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I enjoy camping, but one must always be aware of the surroundings and potential dangers of nature. In the Northwoods, it's imperative to be bear smart; appropriate storage of food and trash is a must.
We were camping in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. One evening I was preparing chicken hindquarters at the picnic table to roast over the wood fire. In this situation, I would typically expect to be shooing pesky flies that come around, and I had the fly swatter nearby if I needed it. But this day was different; were no flies at all – just bees.
I know bees are attracted to a pitcher of lemonade or other sugary foods, but I've never known them to come around for chicken.
It was difficult to trim chicken fat with a kitchen knife without losing a finger and counting bees simultaneously. I tallied about a dozen swarming around me, and they kept trying to land on the fresh meat. I'm no dummy; I know better than to swat at a bee. So instead, I'd just move my hand gracefully toward them, and the bees would fly off, then come right back from a different direction. A few of the bees even landed on my arm, overlooking the feast, choosing the drumstick they wanted. But, again, I didn't strike at them; I just let them ride on my arm. As long as they weren't stinging me, I saw no sense in poking the proverbial hornet's nest.
Eventually, I created a small pile of chicken fat on the other side of the table; the bees gathered there and left me alone. It was a good lesson on cohabitating peacefully with nature; no bees were harmed, and no humans were stung.
The day before, we had met a new friend at the campground and invited her to join us for dinner. We ate well, then enjoyed wine and conversation around the campfire. Everyone agreed the chicken was delicious – even the bees. The following morning Melissa and I packed up and headed to our next destination.
Black Canyon Campground is in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico. At 8,500 feet above sea level, walking and breathing at the same time can be a challenge for a flat-lander from Minnesota.
I had chicken breasts marinating for dinner while we went hiking mountain trails and exploring Historic Old Town Santa Fe. It was dusk when we pulled back into our campsite. I quickly fetched an armload of wood from the van and got a fire started; we would need a good bed of hot coals to grill the chicken.
Once the fire was going, I brought the rest of the wood over. There was one piece from a branch about three inches round and thirty inches long. Melissa poured two glasses of wine and brought the camp chairs to the fire area, and became the self-appointed supervisor. Honestly, I had everything under control.
I watched the meat on the fire while also frying potatoes in the cast iron skillet on the camp stove. With onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and my special seasoning, these potatoes are the bomb. I was pretty proud of the meal I was fixing.
It was now dark out, so the supervisor kept a close eye on things; mostly her wine and everything I was doing, "You better turn the chicken; the potatoes need to be stirred; you should put another log on the fire, and watch out for that raccoon."
I stood up from the fire and looked around, "What raccoon?"
"The raccoon by the firewood pile…oh honey, be careful. That's not a raccoon; it's a big skunk!"
"WHAT? You mistook a skunk for a raccoon?" I can understand her error; I mean, raccoons wear a black mask, where a skunk has a wide bright white stripe down its back – anyone could easily confuse the two. This, my friends, is a fine example of why supervisors should not drink wine while on duty. (Although I will admit, it was a good, local cabernet.)
Standing before me was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen, and he looked to be on a mission. But, should the skunk and I engage in battle, I wasn't sure I could take him with just the metal spatula I was holding to turn potatoes and chicken.
He waddled a few steps my way; I was the only thing standing between him and my chicken. "What do skunks eat," I asked my wife.
"Mostly bugs and small rodents, I think," said the super.
I kept my headlamp shining on the skunk, "Do they eat people food?"
"I think they'll eat garbage if they're hungry. But, honey, don't shine your light on him; you're blinding him."
"Well, I'm not taking my eyes off him, for Pete's sake!" I had to defend my turf – and my chicken. I quickly reached down and grabbed the short branch log. "Back off Pepe Le Pew," I ordered, "this ain't garbage, and you ain't getting it!"
With a kitchen utensil purchased at Dollar General in one hand and a stick in the other, I immediately doubted that I was equipped well enough for the impending confrontation. Nevertheless, I held my position and warned the intruder, "You take one more step, and we're going to play golf – and you're the ball!" I shook my stick at him, and he took a couple more steps my way.
"Honey, leave him alone; don't hurt him," said the spectator from her chair. I wasn't sure if she was talking to the skunk or me. I'd never been this close to a live skunk – other than one time at a petting zoo, and frankly, I don't know that much about them.
I don't know much about skunks, but I knew this couldn't be good when he turned around and raised his tail. "Look, buddy, nobody raises their tail and points their butt at me and gets away with it – well, except for my cat Edgar, and I don't like it when he does it either." I presented my stick, "You wanna play golf?"
"Honey be careful," Again, I didn't know which of us she was warning. "I think they can spray up to twelve feet or so." I assumed her warning was for me since I didn't have a Super-Soaker squirt gun or a can of skunk repellant.
There were about six feet between my opponent and me, meaning the skunk, not my wife. (Come to think of it, there was also about six feet between my wife and me, and frankly, I wasn't sure if she was rooting for the beast or me!) I looked at the thirty-inch stick in my hand, "Twelve feet? Dang, I'm going to need a longer golf club."
The skunk arched his rear end higher in the air and puffed his tail; it looked as bushy as a foxtail. Then he started stomping his front feet on the ground. For a moment, I was dumbfounded. "I didn't know skunks could flair their tails like that, and what's he doing stomping his feet?"
"Tom, he's doing the skunk stomp! Back off; he's getting ready to spray!" I probably should have taken heed of her advice; I even thought about running and taking cover behind the supervisor's chair, but I still wasn't sure who's side she was on.
There I was, looking directly into the business end of an agitated skunk, who had his gun loaded, cocked, and ready to fire. I already mentioned this was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen. From my current point of view, he looked to be twelve feet tall and bulletproof. Still, I bravely (or foolishly) held my position. Waving my spatula that had a couple of half-cooked potato slices stuck to the flat surface, I stomped my foot to intimidate him, "Get outta here, ya bum!"
The skunk's chest inflated as he took a deep breath while looking over his shoulder with me in his crosshairs. "It's never happened to me before, but here it comes," I prayed, "Dear Lord, save me!" Just then, much to my surprise, the skunk lowered his tail and scurried in retreat to the far side of our concrete picnic table area. Had he been bluffing? Was his stinker all out of stink?
At the edge of the woods, the polecat turned around, staring me right square in the eye. He raised his tail, stomped his feet again as if to say, "I know where you live, Betty Crocker!" Then, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he warned, "I'll be back."
Almost with glee, my wife declared, "Oh honey, I think he's got your number."
Feeling tougher than John Wayne, I victoriously puffed up my chest. First, I tossed the seven-foot-long timber I was wielding one-handed back to the woodpile. Then, spinning my spatula like a six-shooter, I blew the smoke from the tip and pretended to sling it back into a holster – a potato slice dislodged and fell on my foot. "Oh yeah? Well, you better bring your little sister to help you!"
Fortunately, during the commotion, June was inside the Scamp. I can only imagine how this would have turned for the worse with a dog in the mix. Our cat Edgar Allan was also in the Scamp, looking out the window; he also watched the skunk closely.
I went back to tend to my meal cooking over the fire, "Darn it!" I burned the chicken. "Stupid skunk."
I felt like a real hero for saving our camp. Meanwhile, the supervisor poured another glass of wine. I reached my hand out to accept her token of appreciation. She pulled the glass toward her, took a drink, then returned to her chair. "Honey, during all the mayhem, I couldn't help but wonder what you would have done if that skunk had sprayed you?" Her concern was overwhelming, "I mean, with no showers or even running water in this campground, there's no way I was going to let you take the van into town, and you sure as heck weren't getting into the Scamp smelling that way." She took another sip of my wine, "I just don't know what you would have done, but it sure would have made for a good story if he sprayed you." She was laughing so hard; she shot a little wine out her nose, which bothered me because a good local cabernet shouldn't be wasted like that.
I'm not sure who won the contest, me or the skunk. Every time I thought I heard a noise in the woods, I snapped my head to look. If the wind wrestled the leaves, I jumped from my chair, reaching for the stick. In the Scamp, with the lights off, I peeked through the curtains, keeping a vigilant watch for my nemesis. Just then, Edgar brushed against my bare leg in the dark, "Sweet Jesus have mercy!" I jumped, hitting my head on the overhead cabinet, and I think I peed a little. It was a restless night, to say the least.
The next day while we were driving, Melissa asked, "Honey, do you remember last night when you were in the stand-off with that skunk."
Even though I had nightmares about that critter, I acted as if I had forgotten all about it, as if it was not a big deal. I rubbed my chin, trying hard to recall the incident, "Oh yes, I vaguely remember. The skunk I chased away when it wandered into our campsite. What about it?"
"Would you be upset if I told you I was secretly hoping the skunk would have sprayed you? That would have been pretty funny."
I enjoy getting out to camp in the wild, but one must be prepared; there are a lot of potential dangers in the woods: bears, bees, skunks, wives…
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I love hearing echoes. As a kid, it didn't seem like my family went to many places where I could hear them, but when we did, I'd bellow all sorts of sounds, then listen to them repeatedly. Sometimes when we were walking home from school, my brother Gerard and I would go by the concrete drainage ditch. If the water was low, I'd push my head through the big grates covering the opening of long culverts that disappeared into the dark underground. "HELLO," I'd call, then listen; "Hello, hello, hello," came my reply. Maybe that's why I got into radio broadcasting – I liked hearing my own voice.
In 1976, my ninth-grade class set out on Ottumwa school's maiden voyage to Washington D.C. When we visited the capitol building, our tour guide had us stand in a particular spot in the rotunda. He went to another area on the other side of the room and spoke softly, but because of the way the sound bounced into the dome and back, we could hear him perfectly where we stood. It seems politicians have been eavesdropping on each other ever since discovering this phenomenon.
Since that trip to Washington, I've traveled all over the country. Along the way, I found many exciting places to throw my voice and hear it return like a boomerang. It fascinates me, like a stone tossed in the water, makes rings until the ripples continue to dissipate slowly. From caves to canyons and valleys – I've enjoyed echoes in some pretty cool places.
My wife and I paddled our canoe into the Boundary Waters to see the pictographs on North Hegman Lake, near Ely, Minnesota. The ancient Native American drawings are said to be over 400-years-old. They're painted high on a stone wall, on the edge of the water. Anytime my paddle bumped against the canoe gunnel, the sound bounced between the wall and the water, creating a sharp echo.
I hear echoes in man-made places too: in a large cathedral, state capitol buildings, hallways with terrazzo floors – even in a bathroom. I've often sang or whistled a tune in a public restroom to enjoy the unique acoustics.
I stood on stage under the bandshell in parks in Mason City, Iowa, and Winona, Minnesota. I spoke toward the back wall; the sound ricocheted and projected my voice outward where the audience would be sitting. Some of the best places to hear an echo are places where I've inadvertently stumbled.
My wife and I were driving from Lake City, CO, to Santa Fe, NM, with plans to stop in Chama for dinner. Chama is a small touristy town with several places to eat, not far from the Colorado-New Mexico state line. We'd heard great reviews on the green chili at one restaurant and wanted to try it.
Chama also has an operating vintage railroad. On scenic rides, train cars are pulled by old steam-powered locomotives. We stopped to watch an engine maneuver in the train yard. Black coal smoke flowed from the chimney of the idled engine. Bright white steam belched near the wheels as the locomotive began to move. The engineer reached up, pulling a chain while he looked out the window, and the train's whistle echoed down the tracks. It was a thrill to watch.
When we got to the restaurant, we found a seat in the dining room. A waitress set menus on our table and quickly moved along. She didn't respond when I greeted her; perhaps she didn't hear me. We sat at the table for well over an hour, and after numerous failed attempts to get waited on, I went to the hostess. She was annoyed by my request for service, "Your waitress will be right with you." Twenty minutes later, we finally decided to leave.
On the way out, the hostess seemed offended that we were leaving, "Did you pay for your drinks," she snapped.
"We didn't have any," I replied, "we were never waited on."
It was noticeably darker outside. Melissa glanced at the time, "Well, that was an hour and twenty minutes of wasted daylight!"
We drove down the highway, enjoying the beautiful New Mexico scenery in what little daylight was left. It was rapidly getting dark, but we could still make out the horizontal ribbons of color in the silhouettes of mountains around us. It was a shame to be making this drive after dark.
A couple of miles later, rounding a corner, Melissa read a small sign, "Hey, look, there's a campground ahead. Let's check it out." We pulled into the Echo Amphitheater Campground in the Carson National Forest. It was dark, and we really couldn't see anything. With a flashlight, we found the registration post. Since we were only planning to get some sleep and head out at dawn, I didn't even disconnect the Scamp from the van.
In the morning, my dog June and I were the first up. We stepped out into the chilly morning desert air. It was after sunrise, but the sun hadn't yet made its way over the mountains to the east. I looked up, turning in a circle, taking in the magical beauty that surrounded me. I was stunned as I turned to the west.
Nature had carved out a massive cove in the side of the mountain, a perfect amphitheater. I looked in awe at this work of natural sculpting set against a perfect blue desert sky. At the top center was a dry stream that would produce waterfalls when it rained. From the mouth of the stream, streaks from minerals naturally stained the face of the rock; it looked like mother nature had spilled a giant can of paint while creating this wonder. June and I started walking that way on the path that went through the woods.
June stopped suddenly, hearing the cry of coyotes echoing through the air. She turned her head back and forth to determine the direction of the predators. It was hard to tell if the sound was coming from the left or the right. All the same, I hesitated to go any further. It would be reckless to lead my dog into a potentially dangerous situation, so we turned back toward the campsite.
Just then, we heard voices coming from the hill, soft laughter, and then the cry of the coyotes returned. June and I made our way to the top of the trail, where we found a young couple sitting with their feet hanging over the rock wall, looking into the amphitheater. The young man had some sort of wooden instrument next to him. It was about three feet long, hollow in the middle, and had all kinds of decorative carvings on the side. I asked him if he would play the instrument for us. "Awesome," he said. "Sometimes people think I'm disturbing nature when I play."
He pointed the instrument toward the dome and blew into it until it made a low bass tone. The sound echoed around the amphitheater. Then he took a deep breath and started making wolf sounds into the end. He'd move the tube from side to side until the echoes created an illusion of an entire wolf pack. He noticed the sounds put June on edge, "Maybe I shouldn't do that," he said.
It was time to go, "June, come on, girl; we need to go." My dog was confused. She looked at me, then left and right, then back at me, trying to figure out how I was calling her from several different places. When I saw this, I had to mess with her for just a bit. I said farewell to the young couple, then June and I started down the trail. "Let's go get Mom to see this," I told her.
Melissa, June, and I hiked back up the trail. At the top, the clicking of the shutter echoed as she began taking photos with her camera.
Another couple walked up with an Australian cattle dog mix on a leash. Both dogs growled a bit, which echoed, causing each of them to look to see if more dogs were coming. The dogs got along and began to play when we let them off their leashes. June found a stick and brought it to me to throw. When I did, both dogs went after the stick. "Oh June, it looks like you have some competition!" The dogs played, and we talked with the other couple for a while. Melissa pointed to the sky.
Ravens were flying overhead, enjoying the morning as well. They would fly into the amphitheater and call out, "Rawk, rawk, rawk." It sounded like there was an entire conspiracy of ravens with the echo, all though there were only three. Ravens are such characters; Melissa assured us they were doing it on purpose just to hear their own voices. Maybe the ravens wanted to become radio broadcasters, too.
The whole experience at the Echo Amphitheater was fantastic, the sights, the sounds, the feel – it was one I'll remember forever.
Had it not been for the ladies at the restaurant wasting an hour and twenty minutes of our daylight, we might have driven past it unnoticed. Who knows, maybe on the way home, we'll stop at that restaurant in Chama to thank them and give it another try. We've heard the green chili is really good.