We had planned to observe bird migration across Texas in April, 2020. Covid shut down those plans. A year and a half later, we followed through. For the trip, we rented an RV, in part to avoid people in public restrooms.
The RV was also to make Luke more comfortable with AC and floorspace. We had attributed his slowing down and restless nights to age. Even the vet thought Luke might be OK to travel with us to Texas, until an xray revealed widespread cancer in his lungs. Our sweet boy was so strong he endured without complaint, but his condition was “dire” and a “crisis imminent.”
What was to be a last hurrah became a distraction from grief.
Our 1000 mile drive to the Gulf Coast took us to two of our favorite state parks: South Llano and Choke Canyon.
South Llano is perfect. Numerous shaded trails radiate from the small but spacious campground — no driving necessary. (Get the brisket from Lum’s BBQ in Junction before you stop.) The landscape is stunning, especially under the canopy of giant pecan trees. Birds? Oh, yeah, including Ringed Kingfishers (much bigger than the more familiar Belted Kingfishers), Black Vultures hanging and soaring with Turkey Vultures, raucous yellow and brown Great Kiskadees, Turkeys, Crested Caracara (a big tropical falcon), Cardinals, Wrens, Orioles, and Tanagers. (This trip, we didn’t see Yellow-billed Cuckoos here, Black-Capped Vireo, or the even rarer Golden-Cheeked Warblers.) Plus armadillos bumbling through the vegetation.
Farther south, Choke Canyon is more open and drier than Llano. Here, we did see one cuckoo (directly over our camping chairs), the first Black & White Warbler of the trip (soon, there would be many more), and Roseate Spoonbills. We also saw Paraque and Fulvous Whistling Ducks (they do whistle), names that sound made up by Edward Leer.
Texas in September is so gawd-awful humid we could only stand to be out before 10am or briefly afterward. Thank god for AC and Internet (unavailable in Llano and Choke).
At the far end of the road, we stopped on South Padre Island. We parked the RV and stayed in a bungalow a short walk from the beach, which we walked to twice a day, near dawn and dusk. Autumn loves sand but not water.
Our first few days on the island coincided with la tormenta tropical “Nicholas.” Friends in Florida thought we were mad not to flee in advance, but old Nick turned his wrath up the coast. We got a good soaking, a blessing to desert-dwellers.
A few miles from our house were two extraordinary birding destinations, so close their boardwalks nearly connect. At first, our favorite was the World Birding Center with its garden that was a warbler grove during our visit. We visited twice a day for several days. One evening, warblers were so abundant they flew into each other and into Mer’s hat: Black & White and Blackburnian dominated but there were others.
On the boardwalk, what I took to be a tiny heron stared back at me, as if each of us couldn’t believe what we were seeing. When I motioned to Mer to look, the bird melted into the tall grass. This was a Least Bittern, a Lifer for us. Seldom seen, especially at eye-level from 6 feet away. (So close, I couldn’t get it all in the frame of a picture.) Thank you, shy bird.
Over time, we shifted attention to the Convention Center for its little shaded oasis and landscaped grounds. More warblers, more Lifers. Best of all: a Chuck-Will’s Widow (seriously), a nightjar (really). The brief initial sighting would have been enough, but it circled and flew right past me looking for a daytime resting place — a big-headed brown “hawk.” Only that could outshine 9 Magnificent Frigatebirds circling overhead.
One does not live by birdings alone. We got a great pizza for carryout. Another time, ceviche & shrimp. We brought so much food with us we didn’t visit a single grocery store. Just one liquor store; Texas has Yuengling beer (NM does not). And a quik-e-mart for ice cream and more beer.
The people we encountered were all pleasant. We saw more masks than we expected and no guns. The only Trump signs or flags were on a few rural estates. (“God, guns, country. Trump.” Certainly not “country.”)
We only almost ran out of gas twice. GPS failed us repeatedly. Please forgive our huge carbon-footprint.
Two weeks later, we returned home with thousands of photos (dozens of keepers). Most of the chaos has been contained. Life goes on. It’s good to be home.
I’m re-posting this on the 10th anniversary of the trip.
Eight friends traveled for 12 days in Guatemala at the end of February and beginning of March, 2010. Our trip was organized and lead by Dr David Mehlman, ornithologist & friend, with the help of Bitty Ramirez-Portilla and Miguel Marin, among other local guides and hosts.
Our primary motivation was, ostensibly, birding plus visiting some Mayan ruins. Most of this group had traveled together on one or two trips to Ecuador. This was my first trip; I was working on earlier occasions. (This was also my first time on an airplane since January 2002 and my first time out of the country — other than driving to Canada — since 1991.)
Albuquerque to Houston to Guatemala City to Antigua
The first day of our trip ended after miles of travel in a former capital of the Spanish empire, Antigua, an old city of narrow cobblestone streets. We stayed two nights at Las Farolas (the lanterns), a lovely hotel with an interior courtyard that contained a tidy jungle dense with diverse plants and trees that towered over the building. It was hard to believe we were in the middle of a city when looking out from the balcony at the lushness and relative stillness.
Antigua is home to many language schools, so it provides an interesting mix of locals and visitors. Outside of Guatemala City, this was our most urban stop, with some shopping and multiple trips to ATMs for Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency (roughly eight to a dollar) named after a glorious, indigenous bird we hoped to see — and did, later!
About 4am of our first night in country, we experienced an earthquake. I thought I had accidentally activated a vibrating bed function. That morning we drove out to Finca (farm) el Pilar for breakfast with a vista of several volcanoes, one of which smoked a bit. We took our first jungle stroll birding.
If you’ve never traveled with birders, the process consists of walking a few steps, freezing and pointing into a thicket, whispers and gestures, all binoculars pointed in the same direction. After a pause that sometimes lasts a half hour, everyone looks at pictures in a book of what we may have just seen. Sometimes, there are smiles and high fives. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It can be more fun than I make it seem; it can be just as interminable as I make it seem. Bird-walking requires a very different kind of stamina from other hiking.
I do not mean to hurt the feelings of my birding friends. I really enjoyed the trip and saw many spectacular birds. At times, the excitement over this drab little bird or that was lost on me, but that’s my problem, not theirs.
In town, Mer spotted a purse in a market, but didn’t get it immediately, setting the stage for more than one return visit to the mercado. She also complimented a vendor on the street en español for her lovely blouse, to which came the reply, “make an offer” and some laughter over buying the clothes off of someone’s back. (At least, it seemed like a joke.)
It was also in Antigua that we had our first Gallo (rooster) of the trip. Gallo seems to be *the* beer of Central America. It also seems it is unavailable in the USA because of conflicts with Gallo wine. “Gallo y pollo” — beer and chicken — was our mainstay. (Moza was a good cerveza oscura.)
It was also here that Merri had her first lesson in making corn tortillas by hand at Finca Filadelfia (Spanish for â€œdangerously slick tileâ€).
Finca Las Nubes
After Antigua, we rode by van to Finca las Nubes (the clouds), which is a working coffee plantation also engaged in eco-tourism. Las Nubes is located along the side of a volcano.
At las Nubes, our host was Mario Castillo, who clearly relishes hosting. We had lovely, brightly painted quarters with great birding on the patio, even from a hammock. Twice, we rose before dawn to ride in open land rovers (one from 1959 or so) up the side of a volcano, deeper into the jungle. We saw lots of great birds and vegetation.
Birders recognize many bird calls. Our guides were the first I had encountered who were also adept at making a variety of calls (beyond the common “pish”).
Back at the ranch, Mario led us on a tour of the processing plant for the coffee. It was fascinating. For the record, the very worst coffee beans go for instant coffee. The best go to Starbucks or the Japanese. Mario hopes the Chinese become coffee fiends. Naturally, we enjoyed the best cups of coffee at las Nubes; we brought some home with us, as well.
One morning, we stood for an hour on a deck that jutted over a jungle ravine, waiting and hoping for the resplendent quetzal. As the sun topped a ridge, a female quetzal shot almost straight up, perhaps a quarter mile from our location.
Only a moment later, the unbelievably bright male rose straight up, closer to us, flying up until the sun struck him, turning his green and red into neon. The male’s tail is absurdly long. I was lucky enough to capture the picture of a lifetime. We really did cheer and high-five this great experience.
In no way disparaging of the rest of the trip, las Nubes may have provided the best combination of birding, hanging out, eating and drinking. It was a hard act to top.
Finca Los Tarrales
From las Nubes, weÂ rode by van to Finca los Tarrales (bamboo), another farm taking up ecotourism. Afterwards, I think the birders regarded this as a better birding experience than las Nubes (leaving aside the resplendent quetzal). I enjoyed the terrain of las Nubes more, but the huge bamboo thickets of los Tarrales were quite amazing. Highlights for me included an Amazon Kingfisher next to a shadowy spring beneath dense bamboo and a trogon.
We had a little more autonomy here and broke up into smaller groups a few times.
This was the only place it rained during our stay. The sky opened up just before happy hour. During the night, it rained at least once.
Unfortunately, it was also here that Mer’s cough turned for the worse. She had had a cough for most of a month at that point; my version of this illness was bad enough but was getting better by then. Mer was getting worse. Pobrecita cariña!
Lago de Atitlan to Panajachel to Molino Hevetia
We left los Tarrales and rode into a volcanic caldera that contains Lake Atitlan. We crossed the lake by powerboat in a journey that lasted at least half an hour. It was great fun. We arrived in Panajachel, a touristy lakeside town. The group splintered to wander the streets and markets for an hour and more. Here, as in Antigua, we were frequently approached by street vendors, a few of whom seemed tragically desperate to sell something at almost any price.
Mer and I escaped the sun and — briefly — the vendors by resting in an empty stall. A few vendors approached now and then, though most didn’t linger as Mer coughed and sniffed. Eventually, one found her way through our defenses. This was Candelaria, dressed in Mayan traditional dress, who offered me a vibrant orange short-sleeve shirt. My hesitation gave me away. “Tengo mas colores” she said, pulling at least a dozen more shirts from the bundle on her head. I liked the blue and the orange. The combination of a foreign currency and a foreign language made me unsure of the bargain, but we struck a deal. I passed up on the belt. Marked now as buyers, we were swamped by vendors, pressing in on us. It would have been more intimidating were they taller.
After a nice restaurant lunch, we vanned (why not) out into the countryside to Molino (mill) Helvetia. On the way, Miguel asked if we wanted chicken or beef for dinner. As one, we shouted beef. A week of chicken twice a day had been enough for us. (We also had fruit and two types of black beans with every single meal and tortillas with most.)
The house we occupied was grand by any country’s standard. It was a house with real personality and elegance. In hindsight, we might have been best off bringing groceries and beer and making it clear we would enjoy taking care of ourselves for a couple of days. Still, we were well-tended to yet found the independence to make our own coffee and do our own laundry (at least, Mer did). We sat together in the living room, warmed more by rum than the nice-looking fire. Mer laid under blankets looking like death.
Of all the trails we hiked, the trail out of the Molino seemed the most comfortable to me. It was mostly level and along a stream with some clear space on either side — an open slot through the jungle.
We made a daytrip out of Molino to the Mayan city of Iximche, our first ruins. Iximche was a great introduction to the architecture and more of the Maya, although it just hinted at what we would see in Tikal. Sunday at Iximche saw dozens of Guatemalan visitors, but we seemed to be the only foreigners.
But first, before Iximche, we stopped at a roadside eatery packed with locals. We were served two hibachi-style grills piled with various meats. (This after a steak dinner the night before. Be careful what you wish for.) We barely finished one of the two piles. Although it is not certain, this may have been our downfall. Certainly, several of us came down with intestinal issues over the next two days.
After Iximche, we returned to Molino Helvetia and the most gourmet of all the meals we had in Guatemala. The food, including the sumptuous chocolate dessert, was so great, we asked the chef to come out for applause.
After two days, we left Molino Helvetia. On the road to Guatemala City, we stopped for breakfast at Rincon Suizo. (“Swiss Corner” which, along with Cabaña Suiza and Molino Helvetia, suggests an unexpected impact of the Swiss on Guatemala.) I’m not sure anyone relished breakfast that morning. Our jefe, David, was laid flat in the bus. Mer was, too, albeit for different reasons. Most of the rest of us were less than perky. Oddly, this spot along the highway is also know for the pink-headed warbler, so we did some birding after breakfast, with some success.
In Guatemala City, we had lunch at a beautiful spot in the mercado, joined by Bitty and her husband, Renato Fernández Ravelo, an accomplished bird photographer. David and Mer went with Bitty to the hospital, while the rest of us wandered the stores. At the airport, David rejoined us and Mer said goodbye. As we went on, she went with Bitty to Antigua (and that purse she wanted). The next day, she flew home.
The rest of the group boarded Taca Airlines to fly to Flores, near Tikal, in the north and the lowlands. The sun set blood red as we departed. Through the twilight, a volcano peaked above roiling clouds, an island in a rough sea. As we crossed the Flores tarmac an hour later, the crone moon rose as bloody as sunset and nighthawks strafed the landing field. It was magical, until we piled into a small van for a long drive through the darkness to Tikal. En route, we stopped at the equivalent of a 7-11 for junk food which served as dinner. Every few kilometers, the van slowed nearly to a stop to drive over a speed bump that served to mark another collection of dwellings around which people enjoyed the evening.
This was our longest day since our arrival. At the Jungle Lodge, we checked in and staggered to our bungalows to crash for the night.
The next morning may have been the first the serious birders weren’t out to meet Miguel at 6am. After a very slow-to-arrive breakfast, we walked toward Tikal, first along a wide dirt road then up narrow, winding paths.
As you may know, I’ve been fascinated with the architectural remains and locales of the ancients of the southwest ever since my arrival here and my first visit to Chaco Canyon. I expect always to love Chaco. But nothing really prepared me for the massive scale of Tikal, where the land itself was reshaped repeatedly over centuries and massive structures were built over or around previous structures time and time again. Tikal is huge. A couple of temples may be made of more stone than all of Chaco (which still remains a stunning achievement).
Several of the temples in Tikal have wooden staircases or ladders enabling one to climb to the top without over-using the original stone steps. The views are spectacular, particularly when you see other temples poking up out of the dense jungle.
Miguel was our guide throughout the trip. His father was Mexican and his mother Maya, as is his wife. Not only is Miguel a great birder, but he has over 20 years experience in archaeology in and around Tikal, which is near his home. Miguel provided us with more than data, with a deeper connection to Guatemala. He stood before a stella replica that he and a friend had carved 20 years earlier. In Tikal, he led us around more quickly than he might have wished.
We returned to a late lunch from hours of walking around just part of Tikal. After lunch, I would have happily napped, but I felt I had to seize this opportunity, so I hurried back up the trail to the Gran Plaza shortly before closing. As I went up the trail alone, I was walking toward the roar of howler monkeys, which made me think twice. These trails have limited signs and most visitors travel with a guide, so I was concerned about losing my way. Still, I made it there with time to spare, to see a few things I missed the first time. Amazing.
PetexbatÃºn Lagoon and Aguateca
Just as we had arrived at Tikal in darkness, so, too, did we leave, this time before dawn or coffee. After daybreak, we arrived at Casa de Don David for breakfast.
Then we rode to a river bank where we boarded a long narrow boat with a thatched roof. Our captain piloted us across the river into a side stream. At times, the stream was very narrow and shallow; it twisted many times. Frequently, we passed people in boats or on shore washing clothes or fishing.
Everywhere, there were countless birds. I saw a thousand times more cormorants than I’ve ever seen, along with hundreds of herons (three species), egrets (two or three species), and kingfishers (three or more species).
Eventually, the narrow stream opened up into the PetexbatÃºn Lagoon, which looked like a large lake.
We crossed the lake and entered another narrow stream and came ashore downhill from Aguateca, where the Maya moved during a period in which they vacated Tikal (to which they returned after a few hundred years, I think). Clearly, Aguateca is very remote. We picked our way through mud and muck to reach the first of two long wooden stairways up to the level of the ruins.
Unfortunately, time was precious this last full day of the trip and the boat trip lent an uncertainty in timing our arrival at the Flores airport for our only chance to return to Guatemala City that day. So, we didn’t have much time at Aguateca, but enjoyed the time we had. After lunch, we returned to our boat and reversed our course through more spectacular birding. For me, this was the best of the trip (always putting the resplendent quetzal in its own category).
Back to the van and the dash to the airport. At the airport, we said farewell to Miguel, who had a day or two off at home before the Dutch and German tourists arrived. With time to kill at the airport, we sat outside a snack shop, drinking beer and celebrating the trip.
It was here or soon after that I lost Mer’s binoculars. I don’t know if I left them hanging on a chair there or if they ended up under a seat on the airplane. Either way, I lost them.
Back at the Guatemala City airport well after dark, Bitty met us and took us to a hotel far too elegant for me, especially in my shorts and mucky shoes. I bid farewell to those who would leave early the next day and retired to my room.
Our last morning in Guatemala, after the East Coast contingent had left, we went to Bitty’s house for breakfast and one last bird stroll. I remember seeing a flock of cedar waxwings turn as one into a bush and vanish completely. On the way to the airport, we met Mario for a few pounds of las Nubes coffee (the only coffee Merri has ever enjoyed). We did some last minute shopping in airport gift shops and began the soul-crushing process of Security in an insecure (and unsecurable) era.
On the plane, Don David turned to me and said, “tell me more about what you’d like to see in Peru.” Already planning the next trip. Take a break, jefe, you earned it.
Hours later, I sat jabbering in the Frontier with mi corazon. Nothing like sweethearts and green chile to welcome you home.
OK, I did name the wilderness in the photos themselves. These newest photos are the oldest. (I know, it sounds wrong, but itâ€™s true.) We took a trip to the unnamed wilderness in June with friends Melissa and Lew. We camped in a campground, instead of the jack-camping we did in August. Follow the link for all photos (14 from June plus the previously posted 60 from August).
We camped in a magical place. We were just below 10,000 feet altitude among huge aspen on the edge of a wildflower meadow at a wilderness trailhead for 6 days. We hiked down a steep trail into broad canyons with meandering trout streams. We hiked up to open fields with vast views. We hiked straight out through dense aspen among elk. Most of that time, we were alone.
On our way to heaven.
Our truck gets us there and our camper keeps us comfortable.
These aspen are young, but we saw many old giants.
The wildflowers were past peak but still wonderful.
Merri in her happy place.
This place isnâ€™t really a secret. Two months ago, a dozen tents occupied our future campsite. (Tent campers have damaged many of the trees. You bastards!) On that hike, we met people coming and going on the trail. This time, not so much. Maybe it was the weather, which was hotter than we expected, though we enjoyed the little rain we got. Iâ€™m sure this place is completely different in hunting season and when the snowmobiles arrive. Our biggest disappointment was the surprising frequency of air traffic noise. Wilderness advocates should sue the federal government to demand quiet airspace, at least at times, around these sacred spaces.
â€¦ stalking the Tawdry Motmot and Malodorous Blackbird
We made our first trip to Belize recently, staying there 9 nights. For five nights, we were in a jungle eco-lodge near the Guatemalan border. Three nights were spent in a luxurious condo on the beach. We traveled with two friends from Merri’s college days (Susan and Paul).
The jungle was my favorite location. DuPlooy’s was established years ago by Ken and Judy duPlooy. In many respects, they turned savannah into a jungle. The lodge ranges along a boardwalk from a veranda overlooking the Macal River at one end to our Casita at the other end, a sizeable two-story house with a large bedroom and bath on each floor. We had the upstairs which also had a wide, deep balcony porch wrapping around two sides facing the jungle. It felt very much like a posh treehouse, especially from the hammocks.
We’re mediocre birders. We know a lot more than people who don’t care about birds, but among people who do, we’re rather ignorant. Even equipped with a book, binocs, camera, and Internet access, we struggled to identify most of the birds we saw and we know we missed countless others. I think of myself as a bird gawker, rather than a twitcher (Brit slang for birders). But, we enjoy ourselves immensely and this was a great location for birds, bugs, and plants.
It’s remarkable that I could go this long without mentioning the rain. It rained every day and at different times of day for different durations. The Belizeans frequently apologized for this but we always replied that for desert-dwellers rain makes a vacation more special. In fact, when the rain did pause, the humidity was overpowering. Let it rain and protect us from this cruel sun.
The jungle, the lodge, the rain, the birds were all fascinating but I also greatly enjoyed the Belizeans we met. When we travelled in Guatemala, my ignorance of Spanish was an embarrassing barrier that kept me from really connecting with people there. In Belize, English is the official language. Moreover, everyone we met speaks at least English, Spanish, and creole. Many also speak one of several Mayan dialects. Belizeans are a polyglot and gracious people. We were well taken care of.
Phillip of DuPlooy’s picked up Susan and Paul a few hours before we arrived and drove them an hour to the zoo. Some of the best photos any of us took were theirs at the zoo. Paul escaped a toucan with fingers intact. They saw a harpy eagle, one of the birds I wanted to see. (I hear Panama is the place to see harpies.) Then, they all drove back to the airport for our arrival. It was thrilling to wall down an old-fashioned rolling stairway to the tarmac (just as I did in Africa 40 years ago and in Albuquerque almost 30 years ago) to be greeted by friendly calls and hoots from the observation area.
Phillip drove us across country in two hours. Before night fell, he pointed out the Sleeping Giant, high ground in Belize that is actually a former reef pushed up. Driving through rain, we passed a few small towns which always had at least on open-aired room with a big screen TV and a crowd of people watching.
We left pavement and drove up a steep, narrow, winding dirt road arriving at the DuPlooy’s office. There Mason greeted us and checked us in. In a light rain, he led us along the boardwalk past half a dozen cottages with screened-in porches to our casita. Then we walked back past the other dwellings — all of which were unoccupied — to the dining room, beyond which were the open-aired bar, bird feeding station and a few tables under a roof. We spent time every day in each of these areas, watching birds, eating, drinking Belikin stout and talking to employees as well as just a few other guests. Most of that time, we were well-attended to by Albert. That first dinner was the best coconut shrimp we’ve ever eaten.
The first morning, I awoke to a strange, deep drumming. One end of our upstairs porch looked toward an large dead tree that served as a bird magnet. The drummer was a woodpecker, nearly as large as a pileated woodpecker. Over the next few days, we would see other woodpeckers there, as well as toucans and parrots. Up the hill on a tower, we frequently saw bat falcons.
DuPlooy’s includes half-day and full day activities in their package, but that first day we didn’t want to get in a car again, so we hiked the trail along the river. That afternoon, we tubed from Judy’s house back down to the beach, which was completely submerged by the rising Macal River. In fact, it kept rising all week, though the lodge is well uphill and unthreatened.
Adjacent to the lodge, the duPlooys also built a botanic garden full of domestic and exotic plants, which, in turn draw more birds and insects. We walked through the garden several times. My favorite hours may have been those I spent alone wandering the grounds while the others drove to butterfly farm and a cave tubing trip that had to be cancelled due to high water. During my hike, I climbed the tower built to honor Ken DuPlooy. From this high vantage I looked out over dense green canopy and observed three flocks of plain chachalacas (a drab pheasant-like bird I want to call Boom-chack-a-lakas — Wanna take you higher!). Each group crow at once, then each group in sequence, first one group, then another across the valley, then a third, and around again the same way, each cacophonous chorus in turn. I also repeated the river trail and stumbled over the rugged trail Phillip had cut by machete, making me appreciate just how dangerous the jungle could be.
Next morning, we rode horses with Eryn up to a great vista of the jungle and the Macal. After lunch, we left for an overnight trip to Tikal in Guatemala. I’d been there a few years ago, but Merri missed it because she was sick on that earlier trip. Tikal is stunning and spectacular. As with Chaco in New Mexico, what we see is nothing like what it appeared in its heyday but is no less grand. We made a brief excursion to the Gran Plaza where we saw a fox, the indigenous colorful ocellated turkeys and only a few people.
At the Tikal Jungle Lodge, we practiced restaurant Spanish under the tutelage of a delightful and delighted waitress. Next day at breakfast, we showed how little we’d learned — except for Merri, by far the most comfortable in her efforts. Then our guide Walter led us for hours through rain, mud, humidity and history. And howler monkeys. Walter does an amazing howler monkey call, as well as being an over-educated former lawyer. On our way out from Tikal, we were stunned to encounter our guide from 3 years ago, Miguel. After lunch, we left the Tikal Lodge and rewound our way back across the border to DuPlooy’s for a last night.
Next day, we left the jungle. Noel of DuPlooy’s drove us across country a couple of hours to Belize City and the port. En route, he stopped to point out iguanas (they mate for life, but the male has to keep up his good looks or the female may choose another), black thick-billed anis, lesser yellow-headed vultures, Mayan ruins, and so much more, all the while regaling us with great nuggets of info about what we were seeing. He was the only person I met there who address the women as ‘milady,’ but he made it seem a charming eccentricity.
It was quite a shock to leave the laid-back largely empty jungle lodge for the big city and all it entails. Stout eased my transition. We took a ferry to the tourist town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye (pronounced key), known to some as Little America. Though San Pedro has no high-rises, it feels like a resort town. We checked into our condo then walked a few short blocks to El Fagon. During a pounding rainstorm that caused us to move from one table to the next and back, we enjoyed our meal. Next we walked to a small market for groceries, including local coffee and cashew wine (awful). I also bought a pair of flip-flops to replace the sneakers I had to abandon because they smell so bad after tubing the Macal and never drying out.
Much of our time in San Pedro was spent strolling a few short blocks or the beach. We wandered between shops, visiting a frozen custard shop three times before we found it open. We bought chocolate several times. I bought a nice short-sleeved shirt. We ate at several nice restaurants. Susan and Paul borrowed bikes for a long ride north while Mer and I walked a long way south with minimal birding.
We also took a glassbottom boat out to the reef that is a national park. Our guide led us snorkeling in a few places. The fish, the grass, the coral of every type were all beautiful. It was the sea turtles that almost made Merri cry. One moment of excitement came when the guide pointed out a moray eel. As Paul swam toward it the eel swam even faster toward Paul and the guide swam faster still to pull Paul back and repel the eel with a flipper. Our was also able to dive down and through a short coral cave.
For all the fun we had outside in San Pedro, we also spent time recuperating from the heat in the AC. And, of course, it rained here, too, although never enough to spoil an hour.
Our condos were a walkable block from the airport where where took a small plane to the mainland airport. Mer got to ride in the co-pilot’s seat. From the air, the keys look less like islands than like lagoons with small areas above water. Global warming may finish submerging this area in our lifetimes.
It is fitting that after all this, we encountered the heaviest rain of entire trip as we made our way to the plane. Recall, there aren’t any enclosed gangways. We lined up for umbrellas and the moment I stepped out from under a roof, I was ankle deep in water, glad I had my flip-flops. I laughed out loud, it was such fun. Up the rolling stairway to hand over an umbrella and return to the 21st century. They had to stop boarding the plane to keep water more water from entering the front and to return the stack of umbrellas for the next group of passengers.
Now we are back a mile above sea level in a desert that once was underwater. Our miserly rain is bone-chillingly cold. Blue has replaced green and I can see a hundred miles again and, much closer, the mile-high Sandias that provide a backdrop for everything we do. It’s good to get out now and then. It’s good to come home.
Every summer, we camp in Colorado. Even in a drought, Colorado is colder, wetter, and greener than New Mexico. This year, we camped by streams four nights in a row in dense vegetation. However, we returned a week earlier than we had planned. Why?
We encountered a plague of a billion caterpillars that have stripped entire hillsides of aspens. These horror movie wannabes fell from the trees so loudly it sounded like rain. After they fall, they crawl everywhere and climb anything, including you, if you pause too long. We could not walk without crushing many with each step. We crossed a stream choked with thousands, every rock coated, countless floating downstream on the ride of a lifetime. It was obscenic: at once nauseating and mesmerizing.
Except for one male western tanager, we saw few birds. Either these caterpillars taste bad or the birds are afraid they will be the ones eaten. Birding was a bust except for the ubiquitous robins and the invisible warblers. In fact, we didn’t see any wildlife other than prairie dogs, chipmunks, golden mantled ground squirrels — nothing but rodents, not a single deer or elk.
There was a highlight: thousands of yellow swallowtails. They flitted among many lovely wildflowers and gathered in mud wallows by the road. Weâ€™ve never seen so many swallowtails. If they are related to the plague of caterpillars, huzzah for the caterpillars. (I donâ€™t think they are connected.)
The wind in Albuquerque has been particularly ferocious this year. We lucked out in missing one horrible night while we were gone. However, I’ve never known Colorado to be so relentlessly windy. The wind blew hard all day long. Such a wind usually presages a change in weather and an approaching storm, but we never saw a cloud, just haze from fires. It was eerie.
We got a camper, in part, to shut out unpleasant neighbors in campgrounds and to be able to move quickly or stay in dispersed campsites away from the herd of fools. Although we found a sweet little campground that was unoccupied except for the opposite end, we saw much evidence of the quality of humanity this area normally attracts. People couldn’t bother to cross the road to an outhouse, preferring to defecate on the surface of the ground between their campsite and a stream, not bothering to cover said feces with anything other than a mound of toilet paper that soon blew hither and yon. This happened more than once in more than one campsite. There was trash everywhere — not as bad as Idaho, mind you, but bad enough.
And the height of folly? Two dolts pushing over a 50 foot tall living aspen for firewood. My hope is that it crushed their bus-sized RV. Yes, with wildfires raging over the next hill, every camper but us insisted on a fire from early morning until leaving it unattended as they staggered off to bed. They pulled down live limbs. They chopped like woodpeckers. They were the envy of the caterpillars.
As we drove away from this obscure narrow canyon with just two campgrounds of 10 and 7.5 sites, respectively, the weekend traffic was pouring in. People were setting up the largest tents and canopies I’ve ever seen in the woods. Campsites had 4 or 5 vehicles, countless people. It was gonna be a good ole rowdy family-funtime up deathtrap hallow until the shootin’ starts. Fittingly, we passed 3 huge trucks unloading cattle. We looked from the cows to the people and back again. We could no longer tell them apart.
Weâ€™ve been camping in Colorado for more than two decades. Most years, we head up north before the end of June, but this year my book project kept me busy well into July and we hit the road 7/10 for 14 nights away.
This year, our travel plan was vague: head north until we encounter rain and cold. We assumed weâ€™d have to go at least as far as Wyoming. Ironically, our first night just south of the NM-CO border was both cool and rainy. We never made it to Wyoming. In fact, it rained every day for the first 11 days. Most nights, the temperature got down below 50 degrees (20+ degrees cooler than Albuquerque nights right now).
Most trips, we jack-camp, a term that brings a blank look to faces. The official term is â€œdispersed campingâ€ and weâ€™ve heard â€œdry campingâ€ â€“ camping outside of a campground, as is allowed in US forests and BLM lands. (I encountered cognitive dissonance when we reached a campground for â€œdispersed camping only.â€ Er, um, they must mean there arenâ€™t any established sites in this CG? Well, the fire rings made that unlikely. Moreover, this was one of two campgrounds maintained by volunteers.) Jack camping means we wonâ€™t have any neighbors and we wonâ€™t pay for the privilege. Nor will we have outhouses, water, or trash pickup.
This trip, not only did we stay in campgrounds, but they were more expensive than ever before: $18 per night in one well-worth-it CG; $36 per night in the Ouray KOA (includes hot showers â€“ and lots of inconsiderate neighbors).
Iâ€™ve kept a journal sporadically since college and regularly on these trips since 1998, when we drove to Hinton, Alberta, Canada (a round trip of more than 5000 miles). Each night on a trip, I read older journal entries to Merri before she goes to sleep and then I write until Iâ€™m done (sometimes, all I have to say is where we are and what we ate). On this trip, I read the 1998 journal first. Then I skipped to the journal for 6/2002 because 10 years ago we were travelling the same area of Colorado. In fact, at times, it was uncanny how unintentionally close we were to previous locations and experiences. Itâ€™s remarkable to think â€œthis is so beautiful and weâ€™ve never seen itâ€ and then read that, in fact, we did see it a decade ago and thought it was beautiful then. Of course, the unreliability of memory is one of the reasons I journal â€“ we forget, and we are often amused to be reminded. Not surprisingly, many journal entries include â€œit rained todayâ€ or some discussion of how we tried to deal with, avoid or escape the relentless rain. This is how desert dwellers vacation.
Every trip has its doldrums and its peaks. Highlights of this trip include:
looking out to see a bear sauntering within 20 feet of the camper â€“ â€œwhereâ€™s my camera?!â€
most of the 4 nights in Lost Lake Campground (weâ€™ve never stayed anywhere 4 nights in a row â€“ no driving at all)
watching a chipmunk explore Lukeâ€™s well-sealed food bin (we saw more chipmunks than ever before, but fewer hawks than we see in Albuquerque)
numerous hikes (vistas, wildflowers, cool bugs, wildlife), including the Cannibal Plateau (after Alferd Packer)
Not to dwell on the lows, but they include
ATV & dirt bike riders
heat (worst in Montrose)
a broken vent cover that left a 14â€x14â€ hole in our roof with rain imminent (fixed easily and cheaply in Montrose)
From my journal for Friday, 7/13/12:
We came to the turn toward Taylor Reservoir, still a dozen miles beyond that point. We went straight and pulled into Mosca Campground. As we drove through, the host pounced. Eventually, we got his name as Jean or John — I wasn’t quite sure. He was a cross between a mountain man and Jack Black. He was barefoot with beads around his bicep. Above a thick salt and pepper beard, his piercing blue eyes skewered my soul and asked silently, "are you the one?," making me hope I was not. Jean would like to host that remote CG for the next 30 years. He said the previous hosts had done so for 30 years. The husband died a few years back and the wife went on hosting until she fell on the dam and showed signs of Alzheimer’s. Jean went on and on, overloading us with details â€“ which birds are around (he’s an avid birder) , such as the Williamson’s sapsucker, which drills an interesting pattern in trees, as we could see just next to site something or other; what wildlife (a black phase gray fox and a red fox with a kit; a possible muskrat hole at water level; beavers; his own nemesis, the chipmunks (which seemed against his wild child air)). He told us this turn and that turn and this road that soon gets too crappy for our vehicle and on and on. He was a famous wood carver of realistic birds, but now draws with pencil — he loves to show his work, which he refuses to sell. I would not want to sit through a show in his yurt. (Actually, he has a van. I bet he sleeps on the ground, covered with leaves.) In fact, Jean is quite an interesting character, just a little too intense, a guy made gregarious by isolation, perhaps. Probably a great host for his highly rated CG. He said "I’ll talk you to death," to which I replied, "then we’re getting away just in time," which made him pause a moment. I liked him but reached my limit in the 10 or 60 minutes we chatted with him. He deserves to be a character in a novel and he might say his living that novel, having left Idaho to migrate between this CG in the summer and Taos, or was it Tucson or was it Las Cruces. A wilderness hippie, I say with some affection.
We drove on to the next fork in the road. All around us were clusters of campers, every single camp sporting multiple ATVs and dirt bikes. Somehow, it felt crowded. Even before the first deer fly bite, we knew this area wasn’t going to work for us. We walked up one road to a potential site only to look down to see a lower road with two dirt bikes. One could not walk in this area without looking over one’s shoulder the whole time. There would be no chance for real quiet. Ironically, Mosca CG is the only space that might be a bit civilized and we couldn’t face more Jean time.
We pulled into the parking lot for the reservoir and setup up our chairs for lunch using the back porch as our table. As we ate misc, Jean descending from the CG with binocs and did not look our way — he knows we are not the one. He marched over to a family and we heard some snippet of familiar details. I was in a hurry to leave, but Jean went on away, no doubt to walk barefoot through the muck at the top of the reservoir, sinking to his knees, plugging into earth and water, becoming part of the land, raising his arms to heaven and returning to his tree form, mink running around his trunk until the next visitor enters the CG. Perhaps they will be the one.
Nine years ago, Merri and I took Lucky Dog and our new-used truck and camper nearly 5,000 miles (round-trip) up the Rockies as far as Hinton, Alberta. We were gone nearly 5 weeks. Since then, each year, we take a “long” trip — shorter every year. This year: a couple hundred miles north for 6 nights. Not that it wasn’t beautiful and fun.
Mer and I camped and hiked with friends in the area of the South San Juan Wilderness and the Conejos River in south-central Colorado. The following is my journal with a link to photos at the end. peace, mjh
Day 1 – Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Conejos Valley, Colorado
Lake Fork Campground #18
Itâ€™s just after 10pm. Iâ€™m up about as late as I usually am at home, though I wonâ€™t be up as late as I was last night, with last minute prep of burgers and guacamole. Everyone has retired, perchance to dream. Iâ€™m sitting in our new used camper, my headlamp illuminating the keyboard as I type, mindful of my laptopâ€™s battery limit of just over an hour. Make it snappy. (Often good advice for a writer.)
We started this day trip driving to the trailhead for the Chupadera Peak trail, a few miles north of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge visitors center. Though we’ve known of this trail for awhile, we’ve never stopped, preferring to go on to view the birds in the bosque. This day, the trail was our destination. (Click this map thumbnail for larger image –>)
Turning off the main road south of San Antonio, the dirt road goes under a railroad trestle and ends at a line of small, struggling cottonwoods. The beginning of the trail can be a loop, with one leg to the left of the trailhead sign and the other to the right (this shorter leg is .5 miles). Both of these legs cross innumerable sandy washes that look just like nicely maintained trails — watch for cairns. The two legs meet by climbing either side of a low hill. At their juncture is a bench facing the bosque and the start of the “real” trail to Chupadera, another 4.3 miles west.
Though it was early March, it was also noon on a day of record heat (70’s). An occasional breeze made it bearable to the people, but the dog was walking on his tongue from the start. He stuck his head under the slatted bench for some respite. We only went a little farther. This might be a better mid-winter hike. Regardless, one needs to hit the trail well before noon. Eventually, the trail passes under I-25 and up to Chupadera. At over 9 miles of desert trail, I imagine few of Bosque’s many visitors have made the hike.
Still, that little bench on the hill has a panoramic view of the Rio Grande valley and the northern ponds of the refuge.