The More Things Stay The Same

By Gwen Hoffnagle

            I’ve been hiking my gulch for five summers now. During the first two winters it had a good enough base for several weeks of cross country skiing. The snow has been too inconsistent for skiing the last two years, so I hiked there in the winter, too. When we first moved to this area, I began taking our dogs to the gulch because it’s about the closest place to home for a hike. Sometimes we explore elsewhere, but because it’s so convenient and private, we go to our gulch more often than not. We share it with bovines during the summer months since it’s on BLM land, though we usually see only the pies and don’t encounter the cows. There’s a road into it, but it’s only during the various hunting seasons that we see anyone else there.

            At one time it must have held significant water; sprinkled along its length are groves of ancient cottonwoods. Now it’s dry. Two-and-a half miles in you come to a section of Colorado State Trust land. Vehicles are not allowed past that point, so once we’re in there, it feels like it’s our own private estate. I’ve become quite fond of it and I know its nooks and crannies like the proverbial back of my hand.

            The second summer, I noticed the gulch looked different. The fields were full of fresh, green tumbleweeds that had definitely not been there the previous year. I began to take mental notes. Up one of the spurs a contractor worked for several weeks demolishing an old mine site, grading the land and reseeding it. Later in the summer my furrier dog was besieged with beggar’s lice – something that hadn’t been a problem the previous year, nor has it since. When the tumbleweeds dried up, there was a veritable parade of tumbling going on all around us.

            The next year there were more changes. Just past the boundary of the state land there are a series of springs, and the increased rains that year had caused them to overflow, pouring water for a good half mile into the dry part of the gulch. Though it receded within a few weeks, the area around the springs remained wet as a wetland. We ate a lot of watercress. Then there were the thistles, with blooms as big as my fist, looking like psychedelic purple exploding stars. Later that summer I ran into a couple of BLM rangers poking around. They said they were planning to relocate the road and were glad they had run into me because they wanted local opinions about whether that was a good idea. They thought it would improve habitat to get the vehicles up onto the benches so the gulch could reclaim itself. At first I thought it sounded like a waste of scarce federal dollars and an intrusion on the wildlife (and my peaceful walks), but I told them that if they felt it would improve habitat, I could probably support it. I began to notice young cottonwoods that were trying to make it in the bottom of the gulch where what little moisture falls collects enough for seedlings to take hold. They were being ravaged by the traffic on the road, and it looked like there was no way they would make it. Maybe moving the road wasn’t such a bad idea.

            The following June I found three mushrooms creeping up from the soft bottom dirt where they were camouflaged like perfectionists, hard and dung-colored. I don’t start looking for fungi until August, and here they were sticking out their tongues at me in late spring! Later that month, the BLM arrived with its heavy equipment and moved most of the road away from the bottom of the gulch. Even though I seldom see wildlife because I always have my dogs with me, I know the wildlife was indeed disturbed. The coyotes that often scolded us from the ridge tops were gone. I haven’t seen elk tracks since, and it wasn’t until that winter that deer tracks were abundant again. But the work disturbed far less than I had envisioned.

            I can’t tell you which climatic features cause the flora to change dramatically from year to year. And someone visiting the gulch for the first time would never know that old mine site had been there. It has been restored, seemingly effortlessly, nearly to its natural state. Soon the same will happen with the old road. Parts of it already look like it hasn’t been driven on in years.

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            Clambering out of the car with the dogs, this late summer day seems like so many others as we start our walk. But slowly the gulch reveals its secrets. This year it’s the rabbit brush gone wild, billowing out in golden clouds across the open spaces, thistles and tumbleweeds from past years no longer in evidence. I hear some beetles buzzing around, wings clicking fast enough to imitate flies. I’ve never seen these before – yellow and red blotches on a black background, with oddly-shaped thoraxes. The cottonwood seedlings are already on the mend. I notice more tracks in the sandy soil than in previous years – snakes, rodents, tiny birds. It’s so amazing and adorable how these creatures make perfect little tracks, their gait never faltering. I picture them with their eyes straight ahead, intent on diligently crossing the gulch before anyone notices. I realize that no wild place really stays the same, whether or not man has imposed upon it his impatient need to influence things. You just have to visit often enough to know what to look for, or to be conscious of what you don’t see or hear or smell that you did in the past.

            I used to hike in one place on day, then another the next, then another, and so on, in order to keep seeing new things. When I started hiking my gulch regularly for the convenience of it, I felt a little cheated – like I was missing out on that variety. Now I look forward to seeing it over and over and discovering what new things are happening there, whether on the scale of a rock formation that has fallen from high, or that of a set of chipmunk tracks. The coyotes have returned, noisily getting ready to have new families late this winter, and I look for signs that the elk have come back, knowing that the more things stay the same…the more they change.