Off-season is an odd term. The fact that I even use it indicates my habit and Telluride’s influence on the region. Sure, seasonal businesses in Ouray and Ridgway also expect a downturn between the end of winter and the beginning of high summer. Still, off-season in my mind will forever mean the time between the ski area’s closing and the first summer festival, Memorial Day’s Mountainfilm.
I wonder if my taciturn rancher neighbor here in Colona uses “off-season.” This time of year could hardly be more dynamic. He’s out there right now in his rubber boots and long-handle spade herding water. Irrigating has been happening for a few weeks now. The Gunnison south canal is running full bore, as are the ditches off the Uncompahgre.
Late last month he and his hands had to keep the new calves alive through the last of the spring snow storms. Castrating and branding will be coming up here soon. Then it’ll be time to move them up to the high country.
Ellen and I joke that it looks like Ireland out our kitchen window. A slight exaggeration, but it’s true, the high desert is now as green as it ever gets with clumps of new blue-green growth on the sage, shiny new dime-size leaves on the mountain mahogany, new green spikes on the rice grass. Even the cheat grass, an undefeatable invasive which will shortly turn red then gold for the rest of the year, is as green as Paddy McCreary’s pasture.
The first wildflowers are out. Giant orange and black bumble bees are already making lumbering rounds of the creamy white milk-vetch. I looked milk-vetch up. There are 2,000 different species, all in the legume family. (Flowers look like white sweet peas.) I have no idea which ones we have. Some western species are the horseman’s dreaded locoweed. Others are apparently being processed into extracts to combat HIV.
The rock wrens are not taking the season off. We’ve been watching a mating pair build their nest in a crevice outside the living room window. They make maybe 100 trips a day each with pieces of dry grass in their beaks, squeeze in through the narrow opening, then re-emerge a minute later to fly off and do it all over again. This morning one of them puffed him/herself up and charged a chipmunk who was getting a little too nosey on the rock wall. The wrens have the most mellifluous songs, but they also have long, sharp beaks.
The hummingbirds are back, too, both the tiny black-chinned ones and the green and rose-colored ones, the broad-tailed hummingbirds. A broad-tailed male comes by every morning to check out the red spike in the window where Ellen is forcing a new shoot of geranium in a vase. The crazy thing thinks it’s time to bloom.
Fortunately, the hummingbirds know better than to try to come through the glass to get at it. Not so the pair of courting sage sparrows the other morning. I’d seen them earlier—he was chasing her, I presume—turning, darting, eye-blink quick around the boulders and the junipers. Then, thunk! A solid hit to the window. They were killed instantly, simultaneously, both of them lying on the ground at the precise billiards-carom angle from the point of impact. So much exuberance offed in a nano-second by an illusion of space, a reflection of sky.
Across the valley the last of the snow is leaving Horsefly Peak. The snow, even the ridgetop cornices, is so brown with dust it’s hard to distinguish from the dirt. Farther south, North Pole and Hayden appear whiter, but seriously stained by the last of the 12—count ‘em 12—dust storms we endured this winter. The snowpack, top to bottom, is an unwelcome parfait. The albedo number, the ability of the snow to reflect solar radiation back into space (1.0 would be perfect reflectivity; a scummy pond might rate a 0.2), has got to be super low right now. Our San Juans “water towers,” our steady high-country storage system, looks this year as if it’s going to come down in a dust-induced rush. The National Weather Service has been issuing high-water warnings for the Gunnison and other local rivers the last few days. Good for the boaters, I guess. As long as it lasts.
So. Off-season? Tell it to the ravenous pregnant squirrel barreling straight into Ellen’s newly-planted flower bed. Hey! Get outta there!