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Branching Out: Untethered in time

Locations: Columns Published

Before asphalt opened the Rio Grande Trail to a continuous flow of humans, it was a regular haunt of mine and my golden retriever Zoë. Being my bird dog and running companion, Nature was the stage of our time spent together. He was the furry, warm-hearted courage I needed to go further and deeper than I had been inclined to, before him.
We were drawn to the railroad’s sense of abandonment and loss when hiking trails held no allure, the river was too high to fish, and bird season and scouting were months away. Its rails held a sense of direction when I had none. The creosote ties over which we leapt felt substantive in a chapter of my life in which I felt untethered, being new to the Valley and knowing no one. Loose spikes and obscure, rusted metal parts bore the mark of man and industry, holding the stories and ghosts of lives and times long past.
The best aspect of the section we rambled was Nature’s appetite, re-consuming tracks from both sides of the railway. Even today, it spills down railroad cuts or springs up the riverbanks. This out-of-hand verdancy had the effect of a lost time, a time without man, life bursting forth again after all of our damage and control. Rabbitbrush, milkweed and wild sweet clematis softened the hard edges of steel, gravel, and heartwood. Depending on the season, there was always something new to discover, the branch or berry or blossom of some native plant speaking to the species with which it had evolved through millennia.
Take monarchs, for example. Our central Rockies are not a primary pathway for this butterfly, but once in a while, the miracle of their migration leaves its mark on the Rio Grande. Monarchs lay a single egg at a time, by the hundreds, on common milkweed, on their migration north. If you pay attention and know when to seek, what to look for, you just may get to see their chrysalis – the only species I’ve ever seen first hand that has a true, gleaming gold in it, shocking against the chartreuse green of this creature in transformation.
That land lost in time was reclaimed yet again when the path was laid, but it still retains its mystery and magic. At 42 miles in length, RFTA manages noxious weeds and clears fallen trees, but for the most part, budget constraints allow this ribbon of fecundity to evolve naturally, and thus beautifully, still wild.
Anytime I need a Nature fix, the Rio Grande Trail calls. In my favorite section, tucked between a north-facing slope and the river, there are so many unique pockets hosting abundant biodiversity. Parallel irrigation ditches, the river itself, and low-lying riparian pockets with century-old cottonwood and willow thickets play leapfrog with arid, rocky outcrops. Valleys and folds hold dark invitations to the things that go bump in the night, while wide open sunny clearings sparkle with fluttering, bumbling, crawling insects, song birds and sunlit grasses.
Even though the trail connects bustling towns, the stretches in between can still scare the crap out me, reminding me again whose terrain this really is. Roller skating or running through the dawn, my eyes scan likely habitat, ever conscious of bears and mountain lions. I don’t believe they’ll attack. I’m torn between aching to encounter one and the terror of just that.
Life is busy. Between parenting, writing, and farming, I don’t often have time to get further away than this asphalt trail, and I am ever so grateful for it. Not a visit unfolds without seeing something known or new that stirs, inspires, reminds or assures me of Nature’s enduring will – its wildness. In half a century of fascination, I am far from jaded.
Just yesterday, walking a blind, deaf, incontinent, neurotic dog I was caring for, the dusk after sunset made lighter elements in the forest gleam in the dark. A friend and I were dreaming of cheese burgers and fish and chips. Our pace was getting faster as the stomach growlies rumbled for beer and sustenance. As ever, something shone against that deepening dark and I stopped in my tracks. Some Dr. Seussian vine with Love in mist-type, hollow balloon husks scrambled through the dormant branches. How had I never noticed this before? I was enchanted, content not to know it all.
Even though we keep building, keep turning up earth and upending habitat, at some point, Nature prevails. She comes back in – perhaps a bit differently; perhaps not on timeline within our lives. But yes, she will always come back in.

Tags: #Nature #Rio Grande Trail
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