Colorado 2012

by Becky Strom


My husband Byron and I finally arrived in Colorado after a long day of driving from Des Moines through Iowa and flat Nebraska. (For those who are unfamiliar with Iowa, it is not flat.) This is our first real vacation in several years since grandchildren have arrived in our lives and we are going to Colorado. Prior to departure when family and friends asked, “Where are you going? our answer was “Wherever the car and our whims take us.” It is a nice feeling t0 take off with no agenda or schedule, just setting out on the road and taking the opportunity to go, to see and to do whatever. I like traveling that way by myself. I love what I call my “untrips”, traveling without knowing when or where I may eat, what road I may take, what I will go see, where I will stay or who I might meet. This unpredictability feels free, full of possibilities waiting to be taken and experienced, perhaps even what some might call mystery. Most of our lives are about rushing to reach a destination, arriving somewhere -compelled and constrained by clocks and schedules. Much is missed, left along side the road unseen, while we unwilling or unable to step off the path, afraid to color outside the lines. My untrips are just the opposite, I move with the journey. A road sign to something new or interesting can redirect me in a moment’s flash and a turn of the wheel. Stops at local cafe’s on the one street small towns where farmers in their overalls gather for coffee to talk about the weather and where homemade pies stare out of glass cases, beckon to me.

But the joint vacations Byron and I take have destinations established before we take off with people to see and miles to travel. Now my husband and I are taking our first untrip together, heading west to the Colorado Mountains, a place we have not explored before. We have never traveled together in such an unstructured way but our history tells us we are good traveling mates, easy going about what, when and where we eat, how long we drive, and when we stop for bathroom breaks. Driving trips are one of the most enjoyable times in our marriage because of our joint flexibility. In addition the roles in the car work well for us. Byron gets carsick easily except when driving. I, on the other hand, can read or knit while driving without any problems. Add a book tape to the menu and we are set to travel (or roam as this trip could be called).

In so many ways things have reversed in our life together. For the majority of our marriage, Byron worked fulltime and I was the homemaker. Now he is retired and I work. While our girls were growing up I did more of the travelling to grandparent’s houses or camps, now he travels as much if not more than I do, as I have become more of a homebody. The last hiking we did was in New Mexico several years ago. I was the one dragging myself up the trails but now I am the hiker and workout regularly while his exercise is less consistent. I have come to enjoy hiking and look forward to sharing the mountains with Byron.

Shifts and transitions in a marriage are normal but it is how well we journey through them is what counts, not about any imagined destination. I have kept a cartoon that shows a woman in her hiking gear standing before her husband who sits in his chair, newspaper in hand telling her, “Just leave me out of your menopausal sprint!” This makes me smile but for awhile it seemed so true as I went off to hike the Grand Canyon, jumped out of an airplane, learned to scuba dive, and traveled to new places. With retirement Byron began his own “sprint” (whether menopausal or not is up for debate) golfing in Mississippi, participating in the Royals Baseball Fantasy Camp in Arizona, making and selling homemade soap and working at a domestic violence shelter in Mexico. We enjoy our sprints, but are usually going in different directions, connecting only at home. This trip is a time to be together, alone for a change, nurturing our connection.

Packed with maps, tourist brochures, walking sticks, hiking boots and ice chest, we drive off. The farther we head west the more I can feel the pull and energy of the mountains calling out to me. In the past few years I have had the opportunity to be initiated into serious hiking in the mountains with a group of women friends. During those trips my connection to the mountains has deepened. I am looking forward to once again being present to the joy and majesty of being in the presence of these ancients.

Our first stop in Colorado is at a place called Pawnee Buttes. After studying my tourist brochures, this seemed like an interesting and easy place to get to and not so very far off our path to the Rocky Mountains. The name, Pawnee Buttes intrigues me as I have an interest in Native American history. Unfortunately I later discover that the name was chosen randomly by some “white man” and has nothing to do with the Pawnee Indians. This is also our first hike, which will be sweet, not too long, not too steep and lower altitude. It is a good beginning although it seems to take us longer to find the trailhead then to walk the trail. The tourist brochure made it look so easy to find the Buttes. They lied. The Buttes are in the middle of nowhere, and a later reading about the Buttes stated that a good map would be helpful as there are lots of dead-end roads. With difficulty but determination we finally find the trail to the Buttes by way of the ghost town of Keota, only later to find the “official” route to the Buttes on our way back out to the highway. Go figure. How often we cannot see what seems to right in front of us.

The Buttes stand sentinel in the heart of the eastern portion of the Pawnee National Grassland, east of the Rockies and are considered the icon of the Colorado plains. It is a dry, rocky area seemingly barren and lifeless, made not of rock, but of a fine clay and chalk-like substance that crumbles easily under any direct pressure. Picking up a handful of soil, it feels gritty and sifts easily through my fingers. Tiny pieces of a larger universe.

At one point in history, the town of Keota, which sits on the edge of the grasslands, was a thriving, farming community as settlers headed west with the promise of free land. But the land did not welcome attempts to grow crops. Dry winds, little water and poor soil made farming hard work and the dust bowl years sounded the death knell for those who lived there, struggling to make a living and survive. Finally the farmers gave up and left behind a ghost town, only a small reminder of the community that once stood proudly in this dusty place. Driving down the road to the trailhead we pass the skeleton of Keota where remnants of buildings stand abandoned, silhouetted in the mid afternoon light, their boards imprinted with the memories and echoes of sound of the people who once lived within.

The Buttes stand on flat land along with other segments of rocks similar to badlands that rise up like exclamation points on a page. Two large Buttes sit in the middle of the area, facing each other like warriors waiting and watching as winds whittle away their existence. After lacing up our boots, grabbing our water and walking sticks we take off on the tail. As I pick up my walking sticks I am struck with a sense of knowing as my body remembers, muscles awakening. One stick and one foot forward, repeated by the opposite sides. With the use of my walking sticks the ground feels solid though rocky and I feel ready, remembering past hikes in the Beartooth Mountains, Glacier National Park, Mystic Lake. I am once more joyfully connected to the beauty and rawness of the world. There are no words to describe the feelings and joy that stir within me as I begin my walking, only a connection to the earth that rises up through me and into me. I am on the trail once more. I am here.

This is a dry and sparse terrain and it is easy to understand the futility of farming attempts by the early settlers. At first glance, everywhere I turn I see only variations of browns and grays. Lacking in bright colors especially the color of green that designates life and growth to my midwestern mind it would be easy to discount the life that is all around me. Dull and lifeless like dry, limp hair, until you step into it and a different world opens up. We are quick to make judgments about what we think we see and understand. It is only by looking deeper that we really see.

As we walk there are signs that deny access to the rocky formation where falcon hawks and golden eagles are nesting. Just knowing I am close to these powerful birds makes me think I can feel their presence. Without seeing or touching these birds, something seems to be rising up within me and I feel connected to them. I have stepped into their territory. It is as though their strength and energy surges around me even as I look upon their home from afar. The word vulnerability comes to mind. Though these are powerful and strong birds it does not prevent them from being vulnerable from other forces such as predators and weather as they nest, protecting eggs and young. Stepping into the rocky soil of this land I feel the strength of my legs and lungs moving me forward but I am aware that I am also vulnerable to unknown forces like these birds of prey. A twisted ankle, a violent storm, getting lost. I like to pretend that I am never vulnerable but life has its way of reminding me that in the midst of my strengths resides the truth of vulnerability. It is one of life’s many paradoxes that we are not defined one way or the other but both. Learning how to walk through that reality is not always easy.

These birds are nesting birds, working to produce and care for their offspring. It is a fierce thing to be a mother. I would do whatever it takes to protect my young. Respecting the right of these birds I keep my distance from their nesting area. All of these thoughts are swirling around in my brain. I tell myself “Quiet down!” I am spending way too much time in my head, trying to analyze what I feel inside me which is elusive anyway. Letting it go I keep walking.

Tall stalks of last summer’s Yucca plants stand firm, pointing skyward like old church spires. Byron tells me, “There is a yucca moth that
lays its eggs in the yucca plants. When the yucca plants put forth new growth, the moths that hatch from the eggs will then feed on the plant. At the same time, this moth is the only insect that can pollinate the Yucca plant.” Byron often surprises me by the amount of information he knows not just about chemistry but about odds and ends, tidbits from here and there. He is the very best partner to have when playing Trivial Pursuit because he is a master of hodgepodge information. Whereas I am more about generalities, he is a man of details. It is one of the ways we compliment and contradict each other. He is a scientist, seeing the details and facts where I am
a watcher of behavior and “getting the feel” of things. I have told people, “Our children grew up either very well balanced or very confused with both a right brain person and a left brain person for parents.” While it is easy to categorize, the truth is so much more than that. I still have the letters Byron wrote me from Vietnam, full of feelings and things he experienced in all different ways and when I became a paramedic I had to learn to pay attention to details. Completely opposite. Because of all of this, I know that not only are our children well balanced (not really confused), that both Byron and I have become more balanced people after spending 40 years together, and that our marriage is well balanced. We have give and take, emotional and analytical, heart and head.

I come upon a flower which holds two bumblebees on its head. Bees are very social creatures so I am not surprised to find two together on this flower. I set my camera lens to telephoto in an attempt to take a close-up picture without moving into their space but before I can take the picture one flies away. I keep my distance, afraid if I get too close the remaining bee will fly as did its companion. Besides, my camera lens offers an opportunity to see better and closer then my eyes can provide. Through my lens I watch, moving it back and forth trying to get the focus where I want but what I want to focus on is not always what becomes clear. First it is the sharp edges of the grasses right behind the flower that come into focus, then it’s the rocks farther away, then the leaves and stem. Fortunately this bee does not seem to be in such a rush to get elsewhere while I am still fiddling with my camera to get just the right picture. The bee finally comes into focus, showing every fine detail of its body, the stripes, and the soft appearance of its fur. Click. Click. Click. I take 5 pictures in hopes that one will be good. But even when I get a photo that satisfies me, it still does not show the essence of the bee, just its image and my memory of that moment.

As I continue walking, muted colors arise from the soil — flowers of rose, yellow and purple along the trail edges wave to me as I pass. It amazes me that I could not see initially all the flowers in what I earlier perceived as barren soil. Reality, seen through our filters is so often something entirely different then what we think we see. This is not barren soil, empty and void of all life. It is only different and those pieces of nature that live here are in partnership with this soil knowing how to survive. I wonder, “Have the flowers and grasses adapted in order to survive or were they created uniquely to participate in this landscape?” I begin counting all the different varieties. “Look at this one”, I tell my husband as I point out each new flower while he walks by them, oblivious to their presence. I do not know what he is thinking or paying attention to as we walk but normally he is the rock guy and I am the flower girl. He wants to analyze and list every geological layer, learning their history. I am a gardener most often preferring to just sit in the midst of the beauty, taking it all in just “being in the moment”. I look down as I walk to avoid missteps, which makes it easy to see the flowers and they stare back up at me as though watching, eye to eye. The majority of the flowers are familiar to me from other hikes in mountains: sunflowers, sweet clover, thistles, bluebells, penstemon. Then I come across a new one, one I have not seen before. With yellow and pink flowers it sits close to the ground, abounding in clusters. “Photo-op time for this beauty” I call out to Byron. He is use to me and has no problems stopping for pictures as he comes from a family of photographers and in college he worked as a photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook. I withdraw my hands from the walking sticks, laying them on the ground, unhooking the straps of my backpack and setting it on the ground. Now that my back is unburdened I stretch my shoulders which are sore. Out of its case comes my camera and I begin to position around this new flower for various poses, sitting on the ground, kneeling, standing. Whatever it takes to get what I think might make a good picture. I wish the light were better as the sun is still too much overhead in the sky. It washes out the colors so I ask my husband to create a shadow over the flower. It is perhaps the one and only time I wish he were just a bit wider to provide more shade. The sun will be lower in the sky at the end of the hike so I am thinking I will try to take more pictures later.

I haven’t seen any signs about staying on this trail, no restoration trails and it is mostly rocky. So I move off the path and when I do I step on what my husband identifies as buffalo grass. It crunches and bounces when I do, not unlike the feeling of grasses in the Kansas prairie after a burn. My father-in-law burns his pastures every 2-3 years to remove unwanted plants and to give the native prairie grasses a fresh start. I love the feel when walking in the pastures when the new grasses are coming up like this buffalo grass, scrunchy.

Dots of color surround me as butterflies of various kinds including yellow, white and orange flit all around, weaving in and out of the flowers, and around me. They are too busy, flying patterns too random (at least to my logic) and too full of movement to pause long enough for me to take their picture. Watching them I recognize how beautiful they are when they are flying, but note that their blandness and how they blend into the background when they land and fold their wings together. When closed, they do not announce their presence to predators in the hope they will be passed over. Nature has an amazing plan for self preservation of this magical creature. I am charmed by these beauties that are everywhere, surrounding me, dancing, dancing, dancing.

Not all of the life here flaunts its presence like the butterflies and flowers. Movement on the ground startles me and draws my attention. My husband points out a lizard that scurries across my trail, hiding in the grasses for protection. It is colored grayish brown and blends into the background, invisible except for its dash across my path. It pauses long enough for me to see it. Is it checking me out “food, friend or foe?”

Byron calls to me, “Look here”, as he pulls aside some grasses and points to a Horney Toad. It is also difficult to see, as it matches color for color with the soil it is sitting on, hidden in plain sight. Hidden for protection and survival in its camouflage but just as beautiful.

The Buttes seem closer though just when I think we are almost there; it is as if they are backing away from us. The trail disappears only to pick up on the opposite side across the beds. Not sure we are still on the trail we decide to hike up an edge of a gully to look for it and see many different worn looking paths where flood waters have rushed through, creating a path of violence. Finally we arrive at the Buttes, standing between them in the area called the saddle. I am glad to have a chance to rest and take a drink of water. We find a large boulder, perhaps broken off or fallen down, to lean against, walking around to the shadier side, attempting to find a smoother edge. The Buttes are before us, austere as though trying to stare each other down. Nothing spans between them except the soil of which they have risen. Two warriors remaining, still unyielding though all else has disappeared. Within their layers stories of thousands of years are written, stories discovered by scientist but I can only imagine. I stand in awe of them, honoring the dignity which they hold, markers in a world that is ever changing.

In some ways we are like those warriors, Byron and I. We have stood the winds of time in our marriage. Through the tough times, raising children, and mistakes we have both made, we have created our layers, our story folded into each one of those layers. Like the fragile soil of the Buttes, there have been fragile times when it seemed as though our commitment to each other would slip through our fingers. But we stand here today in the sands of our time.