Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Enormity of the West

We averted catastrophe, barely, once again on a trip through the wide vastness of the west. We just got back from a trip to the Grand Canyon and it was all wonderful and inspiring until we found ourselves in trouble in the wilderness. This happens to us more often than it should.

We stayed in Williams, AZ at the Railway Hotel and took the train to the Grand Canyon

No, there were no tumbles over the rim or falls down the steep canyon walls, although that was on our minds as we inched toward the rim's edge and took in the numbing immensity of the Grand Canyon. What happened was a flat tire on the drive home from Williams. Just a flat tire.

View from Yaki Point on the south rim

But . . . it was a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere.  We limped 20 miles down a road into the Petrified Forest National Park and parked at the visitor center to look at our deflated tire, but there are no services there, no gas station or any kind of mechanic. Triple A was far, far away.

Jim had popped his shoulder out before we left and had spent the trip one-armed, babying a painful right arm. He could drive, and limited mobility didn't diminish his awe at seeing the Grand Canyon from the south rim -- what a sight -- but changing a tire was beyond him.

He got the jack out and was manfully going at it one armed in the parking lot when a very nice family from South Carolina came over. The husband immediately stepped in and got that tire changed, while I commiserated with the wife about the hurricane back where they came from, and their young kids waited patiently to start checking out the petrified trees. The family was a little worried about their home.

Ancient logs turned to stone in the Petrified Forest

Tire changed, sincere "thank yous" and "not at all ma'ams" exchanged, we were on our way, riding on the donut spare.

We had 250 miles to go to get back home. We couldn't go more than 55 mph on the spare, so that's a long, long trip. But we made it, and got to drive through the Petrified Forest on the way, ambling along at slow speeds and stopping often to check out the sights. It was incredible.

Blue Mesa in the Petrified Forest National Park

And it was incredible that the little donut spare tire held up for a couple hundred miles all the way home.

You may recall we have catastrophes when we visit any of the wilderness parks -- the washed out roads on our trip to Chaco Canyon made for a Very Scary Drive, and the day after a snowstorm hit the Great Sand Dunes, we had a small river of snowmelt to cross barefoot to get to the dune field.

It's the empty enormity of the west that scares me when these little hazards arise. A flat tire, a washed out road, a river of snowmelt in the way -- normal mishaps seem so frightening out in the big open spaces where no one else is around and help is many, many miles away.

But we're good. We made it home. Nice people helped us.

And the Grand Canyon was magnificent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Cowpen Daisies

A little bit of rain late in the summer and the fields and road medians all around Santa Fe have exploded with yellow daisy-like flowers. They are Verbesina encelioides, or cowpen daisy.

All spring and summer the roadside fields and street medians were simply dry brown hardpan. Not a blade of grass or anything green for months. It looked clean and spare but uninteresting, and very, very brown.

In late July the monsoons came, first with a devastating flood, and then later in the summer with a few inches of rain here and there. Nothing like the constant downpours over the mountain range to our east, but we got some. And that's all it took.

The narrow, sand covered medians on the main street in our neighborhood went wild. Feathery grasses and cowpen daisies sprang up.

All through our neighborhood any untended area looks like this, with purple Russian sage, delicate orange spikes of globe mallow and yellow cowpen daisies happily mingling together along with lots of green weedery.

All year it's so dry here -- the scant rain that New Mexico gets all comes in the late summer, so September is an absolute riot of flowers and greenery and weeds and wildflowers and beautiful grasses and cowpen daisies, cowpen daisies and more cowpen daisies everywhere.

On my walk around the neighborhood the other day I saw nothing but fields of flowers in all directions. One of the real benefits of this development is the system of walking paths, all paved, that snake around and behind every cluster of houses. There are miles and miles of wandering paths, and on this September day they were lined with yellow flowers.

Even where the terrible July flood had washed out the arroyo around the corner from us (and several houses near us were flooded), cowpen daisies now line the path of destruction, undaunted by nature's havoc.

Every bit of open space around town is a sea of yellow flowers and green grasses.

In the washed out arroyo there are pink Apache Plume shrubs in bloom, and they seemed to shrug off being flooded out too. These are tough shrubs, and like chamisa (rabbitbrush) they grow wild and big everywhere and they are weedy, but interesting.

Apache Plume flowers are frothy pink starbursts, and they make up for the ungainly foliage and form of this plant. I've seen some Apache Plume shrubs well pruned, and it makes a difference. This can be a nice landscape plant with some work.

All over town wildflowers are blooming and grasses are setting tawny seedheads, roadside sunflowers are nodding, and asters are making a show, both the shy little purple rayed ones and sunny yellow hairy goldenasters that grow in every gravel crack available.

But it's the cowpen daisies that blanket the landscape absolutely everywhere the eye can see. I took so many iPhone shots on my walk around our immediate neighborhood, until I tired of pulling my phone out at every step.

Here's a photo (not mine) of what it looks like in so many areas outside of town.

not my photo, but it looks like this everywhere

Weeds and wildflowers, and wow, what a show.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Las Vegas -- Twice!

I went to Las Vegas this week . . .  twice. Once on Monday, and then on Saturday.

Monday we flew into McCarran airport in Las Vegas, Nevada for a layover on our way home from L.A.

We had spent Labor Day weekend in California with my son and daughter in law, and had a wonderful time, including a picnic supper in the open air boxes at the Hollywood Bowl to see John Williams (he's 86 for heaven's sake!) conduct the L.A. Philharmonic. Of course he conducted Star Wars and of course there were lightsabers in the stands. It was a blast.

A layover in Las Vegas on Labor Day, traveling with the crowds massed in the airport and assaulted by beeping slot machines at every gate -- that was not such a blast. But we made it home safely and our flights were on time and the whole weekend with family was well worth any travel stress. I saw as much of Las Vegas as I could tolerate.

On Saturday we found ourselves in Las Vegas again! Only this time it was Las Vegas, New Mexico and we drove there.

It's only an hour from Santa Fe, less if you could zip straight over the mountains, but you have to drive around the Sangre de Cristos to get there. It's unnerving to see signs on the highway for "Las Vegas - 60 miles" if you don't know that they mean the small town in New Mexico, and not Sin City two states away.

Las Vegas NM is a forgotten in time town (population 13,000) with an Old Town that has a shady plaza, a classic western hotel with saloon on the square, and shops and small eateries all around. It started as a stop for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, and then eventually became a wealthy railroad town in the 1880s. It's touristy, but not like Santa Fe, or even like Taos.

It's much quieter, and more rustic / shabby. It's a typical western town.

And it was very, very green.

Northern New Mexico has had an active monsoon season this summer, and storms have formed all over the area almost every afternoon since July. Lots and lots of storms, but they are very isolated, and ever since the late July flood event here, rarely have the black clouds delivered any rain over our house -- a half inch once or twice, some drizzle or sprinkles sometimes. Lots of clouds and lightning, but no direct rain.

But Las Vegas, to the east of us and on the other side of the mountain range, has been drenched over and over. Every radar map showed large cells moving southeast over Las Vegas. They have had so much rain recently.

It looked like it. On the drive there, grassy open meadows were so green, with wildflowers blooming abundantly and tawny grass seedheads waving. Las Vegas is where the pine forest mountain uplands of the state meet the wide plains of the midwest. Everywhere flowery fields gave way to grassy hills which gave way to deep green pines climbing the mountain slopes. It was all wet and green and lush.

The neighborhoods in town have the typical little western bungalows and then there are streets with big Victorian houses from the railroad wealth era, and all had vibrant green lawns and flowerbeds bursting. The town just looked refreshed.

There is a small liberal arts state college, New Mexico Highlands University, right next to the Old Town area, and the campus looked very nice -- well kept, snazzy buildings, beautiful green lawns and trees.

In the railroad era, the town boomed, and Carnegie built a library that is still the town's pride. It's modeled after Jefferson's Monticello, which is sort of evident.

There is a very small museum that memorializes Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders -- he recruited men from Las Vegas for his famous corps. For a long time in the 1800s the town was a hotbed of outlaws and lawlessness that rivaled any of the legends of the west. Doc Holliday had a dental office here, the Dodge City Gang operated for years and cattle rustling was a lucrative profession. It was the real wild west, at one time bigger than Denver and the largest city between Kansas City and San Francisco.

But its economy imploded in the last century after the railroad industry collapsed. There was no money for renovating buildings or stuccoing over things, and so much original architecture has remained frozen in time as it looked before statehood.

Our visit was on a lovely, sunny day, the drive through God's green land was a stunning surprise, and we enjoyed being tourists in a western town. We ate at the saloon. We toured the neighborhoods and we marveled at what New Mexico looks like when it rains.

While I could barely abide a few hours in Las Vegas, Nevada on the way to somewhere else, I loved visiting Las Vegas, New Mexico. What a great small town.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Once Again . . .

This is ridiculous.

Once again I carefully selected a plant for a specific spot in my new gardens, and once again I ended up with something totally different. The pot I bought was mislabeled. This keeps happening and it has occurred now at two completely different nurseries here. First with a desert willow that blooms purple, not white, and now . . .

Rocky Mountain clematis - Clematis columbiana
Spring bloomer, delicate vine growing to only 6 feet.

I bought a native Rocky Mountain clematis for the tower that is up against the neighbor's garage wall in my new back garden. The staff at the nursery recommended it because it's native, stays small, and does well in shade. I looked it up online and learned it has little violet-blue downward facing bells in spring. Nice. Perfect size.

I planted it, watered it, and it grew up the iron tower, but of course it did not flower the first year as it was planted after the spring bloom period. But then in late August, it started to flower. And it's yellow.

Not what I bought.

This is Clematis tangutica, golden bell clematis, from China. It gets much larger than I wanted, flowers in late summer and fall, and it's a totally different color than I selected. Despite being sold by the premier, well respected nursery for native southwest plants, it's Chinese.


I guess it's nice enough and the flowers are pretty in late summer.
But this will be larger than the tower can hold.

No, I didn't keep the sales slip or the plant tag from the pot. Yes, if I had those I could go back to the nursery and let them know and I am sure they would replace it.

I need to start doing that -- keeping slips and plastic plant tags and storing all the loose bits of paper from the many pots and tubs and plant plugs I've bought. Absent the needed paperwork, however, I'll keep this yellow clematis and I'll probably like the nice yellow bells in summer as it climbs up over the neighbor's garage and onto their roof.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Predictable Malfunctions

We just got back from a week away traveling, and discovered two entirely predictable things occurred. Both were absolutely ordained to happen.

One, despite holding the newspaper and getting a confirmation of the hold dates, a week's worth of rolled up papers piled up on our front porch. That was predictable.

Second, despite setting up an elaborate drip system for several gardens, complete with inscrutable programmable timers and extension coils and soaker hoses, it rained hard while we were away. Half an inch.

The rain barrel was overfull, the gardens were wet, the rain gauge was filled to the half inch mark, and my water usage app shows the timers delivered hundreds of gallons of drip irrigation while it rained.

A more sophisticated set up would include a rain sensor and pause function, but I didn't spring for the cost of that system in a climate where it doesn't rain. So of course it rained significantly while we were gone.

I guess that's good, though.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Fire and Redemption

This is how summer ends in Santa Fe: in fire and redemption.

It's another one of Santa Fe's odd public rituals: the burning of Old Man Gloom on the Friday before Labor Day. This year will be the 94th burning of this scary effigy -- a burning man decades before there was Burning Man.

Old Man Gloom is called Zozobra. He's a 50 foot tall fully functioning marionette, responsible for all the doom and gloom that happened during the past year.

He is filled with scraps of paper inscribed with a year's worth of misery. People write down their saddest thoughts or bring their divorce papers or other doleful documents and put them inside Zozobra. Then, when he burns up in a giant conflagration, everyone's woes disappear in smoke and flame.

The giant puppet is on display in town for days before the event so that people can visit him and write down their torments and stuff them inside him.

I did last year -- I wrote down what was bothering me, added my scrap to the stuffing inside him, and I felt better when my worst problems were all burned up. A satisfying redemption.

We didn't go to see the actual burning last year, though. It's held at a park north of town and the crowds are huge; over 50,000 attended last year in a town whose population is 70,000. Jim and I are not big on crowds at night, although this is a well managed family event with tight security. This year we're away traveling during the Zozobra fest.

Fireworks are involved and fire dancers perform at the base of the effigy and there is music.

Unlike the religious and historical observances that Santa Fe loves to stage, Zozobra is no kind of commemoration. It was just a prank that an old time Santa Fe artist, Will Shuster, cooked up to entertain friends back in 1924. He stuffed a 4 foot effigy full of firecrackers and sentenced him to death and everyone had a good time watching things blow up in the Shuster's back yard.

The next year they repeated the silly spectacle and eventually it became an annual town event, with the effigy getting larger and larger, and townspeople bringing more and more unwanted papers to stuff him, until the thing became immense -- after all, who doesn't like more fire?

This is how summer ends in Santa Fe.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

La Entrada

Santa Fe loves a civic spectacle. Quirky parody parades, historic processions, period reenactments, religious festivals, candlelight walks -- the calendar is full of them.

The central plaza downtown is the perfect place to stage these events as well as open air concerts, special weekend art markets and holiday festivities.

But the most cherished and the most controversial is La Entrada. For a year now, since we moved here, the city has been grappling with what to do about the reenactment of the entry into Santa Fe and conquest of the area by Spain in 1692.

It's a parade that takes place during the annual Fiesta in early September. The Fiesta is a three day weekend festival of Spanish food, music, religious processions, special masses, art and jewelry vending -- a big party celebrating Spanish history.

In the national distress about Hispanic immigration, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that families from Spain have lived in this place since well before Pilgrims landed in New England. The Spanish founded the city. It's a rich and proud history. It's the origin tale of New Mexico.

But the Spanish were not the original people to live here, and their conquest of the native Indian pueblos was just that -- a conquest. Brutal at times, religiously intolerant, rife with conflict. There were wars and subjugation as well as a long history of assimilations and melding of cultures.

The conquest and defeat of the Indians is not something many people think should be glorified. The parade at 2 p.m. through the plaza, showcasing re-enactors playing De Vargas and his conquistadors on horseback and priests with crosses walking behind, is supposed to depict the peaceful entry into Santa Fe and the pacific introduction of the Catholic faith.

It was not historically bloodless, and the parade has long been controversial with Indian populations. This year it is canceled.

Canceling this spectacle has been a divisive town issue for a year.  Last year Jim and I witnessed protesters being hauled away by police as a ragtag remnant parade -- no horses, no pomp, no trumpets --  tried to process through hostile crowds on the plaza.

This year the parade is canceled entirely. All year long the papers were filled with articles about a substitute celebration. Pueblo councils worked with town fathers to come up with something else. Cooperation was encouraging. Letters to the editor were well reasoned, both for and against keeping the Entrada procession.

No one wants to give it up -- how they all love their colorful, boisterous civic pageants -- but no one knows how to properly celebrate the fact that the Spanish came here and created a rich culture while doing terrible things in defeating a native population. It's complex history, it happened, and it cannot be ignored or forgotten.

It's like the controversy over Confederate statues now roiling the country. How do you show an entangled, difficult history from both sides in a reductive, symbolic way?

History is hard.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Grow Up!

Watering -- I can't quite get the hang of it here. When my gardens are mature it should be easier. I've planted things that are drought resistant once established, and if I want to go away for five days in the summer, mature dry-adapted plants will survive until my return.

But they're not established yet.

With new transplants, some still so very little and spindly, I am finding I have to water deeply every day, even the lavender and rosemary and things that want dry conditions once they are grown. If I go two days without soaking them, they wilt or get brown leaves, especially if a dry wind kicks up in the evenings, which happens.

I have moved some plants that were not thriving, and when I dug them up, I found the roots were surrounded by dry, powdery soil. That's despite spending hours drenching everything I've planted almost every day. The soil is so dry deep down that my best efforts only get the top few inches wet, and rapid transpiration through the leaves moves moisture right back out into the dry air.

Any possibility of getting water any deeper in the dirt is thwarted either by tree roots that take all the moisture, or by hydrophobic soil. That's bone dry dirt that won't accept water -- the surface tension of the water prevents it seeping into hydrophobic soil. Water is repelled, and my soaking efforts only pool water ineffectively near the top of the soil.

You can add wetting agents that break the water's surface tension and let it spread out -- dish soap works well to do that. But adding enough dish soap to water many large garden spaces is impractical. The ultimate answer is better soil. Mulch and compost.

I've been doing that -- mulching and adding compost -- to all the things I plant. But like the watering schedule, I'm not getting the hang of it. Apparently I need more.

We have plans to go away. We're spending 5 days with my son and his wife in L.A. over Labor Day weekend, and in mid September we're taking a train trip to the Grand Canyon for 5 days.

It's too much to ask a neighbor to come over and water, I simply have too many little plants in too many different spots around the yard and it takes me an hour or more to get them all hose watered. I can't ask someone to do that.

I ordered some soaker hoses and a timer to put on the faucet so I can set an automatic schedule to drip soak some of the gardens while we're gone, but that's only going to cover two spaces. I need many more, but that's verging on impractical.

This dilemma would be solved if the little plants would fill out, mature, and settle in to their dry loving ways. In this climate I'll still need to water an established planting, but a five day break won't hurt anything.

Right now my gardens are like new puppies or toddlers -- they can't be left on their own. I'm impatient for them to grow up.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

We're Going to Need a Bigger Feeder

There is no peace on our patio. I hung the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window, directly over the patio chairs and expected we'd have a good view of the little birds both from inside through the window and sitting out on the patio, as they flitted in to feed on occasion, .

They don't visit "occasionally", they are at that feeder constantly all day. All summer we have been mobbed.

Two or three fight over it with daring swoops and head on attacks. We have to duck when they have aerial dogfights over our heads, they don't even care that we are there and fly right at us in their agitation to drive off the others. It's fascinating to watch, but having a drink out on the patio is not a calm, relaxing affair.

We had ruby throated hummingbirds in Connecticut. I used this same feeder, which holds a cup of sugar water, and hung it by the patio there. We had occasional visitors and it was fun to watch. But the feeder was a pain to maintain. The sugar water would sit and it got mildew easily, disgusting bugs got into it, and I had to remember to clean it and refill it on a weekly schedule. I'd forget sometimes.

Here I can't forget. With hummingbird visits every few minutes all day long, the feeder goes dry in two days and I can see it needs filling again. Sugar water never sits long enough to mildew, and the air is too dry here anyway. No ants or bugs have found it.

I'm never alone when I'm outside. Hummingbirds chirp and chatter, they fly at each other, they make constant forays from the fence to the feeder and back. Their beating wings and even their whirring tail feathers make noise.

There seem to be two kinds, delicate black chinned hummers and rufous hummingbirds that are migrating through the area now. The rufous male hummers are orange tinted and the females have black spotted throats and green backs. The rufous males are bold, fearless, and love a good chase. They won't stay still for a photo.

I need to buy a bigger feeder that holds more than a cup. We're going away for five days, and this small feeder will run dry. There are flowering plants that they visit here too, so they won't starve, but all summer these aggressive, noisy, agitated little birds have let me know that this is their feeder and they expect it to be filled and more sugar please . . . now.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Monte del Sol

I have no kids in school and no grandkids on a school schedule. But I am acutely tuned in to the rhythms of the academic year, because --- cars.

Today a steady stream of traffic right outside our front door paraded up the hill from 8 in the morning til 8:45. Vrooom. First day of school. Then, after that, nothing. All quiet.

Four houses away from us, up the hill but hidden over the crest, is Monte del Sol charter school, one of the better regarded and competitive schools in the state. Originally a music and arts charter school (we called them "magnet" schools back east), it now has a more general academic focus.

It has 360 students, grades 7 through 12, and 25 teachers, and apparently every one of them arrives by car. I've never seen a school bus, but it may be that buses must use the other road, Dancing Ground, which leads into the school from another direction.

The school is a small stucco building, looking like a larger version of all the houses around it. There is an open courtyard in the center with trees and tables that feels like a college quadrangle for gathering and criss crossing to classes. However, there are four metal trailers, decoratively graffiti'd, to the side of the building that apparently hold classrooms too. Space issues.

A few walkers and bikers and skateboarders pass by on school mornings, but mostly it's cars. I like to watch the 7th graders in winter when they zip by on their bikes in their thin t shirts and shorts, while I'm inside my house with the heat on, bundled in a sweatshirt and slippers against the high desert cold.

Sometimes mid morning there's a field trip and we see groups of gangly teenagers shamble past the house on their way to . . where? I'm not sure what they're going to see that they can walk to. It's entertaining to watch, though. The dynamics of teen age social structure are so evident as they clomp and giggle and shuffle by.

The school is where our homeowners association holds its large meetings. In summer there's a Shakespeare production in the courtyard on several weekends. The school promotes its community gardens and teaching water conservation, a good thing for kids in this city.

The traffic is only heavy for 45 minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon, then it's completely quiet all day. I don't mind it. It's over quickly.

The rest of the day there are long stretches of absolutely nothing happening on the road outside our house except the random person pulling up to the mailbox cluster next to our driveway to get their mail.

All in all, despite the traffic, the school is a good neighbor.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Coronado's Helmet

There is a Spanish conquistador that watches us from the neighbor's roof, day and night. I never see his face, it's always hidden in shadow deep beneath his helmet. But I know he is watching me.

All of the fireplace chimney stacks here have a metal cap that pivots with the wind to prevent downdrafts in the flue, and to keep rain out.

They are shaped like flattened cones with a vane on top to catch the wind. Every house has one. The one sitting atop Frank and Joan's roof behind us is a constant, swiveling presence above our patio. It moves in the slightest bit of air, making it seem as if the concealed face beneath the helmet is always watching, watching.

In 1540, when Franciso Coronado came through New Mexico, his Spanish soldiers wore these helmets, called morions. The English called them pikemen's pots or kettle hats.

It's uncanny how similar the chimney caps look to a morion. Not only in shape, but in their constant movement, as if there is a live soldier in there, ever vigilant. When the vane turns the cap to directly face us, I feel spied upon, then the vane turns again and he looks away. Then back at us, the face always hidden in deep shadow. It's really weird.

In daytime sun glints off the metal and sends bright flashes into our living room, constantly signaling something urgent.

Jim uses the rotating helmet as a wind vane, to see which way the wind blows and predict rain. For him it's a handy piece of meteorologic engineering. But I can't help but see an inscrutable, silent, Spanish conquistador watching me all the time.

(It can't be an accident that chimney manufacturers in the southwest designed this thing the way they did for pueblo style houses, right? It just looks too much like a Spanish morion -- a fraught symbol in New Mexico -- to be an engineering coincidence. You can google rotating draft caps for chimneys all day, and no one has this helmet design. I've looked it up. Really.)
None of these look like Coronado's helmet