Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Lost Coast's Sinkyone Wilderness

Seals in the surf, Sinyone Wilderness

We planted and tended an apple orchard in the central New Mexico mountains while I was growing up. It was on the far side of the Manzano Mountains, made famous recently as one of the recurring backdrops in the TV series "Breaking Bad". Not famous by name but by their unmistakable profile, filmed so many times while Walter White and his former student make meth and have epic adventures in the mesa country west of those mountains and the Rio Grande river valley. The other side of the Manzano Mountains was remote in the 1960's and although less so, still is today. It's main inhabitants, in towns such as Tajique and Torreon, are descendents of the hardy settlers granted land by Spain in what would become northern Mexico and then the United States.

After losing my first job out of college I had a choice, to continue living in the rental house or sell my new Landcruiser. I still have the Landcruiser....  We had inherited a well drillers trailer at our orchard. It was a Dutchcraft manufactured in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and perfect for a single guy on the road. Welders fixed up the hitch on the Landcrusier and I headed out like a lunar lander to northern California and an apprenticeship with a renowned cabinetmaker. James Krenov was the pied piper of handmade cabinetry and fine furniture in the 1980's and his tune had caught my ear.

It was still some days until wood shavings would curl in earnest and most of the other students were not there yet when I landed in Fort Bragg, California one late August day, rolling the rig into the schools parking lot. Things were quiet in the shop.

There was a bulletin board in the foyer library and on it was a flyer "Student with trailer wanted to board at small local farm". I had to read it twice, even three times as I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. Then I called the number and soon was talking to one of the nicest people I have ever met.

The farm was out on the high bluff above the Noyo river south of town. I parked behind the barn on the edge of a small clearing, plugged in my electric and water lines and Eureka! I was home! The spot was a relatively short mountain bike ride from the shop. It was a great ride going in (and a little harder coming out), swooping down a private trail onto the old Georgia Pacific haul road that lead to the lumber mills in Fort Bragg.

Life in the shop was busy and intense. While making hand planes and studying ways to cut up exotic planks on gigantic bandsaws a nagging thought kept hitting the back of my mind. This was northern, northern California. Almost 200 miles north of San Francisco the coastal highway was a narrow strip of asphalt that turned inland not too far north of town. Beyond this turn was coastal wilderness nicknamed "The Lost Coast". I had to go there.

The local coffee shop was animated by an old hippy with long flowing white beard and hair. His sparkling eyes were intensely black, much like the espresso beans from which he concocted his magic brew. He flew about that little shop, whistling under his breath in his tennis shoes and t-shirt making the most extreme lattes I have ever had. Newspapers and flyers of all sorts were to be found there. While he danced about, I began reading about local indigenous groups including the Sinkyone and the sacred ground now known by their name. Along vertical cliffs, small creeks had carved their way to the coast, and in these little enclaves, great redwoods grew, right at the shoreline and the legends said that in these groves the Sinkyone buried their dead.

The shop was open on Saturday's and we were expected to be there working. It was a shorter day than the rest of the week and we often got off around 3. After several months of reading and buying up local maps I took off one Saturday afternoon with a buddy and we headed north. The turn onto the dirt track heading towards the wilderness was not marked except for spray painted cryptic signs on the pavement. The narrow lane was just a gap in the trees easily missed while speeding by.

We drove up that track for some time overwhelmed by the cliff views of the Pacific ocean. Eventually we drove down onto Usal Beach, the largest and first of many coves and the last accessible by vehicle. We parked, put on our packs and headed out on the trail in the late afternoon light.

We hiked for hours. The trail took us high above the coast with its pounding waves, deep into woods and out into open areas where we climbed even more. Night fell, the moon came out, and still we hiked on. Around 2 in the morning we dropped to sea level through moist, fern covered hills into our first great stand of Redwoods. We strolled in awe through perhaps 10 trees towering silently into the moon-lit sky. The grove was buried deep in the canyon where fresh water poured into the ocean. Climbing again, we came out once more into scrub bushes along rounded ridges above the pounding surf. Exhausted with hiking and the wonder of the place we dropped our packs, and slept right there on the trail.

Thus, was my first encounter with the sublime Sinkyone wilderness of Northern California.

Many years later, at a reunion of woodworkers at the school, some of us journeyed again to Usal Beach where the trail begins into this wondrous place. We trod above great cliffs that day before pausing for our picnic. Drunk on friendship, primordial beauty and the bittersweet sorrow that comes in such fleeting moments we exclaimed about the state of the world. It was September 9th, 2001. We all flew back to our respective places in America the next day, holding dear in our hearts these friendships and the ringing beauty of that magnificent coast.

Mistake Point and the Lost Coast Trail

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Loneliest Road in America

The dreams of my youth were of wilderness and searching for its heart. Getting to the edge of wilderness where you could jump off and out of civilization usually involved a vehicle of some kind. The irony was that the wilderness was more accessible because of that car. My grandfather and his friends rode horseback great distances getting to what was in their day just called the "back-country". But this story is really not about cars, or horses and mules, but the empty land still "out there" and chance encounters in the wild.

My first journey's across the Nevada deserts came after getting my first real job out of college. My original dream machine following the hot rods and pick up trucks of high school days was an FJ-40 Toyota Land Cruiser, and now I could finally afford it! My walk-about journeys in my early 20's would be done in and with this archetypal truck which I literally lived out of for long spells at a time. In many ways I was well suited for this cab over tractor as we grew up driving an International pickup truck with an identical motor. The truck too could go anywhere as long as it got traction, pulling with unbelievable torque while being slow on the highway without much horsepower. But this story is not  really about trucks, but the places where they take us and those we meet along the way.

In 1986, so the story goes, Life magazine dubbed a portion of Highway 50 in Nevada, "The Loneliest Road in America". Not surprisingly, Nevada grabbed onto that as a way to make some money and plastered the saying all over the road signs just to be sure you got the right feeling. The basin and range country of Nevada is as remote as anywhere in the west and strange things happen in such places. One night driving out there I topped a rise and spied a small town in the distance. Driving on towards it for some time at about 65 mph it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn't a town, but a car coming the other way!

There are several little towns in the most remote reaches of this drive. One late Sunday afternoon the truck hummed along as we past by one of them while reading the sign stating clearly that the next gas station was over 200 miles away. Suddenly I realized I would have to get gas here and even then would barely make it to the next town. Slowly I rolled into the only station there and it was already closed. I hadn't planned on staying the night and was counting on driving into the early morning before catching some sleep and pushing on to the coast of California. I cruised through the streets parking outside the local tavern going in and ordering a beer. While chit chatting with the bartender I explained my predicament to him and within a few minutes was headed to the house where the owner of the station lived. He came to the door and wanted nothing of my problems but grudgingly accepted my five dollars to come out and pump my tank full after hours.

So I got to spend the night far from that spot pulling off onto a dirt track that climbed a treed hill nearby. Stars in the winter desert sky are a sight not to be forgotten easily. Brilliant and with the color and smudge of galaxy and nebula only the intense cold finally drove me deep into the down sleeping bag tearing my eyes from their glory.

Ten years would go by before I drove that way again. It was again in winter and snow drifted and twirled across the road as small flurries blew about. I stopped for gas at the little town I had headed for that Sunday a decade before. Starting out under the gray skies and swirling clouds the road went into the canyon curve below town. A truck was coming towards me and I started with recognition but didn't yet know why.  I stared at him and he stared over at me as we ripped by each other. It was my good buddy Tom! He was working as an Archaeologist in Nevada and was heading back to Nederland, Colorado for the winter season.

We both hit our brakes and I flashed the turn signal. I turned around and nosed onto the dirt track where he had pulled over. We laughed and hugged as the snow blew around us. Wasn't it amazing to meet out here in this way! He had something to show me and opened the back of his truck pulling out a hammer dulcimer which he placed on the tailgate.

Tom bent over intently with his hands flying about striking its strings with the small wooden hammers. Beautiful music floated from the dulcimer swirling with the snow as the wind grabbed at the notes. Here in this lonely place two friends chanced to meet with companionship warming their hearts like fire in a hearth. We drove off  and I marveled at how life's chances would bring us together in that place and time. For this moment at least, this road was our road and not so very lonely after all.

(For more stories involving Tom, please see "Under the Eternal Sky" and "Neshka, Ashi, and the Taos Plateau")

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Cactus Phone

  As children we often visited our grandparents in southern Arizona where they worked a ranch about 25 miles southeast of Tucson. The trips always started with an announcement posed as a question. How would we like to go visit Nana and Grandpa? At that point our excitement would burst as we raced about the house shrieking in our joy. There was nothing grander in our young lives. The day of departure we would each be given a bucket filled with crayons, paper and toys. Wise and useful were the gifts giving us means to wile away the hours…and a place in which to barf when motion sickness overwhelmed us.

    After what seemed an eternity we would finally pull off the two lane highway onto a straight dirt track and travel the 2 1/2 miles to the ranch house. The road was straight on a map but the ground was not level for it followed the contours carved out by cloud bursts. These torrents of debris and muddy water rolled in a ball of fury off the flanks of the Coyote Mountains that rose dramatically out of the desert floor to the west. The best part of our drive was Dad gunning the old truck over the rolling hills leaving our stomachs to float into the desert sky as we plummeted shrieking down the other side.

    Their house was not ordinary. It was simple, small but magical. The front was framed with Saguaro cactus, but the side door, the boot and mud room, served as the main entrance. In the back was hard swept ground framed by an ocateo fence. The dwelling was wood framed and plain, smelling of wood smoke, leather, and the delicious aromas from the kitchen. The kitchen table was on a slight platform off of the main room which to our joy had a TV. We watched the original Maverick and many other westerns on this flickering black and white smugly knowing that we lived in the land they were trying to depict. To us we had landed in that very time as well. Marty Robins sang about the Big Iron on His Hip and the west Texas Town of El Paso on the scratchy phonograph in that same room. This house was heaven.

    Of particular joy was being invited to go with Grandpa for the mail. You didn't just go with him, you had to be invited. This was a daily ritual as important as the chores, the feeding of livestock and the eventual breakfast for us. So about 9 in the morning I would clamber into the pickup and us men would head for the highway. Over the roller coaster road we went, Grandpa smoking and me just pleased to be alive. Upon arrival at the pavement we would pull off and gather what mail there might be. We would sit in the truck while he read through it and we waited. And then it would happen. The startling ringing sound would break out over the silent desert as the phone announced the incoming call. The routine was known to those who knew my grandparents. Anyone needing to talk with them knew Grandpa would be getting his mail about 9:30 in the morning. A phone line paralleled the highway and attached to this line was an old timey phone placed in a wooden box at the base of a giant Saguaro.  What a thrill it gave me to hear its ring and to watch Grandpa go squat and open this box, putting a receiver to his ear talking to someone over there in Tucson.

     Many years later I was working for the Forest Service in Boulder County. Available to me for a large sum of money was a cellular Motorola phone that was made to mount on the dash of a pickup. I didn't bother with the dash mount but placed the phone in my pack. It was as large as a shoe box and that phone was more powerful than any I have had since. I kept it there so that when I topped out on high ridges I could catch the phone signal and make a call, or maybe more importantly, receive one. I let people know that they could try to call me in the late evening of those summer days and would climb high in the hills while the sun set to see if any would call. Strolling about on a ridge top one evening, I thought back to those days at the ranch, and Grandpa and his cactus phone.

                                                       At the ranch with Joe

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Starry, starry night (when Sheppard's keeping watch, saw a great sight)

     As a child I was versed in stories of Wise Men whose learning of stars and planets revealed a great child would be born.  These early stories taught that learning the night sky could lead to knowledge and even wisdom beyond the ordinary. And it was very mysterious. The celebration of this birth was eventually placed by the church at the time of the Roman winter festivals of Mirtha and Saturn. It is no coincidence that these festivals occur at the time of the winter solstice.

     Growing up in the southwest meant encountering other mysteries about astronomy and religion. Chaco Canyon haunted my childhood imagination. Understanding keys of Chaco, how it marks the exact yearly and decade’s long wanderings of the sun and moon came slowly from archeoastronomy. The depth of this mystery grew for us over these years. Here was a recent primitive society whose advanced knowledge of the sky allowed them to develop agriculture. With agriculture came a sophisticated, structured society. This was possible due to their understanding of the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Their villages and buildings formed a giant observatory both locally and across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. What they observed gave great value to their everyday lives. The summer and winter solstices illuminate marks within the buildings and shine along walls in the villages. They were at one with the calendar of the sky. The powerful directing this knowledge were high priests as they have been in other societies throughout time all over the earth.

     Growing up included participating in the raising an apple orchard in the central mountains of New Mexico. It lay along a remote mountain side where silence reigned and no city lights were visible beyond a far northern glow. The available labor pool for planting and tending trees were us kids from two families. From the time I was 8 years old, the orchards and that place became planted in my memories eventually growing into legends in my mind.

     Time there became the side bar of childhood and youth. We reveled laying out at night trying to count the stars as they appeared and then almost magically overwhelmed us by their infinite numbers. As the years wheeled by, the stars became friends. Constellations became familiar types of people and animals as the patterns named ages ago became clear to me (and I made up a few myself). 

    Understanding the night sky comes to individuals. Great insight comes through individual pieces of knowledge cobbled into a greater store of understanding beyond the span of individual lives. This is the story of humanities rise throughout history over the globe. Here in America when they learned the math of the sky which told them to plant and harvest the Anasazi matched the Chinese accomplishments from centuries before.

    The night sky is the original big screen. At this holiday time, it is visible for the longest time of the year. Celebrate the return of the sun, and revel in the glorious beauty of Orion, the Dog Star and the Pleiades as they rise. Look with hope at the setting Summer Triangle while gazing up and out.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Neshka, Ashi and the Taos Plateau

Wildness does not go away because we bring it indoors. This is especially true of animals. Tom had two Malamutes, Neshka and Ashi, named for Eskimo heroes he had read about. He lived with them in a one room cabin up Coal Creek Canyon. The cabin was part of a string of sagging structures lining the old railroad tracks that one old cantankerous woman manged for her income. She cursed out a story of shooting a bear from her porch while looking me up and down like I was a piece of dressed meat. When the dogs weren't keeping Tom warm in his hut he would clip them to the clothes line in back that served as a run.

Tom was of slight build and less than medium size. The dogs were basically bigger than he was. No matter, he was the master and would hurl them onto the floor gripping their neck and growling at them during times when they needed reminding he was their top dog.

His brother was dying in Florida and he needed someone to care for the pack while he was gone. I had spent many evenings with Tom, choking on the wood smoke in the little cabin while we discussed archaeology, anthropology, and life in general in the wild west. I went home with him one afternoon to pick them up.

Some Malamutes can seem almost like other dogs, friendly, happy, wanting to play and basically being good campers around the kids. Not Neshka who was the lead between these two brothers. He seemed more wolf than dog to me and had a cunning and wily look about him. Ashi was mild and followed Neshka who I did not trust.

I had business in New Mexico and Tom and I talked of my taking them with me that next week. I custom fit a piece of heavy wire mesh to the rollbar of the landcuiser. This would serve well as a cage for the two in the back of the truck. We packed up and headed out of Boulder for the Land of Enchantment.

Our first stop was up the forest road at the southern base of Kenosha Pass where I let them run. After a time I whistled and back they ran and off we went once more. The day grew old as we drove onto the Taos Plateau and got to San Antonio Mountain in northern New Mexico. It would be dark within an hour or so and this wild place would be a good romping ground for them before we pushed on to Albuquerque.
                                                                   San Antonio Mountain

The Taos Plateau is a vast and treeless high plain area that was formed by volcanic flows. A veneer of soil has formed on the old basalt flows that supports cactus and some grass. The landscape is bleak and breathtaking in its vastness. A perfect place to let the dogs run. And run they did until I felt a twinge and whistled them back in. They ran up to me and Neshka came right up with head lowered looking intently at me with yellow eyes. I praised them for coming and let them run again. This time they took off like the wind. I had never seen them run like this. I suddenly started at how far they quickly had gone and began whistling once more. Their forms were now faint in the fading light and then gone with only the whisper of the wind swirling about me.

I stayed out there till way after dark but never saw them again. This was long before cell phones, not that they work here even now. My family was expecting me. I drove home and my brother vowed he would return with me. We got back to the spot before dawn.

This area is part of the region frequented by the Basque sheepherders out of Spain. I had seen ones camp the day before. We parked the truck where I had released the dogs and hiked to the area of the herd. We spoke to the Shepard in Spanish, asking if he had seen El Lobos (the wolves). He had not and we got his assurance that he would not shoot the dogs on sight if they weren't harassing the sheep.

We hiked back over and as we got closer I could see the silhouette of a dog under the truck. It was Ashi who trembled and would not leave my side at that point. Two knobs of hills rise above the plain nearby and we headed over to them. Clambering to the top of the southern one, I spied Neshka on the far side at the bottom of the hill. He looked at me, I looked at him. I called to him and he turned and ran disappearing into the distance.

We never found Neshka. Tom and I returned with Ashi to camp one night a week later on a protected ledge that formed below the knob. We had a fire and told stories long into the starry night while gazing at the lights of Taos some 40 miles away while Ashi trembled at our sides. Tom's cantankerous old landlady told him he should never have trusted such a fool of a friend as me but Tom never blamed or faulted me in any way. Neshka was mostly wolf and that area of northern New Mexico is home to bands of wild dogs even now. We felt sure he had roamed as a king and there may very well be other Malamutes in the canyons and hills in that region that look a lot like Neshka!

Camping ledge, Taos Plataeu

(For another story about Tom, please see the first post of this blog, "Under the Eternal Sky")

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Distance We Travel

Mountains are the backdrop of our life in the west. Particular mountains are like old friends, creating touchstones filled with memory and thought. Their presence work to remind and challenge us throughout life. This is why I return to place time and again and am rewarded by memories and new experiences weaving themselves together in the eternal moment. 

This day was an exceptional revisiting of mountain friends while learning about new ones. I was climbing Lookout Mountain in the eastern San Juan's on a late summer day. It was silent and the air was still as I came up through the Elk scented and shadowy woods to the rocky cliff below the table top. The sun was warm clear of the trees, even hot at times as I clambered onto the flat land lofted into the air like a floating island out of Avatar. The brilliance of place manifests itself in these parklands at the summits of peaks and ridges. Everything about you is impacted by the uniqueness of where you are. The world is as if just born, laid at your feet to see for the first time.

                               Lookout Mountain from the west

San Antonio Mountain could clearly be seen far to the east, past the valleys and treed hills all around. This magnificent roll of ground had long thrilled us as kids as we journeyed from Albuquerque to the San Juans for camping and fishing. For this hill marked the gateway into Colorado from the south and the Land of Enchantment from the north. High on the Taos Plateau it can be seen from great distances and had often been a comfort to see from window seats far overhead on many plane flights across the country. A touchstone indeed over the years.

The gentle roll of San Antonio Mountain in the distance

Once the eastern view had been taken in, I turned to gaze out to the west. The most inaccessible spiky Grenadiers of the western Weminuche wilderness punched into the sky. A smile emerged as I also saw La Ventana now mostly called by its English name, The Window and the Pyramid. Like San Antonio mountain, the Window and the Pyramid were backdrops to my life as a boy. So many years ago at the age of perhaps 15, I had climbed the Pyramid, as a pilgrimage into the sacred Weminuche.  

The boy, the Window and the Pyramid, circa 1974

A cool breeze began, whispering up from the valleys below that now had deep and long shadows crossing them in the late afternoon. I rubbed my neck and looked over at San Antonio Mountain and then again gazed at the Pyramid. It turns out that both of these mountains are just over 48 miles from the top of Lookout Mountain. A far distance on foot in such a turbulent landscape but close to view from here. Which really is farther to go I wondered to myself. The miles between the landmarks? Or the years since first seeing and climbing these mountains? Sighing and turning, I began my descent, the cooling air in my face.

Rio Grande Pyramid along the distant horizon

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wind River Thunder

Happily exhausted, we lay down in the back of the truck with the Muz (our dog) snuggled between us.  The night was cool, going on to cold.  We had eaten our supper while trying to absorb the view to the west.  It was as if Yosemite had collided with Rocky Mountain National Park and dumped out all the tourists along the way.  The only crowds here were the swarms of mosquitoes trying to find a drilling point on what little flesh we still had exposed.
            Eight hundred feet below beckoned the lake and another 500 feet below that ran the river.  Beyond this was the jumble of sheer rock, catches of water at their feet and woods carpeting what soil had formed in this stony world.  Great towers of rock, cliff faces streaked black with snow melt, connected with ridges that appeared like broken teeth or the ears of bears or rabbits. 
            Sleep came swiftly like the cold, deep water in the river below, and swept us three into the land of dreams.  Galloping hooves woke me as the herd drove about the truck till it shook.  Massive bull elk seemed to tear up the alpine turf as they surged along the ridge.  Struggling to sit I could see their shapes in the light of the moon as they galloped by.  Strangely, the antlers of one seemed shaped like a moose and at that I awoke and struggled to realize it was a dream. The sound of the hooves rang in my mind while dozing back to sleep as I thought of how great the ruin of hoof prints would look in the morning light. 
            Even in the clear illumination of dawn the belief held that the prints would be in the grass.  They were not there. The herd had galloped in from some other day and place, and awakened my sleeping ear and eye to see into the soul of the place, perhaps a gift from the fierce mountains. Night thunder in the Wind Rivers.