No Santa: A Grand Canyon Story

Tap and scrape of our trekking poles on the slickrock: could be the beginning of a poem and it is. Poetry of our descent down the Bill Hall Trail, North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Only our timpani of echoes, voices muffled as we look down at the loose rocks with intense concentration, what’s left taken by the wind ragging through the giant cleft below.

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Early morning start: we had camped right at the rim, pulling under the tall Ponderosas and setting up tents by the car’s headlights. A curious squirrel demanded his rights on the road, unyielding, tufted ears cocked for our answer. He should: the night-colored Kaibab squirrel is extremely rare, and lives only in this North Rim forest.

After breakfast we tug on packs heavy with extra water for the long dry hike, nine miles until we find a creek. It is a perfect day for the Grand Canyon. Dense clouds shed mesh-thin rain and it is cool, much preferred to the relentless hot eye of the Arizona sun. Below we see a gray thick sleeve of rain drawing across the jagged scar in the landscape, like a secret the earth is reluctant to share.

Everyone living in the Southwest has their Canyon story, if not yet, then one to come. From the story we feel the Grand is ours, earned, as we hike paddle or ride through 2 billion years of geologic history. This was my second visit, 17 years after my trip to the South Rim in the middle of a December blizzard. My truck skidded in the snow, and I stopped in Flagstaff to buy chains for the tires. Nothing was going to stop me. A bubble of pain inside me had to be released and I pictured my descent slow as through water, to the deepest bottom I knew. Because of the storm I was alone on the Bright Angel Trail.

This time we were three: two 50-something women and one young man, each of us weaving this shared adventure. Down down down and relentlessly down, our view first overtaken P1020583by a huge red tongue of rock–Bridgers Knoll–made even more beautiful by its shining moist coat. At one point our trail plummets to vertical and we have to scuttle the cliff face like a crab.

Then reprieve as we hike along the Esplanade, a plateau rough with otherworldly rock formations and high desert plants: One-seed Juniper, agave, banana and narrowleaf yucca, Mormon Tea, P1020490ricegrass, dropseed. Prickly pear and whipple cholla burst with crinkled pink and yellow flowers.

Five miles down, four to go to our campsite at Deer Creek. Hearts happy, legs quivering as the wind picks up. We descend into Surprise Valley under a darkening sky. It begins to rain again, fiercer, occasional hail slicing exposed skin. Then I fall, white lightning shooting through my left knee. Greg pulls neoprene wraps from out of nowhere, and I bind my joint with a little prayer. I am way behind as my friends hurry on.

Pain rips through my knee again, matching the strokes in the sky. I toss my pack, writhe until the pain subsides. I feel something has broken off–maybe I will be better now? We decide to leave my pack here, get to camp. It is cold and wet and threatening as we go on.

The last descent to Deer Creek is the most difficult. Steep, treacherous as we negotiate boulders and loose scree, and I can barely hobble. Finally two hours later we walk along the creek, looking for a place to camp. It is a primitive area, the only amenity the royal “Throne”. We choose a sandy strip among the cottonwood and willow trees. Greg drops his gear and nobly offers to get my pack, which I can’t believe. We are all tired, cold, hungry but away he goes.

A group of 6 middle-aged men wander over one at a time to greet us. They bring gifts: 800mg tablets of ibuprofen and flasks of wine. Soon I am happy again, numb and delighted. Greg gets back by the light of the first brave star.

In tents for sleep, I wonder if I can make it out of the Canyon. But this physical pain is easier to bear than the one I brought with me those long years ago–the thought that I taken something precious from my young son’s childhood–irrevocably, beyond repair.

On a wintery afternoon a week before Christmas, I picked my son up from my ex-partner’s house, a rhythm we had all gotten used to since we split up. This was about to change: she told our son that she had gotten a job out of state, and would be moving right away. We processed that in the car, and it seemed he understood. Then, seconds later he surprised me by asking, “Mom, are you really Santa Claus?”

My son was asking for the truth, no matter how much it hurt. We had a deal–though I loved to enchant or tease him with made–up stories, he knew he could always ask the truth and I would tell him. But this day he was so sad already from his other mom leaving, and he was not even 6! Far too young to be robbed of the magic of Christmas. I hesitated, then told him. He sobbed until he fell asleep, a young boy with tears I wiped from his soft cheeks.

I thought of the presents I had wrapped and hidden–his toys, my schoolbooks, gaudy cheap paper wrapping a parent’s love. We would no longer waken on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought us. That thought seared into my heart–did I do the right thing, wanting to give him a wonder-filled childhood and in a moment, taking that away? My heart hurt for him. But I had made him a promise, and I knew he was asking: what is real, what can he depend on, what stays?

We wake up at Deer Creek to the songs of canyon wrens. I am stiff, limp out of my tent and quickly down more ibuprofen with morning coffee. We pack up, start on the trail to the Upper Tapeats Creek Campground following the kinks of the Colorado River. It is 6 miles of steep and narrow paths, and there is one intimidating scramble. I look up to the ledge where Greg waits and begin to climb, slipping on the loose gravel. He dangles his leg over the edge and I grab his boot–there are no other handholds as he hauls me up.

I earn my trail name. The group of men passes us, calling me the “bionic woman”. The pain has shrunk to an infrequent ache, always on the descent. Going up or straight I am fine, thanks to determination and a 2400mg dose of drugs.

A giant yellow swallowtail butterfly hitches a ride on Greg’s shoulder for 20 minutes, choosing the gentlest of us. There is a glow from the rain as sunlight skims the high cliffs. We walk the P1020499canyon corridor in awe. Huge bellows of barrel cacti grab right into rock. The tattle of the stream becomes the thrum of the river and the whoosh of great winds scouring over its waters. Red-veined granite boulders are smeared with bronze and golden lichen. The stones beneath our feet wear these colors, red brown maroon moon white. The day warms us into t-shirts and shorts in spite of piling gray clouds.

We stop for lunch on a sandy river beach, pull on raincoats as the storm comes in. The P1020509surging river is its own atlas for the lost loneliness of time. A liquid map where the landscape dreams. The storm passes, and a huge shadow dips over us. We grab cameras–a California Condor! One of the rarest birds in the world, with an estimated 70 in the Four Corners area. My photo catches only a wingtip as the giant bird arcs away, owning the sky.

Back on the trail, we start to climb again, following Tapeats Creek. Young bold cottonwoods line the banks, sure of water. Tamarisk punctuate with their pink wisps of flowers, welcome here in a healthy ecosystem. Bees suck them hungrily, waving their black backsides. Flash of gold: a bright yellow bird over the golden tall spear shot from the leaves of Parry’s Agave. Wildflowers exalt–Joe-Pye weed, P1020575candytuft, white aster, penstemon, red scrolls of wood-betony hugging the ground. The air is filled with fragrance, not perfume-sweet but the aroma of the earth exhaling. Wind strokes us with its warm blessing and I know there is no day better than this one.

Before our first stream crossing, Greg stops and points to an opening between two boulders. Inside a pink rattlesnake glares at us, feeling safe in his cave. We search for a crossing but the stream is wide and deep and strong from the winter melt. We tie our boots around our necks, and I cling to Greg’s stronger body as we navigate the fierce current. The water is turning my legs to ice and the current dares me to let go.The rocks under our toes are slippery and uneven, but we make it, joyfully crawling up the other bank. One more stream crossing, worse than the first, but by now we are pros at it.

Our campsite is beautiful, tucked under the brim of sheltering trees.

This third day in the Canyon is our rest day. No packs, we follow the creek up the Thunder River Trail, in some places a 6-inch single track winding around a rocky slope. Lush green envelopes the water, as lacy mesquite leaves throw filtered shadows over the light brigade of submerged stones. There are redbuds about to bloom, and stream orchids and swallows pinching prey bugs before they skip away. Soon we know why it is called Thunder River.P1020535

Above us: power.

Gushing from a gash in the cliffs the water breaks on rocks with a liquid roar. We grab exposed roots of gnarled cottonwood trees, haul ourselves up to get closer. A curtain of mist bathes us and the vernal growth along the banks as the water spray vaporizes, touched by the heat of the sun. I feel like I am inside the body of the earth, gushing blood of water and birthing life.

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My friends chat 10 feet away, but I can’t hear them. They point to a skink on the trail. His neon blue pin-striped tail flicks as he eyes us, doing pushups to show off his dominance. He sees a big white grub, gobbles it then skedaddles away, his engorged belly dragging on the ground.

Hummers dive over red penstemon like shooting sparks. P1020530

On the way back to camp we see a Big Horn buck, magnificent, solitary. He stands still for a moment, then lightly flies up an impossibly steep precipice.

At night, I wake and see the Milky Way, a band of luminescent cotton squeezed between the dark palms of the canyon walls.

I hiked out of the Canyon that December under the light of the 13th moon. It was full, silvering the river and my path. I was eager to go home and pick up my son. I had hammered the out dents in my heart. Bathed in that moonlight, if there were still hollows only I could see them. I went home to create new rituals of family and love.

Our last morning on the Bill Hall Trail we woke early, before the sun. Packed everything quickly, ate a big breakfast, and started–up. A long day of continuous ascent, fearsome to many hikers, but it wasn’t that bad. We got to the rim in 7 hours, walking a leisurely pace as the canyon melted beneath us. Now I saw the signs of its ancient sea in the fossils, the P1020488petrified foam on rock, waves of sedimentary layers–sandstone, limestone, shale–inscribed on the canyon walls.

As we reached the North Rim, it started to rain again, full circle of the earth’s perfection. The rain painted our joy and that part of ourselves left behind, like evaporating mist bound to the cycle of time.

On our drive out of the Canyon area the next day, shock. Just 15 miles away we saw this:

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It is the Navajo Generating Station, a 1970’s era coal power plant, one of several in the Four Corners whose emissions dirty the skies. The coal lobby in Washington is pushing the EPA and the Administration to delay or weaken the pollution control retrofitting that would lead to cleaner air above the Grand Canyon, more healthy air quality for the residents of nearby towns.

There are other threats to the Canyon: recently new uranium claims were prohibited, but existing mines are still operating on federal land surrounding the National Monument. A lawsuit has been filed by the uranium industry challenging the development limitations. In spite of the restrictions, the US Forest Service recently allowed Energy Fuel Resources, Inc. to begin operating a uranium mine near the Park. The mine is located within the boundaries of the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property, sacred to the Havasupi Tribe. The Tribe and a coalition of environmental protection groups have filed suit against the USFS over this decision.

The Colorado River is now ranked as #1 on the list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, due to drought, competing claims, mis-management of water flow and sedimentation risks. Downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam that we passed, near the sign for the “Million Dollar P1020596Views” housing development area, Lake Powell shrinks to its lowest levels since the dam was built. It is estimated to be at only 42% capacity.

Too many overflights by small tourist aircraft destroy the quiet soundscape of the Canyon.

I read the NPS Bulletin Board for the Canyon which details sightings of the Condors. It lists 5 dead in the past few months, from “unknown or TBD;” from “blunt force trauma;” from “acute lead poisoning.”

Sad as a little boy learning the truth. There is no magical being, no guaranteed gift, no hoped-for rumor of the night, but this: there is no one to repair and protect the planet we love except us. P1020504

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Community Garden

Weeding the vegetable garden is like caring for your own children. Hours are spent, tweezing the hairs of crabgrass from the corn rows, digging spurge and bindweed out with fingertips feeling for their roots in the dark earth to give them a yank. You wouldn’t do that for your flowers. They are more like distant relatives, always a little over-dressed.P1020468 But the vegetables you grow you care about intimately: you watch their little green heads crown from the womb of rich compost-laced soil with pride. Wait with patience and concern as they grow, nourished from sunlight and water until they become leggy teenagers, not quite ripe but full of promise. And you brag. Of course you would.

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I share a vegetable garden with the farm next door. It’s not really a farm, more a North Valley homestead that accumulates animals the way that dust finds gravity. First two little dogs,then a P1020655cat, then two cats. My own cat thinks he lives there. Two “maximum cuteness” baby dwarf goats appeared one day, and six chickens. Then Lana the llama arrived, P1020688and ten more chicks, brooded in the house under a heat lamp for their first few weeks. One of them was a cross-billed chick with P1020669a white and black feathered ‘fro’ my neighbors named “Disco”, who despite all efforts, seems to be turning into a rooster.

Two polar bear-sized Great Pyrenees dogs joined the clan P1020628after coyotes attacked and ate the winsome female goat, Columbine, three months into her pregnancy. Columbine wasn’t pregnant by the young male she came with: Little Goat had been emasculated, though he didn’t know it. My neighbor, Sara, made sure that the stud brought in looked like Little Goat, “So he would think the babies were his.” Little Goat mourned out loud as he searched for his lost love, until Nefertiti came to stay. She is affectionate and somewhat strange, preferring to spend her days in the metal belly of a wheelbarrow, but Little Goat is happy again.P1020651

That’s the way it is down our dirt road that leads to nowhere, and has no name. In the summer we get the tourist crowd. On one side of the road is a field planted with alfalfa by the owners who live somewhere else, but once a year a tractor shows up to disc the hardened ground. Then a morning comes with mooing, and we know the cows have moved in for the season. They are welcome here, their black slow bodies startlingly beautiful in the sunlight against the emerald P1020635green alfalfa carpet they nibble. We choose not to think about what happens when they disappear.

But this is about our shared vegetable garden, though these stories and others from our block-long community circle around it. If the road was a person our garden lays in the middle, right in the gut.

Between my home and the house next door is the fenced corral we turned into a green paradise last year. It was easy to do. The dirt was naturally rich, seasoned with compost from the horses that used to live there. My neighbors are busy transplanted East Coast professionals, and the garden became their evening oasis. P1010870Mark built eight beds and we labored for hours constructing drip irrigation, new to them in dry New Mexico. They set the timer to water twice a day, and within minutes, it seemed, the garden was lush with rows of lettuce and big flappers of chard, spinach, abundant carrots, beans corkscrewed and fat, red chiles, and towers of tomato plants with big green bulbs tugging down their delicate limbs. There were beets and zucchini, summer squash, melons, 3 kinds of berries, and sprinklings of herbs.

This year, the garden is a little more solemn. P1010876The day after the murder my neighbors buried what was left of Columbine on the edge of the garden, and planted on top of her–of course–Rocky Mountain Columbine flowers. Their old soul 11 year old daughter made a memorial from a photo and a card where she wrote, “Here lies a good goat”.

Respecting the drought, our watering has been cut back. The beds are not as flamboyant and we are trying out some new crops. There are brussels sprouts, golden tiny globes of tomatoes that never seem to make it to the salad bowl, lacy asparagus and potatoes dug in deep. Here is a confession. While other people may share their vegetable triumphs, last year we had issues. My neighbors got swamped at work, I went away for a week, and things got out of hand. I can’t even blame it all on that. Nature consumed us.

We lost most of the squash to a flash mob of squash bugs. What was left grew gargantuan overnight. We had zucchini the size of baseball bats, fat as inflated balloons. Some of the delicious watermelons melted off the vine before we picked them, their sides split, and a mushy red sugar tide poured out. Our gallant rows of corn just crumpled for no reason. One day tall and strong, the next, withering and keeling over, even though they got plenty of water. And the bindweed had a heyday, looping around and sadistically choking the tomatoes.

This year we vowed to keep everything under control. But things happen. One day as I drove to work I saw Little Goat in the garden, happily chowing down on the lettuce. His partner in crime 2007-03-04 01.36.04was a giant white dog trying to hide between two tomato plants. Further detective work revealed smashed rhubarb, chomped brussels sprouts, 2007-03-04 02.32.15caves dug into the cool moist soil of our vegetable beds on a sweltering day. Huge blackened white paws were a dead giveaway.2007-03-04 02.24.20

That week the police showed up on our block 3 times, but they weren’t after the four-legged felons. At different hours of day and night, a procession of 5 black and yellow Sheriff units accompanied by an ambulance and a fire truck cranked down the road. There was no pretending this wasn’t happening.

There is a troubled family at the end of our cul-de-sac. Cars race up and down the dirt road in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. A young man wanders the summer days with his feet and his mind. His older brother was just released from prison, with a shaved head and shaky blue tats over ripped biceps to prove it. Though he helped me lift my kayak on top of the car, and we wave to each other in the morning, his mother is afraid of him and calls the cops.

Next to that house lives my landlord, an elderly man who doesn’t let loneliness stop him. After his high school sweetheart/wife of more than 60 years passed suddenly from cancer, Manuel still plays love songs on his guitar. He vanishes sometimes for a week, and I know he drives to the Arizona border with a few members of his church, puts plastic drums filled with water in the desert for the night walkers, thirsting for a new life.2007-03-04 02.32.48

But this is about our shared garden. What else is a garden, except the way we inhabit and care for our piece of earth, as small or as large as we choose for the measure of our community?
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The Keening

The first evening I woke up to the sounds of wolves. The howls were spare and singular, two voices calling to each other and to the night.

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Crawling out of the tent to hear more clearly, I felt the lonely cusp of mountains around me. I had the campground at Luna Lake near Alpine, Arizona all to myself, though I could picture it in the summer splashed with families and loud music, children running by the water and fishermen casting lines. Now it was empty, on a cold Spring night under the fused brightness of moon and stars.The wolves weren’t close, their throaty howls magnified across the water.

I listened, shivering, until the forlorn barking of dogs in a primal chorus drowned out the wild sounds, and soon it was quiet again. A deep, feral part of me longed to be one with the darkness, pulled towards its mysteries. Yet I felt so acutely my separation from the forest and the moon polished mountains rising beyond the pale beam of my flashlight. Somewhere the silent drop of footpads pressed against the earth, wolves nosing the air for the messages of the night, shadows brushing shadows before they vanished in its dark embrace.

The next morning I woke at dawn and drove into Alpine. My cellphone wasn’t working so I knocked on the window of a steamy truck idling before the town’s only cafe opened, startling the sleepy men inside. Twenty minutes later I was sitting at a table in the half-finished home of Billie Hughes and Russ Winn, the local couple who were lodging two legendary conservationists for the weekend.

Photo courtesy of Dave Parsons

Photo courtesy of Dave Parsons

Dave Parsons came in first, heading straight for the cold-pressed coffee. He was a grey wolf himself: slight of stature, grizzled and wary. Now retired, Dave was the biologist who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf release program in the Southwest for many years. His words were spare, knotted with encyclopedic knowledge and dry humor.

When John Davis entered the house he immediately introduced himself to me, warmly offering his hand.

Photo courtesy of Dave Parsons

Photo courtesy of Dave Parsons

Davis, every inch of him muscle thickened over bone, was a few hundred miles into his TrekWest journey: he would travel 5,500 human-powered miles from Mexico to British Columbia in the next few months, backpacking, biking and paddling. His blue eyes flickered over the room, restless above a scruff of beard on clapboard cheeks, keen as an animal unleashed in new territory.

The tangible purpose of TrekWest was to see if Davis could map a wildlife migration corridor along the spine of the continent, despite habitats fragmented by highways, extractive industries and residential developments. Along the way he would be supported by local organizations and, he hoped, bring a unifying thread to state-based conservation campaigns. The more personal reasons, he shared with me, were to pay homage to his mentors in the environmental movement, and to his parents. John’s mother, a huge influence in his life, had passed away from cancer while he was doing the eastern portion of his epic journey, 7,200 miles on TrekEast in 2011.

John and Dave had just finished a week-long backpack trip through the Gila Wilderness together, where they traced the spoor of wolves. Now I joined them in Alpine for a quiet celebration of the 15th anniversary of the first release of the Mexican Gray Wolf into a landscape where the last one had been sighted, and slaughtered in 1970.

As Russ made a breakfast of great slabs of pancakes topped with fresh peach jam, he filled in the story behind the “Green Fire” site we would visit.

Image of Aldo Leopold

Image of Aldo Leopold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There Aldo Leopold, looking into the eyes of a wolf he had just shot, finally understood that these maligned predators were essential to the cycle of life in the mountains he loved.

The big man’s voice boomed along the open rafters: earlier researchers had gotten it wrong, he told us. They made false assumptions when they tried to pin down the location where Leopold had this epiphany, deciding it happened on the banks of the Blue River. Studying maps and writings and letters, Russ and others concluded that the actual spot was on a cliff above the more remote Black River. He and Billie would take us there.

We drove as far as we could on the dirt roads of the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest. All around us were the ruins of the Wallow Fire, a tsunami of flames that consumed over half a million acres two years previously. Here I saw the changing face of fire. In places where the forest was healthy, it burned understory and singed the trunks of tall yellowbelly Ponderosas but left their canopies intact. Elsewhere, in the thick, tinder-dry mixed conifer areas, the Wallow blaze incinerated every living thing.

It was late morning as we hiked into the Green Fire site, and sunlight rippled sparks over the churning river. Russ and Billie led us to the rim of a bluff, the slope below littered with the riprap of fallen debris. There a wounded half-grown wolf had tried to hide himself after young Leopold and his friends carelessly pumped a hail of gunfire at a mother wolf greeting her playful pups. We shared a quiet few minutes as Billie set up her camcorder, balancing the light and securing the tripod, impatiently pushing back the white hair flicking into her youthful face. We heard only the sounds of the wind in the canyon and the thrum of white water until Dave started to read.

by Dave Parsons

by Dave Parsons

Dave read from Leopold’s essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain” while Billie filmed.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes, I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Our quiet celebration held reverence, for Leopold, and for the ebbing pulse of a dying wolf. For a moment, not understood by Leopold until years later, when he knew man must live in balance with nature, not dominance of it.

I had spent time with the wolves. Seven years ago I was invited to the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, where wolves were kept before they were released. Along with a few other people, our job was to help herd the wolves into small cages for transport. We entered the fenced holding pen, guided by the USFWS biologist team. The two wolves were terrified.

Slightly smaller than my 65-pound dog, their tricolor coats of silver, black and brown easily blended into the shade-dappled landscape. They had long legs and a thick ruff, at least from the glance I caught as they ran from us.

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo.

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Zoo.

Finally the male was cornered and forced into a cage by a swarm of shouting and clapping humans. He was tranquilized for a final health check, and one of the biologists explained to me that they wanted the animals so afraid of people that when released, they would stay as far away as possible from any human interaction. The veterinarian looked over the male, then clasped a four-pound radio telemetry collar around his neck. She told us that about half the wolves wore these heavy collars, so wildlife management field officers could track their whereabouts. I turned away. The magnificent animal lying under her hands had feces matting the fur on his belly and haunches, where he had defecated on himself from fear as he cowered in his cage.

The Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan was adopted in 1982 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, though the first wolves were not released until 1998, in a designated area spanning part of the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest in Arizona into the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. Success of the Plan would be measured when there were 100 wolves inhabiting the Blue Range Wilderness Recovery Area (BRWRA), with many breeding pairs.

Fifteen years later, the BRWRA is still a war zone. Of the 92 wolves released by the end of 2012, at least 42 of them have been shot. Fifty-six percent of all wolf mortality has been human-caused, either intentionally or by being hit by cars. Local ranchers blame every cow death on the wolves, and no shooting of a wolf has ever been prosecuted. Though the Defenders of Wildlife set up a fund to pay for lost cattle–which has been minimal–the ranchers still regard the wolf as an enemy to be exterminated.

The USFWS has removed 154 wolves from the wild due to nuisance complaints over the years. There were no new releases from 2007 to the end of 2012 as the wildlife agency succumbed to pressure from the local Cattle Growers Associations. New Mexico’s Game Commission voted in 2010 to rescind the state’s participation in the Recovery Program without any public discussion of their decision. However, the Federal program continues. In April 2013, four wolves were released, 2 in Arizona, and 2 in New Mexico, although one of them wandered out of the BRWRA and has already been recaptured. There are a recorded 75 wolves in the wild right now, but only two breeding pairs.

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Is this really a return to the wild? The wolves are collared, tracked, trapped, shot, relocated, not free to define their own territories.

“Wildlife management is a crock,” Dave said, “Unfortunately, it is all we have.”

Late that afternoon Dave, John and I hiked up nearby Escudilla Mountain, the hump-shouldered giant I had seen driving to Alpine, covered with an icy glaze. It was cold and gray and started to snow as John and I raced towards the peak, Dave taking a more leisurely pace behind us. Leopold also wrote about this mountain. It was where the last grizzly bear ever seen in the Southwest was shot and killed by a trapper, his acid-cleaned skull sent to the Smithsonian Museum.

When we came down it was almost dark, the alpine meadow where we lingered collecting a rime of new snow, blue with twilight.

The next day Dave, John, Billie and I went to find the wolves. We hiked the lower hills backing up to Escudilla. I learned from Billie and Dave that I had in fact, heard wolves that night at Luna Lake. Two of them, forming a new pack had been sighted there, a collared female and a wild-born male.

Elk signs were everywhere. Trampled brush, black pegs of scat, hoof prints in the drying mud. Billie found the first faint wolf tracks, and Dave drew a folding angle ruler from his pocket to measure them.

by Dave Parsons

by Dave Parsons

The prints were large, about 4” by 2.5”, bigger than a dog’s or coyote’s prints. We followed a dirt road up to a fence line, then hiked the slope for a few hours, studying every lift of disturbed ground.

From an overlook we saw Escudilla in the distance, the black ambush of fiery devastation curling around the glittering peak. When we turned west to go back to the road we were surprised to see an empty Arizona Fish and Wildlife truck parked on Easter Sunday. Even though it was a holiday, the Ranger was most likely off on a wolf-related mission.

Alongside the road still wet from recent rain were more prints, pages of a story. Here a single wolf walked cautiously, his feet suckering in the mud. Was he tracking the elk, nosing the fresh scat and listening, attentive, to the sounds of the mountain?

We found another set of tracks not far from the first, evidence of the two roaming together, one large wolf, one smaller. Walking with Dave as he studied the terrain, I felt I was seeing an echo of time written on the land.

There on open ground were a barrage of prints, circling, entwined, trampled and smudged. In my mind I saw the wolves. Here they had stopped, chased each other, one rolling on the ground and the other grabbing a mouthful of ruff as they played on an early Spring evening, the greening world around them smelling of damp earth and musky grasses. New to the mountain, new to each other, they played as the last rays of sunlight warmed them, before the darkness called them home.

A few days later I asked a young man I work with why he cared about the wolves, since he lives in the city, far from anything to do with predators, cattle and forests.

“We owe it to them, after all we’ve done to them,” he said. “Besides, I like knowing they are there.”

Preserving critically threatened biodiversity; the importance of top predators in wildlife management; the return of healthy watersheds damaged by too many elk, all the scientific reasons given for the Gray Wolf Recovery Program circle around this truth: We need to know that something assuredly wild and free roams in the outside of our imaginations, where wilderness borders the choke of urban life.

grey wolf

grey wolf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is comfort in that, for the part of us that still loves this world with its scars and losses, where a sudden wolf howl breaks the night with the voice of our joy and keening.


Aftermath

Sandbags pile by the stone walls like a flak bunker, giving the historic visitor center at Bandelier National Monument a weary, beaten look. My friend Jan and I go inside to get our permit for 3 days of mid-October backpacking. We have hiked much of New Mexico but never here, right in the heart of the state. P1020261

There is an almost funereal feeling in the quiet afternoon. Two Atomic Line buses–named with a reference to nearby Los Alamos–are parked, but there are no crowds, no noise.

“Silt,” she says, “the streams are full of silt.”

Chris, the round and talkative Ranger doesn’t want to let us go. She is a little astounded by us, doesn’t remember the last time she gave out a backcountry permit. “People don’t want to come here anymore, they don’t want to see that.” Chris waves her arm. She searches under the counter, talking away. While she looks for the permit book I can’t take my eyes off the video loop playing on the suspended screen nearby. Over and over, floodwaters gouge out the banks of the Frijoles stream, blast towards the visitor center. After the Las Conchas fire last summer ravaged two-thirds of the Bandelier forests, it began to rain. What was benediction turned to fury.

“You can’t take the trail to the falls anymore, its gone. Washed out. And watch out for the snags. All those ponderosas killed by fires, pinons already dead from drought and bark beetles. There’s a lot of rattlers too, by the water. They all came down off the mesa to the water.” P1020328

I feel the sadness in her as she rattles on, like a snake, warning us. Chris will never see the Bandelier she loved again, green rag of trees softening the pumice slopes above deep cuts of the canyons. Not one fire, but many: the huge La Mesa Fire of 1977 that killed thousands of ponderosas; the Dome fire of 1996, which ripped through 16,000 acres; the Cerro Grande fire of 2000 that blew into Los Alamos, destroying 300 homes; and 2011’s Las Conchas fire that decimated 43,000 acres the first day, ultimately burning 156,000 acres. Drought, climate change, decades of fire suppression, all faulted for the devastated park.

Our map is overlaid on this ruined world.

Finally on our way, we find the trail that leads up to the Frijoles Rim to begin our trek. Below is the popular Alcove House path, one of the major tourist attractions in the Park, left untouched by flames or flood. We hear muffled voices as we ascend, ant-small people exploring the cliff-side pueblo restoration. At the top, we are only two shadows in the fading light.

The Pajarito Mesa is covered with scrub oak, juniper, occasional pinon. The late light strings its illumined beads on purple aster and golden grasses. P1020253The beauty lulls, but soon we see the blacked sticks of small trees, their growth aborted by fire. Crippled, they lean above the year’s growth of understory. We walk west towards the burn line. It is getting dark as we camp, soft needles where we spread the tent footprint. The tall ponderosas here are charred. Everything we touch is charred and soon we too are blackened, as if we belong here.

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He wrote “The Delight Makers”, an idealized version of Pueblo life. It didn’t make Adolph Bandelier the fortune he hoped for, but said a lot about the man the park is named after. In a faded photo, the young Bandelier peers out, cigarette between his fingers, wearing a waistcoat and elegant suit, looking dissolute and bored except for the intensity in his narrowed eyes. The Swiss-born banker eventually found his passion researching the native communities of the Southwest, combining culture, myth, folklore and tradition into his archeological studies.

Brilliant and bi-polar, he retained an archly superior attitude towards the people he studied and once was forcibly ejected from the Santa Domingo Pueblo. Though an accomplished linguist, Bandelier never learned an Indian language. He was happiest roaming the land alone in pursuit of his scholarly fieldwork, bronzed and dusty as the high desert.

Describing the view from the Frijoles Rim up the canyon, Bandelier said, “It is the grandest thing I ever saw.”

The complex man was prone to violent mood swings, painted whispered watercolors of the ruins as well as detailed architectural drawings. Raised as a rationalist Protestant, he secretly converted to Catholicism. His journals note personal interventions of angels on earth. When he died and was cremated, Bandelier’s ashes were spread in the forest. His bones blew away near the ruins of Tyuonyi.

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The second morning of our trip we descend into Upper Alamo Canyon, assured by Chris that we will find water. The landscape here is alive, verdant–like a spell after yesterday’s seared initiation to the wounded park. Volcanic tufts sculpt the cliffs; healthy Ponderosas canopy the trail. We walk among huge strange-shaped pumice boulders, feeling like hobbits in the shire. P1020276The riff of shrubs and trees is comforting–were the fires only a dream? At the bottom is the trickle of a stream, in some places no wider than my fist, but the water is clear.

The crinkled rhyolite tuff is the remnant of a volcanic explosion, 1.25 million years ago when the nearby Valle Caldera erupted, one of only four supervolcanoes on earth.. Perhaps the recent fires are the living legacy of this landscape born from fire.

We follow the stream for a while, until our trail breaks off, up the west side of the canyon. Here the ground is steeper, shadowed from the warming sunlight. We look forward to leaving the chilly canyon, until we stand at the rim in shock. In every direction burnt poles of trees stab the naked ground. The exposed pits and wrinkles of the earth look like the thighs of an old woman. In this aftermath of violation, I want to close my eyes.P1020287

As we descend into the gash of the next canyon, Capulin, a queer beauty arises from the devastation. Colors emerge from the understory, the new grasses and forbs become a glowing fall rainbow of warm colors, yellows and oranges and the blood-red strands of Virginia Creeper hugging stones. Even the coal black skeletons of trees glinting in the sun add their eerie beauty. We can’t talk, both of us caught in the melancholy radiance, like a fading memory, this autumn fire.P1020289

New Mexico State Forestry ‘detectives’ found no arson, no neglect. On June 26, 2011 high winds forced a tall aspen onto live power lines, blowing up the tree in flames. Fed by the wind the Las Conchas inferno roared through bone-dry vegetation towards the town of Los Alamos, and south towards the Santa Clara and Cochiti Pueblo reservations. It consumed about an acre per second. Moisture levels that summer were an almost immeasurable 1%, as ongoing drought conditions sucked dry the trees and earth. A study issued in the summer of 2012 by the New Mexico Governor’s Drought Task Force determined that the previous two years were the warmest and driest in the state’s history.

During the fire the Albuquerque sky was grey, the air full of smoke and particle matter. It was hard to breathe. At night the smoke made ghost shapes, reminders of the death happening unseen to the north. Los Alamos was evacuated, Hot Shots deployed to save the town and the critical LANL research facility. A friend who lives in Los Alamos stayed behind. He posted Facebook photos hourly of the firestorm, clouds of smoke creeping up his street, flames leaping behind.

News media reported the fiery toll, but one update caught the attention of Albuquerque residents like nothing else. Whether we heard it from a friend or a stranger in a store, we all knew: Dixon’s Farm was burning.

Crouched in the lap of peaceful Cochiti Canyon, Dixon’s Farm was the site of a communal pilgrimage to buy apples, a beloved ritual for families and schools. We would drive past the basalt rock walls, the stream, the smell of cider growing stronger, park under the tall pines and join the crowds at picking time. On the news an aerial view from a helicopter showed the Dixon’s buildings scorched and abandoned, all the growth on the nearby hillsides gutted. Miraculously, most of the apple trees were untouched. It was not a patient miracle.P1010154

The Mullane family that worked the orchard over generations knew it was only a matter of time until the summer monsoon brought flooding. Rain siphoning down the denuded canyon would have nothing to hold it back. With some help from the State Land Office, FEMA and friends, the Mullanes struggled to protect their trees, building sandbag dams and a canal through the orchard to funnel the water.

“It did help some,” said Becky Mullane, “until the big one.”

Early September, about a week after the flood I read that all the forest roads in the area were closed, but I wanted to see for myself. I put my mountain bike in the car, drove through the small town of Cochiti to where the paved road ended. P1010192The gate to the road that led to Dixon’s Farm was locked. I parked, lifted my bike over the gate and headed down to the canyon. At first it all looked the same. I passed the familiar orchard sign squeaking back and forth as if the world went on as it always did.

The sharp smell of cinders was my first warning, and the silence. I rode on and saw my first glimpse of the orchard. A tattered american flag draped from an intact power line overhead, snapping in the wind. Other lines hung loosely and trailed across the road. Ahead, Cochiti Canyon was a blackened scar, clotted with the debris of dead trees. Dark clouds hung over the mountains like smoke from a still smoldering fire.

The apple trees were a surprising green armada in the burnt sea. Wary of the power lines I peddled further, then stopped. Instead of the peaceful stream there was a gaping muddy yaw, 10 feet deep, the earth torn open. P1010182All the surrounding vegetation was gone except for the charred trees. I inhaled ash with every breath. Enormous boulders littered the banks, forced down the mountains by the powerful water. The Dixon’s buildings were in ruins, farm equipment strewn in a carnage of unrecognizable mud-coated metal bodies.

A old Chevy pick-up drove slowly up the road. It stopped next to me. A man in a broad-rimmed hat gray with ash leaned from the shadow of cab. His handsome browned face was carved from stone. He spoke slowly, words so thick with grief and loss they had to be spooned out carefully.

Jim Mullane explained, “My wife Becky’s grandfather started this place in the 1940’s….” His eyes drifted to the remaining trees. “All I can think about right now is getting the harvest in, what’s left of it.”

The anger was already burned out of him. Jim said quietly, “I asked the Forest Service so many times to do something, thin the forest, but they wouldn’t. Said there were three Spotted Owl families living there. Now where are they? Roasted!”

When the residents of Los Alamos were allowed to return to their homes, one of the warnings from the Governor’s Office was to be aware of displaced forest animals roaming the streets, especially bobcats, cougar, bear, elk. Although 63 homes were destroyed and over 40 businesses, there were no human casualties from the Las Conchas fire. Animals, domestic and wild, suffered huge unrecorded fatalities.

Two species thrived after the fire: Turkey buzzards and coyotes. Then the carrion feeders too were gone. The Mullanes told me when they walked up the canyon road they saw a lot of charred animal bodies, “beyond what we could imagine.” They saw a burned buck, obviously in agony, and were upset because they didn’t bring a gun, and couldn’t end its misery.

For a brief time one injured wild animal was a celebrity. “Bernadette” the bear was found by a Fish and Wildlife Ranger, so badly burned she was walking on her elbows to avoid the pain of her seared paws. She was taken to “Doc” Ramsay, the veterinarian who started the Wildlife Center in nearby Espanola. Ramsay worked hard to save the bear, changing the dressings, giving her antibiotics to fight infection, making a special diet that the animal could more easily eat.P1010354

Bernadette seemed to be getting better, a hopeful story picked up by the local media as a Las Conchas “Smokey Bear.” One morning when Ramsay came to feed her, the bear was walking on her elbows again, the flesh raw and bleeding on her feet. Ramsay knew the bear was not going to get better. Through tears, Ramsay told me she had to put her down. The doctor could not prolong the animal’s suffering, “just because I wanted something good to come from the fire.”

The Las Conchas fire cost $48 million in fire suppression alone, millions more for the damage and recovery. Critical watersheds were destroyed, popular recreation areas closed, regional streams and the Rio Grande contaminated by charcoal and debris. A historic group of summer cabins were incinerated, forest roads clogged and impassible. The Santa Clara Pueblo lost sacred cultural sites, range and farm lands. Recovery is ongoing to replant the some of the forest, restore the watershed, but the baked hydrophobic soil threatens to sleet off water, causing more floods. The people of the Pueblo still fear the rain.P1010243

We hike into Capulin Canyon following the swath of fire and flood. The stream flow is strong but brown with silt and carbonized sludge. All around us trees are torn out by their roots. They snag in insurmountable stacks in places and our pace is slowed as we climb and bushwhack around them. Finally we find a trail. It leads us to the remnants of a cabin. P1020304Plugs of melted tin shim the remaining chimney stones but the water pump, as Jan discovers, is still working.P1020301

We sit and read the Bandelier guidebook, which shows a photo of this Administrative Cabin, intact in 2010, embraced by healthy, open forest. Surrounded by the low lamps of illuminated ground cover and the black trees indistinguishable from their shadows, in the heart of Capulin, we read, “Only someone who experienced what [the canyon]…was before can know the depth of its loss.”

There are no sounds. Not a songbird, not a crow, not a sparrow–only silence.

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On the third morning, Jan wakes up abruptly. “Did it snow?” she asks, but no, it is only the dull wrap of sunlight on the ash covered ground.

This is what I ask, a mantra I hear in my mind as we begin to hike. I ask when the leaves will bud again on new branches. Ask when the ground litter will part before the thrust of pine saplings, startling as silvered fish breaking black water. I ask when the animals will return here to live, not just hurry through, their footprints vanishing in the eddies of the wind.P1020280

As we throw our gear in the car we notice plumes of smoke feathering the horizon, growing larger. We stop for gas near Los Alamos, wait in line to pay for our post-backpacking sugared treats, then question the clerk if he knows anything about the smoke.

He says he heard on the news it is from a controlled burn. Behind us, a man says softly, “It better be.” P1010155