November 16, 2019

Ma Boyle's Amazing Outdoor Retailing Concept

Gert Boyle (Outside).
Reading a post in Outside online about Gert Boyle, who built Columbia Sportswear from a little hat company to what it is today — and who passed away November 3 at the age of 95, still involved with the business — I came across this observation from a competitor:
“She and [her son] Tim did something no one else was even trying,” says Jim Thomsen, co-founder of outdoor brand Wilderness Experience. “All the other real outdoor companies, including mine, looked at ourselves as so cool, making products for the elite. And we sold them only to the coolest stores. Then along came Gert and Tim and they made really good products, but they did something none of the rest of us would ever think of doing . . .  they sold products to sporting goods stores, those non-cool places that sold to people who didn’t even know how to climb. And they started selling a lot.”
Selling to the non-elite outdoors person. Not being a prisoner of "coolness." What a concept.

One of Columbia's first new products when they branched out was a fishing vest that Gert designed. Probably worth a bit if you have one, which I do not, but I like my Columbia upland hunting vest.

November 13, 2019

Pine Trees, Electric Lines, and Fire Fears

A small Stihl saw dangling from his harness, Jesse nips bits of the problem
branch from between the electric lines.
All summer I had been noticing that some branches from one of our pine trees were becoming entangled with the electric wires coming from the nearest pole to our meter. Some heavy wet snow, and the branches might force the wires into contact with each other.

In early October, I took a photo and emailed our local electric coop. I heard nothing until today, when I got a phone call, and 40 minutes later a truck pulling a wood chipper rumbled up the driveway.

The two young guys aboard were tree-trimmers, not properly "linemen." They both said they were waiting for lineman apprentice positions to open up. They wanted to become qualified—one said he hoped some day to be an engineer, and his buddy laughed and said, "Nah, you'll be a lineman."

"Get that certification, and you will never be unemployed," I said.

They grinned and agreed.

There are miles and miles of electric lines running through pine forests in southern Colorado. You have heard about PG&E lines starting fires in California — we have had the same problem on a smaller scale.

I have seen scorched branches on my place, and helped to put out fires started by electric lines. The worst one, seven years ago, took out fourteen houses nearby — not exactly Paradise, California, but still pretty shocking in a smaller community.

The then-fire chief of Rye, Colorado, once told me he lost count of how many fires they have had started from power lines (none really bad so far).

Unfortunately, my pruning saw is only 12 feet long, and I lack professional tree-climbing gear, not to mention the aptitude. So I was happy to see Jesse and Bill arrive, do the job, chip the limbs (biomass, always so much biomass!), and head off to their next assignment.

One less thing to worry about.

November 12, 2019

Should I Throw Away this Water Bottle?


If you buy something from Backcountry.com,
you get a mountain goat sticker with your order. 
You may have seen these on gear like 
my water bottle, on car windows, etc.

If I had a retail company called "Mountain Sports, Inc.," and someone else made skis, let's say, under the trademark "Mountain High," could I sue them for infringing on my right to the word "Mountain"? Seems ridiculous, right?

Using that strategy, big Utah-based mail-order retailer Backcountry.com has been threatening dozens of smaller businesses and forcing them to change their names or be ground into the courtroom carpet.

"Backcountry Denim" got the letter threatening a lawsuit. So did the "Backcountry Babes" avalanche-safety clinic and the maker of the Marquette Backcountry Ski, among many others.

Not surprisingly, a lot of outdoor types who cherish those little gear companies have been angry with Backcountry.com, which while it was started by mountaineers, is now owned by TSG Consumer Partners. The "Boycott BackcountryDOTcom" Facebook group has more than 21,000 members.

Faced with the backlash, the company is backing down, kind-of sort-of, the Colorado Sun news service reports:
Backcountry.com CEO Jonathan Nielsen wrote in an open letter that the retailer’s attempts to protect its brand “were not consistent with our values.” Not everyone is buying it. . . .
Nielsen said the federal lawsuits filed this year against the nonprofit avalanche education provider Backcountry Babes, the one-employee Backcountry Denim Co., Utah’s Backcountry eBikes and Marquette Backcountry Ski were “a last resort” that followed attempts to resolve the trademark disputes “amicably and respectfully.”
So do I believe that corporate-speak, or do I peel their goat off my water bottle? Their website under "Our Values" lists "Take ownership." Yeah, like they own the word "Backcountry"?
David Ollila, who founded Marquette Backcountry Ski in 2010 and trademarked the name in 2013, laughed at the notion that the company’s initial petitions for cancellation of his trademark, filed through the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, were respectful. 

He points to emails the company’s trademark lawyers with the IPLA law firm sent to business owners like Boulder’s Jenny Verrochi, who was bullied into abandoning her registered trademark for Backcountry Nitro coffee and ended up rebranding her canned cold brew as Wild Barn Coffee.
The law firm that was in charge of bullying smaller companies has been fired, but what could is that to people who had to spend money changing their trademarks and losing name recognition?

I would say, do your holiday outdoor-gear shopping elsewhere until we see how this shakes out.

UPDATE: The hashtag is #scrapethegoat

November 10, 2019

The Walls of the Old Ones — Old Cowboys, That Is




Not too far from where I live, a steep ridge crowned with rimrock separates two drainages.  On the right hand side (upper photo) or left side (lower photo) was ranch land controlled by famous cattleman Charles Goodnight in the 1870s.

At some point, someone — more likely, several someones — rode up there  (it's easier from the other side than the Goodnight side) and stacked slabs of the native sandstone to make drift fences where there were breaks in the rimrock. Evidently, they did not want cattle drifting from one side over to the other.

For a variety of reasons, I think this was done in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, not in Goodnight's day. A generation after him, in the 1890s, the whole area was being logged — but by the 1950s it was grazing land again, thanks to a Forest Service grazing lease.

As is typical all over the West, there were drastic changes from one generation to the next. No one figured out a life that was truly sustainable.

Maybe this needs a longer blog post, so I can tell the tale of Sheriff Thomas Porter of White County, Illinois, who tracked an escaped murderer all the way here and arrested him by clever subterfuge. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the rock walls — never really finished — remain. There are others lower down. Think of someone grunting with the effort . . . slipping around in smooth-soled cowboy boots — maybe he just ran out of suitable stones that he could lift.

November 03, 2019

Reunited with my Favorite Seasonal Ale

I missed my favorite Colorado seasonal brew, Odell's Isolation Ale, completely last year. By the time that winter had arrived, it had vanished from the stores!

As the owner of a small Pueblo liquor store with a good craft beer selection put it, "Beer is like clothes these days. They sell the fall line in the summer, and by fall, it's gone."

This year I timed it right. They seem to have switched to cans. Oh well, I can still pour it in a glass — except when there is firewood to split.

The liquor store owner says it might last through November. Then it's time for the spring seasonals, apparently. Time is out of joint.

October 21, 2019

Chemical "Stewardship" and Vanishing Shelterbelts

Hunter walking a North Dakota tree row.
Beginning in the 1930s, government programs helped prairie farmers to plant shelterbelts (a/k/a tree rows or windbreaks) in order to reduce wind erosion and to protect isolated farmsteads across the Great Plains.

In the program's best years, the 1950s–1960s, hundreds of thousands of trees were planted. North Dakota alone had 55,000 miles of shelterbelts planted since the 1930s. They are not all there now.
“Those windbreaks still play a huge role out there. They do a lot to encourage protection from erosion, up to 10 times the distance of their height. They increase row crop productivity by 10 to 25 percent, and livestock sheltered there see improved weight gains of 10 percent,” [Larry Kotchman, head of the North Dakota Forest Service] said. “A farmstead will see energy savings of 20 to 30 percent in less heating and cooling.”
Shelterbelts changed the environment for wildlife, providing more habitat for songbirds and encouraging whitetail deer to move into more areas. Thanks to the increased deer population, eastern North Dakota—where I am writing this—now even has a few mountain lions.
Trees can also provide an important refuge for wildlife. Two years ago, [when]  the snow was very deep, wildlife suffered when their grass and food plots were buried, [Diane Erickson, district conservationist in Clark County, S.D.] explained.
“Deer and pheasant loss was high,” Erickson said. “Shelterbelts or thick tree plantings are their main source of shelter and even a good food source. Wildlife needs habitat, and tree belts are the best winter habitats.”
Today, government agencies still encourage and fund shelterbelt planting, but more and more are being bulldozed in the name of "stewardship," which means profit. An agricultural-business site reports,
Fields often are divided into quarter sections (160 acres) and "80s" (80 acres.)

Decades ago, one or more shelterbelts often were planted on a quarter or 80.
That divided a single field into several -- for example, an 80 might have become two 40-acre fields -- and protected topsoil in all the fields from wind erosion.
Now, many farmers are removing shelterbelts to combine fields into a single, bigger one.
Shelterbelts did what they were supposed to, but times have changed, [Terry Weckerly, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association] says.
Most farmers today use production methods that leave more organic matter on the field and disturb the soil less, greatly decreasing the need for windbreaks, he says.
Shelterbelts often become "a nuisance, an obstacle," he says. For example, branches breaking off trees and falling into fields complicates farming, he says.
More significantly, shelterbelts make it more difficult to apply chemicals properly, he says. (Emphasis added)
So let's review this. Shelterbelts, once established, provided all their agricultural benefits for free while benefiting multiple species.

But "Being a good steward of the land is more than just putting trees in the ground."

Evidently, "being a good steward" means cutting the trees to gain a few more acres, then spraying all kinds of herbicides and insecticides on the ground, which run off with the snowmelt and also filter into the groundwater. That is what "no-till" farming requires: lots of honeybee-killing Roundup and the like.

(See the picture-perfect farmstead with the neatly painted house, the huge metal equipment sheds, the rows of stately trees—they don't cut the ones by the house—and the perfectly mowed lawns? Who knows what is in its well water?)

Plus convenience: "Another reason farmers have wanted to take out windbreaks is to make it easier to turn equipment. In the wet years two and three years ago, when sloughs took over parts of fields, tree rows made it harder to navigate tractors and combines—especially since equipment is all larger than it was years ago."

Nevertheless, the financial incentives to plant new shelterbelts and replace dying trees are still there, through various agencies. Those staffers keep making the same recommendations that they made in the 1950s—and they are still good ones.

And the same farmer who defends today's methods—who says that he needs them to pay off his loans—will sit across from you at lunch and agree that there aren't as many sharptail grouse as there were even ten years ago, that there aren't as many big whitetail bucks as there used to be, that there aren't as many birds in general.

No contradictions, nope.

October 13, 2019

How Much Heat Is in that Firewood?

Split into six or eight or ten pieces, each round might last a mid-winter day.
A big (by foothills standards) ponderosa pine blew down several years ago, breaking into two with the top section hung up in some big one-seed juniper trees. I spent a lot of time last winter freeing and getting it onto the ground without killing myself, then cut it into rounds, rolled them down a little hill, split them, and moved them to the house.

In process, I ended up with a lot of juniper too, most of which has been drying through the summer, and I am moving it now. That is a one-seed juniper in the background.

Meanwhile, the butt section of the pine tree, which had been soaked by snow, is now dry, so I finished cutting it up today. (That small chunk next to the saw is from another tree.)

Intuitively, I thought the juniper offered more value as fuel, but it does not come in convenient pieces like pine.

But pine surrenders gracefully to the saw — juniper wants to hurt you. If it can't pinch the chain, its rigid twigs will rip your shirt.

Back in 1913, the eight-year-old US Forest Service was answering that question. "The object of the investigation is to determine the heating values of the woods commonly used for fuel in New Mexico and Arizona, including about 10 different species."

They compared them to coal, since many people burned coal for home-heating back then, and also to "Bakersfield crude oil."

The tests were conducted using a "bomb calorimeter." I would like to own one of those just for the name. ("Professor Murcheson will now demonstrate the bomb calorimeter.")

The big winners were alligator juniper and the bark (not the wood) of Douglas fir, both of them delivering more than 10,000 BTUs per pound, or 76 percent as much per pound as Cerrillos anthracite coal. (The area around Cerrillos and Madrid, N.M., used to produce a lot of coal.)

One-seed juniper was almost as good, 9,900 BTUs/lb., equivalent to 75 percent of Cerrillos anthracite.

Ponderosa pine sapwood produced 8,856 BTUs/lb., while the bark produced 9,275.

Aspen (quakies), incidentally, came in at 8,555. They did not measure Gambel oak, but another source placed it almost as high as the one-seed juniper, which fits what I feel standing next to the stove. Piñon pine, 8,629. Some people would that it burns hotter than ponderosa, which I always thought was true. At least one other site supports me.

Another site calculates heat values in million BTUs per cord, a cord being a tightly stacked pile of wood measuring 4 x 4 x 8 feet. (The method of measurement is not specified.)

Here we see ponderosa pine at 21.7 million BTUs/cord; cottonwood, 16.8; aspen, 18; Douglas fir, 26.5; white fir, 21.1— and they don't measure Gambel oak, one-seed juniper, or Rocky Mountain juniper.

What this means, in the end, is that I will pick up any piece of juniper that is as big around as my wrist.

October 04, 2019

A Strange Summer for Southern Rockies Gardeners

The Green Roof Farms honor-system farm stand.
Your money goes in the white-painted ammo box at lower right.


Scott's working 1950s Farmall Cub tractor, perfect for the small operation.

M. was at the hair salon last week, and her stylist, who lives in Colorado City, was lamenting how her garden had produced poorly this summer. Well, join the club. I have been hearing that a lot.

Let's review the year.

After a cool wet spring. Colorado was declared drought-free. I expected a great spring wildflower show, and while that was true at higher elevations, it was not true here in the ponderosa pine forest. Some regulars, like wild geranium, hardly showed up at all. Subsoil moisture still not replenished?

Then it got hot in July, but that was followed by a decent "monsoon" that gave us an adequate if not great mushroom harvest in early August and the usual flash floods below the recent burns.
Wild bee on some kind of
groundsel, at about 9800 feet,
early August.

Then more hot and dry weather all through September and into October. Up near Poncha Pass, a lightning-caused forest fire, the Decker Fire, that was burning up beetle-killed timber in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, has now crossed control lines and is moving towards foothills subdivisions and little communities along the Arkansas River like Swissvale and Howard.

The violent changes have been hard on garden plants and flowers. In some cases, we have just cut back perennials and let them go while focusing on collecting seeds from annuals. No hard freeze yet at this elevation, but the dryness is as good as a freeze. I have rolled up hoses and pronounced the season over.

In Florence, where there is irrigation water, truck gardeners Scott and Robin have been supplying us from their farm stand, which often just operates on the honor system. (M. says that reminds her of her girlhood visits to the Vermont side of her family.) If you are in that area, you can find them under "Green Roof Farms" on Facebook.

Thanks to them, we are drying tomatoes and have plenty of squash, peppers, and onions.

Some migratory birds left on schedule (black-headed grosbeaks, for one) while others are hanging around way past their usual departure dates (band-tailed pigeons, broad-tailed hummingbirds.) But that is another topic.

September 27, 2019

"Nice Job, Pixies" — a Weird Day in the Woods

Something weird happened last month while mushroom-hunting. I still have not quite figured it out.

During mushroom season, which peaks in August hereabouts, there is a ridge in the Wet Mountains that M. (my wife) and I try to visit every week. It abuts an area that we named The Mushroom Store; unfortunately, that spot has been discovered, but we are willing to walk farther at 10,000 feet than some mushroom hunters are.

We have been visiting that area for more than ten years, so we have our landmarks: the "long meadow," the cow elk's skeleton, the "little gate," the "big gate," and so on.

The plan, as usual, was to walk downhill parallel the "long meadow," loop around to the south and back east to the crest of the gentle ridge, where we would hit a barbed-wire drift fence that we would then follow north to "the big gate," and from there it is a short walk to where M's Jeep Wrangler would be parked.

So we did that. We were going along according to plan, finding an occasional "good" mushroom, and I was feeling pretty about my deep-woods navigational skills. (Don't get cocky, kid!)

At some point, as we swung back toward the top of the ridge, I looked down to my left and instead of a glimpse of the "long meadow," there was a steep ravine there, so steep that fir trees barely clung to its sides. Where had it come from? 

It was between us and the Jeep (I figured), but I did not want to go down into it and try to climb out again

I looked ahead — the top of the ridge was only maybe 200 yards away. M. looked at me and asked if I was lost. I said something noncommittal, but afterwards at home she said, "I can read you like a book. You were lost." (She will cheerfully admit to being a poor navigator herself, so she trusts me to do the job.)

That feeling you get, a punch in the stomach. Where am I? How did I get here? 

On the ridge crest, I looked south. There was Little Sheep Mountain, a little closer than it should have been, and also a road that I recognized. I knew where I was — I just was not where I should have been.

"Nice job, pixies," I said aloud.

Since I was high enough up to get a signal, I pulled out the iPhone, turned on the GPS and loaded the Avenza Maps app with a county road map. Yep, there we were — the pulsing blue dot —  about where I reckoned we were. Thus oriented, we walked down the other side until we hit a certain little dirt Forest Service road and followed it to the Jeep.

At home, there were mushrooms to be sliced and dried, and life otherwise got in the way. But after a couple of nights I opened Google Earth, where our mushroom sites are marked, and took a look. Everything seemed as it should have been, but I could not find that steep ravine.

OK, so Google Earth gives false ideas of slope. Next, I studied the topographic quad map for that area. I could not find the steep ravine there either.

In the old stories, you go through a portal into the fairy mound, and you eat and drink, and when you come out, a hundred years have passed. Or something like that.

We went back a couple of weeks later for one last foray. Maybe we should walk south and try to find that ravine, I suggested.

"Let's not, and say we did," M. responded.

I did not try to persuade her otherwise.

September 21, 2019

Where Is My CBD-infused Green Chile?

Some shots from this year's Chile & Frijoles Festival in Pueblo, still going on through Sunday. My visit was early, while the sun was still up and before the bands started playing, so it was a sort of sparse crowd.
It's more or less a celebration of every Southwestern street food
to which Pueblo County's Mirasol green chiles can be added.


And there were a lot of CBD (cannabidiol) products as well.
I foresee a certain convergence, a synergy if you will.
Yes, every kind of fast food and finger food.
Loaded-up fry bread ("Navajo tacos") is all right once a year.

The "Pueblo Chile Beer" is from Walter's, an old label that has been revived by craft-beer aficionados.
"Pueblo chile beer" is not one of their pre-Prohibition recipes, however.


These men are examining ristras of red chiles (sorry about the sun flare).
They were for sale along with many varieties of powdered dried peppers.

But what you could not buy were fresh-roasted Pueblo green chiles. Evidently the vendors don't think that anyone wants to walk around with a ten-pound sack of peppers, even though they are the best. 

Next year: CBD-inflused green chile beer. I will bet you money.

September 15, 2019

The Cowboy and the Moleskine

My little rural fire department got a call on Wednesday — a report of a smoke column up in the mountain subdivision that I call Deathtrap Mountain Estates, because there is only one road in and out.

One o'clock on a week day is a bad time to assemble a crew. I and another work-at-home volunteer arrived and started out in a brush truck, soon joined by a young ranch hand driving his own one-ton flatbed truck.

A locked gate blocks the one road into Deathtrap. My partner punched in the code that she thought was correct. It did not work — they had changed it again. Would we have to drive back a mile to the station to check the new one, which I knew was written on the office chalkboard?

T., the young ranch hand, reached into his pocket and pulled out a notebook with the new code (now stored in my iPhone). But what stopped me was that he had a Moleskin notebook (or could it have been a Leuchtturm?). That will teach me to associate Moleskin only with travelers (never "tourists") writing their thoughts on remote islands and mountain trails.

Maybe you are someone who keeps a Rite in the Rain notebook in your pack because it seems better for outdoor use. (I do.)

As it happens, the Rite in the Rain placed at number 31 on New York magazine's review of 100 different pocket notebooks:
This shrunken notepad is best equipped for grocery lists, daily tasks, or highly abbreviated notes. It takes up minimal room in a bag or coat and could be stuffed into a back pocket. It’s impressively weatherproof, too. After I scribbled a page with Sharpie, dribbled water on it, and wiped it with my hand, the ink didn’t smear or bleed through. And, when dried, the paper returned to its original texture, without telltale waterlogged waviness. Ideal for intrepid reporters on drizzly days. —SK
The Leuchtturm was at number 11 — "It’s a classic right up there in the ranks with Mead and Moleskine and is beloved by both bullet journalers and regular note-takers alike."

The cowboy's Moleskine placed at 19 — "This style always seems better suited to travel [than office use]. But it’s a classic for a reason."

And the winner was . . . you will have to read the whole thing. And wonder if you should ever buy pocket notebooks in the supermarket school-supplies aisle again.

As for the fire, as you can see from the video, it was a plume of white dust from a water well being drilled for some Texan's mountain mini-mansion.

September 14, 2019

Southern Colorado WIll Get a New State Park

Fisher's Peak Ranch (Nature Conservancy photo).
The sale of a big ranch outside Trinidad, Colo., means that 19,200-acre state park will open soon.
For generations, the 9,633-foot-high Fisher’s Peak has been a big part of both the physical and social landscape for people in Trinidad and other parts of southern Colorado. But it has been off-limits because it was on a large private ranch. . . . .

In December 2018, The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land signed an agreement with the ranch owner, French Trinidad Co. LLC.  Great Outdoors Colorado said it would contribute $7.5 million and Colorado Parks and Wildlife pledged $7 million toward the $25.4 million purchase price. 
A statement from Colorado Parks and Wildlife reads,
Yesterday, Governor Jared Polis announced that a diverse partnership — including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the City of Trinidad, The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and Great Outdoors Colorado — is working to make the 30-square-mile Fisher’s Peak ranch, located outside the city of Trinidad, Colorado’s next state park.
Spanning from the New Mexico border north along the east side of I-25 to the south side of Trinidad, the property's iconic peak and diverse landscape of grasslands, forests, rugged mountain and vast meadows are the first thing you see crossing over the state line into Colorado. “It's a true gem,” said Governor Polis.
Until park plans are put in place, the property will remain closed to the public. Project partners are planning guided trips and ways to gather input during the process before the state park is opened.
According to the Denver Post article linked above, the governor said he would like to see the park open in the fall of 2020. Can the bureaucratic wheels turn that fast? Read the full news release from Governor Polis' office.

September 10, 2019

Is this the Death of Digital Cameras?

Pholiota squarossa, shot with the Nikon Coolpix.
On a hunting trip last fall, I lost my camera.

But aside from a really artistic shot of aspen-bark graffiti, which would have appeared on this world-famous blog, I was not too brokenhearted. It had cost me only a little more than $20 on eBay.

Two years ago, I did a little smartphone-versus-pocket digital camera field test, "iPhone versus Pentax Point-and-Shoot," followed by a musing on cost-versus-speed of access, "The Smartphone vs. the Pocket Camera, Revisited." 

Now I have a different iPhone (an SE, not the latest, but I like the pocket size) and a second little Nikon Coolpix off eBay, probably at least a decade old. The Nikon still wins for cost, spot-metering, and genuine optical zoom. The iPhone . . . well, Instagram.

Even that retro set-up is increasingly post-retro. The digital camera market — both high-end and low-end — is in free fall.

Camera sales are continuing to falling off a cliff. The latest data from the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) shows them in a swoon befitting a Bollywood roadside Romeo. All four big camera brands — Sony, Fuji, Canon, and Nikon — are reposting rapid declines. And it is not just the point and shoot cameras whose sales are collapsing. We also see sales of higher-end DSLR cameras stall. And — wait for it — even mirrorless cameras, which were supposed to be a panacea for all that ails the camera business, are heading south. 
Meanwhile, in the acoustic world, vinyl records may soon outsell CDs. So who knows what will happen next. (Vinyl represents 4 percent of all music sales, to put it in perspective.)

August 31, 2019

A Tale of a Tortoise



The short focal-length iPhone camera exaggerates his size a bit. 

On the 21st of August, M. and I were having brunch on the veranda when I saw something moving out in the unmown grass. According to her, I said, "Holy ****, there's a tortoise in the yard!" and she just figured that I was messing with her.

Then she looked for herself. And there really was a tortoise, marching determinedly eastward up from the shallow gully between us and the county road, past the greenhouse, and on toward the steep ridge behind the house.

A neighbor's dog had been barking across the road, a steady woof-woof-woof-woof that I had thought maybe meant it saw a deer, but there were too many trees in the way to tell. Obviously the tortoise had passed that house too.

I knew we had to do something. It was heading into an environment where it might survive for a time, but not permanently. There are no native land tortoises in southern Colorado — the winters are too cold.

Furthermore, its appearance was a mystery. We have lived 27 years in this rural subdivision. We never heard of a neighbor who had a large tortoise. There are some relatively new people who think that they can pasture four or five horses on five unirrigated acres, which is why M. calls the guy Mr. Dust Bowl. It had come from that direction, but was that a clue or just coincidence?

Since the tortoise was heading right for our driveway, it was an easy matter to catch it and put it into the large dog crate. (Its shell was too big for the medium-size crate.)

At the thought that the tortoise might have escaped from Mr. Dust Bowl, M. went into full Underground Railroad mode: "We are not taking it back there!"

We called our friends the wildlife rehabilitators. They deal almost exclusively with mammals, not ectothermic tetrapods, but they had a large gravel-floored enclosure that had just been cleaned after its former inhabitants, two young mountain lions, had been released.

"Bring it over!" was their response.

Not being herpetologists, we were all doing some quick research. Hmmm, it appears to be an African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), native to the Sahel. (Bred for the pet trade, I suppose.) In the wild their status is "vulnerable," which means the Chinese have not incorporated them into some kind of virility potion and wiped out the whole population, at least not yet.

Could it have been abandoned, the way people dump dogs and cats in the country? Sadly, that is possible, maybe probable. One article calls sulcata "America's most adorable mistake."
At the wildlife rehabilitation center.
But you’re bound to run into problems when you combine breeders who produce thousands of cartoonishly cute hatchlings a year; buyers who get the third-largest tortoise species on a whim without educating themselves; pet stores that sell the animals without warning buyers how big they’ll get or how to care for them; and wonderful, knowledgeable owners who nevertheless age out of being able to care for a heavy and long-lived pet. Sulcatas are nearly guaranteed to outlive their owners. Experts aren’t sure exactly how long they live in captivity, since the pet trade started only around half their lifespans ago, but educated guesses peg it at over 100 years.

With the tortoise temporarily housed, the center's director drove to town to buy fruits and vegetables for it — "him," we now believe.

M. and I went home and waited. No one had walked up the road calling, "Here, torty torty torty."

No signs appeared on telephone polls or at the post office two miles away, which serves as a community bulletin board.

And nothing appeared on any of the active county-wide Facebook groups, where people are always reporting lost dogs — or found dogs — or strayed horses, or whatever.

After a week, the rehabbers called someone they knew at the Denver Zoo, and today a carload of zoo herpetology volunteers showed up, including someone who is already caring for an African spurred tortoise.

They took "Sully," as the rehabbers had nicknamed him, away with a plan to find him a "forever home." I have no idea how that will all work out, but it is better than letting him wander the San Isabel National Forest looking for a non-existent mate, or whatever his tortoise brain was telling him to do.

Don't get me started on why people think that they have to possess these creatures.

A little pop-culture note: that was an African spurred tortoise in a certain famous scene in Breaking Bad. Here you can learn about the "making of." No tortoises were harmed.

August 30, 2019

In a Disaster, Rush into Medieval Lighting Technology

M. and I were talking to a friend at the laundromat today. We don't use it anymore — we finally decided that our well could support a small washing machine — but we drop off magazines there. Magazines should move, once you have read them.

We bumped into an acquaintance there. John and his wife live on a ridge top, off the grid, which puts them in both forest-fire and lightning zones. They know that.

He said that a recent lightning strike exploded a big pine tree near their house. Along with the tree (and some baby rabbits), the strike fried their generator, inverted, and on-demand water heater — and of course it meant that they could not pump water from their well.

"We were back in the Stone Age!" he said.

It got dark, they wanted to read and play chess (they are serious about chess). What to do? Being a handy sort of guy, John rigged up a bank of LED lights with a 12-volt battery. It was too bright, his wife said.

But he could have made rush lights, if he had started a little earlier. 

It bothers me to see movies and TV shows set in the past where there are masses of (petroleum-based) candles blazing away.  Like the HBO series Vikings —by Thor's ring, they had so many candles that they must have brought them back from their raids by the longship-full. Kings could not afford so many candles!

But what the common people had were rush lights, as demonstrated in the video clip above. You have to overlook the non-medieval heat gun. The Brits are getting really absurd about safety issues.

So there you have it. Find some pithy grass and soak it in animal fat. Hold it in some kind of clip or support, and you have light, without the need to raid an abbey. 

August 29, 2019

The Dawn Cow-Rus


There was a herd of Black Angus cattle near our campground last weekend at State Forest State Park — I will be writing more about the park itself soon.

Tuesday morning they were right down around the trailer, noisily crunching grass, bumping the trailer (just once), and mooing, led by the cow-municator in chief.

He is not in this video, but there was a white Shorthorn* bull in with the Black Angus cows. That is one of his offspring there, I suppose.

Now I am thinking about a bovine smartphone app, like this one.

*I may have cousins in the cattle business, but I make no claims to expertise myself. But I think he was a Shorthorn, with the jowly face.

August 18, 2019

Whatever Happened to Pickup Campers?


A couple of weeks ago, my friend R. and I were talking about trailers and RVs and such (maybe because he had recently gotten a new-used boat), and we both had the same question: When did pickup campers go away?

They were the inexpensive gateway to car-camping if you did not want to sleep in a tent due to weather or (conceivably) bears. 

"And you could tow your boat behind it," R. pointed out.

We both remembered how when we were kids, a lot of the dads in the Boy Scout troop or whatever showed up with campers mounted on their 1960s or 1970s or maybe early 1980s pickups. 

Sometimes the camper was slid out of the pickup bed in the off-season and left sitting on sawhorses in the side yard, while the pickup was used for other hauling or just as a daily driver.

Was this just another example of American Feature Creep? More and more gadgets, more and more dollars? Did Plain Jane pickup campers not offer enough profit margin compared to motorhomes and camping trailers? I suspect that they did not.

I still see a few, often with pop-tops, which helps with the wind resistance out on the highway, but nothing like during my childhood.

August 13, 2019

Fighting Washboard Gravel Roads

The county Road and Bridge department put this up on the road that I travel now and then. I appreciate what they are trying to do — in a county full of gravel roads, maintaining them is a constant job.

Today I noticed that the road up to our mushrooming grounds had gotten noticeably rougher in just a week, to where if I don't slow down, the lightweight Jeep Wrangler will want to start dancing sideways.

So what is going on? Some physicists worked on the issue:
Just about any road with a loose surface — sand or gravel or snow— develops ripples that make driving a very shaky experience. Physicists have recreated this "washboard" phenomenon in the lab with surprising results: ripples appear even when the springy suspension of the car and the rolling shape of the wheel are eliminated. The discovery may smooth the way to designing improved suspension systems that eliminate the bumpy ride. . . .
"The hopping of the wheel over the ripples turns out to be mathematically similar to skipping a stone over water," says University of Toronto physicist, Stephen Morris, a member of the research team.
"To understand the washboard road effect, we tried to find the simplest instance of it," he explains. "We built lab experiments in which we replaced the wheel with a suspension rolling over a road with a simple inclined plow blade, without any spring or suspension, dragging over a bed of dry sand. Ripples appear when the plow moves above a certain threshold speed."
At Midwest Industrial Supply, which sells dust-control and soil-stabilization products to counties like ours, they note that 
Protracted periods of dry weather can also lead to washboarding, as arid conditions cause the crust that forms on the surface of gravel roads to loosen and become more susceptible to reshaping by passing tires. Conversely, if a gravel road doesn’t have the appropriate crowned road profile, water won’t be able to drain properly. Water will then accumulate in depressions and ripples in the road, which will in turn be deepened by passing traffic.
 That "certain threshold speed" is about 3–5 mph, depending who you ask, and speed does make the washboarding process worse.

All this raises another question in my mind. Did horse-drawn carriages and wagons create washboard surfaces too? (I expect that their narrow wheels mostly left ruts, but I do not know for sure.) And if so, did the advent of washboarding lead the old-timers to cuss those newfangled motorcars for ruining the roads?

Hawk's Wing in Hiding


This is Sarcodon imbricatus, known to its friends as hawk's wing — or hedgehog mushroom, but there are no hedgehogs in North America, ergo we don't use that name.

Some people say they can be bitter, but I, my wife, and Wild Food Girl like them.  There is a soup recipe in the download at the link, or see this.

August 07, 2019

Things that Grow from White Fir Stumps

Another fir seedling. It is not growing from the stump's
root system, but from a seed that started in the decayed sump.

A mushroom. Yes, it is attached.

A rock. I figured it was attached as well.

August 05, 2019

Brome Grass and Bear Shit — Thinking about this Summer

I
Liatris punctata

The Liatris are starting to bloom, which marks beginning of Late Summer here in the foothills. Funny thing, with last spring having been so wet, I expected a wildflower explosion. And the summer has been fairly rainy, although with a hot and dry period in July.

Nope. Where are the wild geraniums? Golden banner? Where are [fill in the blank]? Some asters, vetches, locoweed, yarrow . . .  they showed up.

At higher altitudes, there is much more profusion. We must have been in some kind of  meteorlogical "doughnut hole" again.

The Magyar Menace
Instead, early summer turned into March of the Brome Grass.  There have been patches of it here and there, but something — presumably the extra moisture — really threw its switch this year.

Fun fact: Smooth brome was imported from Hungary in 1884. Some consider it invasive, but the ranchers seem to like it. Not like cheatgrass, in other words, which is a brome too but which is evil.

What are some alternatives? The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggested these natives:
I tried my own line-up this year with plants bought from Hartungs' Desert Canyon Farm in Cañon City, one plant each of Indian ricegrass, Achnatherum hymenoides; big (giant) sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii; and silver spike grass, Achnatherum calamagrostis

These are my three test plants. They are hard to see, but all are doing well. Now it's a matter of harvesting seed.

And the bears!

A black bear left this little calling card near the house on July 24th. Fisher the dog had been on alert that night — rushing out onto the veranda barking, then into the back dog run barking — he knew Somebody was out there.

It looked like the bear had eaten some immature currants, but I don't know how much nutritional value it extracted. One bush not far from the site was pretty well stripped. I ate on currant for form's sake the next morning, out of a sense of brotherhood with the bears, who taught the peoples what to eat.

That was Early Summer. Now it is Late Summer, mushroom season. More to come about all that.

August 02, 2019

Driving Around Looking for a Farmers Market

Farmers market in Westcliffe, Colorado.
A few years ago, we had a membership in a CSA farm on "the mesa" outside Pueblo. In the summers, we planned our weekly shopping/library trip to coincide with the day when we could harvest or pick up our fruits and vegetables.

Then "our farmer" had some life changes and closed his operation, scattering his interns to the Colorado winds.

Vegetable gardening here in the foothills is a tricky operation, so for more volume and variety, we relied on farmers markets.

Only most of them that we see are only about 10-percent fresh food to begin with. The rest are selling crafts, preserved foods (jellies, etc.), burgers, brats, tamales, homemade soap, CBD products, house plants, fabric thingies, wooden thingies, adoptable dogs . . . you name it.

We made a circuit of four or five markets in a three-county area but more or less settled on the Saturday market at El Pueblo History Museum. In June the Pueblo Chieftain proclaimed,
The grounds of El Pueblo History Museum will soon be inundated with farm-fresh produce, crafts made by local artists, popular Pueblo food trucks, and countless other locally made goods as the museum gears up for the annual El Pueblo Farmers Market.
"Inundated" is not the word I would use. Yes, there were food trucks, but some food vendors that had been there last year had disappeared. One organic-grower couple whom we called "the Ravens" were back, but with less than usual. On our first visit, the third week of June, we bought some veggies from them and from Arkansas Valley Organic Growers. AVOG's radishes were too woody to slice, and their mushrooms were about a day away from rotten.

M's very favorite grower was not there that day or subsequently. Meanwhile, the museum's market day had shifted from Saturday to Friday, putting them in head-to-head competition with another one in town. In an editorial titled "Dueling Farmers Markets," the Chieftain noted,
Obviously, it will be tougher for shoppers who work regular weekday schedules to make it to either market, unless they can find time on their lunch hours. Trying to spend any significant amount of time browsing at both markets on a lunch hour would pose a significant challenge. . . .  it seems logical that at least some of the vendors would like to hedge their bets by selling at both markets. For small mom-and-pop operations, that will be difficult, if not impossible, with the conflicting dates and times.
In Fremont County, the Thursday market in Florence seemed sparser than ever in terms of actual food. One significant organic grower had dropped out two years ago for unspecified reasons, while another, smaller operator decided that he was better off selling from his own farmstand two days a week.

In Custer County, the Westcliffe farmers market was the healthiest of the bunch, in terms of producers' offerings, which (being Westcliffe) included local grass-fed beef and too-sweet Amish cakes and breads. My favorite tamale vendor was there too.The county's population triples when the summer people arrive, and there is a distinct vibe of said summer people wanting to shop there in order to participate in local culture. (I have no problem with that.)

Also, there is live music, although you have to wonder if "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" is music for food-shopping.

M. and I weighed the reasons why we visit these different towns, and in the end, we started planning some errands so that we could visit the farmstand. No more chasing the perfect farmers market.

But I still need to buy and freeze more tamales.

July 22, 2019

Who Says There Is No Gain in Reading?

I was reading The Raw and the Cooked, a book of food-related essays by Jim Harrison that appeared mostly in Esquire magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, when a partly full packet of 34¢ postage stamps fell out. That price dates them to 2001, the year of publication.

Who says there is no gain in reading?

It was a used copy bought in Taos last June, and it had been sitting in the bedside pile atop the dog crate.

When Harrison died in 2007, several of my friends and I all independently turned to one of his poems, "Barking."
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn't die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there's no chain.
I should go thaw some venison, make some chimichurri sauce or at least a cheese sandwich, stop staring at those words.

July 19, 2019

Fictional Game Wardens and the "Natural Resources Mystery Novel"

I have just started reading Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash.

Rash, a poet and novelist, has deep roots in western North Carolina. I chose this book because I like "natural resource mystery novels," and the protagonists are a newly retired county sheriff and a state park ranger. 

The honorary parents of the "natural-resources mystery novel" might be Tony Hillerman  (1925–2008) and Nevada Barr. Hillerman's two Navajo tribal policemen, Lt. Jim Leaphorn and Officer (later Sgt.) Jim Chee, deal with all sort of crimes, but a percentage of them involve people wanting to exploit something about the Big Reservation—archaeological sites, minerals, whatever. (His daughter, Anne, carries on the series.)

Barr (b. 1952) worked in theatre and television before taking a job as a seasonal National Park Service ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, the site of her first mystery novel, Track of the Cat (1993), which introduced protagonist Anna Pigeon, a Park Service law-enforcement ranger.

All I can say about Ranger Pigeon is that she is extraordinarily physically resilient. Any actual NPS ranger with her list of injuries — all logged here — would have retired on full disability five or six books ago. Wikipedia sums up Barr's plots: "The books in the series take place in various national parks where Pigeon solves murders that are often related to natural resource issues."


So it would seem that natural-resources crime would be perfect for mystery writers. It does not always work out that way.

Wyoming writer C. J. Box created state game warden Joe Pickett, who first appeared in Open Season (2001), followed by eighteen more. As the series moves on, Joe Pickett quickly spends less and less time catching poachers, etc., and more being a sort of special investigator for the governor of Wyoming, although that gig ends when the governor leaves office.

A typical plot involves Joe getting in over his head facing a family of criminals, drug-cartel sicarios, or some other baddies, only to be rescued by his own personal "noble savage," the mystic falconer/special-ops veteran Nate Romanowski, who appears suddenly to save the day, eliminating bad guys with his .454 Casull revolver by shooting offhand from half a mile away.

Box can write a tight thriller — the Cassie Dewell novels, starting with The Highway, are better-plotted and less repetitious than the Joe Pickett series.

Maine is not Wyoming, and Paul Doiron's series about Maine warden Mike Bowditch seem more rooted in nature and culture than Joe Pickett's Wyoming.  Maybe that is because Doiron used to edit Down East, "the magazine of Maine." The series begins with The Poacher's Son (Mike, of course)

The next one I need to read is The Precipice. Here is the synopsis:
When two female hikers disappear in the Hundred Mile Wilderness — the most remote stretch along the entire Appalachian Trail — Maine game warden Mike Bowditch joins the desperate search to find them. 
Hope turns to despair after two unidentified corpses are discovered, their bones picked clean by coyotes. Do the bodies belong to the missing hikers? And were they killed by the increasingly aggressive wild dogs?
Soon all of Maine is gripped by a fear of deadly coyote attacks. But Bowditch has his doubts. His new girlfriend, wildlife biologist Stacey Stevens, insists the scavengers are being wrongly blamed. She believes a murderer may be hiding in the offbeat community of hikers, hippies, and woodsmen at the edge of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. When Stacey herself disappears along the Appalachian Trail, the hunt for answers becomes personal.
Real police work is bureaucratic — and so is being a game warden or park ranger. But because they so often work alone, far from back-up, they make appealing protagonists with a dose of "What would I do out there?"