The thermometer outside reads nine degrees — not a morning I would normally emerge from beneath my goose-down comforter before dawn. “Thank god it’s almost April,” I exhale and begin the dance of pulling chilled silk over my bare skin. Another layer of mohair, then thicker wool, and sturdy denim.
I am meant for equatorial climates.
A stranger on my couch also rises — acclaimed nature photographer, Andoni Canela. I’ve lured him here with alpine promises of buffalo herds, migrating sand hill cranes, and wintry slopes of the Southern San Juans.
I found Andoni and his work on Facebook, of all places. From cyber-land to my doorstep, Andoni is the real deal, only smaller than I imagined. We’re almost the same size and I am decidedly petite. Now he rolls up his bedding, sleepy but smiling and ready to go. Like two little pixies, we tiptoe out into wee hours. Neither of us know what we’re in for.
So, I bring snacks.
Frigid air slaps me awake. I absorb the beauty of predawn half-light.The huge expanse of fading stars presses down, sandwiching us against icy snow that blankets the valley in pinkish- lavender drifts. The cold envelops our heated truck and billows its exhaust. We’re alone on a silver-gray highway.
This valley is like a small town starlet waiting to be discovered. She makes herself up, dons her finest gown, accentuates her features with jewels, but only a handful of churchgoers get to admire her. Today might be her big break.
I hope she performs, for her sake…and mine.
Andoni took me on my word that a five hundred mile detour would be worth his while. I had the nerve to invite him and he was brave enough to accept. Now it is time for the land to deliver. I’ve made phone calls, scoured maps, and gotten permission from land owners, but we are still at the mercy of this climate’s unpredictable moods. Neither copious prayers nor hopeful offerings can divert the Southern San Juan’s shedding of winter. Gusts and gales come as they must, and we are on the verge the windy season.
Nowhere on earth is there a more miserable springtime.
Our first turn is a wrong one. The sun inches toward the horizon and I realize that we’re supposed to be south of the river but north of the highway. That only involves about fifty yards of real estate, and the pasture we’re trudging through seemed a much more likely place to find a herd of buffalo. We backtrack. The sun and the stakes get higher. We’re on the verge of loosing our morning shoot.
Finally, we locate the herd. I was assured that these bison are used to people, so we enter the small, fenced-in pasture hoping for close-up shots. However, the alpha male takes offense at our intrusion. He bounds to the edge of his group of females and offspring. Steam puffs from his nostrils in audible bursts. Two steps in our direction.
“That one looks like trouble.”
I shed my camera pack, ready to drop it on the other side of the fence, but Andoni holds it for me. That bison shows us his trot. I scramble over wood and wire, shaking just a little. My companion is much quicker over the fence and we back up together as the bulk of four-legged fur huffs toward us at a full run. Did the builders of this livestock enclosure considered the force of a charging buffalo? The burly brute halts in an abrupt stop, exactly where we exited his territory.
Right on cue, dawn breaks. Bravo.
“Here we go,” Andoni whispers. Splendid, first light on a bison rancher’s menacing bull. Our packs drop and shutters click. The bison prances and poses for us in perfect, masculine, untamed power. So much between sunup and moonrise is completely outside our control. Despite initial mishaps, this day continues to grant one photogenic gift after another. Weather and clouds shroud the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with luxurious austerity. And later, a silent blizzard covers a wilder herd of two hundred shaggy-haired beasts; a classic, snow-covered vision of the American west.
It is both comforting and unnerving to me, this blessed but unforgiving geography, like a teacher who pushes you to find the upper limits of your potential when the real lesson is that there are none.”You are one lucky man,” I tell my new friend, as snowflakes melt into his dark hair. Happy, brown eyes smile over cupped hands. He warms them with his breath. “Yes, I am very lucky to find such a good guide for my trip.”
High praise in a Spanish accent.
I’ve managed to live in the San Luis Valley for ten years, without truly accepting it as my home…until this moment. I needed Andoni’s fresh eyes to see it, to remember my place. Open, curious, excited with a child’s wonderment, the wealth of his energy is just as valuable as his technical expertise. Andoni’s profession has taken him all over the world to witness and record
extraordinary spectacles, nature’s premier events. Still, my home has the power to move him. Now I claim it with a sense of prideful ownership.
Neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. I expected to be his guide, but it was the handsome Spaniard who showed me where I might belong.
© 2010, Rita Roberts