Monday, September 28, 2009

Hiking in the Bighorn National Forest

I'm finally getting around to writing about our experience in the Bighorn National Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness. When I say we, I mean Al and me. We had originally intended to make a long weekend out of this trip, but because of a few physical ailments and a lack of recent exercise, we decided to take a couple of day hikes rather than a three or four day camping trip. We actually took one long day hike, and that was so good that we decided to skip the second hike and spend time with Kathy and Lesley--and that turned out to be a great decision, because they are two wonderful women to be around.

We drove out of Casper at 6:00 AM and into a gorgeous sunrise. The eastern sky began with an ever expanding band of magenta that finally covered about a third of the eastern sky. Then it lit the hills we were driving through near Kaycee, providing depth and substance to them. Finally, as we got further north, we could see it lighting up the eastern slopes of the Bighorns. That was the kind of experience we have every once in a long while. Those times make my soul expand and expand until it feels as if the entire scene is inside me as well as outside where I can see it.

We parked at the Hunter parking area at 8:30, got our gear on, and headed UP the trail. During the ten minutes between the time we parked and left, two women rode by on horseback with two German shepherds following. We saw them a mile of so ahead when we crested the first ridge. They were a mile away, riding the trail in the long meadow that heads west to the Cloud Peak Wilderness. They disappeared in a few minutes, and those were the only people we saw the entire day. We spent eight hours on the trail and saw no one else. Here's a view of the meadow we hiked from the trail to the east.

And here's a view of the intrepid hikers as they got ready to go through a gate at the top of a ridge just to  the north of the meadow. Al set his camera on a fence post for a timer shot and ran over to pose with me. Note the wonderful view of the Bighorns in the background.

As we hiked west through Buffalo Park, I was surprised that the meadow near the creek was forested, but a hundred yards to the north, the valley was covered entirely by grass. That, of course, is what most prairie looks like, trees only near streams and grass everywhere else. Having my own geologist along, I felt I could ask questions of geologic importance.

I knew from the hiking guide to the Cloud Peak Wilderness that the area had been shaped by glaciers. The valley we were hiking in looked U-shaped to me, so I asked my resident expert if the valley was a glaciated valley. He said yes, and then I realized I should have known that because of all the scattered rocks half buried in the grass. Those were the leavings of a glacier that slowly retreated from the valley. And what a beautiful meadow it was. Here's a view of it with the Bighorns off in the distance. The grassy side of the meadow is on the north side of the meadow and valley.

And the next picture is a view, facing east, of the tree covered part of the valley on the south side of the valley. The trees closest to the camera, the ones turning gold, are aspen. We discovered several islands of dead and dying aspen which had provide shade for many evergreens which were taking the place of the aspen. One of the many cycles of nature we noticed and commented on that wonderful day.

But the most startling discovery that day was the realization that we were hiking through a thoroughly burned over and recovering forest. Al commented that we seemed to be hiking through a Christmas tree farm. All the trees were about five feet high, with a few pushing up to seven and some eight feet. Then we noticed that there were obviously fire charred lodgepole pine trunks sticking up in places in the middle of the Christmas tree farm. I checked the needles on the small pines and discovered they were in packets of two needles, so they were also lodgepole pine.

We checked with Lesley when we got back to Casper, and she said that back in July of 2003 she had to go up to Buffalo for that fire for BLM. Actually two fires because it flared up a second day and got everyone excited again. So we were witnessing a second natural cycle, the recovery of a forest from a devastating fire. I remembered as we hiked and discussed the burned woods that lodgepole pines need fire to release the seed from the pine cones and regenerate.

We marveled all day at what we were seeing. Here we were hiking through a national forest and Al was getting sunburned because all of the trees were so short. He whined about that, but he who wears a short-sleeved shirt like one would wear to the office deserves a bit of sunburn. I spend so much time outside that my arms are almost permanently tanned, so I had nothing to whine about.

We hiked up a very steep and very rocky trail to just over nine thousand feet and it was about time for lunch, so Al and I decided to head back down to the only spot we'd been to that had shade. The trail went through a few acres of woods that didn't burn, so we hiked back down to it and sat on a log. We were joined by a chipmunk who scampered after a crust from my peanut butter sandwich when I tossed it. I commented that we were in a national forest, but we had not heard a single bird singing. A few minutes after that comment, I heard a black-capped chickadee, but that was the only bird song all day.

Al was in a thoughtful mood as I took pictures of some flowers in that small stand of trees.

The best part of that day was spending time with Al, even with all the wonders of nature we discovered. It is a rare gift to a parent to spend time in a national forest with one of your kids. A kid who is now an adult. You don't have to be the parent, just a friend. And he doesn't have to be the child, just a friend.

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

We'll do that again soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Aerial Perspective

Kath and I are headed for Casper this Thursday for a few days. Al and I are planning to do some hiking up in the Bighorns and the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. I've been looking at a book about the area that describes trails and also at the NatGeo Trails Illustrated map for trails that might be convenient for day hikes and not too much driving.
That got me thinking about one of the last trips I made to Casper and back. I drove Al up to Casper, had dinner with him and Les, and was driving back to Denver. The sunset was spectacular. As I made that long sweeping bend from Douglas to Wheatland, I had a slowly changing view of the last hour or so of the sunset, as the clouds changed color and the hills, valleys, and ridges between I-25 and Laramie Peak became backlit. It was beautiful and I did a lot of smiling. Well, we idiots do lots of that, but this time the beauty of the land made me smile.
The fact that the prairie was so green from all the spring and summer rains and that I saw lots of pronghorn, some mule deer, a few eagles, and lots of hawks, added to the serenity and magic of that drive. Then I got to Fort Collins and it all went to hell in a hand basket. The traffic just gets so bad. Lots of idiots. Not many of the smiling, just blowing their horns and making obscene gestures.
Anyway, I chewed on that drive for several day and then started a poem about it. I worked on it for a few weeks and then took it to Mary Jo, my critique partner, who offered some good advice on it, as always. The title is Aerial Perspective, which is an atmospheric effect described this way in Wikipedia:
As the distance between an object and a view increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, and the contrast of any markings or details within the object also decreases. The colors of the object also become less saturated and shift towards the background color, which us usually blue, but under some conditions may be some other color (for example, at sunrise of sunset distant colors may shift toward red).
Probably more than anyone wanted to know. Anyway, this effect was discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi during the Italian Renaissance and used by painters since to give depth to their work.

Aerial Perspective
He watches the sun slide down
toward the Laramie mountains
twenty miles to the west. The valleys,
ridges, and peaks are softened 
by a haze that gives form 
and distance and grace to them. 
The prairie is lush from a wet 
spring and summer and the low 
sun paints seed stalks gold, 
and deepens the green of the grass. 
The sunset reminds him that his life's journey 
too is nearing its end--he has already used more 
than his allotted three score and ten. And his life 
has been graced by a light that gives form 
and definition to its valleys, ridges, and peaks, 
a light that glows golden on the fruitfulness 
of his days. 
The sunset dims to alpenglow. 
The beauty and grace of that moment 
assures him that his light 
has been well spent.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gold glove poetry

I'm sitting here at four minutes after one in the morning because I've been thinking about topics for my blog. Now isn't that a fine kettle of fish. Along with teaching and writing poetry I now have a blog to keep me awake at night. 
I was trying to develop topics when I thought about how I relish watching people who are really good at what they do. I enjoy watching Al, my son, look at a piece of machinery, usually something broken and that I'm bamboozled over, and figure out what's wrong with it and fix it. After he shows me what he did, I'm amazed how his mind works in a way that lets him see stuff like that. 
Or I watch a gold glove center fielder glide effortlessly across center field to arrive just as the ball almost completes its arc from bat to ground, catching it with outstretched glove. Or a gold medal slalom skier, swooshing through gates, bashing them alternately with  forearms, throwing rooster tails of snow from the edges of skis, gliding swiftly to the bottom of the run. 
When I was a young pilot in the Air Force, I admired the rare pilot I flew with who could nail airspeed, rate of descent, and heading, with little movement of the controls, and slip quietly down an ILS glide path to break out of an overcast  sky at 200 feet, perfectly aligned with the runway for a smooth landing. 
The problem with watching performances like those is the fact that I'll never be that good at those things. I'll always admire, but never realize, those performances. One could get a serious inferiority complex just from watching.
As I've begun writing poetry in earnest during my retirement, I read lots of accomplished poets like Mary Oliver who in "Some Herons" describes water in a pond this way:
The water
was the kind of dark silk
that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind
or is splashed upward,
in a small, quick flower,
by the life beneath it.
How can I even begin to think like that, much less write like that? If Oliver were the only one, I'd perhaps feel better, but then I read Ted Kooser's poem "At the Cancer Clinic" He describes two sisters leading a third, a patient, into the clinic. They are met by a gentle, sympathetic nurse. He describes the atmosphere in the waiting room:
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
And then there is Billy Collins in his poem "I go back to the house for a book":
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.
How do I ever get that good? I could write until I'm a hundred and never come up with ideas or images like those, particularly "the kind of dark silk/that has silver lines/shot through it." 
Guess I'll have to plod along, write the best poetry I'm capable of, be satisfied with less than gold glove performances, and learn from Al how to fix things in my life that are broken. 
Wonder if he knows how to fix the right side of a brain?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lightning scarred ponderosa

A month ago, while I was out walking Principessa, the Bichon Frise who owns me--well has first claim after Kathy--and I noticed a long yellow scar on a ponderosa at the corner. I recognized it immediately as a lightning scar. We had had a particularly loud T-storm the night before and one flash of lightning was simultaneous with the clap of thunder. We all jumped. Principessa snuggled closer to me.

The scar winds from near the top to about three feet from the ground. Large pieces of bark were scattered everywhere, even into the street where cars had mauled them. A thin brown line traveled down the center of the scar, tree tissue that had been burned by the bolt passing through it. Sap oozed from the exposed flesh of the tree.

As I continued to walk Principessa, I thought about that tree and the similarity of that bolt of lightning to a traumatic experience. The experience doesn't kill; it just maims emotionally. I expect the tree will live for many more years, as long as some infection doesn't get under the bark through the scar. That would be terrible. I felt that I needed to write about the tree in my journal and create a poem about it. I worked on it for a month, sharing it with my critique partner, Mary Jo, who provided some great help and insight.

Ponderosa, lightning scar
He notices bark, scattered 
on the ground, and sees 
that it comes from a ponderosa 
rooted on a grassy knoll. 
A fresh, yellow scar curves 
from near the top 
almost to the ground.
Centered in that scar 
is an indelible brown line 
of burnt wood, fibers 
that will never heal. 
Sap oozes along the exposed 
flesh, as if the tree 
is bleeding.
The tree could be his own life, 
scarred and thunder struck.
His relationships, like the bark,
scattered by explosions 
of impatience, anger, fear. 
His lightning came not from a storm 
but from a year of combat, people 
trying to kill him, while he tried 
to kill them. 
After forty years the nightmares
and flashbacks are less frequent
but he still awakens in a sweat, 
caught in a chaos of violence and fear. 
In those dreams he is rooted, 
unable to escape the terror. 
As he looks at the tree, he senses
that it will heal in time as he 
has healed with time. But the tree 
will not have to remember the blast,
the burning, and the pain.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My walk Thursday at the Plains Conservation Center, where I volunteer as a naturalist, started off in exciting fashion. I had walked perhaps a third of a mile and stopped to glass the ridge to the east. I heard a weak rattling sound, and it took me a second to realize it was a rattlesnake letting me know it was there. I looked for the snake and five or six feet away saw the rattles sliding away from me in the grass. I followed the rattles and saw the rest of the snake, slowly coiling. I guess it was headed for the sunshine on the trail to get its body temperature up and was lethargic.
The snake managed to rattle a bit more energetically, and it finally managed a full coil. As I walked north past the snake and away, it stopped rattling. I tried moving back toward it, but it made a feeble and short rattle followed by another. I walked away again, and it stopped. In the five years I've been wandering that thousand acres of prairie, that is the first rattler I've seen that wasn't pointed out to me by one of the snake researchers or a staff member who found one near the sod village. They are really non-aggressive and run off or freeze-hide when a human comes close.
Although the autumnal equinox is still three weeks away, the prairie and its inhabitants are showing signs of its approach. Mourning doves, house finches, coots, mallards, sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds are gathering into migratory flocks and feeding in the riparian areas. They seem anxious about the long and dangerous trips they have ahead of them. And the meadowlarks have mostly moved south. Not a single one was singing during the two hours I spent on the prairie.
I saw a small herd of pronghorn as I left the nature center and it turned out to be a bachelor herd of 7 bucks. Later I saw a mixed herd with three bucks, half a dozen does, and four fawns. The fact that bucks are joining the nursery herds means that rutting can't be too far off, probably about a month. I also saw several SPUD signs on the road. A sure sign that the bucks are starting to mark their territory. (SPUD is sniff, paw, urinate, defecate, how they mark their territory.)
During the walk, I wrote in my notebook that "Slo is wonderful," a lesson I always have to learn again. Why am I so dense that I have to learn this lesson again and again. Perhaps it is from years of having to get things done yesterday, be places a few minutes ago, and be out ahead of the pack.
We get too soon old and too late smart.