The Beauty Is In The Details — Santa Fe to Taos and Home Again

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As a general rule, cities cause me discomfort.  I prefer the country, open horizon lines, clean air and antelope herds.  I have, in days past, experienced feelings of culture shock while traveling into and out of cities from rather rural homes.  Driving into Anchorage, Alaska for provisions from Copper Center used to terrify me.  Buzzing over to Los Angeles from the tiny river town of Parker, Arizona made my head hurt.  Even now, going to Boise or Salt Lake City is enough to exhaust me on such a deep level that I usually need a day of recovery once I return home.

Cities tend to leave me feeling tired, hyper-stimulated and bewildered.  Please believe me when I say I am not anti-city.  I think cities can be wonderful places and have explored many with great pleasure, however, I find they sap my strength, tax my mind and weary my senses.  With that said, cities are not usually my focus when I travel.  Usually my trips involve being outside, hugging trees, catching fish, rowing my raft and riding horses.  So, when I travel with M, it’s refreshing to be with someone who is tremendously comfortable in urban places, someone who can safely expose me to experiences I rarely choose to expose myself to.  Does that make sense?

She took care of a lot of the driving on this trip, especially when we were in cities, which really helped me to stay sane.  Filtering large loads of information at high speeds is not one of my mental talents.  If my eyes see something lovely, I focus on it.  I refrain from multi-tasking in life and my senses and mind seem to be wired in a similar manner.  I take in delicious pieces of the world around me and really focus on every single bite as it passes through my system in full chroma, full texture, full scent, full feel…full fullness.  It’s how I operate.  Having M by my side keeps me within my filtration comfort zone, she’s sort of my seeing eye dog in big cities.  She is a solid thing I can trust to lead me on when I fall victim to my senses or am struggling with complete overload.  I realize this makes me sound fragile, and I suppose I am, in some ways.

What to say about Santa Fe — it’s a beautiful old town.  There is so much art!  There is so much jewelry (I grew desensitized to the beauty of it, actually…)!  There is so much strolling to do, drinks to sip, tacos to munch, turquoise to buy.  It’s a great city.

Taos is more my style.  It’s small, charming, quiet(er) and set against a lovely high desert backdrop of rolling mountains and blue sky.  I’d like to do a writing workshop there sometime and am keeping an eye out for opportunities.


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  The last couple of days of our trip found us storm chasing (more on that in a moment), gallery hopping in Madrid, bracing against gale force winds in a high and winsome desert on sandstone cliffs, beneath gaping arches, in piney forests, under stormy clouds, in the grips of burning sunsets and so on and so forth until the highway spilled us back down into Arizona where the skies are impossibly blue and I caught my flight home to Idaho.  Frankly, it was the best time I ever had in a white Miata.

Love you M.  Let’s do it all over again, sometime soon.


Land of Living Skies

IMG_2392 IMG_2394 IMG_2398 IMG_2400We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  I can feel the change — in my very foundations I can feel the difference in the nature of the land here, like the bones of an old farmhouse can feel the wind change directions.  I brace myself and almost cry out at the glorious width of sky that presses out in all directions, reducing the land to a thin scrap of bristling green laying flat and low as far a distance as I can imagine.  The only relief to be seen for miles now is the pronghorn bedded down in their tawny pools of hide and horn, cozy in tall grass prairie.

What a prairie.  Oh, holy definition of space, time, stone and wind.  Black earth, clear heavens, a warm green body beneath a living sky.  Dust, breeze, dirt and aurora borealis; a swaddling of star and cloud.

Draw me in.  Hold me close.

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We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  The border crossing guard reminds me why Canadians are beloved all the world over.  He is sweet.  I make him laugh!  We forgot our papers for the dog and he says he’ll turn a blind eye…this time.  We confuse him when he asks who is a resident of which country.  We laugh again and eventually roll away North, telling Tater Tot he’s lucky he didn’t have to stay in Montana.IMG_2492

We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  The sky changes.  I remember everything I love about my home province, everything that makes it feel like home to me, my roots realign — draw themselves up out of Idaho and creep along behind us, down the highway, counting the dashes of yellow line until home.  I try to find words for some of my feelings and fall short because on occasion, home is an abstract thing, a notion, a feeling, a willow wisp we chase down to the broad flat rivers that carry us to the place that owns us.  I’m coming home.  On the road there, to home, my heart travels everywhere, looking for the one anchor, the one strong tether that encumbers the drift of the human spirit, the terra firma that roots the soul.

It is the sky that holds me.  That infinite thing that changes from cloud to blue to night sky to milky way to galaxy — the thing to root my very soul.  And oh, what a sky.


We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  We cross that glimmering ribbon of international agreement, civility between nations, invisible line-of-democracy-hand-shaking-truce that makes me something different than my husband, and he, something different than me.  I am from here.  He is from there.  I am Canadian.  He is American.  Someone, a long time ago, reached out and drew a line in the dirt between him and I and our families and now, no matter where we are, we straddle that line.  The border runs from East to West with a few wobbles in-between; it runs right over me, it cuts me in two, cleaves my heart right down the center as though my bones form the structure for a rickety continental divide — these rivers of the heart run in two mighty directions.  Everything is in two pieces.  My tongue is split.  The barometric pressures of my mind are confused.  Is this up or down, or is everything sideways?IMG_2624

We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  The sky changes, as I have come to expect it will, on these long drives home while we draw Norther and Norther, as though the toes of our boots are magnetized, pulling us up like the moonrise.  I quit looking for deer, antelope, fox, hawk, owl and coyote.  I begin to watch the clouds.  This is the land of living skies!  Alleluia!  Amen!  I could weep for the wide open of the sky here.  There is no place like this in all the world.    The sky can be cut into the four great quadrants of a compass — North, South East and West.  In each quadrant, the light splits the sky differently, as light will.  The land is given four different faces, a myriad of hue, a range of contrast, four different faces in four different moods built of two basic features:  earth and sky.


We cross the border, ride out of Montana and into Saskatchewan.  The sky changes, as I have come to expect.  Saskatchewan is for dreamers.  This dreamer has come home.

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Look at that sea, girls…

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“Look at that sea, girls — all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen.  We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”

[L.M. Montgomery :: Anne of Green Gables]

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Jottings From The River


We are sleeping in a canyon in Wyoming tonight after driving truck and raft up a rugged two track.  The walls that surround us are constructed of red rubble, bone and tooth, juniper and sage.

Immediately, upon our arrival, I pointed at the top of the canyon and said “Let’s walk up there!”  So we did.  About one hundred meters from the truck, while scrambling up a boulder, I placed my hand directly beside a huge impression in damp, crimson dirt.  I knew just what it was, an enormous paw print from a big old tom.  I called Robbie over and pointed at it.  His response was, “That is a very big lion and a fresh print too.  There’s been rain or snow here in the past 12 hours.”  Then, we walked on.  He and I are good at seeing things.  Tracking things.  Noticing tufts of hair, half prints of hooves or paws in dirt and dust, bald patches of earth beneath brush where upland game has been digging and bathing.  We see it all and make note of it.  It is good for the soul to see deeply.

We walked and walked, watched for elk sheds, pointed out antelope and mule deer in the distance, called out different animal signs to each other when we were separated by cliffs and clumps of juniper, followed a band of mustangs for a bit, scrambled, explored little caves, sat in nooks, watched the night rise up in the East and the last of the sun blaze the stone beneath our feet to dusty blood.  The whole time we walked, I was aware of that big, male mountain lion out there, aware of the fact that he was probably watching us from his perch, from his lair, from the dusky den he calls his own — from his throne.  He is king of that canyon; when I first laid eyes on his paw print, my hackles rose up and my heart told me so.  So I walked those ridge lines with Robert and a dog, I walked confidently but respectfully, impossibly aware.


In the morning, the drive out was a mucky affair across red dirt roads turned to slippery stew by late spring snowstorms.  Our heavy Dodge with a trailer in tow was squirrely in the thick, soupy slick of it so we drove slow and I didn’t mind.  The antelope were dotting the hillsides, curious, fleet, and too numerous to count which was encouraging for us as we put in for two antelope tags in this area come fall.  We pray to be drawn, not only to hunt so that we might eat, but because we want to hike the hills and ridge lines here, enjoy the canyons, climb up and down the steep arroyos, and simply explore the space we are passing through.  This is God’s country; our very notion of heaven on earth; we want to be tied to the earth here by blood, bone and sinew.


Near the highway, oh joy!  I spotted my first badger, which comes as a shock as I have lived the majority of my life (at this point) on the great northern plains of Canada.  While I have seen a handful of wolverine in my life, never has a badger come my way.  We pulled off so we could watch him, first through binoculars, then we hiked out to his dirt mound and watched closer as he curiously poked his head out of his hole to survey our presence.  What a critter.  What luck!


We have launched the raft and the river is as beautiful as ever.  The canyon positively churning with perhaps the most holy bird chorus I have ever heard; diverse and musical as only the song of the wild can be.  Oh!  The descending scale of the canyon wren song!


Whenever I am on the water, I wonder how I ever managed to make myself leave in the first place.  I was raised in boats, crisscrossing the rivers and chain lakes of Manitoba and Saskatchewan by canoe.  The slap of water on the freeboard of a boat suits me.  The effortless work of a waterway, the buoyancy of our raft upon the curious composition of water as it courses through a stone channel, ever flowing towards lower ground makes such great sense to my bones, to my soul.  I must have watery marrow.


My first fish comes in at 15 inches; a long, slim rainbow, a classic catch for the Green River.  What a beauty.  Three more after that at 14 and 15 inches respectively, then I take the oars and let Robert do some casting.  It’s such a beautiful afternoon.


The morning is bright, the birds began before sunrise.  I woke up to them, listened for a while and then drifted back to sleep.  Robert rose early to fish the eddy in front of our campsite.  I can hear the channel narrowing to a textbook set of rapids just down from camp.  The water flows smoothly into an elongated, elegant V, white water riffling around the edges and then rising into beautiful, rolling haystacks.  I’d love to live on a river sometime and constantly hear the water in summer, steady music in the evenings to accompany the hum of night bugs.  Then also, the sound of the ice in winter, popping and cracking, splitting and fusing, shuffling and fussing along the shoreline.  Yes.  I’d like to live on a river sometime, here in the interior West.IMG_0580IMG_0586

Beavers are good swimmers.  I mean, they are sleek as they paddle which is always surprising to me since they look rather like ambulatory anthills while on land.  We had a nice time watching two beavers for hours this morning since we are in no hurry to get on the water.  It was especially nice to watch those funny animals since the clarity of the water here allows us to watch them swim under the surface should we stand at a good vantage point on the bank, or the cliffs above the water.  Tater was overjoyed to swim out to them, play a sort of game of tag (which he invariably looses as he has not yet mastered the submersion technique swimming sometimes requires).  It is fun to watch him paddle though, his movement is swift and smooth, even against the current, he looks as good as the animals he is chasing out there which is no doubt why we have always referred to him as “The Little Beaver” whenever he spends hours in a lake or river paddling about like a little fool.IMG_0465

I washed my hair and face with a bit of lavender soap this morning.  I laid down across a rock on the flat of my stomach and dipped the river onto my hair with a titanium cook cup.  I found myself immediately transported to my youth and all the times I chose to wash my hair in freezing cold rivers and lakes — cold enough to give what we used to term “brain freezes”.  How many times have I washed my hair in frigid waters while out canoeing or rafting?

The result is always the same after a shampoo in a wild river or lake; a sudden and vigorous freshness presses its way into and through you. A wash in a lake, a cold lake or river, on a hot morning under vermillion cliffs — now that may be the only thing to challenge a stout cup of coffee.  Robert tells me the water is about 44F.  Nippy, indeed.IMG_0549IMG_0537

Rainbow trout for dinner with a bit of coconut oil, fresh lemon slices and garlic — asparagus and roasted potatoes to accompany — all cooked over an open fire and delicious down to the last crumb.  Tater was given the fins, tail and skin as a treat and spent a good five minutes whining for more afterwards.  Fresh, wild caught fish is something I would eat every single day if I had the opportunity.

We have dropped anchor on a sandbar, one of the few on this section of the river.  Robert is fishing the pool on the backside of the eddy where the river seems to push all of the delicious little surface bugs and nymphs into a deep emerald pocket.  We can see the fish lipping and slurping bugs off the river top.  Their fins weaving the surface into smears of minute, contradictory rings of disturbed water.  These fish are thriving.  It’s like an all you can eat buffet here.  Tater Tot is perched like a gentleman on the edge of the boat, awaiting my command to head for shore — thrilled into yips of excitement each time Robert sets a hook and brings a fish to hand.  I am splayed like a lizard in the sun while I jot thoughts into my notebook.

The wind has come up this morning making casting a challenge at times.  It changes direction periodically and is inconsistent, sometimes blowing softly, other times passing over us in strong gales.  Each time it ceases all together we hear ourselves sigh aloud.  It’s a relief.


I got out of the boat for a while to do some land lubbing and walked up to the top of an arid ridge line.  It is hot out today, especially in clumps of juniper where the wind is stopped by a wall of conifer.  It is hot enough that snakes should be active.  I thought about this and stopped walking up the ridge for a moment.  I thought about rattlesnakes, one of the only things I am truly afraid of in this world after nearly four years of trauma in the low desert of Arizona.  When I realized I had stopped walking and it was because of fear, I slapped the palms of my hands down on my thighs, as if to punish my legs for their stillness, and said, “Jillian, damn the fear.”  And I kept walking.  I’m glad I did.  There are oceans of cacti gardens on the slopes of those ridges and all are blooming or on the brink of blooming and it is a beautiful sight, indeed.


An osprey, one of two we have been watching for a few miles, is flying up river toward where we are parked.  It moves on slow wing beats, stopping to hover from time to time as it tracks fish.  It suddenly, though expectedly, plunged into the river, fully submerged for a moment while grasping onto a trout with its talons.  We estimate the fish was at least seventeen inches long.  We watched the bird grapple with its load, beat its wings mightily and then finally heave itself out of the water only to drop the fish after a few wing beats.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak!  The fish was too big for the bird to manage.   I can see the osprey now flying slowly alongside pine studded red cliffs and can only imagine it must be attempting to dry off in the rising hot air that comes off the face of the stone here.IMG_0745

The river becomes a consistent part of daily life.  We ride the water, it holds our gear aloft, we catch our dinner from its quiet pools, we wash our hands in it, we boil pots of it for our meals, fill our drinking containers with it once it is purified.  First thing in the morning, we heat it and brew our tea with it.  The water is everything.

When I hear the river drip off the blades of our oars and then return, with precision and joy, to the greater thing it came from, I hear home.




I caught a pair of brown trout for dinner tonight, both about 13 inches in length — real nice fish elsewhere but small, skinny things for the Green River.  The flesh of the brown trout cooks up in a peachy orange hue, similar to salmon.  Dinner was fantastic.  I fed one of the fish to Tater Tot, deboned, with his regular ration of kibble.  In our estimation, he is running and swimming between fifteen and twenty miles a day and though he is thin and tired,  he does not quit moving, ever, until we all go to bed.  There are ducks to chase, the sound of rising fish on the river to swim towards, and now sagebrush covered hills to inspect for quail.  He is a busy dog, ever driven by his desire to hunt and explore.

We seem to have a rhythm now.  Rob rises earlier than I and gets water going for breakfast while I tend to dinner in the evenings.  I like it, both the pattern of our river days and cooking dinner over our fires.IMG_0746

There seems to be at least four great blue herons on each bend of the river here.  Last night, right before we reached a place to camp, we saw a pair awkwardly building a nest high up in a scraggly old dead ponderosa pine on the riverbank.  What I assume was the female bird, was carefully and delicately weaving a nest of brittle river driftwood together — a stick as long as her legs and forked at the tip would not weave like she wanted it too.  She was so specific in the engineering of her cradle while her husband stood behind her, lanky and blue in the dusk of evening.  It was a beautiful sight and we craned our necks long after passing it to continue watching the homemaking efforts of those beautiful birds.


This morning, a pair of bald eagles on a nesting platform.  Between the adults we could see three chicks, past the fuzzy chicklet phase of life, covered in black grey teenaged feathers with great curving beaks on the tips of their sooty faces.  We took turns with the binoculars as we floated past their sky high castle.  It was one of the best views I have ever had of bald eagle chicks.  They were dreadfully awkward looking little beauties.  We talked of them long after we passed them, so much we cherished the sighting.


Glory be!  I saw two Western tanagers today!  They appeared on different sections of the river but the plumage was unmistakable — bombastic tangerine heads fading into canary yellow bodies with dark wings.  Exquisite and exotic creatures.  I feel lucky.  Also, one little mad hatter goldfinch in the willows by the tent.  A chipper little thing.  I read somewhere that this river hosts a hummingbird migration at some point in the springtime.  I would love to experience it.IMG_0758IMG_0899IMG_0919


Fishing is like any sort of gambling; one truly believes that the next cast will bring the glorious jackpot of a wild fish to hand.  We cast over and over again and when we do bring a fish to hand we say, “I knew it.  I knew that cast was the one.  I could feel it in my bones.”  Robert and I are addicted.


We are sharing Swallow Canyon with a huge batch of pelicans.  Robert rows us closer and closer to them.  We know at some point they will rise up in a flurry of wings, raising their awkwardly proportioned bodies into thin air, folding their necks into a position required by flight.  How is it that something so silly looking can be so graceful in the sky?  I cannot wait for the moment when they lift off the water as one and soar past us in a storm of white against red canyon walls.  We are nearly at our takeout point now and I don’t want this trip to be over, this week to be over, the spring to be over.  There’s too much living and sharing to be done.


A missed opportunity (A.K.A.  A Photograph of the Heart):  On the drive home, while crossing the southwest corner of Wyoming, headed straight into a black spring squall with a strong headwind beating on the hood of the truck and a dash of hail, to boot — we looked to our left to see a herd of at least fifty mustangs in every color imaginable grazing on a side slope on the edge of a deep canyon, backlit by a stormy sky, manes and tails whipped by the storm.  I will never forget that view and shall be haunted for my entire life by the missed opportunity to photograph it, but am secretly happy the view was ours alone.  We’ll remember it as long as we live.


Southwest — All The Rest

If I may say so, you should prepare yourself for a visual feast!  I didn’t think I did a lot of shooting on our trip to the Southwest in February but this collection of images would prove otherwise.  These photos were taken in the Mojave Desert of Arizona and California, the foothills of Ramona, California and San Diego.  When Robert and I set out to plan our February adventure we hoped to make it over to Texas to raft a portion of the Rio Grande after meandering through New Mexico but had to axe a huge portion of our journey in order to make it to a family fiesta in San Diego and then home to a wedding in Idaho (in which we played roles of bridesmaid, groomsman, wedding official and hip hop dancers…more on that at a later date).  So, while this trip did not turn out how we planned, not at all, it was still a very, very fabulous time — we made some memories together which is, in essence, all I really wanted from this trip.

Thanks to all our friends and family who opened their homes to us, and special thanks to one of my favorite little boys who gave up his bunk beds in his man cave for us — you’re the best, Roo.  We sure appreciated it.

Without further delay, please enjoy!


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