A personal encounter with the people and places of the American Southwest

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Prairie Falcons of Texas Avenue

Grand Junction, Colorado

            A pair of prairie falcons have nested in the massive cottonwood across the street, and I find them fascinating as they dart from tree to tree, perch on the backyard fence, or land in the street to drink from an ephemeral pond created by a neighbor watering his yard.

            A sandy, speckled raptor a bit larger than a raven, the prairie falcon has a powerful body, tapered wings, and a narrow tail that spreads in flight. Adapted to desert life, it feeds primarily on small mammals like mice and voles. The prairie falcon’s cruising speed nears 50 miles per hour, but in a dive they can reach 100 miles per hour, a truly amazing speed. When they call out, they make a high-pitched piping sound similar to an osprey’s cry. Sometimes the notes are clear, and sometimes they have a rasping undertone.
The female, the larger member of the species, tends to stay near the nest, while the male will range across the nearby territory in order to take an intruder, most likely an owl or hawk, by surprise. So, the falcon that perches on our house’s roof ridge or in our mulberry tree is usually the male.
One evening, the male settled into the Siberian elm across the alley from my backyard. Reclining in my lawn chair, I studied it as it preened its tailfeathers and stretched its wings, preparing to bed down for the evening. Even after the sun was gone, I could still see it silhouetted against the dusk’s western glow. Nearby, the crescent moon emerged in the darkening sky. It was in conjunction with Venus, the brightest planet, symbol of the Meso-American deity Quetzalcoatl, and they all created a line of sacred objects – moon, Venus, and falcon – sentinels in the growing night.
It was a moment of great magic and beauty – the wilderness gracing the city with its holy presence.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Mine Claim

Nelson, Nevada

Well, it’s snowing here today in Grand Junction – an early March snow with big wet flakes and a low, heavy grey sky – and it brought to mind a time a year ago when I went hiking during a rare snowfall in the volcanic hills near Nelson, a small mining town south of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Since most of its mines shut down nearly 70 years ago, Nelson, unlike its big city neighbor to the north, is a pretty quiet place. However, in the 19th century, Nelson was a boom town with a violent reputation, including frequent killings over claim disputes, numerous skirmishes with bandits, and even the occasional Indian raid. Indeed, Nelson’s fame for lawlessness drew deserters during the Civil War because AWOL soldiers from both sides knew the law would never track them down in Nelson. Still, despite this near-anarchy, Nelson produced millions of dollars in gold, silver, copper, and lead.
As I said, on the day I was hiking, it was cold and wet, quite unusual weather for the Mojave Desert’s southeastern edge. The sky was totally overcast. Low clouds brushed the tops of the surreal stone bluffs, releasing a spray of rain, sleet, and snow. A narrow stream flowed through the wash I was traversing, and at one point, the watercourse dropped through a series of steep boulders and cliffs, forming diminutive waterfalls and the sound of water descending through stones and sand – a Mojave Desert rarity.

I walked along in near-silence. My sodden boot-steps made muffled noises in the wet sand. Occasionally, a jackrabbit would dash out from under a salt brush, producing a whispering, scrambling sound and the clatter of a kicked stone. At one point, I thought I heard distant voices, but when I stopped, the words resolved into the cold wind meandering through the stunted shadscale and greasewood.

Soon after I heard these illusory voices, there were real gunshots, somewhere behind me, towards the highway. While I realized it was probably someone target practicing, the pistol cracks did give me an uneasy feeling.

Then, I turned a sharp bend in the wash, through a narrow gap between a pair of stone mounds seemingly formed from melting wax the color of old ashes. And there it was – an object I’ve not often encountered in the desert. It was a tall wood stake driven into the sandy earth and propped up with piles of soot colored stones. At the top of the stake, an aluminum plate bore these words: SILVER PRIESTESS CLAIM – SW CORNER.

I had wandered into a silver mine claim.

Encountering that claim marker, I felt like I had dropped back in time to Nelson’s boom days when its gold and silver strikes, some of the richest in Nevada, pulled in adventurers, scoundrels, and thieves – all trying to make their fortune from the volcanic earth’s bounty. The phantom voices and the remote gunfire only added to the illusion of having entered a different century.

It was a magical feeling, one that made my sojourn into the cold, rainy desert well worth the venture.

[Note: the name of the mine claim has been changed to help obscure its location.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ursula and the Carnival Journey

Delta, Colorado

Note: I have recently published an essay in Under the Sun, an on-line literary journal, entitled “The Carnival Journey.” This essay explores several key transformational moments in my life, and how these moments intertwined with carnivals. What follows is an excerpt from that essay describing the last time my daughter Ursula rode the Ferris wheel in the annual Delta, Colorado carnival.

Three decades later, I was no longer the child who looked forward to the annual arrival of miniature rides and colorful tents. Instead, it was Ursula, my eight year old daughter, who waited in anxious anticipation for the carnival, the one that magically appeared in Delta every year on May 18th, her birthday.

From our front yard we could watch it setting up on the banks of the Gunnison River, past the Southern Pacific rail siding and the grain elevators’ twin white towers. It was an especially delightful sight at night, when I would lean against the rough bark of the yard’s massive catalpa tree and watch the Ferris wheel make its grand rotation, its spokes outlined by flashing lines of blazing light. I could also see the great disk of a ride called the Flying Saucer, which would heave itself from the ground like a failed rocket launch, spin for a time with red and orange electric fires, and then plunge back to earth. When the cooling breeze blew from the Gunnison, I could just hear the shouts of the riders and the bass thump of the canned rock music.

Usually the day after the carnival had set up, I would take Ursula and her sister Isadora, two years younger, to play in the carnival’s magic spaces – with its popcorn vendors, cotton candy weavers, and ring-toss hucksters. And, of course, there were the rides – the merry-go-round’s plastic horses galloping in a perfect circle to recorded calliope music, the dragon-shaped miniature roller coaster, the fifty-foot high multi-track slide, and the giant metal strawberries that moved in a stately dance. But year after year, their favorite was the Ferris wheel. Ursula especially loved the Ferris wheel, and she would ride it – sometimes with me or her sister, sometimes alone – six or seven times before our night at the carnival came to a close, for she was mesmerized by the wheel’s cyclic journey, which landed you back where you started, transformed by delight and a quarter of an hour older.

Nevertheless, the day arrived when Ursula made her final Ferris wheel journey.

She had just turned ten, and was experiencing many significant life changes. Her mother and I were living apart and heading for a divorce. Also, we had moved out of our Delta house with its big glassed-in front porch, its maze of old rooms, its mysterious attic filled with forgotten furniture, and the big catalpa tree from which we could watch the carnival rides blossom across the river flats. Now my daughters and I lived on the ground floor of a small duplex in Grand Junction, a mid-sized city forty miles north of Delta. Still, on the day when Ursula turned ten, we decided to follow tradition and took the trek to the lost world of her birthday carnival.

We drove there on a bright Saturday afternoon, heading south through the shale hills that roll like ocean waves between Grand Junction and Delta. To the east, the basaltic ramparts of the Grand Mesa rose into a blazing white sky. To the west, the sun was a sliced-lemon smear of light behind high, thin clouds. Scattered clusters of antelope stood in the dry, curving spaces, and ravens played in a stiff west wind. This wind worried me as its gusts rocked the car and stirred up dust devils, miniature tornados that tore at the salt brush and sage.

Sure enough, when we reached Delta and turned into the park between the river and the town, the wind was cutting through the carnival, blowing in sand from the arid stretches leading to the Uncompahgre Plateau. Straining to escape, the red and blue and yellow banners snapped in the gale. Many of the concession booths were boarded up, and half the rides were shut down and motionless, machines defeated by the elements. Here and there, groups of sullen teens and blank-eyed families drifted around the nearly empty grounds, seeking something to do.

And yet, to my surprise, the Ferris wheel was running, so we fought our way against the wind to the great steel ring leisurely rotating against the white sky. Scared off by the wind, Isadora didn’t care to get on, so Ursula rode alone. Tall and slender, she carefully placed herself down on the aerial bench, and the operator – a tough, heavyset man in machinist’s overalls and grease-stained denim shirt – clicked the safety bar into place across her lap. Back at the controls, he threw a great steel lever and set the wheel ponderously turning.

I watched as Ursula rode up into the glaring sky and descended back to earth, a faint smile on her face, her long blond hair whipping in the gale. I pictured what she was seeing as the wheel moved, the town she had called home for seven years dropping beneath her feet and spreading out before her – the riverbank where she had skipped stones, the drug store with its ice cream counter, the century-old brick library where Tin-Tin waited patiently on his shelf, and even, perhaps, a glimpse of the old house and its beloved catalpa tree, its two-story white clapboard structure now occupied by strangers. The wind whistled through the wheel’s struts, the gusts rocked the seat back and forth, and the wheel revolved, bringing Ursula visions of her lost world.

Fairly soon, the operator started manipulating various levers, and the great wheel slowed. The journey had seemed shorter than usual. There were only a handful of riders, and Ursula was the last one to get off. After the operator helped her down, he hooked a chain across the gate. Despite this, she held out the right number of tickets to ride again. The operator glanced at her and shook his head.

“I’m shutting down,” he said in a gruff voice. “Too much wind.”

As if she hadn’t heard him, Ursula stood for a time holding out the tickets. Finally, she turned away and stepped down the stairs from the short wooden platform with its closed gateway to the Ferris wheel. Upon joining her sister and me, she still possessed her tight smile, but as we began to cross the half-abandoned carnival, she began to silently cry.

To read the entire essay, please go on-line to Under the Sun at the following address: http://underthesunonline.com/wordpress/2017/the-carnival-journey/

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Journey East

Grand Junction to Denver, Colorado

During my boyhood summers in upstate New York, I always looked forward to our annual voyage from Newark Valley to New York City.

Each year, on a hazy, sunny August morning, my family and I would pile into the blue Chrysler station wagon and begin the incredibly long drive (or so it seemed to me at the age of ten) down the impossibly stretched and twisted asphalt snake called Route 17. From my backward facing seat at the rear of the Chrysler, I would watch the retreating highway as we passed between mounded hills covered in dense forests of deciduous trees – maples, oaks, hickories, and ash – sometimes pacing the Delaware River, wide but shallow in the summer heat, flowing over grey shale rocks formed in an ancient muddy ocean. Occasionally, we would cross broad, mysterious valleys with farms and fields and intersecting roads. And, of course, there was the parade of towns – Windsor, Deposit, Hancock, Fishs Eddy, Roscoe, and so on – all of them sleepy clusters of clapboard houses, grocery stores, and gas stations, the old kind with wood siding, big plate glass windows, bubble pumps out front, and a shadowy, mysterious garage on the side. My favorite town was Liberty, where we would stop for lunch at the Liberty Diner, a classic art-deco glass and steel eatery straight out of American Graffiti.

An hour or after Liberty we would hit the outer edges of the urban world, announced by far more buildings, businesses, and streetlights. Near Goshen we would join US 6, which would take us to Harriman and the New York State Thruway. As we neared the city, four lanes would become six, even in 1966, while the buildings would rise higher and higher, and brick and wood would give way to steel and glass. Finally, we would enter what to me was the incredibly exotic world of the biggest city in America.

For a quarter century now, my trips from Grand Junction to Denver with my wife and daughters have replicated my childhood journeys to New York City. 

There are remarkable similarities – the general movement eastward, the sinuous path of the highway as it follows major rivers, the passage through forests, the succession of small towns, stopping midway for lunch, even how the route to Denver joins with US 6. All of this creates a powerful and nostalgic echo of those magical journeys of my youth. So while the landscape and the towns I pass through to reach Denver are quite different from my childhood world of upstate New York, I am still sharply reminded of those boyhood car trips to “The City” whenever I drive to Denver. 

These days, our Denver voyages begin by negotiating the sinuous canyon east of Grand Junction, the one formed by the Colorado River out of surreal, wind-carved sandstone. After breaking out of the canyon, we cross the long, broad Plateau Valley between high chalk-colored ramparts and bluffs. At night, the gas wells blaze like sinister futuristic towers with their rows of electric lights topped by an orange flame. In this valley, Interstate 70 arrows past De Beque, Parachute, Rifle, Silt, and New Castle – but unfortunately the traveler doesn’t see much of these towns since they repose outside the highway’s unstoppable surge.

About an hour from Grand Junction, I-70 enters Glenwood Springs, and we pass the grand red brick Colorado Hotel with its century old memories of Teddy Roosevelt and the steaming Olympic size hot springs pool. With the railroad on the other side of the Colorado River, we traverse the serpentine Glenwood Canyon – carved from cliffs and pagodas of ancient limestone and granite hundreds of feet high. Occasionally, a Union Pacific coal train will snake through the canyon, appearing and disappearing in the route’s many tunnels.

Next is the long climb into the Rockies through Gypsum, Eagle, Edwards, Avon, Vail, and Silverthorne – the mountains growing higher and higher, the grey pyramids past timberline often tipped with snow even in the summer. Then, at 11,000 feet, we plunge into the nearly three kilometer long passage of Eisenhower Tunnel, with its overhead lights pulsing past like something out of a Kubrick movie. Past the tunnel, there’s the long winding descent through granite mountain cliffs and chasms and gorges through Georgetown and Idaho Springs, and soon after the houses and buildings begin to increase – just like when entering the New York City area from Route 17. Finally there is a vision of the vast prairie stretching all the way to the Kansas border and beyond – and on that prairie, clustered like a formation of quartz crystals stand the steel and glass towers of Denver, hazy and golden in the daylight, a galaxy of lights at night.

Thus, my adult sojourns from Grand Junction to Denver create a powerful echo to my childhood journeys from Newark Valley to New York City. Both of them are magic voyages I’ve made time and again through mountains and valleys, rivers and forests, to metropolises filled with art, music, wonderful cuisine, and the shining towers and stadiums of a great American city.