Colorado

Storm King, Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, Carolyn and I climbed the Storm King 14 trail, on Storm King Mountain, overlooking Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, CO. The trail leads to the sites where 14 of America's elite wildland firefighters - smokejumpers, hotshots and helitac crewmen - were overrun by an exploding wildfire on July 6, 1994. The hike isn't particularly hard as Colorado ventures go, but it is sobering. It takes less than an hour to reach an overlook where visitors can visualize how a small, slow wildfire exploded across a gully to the slope where it trapped firefighters digging a line to contain it.

Hiking across the gully to the memorials on the steep slope, we looked over the hundreds of items that visiting firefighters have decorated the headstones. The crazed collection of torn t-shirts, hats, carabiners, children's toys, bullets, axes, skis, coins and Native American crafts. From the lowest of the stone crosses marking where each of the smokejumpers and hotshots fell, we hiked up the slope to the ridgeline, keeping in mind that the fire ran 35-feet-per-second up the slope that we couldn't imagine running up at all.

It didn't surprise us that we only saw a handful of visitors during our two hikes up and down the mountain over the Memorial Day holiday - the Storm King 14 didn't die in combat. But they are nonetheless casualaties of another of America's wars - one that won't end anytime soon.

 

 

 
  

 

Hewlett Fire, Poudre Canyon, CO - May 14, 2012

 

 

The Hewlett Fire crests a ridgeline in Poudre Canyon, northwest of Fort Collins, CO, on Monday night. The fire broke out around 1 p.m. Monday about a mile from Poudre Park, northwest of Fort Collins. The fire burned actively through the night rather than laying down as wildfires often do. By Tuesday morning it was nearly 280 acres in size, and had 100 wildland firefighters attacking it on the ground it on the ground as a single-engine air tanker and a type 3 helicopter fought it from the air. The fire, which is named for the Hewlett Gulch trailhead near where it ignited, is within a quarter mile of a number of homes, about 160 of which were warned Monday evening to prepare for a possible evacuation. The winds Monday night seemed to be blowing the fire away from the homes, but dry weather with winds forecast to blow up 15 miles-per-hour could move the fire back towards the homes.

Bike Tube

 

 

Today, as I was walking across the University of Colorado campus with a friend who was visiting from New York for her nephew's graduation, I came across a trio of students headed out to cool off in Boulder Creek. One of them wore a personal flotation device in case she sank her bicycle. The costumes were a little different than the caps and gowns filling the campus this week, and there was a little less pomp and circumstance in their procession.

 

 

A Bear came to Campus and got an Education.

Early this morning a bear climbed a tree near CU Boulder's Bear Creek apartments. Carolyn was working on a video on the "Buff Bus" that serves the apartments and the nearby Will Vill high-rise dorms.  Drivers of the buses were warned of the bear, which was on a tree limb that overhung the road they had to travel. They made dozens of passes by the tree with the bear, although switching to the left side of the road to keep from traveling directly below the bruin. A few dozens students stopped along a nearby bike path to watch and make pictures until, shortly before noon, the bear was tranquilized and dropped from the tree onto a huge crash pad, then relocated.

 

A Few of Otto's Lives

 

Otto's Lower Left Canine Tooth

Otto, our cat, lost a tooth in a fight with Lionel, a neighbor's cat that often strays through our back yard. The two cats have had ongoing tensions.

 

Otto had already had a tough week. The previous Saturday, when we let him outside into the unseasonably warm sun, he had murder in his eyes. He sat on our back deck for a few hours glowering. We figured he was waiting for Lionel, another gray cat, although long haired, that lives a few houses away and has become Otto's arch enemy. Otto's not much of a roamer, and tends to stay in a couple of spots in the yard of the house we're renting, or under the deck. Lionel, however,  is everywhere. We constantly see him making his way up the neighbors' walk across the street, hoping fences, climbing trees in the neighborhood, and traipsing through our yard - an act that outrages our own gray cat. A few times we've awakened to find our cat in the sill above our headboard, puffed up and yowling with anger at Lionel sitting in the tree just outside the window. After a few hours on Saturday, we heard the inevitable cat fight on our deck. Otto had his teeth at Lionel's throat and Lionel had his on the top of Otto's head. Every paw and claw was clenched onto an adversary, and the two cats were rolling in a fist-tight ball of gray, fuzzy outrage. A silvery fog of fur filled the air. We kicked and hosed the cats apart and dragged Otto inside as Lionel retreated to his own house. Later that afternoon, when we returned to our deck, we found a fang from one of the cats. We worried that we'd have to tell Lionel's owners that their cat had lost a tooth, but, upon opening Otto's mouth, found that the tooth was his - his lower left canine had probably gotten caught in the chain collar that Lionel wears. The broken tooth didn't seem to be paining him, and he didn't have any other injuries of note, so we accepted that, after 12 years, Otto's grin wouldn't be quite as sweet. We gave thanks that he didn't have any more serious or expensive injuries and hoped the same was true of Lionel.

We always knew letting Otto outside was a risk, even when we lived in Connecticut. When we moved to Colorado, we knew that those risks increased, especially at night, dawn, and dusk. Otto clearly knew that too, and when we lived in a park with him, he spent most of his time on the screened-in porch, and curtailed his time outside. On his first venture into the yard, he found a big pile of bear poop, and that convince him that the Colorado woods didn't have much in common with the Connecticut gardens where he spent many of his days back East. Even after our move into the heart of Boulder, Otto showed much more caution on leaving the house, and would sniff around the door and the deck before heading into the yard. He often changed his mind and came back inside, which was fine with us. But even though Otto doesn't go out too much anymore and never travels far from the door, he lives for his time outside. I'm sure he would say it is the best part of his life - digging holes, eating grass, rolling in the dirt, sitting for hours on a sunny porch rail, or sleeping under a bush. He would paw and claw the door, meowing and looking over his shoulder at us to convince us to open it. When he came in, he would be puffed up and chatty, holding his head and tail high as he made his way to his dinner bowl. In Connecticut, where he often spent the day outside while we were at work, he would run up the driveway from the backyard gardens to great us and roll on the walk to wait for us to unload the car and then make his way inside with us. In the decade we've been letting him out, the worst thing that had happened to him were catfights that had left his pretty gray ears with a couple of nicks, and two battles that required stitches.

Otto Post-Coyote

Otto at the vet's after being attacked and carried away by a coyote intent on eating him.

 

Friday evening we had plans to meet a friend for dinner and to see another friend's son play a jazz show at a local used clothing store - Boulder has some unusual music venues. It was still light out when we were getting ready to leave, Otto was at the door pawing and begging to go out. We told him no - it would be dark by the time we came home - and pulled him from the door, but he's persistent when he really wants to get some sun and grass and, against our better judgement, we relented. We rode our bikes downtown, and came home around 10:30. As we pulled off the sidewalk onto our street, we saw a dog trotting up a side street by our house. It was very dark, and we could see the dog carrying something - Carolyn though it was a blanket. I thought it looked like a purse. I turned up the street the canine was heading up to investigate, just as Carolyn shouted "It's a coyote, and he's got someone's pet!"

I charged my bike right at the yote shouting "Otto!" at the top of my lungs, not because I thought it was our cat - it looked black rather than gray - but because I realized he was out and at risk. The coyote dropped its prey, I leapt onto the lawn, landing on my knees next to the motionless pile of fur as my bike crash into the curb. The coyote, which was big by Boulder standards, raced up the street and vanished. As I got to the small animal, I could see the small white patch in the center of Otto's chest, and shouted back to Carolyn that it was Otto. He was contorted and completely still.

I was sure he was dead and started crying and petting him and cursing myself for giving into his perstering to go outside. Although the entire event lasted a few seconds, I had time to wonder whether it was better to see your pet killed by the jaws of a predator, or to search through the night and following weeks, but never find him.

But Otto was still warm and, as I stroked him, I felt him breath, although just barely. I scooped him up and yelled to Carolyn to find an all-night vet. I carried Otto to our yard, figuring he was going to die in my arms, but I saw his eyes open and saw that, at least for the moment, he was still with us. I put Otto in the back of the car, and we headed to Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center a couple miles away. Otto's neck was soaked - Carolyn tried to find a wound bleeding on him, but couldn't. As we drove, Otto raised his head and I thought, "at least his neck's not broken." He had a look of total shock on his face - like he didn't know where he was.

Carolyn carried him into the hospital, and in the light, we saw he had a badly broken left, front leg. Both the radius and the ulna were sticking through his skin and the bottom of his leg and paw hung backwards like they were about to fall off. The young woman who had met us a the front desk just commented that it looks like he hurt his paw and carried him through a door to the back of the hospital. Carolyn and I embraced, then sat down with our grief and guilt, preparing ourselves to hear that there was nothing that could be done for him.

Otto and Carolyn

Carolyn embraces Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after the coyote attacked him.

 

After they x-rayed him, however, they came to tell us that, aside from his broken leg, some air that had escaped from his lungs into his chest cavity in his struggle, and another missing tooth - this one his upper right canine - he was OK. The moisture we felt around his neck was coyote saliva. There were two small cuts from the yote's teeth, one above Otto's right eye and one behind his left ear. Our best guess is that he somehow protected his neck and throat with his leg, and the coyote failed to break his spine or puncture his jugular. Otto's size - he's grown to nearly 15 pounds - probably worked in his favor as well. The coyote couldn't run well with such a big cat in his mouth.

Otto and Carolyn

Carolyn pets Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after a coyote carried him away.

Michael and Otto

Otto and Michael reunited at Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center, where Otto spent last weekend after he was attacked by a coyote.

 

Otto spent the weekend at the vet's and we worried that he might lose his paw. The staff at Alpenglow were terrific throughout, and managed to clean the wound up well. They kept Otto in a plexiglass cubicle the size of a large dog carrier that they pumped with oxygen. Saturday, in the middle of the night, barely 24 hours after the attack, Otto managed to wiggle through one of the vents in his cage, despite his IVs and bandaged leg. The vets found him just as he was making his getaway. They had a laugh and took it as a positive sign.

Otto and Carolyn Reunited

Carolyn embraces Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after the coyote attempted to kill and eat him.

 

 

Otto Recovering from surgery

Otto's left front leg was broken, with compound fractures to both the radius and ulna, by the coyote's bite. He has an "external fixative" splinting the bones and will be recovering for about 16 weeks. The vets expect him to regain full use of his leg.

 

 

On Monday, he had surgery and they were able to put his leg back together with a "external fixative" - a flexible tube screwed to his broken bones and then filled with a cement to make it rigid when they had the bones set the way they wanted them. The screws and splinting device will all come off when his leg is healed. We really can't say enough about how well Otto was treated at Alpenglow -  they were caring and focused and allowed us to visit at all hours for as long as we wanted. I'm sure they strive to make everyone feel their pet is special, but they showed genuine concern and affinity for Otto. Perhaps that's because of how unusual his case was - one of the emergency vets told us that in his 13 years at the clinic, he had never seen a cat survive a large predator attack. Usually they just vanish. Otto's surgeon said he had treated one cat that survived a mountain lion attack, but with far more serious injuries than the gray dude's.

 

Otto's Camouflage

The surgeon thought Otto would look good in camo when he changed his bandage.

 

 

Domestic cats are the most popular pet in America, numbering some 80 million. There are 400 million domestic cats worldwide. We tend to feel we are either parents or partners to our cats, but in reality they don't think of us as serving either of those roles.  Cats were the last species humans domesticated. They can't be herded, and won't run in a pack. According to Jake Page, author of Do Cats Hear With Their Feet?: Where Cats Come From, What We Know About Them, And What They Think About Us (published by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books), our house cats are really just shrunken versions of their big cousins - lions, jaguars, leopards. No matter whether they stay indoors or not, they hold the same place in the food chain that they have always had. They're designed to eat nothing but meat, and set up to kill it themselves. We've been thankful that Otto's a lazy and incompetent hunter, but in our Connecticut house he managed to catch and kill a few mice and, during his time outside, nabbed a couple of birds. He embarrassed us last summer by torturing a chipmunk to death in a friend's backyard. As horrible as it was to see him in a predators mouth, there are certainly plenty of people who would see it as karma. And, as opposed to the coyote that certainly intended to eat him, Otto's a trophy hunter - killing his prey, then showing it off to us, but never attempting to devour it. His canned food and kibble more than satisfies his need for food, but not his hunger to kill.

Otto's also more than aware that being a part of the food chain means as he's prey as well as a predator, and he's generally shown great caution outside. Nonetheless, we've chosen to indulge him with time outside the captivity of our home and, in so doing, are risking not only his life, but his impact on other wildlife. The wild predators that make their way into the city do so because we provide them with food - our garbage, our picnic scraps, and our pets. In Boulder, along with the coyotes that have become quite a problem in certain neighborhoods this year, we also get foxes, raptors, and, on very rare occasions, a bear or mountain lion. One cougar was darted in a tree on the University of Colorado campus a few blocks away from our house last year. The lion was tranquilized and relocated, but by drawing wildlife to our cities and suburbs, we doom a certain number of them to death from traffic, other animals, and wildlife managers who feel they must destroy them for public safety.

We'll be faced with another challenge when Otto's recuperation is over - curtailing his time outside. But it's important to realize that we're doing that for selfish reasons. We want to keep his company as long as we can, and so will do what it takes to prolong his life (inlcuding, at least in this instance, spending more on his health care than on our own). He, however, would certainly choose to confront the risks the outdoors pose to him to reap the rewards he instinctively hungers for and has grown accustomed to.

All told, Otto's convalescence will last about 16 weeks. We'll spend much of that time pounding the pavement for some more freelance jobs to pay for his care.

Peg-Legged Cat

Otto getting some sun in our living room after getting his broken leg repaired after being attacked by a coyote.

 

 

 

 

Following the Sun

The side of our bus is painted with a command to "Follow the Sun," and we tried to heed its instructions. Really, we did. But at midnight, when a dozen of us were pushing the bus through a blizzard up highway 550 in northern New Mexico, it didn't seem like we'd done very well sticking to the plan. As we attempted to "man haul," (and woman haul) our 55-seat bus up the snow slicked highway, I thought of the coming 100-year-anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, Raold Amunsdsen's successful round trip to the pole, and of the tourists who are making their own trips to the bottom of the planet to commemorate the centennial. Despite repeated trips off the bus to chain up, push the vehicle, or throw snowballs, none of the travelers on our expedition ever feared losing their lives during our ordeal, just a few hours of sleep.

 

 The Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources has brought together 14 journalists for its Energy Country Institute led by Frank and Maggie Allen. We're traveling through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in a bus driven by Dick Sandlin, who's vast knowledge of the turf helps fill in the knowledge gaps of the energy wonks and regional journalists who make up our crew. When he's not busing tour groups through the fickle weather of the southern Rocky Mountains, he leads tours of Spaceport America, but despite his interest in the stars, most of the fellows have come to see as our own polar explorer - something of an Ernest Shackleton of the Greyhound class.

Fellows in the Energy Country Institute are spending eight days visiting sites in New Mexico and southern Colorado to learn how the region will keep the lights on in the coming century. On Sunday we drove from Santa Fe to Colorado's San Luis Valley, a magical and fragile plain sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. The valley is one of Colorado's most important and tradition-bound agricultural areas, but a diminishing and over-allocated water supply, and an abundant solar resource, are bringing change

We first visited the Ranch of George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, who run a small cattle ranch in Sawatch County.
George's family has been ranching in the valley since the late 1800s. Julie was an environmental activist who brought a group of students to visit George's ranch and ended up falling in love with the rancher. Each of them bears the title of "environmentalist" a little differently. George's philosophy is rooted in the land ethic - he raises grass-fed cattle for meat. Julie arrived at the ranch with more progressive ideals, and was a vegetarian, but eats meat now, so long as she "knows the animal's face." So, while they share the same goals and ideals, they don't always agree the methods and approaches to keep a sustainable ranch running. It's provided an interesting system of checks and balances in an increasingly challenging agricultural environment.

 

 

Others have been sited on grazing land or on fragile wetlands. We left the valley with an understanding that energy, water, tradition and progress are all part of an increasingly precarious balancing act in the San Luis Valley.  After lunching and touring George and Julie's ranch, we were treated to a reception by county and town officials in Alamosa. 

 

 

 

 

The following morning we rejoined them along with representatives from Sun Power, a company that recently brought a 17-megawatt plant online, and Iberdrola, the Spanish solar power company that this week will begin testing a 30-megawatt solar facility it just completed installing in the valley. We heard from representatives from the solar-power companies, officials involved in the plan to conserve the valley's water by taking 40,000 acres of agricultural land out of production, the Chairman of the Alamosa County Commissioners, and representatives of environmental organizations concerned with both the water and energy issues affecting the valley. While virtually everyone we've met is excited by the development of solar power in the valley, in an environment where water and energy are tightly linked, utility scale solar projects are also causes for concern. Some types of solar projects, particularly those that involve turning a steam turbine, use a lot of water.


 

From the San Luis Valley, we planned to head to the Southern Ute Reservation via Wolf Creek Pass, but by the time we left Alamosa, an early-season snowstorm had made that route unsafe. Plan B was to take Route 17 over Cumbres Pass, but the bus lost traction in the heavy snow on the pass, even after stopping to put chains on, leaving us stranded. Two Colorado Department of Transportation snowplows cleared the road so we could turn around, then escorted us back down the pass. We finally took a route back into New Mexico and up Route 550, but even in the foothills of the Four Corners, the bus got mired in the snow, so the fellows piled out of the bus to push it though the steepest section. For at least one of the fellows, freelance writer Lindsey Hoshaw, the announcement of the detours were a shock - she was hoping to get to a hotel room desk to continue working on a story for the Boston Globe. 

 

She's adapted well to writing on the bus. And, although a trip that was planned at 2 1/2 hours ended up taking more than 12, at least nobody had to eat any dogs on our way to the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio.

Seven Billion Zombies

Walking dead on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO on Halloween, 2011

So what's brought all these walking dead to Colorado?

Last night in Durango, CO, zombies behaved like, well, zombies. The unsanctioned walk of the dead (good zombies always apply for the proper permits) drew 1,500 undead who got into an altercation with police. No officials' brains were eaten, but they were pelted with rocks and bottles. Denver's 6th Annual Zombie Crawl last week drew a world-record crowd, attracting between 14,000 and 16,000 brain-hungry participants.

Perhaps, like Denver's bike-sharing program, which last year's Republican gubenatorial candidate Dan Maes criticized as an effort to make Colorado's capitol city into a "United Nation's community," the increase in undead in Colorado is a U.N. plot - specifically a result of someone at the United Nations Population Fund's head for marketing. The organization estimates that October 31st - Halloween - was the day when the global population reached seven billion. There's no way they can know for sure what day the world will first hold seven billion living people - the hundreds of thousands of births and deaths each day present far too much variability to precisely calculate the world's population to the day, so the selection of Halloween by the UN was as much a symbol as anything. Other organizations, including the U.S. Census Bureau predict world population will reach the seven billion mark in about four months, around the time of another appropriate holiday for the milestone - April Fools Day. But by picking Halloween as the day that we reached the 7Bn number, the U.N. is making statement, intentional or not, that the growing horde is something to fear.

The report shows the world was first inhabited by one billion humans in 1804. From that date, it took 123 years to reach two billion. By contrast, global population hit six billion in 1999, just 12 years ago, and passed the five billion mark 12 years before that, in 1987. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2010 there were, on average, 384,146 births every day, and 155,885 deaths daily, leading to the addition of about 159 people to planet Earth every minute. Models predict another two billion people living on the planet by 2050.

The rapidly increasing population brings a lot of worries, if not outright terrors. Paul Ehrlich, author of  the 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb," President of the Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, was one of seven luminaries who commented on the challenges presented by the 7Bn in an article by James Eng at MSNBC.

"Seven billion is already facing us with horrendous problems, including almost 1 billion people hungry and contributing greatly to the chances of catastrophic climate disruption.  But the next 2 billion people the demographers expect by 2050 will cause much more environmental damage than did the last 2 billion added to our population — a classic nonlinearity.  That is because human beings are smart, and picked the low-hanging fruit first. Thus each added individual, on average, must now be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from more distant or more polluted sources, obtain the metals required to make the products he or she consumes from poorer ores, etc."

Perhaps that explains some our current obsession with zombies, which have supplanted vampires as the trendiest Halloween costumes and television horror shows. Every imaginary monster plays on a real-world fear. The Alien in James Cameron's movies with Sigourney Weaver played on our fear of cancer -  something growing, hidden inside us that would eventually kill us in a most gruesome way. Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula came at the height of the AIDS epidemic and manipulated the angst that our passions could lead to an infection in our blood that would rot not only our bodies, but our values. Godzilla was spawned by our tinkering with nukes. Most of the creatures and phantoms that inhabit our popular culture - vampires, werewolves, Godzilla, the Halloween films' Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason are unique individuals or part of small minorites, often hidden from the majority they terrorize.

But zombies are different. Zombies are the majority, threatening to devour us or turn us into one of them. They are terribly obvious, making no effort to hide. You can see them coming from a mile away and with their complete lack of cunning, they are exceedingly easy to kill. But it doesn't matter. There are so many of them, you can't possible stop them all. Eventually one or a hundred of them are gnawing on you. Our terror of the undead is based in our fear of hordes. In fact, the zombie has changed to match our fears. Originally, zombies were a few cadavers brought back to life by a voodoo master to serve his evil plans. It wasn't until George Romero's night of the living dead that zombies were presented as hordes of corpses serving only their own mindless need to eat flesh or brains.

Since then "zombie" has become one of the most popular slurs of political parties, social movements, or classes of workers. You can kill Tea Party Zombies in an online game. Occupy Wall Street protesters dressed as "corporate zombies," in Zuccotti Park a few weeks before Halloween. The Occupy protesters themselves haven't been immune to necrotic namecalling. We've got conservative zombies, liberal zombies, communist, socialist, and libertarian zombies. In the coming Presidential election, virtually every Republican candidate has been marked as the walking dead, while President Obama has literally hundreds of images depicting him as a flesh eating monster. A few years ago Paul Waldman argued in the American Prospect that, while the zombie narrative might initially appeal to the libertarian streak in American politics due to its requirement of lots of firearms to defeat the throngs of flesh eating undead, in the end, it's a liberal storyline - when society breaks down, survival requires "the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action."  

The science fiction wesite io9, which is produced by the real science program NOVA, has a chart showing that the number of zombie films released - the site's definition is rather broad, including both the Frankenstein monster and the mummy - increase markedly in times of war and social upheaval.

The population boom is certain to bring social upheaval and war - with seven billion people and counting competing for food, water, energy and every other resource on the planet. That competition is made easier when we can categorize a few billion of our competitors as sub-human - the undead.

As for Colorado's zombies, the ones I encountered on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder were friendly and funny. I was happy to be out and among them, and many of the other spectacular costumes, on Halloween night.

 

 


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