A Tranquil and Treasured Place

Ever since my inadvertent discovery of Colorado’s Roxborough State Park more than five years ago, I have harbored the wish to introduce it to my husband. Its location near Denver, about 65 miles north of Colorado Springs, had been a slight deterrent because of the attendant drive and traffic, but we finally made the journey in mid-July.

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We are enthusiastic devotees of Colorado’s State Parks and, for years, have happily invested the $70 fee for an annual pass that allows access to all forty-two parks, save one. A mere ten visits per year amortize the investment, and we typically far exceed that number. As the parks are scattered throughout the state, those that remain to be explored outnumber the ones we are familiar with, among them our nearby favorites, Cheyenne Mountain and Castlewood Canyon.

Roxborough State Park, fringed by the plains in the east and the Rocky Mountain foothills in the west, is one of the least developed parks. It is open only during daytime, does not offer picnic or camping facilities, and only allows human foot traffic. If this sounds restrictive, it is done in the noble attempt to limit visitation and minimize impact on its fauna, which includes 181 recorded bird species, plus multiple mammals, among them deer, elk, fox, black bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. When I recently published a post about our rare encounter with a rattlesnake, little did I know that soon afterward, we would run into another – at Roxborough. Again, this individual was not aggressive, and slithered away into the tall grass lining the trail. Shortly thereafter, we nearly stepped on another snake, and were jolted to attention when it hissed and curled. Fortunately, the bullsnake, albeit of impressive size, is not poisonous, and merely wanted to alert us of its presence.

Roxborough’s most outstanding features are geologic. Slanting red sandstone slabs form several parallel ridges along the park’s north-south axis, like the spinal columns of so many slumbering dinosaurs. The rocks are representative of the Fountain Formation. These oblique rubicund walls are even more remarkable when one comprehends that they originated as the bottom of an ancient inland ocean before its uplift some 300 million years ago. This is where my comprehension ends. As much as I hate to admit it, my geologic grasp is miniscule. Each time I read about rocks and minerals and millions and billions of years, my eyes glaze over, despite repeated attempts to remedy my ignorance. Ignorance does not equal inattention or inappreciation, but not everybody can be a rock hound.

Contrasting and complementing verdure, stimulated by several streams, creates a far lusher appearance than we are accustomed to from the otherwise geologically similar Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The versatile flora comprises tallgrass species and wildflowers, but our nearly decade-long regional drought has temporarily suppressed the number of flowering plants. The entire American West hopes for more summer rains.

This exquisite jewel of a refuge has attracted humans for eons. Evidence of local activity dates back nearly 12,000 years, and those Paleo-Indians were followed more recently by Utes, and, to a lesser extent, by Arapahoe. The locale owes its name to Henry Persse, a New York transplant. In 1903, he built a stone house on the north end of the valley, originally called Washington Park, before he rechristened it after an ancestral Scottish location. He intended to transform the area around his summer home into a resort, replete with hotel, golf course, and guest cottages. Mercifully, this plan never materialized, and his and some surrounding property amounting to a total of about 3,300 acres came into the possession of the state of Colorado, and was opened as a park in 1987.

Despite its proximity to the greater Denver metropolitan area with its three-plus million inhabitants, and despite the doubling of the annual visitation from 75 to 150 thousand in the last four years, when managing to avoid weekends and holidays, it is still possible to experience transformative tranquil time at this treasure trove.

Flying Jewels

One of the perks of living in North America is the yearly visitation by winged creatures so fabulous, they might have flown out of the pages of a fairytale. Named for the hum or trill created by the wings of some of the world’s 340 species, hummingbirds’ amazing appendages beat 50 to 60 times per SECOND, but brief bursts exceeding this frequency are possible. With an average lifespan of 4 years, and a maximum of 12, as one banded individual attested, this amounts from 7 BILLION wingbeats in shorter-lived birds, to about 21 BILLION in “longevitous” individuals. Their capability to propel themselves forward, backward, sideways, up, and down, and to hover in place, must be every flight engineer’s envy.

These fairy-like beings are among the most wonderful of avian wonders. Compared to Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird that weighs under 0.1 ounce (0.07, to be exact), and measures 2.4 inches in length, the Giant Hummingbird of the Andes tips the scale at a ponderous 0.8 ounce, and reaches 9 inches between tip of beak and tip of tail, though most species are from 3 to 6 inches long. To support the pumping wings and pumping heart which contracts 250 times per minute when resting, up to 1200 plus times when active, their metabolism, the highest of any homoeothermic animal, is about 100 times that of an elephant. In an attempt to conserve energy at nighttime and during cold spells, they enter a state of torpor not unlike hibernation, during which their core temperature and heart rate plummet. Even though not all species equal the Rufous Hummingbird’s twice yearly migration from Mexico to Alaska, and back, approaching a round-trip of 10,000 miles, most easily qualify for the frequent flyer club.

Apart from catching protein-rich aerial insects, hummingbirds are predominantly nectarivorous and frequent flowers whose blossoms accommodate their long, needle-like beaks from which they lap up the liquid with their long tongues, but they are amenable to man-made nectar proffered in feeders. Because many gravitate to shades of red, commercial feeding stations usually incorporate this color. The recommended mixture of four parts water and one part sugar sounds sweet enough, but I have a friend who uses both parts equally. His saccharine liquid is the stuff of hummingbird legend.

Sexually dimorphic, females tend to be slightly larger and may be surprisingly plain and easily confused, whereas males are typically more colorful. Iridescent hues are the result not of pigment, but of feather structure. The throats of adult males may seem black in dim light, but when hit by sunshine, suddenly shimmer and shine in shades borrowed from the rainbow. These resplendent patches are called gorgets, from the French word gorge, meaning throat, but might be derived from their gorgeous appearance as well. Paradisiacal in look only, their behavior is anything but. Territorial and aggressive, they regularly chase one another from food sources, leading to a paradoxical waste of energy.

The male performs J-, U-, or O-shaped courtship dives, accompanied by vibrant buzzing of his wings. Once his bravado behavior and sparkly plumes dazzle a girl, he performs his evolutionary duty, then takes off for other pursuits. Females build nests the size of walnuts, and lay eggs the size of beans. The typical clutch of two is tended to by the mother alone, until the young ones are ready to fledge after three weeks.

Of the three hundred-plus hummingbird species that solely exist in the Americas, 24 spend part or all of their lives in North America, and 4 of them occur regularly in our corner of Colorado. Their appearance in mid- to late April, often while a late blizzard blows and blankets burgeoning blossoms in white, is a longed-for and cherished sight, and the beginning of their all-too brief sojourn in our latitudes. My heart, still gladdened by their presence, is saddened by the knowledge that these precious creatures will soon move on.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, breeds at elevations of up to 10,500 feet, where nighttime temperatures often drop below freezing. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, kann auf Höhen bis zu 3,200 Metern brüten, wo es nachts oft gefriert.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, with pink gorget clearly visible. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, dessen pinkfarbenes Halsband gut sichtbar ist.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, female (Selasphorus platycercus), with protruding tongue. Weiblicher Breitschwanzkolibri, mit sichtbarer Zunge.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, the “bully of bullies” at the feeder. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, oder Rotrücken-Zimtelfe, einer der aggressivsten Kolibris.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, whose flame-red gorget appears golden in the sunlight. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, dessen feuerrotes Halsband im Sonnenlicht goldfarben erscheint.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), female. Weiblicher Zimtkolibri.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, the smallest bird in the United States (it weighs 0.1 ounce). Männliche Sternelfe, der kleinste Kolibri in den USA (er wiegt 2,7d Gramm).

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male. Männliche Sternelfe.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, with magenta throat stripes. Männliche Sternelfe mit pink-violettfarbenen Halsstreifen.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), female. Weibliche Sternelfe.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), male. The black chin is not seen, and the gorget does not appear purple, as it might in the sun. Schwarzkinnkolibri. Das schwarze Kinn ist nicht sichtbar, und die lila Kehle nur andeutungsmäßig.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), female. Appears slender, long-billed, and does not have reddish flanks. Schwarzkinnkolibri, weiblich. Erscheint schlank, langschnäbelig und hat keine Rottöne.

Seeing stunning hummingbird photos by many capable photographers reminds me of my woeful state of photographic ineptitude, but I hope I still captured the charisma of these magnificent marvels.

A Fire Lookout

If my office sat atop a 9,748 foot rocky perch and offered panoramic views of Colorado’s mountains and plains, I, too, would happily climb 143 steep steps each morning to get to work. I would not frown upon the employer-provided domicile, or upon having to use an outhouse. Rather, I would relish residing remotely each summer, 1.5 miles from, and 939 feet above, the nearest trailhead.

Unfortunately, this lofty office, built in 1951, whose elevated raison d’etre is the early detection of wildfires, does not have any openings, as the role of fire lookout has been filled by the same person since 1984. Mr. Bill Ellis, a U. S. Forest Service employee, was in his mid-50s when he jumped at the chance to take on the full-time seasonal position, moving to the cabin with his wife and, to begin with, their four children, each fire season, with the exception of only a few years. In his mid 80s now, he has become a living legend. His is a dying profession, because modern fire monitoring technologies are supplanting the human eye.

As residents of Colorado Springs, we enjoy occasional newspaper articles about the renowned fire tower lookout at Devil’s Head, a rocky promontory reportedly resembling Satan’s noggin from a few vantage points. This destination had long lingered and languished on our wish list until late June, when we finally saw it for ourselves. Though located less than 45 miles from the city as the crow flies, the trailhead lies off the rough and gravelly Rampart Range Road, and it took us nearly two hours to drive there. Out-of-the-way as it might be, its popularity has been growing exponentially, in lockstep with Colorado’s population, and the parking lot, albeit not full, contained many vehicles on the morning of our weekday visit.

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The 1.5 mile, tree-lined, narrow footpath sparkled with wildflowers, glittered with butterflies partaking of their sweet nectar, and resounded with birdsong, the melancholy tune of the Hermit Thrush audible above other voices. When we reached the flat area where Douglas Fir spread their verdant boughs over the couple’s home benignantly, we did not see the second famous local resident, Mrs. Margaret Ellis, but the towels drying on a clothesline in our low-humidity air bespoke her presence.

Huffing and puffing up 143 stairs rewarded us with 360 degree views from the tower, balanced like a raptor’s nest on the uppermost point. Its door was wide open, and inside the well-known lookout, binoculars at the ready, went about his business – the early espying of anything that resembles flickering flames or spiraling smoke, in order to activate a network of firefighters intent on preventing a potentially disastrous spread in our region suffering from a near decade-long drought. Despite an almost constant trickle of hikers, whose numbers approximate 40,000 annually, he greeted each party individually, and seemed more than willing to answer questions, and to pose for a photo.

I never tire of elevated places and bird’s eye views and suspect Mr. Ellis shares this sentiment. Despite the physical challenges of living at high altitude, off the grid, and without indoor plumbing for months at a time, and despite the daily demanding trek to his high post, he seemed completely in his element. May his quiet dignity and competence continue to be part of our local landscape and lore for as long as befits him and his wife, and may their future paths be smooth, sunny, and smoke-free.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:


Nebraska’s Ocean

Until the final two days of our May trip, we were not aware that Nebraska, a landlocked state, has its own ocean. Confused? So were we. If we had been blindfolded and dropped in this location, we might indeed have deemed ourselves at the beach of a vast sea, stretching from horizon to horizon. With our toes digging into fine sand and touching the edge of an immense body of water, we were able to relate to “Nebraska’s Ocean,” one of Lake McConaughy’s playful monikers (another is Big Mac), even after we learned that it is “only” the state’s largest reservoir, twenty-two miles long and four miles across at its widest point. Created by impounding the North Platte River behind Kingsley Dam which was constructed between 1936 and 1941, the reservoir provides and controls the water supply for agricultural use, and generates energy via a hydroelectric power plant.

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The lake has become a major destination for vacationers as it offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping. With numerous campgrounds, particularly along its northern shore, the main difficulty for us in choosing a campsite would have been an embarrassment of riches. Instead, by following the suggestion of the friendly receptionist at the visitor center, we enjoyed the smaller and less busy Lake Ogallala campground at the foot of Kingsley Dam. A stiff breeze was blowing all afternoon on the day of our arrival, and an impressive storm illuminated the surrounding night sky, but only touched us with brief lightning, claps of thunder, and a few heavy droplets. In the wake of this unsettled front followed two calm nights and days.

    Our daytime hours were filled with birding, reading, writing, and simply hanging out to enjoy the scenery. As we traveled during the week before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, we knew we would have to deal with increasing numbers of campers, but we were fortunate to have considerate neighbors, so that all we heard at night were the hoots of owls and the shrieks of grebes. As Nebraska’s feathered denizens differ from Colorado’s, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with more Midwestern species.

My most memorable avian encounter happened not at Lake Ogallala, but at “Big Mac.” As one of the few inland breeding sites of a rare species, portions of the beach are off limits to human use during the summer months, but the birds in question occasionally venture outside. On our second evening, we took a couple hours to explore stretches of the north shoreline, where several had been sighted. After two or three unsuccessful stops, I made one last effort and strolled down to the water’s edge. Wishful thinking sometimes makes us see things that are not there, which was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a diminutive bird chase away a Killdeer, nearly twice its size. My heart skipped a beat when, staring through my binoculars, I grasped that I was, indeed, looking at a Piping Plover, one of an estimated 8,400 individuals worldwide, all of which live in the Americas. Of the two existing populations, one breeds at the Atlantic seaboard in the Northeast; another prefers lakeshores and rivers of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. In the Great Lakes region, they are considered threatened; in the other two endangered. Adding this little lifer was a big deal, and, according to my husband, my formerly tenuous mood improved immediately. I hate it when he is right!

To avoid the weekend crowd, we slowly packed up on Friday morning, then bid Nebraska goodbye, grateful for a week packed with many new impressions and much food for thought.

A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

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We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”