For the first time since I moved to Maine 17 years ago, I was not happy to see that “Maine – the Way Life Should Be” sign when I crossed the Piscataqua River bridge from New Hampshire. I wanted to be back in Big Bend National Park. There I lived simply. My home was a dumpy trailer but everything worked and there was no mold. Whatever I brought with me in my van was all I needed for the six months I was there: laptop, two printers, cameras, a lamp, folding desk chair, books (gawd – a ton of books), clothes, dishes, pots and pans, and the usual household stuff. I was outside a lot on my days off, hiking and getting to know the park intimately. I even came home 12 pounds lighter!
When I left in mid-April, the cactus were blooming and a big rainstorm meant that more wildflowers would be popping out. The skies were taking on their summer personna – billowy cumulus and dramatic thunderheads, an artist’s delight. Yet I had to leave.
But I eased the transition by visiting some fantastic birding places. At Davis Mountains State Park I got great photographs of the elusive Montezuma quail.
And at Choke Canyon State Park I saw the great kiskadee, avocets, couch’s flycatcher, lark sparrow, blue grosbeak, bronze cowbird and many others – some firsts for me.
Caracara – a beautiful scavenger
And there were roadside wildflowers everywhere. Though I am Texas born and bred, it was the first time I felt proud to admit it. (GW notwithstanding.)
After visiting my brother’s family in Houston, I stopped at the Anahuac NWR – a favorite bird haunt and was dismayed to see that Hurricane Ike had gutted the visitor center and left devastation at the wooded areas. But there were great birds nonetheless – a king rail, summer and scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted and blue grosbeaks, and many others. I also visited the Sabine Woods south of Port Arthur, which amazingly has survived both Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. Huge oaks and deciduous trees still shelter migrating warblers, grosbeaks and other birds such as the yellow-breasted chat, Kentucky warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, gray-cheeked vireo, and on and on.
However, “The Willows” – an area of thin willows bordering the Gulf was completely wiped out. No trees left. I had seen indigo and painted buntings there after Rita. Adjacent is McFadden beach, which had not been developed for years but was now open. Across the street were least terns nesting in little depressions in the sand. This is the end of the Gulf road from Sabine Pass.
Twenty or so years ago the many hurricanes had washed out the road that culminated in the ferry to Galveston. Sea Rim State Park’s visitor center had been nearly rebuilt after Rita, but it was completely gone after Ike. And now there is the worry about the huge oil spill, an environmental disaster that makes me ache every time I hear about it.
After visiting my mother in Beaumont, I allowed myself one more tourist treat – Kansas. Believe it or not, there are some lovely landscapes in Kansas. It was the last remaining state I had not been to other than Hawaii, and I had heard the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas was one of the prettiest areas. Indeed, it was. The tallgrass prairie in its spring green mantle flowed over gently rolling hills topped with wide, cloud-filled skies. Most of the original prairie is now pastureland. Where the hills are dotted with rock and flint, they were unsuitable for farmland. Cattle are shipped from Texas and elsewhere to fatten up on the rich grasses. But two areas in particular have been preserved.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve run by the National Park Service in partnership with the Nature Conservancy is an old ranch homestead with a picturesque stone schoolhouse. Many buildings in the Flint Hills are made of local limestone – much of it was laid down over the eons in such a way that it quarries easily. New bird for me there: Baird’s sparrow.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas
The Konza Prairie Biological Preserve is a co-operative between the University of Kansas and the Nature Conservancy, and although I nearly gave up trying to find it due to lack of signage, I was glad I persisted. It was stunning – I hiked more than six miles of trails over the hills with views of Manhattan farmlands, clusters of trees in their glowing chartreuse finery, and smudges of smoke where distant prairieland was being burned to keep down weeds and enrich the grassland. Along the creek were chinquapin and bur oaks sheltering more birds. I want to revisit these areas in October on my way back to Big Bend.
Yes, I’ve decided that Big Bend is my winter home, as long as the park service needs me. Maybe I’ll get to stay for a summer, too. I have visions of getting a little RV and traveling the countryside, perhaps having a summer park job somewhere. But there’s the complication of owning a home.
And that’s why I was depressed. I walked in and found my housesitter had left a mess. Not a terrible mess, but one that I shouldn’t have had to deal with – including cat pee on the bedroom carpet that might need replacement. (That’s what happens when the cat box isn’t cleaned regularly.) In my rush to bring in all the lawn furniture and plant pots for winter, and to pack, and to finish customer orders before I left in fall, I made it a point to leave my housesitter a clean house. I even mopped the kitchen floor. Despite detailed instructions, a thorough walk-through, and many pleas while I was gone to keep me informed if things go wrong, I wound up having to clean up her mess and deal with issues she had not told me about.
Plus I realized just how much STUFF my life was cluttered with. And how much dust was on the top shelves where my treasured knick knacks were. I wanted to turn right around and walk out. I even consulted a realtor about selling. And I did a whirlwind scour of things to sell at a yard sale. I’ve already made $250 at used bookstores, with about 100 more good books left to sell. (I even sold an authographed Amy Tan “Kitchen God’s Wife.”)
But now that I’ve gotten the house livable again, I love it just the same as I always did. “My” birds are here as usual – chickadees nesting where the bluebirds usually do by my little pond; chipping and song sparrows; catbirds in the arborvitae; phoebes; tree swallows in the field birdbox; Baltimore orioles singing from the silver maple; goldfinches at the birdbath, flickers, downy and hairy woodpeckers; crows; common yellowthroat nesting along the rock wall brush; parula and black-and-white warblers singing; bobolinks with their waterfall songs overseeing their hayfield nests; robins (I saw a partial albino in town yesterday); and many others. How could I think of leaving?
My frog pond for the first time has spring peepers, which are New England’s most cherished sound of spring. There are hundreds of tadpoles in it, too. Unfortunately their night songs hide the “peent” and whistling dance of the woodcocks. I have probably three other frog varieties throughout the spring/summer in my little pond surrounded by day lilies.
Spring came very early in Maine. The grass was a foot high by May 1. My tulips are gone by; roses are blooming (unheard of in May!); lupine are tall; lilacs are in full flower; apples are setting little fruits; and my young peach trees and wisteria bloomed for the first time ever. One lady told me in the 50 years she’s lived in Maine this was the first real spring ever. We usually get winter until April, then mud season, then new leaves by mid-May, then summer. It has felt like July on many days so far, interspersed with a few frosty mornings. Heavenly!
I’m working for the Census again, have made some good wholesale sales, and am preparing for what ought to be a decent art show season this year. Finances are still shaky, but I’m trying to simplify even more. I plan to rent the house for winter, and who knows – if I get a year-round job(s) I might sell. I hope I don’t have to. Maine is a very lovely place six months of the year. This is my nature preserve, my medicine. I’m glad to be home.
See more photographs of my journey home at www.photoartgal.smugmug.com – Click on Texas and Kansas categories.
Here is the Navajo Beautyway chant:
Beauty before me
Beauty behind me
Beauty above me
Beauty below me
Beauty within me
Beauty without me
Beauty All Around