Ditch Diaries

Week 3, Day 1

Missed working here last week due to the unexpected encounter between mountain lion and horse.  Left us with the feeling (the reality!) of more work to do in less time.  One worries if one can do it.  Will my body hold out?  I know the miners and loggers and true pioneer folks did much harder for much longer.  Perhaps we humans have softened.  My son tells me I’m pretty tough as he rubs the muscles in my back which don’t seem to release, relax and let go.  Muscle memory.  I imagine soaking in a hot bath and hope my muscles will ease under the almost painful pressure of his hands.

Riding in to camp this morning.  A challenge. The trailhead we use blocked with tourists in their RVs asking for directions, work men scrambling about, drilling rigs, back hoes and water trucks and I don’t know what all we had to ride through.  I pretend it’s an Extreme Challenge race for my horse, Flying Crow, and he’s winning. Guides us through the worst of it. Success! I’m proud of him.

Finally. And finally, I’m proud of my training. Some days.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Always a process. Working with this little Arab, training him as a stallion, has been a huge lesson in patience, trust and learning to read the horse.  It is working.  I have never had a more difficult horse to work with.  His natural balance of flight and distrust and questioning everything (“Do you really mean it?”  “Do I have to go there?”  “Will it bite?”  and the most often he tells me with his not so subtle body language, “But why?”).  I once read that Arabians are for people who really love horses, and really can ride.  You have to do both to put up with these guys sometimes.  It’s not easy.  Not the training, not the testing of your skills, knowledge, love and patience, not the ride.  And it’s not boring.  Always interesting. Always a challenge.  So there we go, through our Extreme Challenge.  And winning ribbons.  Though of course, only in my imagination, for there is no winning circle in the wilds.  You just make it through or not.

We made it.


Day 2

Lunch break.  Extended.

We sit in the sun by our tent watching our little herd of horses graze in the pasture below us and a formidable flock of charcoal grey clouds form above, into what appears a solid bank, rolling high and heavy over the Window and Pyramid, approaching our valley.

In minutes we are overcome, in shadow, embraced by portending doom.  The storm arrives.

Now horses safe in the trees and we in our tent, we listen to the clap of thunder arrive at the same time as the lightning flashes.  No time to count, “one mississippi…”  Sound vibrations roll back and forth across the valley, a game of ping pong between the two mountains.

Gunnar sits at the open doorway of the tent, knowing it will pass but quite content to wait this one out as the rain on the top of the tent turns louder and the ground turns white with hail.

Time and again the tapping overhead slows and the sky lightens and we prepare to head back to work, only to be confronted with thunder so loud you jolt and clap your hands over your ears at each blinding flash of lightning.  These clouds seem to be seeking a path up and over the Divide but instead roll around from side to side, circling above us, above the valley, round after round of intense storm.

Wait it out.  This too shall pass, I remember the words of a dear friend quoting her mother.  We will have plenty of time to complete our work.

The boys have dozed off. Even Gunnar left his post by the door and is sharing the bed with Bob.  Me, I refuse to give in to heavy eyelids.  I want to get back to work.  But holding the pen becomes harder and harder, my written words scribbled and incomplete, and I give in to the sweetness of a brief afternoon nap.


Day 3

Night time.  The Big Dipper just to the north of the Pyramid.  Stars so close you feel surrounded, embraced, overwhelmed, very, very small.  It all looks so big.  Unanswered questions overhead.  Unlimited curiosity, unlimited view, unlimited world of which we are a very small, very quiet part.

Today in the ditch.  A small group of backpackers asking the way.  The trail has been all but closed.  Dead trees fallen.  The newest findings of this changing environment.  Fifty one across the trail in the first mile above where the trail crosses the ditch.

They are already tired.  Yesterday, downed trees pushed them off the trail, finding their own way three and a half miles through the timber this side of the Rio Grande Pyramid.  I am impressed they find their way without the trail. We see so many completely trumped when the visible trail becomes uncertain.  There is comfort in the worn path.  These kids relied on common sense and a sense of direction, two of the most valuable wilderness skills.

We lead them to the trail, point out the route and reassure them that if they make it through this first mile, things do get better.  At least, as far as we’ve gone.  They are going farther.  The Continental Divide trail, they are doing, from Stony Pass to Wolf Creek.  I think the highest continuous section of the Divide.  And the most truly incredible, like being out there beneath the stars, looking up and out at this huge and beautiful world beyond what you’ve ever seen before.

Their journey would have taken them on a two or three hour section above treeline today.  Mid day, when they would have been up and out there in the wide wild openness, another violent storm befalls the mountain.  I thought of these kids, and somehow was not worried.  Somehow I thought if anything, they would be so filled with wonder by the magnificence of it all, by the sheer immensity of the beauty and power of the storm and nature, and respectful of the simplicity and powerlessness of ourselves out there in it.


Day 4

Dinner bubbling on the woodstove.  Here where work can be so hard even Hamburger Helper tastes great.  Standing over the little stove, stirring. Keeping on my wet boots for that one last trip to bring in the horses from pasture.  Wet feet.  Forever cold and wet they feel here sometimes.  I prefer to cook with cold wet feet then allow my feet to dry, and then have to stick them back in wet boots.  How good it will feel when I’m done for the day and finally slip on warm wool socks.

Today, more felling and bucking in the rain. Oil the old cross cut saw to help it sing through the wood.  Stumps left standing with the tell tale blue wood from the beetles’ deadly kiss.  Curious to me the number the hikers up the mountain right now, and how few stop to ask what we’re doing.  I don’t find myself that intimidating, and actually enjoy stopping to talk with the few who ask.  Forrest called me Mother Bucker.  Lady Logger. I like it.  Sounds big and bad, but remember, I’m a forty five year old mountain mama from New York City who weighs in well under 120.  With my wet boots on.

An evening walk after work across the big meadow where our horses graze, to inspect the work done on “the big ditch,” the one more often seen and found, owned and maintained by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.  An organization I’m probably better off saying little about as I may not find anything nice to say.

Workers had been there for a few days this week, this year, still trying to repair damage from the year before.  At this rate, from the work we saw “completed” it will only be a few more years before they send in the big crew to fix it again. A big ordeal made bigger. Trucks and trailers lined up at the trailhead and news of a formidable work force sent into the wilds, long pack strings following just to bring in their gear. This was no typical Wilderness adventure to stumble upon for those tourists trekking the Divide.  Perhaps it is no wonder that the backpackers we see would rather let us be then stop for a welcome visit.

However work aside (and work here is important to us, as with all of what we do out here, from horsemanship to felling trees, we take such pride in our work and strive to improve ourselves each year), the greater upset was the way the wilds were left.  Disgraceful.  Wilderness Ethics were not a concern, or to be polite, perhaps just were not known.  Horses tied to trees along side trails (the Continental Divide trail, no less), trash left in fire pits, sections next to the trail of grass tromped down to dirt from the large crowds, and worse yet was the hillside trashed, used as their toilet without bothering to bury.

My fury over such disregard of these beautiful wilds is washed away in the gentle storm that swept over us as we walked back across the meadow, looking ahead at where our camp is tucked into the trees, invisible to the passer by, arched overhead with a perfect subtle rainbow.


Day 5

3 pm and the storm has not passed, only varied in intensity.  We are ready to return home for the weekend but the prospect of two hours horseback across the Divide in rain, hail, thunder and lightning allows us to wait it out.  The storm stays longer than we would have guessed.  I am anxious. Ready to move on.  Stresses of home have returned. Sitting and waiting, not working, they sit there with me and hold to me like a ball and chain.

Waiting out the storm.

What have I left behind to be here?  Running water (unless all these lovely little creeks can count) and internet connection.  Financial burdens, personal obligations, communications, keeping abreast of the modern world when here our world is gathering firewood, cooking in the tent over the little woodstove, horses and handtools, hand steeling, double jacks, shovels and slips, wedges and the six foot crosscut saw I sharpened just the other day along a felled tree, and will have to do so again before we fell the next big tree.  The beetles have provided us with an endless array of dead trees to clear from the water way.

What have I left behind?

I will return to clean jeans, a hot bath, sipping a strong cocktail, and slipping my feet into warm slippers.  I will return to stresses I am able to leave behind here and now and need not think about as long as I am here.

I have here with me that which matter most.  There is great peace in that realization.

We will leave when the rain lightens, the lightning storm passes.  And in the meanwhile, this is a good place to be… waiting.

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