October 2, 2009. This morning, as I walk down the road toward Crossfire, I barely avoid stepping on a small, silver-and-grey-winged butterfly sitting on the pavement, trying, I think, to warm itself after our first night of ice-on-the-dog’s-dish cold. The insect’s coloration matches that of surrounding gravel. Only its thin wings and their accompanying shadow tip me off in time. I veer. Very slightly, the upfolded wings lean away from my foot swinging past. It’s hard to not step on something that looks like a piece of your path.
As I pass a neighbor’s orchard, I hear the crackle of starlings among the apples. But in, around, and above Crossfire, the sparkle from swallow, swift, and hummingbird wings has gone off the air.
I find the canyon changed since my last trip four days ago. The green cloud hanging about the cottonwood bosk has begun its slide toward goldengrove. Gone, summer shadow saturating the trees. The leaves empty themselves of color. The trees empty themselves of leaves.
Rabbit brush approaching full bloom adds goldenrod to the growing palette of yellows. A few pale, red-flamed bushes mix into the cottonwoods’ yellowing greens, the tamarisks’ browning yellows, and the evergreen shadow of surrounding pinyon-juniper forest. Along the creek where the cottonwoods gather most thickly, rising currents of depletion.
I descend. The sagebrush is close to blooming, its plumes of tiny buds half-opened, slips of silver-yellow petals peeking through. Such airy structures. Touching these plumes €”sliding them through my loose grip, pressing them against the lively surface of my palm €”gives me a jolt of pleasure. Pollen softens the turpene fragrance of the buds, rendering their odor sweeter than what the pressed leaves emit. The taste of honey rises to mind.
Others have hiked through recently, two people’s tracks are visible here. A golden eagle sweeps into view flying below the rim and parallel to sharply lit cliffs forming the canyon’s west rim. Fall’s wide-angled light casts the bird’s spectacular shadow-image on the rock face, black and clean-cut, like a silhouette. From my angle of view, the bird’s actual wing skips across the stone as it flies, from time to time touching tips with its shadow wing, the complete ensemble reminiscent of a bird fold-out, like two hearts in a paper chain. The eagle doubles back then spirals upward, as slowly as smoke on a windless day. Two ravens join it, croaking. Sometimes I see ravens drive eagles off; other times, they weave themselves into the bigger birds’ flight, the whole gang swirling in loose-leafed eddies.
A light breeze sifting up from the south shivers in the golding cottonwoods, setting their bright scales a-glitter. I leave the trail to follow my own course along the stream, hoping to glimpse a beaver. October is a busy month for beavers €”their activity level rises as they shore up against the coming winter. You’re more likely to catch sight of them during early fall’s later morning hours than you are during summer’s. Last October, I was up on a cliff above this stretch of Crossfire Creek. From that vantage point I could see them swimming the locks they’d engineered. We’re approaching the first full moon of fall, called the Beaver Moon, the lunar phase that coordinates with beavers’ heightened activity.
A couple weeks ago, I sat at dinner with a group of archaeologists. One of them asked me how the Crossfire beavers were doing. I said I hadn’t seen them but that we were approaching the Beaver Moon. €œWhat’s a beaver moon? € one of others asked. Before I could answer, the man who asked the original question said, €œThat’s when a beaver €¦ naaaaw! € The whole table burst out in laughter.
I haven’t seen much of the beavers on Crossfire €”not even moonings. I’m not sure they’re still here. Maybe they’ve been trapped out again.
The whole sky is clear and October blue, a wide vein of deep turquoise running between the canyon walls. Rejoining the main trail, I see a third set of boot tracks appear over the other two. I walk, trying to interpret the footprint script, when yet another set appears on top of them all, big clover-form tracks at least three inches across €”a very large dog or a mountain lion. Dog? I watch for the telltale indentation of claws punctuating the ends of the toes–supposedly characteristic of dog tracks but not of cat tracks–but see none.
Distracted now from the human prints, I walk to the side of the trail to keep my shadow off the paw prints. I want to extract as much information from them as I can. If one of these hikers brought down a large dog, I would expect to see the tracks wind in and out of the human ones. This is the only stretch of trail where I find these tracks.
The clover-forms do not follow the trail for long but veer off. I saw no claw marks, but I’m not sure the €œno claws € rule for distinguishing cat tracks from large dog tracks holds every time. I have seen claws imprints on some probable mountain lion tracks and I’ve seen dog tracks whose intermittent claw marks render them ambiguous. Claw marks often punctuate my housecats’ tracks in soft dirt or damp ground.
Oops, wrong about the tracks. They reappear on trail to the rim. They pad upward, following the flow of hiker’s tracks leaving the canyon. Still not enough information. Could be a very large dog. Could be a very large cat.
As I leave the canyon I see from the hikers’ tracks that they spent serious time milling around the popular BLM sign posting travel restrictions for the canyon.
In spite of chill lingering from the night, lizards skitter about or sun themselves on warming rocks. Yesterday, our cats caught a lizard, a big fence swift. My daughter rescued it. I thought it was a big female until I turned it over and discovered vibrant blue rib stripes and a blue throat patch €”the finery of a male. Two or three cat hairs protruded from the lizard’s mouth–it had put up a fight. It was missing its tail, but that looked like an older event €”the wound had partially healed over. In our hands, the lizard lay docilely, only clinging to our skin with its tiny, sharp nails when we tried to pull it off. Yesterday morning was chilly, too. I wondered if the animal was still partly torpid. €œPut him in direct sun where he can warm up, € I said. €œThen we’ll see how he is. €
Val put him on a trellis she had lashed for me from fallen globe willow branches. The lizard was alive enough to hang on to the branch where she put him but would not stir to her touch. €œYeah, let him warm up, € I repeated. After about twenty minutes she walked by the lizard again and reached out to touch him. That time, he skittered over the side of the branch out of her reach. €œHe’s going to be okay! € she said.
It’s October. In spite of the cooling nights, the lizards are still out days. I love this place.
As I walk out of the canyon through a gauntlet of bee-loud rabbit brush blossoms, I wonder, €œWhy do we not want more of this world? € It seems to me that every way I turn something calls for my attention or draws me a little further out of my accustomed paths of thought. €œWhat is that? What is it doing? € This planet makes overtures constantly. What are we missing?
A week ago when I made my descent into the canyon I stopped on a rock outcrop to take the lay of the land below. My eye caught a large, dark bird on the ground some distance off, standing absolutely still. The distance prevented me from seeing what kind of bird it was but I supposed it to be either a turkey or, maybe, an eagle. I watched, trying to work out the puzzle. The bird’s stillness suggested it was an eagle, since I couldn’t imagine a turkey standing motionless that long. I suppose I thought turkeys were more like chickens. In fact, many of the turkeys I’ve seen have moved something like chickens, constantly in motion, eyes-to-ground, scratching, striding toward the next bit of forage.
I heard a low chuckling sound €”a quiet turkey call. My eye caught movement in the arroyo below the bird. Four more full-grown turkeys bustled up the bank, walking single file toward the standing bird. When the still-standing turkey could see the others, it moved on, strutting more in the fashion I expect of these creatures. It had been waiting for these members of its flock, calling to them softly to follow, staying put until all were reunited.
As I near the old prairie dog town, I notice the clover-form paw prints have reversed direction, walking against the hikers’ tracks. I take the fork in the trail I use to go home, a trail wearing only my boot prints along with deer and coyote tracks. The hikers took the fork more traveled by, heading, no doubt, for a vehicle parked up at the gravel pit. Here, on my fork, away from the hikers’ prints, the big paw prints slant down toward the canyon rim, against my direction. I store their presence away in my mental file marked €œBe more wary. €
In the dog town, a noise startles me, the flapping of sharp, fast wings behind my head. I whirl to catch site of a lone swift. I try to follow it through the air but those wings hurtle the bird faster than this human’s eye can follow. I lose it against a backdrop of p-j forest. When I turn back toward home, I notice a plastic grocery bag, a piece of feral flotsam, snagged on a Russian thistle plant, a bothersome non-native plant, an artifact of the cattle industry. Since the prairie dogs died off in this town, the field is choked with thistle. I leave the trail, untangle and collect the bag, stuff it in my pocket. Then I return to my way, overlapping my tracks with those of coyotes and deer come up last night from the canyon, lured in among the houses by a dangling bounty of unpicked apples.