Intimate details of a year in Pinon Mesa

The Year on Pinon Mesa


by Will C. MinorA Publication of the Historical Museum and Institute of Western ColoradoCopyright 1950 by Will Minor

Regardless of what the calendar says about it, the new year should start the day that the first blades of grass show themselves.

This will vary, of course, with the locality. On the snow blanketed crest of Pinon Mesa it will be around mid-May. The first green grass, however, does not necessarily mean that spring has arrived. In the high country green grass follows the retreating snow line rather closely. There is no long period of waiting for the ground to warm before the new growth starts, as is the case in open country and at lower altitudes.

When spring is on its way in the high country, a small sunny spot may be still covered with snow one day, bare the next, show a few pale-green blades the following day, and a week later be covered with bright, green grass several inches high; while perhaps only a few yards away are snowdrifts several feet deep. Or, at times, a sunny hillside, or a ridge facing south, will be green and spring-like; while in adjoining patches of heavy timber, snow will be three or four feet deep, and the north slopes of these very same green hills and ridges will still be firmly held in the grasp of winter.

Most showy of the winter birds that greet the first signs of spring are the crested jays. They remain the year around in the high, green timber country. They are always there when we arrive in the spring and still there when we leave in late autumn. I have seen them on Pinon Mesa in late December just as plentiful, and just as saucy, where there was two feet of snow on the ground and when most of the other feathered residents have left for warmer lands.

The earliest of the spring wild flowers follow the snow line almost as closely as does the grass. It is no uncommon sight to see wild iris, mountain dandelions, and the first blue larkspur blooming at the very edge of a melting snowbank. Later these last-named two will cover mile after mile of the landscape with a living carpet of golden yellow and bright blue. The dandelion prefers open, sunlit meadows, and the larkspur seems to do better among aspens; but mostly they grow side by side, and where one is found the other is also present. A strange partnership this, from the human point of view—on a solid, respectable and useful citizen, and the other an outlaw and killer. The handsome golden dandelion is excellent forage for grazing animals, including cattle, sheep, and deer. The tender young dandelion is feed highly favored by small lambs. Beaver, marmots, porcupines, squirrels, and chipmunks also appreciate the dandelion and include it in their diet. Doubtless, it would make homemakers cuss something awful to see a good crop of dandelions growing in their lawns. But in its proper place the dandelion is a useful and respectful citizen.]

On the other hand, the beautiful blue larkspur is a killer of cattle. It is the reason why, in many places, cattle cannot be pastured on early high-country range. Where larkspur is plentiful cattle may have to be held off the range until mid-summer when larkspur has bloomed its last and disappeared. For some strange reason larkspur rarely, if ever, kills sheep. Sheep will eat it and thrive on early spring range, where cattle would die like rats that had been eating poisoned oats.

Around mid-May the first green leaves appear on the quaking aspen in the more sheltered spots on the lower levels of the mesa. Aspens do not leaf out uniformly and all over the landscape at the same time. Those growing in the warmer spots leaf first, then those a little higher up on the hills. The leaves on those that started first will be full grown and glossy green, while those two or three hundred feet higher up the hill will be pale green, or half-grown, and on top of the hill other aspens will still be as bare as in mid-winter. Gradually the green line creeps up the mountainside until in mid-June even those aspen in the highest, most exposed ridges will be wearing their new, green, summer dress. The scrub oaks leaf out a little behind the aspens. But usually it is not until the first of July that the higher patches of oak are fully leafed and at last the entire mesa stands clad in full summer dress. Even the dark groves of fir and spruce have put forth new growth at the tips of their branches and look fresher and brighter now than at any other time of the year.

About the time aspen leaves make their first appearance, pine squirrels and chipmunks also show up and start foraging for last year’s pine and spruce cones and any dried seed pods that may remain. Beaver starts his summer activities still earlier. In fact, as soon as the ice breaks up on his home pond, he will be out cutting a few fresh aspens to replenish his now depleted winter larders. Late sleepers, like the striped ground squirrels and whistling marmots, may not show up until late June or early July.

Also with the first green aspen leaves, the first spring butterflies make their appearance. Only two species at first, a tiny blue, bright as a bit of October sky, and the mountain white, larger than the blue and as white as the snowdrifts that still lie on the spruce groves. A few weeks later the alpines, the ringlets, parnassius, and the lordly yellow and black swallow tails are on the wing. It is late June or early July before the silverspots make their first appearance. But from then on until mid-August, they, with their flashy colors and great numbers, dominate the butterfly kingdom. By mid-July the butterfly flight is at its height. Dozens of species in countless numbers add their touch of color to the scene. Some of the earliest species have already faded out of the picture. Others quickly follow. Black, gray and dark brown wood nymphs add their forces to the ranks in midsummer. By late August they, and a few battered silverspots are about the only butterflies left. And the last of these will have disappeared before the end of September.

Unless it is an exceptionally late season some sheep will have reached the high ranges by the latter part of May. Usually, however, it will be the first of June before many arrive, and mid-June before all the outfits have reached the high country. Then on quiet days, when their voices carry far, it sometimes sounds as if the world were filled with sheep.

Sheep do not make a great deal of noise when spread out and feeding. But whenever it is necessary to move a herd, or work them into a corral, they become excited and noisy. Frightened little lambs cry frantically for mama, and the mamas answer in chorus, each old ewe firmly convinced that she has seen the last of the little woolly unless she can call louder than all the rest of the herd. At times the sound effects produce bedlam.

By the first of July sheep have settled down on their summer range. Lambs are growing rapidly and beginning to put on weight. Some cattle have arrived and are grazing contentedly in the high mountain meadows. Dandelions are fewer now. Great fields of larkspur have bloomed their last and disappeared, and though some scattered plants will remain and bloom until late summer, larkspur is not longer a menace to livestock.

Columbines and mariposas, or sego lilies, have taken over where larkspur and dandelions left off and are now the dominant wild flowers, to be joined a little later by great patches of flame-colored scarlet paintbrush. Columbines , as a rule, are a bit earlier and have made their greatest showing before the mariposas and the paintbrush arrive. But, as with all other mountain flowers, they will at times all be blooming together side by side and at the same time. I have seen, more than once, acre after acre, as far as the eye could see, covered with columbines, sego lilies, and scarlet paintbrush so thickly that it was impossible to walk without crushing some of them underfoot. Sometimes it seems almost sacrilegious to put sheep into such a flower garden; for sheep consider flowers a delicacy and will often pick every flower in sight before touching the grass. But sheep have to eat, and every acre of available range must be used. In fairness to the sheep, however, it must be admitted that they seem to do not permanent harm to the flowers. If the weather is favorable, next season the flowers will be back just as plentiful as ever. Before the columbines have bloomed their last, scarlet gilia and time white daisies, in countless numbers, have joined the wild-flower army and continue to bloom until the great flower display is over around mid-August.

There is something reminiscent of the tropics about such delicate flowers as columbines and sego lilies. You would think that even the slightest touch of frost would make an end to them. However, I have seen frost every month of the year on Pinon Mesa. But the hardy mountain vegetation seems insured to summer frosts, and even the most fragile of the flowers take it in their stride. One July morning the grass was white with frost. I saw half-opened columbine buds covered with frost. At lower altitudes and in warmer climates such a frost would not only completely destroy domestic flower gardens, but it would also leave the farmers’ fields black and withered. The sun came out warm and bright, and at noon I looked again at the frosted columbines. Instead of hanging limp and lifeless, the buds, not in the least damaged by frost, had opened up into full and glorious bloom.

By now marmots are feeding on the green grass and whistling shrilly from all the rocky ridges. Squirrels and chipmunks are equally busy and set the woods echoing with their chattering and scolding. Robins and spruce grouse, and dozens of other birds, are nesting and starting to raise families. Wild ducks are steering their broods of newly hatched youngsters about the beaver ponds. Beavers are busy repairing any damage winter may have done to their dams and new lodges while they have the time. Soon they must start cutting and storing away in their ponds another stock of green aspen sticks for the coming winter. Summer in the high country is short and no sooner reaches its crest than it is time to start slipping down the western ridges into the waiting arms of autumn.

Some summers rain is rare on the mesa. At other times rain will fall without ceasing for weeks at a time. But rainy days or fair, July soon fades into August. All the cattle are now on summer range. The great displays of fragile looking wild flowers are over and their place taken by the plebeian, coarse, rugged sneezeweed.

Sneezeweed is not without beauty of its own, and great banks of golden sneeezeweed carpeting acre after acre of open meadow is a beautiful sight to the botanist or lover of wild flowers. However, it is a sight in which the sheepman can find not pleasure whatever. To the wool-growers sneezeweed is public enemy number one of the wild-flower world. Sneezeweed kills sheep, and every summer hundreds of sheep die on the mesa from eating it. Often the summer death loss is greater than from all other causes combined. Working just the opposite from larkspur, sneezeweed kills sheep but not cattle. Even its effect on sheep varies from time to time. At times sheep eat it without noticeable effects. At other times merely allowing a herd of sheep to cross a sneezeweed patch will cause them to die by dozens.

Though a patch of sneezeweed in full bloom is a distasteful sight to sheepmen, it is a paradise for butterflies and a happy hunting ground for those rare humans who collect these winged gems. One day I tried to count silverspots in a patch of sneezeweed about one hundred feet square. I admit that it is not easy matter to count something as swift and restless and butterflies. But by walking slowly and counting only those resting on flowers or flying toward me, I counted over a thousand in that one spot. And they were all one variety, a variety that is considered rare, so rare that comparatively few collectors have one in their collections.

By the first of September heavy frosts are a nightly occurrence. Now comes shipping time when the lambs are separated from their mothers and sent to market> Lambs which when they reached the mesa, scarce three months ago, were so small that they could hardly keep up with their mothers for the day’s drive will now weigh eighty pounds. Formerly lambs were all driven from the mountain ranches to the nearest railroad shipping point, a long, hard drive that took several days. Now most outfits haul the lambs to the shipping point in trucks, the cost of trucking being balanced by the saving of time and loss of weight incurred on the long trail drives. After the lambs are shipped, the ewes are no longer contented on the high-country summer range. They become restless and more difficult to handle and day by day show an increasing eagerness to start for the lower winter range.

Late September and the flowers have disappeared with the exception of time purple asters and an occasional clump of sneezeweed and paintbrush. But these, too, must soon face the inevitable and bow before autumn’s icy breath.

Of all the summer’s great hordes of butterflies only a few battered and weather-worn silverspots are to be seen winging forlornly about. Occasionally a monarch or yellow sulphur will flit by. But these late comers are strangers to the scene and not members of the mesa’s summer butterfly population.

Mallard flight instructors are busy giving the young ducks lessons in the proper methods of take-off, landing, and mass flight. All day and most of the night is filled with the sound of quacking, splashing, and flapping, as they prepare for the migration soon to come.

Before September ends, a few groups of quaking aspens will have donned their autumn gold. Night by night the frost becomes heavier. Some mornings quiet ponds will be covered with a thin, glass-like sheet of ice. Thin fingers of ice reach out from the bank into streams of running water.

Already the fat and prosperous marmots have retired to winter quarters and their nine-month winter nap. Soon striped ground squirrels and the old black bear and her cubs will follow suit. Pine squirrels, urged by the ever-present fear that they may not have enough food stored for winter, are busily harvesting all the pine and spruce cones they can carry to their dens. Beaver is working at top speed felling aspens, cutting them into proper lengths, and storing them away in his pond for winder use.

September makes way for October, and suddenly the color season is upon the land. One day it is summer; a few days later autumn has arrived in all its glory. From every ridge and hillside, from every canyon and gulch and open glade, flame-colored aspens fairly shriek for attention. For a brief but glorious season color rules supreme and everything else seems dim and insignificant in comparison. Then, as swiftly as it arrived, it is all over. Group by group the aspens drop their leaves. The gleaming white trunks are fully revealed standing stiffly erect holding up bare arms to the blue October sky. Only the dark and brooding spruce groves remain unchanged.

Meadows which only a short time before were lush and green are now dry and bare. The feed is gone. Sheep and cattle must leave. Day after day dust rolls up from the trails and driveways as the outfits drift down to winter range. Soon the great bands of baaing sheep and the herds of bellowing cattle are gone. Along with their herds and flocks, human beings have deserted the mesa.

Silence, broken only by the strident shouts of jays, has settled over the mesa. Beaver’s summer work is done, and he again has time for a leisurely daily swim, though he often has to break a crust of ice from his pond to do it. He now has his ponds to himself, for the ducks are gone, together with all the other feathered summer visitors. Some deer have left for the lower juniper and pinon belt. Others prefer to remain in the high country unless driven out by snow too deep to wade. Coyotes have followed the sheep to lower ranges. Even the dignified, and usually solitary ravens have met in solemn convention, listened gravely to the croaking of elders, and forthwith departed for the warmer valleys.

A strange, expectant hush lies over the high country, as if the whole mountain world were waiting, waiting for something that must come—and soon. Then a day dawns gray and gloomy. Great black storm clouds roll out of the southwest and hang low over the mesa, dark and ominous. Before noon the snow begins to fall. At first the flakes are scattering and fall slowly, leisurely, unhurried. But gradually the tempo quickens. The huge, feathery flakes descend in ever-increasing volume, and the world is blotted out. From the crown of a silver-blue spruce a crested jay shouts gay defiance.

All that day and the next and the next the storm continues. At last, on the fourth day, when the sun breaks through, it looks down on a changed and different world. The pines and spruce and firs stand bowed patiently under gleaming heaps of snow. From sky line to sky line the world is glittering white. Marmots no longer whistle from the ridges, or pine squirrels bark from conifers. No ducks quack. No birds sing. No ravens croak from the sky. For once even the irrepressible jays are hushed. A white snowshoe rabbit speeds ghost-like through the silence. Over the great, lone land the peace of lonely places has descended. King Winter reigns supreme. And once again it is bedtime in the Rockies.

Will Minor may not have been well known to the general public, but he does hold the distinction of having an arch named after him. It is in the Black Ridge Wilderness area, which is part of the McGinnis Canyons Conservation Area. This is an area Will trailed sheep through.

Will Minor Arch

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