Flutey Music Filling the Air

Cuzco Peru musicians

Cuzco Airport, Peru, South America

Cuzco, Peru

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

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The Magical Pinyon Jay

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

I found a stunning but unfamiliar jay recently while visiting Nevada, and enjoyed numerous sightings of this new “lifer.”  As part of the Corvid family, pinyon jays are similar to other North American jays in size, shape, and color.  Though they do not have a crest, the pinyon jay is approximately 10 inches long, with an overall blue color.  But noticeably unlike other jay species, they are highly social, traveling in flocks of hundreds.

 

The distribution of Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus is in the western and southwestern United States, in foothills and lower mountain slopes.  They forage on the seed of the pinyon pine, but will also eat juniper or ponderosa pine seeds as well as berries, fruit, and insects.  With a very strong bill, they open the green pine cone and remove the seed.   In years when seed crops are low, they will relocate outside their home territory to other pine woodland forests.  Like other jays, they cache their seeds and have incredible spatial memories for recovering their hidden treasures.

 

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

In earlier eras the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the west were razed for cattle and agriculture production; the pinyon jay population dangerously dwindled.  Since the 1960s, their population has recovered somewhat, but conservation status is still threatened, and listed as vulnerable.

 

The first time I saw them we were driving on a dirt road to our Nevada lodge.  A gregarious flock landed in a nearby pinyon pine, dazzling us with flashes of blue.  As our stay at the lodge continued, we found them flying overhead in huge flocks, often on the ridges of the canyon, scattering into stands of pines.  Soon we came to know their call, a high-pitched mew; a striking sound that stopped us in our tracks as it echoed through the canyon.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Pony Express Comes Alive

 

Pony Express flyer

Pony Express flyer

After the discovery of gold in California and the subsequent wave of prospectors, investors, and businessmen, mail sent from the eastern U.S. to the west had suddenly become an important issue.

 

In trotted the Pony Express in 1860:  a privately-owned company that supplied a transcontinental mail service from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.  There were Pony Express stations dotted across the western plains, mountains, and desert about every ten miles–the distance it took for a horse to tire after traveling at a gallop.

 

The rider would change horses at every station, and usually travel about 75-100 miles at a stretch.  With 184 stations and 80-120 riders, the mail went in both directions every day and was boasted as reaching its destination in ten days or less.  If you think about a letter being carried from one side of this country to the other in ten days on horseback, you can figure there was masterful speed and dedication in this endeavor.

 

Pony Express Rider's Oath

Pony Express Rider’s Oath

Riders not only encountered extreme weather in this year-round enterprise; but robberies, raids, and ambushes also threatened their lives.  The men could not weigh more than 125 pounds, and orphans were preferred.  Mark Twain described the riders he had seen as, “…usually a little bit of a man.”

 

The mail was attached to pouches, called mochilas, and carried amidst the saddle, along with the riders’ essentials:  a water sack, a Bible, a horn for announcing their arrival, and a revolver.  William Cody “Buffalo Bill” was the most famous of the riders, who was said to have ridden the longest journey of 322 miles, when he found his relief rider had been killed.

 

Pony Express Station Remnants, Nevada

Pony Express Station Remnants, Nevada

While driving through the Great Basin area in Nevada recently, I saw the remnants of several Pony Express stations.  Highway 50 parallels the original Pony Express route.  Every ten miles there would be a sign and some rubble.  One of the station’s foundations is pictured here.

 

Surprisingly the Pony Express only existed for 18 months.  When the transcontinental telegraph was invented in 1861, delivering letters by horseback was no longer necessary.

 

I don’t know.  Maybe it was the road trip, driving 10 and 13 hours a day; maybe it was studying the Pony Express riders and all their perils.  But either way, driving an engine-powered vehicle across a paved road for a few hours just seems easy now.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Desert Bliss on Hwy 50

Nevada's Hwy 50

Nevada’s Hwy 50

Anyone who has ever driven across Nevada on U.S. Highway 50 never forgets it.  Dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” there are few people or animals for days, and yet it boasts of western desert character.

 

From the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California west to the Rocky Mountains in eastern Utah is the Great Basin, a vast region occupying approximately 200,000 square miles.  This area includes all of Nevada, much of western Utah, parts of California, Oregon and Wyoming. What makes it unique is that all precipitation that forms here does not flow to the sea; it is the biggest such area in all of North America.  Here precipitation flows into the basin and distributes only by seepage or evaporation.  Read more about the Great Basin here.

 

Downtown Eureka, NV

Downtown Eureka, NV

The big cities that border it are Reno in the west, full of casinos and gamblers; and Salt Lake City in the east, full of churches and Mormons.  In between these two extremes are ghost towns from the silver mining days, a few lonely military installations, and numerous wavering oases on the empty road ahead.

 

The Nevada desert is also broken up by 17 mountain passes.  When you’re not driving on flat roads surrounded by sand and sagebrush, you’re rising up through a mountain pass on steep grades and hairpin turns.

 

Sand Mtn, NV

Sand Mtn, NV

One day we came upon a large white sand dune.  We were due for a rest break, so we exited the highway at a recreation area called Sand Mountain.  Apparently this 600 foot high dune makes a singing sound when wind is passing over it, if conditions are right (sand grain size, humidity, and silica).  For us there was no sound.  No sound anywhere.

 

Every once in awhile we would see a sign on the roadside indicating a Pony Express station was nearby.  From 1860 to 1861 this stretch of the U.S. had the Pony Express line running through it.  It’s an interesting tidbit of American history that I’ll tell you more about very soon.

 

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

Wildlife was sparse, especially when traveling at 80 miles per hour.  I know there were a lot of bugs because whenever we stopped to fill up the tank, we were literally scraping layers of dead bugs off of the windshield.  Of less abundance were a handful of pronghorn, and some jackrabbits disappearing into the sagebrush.

 

This highway was magical.  I suppose some folks would find it lonely, but everyone we talked to loved it.  Passing through 10,000 foot mountains and descending into salt pan basins, surrounded by borderless highway and vast, open skies.  As long as you had gasoline, freedom was yours.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Bright Spot of a Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

We were hiking around Jackson Lake at the base of the Grand Tetons when we found this yellow-rumped warbler with some of his buddies.  They were catching insects at the water’s edge.  I was catching insects too, with my gaping mouth in awe at the beauty surrounding me.  Just kidding.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander