Yesterday I realized that my 9 ½ year old black lab hates to hike. She endures it when she thinks there will be a fetching reward at the end. Not fetching like attractive, but literally fetching...her ball, her river toy, her stuffed beaver, whatever. She prefers there to be water but she is a desert dog born and raised, so “water” is relative and definitely not a requirement. I have thought all these years that she liked to hike, so you can imagine my surprise when yesterday, as we began our daily sojourn, she just stopped, walked slowly to the creek and sat down - ears back and head bowed. She was definitely saying, “I’m not going anywhere.” I think I was fooling myself into thinking she loved hiking because her Husky sister loved it. Rockie (the Husky) passed away last summer. She was my hiking soulmate, and I have just continued to hike with Chinle never really thinking about the fact that her main motivation had been to keep up with her sister and maybe now, she just didn’t feel the need to do it anymore. In fact, it has dawned on me, that Chinle “loves” hiking like Rockie “loved” the water. Rockie would always swim or dip her paws in but I think it was only because she didn’t want to look like a scaredy cat - I mean, really, what dog does?
So today, I got up early and, after hiding my hiking shoes in the truck the night before, I slipped out of the house without making eye contact and went for an adventure all by myself. It’s been years since I hiked alone - without another being (human or canine). And I know it’s trite, but I felt just as Henry David Thoreau did when he wrote, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Part of that was because I didn’t have an 80 pound dog pulling me the entire 3 miles, so I literally felt taller than I usually do after our jaunts. But I also felt lighter as though my soul had shed some pounds. To be honest, I also started to feel a little lonely. The last time I was on that particular trail I had Rockie with me. But just as I experienced that fleeting friendlessness, a raven arrived and noisily introduced himself. His loud chatter may have been pointless banter, but I convinced myself he was saying something so profound that I should sit down and listen - granted all of that might have been just an excuse to rest my pounding heart and burning lungs ...3000 feet elevation gain in 3 miles at 11,500 feet altitude is, ummmm, steep and the whole damn place is a little short on oxygen if you ask me.
I obliged my cardiovascular system and the bird by sitting on a log where I listened to him rant for a good long while. Ever since I was a teenager and a raven saved my life, I have always felt like I should listen to them whenever they present themselves. I was 17 or 18 and hiking in Arches National Park (by myself), and I got turned around in the Fins. The fins are enormous rock structures that stick out of the earth and sit parallel one after the other. Unsurprisingly, they look like fins. They go on for miles and can become rather mazelike if you aren’t paying attention. I had been in them before with no problems, but that day, well, I wasn’t paying attention, and I got a little lost. As I was staving off sheer panic, a raven appeared. He kept moving (hopping really) from rock to rock ahead of me. And to keep myself from freaking out and get my mind off of how awful it would be to die there and how mad my dad would be, I followed him. Sure enough he eventually led me to a place I recognized and here I am, 30 years later...still hiking alone and talking to ravens.
But this particular day, I was staying on a very obvious trail, that went up (and I mean up) through mixed-conifer forest that had been set aside as public lands in 1906. I sat thoroughly entertained by the squawking raven and the quaking aspen and felt great gratitude for those who had the foresight to reserve such lands. This particular spot was in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness of the Carson National Forest. In 1906, the national forest was designated and in 2014, the wilderness area was designated. The fact that the span of people who found this exact spot to be inspiring enough to save stretched across more than a century is noteworthy. Few places have such holding power. The 20th century saw vast shifts in cultural values and political realities and yet...Americans in 2 different millennia agreed that that place was something special. The Carson National Forest, named after the controversial explorer and map-maker Kit Carson, would come to encompass 1.5 million acres. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness (which gives even greater protection to part of the area) is 46,000 acres. I am a huge proponent of public lands. Much of that forest would be cordoned off from my enjoyment if it had been left as private lands over this last 110 years. We can suspect the trees might be gone and the habitats more destroyed than they are. So for that I'm grateful. But I am also keenly aware that that place has been sacred long before anyone in modern America deemed it as such, and, in reality, the land upon which I sat truly belongs to the Taos Pueblo.
I had just finished a really terrific book by Theodore Catton on the national forests and American Indians and as the raven droned on, I admit I stopped listening as my mind turned toward one of the more interesting stories of this politicized forest from the 20th century. (1)
The long and sordid struggle for access to Taos Blue Lake, like the protection impulse for Carson National Forest, spans nearly the entire length of the 20th century. The Taos Puebloans’ historic use of the lake and the surrounding forest lands was debated and denied for nearly 60 years. It became a topic of controversy because of the American government’s decision to include Blue Lake as part of the National Forest in 1906, thereby removing it from the “exclusive use” of any one person or group. The lake (and the surrounding forest) is a sacred space to the Puebloans. They have used it for millennia for religious observances (it’s more profound than that, but blogs are supposed to be short!). In the 20th century, as more and more Americans struggled to make sense of their own needs for wildness, resources, and access, the Puebloans’ claim to the land became a source of conflict and, of course, politics.
The 1920s-60s saw the Forest Service mostly reject the Pueblo’s claims to be able to access and protect the lake from the “multiple uses” that were part of the Forest Service’s mandate. John Collier, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and a few others advocated for the Taos Pueblo to have access to the area around Blue Lake and to limit other uses (such as cattle ranching that might pollute the lake). Co-management between the service and the Puebloan government was hinted at at one point, and the federal government even tried to “compensate” the Puebloans for the stolen lake. Long story short, the gist of the bureaucratic struggle was that Congress and the various heads of the Department of Agriculture (where, interestingly, the Forest Service is housed) refused to reserve the Blue Lake region for the Puebloans’ exclusive use (despite centuries of colonial governments acknowledging, legally, the Puebloan lands - Spanish, Mexican, and the US government under Abraham Lincoln had all recognized the Taos Pueblo rights to and grants of land and water - of course, we can argue the fact that the Spanish had no right to “grant” the Puebloans anything since it was the Pueblo’s land to begin with...but that’s a conversation for another time).
I’ll skip the legalizing that ensued after 1951, when the Puebloans first took their claim to the Indian Claims Commission (established in 1947 and closed in 1978). Suffice it to say that by 1965, the government had decided that, for the Puebloans to win their claim, would require an Act of Congress (I can almost hear Clinton Anderson, Senator from New Mexico at the time, sniggering at that). But we will skip this 20-year part of the story, because the ending is just too good. In 1970, Richard Nixon (likely keenly aware of the growing militancy of the American Indian movement and wanting to create good press for his administration in an increasingly tense time in the nation) intervened to get Congress to give him a bill to return the lake and substantial acreage to the Taos Pueblo. And they did. Read more about how the Puebloans gained the president’s attention here if you are interested.
Nixon signed the law commenting that “This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs.” You should read the bill signing remarks in their entirety (just click the link directly above) because like many things Nixon said, they are strange.
The 60-year Blue Lake saga and the Puebloans’ victory was precedent setting. There are many of these kinds of stories about the history of conflict on public lands in the US - especially the US Forest Service’s management of resources to which so many people lay claim (ranchers, recreationists, indigenous peoples, timber companies, and of course, the mining industry). Those stories and those conflicts are never far from my mind, but on this day, I was feeling grateful for having access to land where I was able to find solace if not exactly total solitude.
The boisterous raven had left me, and I was a long way from Blue Lake as I got up from my log and decided it was time to turn around. I mean I could have kept going up to 13,000 feet, of course, but I had a lonely dog at home who needed a river. As I turned down the hill, solitude eluded me once again. This time, in place of the raven, arrived a butterfly - according to a friend of mine who is 14 years old and a butterfly expert, this is a female Variegated Fritillary Euptoieta claudia (see photo). If that’s not right, blame Shaden Higgs. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. The Fritillary stayed with me all the way down the mountain lilting along and alighting just in front of me with every step. I thought about how much more of the world we would all see if we stopped to investigate the spaces around us as often as a butterfly in the woods. In many cultures, including the Taos Puebloan culture, it is believed that butterflies represent renewal and rebirth (there is that re-creation theme again, weird), while others believe butterflies are the spirits of loved ones who have passed and have come back to say hello. Maybe that is why the Fritillary stuck with me for so long, and why I kept having the urge to name her Rockie.
I arrived back at the parking area to see a USFS fire truck with a couple of wildland fire scouts standing outside of it. “No fire is there?” I asked casually but really filled with some panic. “Nope,” one replied, “Just keeping our eyes out.” A raven screamed as it dipped precariously close to the firefighters’ heads and then the most gorgeous swallowtail butterfly landed on their truck. The second scout looked at both thoughtfully and said quietly, “Those must be good omens, right? “Absolutely.” I replied, thinking about the immensity of the forest rangers' jobs to protect this land in these dry times and wondering if Blue Lake was a low as other bodies of water in the area. The other scout smiled brightly, “No doubt about it. The ravens have our back and that butterfly is just cool.” Indeed, no doubt about any of that.
1) Theodore Catton, American Indians and National Forests, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016). For the Blue Lake story see pp. 93-105.