I am often struck by the power of photographs, and the way they can transport us in time and space, sometimes backwards to a place of fond memories, sometimes forward in anticipation of future adventures. I found such a picture tacked to the bulletin board of our local feed store, and I thought I would share it with you.
Exactly why it caught my attention so dramatically I do not know, but it stopped me in my tracks as I reached for the exit door. I stepped closer, and as I did it drew me deeper and deeper into that perfect recorded moment of experience. Perhaps it reminded me of a past hunt, with the excited chatter of friends or family nearby. Maybe you, like me, can imagine elk in the background and just out of view, hanging on the edge of the timber on their way to cover or feed. I can feel the crispness of the air there, and smell the smoke in the swirling winds. I can smell and taste the coffee too!
This wonderful image was captured by Mr. Frank M. Donofrio of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He calls it “Cowboy Medicine”, and he has been kind enough to let us reproduce it here. It is an unexpected comfort, and a gift for the eye of the restless soul.
Frank tells me that he snapped it a few years back, on a mid November elk hunt in the spectacular high country near Aspen. He says it was a cold, blustery day, and that in his hunter’s wanderings he happened to meet up with a woman in her later years and her middle-aged son. They told him that they had grown up nearby and were quite intimate with the country, having hunted it all of their lives. They were happy to share some of their hard won backcountry knowledge, and more.
The son offered to build a pot of coffee to help stave off the numbing chill, right there and right then. Frank gladly accepted. After all, the company was fine, and the view was pretty good too.
Apparently, the man liked coffee of the cowboy kind, brewed simple, black, and strong. The recipe is not complicated, but ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that it’s proper preparation is still a fine art, freely given, yet earned on a life of many trails.
Start with a healthy slug of water, freshly drawn from a sparkling mountain stream. Bring to a roaring boil over a fire of spruce and pine, and throw in a handful or three of coffee grounds as you back the hissing pot from the hottest part of the flames. Let it simmer down a bit, and then throw in a splash of water or two or maybe a fist-full of snow to cool it down. Take it from the fire and set it on the ground awhile to let the grounds settle, but not for too long.
It’s always best served piping hot, and there is something to be said for a dose of grounds in the mix. The old cowboys used to say that you could tell when it was right when you could stand up a spoon in it. It’s about texture too, and if you look real hard you can see them there, squinting past weathered brows while chewing on their coffee behind big handlebar mustaches. Or at least I would like to think so.
Now kick back and wrap your hands around a steaming mug of mountain medicine for warmth and moral support. Enjoy the ride. Savor the moment. It’s the doing of it that counts and where you are that matters.
That place be elk country, and there is no finer location on terra firma to drink a’ cup a’ Joe.
I wish to be somewhere just like this next fall, god willing, squatting behind a cowboy fire on a rugged ridge of the Rocky Mountains. There may even be some horses close by, nickering and pawing in the soft white powder.
We’ll keep an extra tin cup in the outfit, just for you. Hope to see you there!
*I have always heard references to the fact that the old-time ranch cooks would not think of forgetting to add a raw egg or some egg shells to a pot of their boiling brew. It turns out that this is true, as the egg or eggshell attracts sediment like a magnet and makes for a cleaner presentation.
Well, I have tried adding the eggshell, and it does work. For now I’ll withhold judgement as to whether this makes a difference in the taste, but it might. I haven’t tried the raw egg yet, but in the camps I generally inhabit a raw egg is a much too precious commodity to mix in my morning caffeine. But I don’t mind being wrong, and I shall try it sometime soon.
Of course if I do that will mean that I have shared another elk camp, and that would be more than fine.
I’ll be sure to let you know how it all works out.
I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.
I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.
They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.
My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.
We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hayfield below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North. To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hayfields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.
We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.
At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our birdbath, and I wave and say hello. Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.
Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.
“The real work of men was hunting meat. The invention of agriculture was a giant step in the wrong direction, leading to serfdom, cities, and empire. From a race of hunters, artists, warriors, and tamers of horses, we degraded ourselves to what we are now: clerks, functionaries, laborers, entertainers, processors of information”. – Edward Abbey
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back, placed there as new each time for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all. Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intriques me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches thru life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high. More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. Apparantly, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hayfields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes. I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snowfields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”. Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river. They eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps milennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid. The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest. After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only new…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try and change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never obtain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well.
Still, innocents abound. Only recently, a woman stopped to talk to me on a chilly and uneventful evening. She wanted to tell me her story of a deer, closely reliving it as she spoke. It was standing on her drive as she left the house, passing very close to her driver side window as she drove away. Se had my undivided attention, as I am happy to talk deer. I was happy that she was happy to talk about a deer. She was captured by the sight, describing the encounter with wide eyed animation. Then she exclaimed, “scarrreeeeey!”. Scary, I thought. You were scared….of a deer. A pie eyed yearling doe, harmlessly chewing grass and ready to bound away at the slightest provocation. Did I hear correctly?
I stood speechless and dumbfounded, and I am sure it read on my face, though I tried to hide it. What could I say to this nice lady? How could I respond in a manner that would make any sense? My mind could not work fast enough to process the statement or understand all of it’s pregnant ramifications. We were two ships passing in the middle of the impenetrable black night, and our cargoes could not be interchanged at sea. I had no frame of reference to draw from, no common ground to reach for, nor stable platform to commiserate from. I could only offer a curious smile, left to cock my head, and ponder how anyone could be so tragically out of touch from the natural world.