Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Tounge River

I stayed last night a campground off HWY 14 north of Sheridan in some little town, Rayson maybe. I was pretty frustrated after trying for hours to get close to the bird point that I was suppose to do off the side of a sharp mountain in the Big Horns. It was 4k away from the nearest road, and then down a step rocky slope put there to build the road. This point seems impossible to get to. I gave up and found a campground in town I was so tired. I looked at the cabins they had, but they reminded me too much of the crappy motel me and my co-worker lived in for two months in Coulee City, WA while mammal trapping. The lovely Blue Top Motel or "Blu op M el" with all the letters missing, the walls were so thin that I would hear our neighbor watching Law and Order at night. I preferred a tent site. The owner was really excitted about the birds and we talked forever about them as we walked around her property, she knew most of them but asked what a few were, like the yellow warbler that was happily singing along the raging Tounge River. I asked her if the river ever flooded the place, and she said that it did sometimes and told me which sites to avoid for that.

I set up my tent across from some people from Oregon who in a beat up van that had a few orange doors that were not rusted like the rest of the van. Someone else had a rusty suburban, and then there was a new looking sedan. They all started getting dressed up in nice clothes, the women spread out in the bathroom with curlers in their hair, complaining about their men to each other. I walked back outside and the men were putting on ties. Maybe it was a wedding or a graduation, so unexpected though.

I saw a grassy RV site with a plug in and got a good idea. I asked my new friend, the campground lady, if I could move to the RV site and she agreed. So I dragged my tent over there and plugged in my laptop from my tent, and the internet was excellent! It was the best luxury. I called my friend in Canada while looking on the internet for barn houses and cabins. My Oregon neighbors returned from...wherever they went. A teenage girl got out of the multi-colored van yelling at her boyfriend calling him a few names as she slammed the door and stormed into the bathroom, he sped off out of the campground and I chuckled to myself.

I tried reading but fell asleep in the middle of it. My eyes are way too heavy these days to stay awake past 10pm. I really took advantage of the internet today at that campground till check out time. I got some much needed coffee from the gas station and made it back to Buffalo.

Last night I had a text message asking me to pay my phone bill, and this morning they shut off my phone! I've never had it shut off in the five something years I've had it, but chasing birds around Wyoming doesn't pay very well. It put me in a really bad mood, increased by sugar, coffee, and lack of sleep no doubt. I had a hard time finding a pay phone, then the T-mobile office was closed for the day. I paid through the computer and my phone still didn't work. I was so mad! Then I realized that it was Memorial Day and I couldn't go through with my plans of getting a new bank, a new passport, or my business license in Buffalo. I'm in an old soda fountain in downtown now, using their free internet in exchange of shakes and pretzels, because the libraries across the state have been closed since Friday. Living in my tent in Wyoming is isolating enough without loosing my phone. I did pay for the rest of my banjo at CeCe's antique shop though, her sweet face helping me to bring me out of the bad mood.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jeans and Dreams

After I made it out of the far reaches of the northeast corner of Wyoming with my car in one piece, I headed to Gillette for some much needed jeans. All of my jeans seem to have holes in them, some from barbed wire, some from over wear that have the thighs rubbed out from hiking so far, and one where the pocket started to rip because I have plenty of junk in my trunk. I had three choices, Walmart, K-mart, or Boot Barn. I figured I would get the best quality at Boot Barn, and tried on all kinds of brands. The sales girl remembered me from the last time I was in there and spent several hundred dollars buying new clothes that I could feed and ride horses in. I settled for some Carhartts, and asked to wear them out because my Cruel Girl jeans were on their last leg.

I really needed a shower, so I went to the new rec center run by the city. I have never seen such a nice place to work out, for $4 I got my shower and an hour of playing like a little kid on the water park quality slides and swimming. I couldn't jump off the high dive though. I knew it wouldn't hurt, I saw little kids doing it even, I just couldn't jump off of it. I'm not scared of heights, just really respectful of them I guess. Feeling refreshed I headed towards Sheridan for a point that was on public land and should have been easy to access. I decided to take the next day off, I was so tired and it was late. I called the Occidental Hotel and asked Chris if there were any rooms left. I mentioned that it was Angela and he was lost on who I was, then I said "the biologist who lives in her tent." He knew exactly who I was then, and said I should try the Blue Gable Cabins down the street. I promised to come by a little later for a beer.

My cabin was adorable, I just wanted to crawl in bed and turn on that black box hanging from the wall...what is that called...awe TV. I got wrapped up in several phone conversations with my boyfriend and parents though, then went to the Occidental to have a beer and listen to bluegrass music. It was nice talking with Rex and Chris, who looks like Alan Jackson and plays cover band songs in there once a week. Rex gave me some creepy looks the first night he saw me weeks ago, but he is a nice guy now. I went back to my little cabin and tried to turn the TV on, but my eyes wouldn't stay open long enough to see where the buttons on the remote were.

Me and Jimmy talked a lot about his ranch during that days phone call, what improvements it needs, he told me of new plans to get 12 more quarters of land and another 200 cows soon. I couldn't stop talking about ranching with my parents. I've seen pictures of dad as a teenager showing cows at the state fair, the man knows his way around a ranch. I tried to convince them that they didn't need to teach anymore, and they could start a Buffalo ranch in Wyoming. All they need to do is feed and breed, it could someday be an expansion of me and Jimmy's ranch.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sleeping in the Middle of an Oil Field

Just as I was nodding off to sleep around 10pm out in that oil field, the lightning started. I got in the front seat of the car and decided to drive off the hill I was sitting on. There wasn't any rain, just the bright flashes and rumbles. I parked next to a large metal building that must be some kind of oil pump house and tried to sleep in my backseat. I pulled my down comforter over me, as if it was an extra layer of my cocoon to protect me from a deadly lightning bolt. It was hot, and I really wanted to roll down a window, or plop my bare legs on top of my nest of covers and pillows, but fear kept me under the covers. 3:30am came, I should have drove back up the hill and hiked to my point, but I was so tired I didn't. Then around 6am I heard a door slam shut and could see two figures come toward my window through the rain drops that clung to it, plaid shirts blurred right outside.

I opened my door, aware I was just in my underwear and a tie dye t-shirt, it was so hot in the car. The cowboys peered in at me on my bed with curious looks, and one just came out and said it "Mam, did you realize that you are sleeping in the middle of an oil field?" there was a slight twain to his voice, having never lived in a city I'm sure. I was so tired I could barely talk, I wish I didn't look like a hippie in my tie dye, sleeping in my car like a homeless person.

"Sir, B.W. himself gave me permission to be on his land, I talked to him a couple of days ago." The cowboy relaxed a little at the mention of his boss' name. I explained that I was a biologist doing bird points and their rigid faces softened into sympathetic looks as I explained my sad story of the lightning and how the I felt safest next to the large metal building surrounded by telephone poles. Then almost broke into tears as I mentioned that I wasn't even able to call my boyfriend for comfort because I hadn't had cell service since early yesterday morning, and couldn't call his boss to remind him I was coming either. Then I added "Believe me, someone does not find this spot to camp in without a very specific purpose, hours of driving through the middle of nowhere, help from the neighbors, not to mention that 17 mile drive down B.W.'s ranch road. I have full permission to be here." They both apologized for waking me as they slowly backed away, and wished me luck with my bird surveys. The care taker said he probably just missed and email or phone call from B.W. and they got in their truck and left me in peace.

I drove up the hill and walked 3k to my bird point across some of the prettiest fields of flowers with butterflies everywhere. The birds were the most abundant on this point with all the oil wells than I had seen them anywhere else. The hike out was easy, and even though I got lost a little on the drive out and mixed up with big oil trucks leaving with black gold, I found my way out of there. I stopped at a small town that had a grocery/hardware/auto parts store for some tea and breakfast. The spark plugs were on the shelf next to the brownie mixes, something that made me laugh. The owners had a flat screen TV turned to CNN with oil spill coverage. We talked a bit about the tragedy and I explained I hadn't seen TV for weeks, so they filled me in on it. They said I was still in Montana and wished me well on my way back to Wyoming. The sign on their door said "Take off muddy and oily boots before coming in here." I giggled as I left this strange place.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rual Wyoming...wait is that redundant?

I woke up to a bright light in the dead of night. Pete the park ranger was checking to make sure that I paid for my campsite at Keyhole Lake. I'm a few days past the need of a shower, and my now fire red head is a grease ball. I also have lots of crap piled in my car and may appear homeless. He asked me how long I planned on staying, he remembered me from three other nights. I explained I was a biologist studying birds which got him excited and chatty while I looked down to see if I was even wearing decent clothes. I had on my Mylie Cyrus $3-on-sale-Walmart mini skirt, and a t-shirt.

After getting just a couple hours sleep, I drove to my bird point off Highway 14 and walked across a grassy field with mud puddles, climbing over a few barbed wire fences. I disturb pronghorn all the time, and they grunt at me which sort of sounds like an armpit fart.

It is getting a little boring counting meadowlarks, but it has to be done. I walked as quickly as I could in between points to get the transect over with quickly. I then headed to Moorcroft to check if my paycheck was automatically deposited. I tried filling my car with gas, and it worked. I had a nice breakfast of biscuits and gravy with an egg over easy and bacon on the side. I had gone hungry the night before having put my last $10 in the iron ranger to camp and having taken back my camp stove to Walmart earlier that week for the much needed money. I spent a few hours in the library while a librarian with a British accent keeping an eye on me wondering why I lingered so long, I did some paperwork and read some more magazines. The ones that rural libraries subscribe to are pretty funny. Usually they have all the quilt magazines, a few on farming and livestock, and "Country Woman". Pink on the cover of Cosmo really stood out and I grabbed that one, having already read all the other ones at libraries across the state. There is a great article about raising chickens in city areas in "Organic Farming" by the way.

I had to drive sixty miles today to my next bird point, and never left a red gravel road covered in black cows, the North East corner of Wyoming is extremely remote, I only saw one truck on that road. The isolation from buildings, people, and my cell service really got me down. The dead town of Rocky Point is just a cemetery, after that the gravel road turned to clay and was rough to drive on with my three inches of clearance in my small car. Ruts carved the hardened mud causing me to have to balance on top of them. The ranch I was driving to was so remote, that I had to drive through Montana to get there, going through the small "town" of Ridge, MT...complete with a homemade sign proudly displaying "Population 2" in front of a red barn. I took a right and got lost trying to find my ranch.

I stopped at a pretty ranch house and boldly knocked on a screen door in my Census job sort of courage. I introduced myself to a ranch wife who was very friendly and surprised to have company. She said she was horrible with directions and we went out to the barn to find her husband while a teenage boy in chaps looked at me, standing next to a saddled horse. A man as leathery as his chaps came out to see what was going on. He finally smiled when I mentioned his neighbor's name and that I was looking for the right road leading to his ranch. He looked at my maps and gave me detailed directions down to an airplane hanger on the left of the road. They laughed when I asked if I was in Wyoming, and said I was still in Montana. The rancher looked at my little car and wished me good luck driving down to my point in my "puddle jumper". I joked that it couldn't even jump puddles and left, praying that it wouldn't rain.

I took a nice road, built with money as free flowing as the oil that paid for it, for seventeen miles into Wyoming and one man's ranch. At the end of the road was an oil field with beautiful spring flowers and dozens of oil wells making grinding sounds all around me. I cleaned up my car, gave myself a pedicure while sitting among the flowers, and had a peanut butter, walnut, and Nutella sandwich. I didn't hike out to my far away point to camp, even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky, because I had a feeling that I shouldn't...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beauty in a Dark Forest

The BLM office windows were bright as I gathered my trash out of my car, there was bags of useless crap sucking the pennies out of my purse in extra fuel use, and I snuck them into their outside trashcan before Dan came out and caught me. I woke up around three something to meet him there at 4:30am to go out to a bird point together on BLM land. He was an eager intern as we loaded up his SUV in case the roads were bad and headed out to a ranch owned by a woman next to the South Dakota border. We were amazed to find the most beautiful red cliffs in the black hills hidden behind her private property on public land, and no one else will be able to visit it.

It was a hard day crashing through brush on the virgin forest floor, I was constantly getting smacked in the face by branches. I was blank the first few points on the forest birds, being so use to sparrows in grassy sage fields, and thought I must look horrible to this kid who asked me what every bird song was. Years of birding helped the familiar songs come back to me eventually and I was able to write which birds they came from on previous points because of my detailed notes on unknowns. It helped to track a few birds down, as they sang from ponderosa pines as high as twenty-five meters. We were both excited to find a visible ovenbird high in a tree, he was the loudest bird in the forest, usually the robin is, it was the first time either of us had seen one. We also saw several rare white-winged juncos endemic to the Black Hills, and the beauty of the forest was amazing and kept us going though we were so exhausted.

I found Erin in the library again, with a kid from Mexico bugging her. She looked creeped out, until he gave up and left. We did paperwork and talked about our transects. After she left, I read some magazines then sat on the floor in the poetry section, trying to find inspiration for my lack of creative haiku.

I thought of the two Facebook emails a long lost friend sent me today. I had checked my phone for the time while climbing up a particularly huge mountain earlier and saw the first one. The name shocked me and I stopped in my tracks while Dan asked what was wrong, because he was sliding down the slope. I quickly read it, then pondered what it meant to me the rest of the day while wandering that forest.

It was dark when I made it to Keyhole Lake at Wind Creek. I put my last $10 in the camping envelope, and said a little prayer that my paycheck would be in my bank tomorrow. I am too tired to brush my teeth, or set up my tent, I'm falling asleep as I write. My eyes are so heavy...(pen mark where my hand slipped off my handwritten diary page).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Organizing My Car in the Middle of a Forest

Even though last night had a clear sky, I woke around 1am and checked the clouds to see if a lightning storm was coming. In the dark even I could tell that the clouds looked like happy clouds, but I wasn't taking any chances. I broke down my tent, put away all my sleeping stuff, and slept in my car with a pillow and a blanket. I woke up around 3:30am and drove to my bird point, and of course the skies were clear and beautiful. Even on nice nights I can't sleep and think too much about lightning.

The county road was now dry, and my car had no problem making it to my point. I hiked in for a ways, the whole landscape had standing water like a bog. There were lots of meadowlarks, and my favorite, upland sandpipers which sound like a guy whistling at a girl. I think I accidentally did some points on private land, but no one asked me what I was doing.

When I was done, I drove the short way to Upton then I drove to Newcastle. I spent hours in the library, and emailed Erin to give me a call when she was in town. She emailed back right away that she was in the Newcastle library. I emailed back that I also was in the Newcastle library and I looked around a bookcase and saw her. We talked about frightening lighting storms, muddy roads, bears, and hard transects. Then we did paperwork and she called landowners while laying on the library sofa, her bare feet out of her flip flops dangling in the air. She sounded like such the surfer girl she is on the phone, with such a friendly tone, and from what I heard she got all the landowner permissions that day. Even a long conversation about birds with someone on native land granted her her access, something she was worried about. I was waiting till 7pm to call my landowners, because that is when ranchers actually answer their phones in my opinion. So many at home wives tell me that they have to consult their husband when he comes in from the ranch. I did make a call to one up by the Montana border though, and he was a friendly oil man and granted me access after a quick chat. He laughed when I told him what I drove and said I should make it alright on his nice roads though, if I made it there even.

Erin and I had dinner at a restaurant across from the library, she was set on having a burger but changed her mind when she saw the ravioli special. I could only afford a slice of pizza, money was really low. A lady at another table talked to us about saguaros in Tucson where she was from, while I savored every bite of my dinner.

I stayed late reading magazines long after Erin left at the library, just trying to be selfish and reclaim time for myself. It seems this job blurs the lines of working and not working, and I don't get to do the things I normally would after coming home from work after a long day. I finally drove to South Dakota to camp for free up on Forest Service land.

I just went across the border and looked at a detailed map of forest roads the lady at the headquarters gave me earlier that day when I talked to her about camping. I didn't drive far down one road, until I parked my car. I could hear the highway and several forest fire trucks that kept coming down a nearby road. I pulled everything out of my car to move the large trunk in my backseat to the car trunk, allowing room to sleep in my backseat on scary weather nights. I even organized my food in an easy to find way, and put everything in a good place. Everything at easy access for living out of my car. I had a good nights sleep surrounded by tall pine trees, not scared of lightning. I'm such a city girl still sometimes.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good Night's Sleep in the Worst of Storms

Text messages between me and Kari.

Annie: "Scary lightning storm, hail too. Can I please stay with you in Gillette tonight? I had to leave my tent up at Pine Haven, too risky to take it down"

Kari: "Sure, I just cleaned the bedding for that bed too."

I was completely terrified at the bright flashes of lightning and the booms of thunder. I had fallen asleep in my tent again in the morning to be woken up by a afternoon thunderstorm with hail. I ran out of my tent, hopped in my car, and drove to the bait shop down the street to inquire about the weather for the day. I jabbered on for several minutes out of nervousness with the kind lady inside, about the storm and what I did for a living. She pointed outside the window next to us and said that she once saw a tornado right there a few years ago. That was enough for me, I left, said I was driving to Gillette and hoped I could stay with one of my friends there.

I can't even remember when I've seen rain pour down so hard, I had my windshield wipers on full blast, but still couldn't see out very well. At one point I had to pull over on the side of the highway and wait for the rain to drop down a little less severe. I finally made it to Gillette and went to Walmart first to get some brownies to bake. In the parking lot I broke down, trembling and crying still sitting in my car for a good 30 minutes as I tried to wipe the tears from my red puffy eyes. I bought some chicken too, since I had been craving it for days and ate it in the park. It tasted horrible, and made my car smell like Walmart chicken. I was really craving the tasty BBQ chicken that I had eaten several nights in the US Virgin Islands almost a year before, but I couldn't have it.

I drove to Kari's still shook up. I felt better after a long warm shower, then came up and we talked a bit about her move to Alaska coming up.

It was the best sleep in weeks, and when I went back to my little tent in Pine Have, I found it wrapped around a tree from the storm. At least is was still there! It popped back into shape and my stuff inside was very dry, I beamed with pride for how well my little tent kept everything dry in the worst of storms. My tent just needs a lightning rod now.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Keeping the Hearth Burning

I slept for eleven hours last night in my comfy hotel room, I was so tired that I didn't even watch TV, read, or write in this journal. I grabbed a cup of hot coco in the morning with a handful of animal crackers for breakfast and read a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry. I was sitting next to the Bordello Room, and heard a couple fighting inside of it. It was pretty funny listening to how silly their argument was. She was upset she didn't have a change of clothes, and at one point he actually yelled "talk to the hand". When they came out of their room with suitcases, they both looked at me a little embarrassed. They were both attractive, staying in a beautiful hotel on some sort of vacation, why they were fighting I don't know.

I drove to Upton hoping I could do a point just west of there, but I was not prepared for the horrible storm later that night. I managed to drive down a county road to my point, then a two track road lead even further it, and my car did well on it being dry. I knew I would be stuck down there if it rained though and went to Keyhole Lake just north in Pine Have to camp for the night. I have gone to this lake before, on a bad day when it was still frozen over.

I was proud of myself for starting the most beautiful fire with bags of unopened mail and small logs gathered around my tent site. It was a roaring fire for a while, then the logs turned into the most perfect charcoal good for grilling meat. I was sad that I didn't catch any fish, nor was I hungry to cook something over the fire. It reminded me of grilling lamb over charcoal in Germany. The fire master waited till it turned to charcoal before the put the lamb kabobs on top. There were sheep in a nearby yard, and I felt sorry that we were grilling up their cousins in front of them, but they didn't seem to notice.

There was something very comforting about having my own fire, as I spent hours tending it with care. Something very ancient indeed in keeping the hearth warm and burning. I finally went to bed, knowing it would burn itself out.

It was pouring down rain, the lightning was on top of me and close, so I ran to my car. I looked up what to do in a lightning storm on my blackberry, and wasn't comforted at all. There were even pictures of people smiling with their hair standing up and the caption read that these people died or were seriously injured right after the pictures were taken. I shouldn't have put my tent under a tree because of super heated sap that would gush out if lightning hit it. I emailed my co-workers from my car to see if they had to deal with the same conditions as me. I didn't sleep anymore that night, but first drove to Pine Haven, then just wandered the highways listening to Lady Gaga, not wanting to think about lightning.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cliffs of Insanity

Rain drops started to plop down onto my dusty windshield as I drove out to Crazy Woman Creek again. I was determined to make it to my transect though as I turned down the ranch road onto private ranch land. Black Angus cows stood in the middle of the road, reluctant to let me drive by. One small male calf even challenged my car refusing to move until I honked my horn and he ran to mama. The rain was really coming down now, but the methaners used this road and had put down gravel for easy access. I drove for a while with no problem through herds of cattle in bright green fields until I passed the last methane check station. My little car slid around on the mud like it was ice. I was 3k away still and knew the road got within 1k, but didn't want to get stuck, so I parked it. I put basic necessities in my backpacker backpack, no pillows or extra blankets, and hiked in the pouring down rain the 3k. It got sunny above the sage that would be my home for the night. I had cliffs nearby and hoped lightning would strike those before my metal poles.

I put up my tent and was amazed at the vast open landscape so far from civilization, except my phone worked. All I could see was a ranch house in the far far distance. I let the cowboy boots dry in the sun and changed out of my wet muddy pants into a fresh pair in the bag. I read my book "I Capture the Castle", a cheap find at a consignment shop, while a lark sparrow wooed females with his alien space invader gun sounds and occasional farting noises. Meadowlarks were abundant and a sage thrasher went off on his cute rhythmical song of romance.

Night came, the wind blew hard again bringing rain droplets that hit my water-proof tent with load thuds. A flash illuminated the darkness...lightning. Fear lodged itself in my throat, maybe I should have camped in a canyon. I counted the distance for every bolt, it started at about four miles away, then came as close as 2 miles. I finally decided that if I died, I didn't care because I would finally get some rest and nodded off for the night.

I was reluctant to get out of bed after a late night phone conversation with my new boyfriend, a cattle rancher, that drained my phone battery. The storm didn't help either. I hiked up the cliffs above my tent and was shocked at the intense landscapes I had to walk over that day, it was so hard. First point was easy enough with a Northern Shrike sitting on a fence post for me to count. I spent the rest of the morning climbing up and down the most insane crumbling mud cliffs. I nicknamed them "The Cliffs of Insanity" and kept repeating the lines for "Princess Bride" in my head to inspire my legs to move.

I was so worn out and covered in mud with no extra change of clothes to hike out in. The pack felt heavier hiking out, and my shoulders and hips ached by the time I made it to my car. Immediately I changed and tried to scrap mud off my poor boots. I put them by the floor of my car and turned the heater on full blast back to Buffalo to dry them.

I went to the Occidental Hotel, and was barely understandable as I asked for a room. I couldn't afford it, so she offered me the bunk house for a low price and I took it knowing I was using my car payment money. I'm looking forward to my paycheck already.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lightning at the Hole-In-The-Wall Hideout

I was just trying to find a free camp site on BLM land for tomorrow's points when I made the most amazing discovery of these beautiful red cliffs contrasted against blue patches of ponderosa pine on grassy hills. Even better is that this place was once the Hole-In-The-Wall hideout for some of the Old West's most notorious outlaws. Well my little car got stuck on a rock going up to the actual hideout, then almost rolled off a cliff in neutral when I jumped out to see what was wrong. For a split second I thought I would get a much needed truck, I'm very well insured.

I can still feel the excitement though as I imagine the outlaws riding their horses fast up between the cliffs and I can hear their stolen cattle in the moos of the black angus cows grazing here down the canyon. The wind came around sunset when I was trying to set up my tent, I had to use my heavy wood carved bear again but it wasn't enough so I put my heavy bag of canned goods in another corner to keep it from blowing off the nearby cliff. The beautiful red cliffs were hidden in the dark somewhere, and everything felt so grim. I tried to remember the peaceful place I had experienced a few hours earlier. A vesper sparrow sang his heart out still in the dark, and a sweet smell of flowers drifted in from somewhere. The tent was violently shaking until somehow I blocked out the noise and drifted off to sleep.

A bright flash woke me out of a dream of being covered in ticks in the middle of the night, I could hear it now raining with the pitter-patter of drops hitting my rain fly. Lightning! Having not seen lightning since I was a kid in Texas, I never even considered it when I put my tent up under the dense gray clouds that hovered above me. I started shaking with fear, here I was laying on the ground with just a tent and some bedding in between me and the wet grass and mud, and the only place I could set up my tent was on a bare hill. Even worse I parked my car next to my tent to block some of the wind rolling off the cliffs. There was another flash, and about five seconds later I heard thunder, the lightning was just one mile away up in the sky right over me. I grabbed my cowboy boots out of the corner of my tent and put them on, then crouched in my tent with just the rubber soles touching the ground. I could hear my heart quicken with fear as I looked for my keys in the tent side pocket, then waited for another flash before I ran to my car. Flash! One one thousand...two one thousand...five one thousand BOOM! I struggled to unzip my tent then ran for it, rain soaking into the sweatshirt I always for to bed for extra warmth. I turned the key and Lady Gaga started singing bringing me instant comfort as my little car rolled down the slick red roads out of there. I had to leave the tent, I might have been hit by lightning if I took it down. I hoped it wouldn't blow away without me in it.

Kaycee is a small cow town, so the 2 motels (one in an actual trailer the other a run down house) and cabin site were all closed around 1am in the morning. I had no choice but to sleep in my car at the local truck parking area with several semi-truck diesel engines purring around me. I pulled out the human mace from my job gift bag, and considered the bear mace but figured human mace would be enough to give a trouble making trucker something to worry about. I put my butterfly covered sun shields in the front car window to block out some of the glaring light in my closed eyes, and was glad I am so over prepared and had extra blankets and another pillow in my trunk. It was a rough night, but the next morning my tent was still there on the hill, and not burning in some kind of lightning fire or blown off the cliff. I was going to take it down, but my sleeping bag looked so comfy inside. I was proud of my little tent for keeping everything water free in the thunderstorm. I crawled into my bed, and realized with some joy that my tent really was my home. I had several hours of restful sleep that morning.

Cow Town

I am renting a small slice of Buffalo, WY, with a P.O. Box. I guess that makes Buffalo home, and I haven't really had a home since February.

I did several bird points around the town of Buffalo then drove south to Kaycee, WY, population 250, for today's points. After taking several country roads with an old AM country station playing, I turned down a dirt one with fluffy black free roaming Angus cattle everywhere on BLM land. Almost every cow had a small calf with her, each freshly branded with an "8" on it. I waited for a few cows to leave the spot where I wanted my tent, then set it up in the crazy wind. My tent tumbled away as if it was Russian thistle, and I chased after it. The whole scene would have made a cowboy chuckle if there was a person within miles to witness it. I had to pull out my friend's carved wood bear sculpture from the trunk to keep the tent from flying away, and the tent tried to hover off the ground like a space ship with just the bear keeping it tethered in the center. A few cows passed by and mooed at me, their calves keeping close for protection. Never have I seen such vast grasslands with no human structures in sight, I've only witnessed similar landscapes in the desert where not many people want to live. I went to bed early, a little worried that a bull might find my tent and mistake it for a lovely cow, but slept well in the first warm night in Wyoming.

After counting birds this morning, I went to the small town of Kaycee to mail a book I sold online. The lady with a large belt buckle at the post office suggested the resturant/bar across the street and said I should get a hamburger, even though she confessed she didn't like red meat. I told her she should keep that to herself in this town and she laughed and agreed. I listened to the conversations around me while eating the best burger ever, people were talking about rodeos, branding, and horses. Real cowboys walked in and out with the sound of their spurs going, clink, clink, clink, clink, on the floor. There were horses in the parking lot, and nothing but feed and tack stores in sight. I keep having the old song "Cowtown" going through my head, and popped it into the CD player as I drove just west of the town to my next bird points.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ghost Girl at the Occidental Hotel

I woke around 6am and slowly got dressed then put my tent away. I drank the gas station coffee from the night before as I shined my copper colored cowboy boots, then used the same light color on my dark hiking boots since I can't find my polishes and shining brush. It seemed to condition the dried leather though. I put on a nice pair of jeans with my cowgirl belt buckle, a horse t-shirt, and the cowboy boots. Today I needed to talk to landowners in person about going onto their land to count birds the next morning. I even put on makeup and might have brushed my hair.

I went into Buffalo and found the library…that wouldn’t open for hours. So I drove around town looking for my 12 bird points. Most were around a high school, but several were on private land.

In the adventure that is my life, nothing goes as planned. I parked in front of a downtown hotel, eager to go to an old fashion soda fountain down the street. A woman was in front of the hotel, lacquering some very old chairs that may have held the bottoms of famous outlaws in a century old poker game.

We started talking and complained about men together. She invited me into the hotel, and I really didn’t understand its historical importance until tonight.

Part of the Occidental use to be a brothel, evidence of a porch once overlooking the street can be seen. The owner who had two loose braids on both side of her face was nice and encouraged me to look at the historic quilt collection upstairs. I inquired about what ghosts lived there and she grinned, I knew a good story was coming.

“There was a woman's daughter who died of cholera in the the NW wing where the brothel was, she was just a child. Some times people can feel her tapping her fingers on their backs, but one guest really got to meet her. His hunting party was snowed in, down in Denver so he was the first and only one to arrive. The whole northwest wing was empty except for him because the other rooms were held for those stuck in Denver. He was the guide, a mountain man, so when he called up screaming around 3am I knew why. He said that something was trying to pull his covers off the bed and they were throwing things around the room. I went upstairs, found his covers on the floor and the stuff on the dresser on the floor too.

With that story in mind I walked up creaky wooden stairs in the brick building. I looked at the quilts, my favorite made from men's work shirts. Old boots with the tiniest ankles belonged to the former owner, her clothes also on display. I looked down the dark hallway of the northwest wing and felt a little dizzy, it might have been fear. I went down the other wing and loved the outlaw room with a river view and brick exposed wall.

The owner encouraged me to explore the northwest wing, so I did and felt dizzy again, I couldn't find the light switch. Doors of unoccupied rooms were left open to show off the historic beds I'm sure, and light from the windows of those rooms was the only light. Dawn said the hall light should be on, but it wasn't. I left but I could tell which room the little girl died in, I felt pulled to it and wanted to turn the door knob.

Many outlaws have stayed there, the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, Tom Horn, and many others like Teddy Roosevelt, Calamity Jane, and Buffalo Bill. I want to write historical fiction, so I have several books about pioneer women from the area. I just started reading one about Martha James (Bull), and she was married in this hotel in May 1883. I read that tonight! Like a new word learned then heard everywhere, the Occidental Hotel keeps reveling itself to me. I wonder what importance this hotel will have in my future, I feel like I was meant to come to the Occidental for some unknown reason. Buffalo, Wyoming might be my home.

I talked to five landowners and have all my points to count birds tomorrow morning with my silver tongue. People are so friendly here. I decided to camp in the same spot at Petrified Tree on BLM land, since its free and close. I went on a hike around the petrified meta sequoia trees, their rings and shape clearly seen in solid rock. I was taken back to a time long before the Occidental Hotel when mammoth roamed these hills covered in meta sequoia trees and the red hills were given their color from coal deposits that burned so hot around them that the sandstone turned to a red "Scoria" or "Clinker" rock. Will get up at 3:45am tomorrow to take down my tent.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Crazy Woman Creek

I woke up in the middle of the night several times because I didn’t want to oversleep and miss doing my bird points. The coyotes woke me up around 3:30 am with happy yelps and group howling. I remember so many years ago when coyotes use to scare me, and I would have dreams of being ripped apart by a pack of them while camping. The unknown often scares us, lurking just out of sight. I’ve see so many of them that now they don’t scare me, they usually run the other way.

Nick and I hiked over miles of sagebrush after reluctantly climbing out of our somewhat warmer sleeping bags into the cold damp air. I had a hard time putting contacts in my eyes before 5am. We heard lots of Brewer’s sparrows, as well as too many loud meadowlarks calling out songs to defend patches of grass and sage, attracting females into their lonely lives. Rock wrens clung to the small scattered chunks of rock, and I wondered if they knew that better cliffs and rocks are across the earth. A sage thrasher sang his adorable song from a dense group of the fragrant sage bush and a great horned owl nest could be seen in the only tree within miles of rolling hills.

We discovered a freshly killed deer by the coyotes we heard, it head and spinal chord intact but all the meaty parts ripped to pieces and devoured. Fur was left all around it, all that was left was the rib meat, maybe the coyotes couldn’t eat without a knife to cut them into neat BBQ slathered pieces like civilized humans.

A thick blanket of clouds covered the sky completely and they occasionally sprinkled small rain drops on us. I heard something weird, and looked towards a hill just in time to see a sage grouse fly out of some sage, giving us a good view of her black belly. A deer cautiously watched us as well as a coyote later in that morning. Cows could be seen on hilltops and a large group of deer silently passed by just as our survey was ending.

Nick and I drove to Gillette, WY and went into the library. He started to read a book and fell asleep on the comfy sofa, and the librarian told him to wake up or leave. We looked horrible covered in mud from the morning and my hair looks greasy if I don’t shower every night. We parted ways, him going to Ten Sleep, WY to meet up with Erin and me going to Buffalo, WY , but only after a bored cop gave me a speeding ticket. I fibbed and told the cop I was new to the area, and he reminded me that I stayed with Kari for several weeks after leaving the 20 acres behind. He was such a bored cop, he must have been stalking me, the outsider. I then remembered that he had rang the doorbell one afternoon to remind us of a $5 parking ticket that needed to be paid. Was I in Mayberry?

I got to my bird point and was furious when I realized it was behind private land, I would never drive down a private road without permission. I will have to take tomorrow off and figure out all the landownership stuff to reach the point.

I passed down a long winding road outside of Buffalo that follows Crazy Woman Creek, thousands of black Angus cows were eating fresh spring grass with a back drop of hills topped with red dirt. I gave up finding public access to the public Bureau of Land Management Land and went to bed early after setting up my tent on Petrified Tree on BLM land further west.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Muddy Slugs

I lay in my tent with a headlamp strapped around my forehead, and even though it’s dark, a Brewer’s sparrow calls across the sage brush. He is so emotional about spring and having a mate he can’t stop singing in these late hours, his song sounding sort of insect like. In the distance calls a great horned owl and several frogs giving me a feel of almost being in southern California, camping next to a lively riparian area.

Today started at around 5am where I rolled out of bed, grabbed my binoculars and a scoop of peanut butter, then went out to a Buffalo Gap National Grassland for my last day of job training. In the grasslands the mud was so bad the whole group collected mud on the bottoms of their shoes then scraped them off while scooting across the highway, looking like slugs leaving a slime trail. My cowboy boots didn’t collect mud, probably that is why they are George Strait approved. We all cleaned the Whitney Preserve house, Nick sweeping the kitchen floor, Anica vacuuming, Erin using the big broom in the dining room and living room. Dried mud was everywhere from the wet and snowy week we had. We divided into groups by which state we were working in for final instructions, then we all went our separate ways. Me and Nick used the Hot Springs library for hours, and didn’t get to our first points at Raven Creek south of Upton, WY till long after dark.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wind Cave and Solitude

Buffalo were grazing on a far hill of Wind Cave National Monument while we did practice bird point counts through the grassy hills spotted with small patches of ponderosa pine forest. There was so much gear hanging around my neck, it felt like it was strangling me. Binoculars, compass, timer, range finder, clip board and my hand knit scarf all dangled and clanged against each other while I walked. Jay was in my group and he doesn’t miss any birds, little ships, chirps, calls, and even wing noises reveal themselves to his trained ears. The coolest display of love for the day were a couple of upland sandpipers flying around our last point. The best moment though was taking the gear off and wandering around the park freely in search of red crossbills. I climbed through pines to see a beautiful valley below, buffalo in the distance and wind rustling the trees.

When I got back to the house, I didn't feel like going to town like everyone else. Just me and the guys that were stressed and in charge stayed at the preserve. I wandered off by myself and found hills and cliffs that no one bothered going too as I listened to the robins closely to learn all there confusing songs and calls. It was very peaceful, sometimes I just need solitude, especially after being around so many people in one house. On the way back I took pictures of deer and mountain bluebirds hunting around an old cabin on the preserve.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Friends and Snow

I woke up and looked out the window to see the ground covered in snow, no outside birding that day. We spent the whole day cooped up inside, taking bird quizzes.

Some new friends that I have made are Quick, a tough girl with a shaved head and a lot of camo in her wardrobe, she also makes chain mail out of soda pop can tops then makes them into purses or art. I love how she would sit at the table every night and write her friend with post cards, and she would write in a journal for another friend. She said "This is how I let this person know I care." I was really touched by that, and thought of my friend Ellen's hand made envelopes and handwritten letters that I got from her. I promised to knit her a skull cap in camo colors, and will buy some post cards to mail her.

Erin is a surfer girl that just moved back to Wyoming after living in Humbolt, CA for a while. She showed up with long neat braids on both sides of her head and a beanie on top, then let her braids down later to reveal wavy long hair. She said she had a friend braid them, and she can't do it herself. She has the cabin room next to mine, we were both lucky to have beds when so many people had to sleep in their tents.

Whitney was also a northern California girl, with short artistically styled hair. I think she is a vegetarian. We all gather in Erin's room on her bed and study birds every night from the Thayer's software on her laptop, and we have a lot of fun doing it together even though we might not learn as many birds that way.

Another person I get along with is Jay from the Idaho Bird Observatory. He is the most skilled birder in the group and was just there to learn about my organization and maybe join up with them as partners in his state. We were all bored at a plant veg training as some people argue too much over percentages of stuff. I didn't care at all, knew what I was doing already, I've done so much plant stuff. Jay started throwing juniper berries at people out of boredom and was surprised when I threw a few his way. We all went to the booming town of Hot Springs, SD for internet, beer, and a hockey game and we had a nice chat.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Black Hills

Instead of following the major highways, my GPS took me through several back roads through the Black Hills of South Dakota to my bird training. Along the way I passed forests, lakes, and Mt Rushmore. I had to stop to get a picture of four presidents carved into a mountain as cheesy as it is, but was disappointed when they wanted $10 to get in. I got a crappy shot from the side of the highway instead, then went through the tourist trap of Custer, SD. I recommend looking at the comparison of old photographs from an 1874 Custer expedition and the modern day photos of the same spots at the Forest Service (also very free!). My favorite was a picture of a wagon train through scarcely covered forest and the modern photo of a road in the same spot winding through thick fire suppressed forests. It was like seeing ghosts in the old pictures.

I've been at the Whitney Preserve south of Hot Springs, SD for the last few days without phone or internet or internet on my blackberry! The place is quit beautiful though with a backdrop of tall hills covered in ponderosa pine and juniper, and so many new birds to be discovered. Clay-colored sparrow is abundant, giving a constant insect like buzz coming from grass and bushes, and I saw my first Harris sparrow this morning with a bright white throat unlike any other sparrow I've seen before.

When I saw my bird transects for Wyoming, I was really disappointed though. My organization gave me all the northeast Wyoming points which include some pretty spots, but I was looking forward to exploring western Wyoming. I might still get to a few western spots to survey for birds, and I plan on spending my days off looking for a place out there to move to.

I'm surrounded by biologists this week and I should be comfortable and in my element, but I can't stop thinking there is something else out there for me than bird statistics. I've been thinking I should go back to school for photography and writing classes. This is the have forty acres and a cabin, while writing novels and taking photos and making a real living out of it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lady Gaga Inspires Me to Follow My Dreams

The day I left Cowboy I read in a Cosmopolitan magazine a quote from Lady Gaga "Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams.", and went immediately to the store and bought one of her CDs for more inspiration. I had no idea where the CD was about to lead me that afternoon as I drove to the next town over just to listen to the whole thing. I didn't know that she would give me the courage to leave the house of tears that afternoon. A few weeks later, on the 11th anniversary of my brothers death, the lure of my Lady Gaga CD had me driving all over Gillette to occupy myself, and I went to the spot where I met Cowboy and the city of Gillette the first time. If I was a smoker, I would have been puffing a cigarette at that gas station listening to one song in particular as I imagined that cold February night in the same place. I texted Cowboy that I missed him and told him where I was, and he texted back that he was herding horses in Montana and included a phone picture, it was a trip I really wished I could have gone on with him. I really liked his family, and wish I could see them again too, they live in Montana.

I started driving again, and Lady Gaga led me to some kind of frontier museum. I walked in to the museum and started looking at the vast collections of guns, spurs, and wagons. They had a restored sheep herders wagon from the turn of last century, and I loved how cozy it looked inside with a neat bed, table, and stove. It just might be the first RV ever made. I wish I could take that wagon with me on my state-wide camping this summer when I look for birds. Nearby was a research library, which made me curious enough to ask the guy at the front desk about it. He handed me a book full of local families and said the library had all the raw documentation for them in it. I started studying the book, searching for interesting stories of pioneer women who I might be able to use in a novel. Someone who worked at the museum walked up to the front desk and the guy behind the desk pointed to me, parked on an old white couch with the book in the gun room, and he told her that I had been looking at the book so long that she should help me. She walked over, introduced herself, and I explained that it is my dream to write a historic fiction novel. She was so helpful, even going as far as researching stories of women she has heard of in the local library. She gave me a list of books to start with and I have since fallen in love with the story of Elinore Stewart, told in letters that she wrote to her former boss in Denver. She talks about everything from the ranch, to the neighbors, and the beauty of Wyoming, but doesn't mention her relationship with her husband much. I think that is where I can weave a beautiful love tale, and use her letters as the background of the story.

I have to wonder why I hardly chose to write when I lived with Cowboy, for months I really had nothing to fill my days except his laundry and what I was going to make him for dinner. I feel lost on what my future is after my bird job, but I will still have half of the summer to explore Wyoming and maybe make a home for myself up here before the ice covers the highways trapping me inside the state for the winter.

Tears and Fears of Moving On

For the past few weeks, my life has been pretty stagnant. It still hurts to think about Cowboy and I haven't seen him or the dogs since the day I left. I moved in with Cowboy's friend from work, she was the only other person that I knew in this town and I might have moved back to Albuquerque without her help. Little things around her house like small tools and notebooks remind me of him, because I was always picking up his tools left everywhere around the house. A large Cat truck like Cowboy's, belonging to her husband, sits in front of their house and he also works with Cowboy. He was glad when I moved in because I started cooking up the elk and moose in their freezer into dishes like lasagna and tostadas. I would cry in my room for hours at first, but now that pain only brings occasional tears and every blue dodge truck I see makes me panic a little until I see it doesn't have Cowboy's custom features on it.

I was reading an American Cowboy magazine left on the pine coffee table one day at my new place, and in the back there was an add for an equestrian dating site. In an effort to replace him and get over him already, I logged on and made a profile. Cowboys all over the country and beyond liked my pictures and started emailing me and it was really overwhelming. I started ignoring emails and have kept in touch with just a few that interested me, but I came to the realization that I didn't want any man in my life right now. Men just seem to get in the way of my dreams by forcing me to focus on them instead.