Ditch Diaries


Year six, week one.

Heading higher.

My self, husband, son, dog, six horses…

That’s all.  Enough.  Perfect.

Away from those here to get away.

I lose myself, my home, my sense of peace and solitude. I find it again.  There.  Isn’t it odd? At Ditch Camp.

Some say it sounds so romantic.

Working in the high country.  Maintaining a trans-continental water diversion ditch deep in the Weminuche Wilderness, over a mile long across the Continental Divide.  Hard work and horse power.  Just us, our family, our stock, side by side, push pull, sharing the work, the camp, the views, the silence…

And then there is the reality.  Sore muscles. Sleeping on a thin pad after a day of working to the point of shaking, unable to lift the shovel or pull the saw one more time.  Rain, cold, dirt, bugs, no relief from a camp fire due to the fire ban, and not quite enough sun in the morning to dry your jeans and work boots before dressing. Digging cat holes and squatting in frosty grass under dripping trees. Hamburger Helper and iceberg lettuce night after night because I’m too darned tired to cook and seems like we never can get enough calories in us up there.  Leading hungry horses to pasture in the cold wet morning and back to the trees at night.  Care and complaints of horses that would rather be back home on pasture, and know the way.  Picking at the hillside, cutting roots, lifting rocks and shoveling soil, leading the draft horse, saddling and unsaddling in the rain.  Pulling the cross cut saw, in out, back forth, over and over and over again in a rhythm like breathing only… harder.

And you know.  I love it.

I give you this to read for the week.  It is long.  It may take you all week, if you care to read that much.  And if I can keep myself from writing more, for my mind gets going and is hard to stop…

Day one.  Arriving at camp.

It starts with packing along the dusty road with stranger after stranger driving by looking at us getting the packs on the horses as if we were a roadside tourist attraction, there for no more than their viewing pleasure.  Some slow long enough to whip out their camera and take a quick shot.  Most drive by as if we’re one more sighting of wildlife to add to their list to tell Aunt Jo back home in another town, another county, another state, just like it was when she used to come here for her one week a year to get away…

But she’s not here, and we’re not a tourist attraction, and I’m tired of my life being on display and those that find my life a curiosity or think we built our life for them.

And tired of sucking the dust of yet another ATV driving by anonymously.

Dust follows us as we fall in line, in unspoken unison, and ride our horses across the dam of the reservoir.  Up the first section of trail we still hear the whining motors, following us like haunting nightmares.  And then it is gone, all gone, over, and we are left alone in silence in the Weminuche Wilderness.  And that, my friends, is where I want to be.

It continues with the best day ever, the best ride ever, on the most difficult horse I ever rode, ever trained, ever learned to trust in the mountains.  Yes, my Flying Crow. He rose to the occasion, hunkered down to work and got the job done, ponying two mares and half of camp, and leading the rest.  Faced his fears when I asked him to – and he has so many fears.  Elk on trail, moose at camp, and innumerable boogymen that I couldn’t see.

Which reminds me.  About chasing moose, the mother and baby.  Gunnar did that.  Again.  People tell me it’s dangerous.  I’m not saying it isn’t and I’m sure not saying it’s good.  But I always thought he could handle himself, do his job of chasing wildlife away from his horses, and return unscathed. He’s a true shepherd.  It’s his job.  He has his own boundaries.  It’s not about the hunt; it’s about getting them away from his charge. And if you see this little shepherd chasing off the big ugly moose, there is a tinge of David versus Goliath and a twisted smile, though I swear I wish he wouldn’t do it.

It ends with us there. Horses picketed or hobbled, heads down grazing.  Sun setting behind the Rio Grande Pyramid there in view before us.  Tent and tarp set.  Tools leaning up against a tree, including the cross cut saws I so carefully sharpened and oiled and prepared for the onslaught that awaits them tomorrow.

The silence settles us.

We sit under the tarp with dinner in paper plates leaving grease stains on our jeans and boxed wine in enamel mugs and we breathe.  Just breathe.  And really, that is all I hear at first.  The breath of my husband, my son, my self.  My dog there with us.  A few relaxed snorts from the nearby horses.  And life is very good.

In time, there is the scratch of my favorite pen on paper.  I actually missed the sound, the feel, the sight of my scribbled writing pouring from cold hands, light streaming from the little headlamp strapped around my wool capped head, while the rest of me stays warm in the double sleeping bag, tight against my tired husband, so close beside my son and dog.  The four of us in the so-called two-man tent, and there lies a difference between many a two men, and my family.  Here.  Now.  No place we would rather be.

Day two. The real work begins.

Twenty trees cut and cleared from across the ditch this morning.  The cross cut saw sings with joy after the hours spent sharpening and setting the height of the scrapers and taking such pride in this old tool that once came off the wall of the log cabin as no more than a nifty rustic decoration.

Only four and half more trees cleared in the afternoon, including but half of the Big One that fell since we inspected the ditch only weeks ago.

Rain begins.  Jeans soak in the moisture as we hope does the ground.  We seek shelter under needleless trees that provide little protection.  Instead we hunker down, wrapping ourselves under our raincoats, knees to chin, backs again the bare trees, and wait it out.  The rain proves more tenacious, and for this we are grateful for we know the mountain thirsts.  Yet we long then, selfishly, for a campfire which might bring us warm and dry again.  Barring that, a sunny morning and enough time before work to hang the jeans in trees and set the boots on rocks to dry before the work day begins anew tomorrow.

That evening our plans change.  A new horse to camp decides she has had enough and it’s prime time to go home.  Bob retrieves her.  Another, however, becomes upset by the matter, and runs around with the new found freedom of having lost his hobbles.  Gunnar always runs with his horses, and ran beside this one too. I swear I saw the look of joy on Gunnar’s face right before the horse turned sharp and kicked back sideways and got Gunnar hard in the head.

Day three.  Rest, recovery, and a little work.

I did not sleep much last night.  Having had nursed my son through a head injury just months before, I kept a vigil and checked on Gunnar throughout the night.  From time to time I drifted off and dreamed about packing him out of the Wilderness on horse, figuring out the logistics of which horse to ride, to carry my dog, to leave behind, what to do with camp two hours from the trail head and two hours more to the vet.  He just needs to get through the night, I kept thinking.  I don’t want to ride the steep trail blind in the darkness while holding my dear dog instead of the reins.

My dreams drifted back and forth between my one-eyed dog, a haunting of my old Zorg, the first shepherd I had who taught me one eye was plenty for keeping a good eye on me; and my mom and dad who had recently endured a car wreck.  We headed to camp before hearing the final word of their well being, and there I was, worried…

We awoke to a little sun and a lot of hope.  Gunnar’s eye was swollen shut but we were pretty sure the eye was not damaged. The bleeding in the nose continued but seemed to be draining the swelling of his horribly swollen bridge.

We cleaned the dog, the blood on our clothes, our sleeping bags, the tent, and laid everything out and in the little bit of sun to dry before the rain began again.

By late morning we put on still wet jeans and boots and return to work, hoping to get in a few hours of bucking before the rain, leaving the dog resting beneath a nearby tree, close enough to hear us sawing as he tries to watch us through his one good eye, and falls in and out of needed sleep.

Evening.  We have decided to leave tomorrow. Gunnar should be able to just make the two hour trek out to our truck and trailer, and if not, then surely we need to get him to the vet.  We have completed our saw work for now, and cleared the ditch of a total of thirty obstructing and fallen trees.  There will be more.  Plenty more.  The beetles provide us with job security.

I once heard a fat man can fall trees.  And sure enough, I’ve seen this to be true.  But a lean lady sure can buck one up clean.  Just a little something to think about…

An hour before sunset.  I leave the boys resting in the tent with the poor pup and talk a quick walk up the North Fork trail to test out my new camera (more on that at a later date) and soak in the changed view of the now brown hills in golden light.  Beetle kill.  I count fifty one trees fallen across this short section of trail and I wonder the fate of horse traffic and travel in the Wilderness.

Day four.  Heading home.

Fourth of July and we dread leaving the higher country early when what we want is to be there, not back here with the tourists and traffic and dust and noise.

But we make it home safe, set the horses free on pasture with the rest of the herd, and sneak down to the Little Cabin where we have not been able to spend time yet this year.

For the dog, we say.  So he will not be disturbed.  So he can rest and recover.  We blame it on him.  It’s easier that way.  Though I’m not sure I’ve fooled anyone.  My unsocial tendencies are well known.

And there we are at night, in the little cabin with rain falling hard on the metal roof and old warped glass windows, the wood cook stove chugging away with dinner in a steaming pot on top, where our insatiable appetites are allowed to find their fill, and warm dry thick real beds envelope us for the best night sleep it seems we’ve had in ages, Forrest in the top bunk, Bob and me in the middle, and Gunnar in his bed beneath us.

We’ll go back in a couple weeks.  Let the dog recover, the horses get their fill.  Spend our time working on some other projects around the ranch and at neighbor’s that need to be finished up first.  Then, we’ll return to our higher mountain home.  Get away; get back to our work, wilds and silence.  A strange balance.  I’ve been told it’s unreal.  But that’s not the case at all.  In fact, it is very, very real.

(a bunch of additional photos posted on Facebook)