In the Valley

First, they are rumors. Cath saw them the day before yesterday, flying over the house. Ian comes in through the back door as I’m standing by the coffee pot, the brittanys at his heels, telling me he just heard them overhead. Maybe they landed out back? I’m out in the yard, coffee forgotten, but they’re already gone.

Then there are three of them, wheeling behind the cottonwoods as we unload bails of straw from the back of the purple Nissan. The ceiling of the Nissan is sagging, ballooning cloth not quite touching your head but almost there. Cath went to Denver a few weeks back to buy a two-wheel drive Tacoma to replace it, but it had been driven out from Maine and the guts were all rust. I pause, the twine around the straw bails cutting into my hands. Again they are gone.

We’ll have to hunt for them. It doesn’t take long. Three miles west and there are three hundred, maybe five hundred. Five hundred sandhill cranes, agglomerating and fissioning against the dry foothills, the pines, the rushing crown fire of an early October aspen glade on Greenie Mountain. They’re calling and it’s beautiful, the way leaves rasping on your window or fingers running down the tines of a comb becomes music in the aggregate. Down in Albuquerque the museum is saving their trachea to figure out exactly how the sound is made. At the Refuge, though, there are only a handful, ignoring the wetlands for fields of millet lying fallow.

I’m walking a berm along the ditch, a harrier working some imagined margin to my right. Ian is telling me about a man called Psycho, from Lasauses, down on the Rio. Psycho killed four people and buried their bodies off County Road 27. It was kept quiet for a while but now there are articles in the Valley Courier and The Colorado Sun and he is going away forever. Lasauses had a dancehall once, like Antonito did, but few people live still live there or even remember it any more.

On the shore of this vast dead lake alfalfa and oats lap up against a beach of greasewood and alkali, the dry delimitation of the perfect irrigated circles you can only admire from the sky. Seven inches of rain a year, very nearly the driest place in Colorado. Cumbres Pass, a stones throw away, is likely the wettest; every day I’ve ever spent here has been touched by the marvel of virgas dancing out of reach above the mountains. Munchas sierras, you’d say; muncha a regional Spanish archaism left over from being on the wrong side of too much desert.

A basin in a range that becomes a rift. There are a handful of endemic species in the San Luis Valley, mostly in the dunes and the grasslands beyond the farm country. In 1959 Joseph C. Daniel Jr. and R. Leonard Blain published a paper in The Great Basin Naturalist that looked for a connection between background soil radiation and the ranges of local tiger beetles and pocket gophers and kangaroo rats. It’s a dated way to think about speciation, but you understand the impulse. There must have been some force for creation, some framework for making sense of life and death. There must be a reason things are the way they are here.

Lasauses is where the lakebed breaks, where the Taos Plateau starts to wrinkle. The limits of El Norte. You can fly away from it, now. We drop Ian off at the airport in Alamosa to grab his friend’s car. She left, maybe for Denver. It’s quicker than driving. I ask him whether there’s a Starbucks inside, a dumb joke. Headed south we catch the last gas station before Ojo. More people inside are wearing masks than I expected. When I come out, another sedge of cranes is cutting south across San Antonio Mountain. With any luck they’ll beat us home.