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RoadTrip12

After half a dozen trips across the West, I decided these travels need their own blog.

I do not hail from the West, but rather, the Midwest.  I fled to the coast as many do for work.  But as the West Coast explodes with housing and business development, I find myself driving away from the tower cranes, burgeoning condos, metastatic housing development. I live in a farming area, a river valley, surrounded by increasingly lush vegetation and rich wildlife.  But increasingly, it’s not far enough away.

So a couple times a year, I head east, letting the scenery fly by as I unwind behind the wheel on the interstate.  I end up in Montana or Wyoming, looking for wildlife, public access, open space, few people. I get to unwind, mull over my life, think about future adventures. Each trip, I travel a little farther, and disappear a little more.

These journeys need their own place to live.  To follow them, visit https://larkeyskip.wordpress.com/.

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skiingforthesuckerholeHeavy weather didn’t wash away the colors of skiers skimming trails in the Methow Valley.  Occasional wet snow couldn’t dampen the teals and fuschias and yellows of modern outerwear. Petite teardrop packs rode neatly on people’s backs if they carried anything at all. Space age skis with optimized length and shape for easier turning painted the ground with a vibrant color palette.

oldfriendAnd there I was, in my red and black, 23-year old North Face shell, everything else black, carrying a black and green, 20-year old Arcteryx pack.  I wore my old Karhu half-metal edge, long, pointed skis. It’s not that I don’t own more modern gear. That gear hung neatly in closets, or slept quietly in a drawer.

Why would I reach for old gear when I have new?  It’s not stubborn thriftiness, because I already wrote the check to replace my well-worn gear.

And it’s not misplaced attachment to glory days of yore.  A long-ago manager taught me how that looks with tales of his youthful exploits as a Yosemite Valley climber.  As a new climber, I was very impressed with his conquering El Capitan, but after a few stories, I realized the throwback climber’s clothing and old stories he wore like a badge of honor were all that he had to offer.  I wanted to keep living, have new stories to tell.

No, the reason I keep my old gear has to do with memory and familiarity. That pack has traveled to New Zealand twice, Tonga, the Arctic, Costa Rica, Canada, Hawaii a couple times, the Southwest, and the Midwest.  It has ridden in airplanes, cars, and carts; hiked, scrambled, skied, and climbed.

Those skis took me on my first trip to Methow Valley 22 years ago, traveling hut to hut in the Rendezvous area, and many other places. The goretex shell- well, that’s been everywhere including the tops of volcanoes.

mazamawelcomeIn a time when powerful people want to turn the world upside down, we’re weathering one piece of bad news after another, and nothing seems steady or logical, we turn to the familiar.  My outdoor gear is my memento, my keepsake of a life lived as fully as I could considering I’m not a natural athlete, but naturally work too much.

The fabric of old jackets and packs holds our shape and memories, and worn though it is, provides a reminder that life can make sense, and can bring adventure and joy.  Times like these, you are afraid there will be no new memories to be had. You’re hunkered down wondering if you have to protect your finances to avoid future government catastrophe and worrying if you’ll make it through that ultrasound finding or weather your estranged brother’s death if the next stroke is fatal.

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Wapta Icefield, in another old jacket

The memory of standing on a volcano, tired but triumphant, gazing at a sea of peaks, reminds you that there is a world, and that the ageless mountains will someday shrug off all of humanity in one big heave.  It makes the day-to-day anxieties small in relation to the planet. The looming monsters shrink to ants.

 

But romanticism aside, using old gear has its costs in a way that cradling a family memento does not.

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The Clip Flashlight survives wandering grizzlies in Wyoming- but not the rain

My trusty Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent, the one edition that never had a long enough fly, just can’t keep out the rain anymore. I brought my new Mountainsmith tent on a Montana trip last year just in case.

No waterproofer will revive a goretex membrane that, upon examination under microscope, probably doesn’t exist anymore. I have a newer jacket that traveled to the Arctic with me, because that’s not a place that tolerates bad gear.

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Water crossing, Auyuittuq Traverse- not the place to cling to old gear.

And when you beat the camber out of skis, they ride flat and slow on the snow, making you work even on the downhill.

 

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Five years ago on these same skis, when they were only 17 years old

So maybe the trick is to keep making new memories with new gear, and memorialize the old in decorations like the ski fence I drove by on my way here.

 

There is much to love about the new.  The Methow Valley Ski Trails Association has worked hard to remain relevant and to engage new audiences.  They offer trails for kids, with illustrated StorySki boards about polar bear polka parties, and sassy animals tempting them to learn about nature and practice ski techniques.  I endured my first years of skiing on hand-me-down wooden skis in woolen army surplus knickers and layers of old logging jackets.  These kids wear light, warm gear and knitted hats with goat horns, and play all the way down the trail.  No grim determination needed here.

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There are trails for dogs, and the dogs are good dogs.  These aren’t the predatory pooches hopping on your skis and nipping at your calves as you careen downhill.  They run with their owners and only approach if invited- and I do invite them, because I love dogs.

methowdogheavenThere are trails for fat bikes, with beefy snow tires. Trails for skate skiers and snowmobiles.  Easy, medium, and hard trails. Trails that the neighbors decorate with crazy pink flamingos. methowtrailflamingos

 

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A rare selfie, with stick-induced wound

This weekend is a new start on an old, dead tradition. Friends and I used to ski the Methow Valley every year on the holiday weekend because I share a birthday with dead presidents. Those friends are gone, or quit skiing, or became overwhelmed by life.  Heck with that, I figure.  I still ski. I still share a birthday with dead presidents who got us government workers a Monday off.

 

I skied unapologetically in my old gear, and didn’t bother to cover up the scrape on my chin where that argument with a stick ended with a win for the stick. The freedom that comes with not being beautiful is exhilarating, and a stick scab from a speedy maneuver into the woods is a hero’s badge. The memory of flight comes from poling hard downhill to gain speed when the snow is good and the glide wax is fresh.

But next year, maybe next year if I make it through and the country still stands, I’ll bring my new gear, that light gear in brighter colors, and make new memories on the pyre of old traditions and lost ways.

 

 

 

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The first photographers who labored to put image to paper almost 200 years ago couldn’t have known that someday, a small camera within the budget of average Americans would be able to capture the crescent moon.  My little camera sees this New Year’s moon in more detail than the first photographers ever could. And  in another 200 years, we will probably live on the moon if we live at all.

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Credit: Dcibillus, Wikimedia Commons, 2009

But using an electronic eye to see into the heavens doesn’t resonate like using imagination to daydream the moon and stars. Cultures around the world saw the sliver of waxing or waning moon and turned it into concept or goddesses or some symbol of the mysterious.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Using that electronic eye catches scenes quickly, gives a nice visual to tell a story with, lets us race by and get to the next part of our lives.  But slowing down, seeing that symbol hanging in the dark sky far above and imagining its meaning and power, stays more with us.

I spent the holidays puttering, cleaning, slowing down, simplifying not making resolutions to do more and better, but just stopping to think and to reach back to the things that make me happy.  The things that should inspire gratitude.

In a busy life, it’s easy to forget to be grateful. It’s been unusually cold here, and the cold stretches on. The ground is hard and the water tanks freeze nightly.  I carry water for half an hour every morning. It’s bone-chilling damp and frigid when I get off the train in Seattle. But electronics give me pause and perspective:  The jet stream that is chilling us with arctic flow is pressing a massive incoming pineapple express into northern California, which will experience major flooding, avalanches, and landslides.  That storm would have been barreling down on my area – if it hadn’t been so cold, that is. make_img

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Mt. Baker, with a little steam rising to remind us it’s an active volcano.

And we’re not dry cold:  we’re having a phenomenal winter season, a good ski/snowshoe year, so there’s still time to get out to the mountains and enjoy and get back in shape for backpacking season.

 

 

larkeyMy remaining horse, and all the animals I’ve cared for here are also a reason for gratitude.  I bought this house, located in such a perilous place, for my horses.  Here I am now, down from four horses, two dogs, and two cats that came with the house.  I one horse left, and he’s ageing and looking sore on one leg, and we can’t figure out what it is.  I’m feeling the loss of my other horse, and this animal’s aching.

This stage can seem like the twilight of a flawed day that started with a brilliant, hopeful dawn.  You become worn being the angel of death ushering beloved animal companions one after the other  into eternal night. You wonder what would have been had you done something different.

Well, here’s the deal.  My dogs and horses forced me outside to get fresh air and exercise even when I didn’t want to go. They grounded me and gave me a badly needed sense of responsibility. They gave me reason to locate in a quiet sanctuary that protected me in some major life changes and difficult situations.

hawk3This sanctuary is where I learned to heal the land and make a home for wildlife.  Teaching other people what I learned over a decade of habitat restoration has made me a better communicator. Volunteering to give workshops lets me give something back to the world. My habitat project has helped my really see and understand wildlife. Animals have driven my art, my interests, my travel.  The drive to restore even more every year keeps me moving, digging the earth, creating hedgerows and gardens and wild, tangled refuges.

And my home is modest, but at least for now, I have a home.  My own home. Many, many people do not due to poverty, natural disaster, and war. Or they share dangerously cramped space with too many people.

whitehorseBy the end of holiday break, I could see my house as far more than an object and investment again. I slowed down, puttered around, rearranged my space, reconnected enough to see it as more than a snapshot.  Not  racing by, on a schedule to get things done, as a place of chores and responsibilities and somewhere to rest between work days.

I once again see home as a living place filled with stories and memories, souvenirs and mementos, many good times and some tough ones; the silent, non-judgemental keeper of my dreams and decisions.  My land is a driver for my best aspirations and successes. My horse is a welcome anchor, a creature who needs me as a familiar herd member, not a burden.

Sure, I wander around with my camera some, taking pictures of wildlife, the New Year’s Day sunrise and the crescent moon.  But I also stop, listen, imagine the moon and the hooting owls and trumpeting swans as symbols of something unearthly, daydream a novel of a mystical place where they are all gods- and well, you know.  Become human again.

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The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.

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Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.

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The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”

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I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.

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Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.

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It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”

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The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.

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Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.

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Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.

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In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.

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A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.

 

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Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.

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We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.

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The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.

 

leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.

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Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.

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This is what I do when it gets dreary at home in the winter:  go through my trip photos from the last year, and plan my trips for next year.  It’s a damp, chilly sub-freezing evening that went dark at 4 p.m., and I’m sneezing. In other words, time to spend time bundled up with cups of ginger tea looking back and forward to adventures.

On a September road trip to Montana, I took a day to go to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a coworker.  She is as much a student of nature and wildlife as I am.  She has a niece in West Yellowstone who drove her to Red Rock Lakes NWR about a month earlier.

It was an excuse to speed away from the madding crowd. I needed the break from Yellowstone National Park, which I love and support but grieve over as it becomes overrun. The drive to Lakeview was a trek:  50 miles of gravel roads winding from Henry’s Lake over Red Rock Pass by Mt. Jefferson before dropping into the Centennial valley.  The drive was first an adventure in elk avoidance, followed by swerving to avoid barreling trucks loaded with logs from a fire prevention project in the refuge.

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Elk crossing the road by Henry’s Lake

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Elk that ran across the road on the mountain, running i nto the woods

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Logging truck coming down the more benign South Valley Road

I unwound on the lovely and wonderfully lonely drive. The road was lit up by groves of aspens that glow different hues of gold depending on how the light falls. I wanted to stop everywhere to take pictures of fall colors we never see at home, but, well- logging trucks. Enough said.

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In Lakeview, I wandered around the refuge headquarters, which were closed since the rangers were in the field. I read signs and chatted a bit with a maintenance person. We lamented house prices in my area, where his kids live.  Way too high, but property was also too expensive around Lakeview, he said.  A recreational lot was for sale for $87,000.  That much, and only 3 acres! He was shocked.  I was, too, because you need a snowmobile to get there in winter.  And spring brings snowmelt and swampy roads.  So you’re using that lot from May to September-ish.

I walked the Sparrow Ponds Trail, despite a recent griz warning.  The refuge worker told me the bruins lurk in the willows if they’re around.  This one wasn’t, nor was much else except for birds.  I wanted to see a moose, but got there too late in the day, he said.

The waterfowl were having nothing to do with me. I tried being sneaky, but a great paddling of wings greeted me as they fled across the lake.  I sat huddled on a dirt mound by the shore in the cold wind for as long as I could stand it.

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Two trumpeter swans, at a very great distance

Then I moseyed on toward Lower Red Rock Lake.  I traveled past the road to the lake out of curiosity, and came upon a little homestead cemetery. I gingerly opened the chain and walked in.  The sign is defiant, protective of the crumbling headstones and resentful of the refuge, a last stand to respect the people who clung to a tough, hardscrabble way of life.

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The last person was buried before I was born. No one really lived that long except Mr. Shambow, the last to be laid to rest here.  Maude, perhaps his daughter, breathed air for only nine days. If there was a Mrs. Shambow, she’s not buried here; perhaps the tragedy of losing an infant drove her away from this place.

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It’s not clear whose headstone this is, but the farewell is resigned, a drop of the hands to the sides. The words convey exhaustion, defeat by a rough land and rough weather.

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redrockscampgroundAfter visiting the windswept cemetery with its oblivious gophers heaving the hallowed earth into mounds, I drove to Lower Red Rocks Lake campground. The gates and the signage speak to the neighbors and their manners.

 

There was no one at the campground, perhaps because it was so exposed.  The upper campground looked full as I passed.  I tip my hat to the National Wildlife Refuge System for installing a handicapped-accessible site in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

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This area, from my perusal of the Web, is a good one to photograph pronghorn antelopes.  The fastest of North American land mammals, they evolved anatomy and physiology to escape long-extinct cheetahs.  The bounding gate, large eyes with 320-degree view, and rump flagging must still be serving them well still- as long as the predator isn’t carrying a firearm with bullets that travel faster than they can run.

redrocksswansI wandered around the campground, took swan pictures rendered fuzzy by heat waves, and then escaped the wind in my car.  I pulled out to the entry road to eat lunch from the shelter of my vehicle, taking photos of the pronghorns.  I thought I might hike Odell Creek trail on the way back, but it was closed for the logging operation, so I wandered back slowly to West Yellowstone, stopping while cowboys moved cattle to winter grounds.

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I wish I had camped, really, instead of coming for the day.  I could have wandered among the aspens, waited until the rangers returned to the office to browse through exhibits and skins and feathers, watched for moose in the cold early morning.  But I needed to get back to my motel whether I liked it or not because my gear was there, along with my food.  Next time I will linger.  No more town life.  Not next time.

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In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.

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Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.

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The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.

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Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:

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Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.

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I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

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Trigger warning:  

This entry isn’t for everyone.  My horse dies.  His downfall and demise was a learning experience, but not really for the faint of heart.  It’s really meant for friends, family, and people who can face up to how we as humans can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a tribute to a good horse and a plea for us to do better by animals.

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The first peregrine falcon I’ve seen here arrived on a terrible day in a terrible year. This bird is probably just chasing thousands of snow geese that arrived in my valley. I’m thinking it’s a portent of change- at home, and nationally, no matter how the destructive and polarizing presidential election turns out.

The words for horse parts are an exercise in medieval language.  Middle English, German, French.  Fetlock, pastern, cannon bone, croup, coronet, hock.  Navicular hails from Latin.

While equine anatomical terms are not intuitive, the words that describe what we’ve done to horses through breeding are encased in a fortress of acronyms:  HERDA, HYPP, SCID, GBED, MH, PSSM1, JEB1 and 2, WFFS.  And on and on.

And then there is the apparently hereditary disease that took out Tigger- renamed from DSLD (Degenerative Suspensary Ligament Desmitis) to ESPA (equine systemic proteoglycan accumulation). Researchers needed new alphabet soup when they learned that the dropped rear pasterns we see in these horses are the symptom of something happening throughout the body.

These diseases can be vanquished in a single generation, of course: we just wouldn’t breed the ones that have the bad genes. But that requires clear-eyed commitment to animal health. Breeders have always come up with sometimes bizarre and certainly unscientific rationales for their programs. I’ve heard said a good stallion can “fix” a problem mare, something calling attention to the need for biology education. Sterilizing mares and gelding stallions means loss of income.

And show ring judges can actually select for defects, like the HYPP gene passed on by one stallion to over 55,000 foals.  Halter class judges gave high scores to the huge muscle on Impressive, which resulted from a problem in muscle cells that caused unregulated muscle contractions. Since breeders cross fathers and daughters, foals with two defective genes resulted, and those would experience paralysis and seizing up of their diaphragm under exercise, sometimes suffocating them.

The Impressive line was worth so much in the show ring that the American Quarter Horse Association only reluctantly admitted the problem years after it appeared. Today, if I told Tigger’s breeder that he had DSLD, apparently heritable, I doubt that they would change a thing.

Tigger was always different- suddenly growing to 17 hands, an abnormally large size for a Quarter Horse.  He had a flat croup like a Thoroughbred and big wide chest.  A new vet came on Thursday because no one else was available when he hit crisis stage. She made a common mistake after reading his file describe a Quarter Horse. She came in the barn and headed straight for my other horse’s stall. “I looked at Tigger and thought he was a draft, not a Quarter,” she said.  Everyone does. At six feet, I at least had the leg length to ride him.

It wasn’t just Tigger’s size that made him different.  On the positive side, he had a quiet, cheerful temperament, learned quickly, and was just a little lazy.  He has never done a bad thing to me.  I trained him myself, and he would respond to light rein, light leg, and voice.

He was a comeback kid. As a young foal housed in an airtight and humid show barn intended to keep its residents free of that unattractive winter coat, he developed one respiratory infection after another. When another boarder told me to throw him outside and found me a 5 acre pasture for lease, he healed, and never again got sick.

Tigger developed a rare odontogenic tumor that became an experiment in the effectiveness of bleomycin at WSU Veterinary Hospital, and then a surgery.  He pulled out.

But he was never going to pull out from this one.  It’s fatal for all horses. He and I, along with two vets, have wrestled with it as he has progressively faltered, stabilized at a reduced level, then faltered again. I knew this year was likely to be his last.

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The leg that got a diagnosis and finally gave after it couldn’t support the other one. Fourteen months later, that left hind fetlock was nothing like you see here.

With DSLD, their suspensory ligaments turn brittle like old rubber bands and start to give.  Their hocks straighten and drive pressure to the fetlock, and the fetlock drops.  The “good” left hind you see in the picture above turned large and hard as the pastern angle became more horizontal.  And then the crisis in the other foot occurred because it couldn’t compensate anymore.

The vet was due 4 pm on Thursday, but one crisis after another delayed her.  She arrived after dark, too late to do anything but call it, hand out a sheet with numbers for pickup services, and schedule the euthanasia for Friday afternoon.  She injected Tigger with a morphine-like drug to help get him through the next 24 hours.

Friday morning involved macabre calls to pickup services. Their voicemails tell you to leave a message with “TriCounty Dead Stock Services” and “Rawhide”.  They all called back right away, but not a one would pick up that day. They didn’t want their drivers stuck in our notorious Friday traffic on the interstate. I decided that I could manage a carcass over the weekend far better than I could deal with the episodic bouts of pain Tigger was experiencing.  The clinic told me how to deter coyotes over the weekend.

The hours dragged on, and the vet was delayed again.  I just kept feeding Tigger, carrots and apples and rich green alfalfa. I cut him fresh grass.  I gave him bute paste and powder, probably enough to kill his kidneys over time, but enough to get him through this day.

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A relatively okay moment on the last day.

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This is what hurt looks like.

The vet finally arrived, confirmed the bad foot was swelling and it was definitely time, to reassure me most likely. I knew. We led him to the lawn, she sedated him, put in a catheter, and some minutes later, when he was dozy, she hooked up two big blue syringes of relief. He dropped very suddenly, took two breaths- and peace. Finally, peace. No pain. The horse everyone loved for his superb temperament and affection toward people was finally free.

Throughout the long history of human domestication of horses, our understanding of their behavior has been fogged by cultural filters and biases. I was always told that a horse should never see his fallen buddy- which is a little stupid, if you think about it. In the wild, no one covers their eyes and leads them away when a herd mate dies. But I believed it.

I was surprised when my vets said that instead of sedating Larkey and keeping him in the barn, I should be prepared to lead him out to see the body. He would get closure, they said. Most horses sniff their buddy, then move on to eat grass. Sometimes they nibble an ear.

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But when you are herd mates for 19 years, that’s not always how it works.  Larkey didn’t want to leave the area, so I had the vet assistant hold him while I wrote a check.  After the truck left, he wanted to graze in the area, but would pull when I tried to lead him toward the barn.  I needed to cover Tigger as the afternoon was waning, so I pulled Lark into the barn.  As I dragged out tarps, he started to cry.  I put him in Tigger’s stall, hoping that would help.  I could hear him crying again.  Then came the bang of the stall door slamming into the wall as he flipped the latch and blew out of the barn.  He made a lap around the lawn, screaming, then skidded to a stop by his fallen brother.  I didn’t want him to bolt, so I waited and watched as he stood sentinel for a few minutes, then suddenly pulled the tarp from Tigger and started nudging his legs.

That was enough for me.  I brought apples and got a halter on him.  He dug in and wouldn’t budge, so we stayed there until dusk and cold fell. Suddenly, Larkey’s head dropped, and we trudged disconsolately toward the barn in the dark.

I hope someday we will do better as people. I hope we will stop playing God or Dr. Frankenstein, breeding animals for one trait or another, and ignoring the whole and the healthy.  I hope we will stop lying to ourselves that inbreeding is okay, blaming animals for genetic defects, and staying the course when we shouldn’t.

For now, it’s about getting Larkey past this, finding him a new normal in a smaller herd of only one horse and one person. And getting myself past the terrible loss of the best and kindest horse I’ve ever known. I’ll send a donation and card to Dog Mountain in Vermont, and see if they can put a memorial card for Tigger in the chapel with the thousands in his company. I’ll write this post and hope the bleeding inside stops.

Driving it off

Okay, this wasn’t a crazy road trip like some.  I’m not Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove for days to allegedly kidnap and/or murder a romantic rival.  We’re the same age, but- well, we have slightly different priorities in life.

What we have in common is the marathon drive instinct, she for a much more exciting reason. Despite a summer torn apart by too much work, I was determined to co-present at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association annual conference in Bend, Oregon. I couldn’t attend the whole 4-day conference, so I would drive down one day, give my presentation, and drive back.

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Sure, this wasn’t an audition for a shot at fortune and fame, but it meant something to me.  It meant telling the story of surviving- and succeeding at- a project shot full of wild and whacky stories.  At one point, an agency peer emailed only a subject line: “You will get a call about a dead whale.” I wasn’t fazed. After the endless carnival that proceeded that email, no big deal.  A dead whale. Next crazy card in the spinning Rolodex.

I wouldn’t include the suicide in my presentation.  That was too hard and too personal.  It’s not the first time by far I’ve been a bystander, a stranger and witness to someone else’s tragedy, and it cut deep.  “Why me again?” ran through my mind for as long as I could hear the man’s voice in my ears: a voice hesitant and soft, no longer demanding. His voice asking about my life and my future.  Only a few days later, I understood the changed tone, the questions about a tomorrow that he would never see.

I almost quit then, but remember, I’m the boring one, not the one who makes hell-bent-for-leather road trips to stalk a competitor in a high stakes romance. I soldiered on, hollow inside, until the voice faded,  and then dutifully filed all his correspondence for the project record.

No, my road trip was a day driving myself numb through white knuckle weather, sheeting rain and road spray obscuring big rigs that would suddenly emerge dark, huge, and very close.  Bands of blinding sun streaming in from the west would puncture the storm clouds to turn the spray waves from speeding trucks into eye-burning glare. The parade of semis and monsoon clouds cleared as I drove east over the mountains, but then the road started to twist and wind around itself.

Finally, I dropped into eastern Oregon, much like eastern Washington: out of the storms that stall over mountains and into expansive and sunny drylands spinning away from me.  I relaxed, but felt oddly anxious and disappointed, because I couldn’t keep driving.  What I usually do on road trips is keep going, camping and staying in motels for the occasional shower, unwinding and forgetting who I am, day after day.  Long road trips are in my genes. This was only one day.

bridgesOregon has few wayside rests, so I was relieved to find Peter Skene Ogden Viewpoint.  After hours of focused driving, I needed to stop looking at a road whipping past.  I needed to walk.  I immediately encountered the most disturbing warning sign I’ve seen yet, before the overlook that has killed “many dogs”, graceful retired bridge, and a historical kiosk. Looking over the cliff, I could almost hear the barking of ghost dogs.cliffsign

The conference presentation went well, as expected.  Unlike many who rank public speaking right below disease and divorce on the Agony Scale, I enjoy it. I attended the rest of the last day, which ended at noon.  I had decided to stray east a little more and visit the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds.  I didn’t have my good camera- I’d stupidly put my hand on it at home, then decided it would just disappoint me not to keep traveling and really use it. But I had a phone, and it would do.

The excursion would add several hours onto my trip home, but it would let me stretch the down time a little.  As I was driving through Bend, a project member called because a reporter needed something.  Patching through meant sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on one phone call after the next, with people staring at me like I might be a jilted and deranged lover, or a woman on the verge of divorce.

Over an hour passed before it was settled, and I should have driven straight home.  I should have done the sensible thing, but I just couldn’t.  I drove east away from the busy Redmond/Bend corridor down a wonderful lonely road to John Day.  As expected, almost no one was there- me, and of course, a couple other guys by themselves.  It’s always that way for me.  I walked every trail I could find, knowing it was foolish and the time was passing, but lured on by the scent of juniper and sage, and color and rocks and fossils.

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The rest of the drive home was just plain long, and sometimes hard.  I didn’t realize the road that drops to the John Day was designed by a crazy, drunken miner for impatient, balletic mules- or something like that.  It felt like those car commercials where a stunt driver demonstrates power and control you will never need crawling in city traffic. With dusk settling, little deer herds everywhere tried to kill me and themselves by leaping forcefully into the roadway on hairpin turns.

People in Oregon are wildly friendly compared to Washingtonians, making you feel like a vulnerable and paranoid refugee.  They pump your gas in Oregon, so you have to remember to smile, and not to hide your wallet as if the guy approaching you wants to cop a five or rob you.

The smiling, cheerful lady at the gas station took me on a tour of the candy and energy bars, and even celebrated my purchase of a gooey-sweet mocha from the coffee machine and a bunch of bad chocolate.  She gave me a complimentary extra candy bar for the drive home. That sugar and caffeine helped when I hit rain at dark crossing the Columbia River Gorge and drove the rest of the way through increasing downpour as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Finally, I reached home.  I crawled into bed and curled up under soft, thick blankets, waiting for the feeling of motion to fade.  I wasn’t in custody, ragged and running on adrenaline, with that chewed up, wild-eyed realization that my little adventure had changed my life forever.  No, I was home, quiet, with a sprig of fragrant juniper on the nightstand as I drifted off to sleep listening to the soft hooting of a great-horned owl, with red-streaked hills in my dreams.ph3

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As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive.  Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.

The neighborhood was much different then than now.  The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily  ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli  to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.

Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large.  I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door.  I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.

What we did have in common was school.  We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.

Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.  prairieschoolclassroom

American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter.  It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere.  But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever.  As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe.  I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.

prairieschoolmapWhen you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.  Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.

 

Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages.  Stay for awhile, though.  Think about your life past and present.  Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you.    Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world.  And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.

The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful.  This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.  

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My prairie selfie:  Looking outward to a world as far away to a ranch kid as it is to an inner city kid.