventually will form redwood trees and blue whales.  Eventually. Time can be so patient as it slowly builds life, rearranges  it, throws away old and creates new.

         From my limited window  view,  in my search for falling stars, I focused back and forth between  the bright Venus  rising in the east and the sky to the west. I tried to  look further back in time, past the suns and galaxies to some distant  miracle. I couldn’t see it, but I wondered, as I always do, how that  miracle occurred. A whole universe from a dot, all out of nothing. How  could that be? Was I looking for the center of the universe, that  mystical site of all creation, the workshop of God herself?

         Looking into  the darkness, I thought about a scene I created in my novel Sands of  Time. My characters sat outside looking up into a sky 200 million years  in the past. Without spoiling an earth-shattering plot, I can say they  were sitting in the sands of a vast red desert which eventually hardened  into a  Colorado Plateau sandstone called Wingate. Listen to the  description as they looked up into the sky: 

Ev  continued to stare at the stars…  "Look over there.  What a perfect  circle…Eight, nine, there must be ten stars in a perfect circle. Look  how bright those three are.  And up there, that looks like a huge letter  H.  The big H and the big O.”
        “Look, a shooting star,” said  Mida excitedly. As they stared upward, they saw another.  And another.   As they watched, they started seeing more. Some were faint and hardly  visible. Others were bright with long sparkly tails. One lit the sky  like lightning.
        “I heard about this.  A meteor storm. What a fireworks display,” said Ev.
          Mida let out an ‘oooh’ as another passed overhead. “Remember this sky  is from 200 million years ago. No one has ever seen it and no one ever  will."
         Sarah added, “But this won't be our sky. In our sky,  the H and the O will be gone. How quickly do the constellations  change?”Ev responded, “No one knows. We revolve around the sun and the  sun revolves around the center of the galaxy. But what does the Milky  Way revolve around? And what do the galaxies in the constellations  revolve around? Is there a center of the universe?”

           Good question. How does the sky change over time? I was looking out the  window of my warm bedroom into the cold blackness of time. What has  changed in the past million years?  The past billion years?  As our star  was coalescing into what we call the sun, there was a cloud of rocks  and gas and star stuff that separated into the gas ball of hydrogen and  the planets of rock and gas. We are midway through this symphony of  stellar wonderment before the sun flames out, carrying its planets with  it into an eternal nothingness.

          As of now, at least, I will  never be able to take that time travel that Ev and Mida and Sarah took.  I can only guess. But looking into the blackness of space, I can wonder  and guess what this same sky once looked like. The very land I am  standing on has changed.  It has moved halfway across the globe, formed  land with huge mountain ranges, and formed great oceans. Life has come  and gone in forms I will never know. Something, or someone else will  stand here a million years from now, look for an Orion that no longer  exists, and try to visualize constellations that have yet to form. And  probably there will be shooting stars and falling stardust that  continues to add to Earth stuff.

          Was there a beginning?   Will there be an end? Is there a center of the universe? Is there an  edge? These are simple questions I will never know. I have to be content  with staring out into a frozen December blackness, looking into  infinity, watching the slow dance of galactic life. I climbed back into  bed, pulled the cover tightly up to my chin and fell asleep, dreaming of  fairies and dragons and other things of magic.

Night sky: moving clouds and full moon, view from Colwell Cedars Retreat.

Night sky: moving clouds and full moon, view from Colwell Cedars Retreat.

July 4, 2018

~~ Version Forty-Eight ~~

           We drove up Leroux Creek, as we did one year ago.  The 2017 version of  our annual July 4 family photo was the last for Goldberry, our companion  for nearly fourteen years, as age and arthritis had taken the fire from  her, if not her spirit.  So on this 2018 version, we were accompanied  by Elanor, on her first family photo July 4 expedition.  She was still  new, not allowed off leash at home; this would be her first trip to the  mountains and a free run for her.  She kept close but did not understand  the camera, as all other dogs had learned to pose like a professional.

         We  started this July 4th photo tradition forty-eight years ago, not  realizing it would become the tradition it has.  It tells a story of  adventure, travel, companionship, and family.  One wall in our home  shows us as newlyweds with new four-legged companion, Strider, roaming  the southern Colorado mountains, then through the years with additions  of Gandalf, Varda, Goldberry, and now Elanor;  through California, Utah,  South Dakota, and back to stay in Colorado.

          But during the drive for this trip, I sensed something different.  The  road was horribly washboarded, more than usual.  The drought was playing  havoc with the wildflowers, spare but still beautiful.   We saw almost  no campers, although one spot hosted something akin to a crowded big-box  store parking lot, with a dozen or more huge satellite-dish-adorned  motorhomes and accompanying four-wheelers a blight in the forest.  We  have always been able to find ourselves alone in beautiful settings,  even on this crowded holiday, and we found it again here, but I felt  something not right.

         I scanned my memory, visualizing the  places we explored over the years.  The Conejos River country, North  Park, the California high country and California seashore, Boulder Top  in Utah, the Black Hills, and twenty years here in the North Fork and  Western Colorado.  I realized that all those places may still be there,  but the world surrounding them was not.  Aspen die-off and spruce beetle  kill, continued overgrazing by cattle, millions more people, an  apathetic attitude by the campers themselves (they could enjoy  themselves just as much in a paved parking lot).  This forest and meadow  setting—all those special places we had discovered—were gone.  The  mountain air and abundant water were not the same.  The places might  still be on the maps, but my world had changed, leaving  the pure and  fresh feeling accessible only in my memory.

         Sure, I had changed, but  the world had as well.  My former agency, once the pride of the federal  fleet, is no longer admired.  The young attitude of the environmental  movement—starting with enthusiasm as did I in my work to change the  world back in 1970—is now stale, derailed by a society that has lost its  way.  And, abnormally hot, even in the high elevations, due to the  “hoax” called global warming.

          I stood  overlooking a hillside edged with spruce and aspen, and sparsely  carpeted with brilliant red scarlet gilia blooms struggling to make it  through the worst drought in a century.  Maybe the change is me and not  what I was seeing.  As an ecologist, I understand as much as anyone that  nature changes.  It is amoral, not good nor bad, just there.  I was  seeing change, but I was also seeing a change in me.

          Sure,  the world I grew up in, and matured in, is gone;  that is not unusual.   But I was in a melancholy mood to start the day due to a birthday wish  from the day before.  Not my birthday, but a high school classmate of  fifty-five years ago.  He asked  our classmates for a song, and it was a  key for me, unlocking memories from so long ago.  It was Try to  Remember, sung by many groups, but a favorite of mine from the Brothers  Four.  It laments the passing of time, the aging we all encounter.  “Try  to remember when life was slow and oh, so mellow.  Try to remember when  life was so fresh that no one wept except the willow.  Deep in  December, it’s nice to remember without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

           Our July 4th tradition brought back memories from so many years  gone by.  A young man now  gone the way of all young things through the  years. I think I have passed my September and see December not so far  off.  Yes, it is sad, so much gone by.  My heart has its share of hurts,  so it is not hollow.  But it does echo with the memories of Julys gone  by with friends gone as well.

            We cannot dwell on the sorrow, but sometimes, it does make the heart  beat stronger, yearning to relive the good times now gone.  All I can do  is look forward to another July 4, wetter, with more vivid and vibrant  wildflowers, maybe in a new, yet to be discovered location.  There is  always something to look forward to.  We just have to look a little  harder, past the hurt of times gone forever.

July 4th, posing among scant high-elevation wildflowers.

July 4th, posing among scant high-elevation wildflowers.

May 23, 2018

~~ Cool Rock Becomes Sweet Rock ~~

      Longtime friend Julia visited us for a few days. I wanted to show her  the Cool Rock trail south of the Gunnison Gorge.  On a sunny but cool  May morning, we hiked the short distance up the dry wash to where the  “cool rocks” create a maze of climbing and scrambling challenges.  After  her first “wow, what a cool rock,” I laughed and said I would count the  “cools.”

       There were many, but after a while, they turned  into “sweet.”  I wasn’t sure how or why the cools became sweets.  Julia  said words can make a difference.  Well, yes.  Words are what I use  prolifically to describe what I see around me, especially in times like  this.  So I thought about words and what they mean.

       What was the  difference between cool and sweet? Was I showing my age? John Denver  and I used “cool,” something from decades before. But John used “far  out” more often. I still see him in concert laughing and saying “far  out” when someone in the crowd yelled, “far out, John!”

       Someone  from the BLM had named the trail the Cool Rock Trail. At the time, I  thought this someone had a lack of imagination. After my two or three  dozenths “wow, what a cool rock,” I realized the name was appropriate.  But was it also “sweet?” Did it mean the same thing?

      I thought  the rocks “cool” but was this a generational thing? If kids now use  something like “sweet” or “awesome,” do they mean what I wanted them to  mean? My older brother might have used “hip” or even “groovy.” Years  later, teenagers might have used “gnarly” or “boss.” Even “keen.” Did  they all mean the same thing?
What  did I want it to mean? To me, the “cool” in referring to the rocks  means something special, out of the ordinary, worthy of adding  significance to, amazing, even special enough to bring out the spiritual  or sacred.

       I have commented earlier that I find a place like  this sacred. Someone else called it holy. What is the difference? Was  this generational, or cultural? I found holy to have a more religious  overtone. To me, sacred, or even spiritual, caught my intent better. It  is a place where my inner spirit, my soul, finds peace. It is not to  imply a religious dogma or belief.


       How do we use words and why? Do they  change over time? Are expressions of awe, amazement, and wonder  generational? Are the generations changing? Do I see something spiritual  in its natural beauty but the newest generation just see something  uncommon, without any significant meaning? I fear the generations coming  of age now do not connect with the Nature I connect with. I see the  beauty in the swirls of rock, the erosion, the sculpture. I know the  geologic history, how rocks erode and why. Even how and when they were  formed. Does the younger set see this since they are not part of the  Nature I am part of? They live in the cities and urban areas where they  are afraid to be left alone in a canyon such as this. I worry when they  may say awesome just as a word and not as a feeling.

       I object to some place names that my Anglo Saxon forebears used to  replace the names our ancient first peoples called things. Most of those  we no longer know. For example, why did McKinley push out Denali as the  name of the sacred white mountain up north? Why did Gunnison take over a  river, a town, a county, a mountain, and numerous other things? Surely  the Ute and groups before them had more descriptive names.

       I’m  sure someone unfamiliar with this area would say these were “cool  rocks.” But I saw them as cool lavender, white, and maroon Morrison  Formation rocks that indicate this area was a mudflat or under shallow  water in a fluctuation estuary or riverbed millions of years ago. Much  more descriptive, isn't it?

       The bird that called its descending  and haunting call from somewhere up on the cliffs, might just be a bird,  but it is my favorite, the icon and symbol of the canyon country in  this part of the world—the diminutive and to me almost sacred canyon  wren. A bird is not just a bird. A canyon wren is not a red-tailed hawk  is not a raven is not a mourning dove. They are different and the names  are descriptive.

       The clouds were not just clouds. They were  swirly, almost diaphanous wisps indicating the upcoming weather, soon to  be cumulus and possibly cumulonimbus of building thunderheads. The  ancients knew this; they didn’t need TV weathermen to tell them what to  expect. What were their names for the different clouds?

           Cliffs lined the canyon. Some cliffs were  blocky, angular, almost a rectangular collonade of dull brown. Some were  flaky, purples and maroon, wavy rounded columns. Once again, I  cautioned against putting rocks in one category. The Dakota sandstone is  millions of years different in age, a different color and hardness. The  Morrison famously contains dinosaur fossils,  a crumbly mudstone in  places, white with brown swirls in others. Some cliffs you didn’t want  to stand underneath, Julia cautioned me. I laughed and said she was in  more danger of earthquakes in the Bay Area than I was of a cliff falling  on me here. Each of us has to know the dangers we live with. We all  live with some.

     Towards the end of the trail, huge house-sized  blocks of Dakota sandstone jumbled across the dry wash bed. I think it  was at this point Julia said the cool had turned to sweet. Really? It  meant access had become very difficult for me. The sweetness now meant  mystery. I agreed with that. It wasn’t cool anymore. It went beyond  super cool. Maybe even beyond sweet, but in this case, I took sweet to  be almost unknowable. It would take much more effort to continue hiking  on. Maybe sweet meant taking a risk that included challenge and even  danger. It was indeed cool. It can mean whatever I want it to be. Isn't  that what makes each of us so cool? Even sweet. 

Traversing the Cool Rock Trail in Gunnison Gorge NCA in May.

Traversing the Cool Rock Trail in Gunnison Gorge NCA in May.

April 10, 2018

~~ Rocks and Phlox ~~

            I stood looking ahead with slight concern as the trail started up  another steep hill, through the jumbled and broken rocks. The hike had  been steep and hard the first half mile but had leveled off and the walk  across the open bench land sprinkled by a few huge rocks was a welcome  relief. The view to the east was expansive—the white-topped Ruby Range  ended the distant horizon.  Below and a couple miles away, we could see  an empty coal train silently winding along the Gunnison Riverlike some  toy, heading for the coal fields above Paonia.  Of course, the massive  lump called Thunder Mountain by the Utes, Grand Mesa by the rest of us,  stood imposing above the Mancos Shale badlands below.  But this day, I  was not interested in the geology. I was in an official Wilderness,  finding the challenge of the McCarty trail to be invigorating.

          It turned out to be another “wow” hike into the rock wonderland of  the canyon country. “Cool rocks” of another type, but still full of  wonder and amazement.  After the confusion of where the trail went and  where we were on the map, we stopped for lunch on that open flat, then  slowly continued on up the winding trail.  The “wow” view was at our  feet and not the towering cliffs above or the distant mountains.  Familiarity breeds the jaded taking-for-granted of such scenery and  those cliffs were impressive. They were the starting point for all the  rocks we were walking through, over, and around. I could never take for  granted the geologic time scale of a place like this and I did realize  we were frozen in a slow-motion time frame.  The cliffs and mesas they  lined were receding, slowing crumbling and eroding to layer the ground  around us with the fantasyland of rocks large and small. If I could  speed up time, we would be dodging the tumbling rocks and jumping to  keep from having the sandy and rocky ground under our feet slowly sink  to the valley floor far below.  But time was on our side and for us, the  ground was permanent, slowly growing grass and trees and cactus.

         The jumble of rocks, small, medium  and large, often snugged up against the beautifully artistic twisted  and gnarly dead juniper trees and branches, littered the ground.   Unusual rock shapes, colorful orange and green lichens, all painted and  sculpted the micro view. Unlike the cool rocks of Cool Rock Canyon  further upriver, these were mostly of one origin—probably Dakota  Sandstone, although some certainly hinted at different origins.  But on  this day, I didn’t care.

          For those of you who are familiar  with the Colorado Plateau canyon and cliff country know what I am about  to say.  For those of you who are not familiar, stop immediately and add  this part of the world to your bucket list. The Escalante and Dominguez  portion of the larger Uncompahgre Plateau is only a hint of the Utah  slickrock country to the west. Sort of like the Sistine Chapel ceiling  is only a hint of what Michelangelo created.

          This canyon  country, in our backyard for years, but unknown to us, has captured our  fascination, reawakening the memories of the Utah canyon country.  It  matches the grandeur I had found in such places as the nearby Rockies,  the magical Mt. Rainer and the Cascades, the powerful headlands of the  Mendocino Coast, the forests of the Sierra Nevada. We were only on the  edge of the canyon country, but the shapes, colors, textures of the  jumble of rock, tumbled down from cliffs above us and scattered on the  flats of the mesa bench were beyond description.

          As we  reached the limit of our aging legs and lungs, we found the last  hillside covered with pink and white springtime phlox blooms. Springtime  was either late or almost nonexistent in this drought-plagued year.   But the phlox came through. As we stood and admired the blooms  highlighted on the dark browns of the rocky soil, we noticed a couple  turkey vultures circling above the cliffs forming the upper horizon.  Blue sky slowly being covered by a thin haze of cloud streaks outlined  the skyline.  We called this final hillside buzzard point.  A fitting  end to a springtime hike and discovery.  It all adds an exclamation to  discoveries yet to be found.Kowing there were hidden and unknown canyons  and mesas still to be explored, we stopped to enjoy the view and wonder  what treasures still lay ahead. I sighed: so much to see, so little  time.  Ah, but time.  Time, that unseen force that sculpted this land  and promises to continue on, just as the buzzard continued her circles  far above. If only I could join her in her bird's eye view. Some things  must be left to the future.

Pale pink phlox amid rocks along McCarty Trail in Dominguez-Escalante National Recreation Area.

Pale pink phlox amid rocks along McCarty Trail in Dominguez-Escalante National Recreation Area.

April 2, 2018

~~ Birds, Butterflies, and Bees ~~

           April first and it was no fooling.  A warm winter but cool start to  spring left the annual green up a little slow.  But not for the apricot  trees. Always blooming too early, they rarely bear fruit due to April  and May freezes. Time will tell in 2018.  But April first left no doubt.  The blossoms were in full bloom.  And pollinators were ready and on the  wing. Finches were munching the blossoms. Butterflies were hovering and  flittering from branch to branch covered with pollen.  And the bees  were in full voice, swarming and buzzing, yellow legged, leaving no  silence on this spring day.

         Spring, a time for life to rise  and start anew. Whether finches singing their hearts out, through a  mouthful of fruit blossom, butterflies silently bouncing from tree to  tree, or bees humming their toneless tune, life was anew for another  season.

        What does all this mean? The formerly barren branches  were alive with a colorful hope of new life. That miracle continues as  it has for eons. The tree with its flowers, the birds soon to sit on  eggs, the butterflies and bees—all are in that automatic effort to  create new life. Whether fruit with seeds, eggs that hatch into new  birds, cows with calves and deer with fawns, life springs forth.

          As with the apricot blooms, we all seek heavenward in that never-ending  search for life, its meaning, its continuation. Could we all be like  the apricot blossom and provide beauty, food, joy and hope to those who  depend on us?  Think about it. 

Bees amid April apricot blossoms at Colwell Cedars Retreat.

Bees amid April apricot blossoms at Colwell Cedars Retreat.

March 22, 2018

~~ Do Rhinos Cry? ~~

            I watched with sadness the news of the loss of Sudan, the last known  northern white rhino. I wonder if his daughter and granddaughter shed a  tear for his loss.  I know we all should have.  He was the last, but he  was old and ready to leave. There are no more to take his place. Except  for his two female offspring, also in captivity and unable to run free  as they should have, he is the last. It is sad, worthy of tears, but it  happens way too often.

          Somewhere along the way, too many  people have lost the understanding that we are just one of many. If  something doesn’t have economic value, the ability to make some  entrepreneur wealthy, then it isn't important. Our children and  grandchildren are no longer part of nature. We are above such things as  dolphins, even though they may have intelligence close to ours.  We are  above Pacific salmon even though they can navigate their way thousands  of miles across the ocean to their birthplace, while we often can't find  our way home from the bar stool. We are smarter than the polar bear  even though they can survive where we never could.  Opposable thumbs do  allow us to destroy as well as create.

          I know extinction is  the norm.  In all of Earth’s history,  99% of all species that ever  existed have gone extinct. Some have occurred slowly, often morphing  into a different species.  Some may have occurred rapidly, like  dinosaurs, although we can only guess about that one.  There have been  several mass extinctions but the one occurring now is the most tragic.   Humans are causing this one, in our race to commit our own suicide.

            Did anyone shed a tear for the loss of the mastodon, the Hawaiian  honeycreepers, the ivory-billed woodpecker? Should we? Will anyone cry  for us?  Maybe Sudan shed a tear for us before he left, the species who  hunted him to extinction due to a ridiculous greed for his horn.  What  about the panda, the polar bear, the California condor?

           I wrote once about Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, who  died lonely in a Cincinnati zoo years ago.  Like the bison who thundered  across the plains, her kind roared through the skies in uncountable  numbers.  The pigeons are now gone forever, but the bison still remain,  reduced to a pittance.  We should cry for all we have done in our greed  and ignorance.  There will be no tears shed for us.  There will be a  thunderous cheer instead by the species we failed to annihilate.  We  should cry now for ourselves.


March 20, 2018

~~ Eagle and Nuthatch ~~

           As I walked out the door and headed towards the apartment, Katherine  opened the studio window and called softly to me.  “There is an eagle on  the power pole.”

          I took a few cautious steps to the left,  where I could see over the apartment roof and saw the big golden hunched  on top of the pole.  She had just landed and was readjusting herself.  Her golden head feathers sat atop a regal body, adorning large eyes and  curved beak that radiated power and dignity.

         I stood still,  afraid to move.  I stared at her as she stopped her looking around at  new surroundings and stared back at me. I knew her.  She was someone  from another life and being, come to visit, seeing how I was doing in  the life she used to share with me.

         How could I think that?   She was a bird, magnificent and otherworldly, but a bird just the same.  But I knew. Her look penetrated my very soul. I silently said hello and  thanked her for stopping to say hi.  We stared at each other for a full  minute as she continued to flex her feathers, shift her body,  straighten up as she filled the top of the power pole.

          I  have seen lots of eagles, baldies as well as goldens.  A golden—this  same one maybe—the past few weeks had been adorning the power poles  lining the long driveway out to the paved road.  I always welcomed them  and thanked them for their presence.  They were there waiting to lunch  or breakfast on the too numerous prairie dogs that littered the fields  on either side of the lane. They were wary, usually flying off as I  approached, but occasionally looking down as I walked or drove past.

          After our brief conversation, she lifted off, huge wings lumbering in  silent powerful strokes as she dropped towards the ground, then leveled  off a few feet above the driveway.  She flew a few hundred yards north,  then settled on a taller pole by our blue gate at the edge of our  property.  I didn’t follow, but would let her do her hunting or  meditating or whatever she does while sitting high up on her lookout  perch.

         A few minutes later, I finished my chore and looking  up at the pole she had sat on a few feet from where I stood.  Where she  had sat, I heard a familiar beeping.  It was one of my favorite  feathered friends—the little white breasted nuthatch. I often see, but  usually hear, one or two sitting as dignified as they can up there on  the top of the pole, wandering around looking over the edge.

           We usually have several of these little guys hanging around the house,  gathering sunflower seeds from the feeders, climbing straight up and  down trees, the sides of the house, along the window edges, calling back  and forth with their constant beeping. They remind me a some English  butler, with tuxedo and black skull cap.  I have had them slowly come up  to eat sunflower seeds out of my hands, but most often, they just like  to climb up and down tree trunks.  After a family hatches their brood in  the spring, mom and dad bring the kids and clamber around for us to  observe them.  I like to think they are proud parents showing off their  offspring. I never think of them as some lost soul coming to check up on  me as I did the eagle.  They are part of the landscape, sharing space  with us, living their lives just as I live mine. They are simply  neighbors and I think we enjoy each other’s company.

           The  eagle and the nuthatch.  Both are birds and both share lives with me.  How different they are, but how much they both add to my life.  I would  like to think I add to theirs, but I am sure they are indifferent to  me.  And I will talk to one as a friend, but to the other as a soulmate  from a past life.  One signifies power and authority.  One is a neighbor  I share thoughts with. I daily thank each of them for what they are and  what they mean to me.

White-breasted Nuthatch and Colorado blue sky.

White-breasted Nuthatch and Colorado blue sky.

March 11, 2018

~~ Cool Rock Serendipity ~~

          We  stood at the trailhead in the cool shadows of an early Saturday spring  morning.  I knew there was a trail here but was surprised by the brand  new Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area sign that heralded the  beginning of the Cool Rock Trail.  I chuckled at the rather  unimaginative name.  After climbing up a steep beginning of the trail  and walking no more than a few hundred yards along the dry wash bottom, I  wondered if I was reverting to a childhood vocabulary.  Every other  word I muttered included the phrase "wow“, what cool rocks.”  The trail  was very well named.  It was a geological wonderland.

          I  quickly ran through the scientific geological litany: we were in the  Morrison Formation which was topped by the Dakota Sandstone.  Typical  for this area.  Rather boring brownish sandstone crumbled down like cake  crumbs onto the pinks and purples and whites of the Morrison. But the  tumble-down boulder and rubble piles that lined and obstructed the  bottom gravelly wash was beyond imagination.  It was nature’s creativity  writ large. Around every bend in the wash, behind every boulder, was  another rock or pile of rocks that required a “wow, look at that cool  rock.”

         I was beginning to wonder at my lack of creativity in  describing what I saw.  I did not wonder at the run-away creativity of  this natural wonderland at our feet. Pink rocks broken in square or  rectangular blocks, small to large.  Pink with white dots and circles.  White with brown spots. Yellows and purples, striped and spotted.  Large  brown boulders with straight striations, curved and hollowed out  amphitheaters, all on a small scale that forced me to avoid picking up  every other rock to carry home as a souvenir.

          Progress was  slow up the canyon, but we had no end objective.  The objective was to  wander slowly uphill, gazing at the cliffs above, the rocks at our feet.  The objective was to try and figure out where the canyon wren was as we  continually heard the descending call of one of my favorite birds,  rarely seen, but whose call echoed throughout the canyon like the call  of the mystical sirens of old.

         The fast-moving string of  clouds from west to east finally ended as the sun, at last, came over  the east canyon wall, erasing the cool morning air. Now I could stand in  the sun, soaking up the warmth like a lizard warming his blood.

          I have encountered similar dilemmas in the past.  How can I describe  the grandeur of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to someone who has  never seen the canyon? How can I explain the majesty of an Alaskan  glacier from a boat watching giant cliffs of ice calve into the sound?  How can I capture the magnificence of a giant sequoia as I crane to see  the top from my humble place at the huge base of this creation of  nature?

          Words can come after much consideration and  deliberation. But words cannot capture the emotion, the awe, the  realization of the artistry of nature. The old saying kept coming to  mind: you just had to be there. For some inexplicable reason, I kept  thinking this jumble of rock artistry actually did compare to these  other sights, however on a much smaller scale. The only words that came  close were “wow, what cool rocks.” I really had regressed to childhood  wonder.  I looked upwards at the red and purple and brown rocks poised  above me, touching the blue of the sky striped with a few lingering  wisps of white cloud, streaked with gossamer as if being pulled apart  like taffy.

         The canyon continued to snake uphill, the sides  sometimes widening into almost rockless slopes, then narrowing as the  red and brown cliffs shot straight up. Taking occasional breaks from the  rocks, we marveled at the ancient lichen encrusted holly oaks and  single leaf ash, mixed with sparse juniper and Mormon tea. There was  life here mixed in with the lifeless rocks.  But the rocks were not  lifeless.  They carried colorful life as green and orange and white  lichens covered the boulders in a struggle to see how much could fit  onto one rock. Layer over layer, the lichens almost equaled the artistry  of the rock itself.

           When I felt I could absorb no more, I heard the faint call of the canyon  wren, high up on the canyon cliffs. I know that is the sound I will  hear when I do pass into the next universe. It is haunting, yet hopeful.  It is like the sound of running water, the breeze through the grass,  the soothing thunder of surf on a broken shore.

          We had  wandered uphill far enough.  It was time to turn around and pick our way  through the boulders.  Seeing the rocks, recognizing others like old  friends we had seen only minutes before, it was a journey back to the  real world.  Although there were other footprints in the soft dirt, we  knew this had become our secret place.  We would share it, hoping the  others would see and appreciate what we did. This had become sanctuary  where the real world would await us. A world of wonder and peace, with a  blue sky, wisps of clouds and the haunting call of my canyon wren.We  all can find our own serendipity. It is at our feet if only we choose to  look. We open our eyes, listen, feel the breeze, see the wonders. Life  surrounds us and life itself is a serendipity. 

Joseph Colwell hiking the Cool Rock Trail in Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

Joseph Colwell hiking the Cool Rock Trail in Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

February 22, 2018

~~ Orchid ~~

           We walked down the hill in the  crisp sunshine, temperatures in the mid-twenties.  The fresh snowfall  from the day before dusted the ground with white. When we reached the  creek, we saw the tracks. Big cat, puma, lion, catamount, panther,  cougar.  She goes by many names, moves silently as a night breeze. Sleek  and powerful, she is grace and dignity with fur. I looked around.

           I had recently reworked the trail crossing of Laughingwater Creek.   This ending of the Wetfoot trail had undergone several iterations. I  could not find a good place to cross the creek. Opening up a new route  by cutting out a large sumac bush, I then placed several large flat  rocks as stepping stones.  I was bringing Katherine down to show her my  work.

          This new crossing must be good, I thought, as the big  cat had crossed there, leaving footprints in the snow still on those  flat stepping stones. I couldn’t tell which direction she was heading,  but I did follow the tracks as they lead down the trail away from the  crossing.

         She might still be nearby watching us I realized.  The tracks were not huge, smaller than my outstretched hands.  I guessed  it might have been two sets, maybe mom and last year’s kitten. We  followed them along the trail, then uphill. She was wandering all over. I  was not surprised she was here. This was perfect cat country since it  was remote and not near any road or house. Our house was uphill and  several hundred yards away. I have no doubt that I have had cats  watching me many times because I have spent hours walking these trails  in the winter. Only once before had I seen a live one and that happened  to be almost in this exact spot nearly 20 years ago.

         I share  the forest with her and she leaves me alone. I welcome her presence and  honor her, yet am satisfied seeing the tracks and not her tawny body.  We all share this life and this home. I named her Orchid since the  tracks went by a place along the creek that blooms with a rare orchid in  May. Peace to you, Orchid, I whispered as we left the tracks at the top  of the hill.  She was still wandering and looking for her next meal.  I  wished her well.