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Hunting for a Christmas tree on the Arizona Strip

Morning drive 2

Winter morning in southern Utah

It was a muted, over-cast December morning. I had gotten up to make Monkey Bread before the troop of monkeys woke up. The smell of cinnamon and brown sugar gradually filled the quiet house. While the breakfast dessert baked in the oven I drank my coffee and read a book, enjoying the stillness while it lasted. Our house had doubled in boys as friends had slept over the night before.

As soon as they woke up our house was abuzz with activity and noise: blankets were draped over shoulders and dragged around the house, talking and laughter bounced off the walls and down the hall, a football huddle gathered over the breakfast like a storm, then video games, the mad dash to get dressed, and off to rugby practice. In the interval I asked Dallas, “We are still getting the tree today right?”

We tend to make loose plans not set in stone in case we change our minds, which we do often, so I wasn’t sure if we were really going to get our tree until we were driving out of town.

I had gotten the tree permit earlier in the week so all we had to do was go and get one. When I saw Terrie at the Interagency Land Management office and asked her for a Christmas tree permit, I had to quickly let her know I wanted one for the Arizona Strip. You heard me right; we were going to the desert in search of a tree.


Christmas tree tag

“You’re getting a tree on the Arizona Strip?” she repeated.

When I said yes, she went, “Oh,” and smiled. She thinks I’m nuts, I thought smiling back.

A voice from the back of the room said, “You’re going south for a tree? That’s unusual. Are there any trees out there?” I laughed and told him there were pinion pines.

Not many people go south for a Christmas tree, it’s true, so the reaction was the same from anyone I told; anyone not familiar with the Strip that is.

We have cut trees down before, but never on the Strip so I was a little nervous about how long it would take to get to the pines. I don’t need an excuse to go to the Arizona Strip, but I typically need a damn good one to drag my family out there.

A Christmas tree seemed as good a reason as any, but convenience is hard to compete with. There were Christmas trees just blocks from our house at any number of stores. We could have gotten one in 30 minutes or less. This trip was easily going to take four hours, probably more. The good part was that the tree permit was only $5 compared to a $30, $50, or $70 dollar tree at the store, but what we saved in money we would more than pay for in hours and miles.


Chaos is the rule, peace the exception

A sort of anxiety and excitement welled up inside me as we headed toward Colorado City, the turn-off point to head out for our tree. Driving long stretches on a dirt road, into what seems like the middle of nowhere, can rattle nerves and make people cranky, especially for a mission such as ours. Our kids had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car after being up half the night with their friends, however, and so the first hour of driving was peaceful and quiet.

Thin clouds were stretched across the sky giving the desert a winter hue. I felt myself relax into my seat as the land spread out before us. Nothing is quite so peaceful as the open desert. I loved it. I could have driven all day in it and been as happy as a pig in slop.

My reverie ended aburptly, however, when we hit a dip in the road that woke all the boys up. Kael rubbed his eyes and looked around, “Where the crap are the trees?” he asked.

I rolled. I don’t know why it was so funny, but it took me a good few minutes to stop laughing. “What’s so funny?” he asked, somewhat annoyed.

But the next question was a loaded one. “How much longer do you think we have to go Gret?” Dallas asked.

Crap. I wasn’t sure; it could be another 30 minutes or two more hours. I never paid attention to the trees when I went out on the Strip.

I speculated, “I don’t know, maybe another hour,” I said, bracing myself for the exasperation that was sure to follow. But to my delight, he just smiled and said, “Oh. This sure is a long drive for a tree.”

“Yeah I know,” I said, “But it will be worth it.”

I hoped.

We sped past herds of cattle and watched as flocks of birds traced across the sky. We wondered what the birds were doing or where they were going. We watched as the valley would fill up with dust like a thick fog when ranchers flew by us going in the opposite direction. We were the only ones heading south. Up and over hills, mile after mile, we went deeper into the desert. As we made our way I kept my eyes peeled for pinions.

The tree

The tree

Finally I saw one. I knew the mere presence of that one tree would be the beacon of hope everyone in the car needed to indicate that we were getting close. Suddenly the boys had their faces pressed to the windows trying to tell the difference between juniper trees and pinion pines.

And then we saw it, we saw our Christmas tree standing in a small depression beneath a low ridge. And there was one up on top of the ridge too.

Sweet! I thought. If we don’t like one, we can take the other.

We pulled off the road and piled out. Brrrr! It was shockingly cold. There were patches of snow on the ground and a cold breeze was blowing. It always amazes me how cold the desert can get. We all put our coats and beanies on and marched out to look at the trees. The tree on the ridge seemed a little small so we all congregated around the one in the bowl just below it.

It was perfect.

The boys each took turns with the hand saw, slowly cutting through the trunk of the tree. It didn’t take long and the tree fell to the ground in a soft landing of branches.

Kael cutting tree

Kael taking his turn

The boys grabbed the tree by the trunk and started dragging it to the car, and then of course had to prove that they could drag it alone, each taking turns in a strong man contest.

When they got the tree to us, Dallas and I hoisted the tree up on top of the car and lashed it down. At least two and a half hours of driving and maybe 10 minutes of cutting, and it was time to head home.

Before heading out just yet we all stood around rather proudly and took in the view of our harvest. I breathed in the cold, crisp desert air and felt the joy I always feel when I get away from the busyness and noise of city life. But I also felt a sudden well of gratitude rise up inside me. It was the first time I had ever felt an overwhelming desire to thank the land for what we were taking. It was surely a gift; the handiwork of God, of nature, of sunlight and water. And it was ours.

We all piled back in the car, turned the heat on, and started our journey home. Moods had improved and plans of decorating the tree were being made.

About an hour into our drive I asked the kids for my water bottle, which no one could produce. We looked around, under things and seats, but it wasn’t there. I couldn’t remember for the life of me if I had taken it out of the car when we cut down the tree, but since we couldn’t find it, it was the only logical explanation.

That water bottle had been a gift; a running gift from Dallas and he was not about to leave it sitting out in the desert somewhere. I, of course, would not have turned around for a water bottle, but had no complaints with driving through the desert some more and happily agreed to turn around and look for it.

Geez we had driven a long way! It seemed to take an eternity to get back to the spot where we had cut the tree down. The sun was sinking fast and we were running out of light. We got out of the car to a brilliant red and purple sunset and then dashed to the tree stump to look around.

Tree hunting

Take two

We looked everywhere. No water bottle. Dallas walked back to the car while I took in the last hues of the sunset. When I got back he had his arms folded across his chest and was looking at me like a scolding parent.

“What?” I asked. “Did you find it?” He didn’t answer me. I finally started laughing. Surely he had found it. “Where was it?” I asked when I got to the car.

“Under your hat little Missy,” he said.

“See,” I said, getting into the car and warming my hands in front of the heater vents, “You should have listened to me. We should never have gone back for the water bottle. We would be home by now.” And thus began the debate over taking care of our things.

Because the water bottle had been right under my feet the whole time, the kids got to throw heaps of blame on me for the extra two hours of driving, which they did with relish. I just laughed and enjoyed the fading view of the land as we made our way home.

The tree had to be pulled through the front door with gusto because it was so big and when we stood it up, we only had an inch to spare. Context definitely matters. A tree that looks like an average sized Christmas tree in an open expanse of desert can be deceptively big once you try squeezing it into a confined space. We ood and awed once we had it standing and felt its looming presence even when out of eyesight. It was like having a gentle giant in the house that left a sweet piney scent for days.

Christmas tree 2

A little piece of the Arizona Strip

Our behemoth of a tree, with its glittering lights, brings me joy every time I look at it – not just because it is a beautiful Christmas tree, but because when I look at it I see my home landscape.

For a fleeting season I will get to hold a piece of the desert inside my home and with it, remember the arid smell of dry earth being swept by a cold winter wind in the fading light of an ember sky. I didn’t get a tree from the Pacific Northwest, as lovely as they are, that was raised on a farm and shipped in a truck to my grocery store. I got a perfect homegrown tree right out of my geographical backyard and I feel blessed for the experience.


Shrooming in Oregon

Dead ferns, mushrooms, and moss.

Dead ferns, mushrooms, and moss

I inadvertently did some mushroom hunting while in Oregon on a fire assignment. By inadvertently I mean that I did not literally go hunting for mushrooms the way that permitted mushrooms hunters do, but I was looking for them while walking through the forests of Mount Hood. The first time I heard the phrase ‘mushroom hunting’ was when I read, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I liked the way it sounded. I liked how the word ‘hunt’ suggested something intentional and that requires skill. Plus, I love mushrooms, and the idea of hunting for them brings visions of old world, folk wisdom passed down from generation to generation that makes me feel connected to something traditional and timeless.

Ortega y Gasset said of hunting that it offers us our last best chance to escape history and return to the state of nature, if only for a time – for a vacation from the human condition. Gasset was talking about hunting animals, but I believe that any hunting, whether for physical, recreational, or spiritual sustenance, produces the same thing. He said:

When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning.

Thinking about mushroom hunting brings images to mind of people stalking the small and elusive fungi, slinking in the shadows ready to pounce, snatch them up, and throw them into their baskets to either be sold at the market or sauteed for dinner. It’s a funny phrase. We don’t hunt wild raspberries, we gather them. But all humor and ignorance aside, after looking for mushrooms in a forest, I understand why it is not called mushroom gathering; those suckers are hard to see – at least if you don’t have the right eyes to see them with – and they can be poisonous, which makes finding the right ones a honed skill. As Micheal Pollan said, “Mushrooms are mysterious.”

Colors beneath our toes

Colors beneath our toes

I believe that in order to fully appreciate different localities and geographical places one has to have the right eyes. Having the right eyes requires learning about the place, spending time in it, adapting to it, and delving into it. I am acutely aware of this process because of how often I hear people refer to the desert as ugly; they have not grown the mature vision to appreciate it – they can’t “see” it. The desert is stunning, dynamic, dangerous, and in a constant state of flux, but you have to stick around and get out in it for a while to see all the layers and changes, both subtle and sudden. Time is the essential ingredient. You can’t be a tourist to fully appreciate a place.

The tourist sees broadly the great spaces, but his gaze glides, it seizes nothing, it does not perceive the role of each ingredient in the dynamic architecture of the countryside. Only the hunter, imitating the perpetual alertness of the wild animal, for whom everything is danger, sees everything and sees each thing functioning as facility or difficulty, as risk or protection.”

So visiting Oregon from the desert, I was immediately aware of my shallow vision for appreciating forests. All I could see were trees and when I looked for mushrooms, they eluded me. In fact, on several occasions I was astonished to hear after hiking through the woods with a local firefighter that he had seen many mushrooms. That was why the first time I noticed one on my own I was ecstatic. I’m not sure if any of the mushrooms I came across are edible, but they were beautiful. I am certain that if I spent more time in Oregon I would grow forest eyes and see all the depths and layers that exist in them and perhaps grow up to be a fierce mushroom hunter. But until then these desert eyes of mine will have to hunt mushrooms in the desert sky islands of the southwest if and when I can get to them.

Even though the hunt takes place during a brief vacation from modern life, what occurs in the space of that electrifying parenthesis will ever and always be… authentic.

Micro-scale world

Micro-scale world

Blanding County Commissioner Phil Lyman charged with conspiracy, has justice been served?

County Commissioner Phil Lyman was charged with conspiracy for planning and leading an illegal OHV ride through Recapture Canyon in Blanding last year. It appears that justice has been served. But has it? Sure, in this instance, it appears that has and it is cathartic to finally see it. Our sense of right and wrong, of fairness, is somewhat assuaged by it; but in the bigger picture, it seems to barely scrape the surface of enforcing the law equally.

I was in Blanding for the protest. I watched a train of people illegally ride through that canyon and they all knew what they were doing. So why were only two people charged? I understand that going after the ringleader supports the theory that if you cut off the head, you kill the body. But what happened in Blanding was an extension of what happened in Bunkerville.

Commissioner Lyman called the Bundy’s and Ryan Bundy and his troops showed up to add a little muscle to the protest. When it appeared that Lyman was going to keep it at a peaceful protest and not ride through the canyon (even though he stated he had no problem with doing so), Ryan Bundy ratcheted up the rhetoric by stating that he came to “open a road.” He made it clear that if they weren’t going to open a road, he was going to take his toys and go home.

Although Lyman had no moral problem with crossing the line where OHVs are prohibited, he had originally stated that he believed doing so may do more harm to their cause than good. He had suggested that for the protest, it might be best to stop at that line. But the people from Bunkerville, energized by their “victory” over the BLM, were not in attendance for a peaceful protest. They were there “to open a road.” Or in my view, they were there for Bunkerville Part II.

I can only speculate as to what this did to Commissioner Lyman but it appeared he didn’t want to lose his star freedom fighter, or maybe he didn’t want lose face or look like a chicken, and after Bunkerville, there were expectations. Either way, it looked to me like Ryan Bundy and his entourage was were the ones who tipped the protest into a full-swing illegal ride, despite Lyman’s calls for the opposite, and Lyman obliged them.

As Ryan Bundy said, “We the people took Bundy ranch back. It’s the freest area in the entire country.” And riding on that wave, why would they back down to the BLM in Blanding? Everyone who drove an OHV through that canyon knew they were breaking the law and they did it with conviction. So why weren’t all of them charged? Or at least, why wasn’t Ryan Bundy?

I am no fan of Commissioner Lyman and find him to be all over the place in defense of his actions ranging from being okay with breaking the law to denying he knew he broke the law. I find his wriggling rewriting of history and attempt to induce fear by warning all county commissioners that they don’t have jurisdiction in their own counties to be rather weak in comparison to his initial appeal to the convictions of men like Thomas Pain and Henry David Thoreau in their defense of civil disobedience.

And clearly the judge didn’t buy it either. As U.S. District Court Judge Shelby said when Lyman tried to make his defense based on first amendment rights, “Speech is not protected if it is the vehicle of the crime itself.”

So I think it was just for him to be found guilty and for people who care about such things as ancient artifacts, preserving ancient cultures, and protecting our landscapes, this was definitely a win – especially in Utah, where most circle the wagons and support their own.

That being said, Lyman should not be the only person facing charges. Furthermore, it begs the question: What is going on in Nevada? How is it that the ringleader of rebellion against the federal government in Bunkerville has not been charged? With a track record of breaking the law for 20 years and capping it off with raising a weapon-wielding rebellion, it seems that there is more than enough for not just a charge, but incarceration.

But it’s more than even that. People have become emboldened by Bundy. In a recent article in St. George News about a proposal for a new national monument, rancher Bill Gubler said, “They’re backing the ranchers into a corner, and you’re going to see a lot of Cliven Bundys out there.”

I agree with him but not for the same reason.

Because Cliven Bundy has not been charged with breaking the law, and furthermore, backed the government down with armed resistance, many believe that’s the way to push back. Because ranchers have a grievance with the government, and one rancher’s shenanigans worked, there most probably will be copycats. When one person gets away with it, it is logical to wonder if everyone can get away with it. And that is why the law must be executed equally across the board. Otherwise, there will be no respect for it or adherence to it – and why there will be civil unrest when justice is executed quickly for others.

There are many who want to see the law executed equally, those who want to see public land managed according to law, and those who think the laws should be changed. It is an explosive and divisive issue without doubt, and one that must be handled with care – but handled it must be.

We all know that there are bad laws on the books. We know that bad laws get passed all the time. But the law is the foundation of this country. You can choose to break it, but then you must be prepared to face the consequences if you do. The other course of action is to seek to change it, and though not as glamorous or as speedy and with no guarantee you will get your way, keeps your butt out of jail and possibly makes a difference for others who feel the way that you do.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.”

Civil unrest happens when order is not maintained. We maintain order by enforcing the law. And we provide hope when justice is served. It is not fair under the law when one man gets charged and another walks away Scott free.

I’d say when it comes to justice being served, the jury’s still out.

Lifeblood: The Virgin

Virgin RIver, Zion National Park

Virgin RIver, Zion National Park

Scrumptious Cinnamon Chili

Da da da DAAA! The Chili

Da da da DAAA! The Chili

There couldn’t be a better time for a great chili recipe than New Year’s Eve. Something to warm your belly before a night out in the cold is definitely in order. I looove soups, chilies, and stews and all their many forms and consistencies and while I am fond of soups during the winter months, I pretty much love soup all year.

I love that I can cram a ton of veggies and flavors into it and come up with something healthy and amazing. It’s like the multivitamin of meals. I love that it always provides left-overs. And, it’s comfort food with built in anticipation that never disappoints. Perhaps my love of soup started with the witches brews I concocted as a child out in my mother’s garden. Who knows. Either way, I make and play around with soups quite a bit and every once in a while I make something really delicious. That was certainly the case with my experimental chili.

I am a fan of Bill Philips and his philosophy on healthy eating and diet. I have been making meals out of his cook book for over a decade. One of my favorites is his chili recipe, but I think I just improved it. About a month ago I threw some cinnamon into that recipe and came up with a chili more scrumptious than any I have ever tasted (if you have already discovered the amazing quality cinnamon adds to chili don’t burst my bubble). And if the flavor is not great enough, the mouth watering scent that bubbles up out of the chili while you are cooking is worth it alone.

The way that I prepare the chili is not set in stone, but if you follow my lead, it will be a little thin the first day, so if you want that thick chili consistency, you might want to make it a day in advance and give it a night to settle and thicken up. Plus, if you do that, you will give the flavors time to mature – as we all know that soup is better the second or third day. Feel free to use your choice of meat, no meat, or a meat alternative and any additional vegetables or spices as you desire – though you might want to try the recipe first before making alterations, or at least take notes so you remember that you can duplicate it.

Whew, now that all of that is out of the way…to the recipe:

1-2 lbs ground beef (I typically use 1 lb but 2 makes more and makes it thicker)

1 tbsp butter

1 white onion chopped

8 cloves garlic

1 green bell pepper chopped

3 jalapenos (I don’t seed mine, but you can)

1/3 cup of chili powder

1/4 cup fresh parsley or 2 tbsp dried parsely

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp cinnamon

3 cans beef broth (sometime I reduce this for a thicker chili)

1 beef bullion (optional)

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes (I use the Italian roasted)

2 cans chili beans

2 can red beans (I often mix black and kidney beans in as well)

Sour cream and shredded cheese topping

In a large pot over medium heat melt butter and stir in the onions. Cook for a few minutes and then add the garlic and beef. In a food processor add the can of tomatoes, the pepper, and the jalapenos and then add to the pot once the beef is browned. Then add all the rest of the ingredients. Let simmer for 30 minutes. And voila! Your cinnamon chili is done. Put a dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheese on top and enjoy.

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