Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Days 324-331 – Salida, CO

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August 19-26, 2013

Salida is about 60 miles north and an hour drive from Crestone. If I ever move to Colorado – which I not-very-seriously consider from time to time – I think Salida might be a good choice. A small town in a broad valley surrounded by a dozen 14,000 ft. peaks that offer skiing, hiking, and mountain biking. There are several hot springs nearby including a town-owned large hot springs fed indoor swimming pool which provided exercise, relaxation and needed showers. A white water river – the Arkansas – runs right through town. With a very active arts community, good food, and alternative offerings, what more could you want? (Well, Chris would probably say, “an ocean and milder winters.” In other words, California.)

We camped for a week at a free campground two miles from the center of town run by the state. It was along Rt. 50 and adjacent to a boat ramp on the Arkansas River. To one side of us was the river’s gentle roar, to the other side the rumbling of traffic. A few feet from our campsite the ground dropped steeply to the river below. The hillside was covered in small oaks. Halfway down, following a slippery trail, I attached my hammock. There I could gaze to the treetops and blue sky, to the waters dancing over rocks, and to the opposite mountainside. The highway was still slightly audible but the gurgling chatter of the river spoke loudest.

We were camped at the western mouth of Bighorn Sheep Canyon. I didn’t expect to actually see any sheep here since it was still the outskirts of Salida, with a commercial RV park next-door, a restaurant across the street and the busy Rt. 50. Yet on our first morning, a small herd a bighorn sheep made their way slowly along the river and up the steep mountainside we faced. Walking to get a better view, I soon saw a small group of campers decked out in cameras and binoculars. The sheep were lined in a row on a lighted ridge; something then spooked them and they ran up the hill eventually stopping to graze on the rocky slopes in the shadow of the still rising sun. I took numerous photos but the distance and low light made a clear shot difficult.

We met Matthew there, an itinerant massage therapist, working the summer at a spa in Salida. His next stop would be southern California for the winter. People at free campgrounds often seem friendlier than at paid ones. They are eager to share information on other free sites and quick to complain about people who abuse the places they camp in. Every type of person camps here, from people in fancy huge RVs to the homeless in tiny ragged tents without transportation. Not all people here are “upstanding citizens” as Matthew said. Much of the area looks overused and mistreated, battered and worn. Broken glass and litter were scattered about. A recent camper left three garbage bags of trash strewn where they had stayed.

But this spot had its advantages – it’s free and maintained by the state (a ranger drove through periodically), it’s along the river which is scenic and offers bathing, a boat ramp and a bathroom, there are large and small mountain views, and end-of-summer sunflowers blooming everywhere.

In walking distance was a lone restaurant, the Buffalo BBQ, so one night we went there for dinner. The owner, relatively new to the area, told us had moved to Salida from a smaller town higher up in the Rockies. He bemoaned the low elevation here at “only” 6,000 feet. He claimed that “life starts above 10,000 feet” where one feels more alive and healthy. Adjacent to the restaurant was his collection of motorcycles and other unusual items. The whiteboard claimed that the dessert special was “better than sex”. Recalling “When Harry Met Sally”, I ordered a serving. It was pretty good but only better than mediocre sex.

The road across the highway from the campground led into an expanse of hills with juniper-pinyon pine forests. Several times I wandered there looking for wildflowers, wildlife, big views and a mysterious “badlands” area I had heard about but that eluded me. How could a large, unusual desert-like canyon be hard-to-find? After several attempts, I finally did locate it by using my geocaching app to direct me to a cache hidden there. It turned out that the directions given me were faulty; the way there was actually pretty simple.

By the end of summer the Arkansas river is low but it was still navigable by small boats. Chris rented an inner tube and I took my kayak. We put in at the center of town and floated along a couple miles until we reached the boat ramp near our campsite. People have altered the river bed in town to create a short whitewater park with drops, waves and playholes. The first drop swamped my boat and upended Chris and his inner tube. No harm done – I pulled over 100 yards down river to empty my boat. But, unfortunately, all manner of tourists were standing on shore and a balcony of lunchers watched at the Boathouse Cantina, witnessing the humiliation of our poor whitewater skills. The trip was fun; our only complaint was that it was not long enough.

This gallery contains 43 photos

Photographs of the Week – Ano Nuevo State Reserve, CA

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March 21, 2014
Ano Nuevo State Reserve, CA
Elephant Seal Breeding Site

Ano Nuevo State Reserve is only 40 minutes away, so this week I asked myself: why on earth don’t I go there more often? The last time was several years ago. I suppose I’ve been deterred by the fee they charge and the need to sign-up ahead of time (via ReserveAmerica) for a seal walk. But with renewed enthusiasm I made a commitment to visit at least several times a year. I’ve already missed the prime elephant seal watching season in January. At that time, the most seals are present and they are most active. Males, females, pups, births, mating, fighting. Conspicuously encumbered by my two cameras and several lenses, the docent let me know that there were special tours for photographers in January. Next year, I hope.

It took a leisurely hour to walk from the nature center to where the elephant seals are hauled out on the sand. Halfway there, our group met a park ranger and docent at the “staging area”. A table was set out with skulls from local marine mammals showing their relative sizes. On the ground was an enormous partially petrified skull of an ancient blue whale. This bone was unearthed recently on a beach nearby after a storm. The docent shared natural and human history of the area as we slowly made our way through the dunes to the beach.

Spread across the sand like giant slugs were a variety of elephant seals: adult males, sub-adult males, females, pups, weaners. Usually listless, an occasional seal would galumph strenuously toward a preferred spot. If it was a large male on the move, the other smaller seals would scurry out of its way. Propelling itself forward in great lunges using it’s front flippers, the seals stopped frequently, seemingly exhausted, before attempting to move again. The primary other seal activity was flipping plumes of sand into the air to cover their bodies in a layer of protection from heat and sunburn.

Grunts, groans, snorts, and occasional screeching rose above the rhythmic surf sound. We watched a male seal annoying a female while she flipped seaweed into his face in response. He eventually let her be.  Some pups were still with their mothers. But most were now silver-toned “weaners”: having finished weaning, their mothers were gone or disinterested in them. These pups were on their own although they had yet to swim or hunt food for the first time.

Elephant seals are deep-sea feeders and do not eat during their several month stay here in winter. Consequently, they had lost much of their bulk since first arriving in December and January. Even so, they were huge. The males weigh in at 5000 pounds while the females are about 1200. During nursing, the females lose about 10 pounds a day while their pups eagerly gain those 10 pounds daily from the fat-rich milk, going from 70 pounds at birth to over 200 in a few weeks.

These marine mammals are called elephant seals because of their great size and because the adult males sport a trunk-like proboscis. Spending 80% of their life swimming the Pacific, each year they return to the same breeding grounds in winter. These seals can dive down thousands of feet and can spend nearly two hours underwater without breathing. Hunted to near extinction for their blubber, by 1892 there were only 50-100 northern elephant seals left. The population is now up to about 160,000.

The browns, tans, and grays of the seals matched the shades of the sandy shore. They looked  like ripples on the beach, rows of bloated sausages strewn about, mounds of sand rolled into mammalian stogies. Some relaxed on seaweed beds, others reclined in shallow waters. A few males had minor squabbles. Unlike sea lions who can sit up on their hind appendages, elephant seals can only lie flat and must scoot along awkwardly to get anywhere. However, when motivated, they can move quickly for short distances – human observers were kept 25 feet away. The seals, in general, ignored us, although the ones nearest us could occasionally be seen meeting our gaze.

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Day 311-325 – Crestone, Colorado

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August 7-20, 2013

Returning to Crestone is a pilgrimage. Chris and I travel there every few years. Crestone changes over the time between visits and it remains the same. I arrive there with a storehouse of past associations. I arrive knowing I will find beauty, quirkiness and surprises. It is there that I completed two one month solo wilderness retreats in 1995 and 2001. It is there that Chris and I first met (1995) and then started our relationship (2001).

We were returning this year for specific dates in August because I was registered for a weeklong Dzogchen meditation retreat with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Although he lives in Nepal, his organization – Pundarika – has a center in Crestone.

Crestone is remote. At the end of a lonely road, at 8,000 feet, the town sits at the base of sharply rising 14,000 foot peaks to the east. To the west, the San Luis Valley stretches 60 miles to the San Juan Mountains. It has a unique history. Originally an old mining town, in the 1970s Hanne and Maurice Strong bought a 200,000 acre tract of land with a vision of providing property to spiritual centers. This has resulted in Crestone becoming a community of spiritual communities, an interfaith refuge in the Sangre de Christo mountains.

There are approximately 23 different groups there including seven Tibetan Buddhist centers, a Carmelite monastery, three Hindu ashrams, a Zen center, a Shumei center, a Subud community and several Native American organizations. And an assortment of mainstream Christian churches. Crestone has two stupas and a ziggurat to visit. Is the only town in the country where outdoor funeral pyres are allowed. Here is a link to an article in the New York Times.

It is also home to the Way of Nature Sanctuary, the land belonging to Sacred Passage and guiding teacher John Milton. It is with Sacred Passage that Chris and I completed our solo retreats in the nearby mountains.

Crestone is a small town; the entire area having about 1000 people. Most homes are part-time residences since the winters are harsh and the jobs few. Crestone is not prosperous or chic like Sedona. The tiny “downtown” is ramshackle. Businesses seem to barely get by and accommodations are usually basic. Restaurants come and go and usually have names like the current Shambala Cafe and Bliss Café. The only bar is called “The Laughing Buddha”. Organic food is commonplace. Not only are there native bison but a herd of Asian yaks who thrive in the high-altitude, extreme weather and dry climate. Yak burgers can be ordered at several establishments. Nearby are natural hot springs and we visited them as part of the routine of our regular pilgrimages. A short ways to the south is Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Crestone attracts unusual, fascinating and sometimes bizarre people. This year we noticed a large number of what appeared to be homeless wanderers. Some looked gentle and benign, while others were a bit scary.

We camped at the National Forest Campground for two weeks. It is a lovely primitive spot along the wooded North Crestone Creek. The retreat I attended was held a few miles away in a large tent, about a ten minute hike through the sandy juniper and pinyon pine landscape from the parking area. They have no accommodations so participants dispersed each evening and rejoined each morning at the tent from various B&Bs, room rentals in homes and camping spots. Meal plans were offered at the Desert Sage Restaurant which is adjacent to the extension campus of Colorado College (the main campus is Colorado Springs). The CC website describes the impetus for adding the Crestone campus: “Two decades ago, The Colorado College began an experiment of creating a space for reflection to ‘free us all from the tyranny of the urgent” (Coriell) in order to enhance learning.”

The Desert Sage is one of the few establishments that has remained in operation since my first visit in 1995. Conveniently, the campers next to us were also attending the same retreat and I hitched rides with them each day, thus allowing Chris (who was not attending the retreat) to sleep in and maintain his own schedule for the week.

After my retreat ended, Chris and I connected with John Milton who was hosting a small group of old students. John had discovered a unique area of stone formations on the west side of the San Luis Valley and we accompanied him and other students on a field trip. John is known as a “stone shaman” and has a unusual affinity for working with stones and meditation.

Black bears have always had a notable presence in Crestone. This summer was no exception. The first night of their stay, the campers next to us had a backpack full of food that they had hung in a tree stolen by a bear. The only bears Chris and I saw this trip were two bruins marauding downtown Crestone one evening at dusk.

In 2002, a bear popped out a window of my car; I had inadvertently left one window open about 1/2 inch. Shattering the glass, the bear climbed into my car, opened two coolers of food and dragged much of it out the window. I was camping about 75 yards away when this happened in the middle of the night. The bear left behind claw marks on the upholstery, a muddy footprint on my backjack and a few long black hairs.

In 2001, while on a month-long solo retreat, I had several encounters with bears. One night a bear knocked my three bear canisters full of food down a ravine, intelligently believing – I assume – that the canisters might break open after forcefully hitting boulders and fallen logs. Fortunately, the canisters were intact when I retrieved them but they were covered in tooth and claw scratches and drying bear slobber. (By the way, this wilderness retreat happened mid-August through mid-September 2001. Yes I was there when 9-11 occurred. That is another story altogether.)

The sweeping limitless vistas, the dramatic changing play of weather and clouds, the towering rugged peaks make this place like no other. Unfortunately, for some of the most remarkable displays of nature, I did not have my camera with me and missed recording them.

In an earlier post, I said Wyoming was the last big hurrah for wildflowers. That was true. But Colorado offered a satisfying small hurrah. Flowers were becoming fewer and farther between; they were giving way to berries, hips, nuts, pods, seed heads and mushrooms.

This gallery contains 56 photos

Days 307-312 – On the way to Crestone, Colorado

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August 2 – 7, 2013

This gallery contains 27 photos