Magdalena mountain, p.1

Magdalena Mountain, page 1


Magdalena Mountain

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Magdalena Mountain





  Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land

  The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

  Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide

  Nabokov’s Butterflies (Editor, with Brian Boyd and Dmitri Nabokov)

  Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage

  Walking the High Ridge: Life as Field Trip

  Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place

  Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year

  The Tangled Bank: Essays from Orion

  Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature


  Letting the Flies Out (chapbook)

  Evolution of the Genus Iris

  Chinook and Chanterelle


  Watching Washington Butterflies

  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies

  The IUCN Invertebrate Red Data Book

  (with S. M. Wells and N. M. Collins)

  Handbook for Butterfly Watchers

  Butterflies: A Peterson Field Guide Coloring Book

  (with Roger Tory Peterson and Sarah Anne Hughes)

  Insects: A Peterson Field Guide Coloring Book (with Kristin Kest)

  The Butterflies of Cascadia

  Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest (with Caitlin LaBar)

  Magdalena Mountain

  Copyright © 2018 by Robert Michael Pyle

  First paperback edition: 2018

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events is unintended and entirely coincidental.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Pyle, Robert Michael, author.

  Title: Magdalena Mountain / Robert Michael Pyle.

  Description: Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint Press, [2018]

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017060550 | ISBN 9781640090774 (softcover) | eISBN 9781640090781

  Subjects: LCSH: Quests (Expeditions)—Fiction. | Wilderness areas—Fiction. | Naturalists—Fiction. | Butterflies—Fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3616.Y545 M34 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

  LC record available at

  Jacket designed by Kelly Winton

  Book designed by Jordan Koluch


  2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

  Berkeley, CA 94710

  Printed in the United States of America

  Distributed by Publishers Group West

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For the women

  who made this book possible:

  JoAnne, Sally, Thea, Mary Jane, Jan, and Florence

  ∼they know what they did∼

  and, of course,

  for Maggie May




  Should a landing craft from elsewhere settle onto Magdalena Mountain on an early-autumn morning, the visitors might arrive at two conclusions. First, this world is a golden one; the denizens must have monochromatic vision. Second, this world is harsh; the citizens must be tough. Upon leaving, they would jot field notes such as “inhospitable, but rather pretty in a raw sort of way” in their intergalactic log.

  On both counts they would be partly right. The rockslide and its environs indeed glitter in September’s dawn. On the fellfield, all the prostrate herbage has yellowed, except for certain low shrubs that have turned red, and they only lend depth to the overall gold. Sliding up the ridges, the tongues of aspenwood range, in their clones, from cinnamon to lemon, with orange-peel and persimmon in between. Even the granite, the substance of the scene, shines with a varied patina in the rising sun and morning frost, mica catching the sun’s color, feldspar pink going to peach, gray feldspar to platinum.

  So, golden. And rough. But not necessarily inhospitable. True enough, humanity seldom appears on the scene. But there are lives below the surface, many of them. Now, in the chilly gilt of oncoming autumn, they come out of the rocks to bask. They suck every calorie of warmth from the cool fire of the alpenglow. For soon enough, afternoon cloud will rise, promising something rougher yet: rocks in winter. For now, frost holds off. Then the sun passes beyond its perigee, and all the gold is gone. Most of the animals retreat beneath the stones, as a minute caterpillar creeps down deep into a withered tussock of grass.



  The yellow Karmann Ghia left the road at forty-five. Its tires never scored the soft tissue of the tundra. It simply flew over the edge, into the mountain abyss.

  A lookout marmot shrilled at the sight. A pair of pikas, young of the year, disappeared beneath their rockpile as the strange object passed overhead. Clearing the stony incline, the doomed auto glided over the rich mountain turf. Its shadow fell across a patch of alpine forget-me-nots, deepening their hue from sky to delft, then passed over a pink clump of moss campion. A black butterfly nectaring on the campion twitched at the momentary shading. Such a shift of light often signaled a coming storm, sending the alpine insects into hiding among the sod or stones. But this cloud passed quickly, so the sipping butterfly hunkered only briefly, then resumed its suck from the sweet-filled floret. A bigger black form took flight when the bright intruder entered its territory. The raven charged the big yellow bird to chase the interloper out of its airspace, succeeded, and resettled.

  As the slope fell away toward the canyon below, more than keeping pace with the glide path of the Ghia, so fell the yellow missile. Sky whooshed aside to make room for it, otherwise there was no sound but for three shrieks on the alpine air: a nutcracker’s alarm scream; the whine of the engine, gunned by the foot glued to the Ghia’s floorboard; and a third, muffled by the glass, growing into a hopeless wail.

  The thin alpine air parted before the plummeting car, smelling of green musk, of the great high lawn that is the Colorado mountain tundra. The perfumes of a hundred alpine wildflowers filled the grille of the Ghia. Soon the sweet mingled scents would be overcome by the rank fumes of oil and gasoline mixing with the terpenes of torn evergreens as the grille split against pine and stone. But the rider smelled nothing.

  The air took on a chill as the projectile left the sunny upper reaches, crossed over timberline, and entered the shade of the upper forest. Never once had it touched down since takeoff, nor could it fly much farther. Gravity never ran out, but the earth rushed up at last to meet it. All the elements of the alpine earth—mineral soil, bare stone, grass, sedge, herb, shrub, and solid trunk of ancient limber pine—mingled with the yellow metal when the Ghia went to ground. Soft parts met hard. Granite tore rubber. Branches smashed glass and pierced the cloth upholstery. The engine block escaped its mounts and flew a little farther before shattering against a boulder and coming to rest as shiny shrapnel in the streambed far below. The blow that tore the motor free, ending its long scream, ripped the driver’s door from its hinges. That other shriek was loosed into the general clamor. Then nothing.

  Almost nothing remained from this unplanned event to disturb the day up above, where it began. The nutcracker returned to its snag, the marmot to its post, the raven to its rock. The black bu
tterfly nectared on, then flew. The forget-me-nots still flowered low against the ground. Not even the green verge of the road betrayed anything amiss. Only a black rubber streak in the roadway gave away the launching spot. Even the golden-mantled ground squirrel whose mad dash across the asphalt had started it all lay not dead on the shoulder, but basking on a boulder nearby in the late-summer sun, unabashed by her close call.

  Of the steaming yellow mass among the trees and rocks a thousand feet below, no one knew a thing. Bumblebees investigating the yellow spatter on the slope found battered, barren steel instead of woolly sunflowers. The Karmann Ghia’s aberrant track would never be repeated. And for all the difference it made to the mountain, it might never have happened at all.


  Yellow cottonwoods left the creekbeds outside Albuquerque and boarded an eastbound cross-country bus en masse as the driver called out destinations: “All passengers for Parmalee Gulch, Raton Junction, Cambridge, and Peoria, yer on the right bus. If yer plannin’ on goin’ anywheres else, better get the heck off now. An’ git them gol-durned ’possums offa my bus!”

  It seemed to James Mead that he was indeed going somewhere else, although he couldn’t quite remember where, and in any case the bus was already moving too fast and too far off the ground to jump. Besides, if he jumped, what about his luggage? God, I forgot my suitcase, he yelped, and then realized he was also absent his pants, and the other passengers were beginning to look and snicker, and he had to pee in the worst way. The rows of cottonwood trees began shedding their yellow leaves along with the possums hanging upside down from their lower boughs. The possums dropped like great gray bombs onto people’s heads, exploding into storms of gray confetti like that crap in padded envelopes that gets all over everything. Mead felt the ratty tail of a possum slap his cheek and its thin gray hair go up his nostrils. This tickled, made him sneeze, and woke him up.

  Mead shook his head, rubbed his gritty eyes, and tried to reconstruct the dream. “Okay, Albuquerque and the trees,” he mumbled to himself. He’d boarded the bus there the day before, among the glint of afternoon autumn poplars. “I remember Parmalee from field trips, and I do have to pee like crazy.” He assumed his bag was safely stowed below. “But what’s the deal with the possums?”

  “God placed the opossum on the earth for a reason,” began the amateur evangelist in the seat next to him, “to serve men in the only way they know how . . .” The man had been silent for over an hour in deference to his young seatmate’s nodding slumber. Now that he’d awakened, Mead became fair game again. “. . . by giving possum hounds a run for their money and by patching potholes in the mud with their poor, battered bodies. Now let me tell you, son, how we all must serve His greater purpose.”

  Mead made his escape by pleading his bladder’s screaming need. He slung his way down the aisle toward the chemical stink of the toilet. For balance, he hung on to the luggage racks instead of the seat backs, as people of lesser height usually do. A young woman on her way to Bowdoin vetted his long-sleeved cotton plaid shirt, his khaki chinos (which he was wearing, after all), his Bass shoes. He would do for conversation. Maybe he was Ivy, she conjectured, and resolved to catch his eye on his return journey up the aisle.

  Considering Mead’s fine-featured face, partly hidden, partly chiseled by a short-trimmed brown beard, a matron thought, now that was a son she wouldn’t mind having. The bus driver noticed him too, as he appraised everyone in the rearview mirror, especially the young women whose breasts jostled with the sway of the road. He regarded his own paunch jammed against the big steering wheel, and he envied Mead his slender, muscular frame, the youth that went with it, and the gaze of the woman on her way to Maine.

  Mead, heading back to his seat, noticed the girl’s glance. Eager to sit anywhere other than beside the preacher, he asked if the seat next to her was free. Her rehearsed shrug said sure, and she smiled, so Mead coiled into the seat. As he dropped down to window level, he spotted a grayish lump beside the median strip, and the source of the dream possums came clear. For miles and miles after Peoria, road-killed marsupials lay along the highway like omens, or reproaches. “Yeah, that’s it—roadkill!” he said. The girl next to him frowned, pretty sure she’d made a mistake encouraging his company. Mead saw the look in her eyes and thought he’d better just go back to sleep.

  He dropped off, the bus rolled on, and a new dream began to roll, in which an endless graduation march seemed to include every face he’d ever known except his own. The faculty marshals, brightly gowned and carrying ceremonial maces carved from cottonwood sticks, wore grins like the leers of flattened possums.

  Mead awoke to the whine of the air brakes as the driver called a lunch stop in Akron. Outside the bus, Mead sucked in air that would have seemed marginal in New Mexico but tasted great now. He stretched, tucked in his shirt (for he suffered the curse of the long torso: his shirttails always came out, always would), and lanked off in search of lunch. The girl from Bowdoin joined him, and they scared up a sandwich and a park bench.

  Twenty minutes later they dumped their leavings into the overflowing trash bin as a pigeon lady took their place on the bench and began scattering bread crumbs. They emerged from a pearly curtain of pigeon wings to find the bus driver staring in their direction.

  “Where the hell have you two been?” he growled. “Eager to move to Akron, are we?” His jowls swelled and glowed like the cock pigeons’ plumbeous puffs, his envy sitting like stale bread in his gizzard. His eyes crawled over Chloe as she climbed up the steps and resumed her seat. Mead plopped down beside her and glared back. The big bus pulled back onto the interstate, a traveling humidor of smoke, stale air, and overtired bodies.

  Chloe definitely beat the Baptist for conversation. But truth to tell, Mead wouldn’t have cared much if she were a Pentecostal bearing down with hammer and tracts, as long as she stayed put. By Buffalo, James and Chloe knew each other fairly well, the way people quickly do on long-distance buses and then forget. James knew one thing, anyway; he would never forget her scent, which did not seem to come entirely from bottles. It seemed distilled from equal parts of heather and crushed leaves, blended in a light base of sweat. How much the vapid air of the coach confounded her aroma he could not tell, but it did not mask the pheromones at play. By twelve they were asleep, her head on his shoulder. But when Mead awoke, Chloe was gone, disembarked for a visit with an aunt in Springfield. Vaguely disappointed, he went back to sleep.

  A day and a night later, Mead’s strange and dreamy endless idyll was shattered by the air brakes and a different driver’s voice, a woman now. “New Haven,” she barked as the air brakes sighed. “All passengers for New Haven.”

  “That’s why they call them Greyhounds,” Mead said to himself as he dropped down. “The brakes sound just like a dog at the end of its leash, and its patience.”

  “We’re all at the end of the road,” replied the preacher, stepping down too. “And soon, the End Times. Have you found your savior?”

  “Found,” Mead said, “and lost. But she was nice while she lasted.” Hoisting his bags, he hurried off, leaving the man openmouthed and, for once, at a loss for words.

  Wandering unknown streets unlike any in Albuquerque, he dowsed a cup of coffee out of early morning in the old New England town. Soon the humidity of a late September day began to rise around his stained collar. He strode in the direction of the crocketed towers that he reckoned must signify Yale University. “Here goes nothing,” he said to himself. Then, to no one in particular, “Possums or not!”


  On Magdalena Mountain, at the base of certain boulders, the winter forage of little rock rabbits, called pikas, lies curing in the sun. Its summer green turns to the gold of haystacks. Vigilant on the rocks above, a mother pika looks grayish-tan in the shade; then, dashing into a sunbeam, her fur at its thickest and richest, she shines like her own gathered hay.

  Atop another rock, a marmot basks. Unlike the winter-wakeful pika, this old boa
r of a marmot will hibernate deeply for months. His fat wobbles as he scrambles rock to rock with the shifting sun. As if to store a little more warmth to get him through the long night of winter, he boulder-basks throughout the long, sunny hours of September, then eats and eats some more. He plucks a paintbrush, consumes it with a few moves of his split lips and big yellow teeth, then goes for a columbine. Over inches of stored fat, his inch of chestnut and chinchilla pelt glimmers in the sunshine until the coming chill drives him and his kind understone for half a year or more.

  The talus grows harsher by the night. Tough life dwells there by using the very rocks that make the place seem barren. That butterball marmot knows of a holt deep beneath the coming rime. That pika may be just a short-eared, hay-grazing boulder bunny, but she can move through the catacombs of granite at will, wandering through winter from one side of the pile to another without ever coming to the surface, safe from snow and ice and blowing, shearing wind.

  Ptarmigan and rosy finches cling to the violent hide of the arctic-alpine year-round, dropping downhill only when snow forces winter birds to work the edges of the rockslides, the buried branches of the snow willows. Now, their nests only dim memories, the half-white ptarmigan nicker among the willow hems and the finches forage for early seeds and late insects. A ptarmigan fledgling, as big as its mother, makes a dash at a grasshopper, startling the sentry pika into calling Geek!

  Though the rocks make a harsh home, these and others live here well enough, knowing and needing none but its cold and stony comforts. Many others, swarming in the sun and freezing in the chill, cannot summon the rush of warm blood to keep them from the coming cold. A bumblebee alights on an owl clover, and as a cloud covers the sun, she shivers, making a little body heat. But most of the alpine insects rely strictly on the sun to make their muscles work. For these cold-blooded ones, autumn brings death, or dormancy. That grasshopper escaped the clumsy chick only to freeze some night soon. Unless the fliers, crawlers, and spinners have antifreeze, and many do, their season of life is closing in fast. Everything is about to change.

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