Stories Exploring the Chama

Exploring the Chama River Basin                 July 11, 2001

I heard coyotes last night…and an owl. I could hear a series of chirps, its echolocation of prey, and then the soft velvety sound of its wings in flight.

I get up late today, around 9:30, and fix myself a couple of eggs with some sourdough bread and butter. By 11:00 I’m ready to head out on the trail that follows the river upstream. First I have to cross the river, and since it’s running fast and about knee high, I wade across in my shorts and tennis shoes, and then change into my jeans and hiking boots on the other side. As I come through the willows on the opposite bank, I can see the breadth and depth of a wide valley, green with early summer grasses and dappled with wildflowers of every color.

To my right, the river snakes its way between the mountainside and the meadows, appearing and disappearing among thick clusters of willow and cottonwood, and a dense lower story of shrubs. On my left, a flowery meadow eases up the hillside to meet the edge of the forest, in a clear but softly undulating boundary. Straight ahead the valley narrows in the distance between two mountain ridges that form a large cradle. Framed behind them is a majestic peak that spreads its arms in a huge embrace with a blue bowl of sky and a few ornamental clouds mirroring the expanse of meadow below. It’s an incredible sight!

The trail is clear and worn to a deep rut in places. I stop often to get a closer look at the individual blossoms that have created this huge mosaic of color. Some of them I know… the blue campanula, white yarrow and cow parsnips, skunk cabbage, sunflowers and bright red penstemons. There are other flowers I don’t recognize, among them a deep purple cluster of tiny trumpets growing around a single stem.* I see them in small clumps at first, and then a whole field of them up west of the trail. The color draws me to them, and I bushwhack my way through the grasses to get to them. I’m curious to know what kind of healing energy they possess and think it will be easy to find out in the presence of such a large cluster. As soon as I stop walking, I am assaulted by an army of flies.

I quickly open my pack and pull out my rain poncho, the only other article of clothing I brought with me. I wrap it around me with the hood up and my arms hidden under the nylon fabric. Then I sit down on the ground with one hand waving the flies away from my face. Now that I’m almost level with the flowers and looking across and not down on them, I am amazed at the activity taking place here. There are dozens of butterflies, in shades of white, yellow and orange, working the field. There is a dance going on here between the insect and plant realms that is absolutely dizzying.

I enjoy my box seat for a few minutes before I remember to put my query to the flowers. And when I do, I get an immediate response, “a clarion call.” “To what?” I think. “Justice!” I hear. No way! A clarion call to justice? Where did that come from? I’m looking at the flowers and I see that they’re like a multitude of tiny megaphones around a post. Yes, I think, a wake up call. And later down the trail I begin to understand. This is about the little everyday injustices that happen to all of us. It’s the ability to stick up for yourself when your presence and your worth are ignored, like when someone steps in front of you in the checkout line pretending you’re not there, or when telephone solicitors hound you, or when grocery stores sell you food that has no vital energy. It’s a call to stop ignoring the many ways that little bits of our dignity and our rights as human beings are stolen away from us each day.

The other flower I confer with today is the skunk cabbage. Due to the abundance of rain that fell this year, this skunk cabbage is the tallest and strongest I have ever seen. Most of the plants are taller than me. When I stand among them, I feel the word “strength.” I take this to mean physical strength, but I think it includes strength on all levels – physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. When I look at the masses of white flowers, I think of all the new ideas we’re having to process, and I come up with the phrase, “physical strength in times of monumental change.”

I go up the trail, closer to the forest now, and to ward off any bears or mountain lions, I sing. I make up songs about elves and leprechauns, gnomes who live in the woods under the trees, and all the wild things who might be watching my approach. And there among the aspens, I find a lovely columbine, its purple face looking out from a white star.

The sky darkens and begins to rumble about five o’clock this afternoon. I go to my tent to read a novel and write in my journal, waiting for the storm to be over. But it keeps raining and the sky never recovers its light. Sometime after 8:30, when everything outside is sopping wet but the rain is finished, I get up and go out. It’s almost dark and too late to prepare the salad I planned for dinner. I get out a can of Dinty Moore’s beef stew, heat it quickly on the stove and hop in the car to eat it. I put a cassette in the tape deck and listen. When my brief dinner is over, I turn off the dome light and sit in the dark while the tape continues to play. I rewind it and listen again.

It’s a very dark night with no moon and the stars still hazy behind the cloud cover. I can see a piece of the sky between the tall cottonwoods in front of me. Everything else is dark. The music has a simple beat with rhythms that seem to come from nature in a primitive tribal pulse. It’s dark and scary outside and the music is comforting.

The tape eventually comes to an end again, and this time I turn it off and dare to venture out. I light two candles and place them in front of the tent. I burn some kopal and speak to my spirit helpers, asking for protection and giving thanks for my life and the day that is ending. I say good night and snuggle into my sleeping bag. I hear the soft strumming of a guitar in a campsite down the road, and I’m glad my tribe is near.

* Little Flower Penstemon