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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

William Brown, Debra Tucker, and the Lunar Eclipse

Grand Junction, Colorado

 Tonight there is a full eclipse of the moon, and as I watch the earth’s shadow devour Luna’s white orb, I am reminded of the last time I viewed this strange and wondrous phenomena. It was on September 27th, 2015, and I observed that eclipse with my friend, William Brown.

William was a fellow English instructor at Colorado Mesa University. Since we shared a love of astronomy, we spent many evenings peering at deep space objects through his six-inch reflector telescope from the back yard of his one-bedroom home tucked away in a Grand Junction alley.

This evening, the January night is cold and damp. Bundled up in a heavy coat, I’m watching the eclipse with my daughter Ursula and my wife Brenda through binoculars and with the naked eye. A thin layer of high clouds partially obscures the moon. Through the binoculars, the moon’s rusty disk looks like a telescopic image of Mars, or a misty, romanticized illustration of the red planet from the pulp magazine era, its last sliver of light looking like an ice cap.

On that night over three years ago, it was early autumn. The air was cool but comfortable, and I was with a group of William’s friends at a house up in the foothills of the Uncompahgre Plateau’s northern rim. Below us, the lights of Grand Junction were arrayed like a spray of stars in the southern reaches of the Milky Way. The moon was hovering partway up from the northeastern horizon – a red-orange ball of mystery. That night we had an array of telescopes, and we would take turns watching the eclipse through the scopes’ lenses and mirrors, which made the moon loom large, or witnessing it directly with our unaided gaze. Either way, it was a magical sight – just as it is this evening.

William died May 16th, 2018 from complications brought on by a heart attack. When he passed, his partner, Debra Tucker, to celebrate William’s love of astronomy, had a star named in his honor by the Star-Name-Registry. This 11 magnitude star, now named William Lansing Brown, is designated as 6405787 Sagittarius – 19 hours, 20 minutes, 27.78 seconds right ascension and 14 degrees, 50 minutes, 48.83 seconds declination.

Debra was with us during the 2015 eclipse, but tonight she is in hospice, journeying through the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Just as the earth’s dark shadow has occulted the bright disk of the moon, so it is with this couple who had once been so filled with life and love.

And thus is life’s tragedy and beauty – the cycle of the sun, moon, and earth – a play of shadow and light.

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/