Lightning! Hail! Fire! Coyotes! (and that’s just the first night)

The cabin with the green door
The cabin with the green door

When coyotes get together to party, they start this high-pitched yelping that sounds like deranged laughter. Or like hyenas in a feeding frenzy. In the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, it’s an eerie, nerve-wracking sound. Especially when it’s close.

Let’s back up a bit. After driving for two days and spending a night in Pagosa Springs, I headed to the cabin early Sunday morning. From town, it’s a bumpy, twisting climb over 10 miles of washboarded, potholed gravel roads that give way to a single-lane road, then to the steep two-track that leads to the cabin. There’s a scattering of other cabins and summer homes up here, two of them on the same road as the cabin, but they were empty when I arrived. The mountain gets very quiet after July 4 weekend.

Inside, everything was just as I remembered: the beige couch and matching easy chair, the black wood stove, the bearskin mounted on the wall, camouflage hunting gear hanging from pegs. My friend Eric and his parents built this place years ago as a hunting cabin. Most of the time it sits empty, and they’ve been kind enough to let me stay here for long stretches over the years. In exchange, I put in some sweat equity: clearing brush, building shelves, whatever they need done.

It’s cozy – 16 feet wide, 22 feet deep with a little downstairs bedroom and a half loft with two more beds that you reach by a wooden ladder. There’s a little kitchen area where I keep a propane camp stove. Eric’s parents put in a mini fridge a few years ago. Best of all, there’s a wide front deck with a spectacular view of the mountains.

The view of the San Juans
The view of the San Juans

I’ll be here until I finish re-writing my novel or until I see snow on the high peaks, whichever comes first.

The cabin’s also pretty Spartan. They hooked up electricity a few years back – before that, I used candles and kerosene lamps. There’s still no running water, no flush toilet (there’s a little chemical toilet that’s maybe 16 inches tall, which I use only for emergencies or in bad weather). No TV, no Internet. Cell phones barely work here – if you get a bar or two and manage to get a call through, it usually drops within a minute.

I did my usual quick cleanup – sweep up the dead moths, shake out the floor rugs – then unloaded the car and set up my little folding card table next to the window. That’s my work desk for the next couple of months.

The cabin’s at about 8,500 feet, and the altitude always saps me for the first few days, so I took a nap.

Thunder woke me. Dark clouds gathering over the far peaks. I made some coffee to wake up, and by the time I finished, the rain had started. Then the lighting got close. Really close. Big, pulsing bolts, followed by ground-shaking booms. Lightning storms in the mountains are no joke. And I’m in a cabin with a metal chimney surrounded by tall pines.

I was getting more and more anxious, so I jumped into the car (is it true that car tires insulate you from lightning strikes? I thought I read that somewhere) and drove 50 yards down the hill, away from the biggest trees.

The lighting was on top of me. Flash-flash. BOOM. Flash-BOOM.

Then came the hail. Lots of hail. Imagine being stuffed into a metal drum while a hundred pissed off kids shoot at it with BB guns. It was kind of like that.

A hail drift next to the cabin
A hail drift next to the cabin

Then it stopped. Just like that. The ground had turned ghost white. Instant winter. I went back in the cabin, made myself some soup, opened a beer and popped Goodfellas in the laptop (dinner and a movie, mountain style). When I went back out on the deck around dusk to take care of nature’s call, I spotted what looked like a bright light far in the distance, in the mountains that face the cabin. An orange flicker deep in the trees.


Then I saw a little plume of white smoke. Earlier in the day, I was reading the local paper’s one-year-later story about the big forest fire last summer: 110,000 acres burned after lightning strikes hit a forest full of deadwood (thank you, pine bark beetles). I reached for the phone. Please, please give me a signal.

The call connects. The operator takes my information and says someone will call. A few minutes pass. I get the binoculars. The flames look brighter now. The phone rings and someone with the local emergency operations office asks what I see and where I am. The call drops after 30 seconds. I call back and manage to give her my location before the line goes dead again. I look across the Valley. The flames have disappeared, along with the last of the daylight.

After a half hour I see headlights. It’s Thad McKain, the emergency operations manager for Archuleta County, trailed by two of his staff in another truck. The fire is visible again, a pinprick of orange against the dark mountains. Probably just a single-tree strike, he tells me. Too dark to go up there now. We’ll have a plane check it out in the morning.

I am not sure what to do with this information. I decide to stay in the cabin and hope the fire burns itself out (or at least doesn’t get bigger). There’s no wind, and it’s rained recently, so the ground’s damp and the vegetation is healthy. That’s something, right?

It’s after midnight when I finally decide to try to sleep. I take a last look at the pinprick of light. It’s faint, but still there.

Then the coyotes start their crazy laughter. I’ve heard coyotes up here before, but never this close. They sound like they’re just down the hill from the cabin. I hear a swirl of yelps and yips, broken by one long, mournful, spine-tingling howl. Their little chorus caps the scariest night I’ve spent on this mountain.

Yep. I’m not going to sleep worth a damn tonight.

(post script: Monday morning the fire appeared to be out. Good news. Now, after a stop into town to get on the Internet, it’s back up the mountain)


The Road, Part II: Redrock and pine


Highway 84 rewards those who stick with it. The payoff for grinding through the Panhandle’s aching flatness and its smelly feed lots and eastern New Mexico’s desert scrub is the slow climb into some of the most beautiful country in the southwest.

After covering nearly 600 miles Friday, I stopped for the night in Santa Rosa, N.M., a little high desert town on I-40 with more motel rooms than people. Santa Rosa’s not much to look at, but after hundreds of miles of empty scrubland, a truck stop looks like an oasis. All I wanted was a clean room and a good bed (the Best Western took care of that). In the morning, after a quick stop at tEdselhe Route 66 auto museum (I couldn’t resist after seeing what
they did to this Edsel), I jumped in the car for the final leg of the trip.

Mercifully, things start to get interesting near Santa Fe. You can see the mountains in the distance and feel the air cool as you climb. The transition is jarring: one minute you’re in the desert, the next you’re driving past Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and rows of perfectly stuccoed and earth-tone-painted homes. Even the highway overpasses are decorated with artsy interpretations of Native American pictographs. Santa Fe is adobe Disneyland.

But my favorite part comes north of Santa Fe. Once you cross the Rio Grande in Española – it’s wide and fast and stained the same reddish-brown as the dirt – you start climbing and twisting through stunning red rock cliffs and canyons. Further north on 84 the cliffs turn a pale yellow and rise in long, graceful ridges topped with sage and juniper. This is where I start looking for familiar landmarks: the Ghost Ranch, the Echo Amphitheater (a natural half-dome cavern that does just what its name suggests when you shout into its mouth), the Trujillos general store, squatting in stubborn isolation amid the empty canyonlands like an Old West relic.

The road rises, then descends into the wide grasslands of the Chama Valley, 7,800 feet above sea level. The Continental Divide rises ahead, painted a misty blue. After more twists and climbs, the first pines start emerging amid the sagebrush. And then everything changes. The highway tops another ridge, and suddenly you’re in thick stands of pine and spruce – the wet side of the mountains. It never fails to make my blood pump a little faster. Thirty more miles to Pagosa Springs.

It’s raining when I hit town, and the rain perfumes the air with pine. It’s 68 degrees in mid-July. Heaven.

I drive through the old downtown, rows of restored frontier buildings that hug the curves of the Piedras River, all of it surrounded by soaring green mountains. If Norman Rockwell had lived in the mountains, he would’ve painted this place.

The rain stops, so I pull into the public parking lot on a ridge overlooking the river and take it all in: teenagers splashing amid the rocks, kids and grownups gliding on tubes, people walking the riverside hike-and-bike trail. Across the river is the hot springs, a sprawling collection of oversized hot tubs fed by the natural springs that drew the Utes and Navajos here centuries ago. That sulfur tang in the air. I can feel every muscle in my body relax. Pagosa has become sort of an adopted second home for me over the years.

I still have a 20-minute drive over a narrowing series of unpaved roads to reach the cabin. Then it’s time to get to work.