I spent the last week camping alone in the Rocky Mountains. My home was three miles into the wilderness on a jarring moonscape of a Forest Service road. I pitched my tent above a stream, beneath a canopy of spruce and aspen, just me and trees and water and mountains folded into one another for as far as I could see. Such places are a bane to writers because there are really no words that do them justice.
It was 31 degrees when I crawled from my sleeping bag the first morning, but it warmed quickly when the sun inched over the eastern ridge. I hiked to the end of the forest road, then on a trail through the forest that opened into a vast valley surrounded by jagged peaks. Again, I had this world to myself.
The next day I climbed four hours to a ridge below the summit of a 14,000-foot mountain called La Plata. The first half of the hike was through the forest. Above the tree line on the climb to the ridge, nature revealed itself ever more beautifully and fiercely with each step.
But this was a different experience, a communal one. Scores of others joined me on that trail, most of them not stopping at the ridge but aiming for the top of the mountain. I met them every few minutes, passing me on the way up or as they made their way down. They ranged in age from 10 to 70, men and women, boys and girls.
But there was something they shared, a certain inner luminosity, a quiet joy. It was acknowledged with a nod or a smile or a few kind words of encouragement for a plodding old guy like me. There was a wonderful, unspoken truth up there, something about the grandeur of nature and the expansiveness of the human soul.
After my magnificent hike, I drove into a nearby town where there was cell service and checked in with my wife, letting her know that I was OK. I also couldn’t resist checking the news, the latest developments of our public life. It was somewhat surreal that the incivility and cruelty I read about was taking place on the same beautiful planet.
It is my belief, my prayer, that someday soon the spirit of the mountains and my fellow hikers will more generally imbue the places where we are governed.
I am in Texas at the invitation of my friend, Valerie, who has a house here near the Davis Mountains. I have been a birder for more than 40 years, and she and I greatly enjoy birding together whenever we get the chance. Here we birded together five years ago, but it was February, so I jumped at the chance to visit in April, before it gets so blistery hot.
My penultimate goal was to observe the Colima warbler, which can only be seen in the U.S. in the high reaches of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, a species I’d never seen. (It is not present in the U.S. in February, and my parents never took me to Big Bend NP all those years ago when we lived in Texas.)
Val picked me up in El Paso, where I lived as a very young girl. (More about that in a future blog.) We started birding the Chihuahuan Desert right away. The song of the cactus wren in my old neighborhood took me back in time.
It took us quite a while to drive to her West Texas home because we made frequent birding stops. In fact, it takes us quite a while to get anywhere for this reason. It wasn’t long before I snagged a new species, the Chihuahuan raven.
I’m enchanted by the fact that this is the street sign on the corner on which her house sits.
In the morning, we observed birds in her yard and then all around the town, including the cemetery, a very interesting walk in its own right. Our most frequent sighting for these days was the iridescent scarlet tanager. We took a tour of downtown Alpine, which has lovely murals that capture the images of West Texas culture.
The next day, we took the long drive to Big Bend National Park, a fitting place to spend National Park Week. Valerie is a retired National Park ranger, and one of her postings was five years in Big Bend NP as Chief of Interpretation. She knows and loves the landscape well and one can find no better guide.
We camped in Cottonwood Campground on the Rio Grande River, where we birded and interacted with other birders. She has a camper, but I set up a tent, unaware that a very windy night was to come. The constant gusts of wind flattened the tent on my face, and we both got very little sleep.
Nonetheless, we arose the next morning and began birding in earnest. Because of the water of the Rio Grande, the habitat makes for excellent birding. When we saw a bird, we noted its markings and slowly, unless it is a familiar species to us, came to agreement. Our reference sources are our field guides, a couple of birding apps on our phones, our lifelong knowledge of birds and the “Big Bend Bird Checklist” by her friend, Mark Flippo.
Neither of us take all that many photographs as we prefer to be looking through our binoculars and storing away the mental images. I did attempt to photograph the Vermilion flycatcher, but it is a poor quality photograph that doesn’t begin to do justice to the bird.
Here is a better photograph by a professional.
Equally as wonderful is the Scarlet Tanager.
All around are other campers and hikers, birders and photographers. Near to our campsite was a gray hawk nest.
Our next destination was the Rio Grande Village campground and a boat trip across the river to Boquillas, Mexico, for the day, via the border crossing in the national park. It was staffed by a ranger who knew Val from her Theodore Roosevelt National Park days, and we all had a friendly chat.
We paid the $5 for the boat ride across the river, although it is very low, as this is the livelihood of the locals. In Boquillas, I ate the best chicken tamales of my life and we enjoyed the laid-back village vibe. Val purchased some highly recommended tortillas from a village woman to bring back for herself and her friend.
Upon our return, we birded around the Rio Grande including some outstanding evening birding on the nearby nature trail. Then, it was on to Panther Junction, where we crashed with an old friend of Val’s who has been a wildlife biologist at Big Bend NP for decades.
I am particularly taken with the Chisos red oak that grows in Raymond’s backyard. Val, Raymond and I took a stroll in the dusk to find elf owls. We heard one, but did not see it. Although Val does not, I count it when I hear a bird as I can picture these in my mind. A hot shower and a good night’s sleep revived us.
The last day in Big Bend was focused on finding the Colima warbler. We drove to the Chiso Basin, stopped in the Visitor Center and prepared for the hike up the Chisos Mountains.
The Chisos are the farthest south range of the Rocky Mountains and a striking feature in the heart of Big Bend NP. Big Bend NP is a huge and wild landscape, on a big bend of the Rio Grande River on the border, and is comprised of 801,163 acres with many diverse ecosystems. The Chisos Basin is at 5,400 feet and the highest peak is Emory at 7,825 feet. We weren’t going all the way to Emory but nearly. We knew we had a long hike planned, complete with lots of birding dawdling. Although I love all rivers, including the Rio Grande, the Chisos Basin is my favorite area of the park and I was thrilled to be there again.
The ascent of the Pinnacles Trail is 1,655.84 feet to an elevation of 7,078.05 feet. I was feeling the mild effects of the elevation and very grateful that the temperature was fairly mild. I could never endure the height of the summer desert temperatures with my N.D. sensibilities. As we hiked, Val identified plants unknown to me.
We met up with hikers on the way. This woman had seen a Colima warbler about 20 minutes before and she was on her way down. We pressed on, frequently stopping in the shade to cool off. The orange from my pack revived me, a lifesaver.
It is difficult to read the sign below, but it says Colima Trail, the trail we took to make a loop to connect to the Laguna Meadows Trail.
All around were desert plants: cacti, agave, juniper, matrona and the Chisos red oak. The distinctive blue agave is called a Century Plant. It blooms just once, after several decades of growth, and then dies. The side-by-side photo below is an example of this phenomenon. The hummingbirds and butterflies and other pollinators flock to the blossom.
We wondered if this Century Plan shown below, somewhere on the Colima Trail, would fall off this rock to which it clung when it sent up its bloom.
As we reached The Pinnacles, white-throated swifts chattered about. Otherwise, the day was dominated by Mexican jays and blue-gray and black-tailed gnatcatchers.
At the end of a very long hike, more than 10 miles, we trudged back into the Chisos Basin, as the sun was setting. No Colima warblers. Raymond had warned us that due to the exceptional dryness of the year, the birds away from the Rio Grande were not as active. Valerie lived here for five years and has frequently visited and she has only seen “couple” of Colimas. I might have jinxed it when I bought this cool medallion for my walking stick.
My heart wasn’t completely broken though. I’ve weathered much worse. I had just spent a day soaking up the silence of this place, renewing my spirit, knowing that I was where the Colimas live and breed. We saw no other hikers for the last six miles. And we were both spent.
As we left the Chisos Mountains, a full moon was rising over the desert. The stars were spectacular, Venus a beacon on the horizon, and Mars very red in the southeast. Deep within, I’d stored the memory of another Chihuahuan Desert adventure, complete with numerous new bird species for my life list. More to come.
Join our annual adventure — the Summer Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour on July 18-25 — through the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River and the most pristine portion of the entire Lewis & Clark trail, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, Mont. Participants must be in good physical shape to participate. For those who do not wish to engage in the more strenuous activities, vans will be available with alternative delights, and we will all meet up for dinner.
The accommodations are perfect. Our favorite outfitter, Wayne Fairchild, and his crew move ahead of us, set up the camp, prepare the appetizers, make sure the beer is cold. On the four camping nights, two on the Missouri, two in the Bitterroots, your tent is set up before you arrive, with your preferred mattress or cot. Bring your own sleeping bag or ask Becky to provide you one at modest expense.
The food is excellent. Fresh ingredients, a cheerful and delightful kitchen crew, excellent hors d’oeuvres. For those with special food needs, Becky Cawley can make arrangements.
DAY 1, TUESDAY, July 18
Welcome to Great Falls, Mont.! Settle in, then gather in late afternoon for a welcome reception hosted by Becky and Lewis and Clark scholar Clay S. Jenkinson. Clay is with us through the entire adventure. After a quick orientation meeting with our Missouri River outfitter, we will depart for the Great Falls (named by Meriwether Lewis) at Ryan Dam on the Missouri. It’s more beautiful than you might think. At the falls enjoy an early-evening encounter with Capt. Lewis as he explains what his patron Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the journey and how what became Montana filled Lewis with such a sense of enchantment that he found it impossible to write a journal entry equal to the spirit of the place.
LODGING: La Quinta Inn Riverfront, Great Falls Montana
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY, July 19
Today our journey takes us to our launching point at the portal of the most beautiful segment of what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” First, we’ll stop at “Decision Point” at the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers. When the expedition arrived here in early June 1805, nobody was quite sure which of the two streams was the Missouri. The captains rightly chose the right branch, but everyone else, including the trailsman George Drouillard, believed the Marias was the proper stream to ascend. This is one of the great photo ops of the Lewis & Clark Trail. As with most of our stops, Clay will provide a historical but often comic riff about burdens of discovery here.
The launch of our three-day canoe adventure begins at Coal Banks Landing, east of historic Fort Benton, Mont. In the next couple of days, you will have plenty of opportunity to hike through some beautiful landscapes along the Missouri River. Some offer petroglyphs, others teepee rings on bluffs high above the river. While our guides prepare dinner, our outfitter, Wayne, will take us through the intricate Slot Canyon. In a side canyon invisible from the river, wind and water have carved a beautiful white sandstone labyrinth, full of delightful surprises, on a route just strenuous enough to prepare us all for the fabled Wendover Death March. Back at camp, set precisely where Lewis and Clark overnighted two hundred years ago, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and cold beer await, followed by an excellent meal served over tablecloths and actual dishes. As always, an informal evening discussion with Clay.
CAMPSITE: Eagle Creek
DAY 3, WEDNESDAY, July 20
Coffee at dawn, a hot camp breakfast at 8:30, and now the real adventure begins. Eagle Camp, just across from a famous igneous plug named LA Barge, is the gateway to the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, accessible only by water. The buffalo are gone now, but in almost every other way you are gliding quietly through the river as Lewis & Clark witnessed it (but downhill!). Five minutes after we start the day’s float, Clay will ask you to turn your canoe around to observe the Stone Walls, painted by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer in 1833. You suddenly realize that you camped last night “in” Bodmer’s famous painting.
The rest of the day takes us past beautiful hoodoos, igneous dikes, sandstone formations in which Native Americans found spiritual messaging and other spectacular formations that led the rationalist Meriwether Lewis to speak of “scenes of visionary enchantment.” As Jefferson said of the Natural Bridge in Virginia, “it is worth a trip across the Atlantic to see this object.” After lunch under a lone cottonwood tree at the base of the famous Hole-in-the-Wall rock formation, we’ll work off our restless energy by climbing up to the summit, where you can be photographed standing in the Hole-in-the-Wall (or plummeting into the Missouri if you prefer!) This is one of the great hikes on the Lewis & Clark Trail, 40 minutes up and then 15 down. There is no way to explain the grandeur to beheld here. You have to earn it with your feet. After another leisurely float, those who wish it bob down the last mile to camp in their life jackets, feeling the gentle but inexorable tug of one of the world’s great rivers. It’s a perfect way to cool off on a hot dry afternoon and experience geomorphology at the molecular level!
In the evening, another fine meal, great conversation, and, if we are lucky, a lightning storm.
CAMPSITE: Slaughter Creek.
DAY 4, THURSDAY, July 21
Last day on the Missouri River. After breakfast and a leisurely paddle of 12 miles, we disembark at Judith Landing, where the river William Clark named for his future wife, Julia Hancock, flows sweetly into the Missouri. The American Prairie Reserve, dedicated to creating the artist George Catlin’s vast buffalo and range park in the American West, has recently purchased the PN ranch at the mouth of the Judith. Over lunch, Clay will discuss the near-extermination of the bison in the 19th century, and the painstaking work undertaken by the Smithsonian’s William Hornaday and his new friend, Theodore Roosevelt, to save and restore the species. We leave the canoe portion of the river just as it enters a wider, sagebrush zone known as “The Breaks of the Missouri.” By mid afternoon, we’ll get you to a hot shower at a historic hotel, laundry, grocery and hardware service, and time to retire your river gear as we prepare for the second half of our adventure. In the evening, live music on the hotel terrace and fine dining in the Grand Union Hotel, Montana’s oldest, built in 1882, seven years before Montana became a state. Shower as many times as you want.
LODGING: Grand Union Hotel, Ft Benton.
DAY 5, SATURDAY, July 22
This is what is known on the Chautauqua circuit as “jump day.” After breakfast in the hotel dining room, we’ll take an air-conditioned trail coach through some of the most beautiful country in western Montana. Our destination is the whimsical Lochsa Lodge, our headquarters in the Bitterroot Mountains for the last dozen years. This is Clay’s favorite resort in America — just enough frills to be satisfying, just enough of the rustic to be authentic. Great food, a wide variety of drink, the unbelievably beautiful Lochsa River five minutes by foot from your cabin, almost the platonic idea of a clear mountain stream. We often spend the late afternoon sitting in the river talking, sipping beer, trying, as always, to walk across it without tumbling in among the trout. On the coach journey, we’ll eat (and resupply) in Missoula, where there is an REI coop, and then climb over Lolo Pass into Idaho. Eat and rest well, friends. For tomorrow we make our ascent up to Wendover Ridge. For those who prefer not to undertake the Death March, we offer a satisfying alternative: a fishing weir known to Lewis & Clark, the expedition’s 12 Mile Camp, and Rocky Point Lookout, now decommissioned by the Forest Service, but available for overnight lodging next time you come to the Bitterroots.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
DAY 6, SUNDAY, July 23
This is the day of days on Clay’s Lewis and Clark Adventure Tour. When Capt. Lewis discovered that the Shoshone guide “Old Toby” had led them astray, he ordered his company to make its way to the Nez Perce Trail straight up. One of our loudest customers, years ago, was heard screaming at mile four, “Didn’t those morons understand @#!@$#@ switchbacks?!” Our 8½-mile hike uphill, (a 3,000-foot climb in elevation), is follows the expedition’s Sept. 15, 1805, ascent through slushy snow leading pack horses. Here, more than anywhere else on the nationwide LC trail, you can be sure you are walking precisely in the footsteps of America’s most famous explorers. You can make the hike at your own pace. With luck, we will be led by the infamous Chad Jones (Clay’s “tree dork”), a wilderness guide who combines Herculean stamina with a low comic routines. Nobody who has begun the Death March has ever failed to make it to the top. In a sad historical note, Russ Eagle, who briefly held the record ascent of 3:01 (what he calls “three naught one” — he’s from North Carolina), has relinquished the world record to the Iron Man master Mike Harry of Franklin, Tenn., the site of “the last great battle of the Civil War.” In spite of Clay’s drama-queen exaggerations of the Wendover DM, this day is tremendous fun, and those who make the hike are filled with the pure joy of the “strenuous life,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Tonight’s camp, (another L&C campsite), is aptly named Snowbank. They melted snow here for drinking water. It is on this evening when our participants look around the camp circle to discover that we have become what Lewis called “the best of families.” Whatever shyness or urban tension you bring to the trip will have slipped away somewhere at mile five, and you will realize that you have discovered your soul again, and the joy of your body, the magic of the wilderness, and the esprit de corps that comes from relaxing our tightly-formed social identities. This trip changes lives. It renews lives. Just wait: you’ll see.
L&C CAMPSITE: Snowbank.
DAY 7, MONDAY, July 24
Today, we wander west on the Lolo (Nez Perce) Trail. Our transport is minivans, but we stop half a dozen times during the day to look at Lewis & Clark historic sites. We are now in the heart of the heart of the Lewis & Clark trail, in a remote, still largely inaccessible high mountain terrain with what Lewis called “range after range of impenetrable mountains in every direction.” This portion of the Rocky Mountains is heartbreakingly beautiful. Our fearless guides will take us to such LC sites as “Bears Oil and Roots,” “Indian Post Office,” “Lonesome Cove,” “the Sinque Hole” and “Smoking Place.” You will stand “in the journal entries”of the expedition’s diarists, in places no casual tourist ever visits. This is Greek Spanakopita night, after a “we cook for the crew” initiative that Clay insisted upon a few years ago, until the crew said it is just so much easier to do it themselves! After Greek salad, kabobs and spinach pie, we climb up Bald Mountain to view as beautiful a sunset as you will ever see. Later, back at camp, dessert and guitar music either by members of the outfitter crew or the kind of lame crooners we attract on this trip.
L&C CAMPSITE: Dry Camp.
DAY 8 TUESDAY July 25
Because they were explorers, Lewis and Clark could not know just when their troubles in the Bitterroot Mountains would end. When Clark and a few iron men finally punched their way through to the end of the Bitterroots, they rejoiced to see a smooth plateau in the haze to the west. They named this vista “Spirit Revival” ridge. We visit it after breakfast on the last morning of our time in the mountains. The expedition tumbled into a Nez Perce camp, exhausted, malnourished (unlike us) and frightened. The Nez Perce held a formal council to decide whether to assist the poor Anglo refugees or to kill them and get it over with. Thus began one of the best white-Indian friendships in the history of the American West (until 1877, that is). Clay will explain how a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis saved the expedition and how the remarkable Nez Perce helped the expedition fashion canoes (at Orofino, Idaho) and guided them to the Great Falls of the Columbia River.
After a final mountain lunch, we will hike down off the mountain. This time, it’s more than nine miles, but gravity is on our side for once, and at the end, we’ll be greeted by bottles of ice cold water and one of the prime swimming holes in the Lochsa River. For those who have the patience, there are thousands of huckleberry bushes along the trail.
Back at Lochsa Lodge, an evening of endless mirth, good drink and the satisfaction of having triumphed over what Lewis called “those tremendious [sic] mountains.”
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge, Powell, Idaho Meals: BLD
DAY 9, WEDNESDAY, July 26
After a lodge breakfast, you’ll meet a guest speaker, who brings new perspective to our LC adventure. Often enough, this is the great David Nicandri, occasional guest host on the “Thomas Jefferson Hour,” or Allen Pinkham, an elder of the Nez Perce Nation. This is a day of leisure and farewell. After lunch, you have the afternoon on your own, but almost everyone winds up in the magnificent Lochsa River. The day ends with a formal farewell banquet in which Clay claims that Becky tried to drown him yet again this year, that “next year” he is going to scamper up the Wendover DM like a bighorn sheep, and that no one ever quite recovers from walking off the map of the known world.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
July 27 Homeward bound. After your last huckleberry breakfast at Lochsa Lodge, a 45-minute ride delivers you to the Missoula International Airport, or to your vehicle at a cooperating hotel.