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CLOUDLAND CABIN JOURNAL - August 2016 (Part A, August 1-9th)

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Cloudland Cabin Cam, August 14 - cool, rainy, with CLOUDS - HOME AGAIN IN ARKANSAS! (after a 16-hour drive yesterday)

Journal updated the 9th

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08/01/16 While on our daily "puppy poop hike" up towards the top of the mountain and hour before sunrise today (I hike the puppies as fast as we can go until each one stops to poop!), we had an owl encounter. He landed in a big tree just ahead of us. We stopped and watched as he arched his back, bowed forward, and HOOTED. Then he would straightened up while he listened to multiple replies from other owls on the hillside somewhere. A pause. Then he would arch his back and bend forward and hoot again. This went on until we got too close (trying to get a good photo), when he released himself from the branch and silently glided down into the darkness. We took that as a sign that August is going to be quite a HOOT here at Cloudland West - hope you have a great one too!

I was out with the local hiking club this morning (the Silverthreaders) while my lovely bride stayed back at camp with the puppies (puppies aren't allowed on club hikes). She did a "plain air" pastel of sunrise from camp, and then got a lot of chores done. Early this evening after we cooked dinner she started to scramble around and zip up all the flaps of our tent. When I gave her a funny look, she replied "IT IS COMING!" And indeed IT was! We had very heavy winds and rain for the next couple of hours - the most we've seen since being here. Oh my goodness the aroma in the air was and still is so SWEET! As dusk begins to creep across the landscape the pitter patter of soft raindrops linger.

Here are Pam's two recent pastels - the first is the Rio Grande River from the other morning, and the second is a distant view from our campsite this morning. I continue to be in awe of artists who can create ART from a blank canvas or paper...

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08/03/16 Dawn begins to break about 4:45-ish with just a touch of glow in the northeast. We are often shrouded with clouds up here on the mountain, with an open tunnel that extends all the way across the San Luis Valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains many miles away - the dawn creeps in through that tunnel. I'm sitting up in our tent with the eastern flap open towards that tunnel and out little meadow below. My eyes begin to adjust to the darkness as the darkness begins to fade into dawn. And shapes appear. Some are close. Others are far away. Shapes that sometimes look like critters. Unless they are moving, it is often impossible to tell if the critter is a cow, deer, lynx, or something else. Usually the shapes that I swore were something on four legs remain the same for minutes and later on I realize they were either plant or rock life. But every now and then, like this morning, a shape that I've been staring at for minutes, straining to figure out what it was, is gone a minute later. Hum, just what WAS that shape?

We had a few cows appear in the meadow and slowly move through last night at dusk, just as rainfall began to make music on the roof of our tent. The little creek that begins on our land above us flows through the meadow and hits a soft spot in the earth I guess - it has formed a ditch that is deep enough to hide a full-grown cow. Sometimes these giant black or brown cows simply appear in the meadow - they have followed the ditch from below, coming up into the middle of the meadow. It is quite entraining.

Early this morning as the color and width of dawn expanded, were are several hoot owls calling out to each other. And now a flock of robins begins to chatter and play. We see a lot of robins here in the meadow and in the aspen forest, and they always look a little out of place - we expect to see exotic birds up in the mountains of Colorado, not plain old robins. But they are a reminder that it is spring all summer here, as they are usually one sign of spring back at home in Arkansas. Guess they move up into the mountains for the summer-spring here!

As I'm typing this the clouds that form the top of the tunnel view to the northeast are being touched by the rising sun that is still well below the horizon - right now those clouds are a wild hot pink, against a blue-purple background sky, an almost unreal color in nature. If I posted a photo you probably would not believe it. We only have four or five mature aspen trees at our campsite - all the rest were burned up in the 2002 fire. One of those big aspens is rising above all the others, up into that hot pink sky. It's been more than an hour since the sky began to glow, and now the entire sky above is on fire. Oops, not a good idea to talk about "fire" around here. Time to get the puppies headed up the mountain for their daily poop hike...

08/04/16 We had a delightful hike yesterday up to the top of Bennett Peak (13,209'), which is the highest mountain in the southeast San Juan Mountain Range - about 10-15 miles from our campsite as the crow flies. It was a fairly steep 2.5 mile hike to the top, but oh my goodness the last half mile or so it was very difficult to put one foot in front of the other - not because of the altitude, but rather due to the fact there was one INCREDIBLE view after another after another - a non-stop 360 degree panorama! This area does not have the lush wildflower fields of the more popular Ouray and Crested Butte areas, but I think the alpine meadows here are pretty darn amazing anyway. Oh yes, and almost no people.

We watched storm clouds boil up from the south and they finally hit us during the hike back down to the trailhead - beginning as hail, then sleet, finally a cold rain. This time of year above treeline the sun is quite intense no matter what the temperature, and as always in most places I prefer cloudy days anyway, so I was a happy camper since the sun was hiding most of the hike.

When we got home Wilson was having a conversation with some of the calves that had gathered in the meadow - I think they all get along just fine as long as there is a little distance and an electric fence in between!

Today it is quite cool with more rain expected. I took the pups to the top of our mountain about an hour before sunrise this morning, and we made it up and back down without stopping a single time to chase chippers - good puppies!

A few minutes ago this morning my lovely bride asked if I had a "longer lens" so she could zoom into some of the distant mountains - I produced a lens about half as tall as she is, plus a giant tripod to support it, and now she is peering through the lens and finding all sorts of interesting things to look at and take pictures of. She is also discovering how frustrating it can be for a photographer to find and capture and sometimes WAIT for great light - she's been standing here for more than 20 minutes waiting for the sun to come out from behind some clouds to light up a group of tall fir trees she wants to take a picture off. Enter George Harrison...

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Alpine sunflowers atop Bennett peak, Wilson counting cows

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AFTERNOON UPDATE. Several folks have asked, so I wanted to show you a photo of our campsite instead of just photos from our campsite. L to R: Fire pit, table/chair, gas grill, tent/gazebo with all flaps closed, the "van" (cargo/passenger van that is our "daily driver"), awning between the two vans and the tent, the "bookmobile/photomobile" (Roadtrek RV,) and finally - Mia, stalking a chipper at the edge of the woods. (note the young aspen tree that is already turning yellow)

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And here are some "valley" sunflowers taken 5,000' in elevation below the alpine sunflowers:

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08/06/16 'Tis after sunset this evening with the sky full of dark clouds, the landscape below lush and fresh with three straight days and nights of rain - a Colorado monsoon season of sorts. There is a robin rebellion going on - what seems like dozens of them are flittering back and forth from the treetops to the meadow and back, flashing through the air above, scrambling around our campsite - one even ran under the van! It could be they are dancing to the beat of the music that is drifting up from below - the "Rhythms On The Rio" bluegrass festival is going on about three miles away in the valley. We can hear the music when the air is right, and it sounds pretty good.

Today we went exploring along the Park Creek Road, up to and across a high-mountain pass and down along a very rough but wildflower-lined road to a place called Paltoro. The drive was nothing short of SPECTACULAR - every twist and turn had a new spectacular view - and there was practically no traffic. By the end of the day we drove more than 70 miles on this gravel road and only passed three or four cars. Amazing. (maybe everyone was at the music festival - I hope so) Our goal for the trip was a cheeseburger. Seems like every person who told us about Paltoro noted that we MUST get a cheeseburger at the only place in town. With that much hype we expected the only place in town to be packed at noon on Saturday at the height of the summer tourist season. It wasn't. In fact we had the place to ourselves, except for one table. I don't eat many cheeseburgers (I LOVE them, but am highly allergic to yeast so try to avoid them), so I'll let my lovely bride be the judge - she LOVED hers! But she also said the one she had a couple of weeks ago at the new BBQ place in South Fork was the best EVER (so perhaps the altitude makes all cheeseburgers taste great?). I will comment on the FRIES that came with each burger at the only place in Paltoro. I now consider them the high water mark for french fries, and will always compare all others to them from now on. What was really funny was that with all the hype surrounding the cheeseburger (mine was just OK - Backyard Burger's bacon cheeseburger remains the best restaurant burger I ever had - just wish they had not gone out of business!), it was the fries that were world-class to me. In fact, when I first saw the menu and they noted a mountain of fresh-cut fries came with every order (everyone says that, right?), I immediately imagined what the best fry in the world would be - I could not only see the size, shape, and texture, but could also smell them and TASTE what they would be like. And son of a gun, what arrived at our table matched what was in my head, and was indeed the best batch of fries I'd ever eaten - perfect in every way! (VERY skinny, with skins, plenty of salt, and crispy, yet limp.) So while most everyone else will tell you to go to Paltoro for the burgers, I would make that long trip any day for the FRIES!

We saw seven spotted deer fawns along the way, plus one momma deer laying in an odd position in a meadow - she was about to give birth to at least one fawn. WILDFLOWERS were going crazy everywhere, and the views from and around the high mountain meadows were just amazing (broken record here, sorry). At one point as we were trying to drive back home, storm clouds were rolling in and causing the light on the landscape to change dramatically. I'm kind of embarrassed to say this, but I rolled down the window of the van and took a snapshot picture - knowing the scene would never be like that again. Then we moved on about five feet and I stopped again - different scene, different light, different picture. It took us an hour to go 1/4 mile. Sorry honey. (I was just shooting snapshots, otherwise we would have never gotten to Paltoro!).

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There were some stunning red-rock mountains along the way too, including both big and little Red Mountain. Later we spent some time hiking around the ruins of the old mining town of Summitville - now a toxic waste site that is a "Superfund" site being cleaned up by the government. Neat old buildings, and oddly not many wildflowers.

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I had been up since about 4am this morning, took the puppies on a four-mile fitness hike and back to the campsite before sunup. Then we spent the rest of the day in the van driving to Paltoro and back, and not doing much of anything else. Yet as we approached our campsite about 5pm I became dogged-tired all of a sudden - I collapsed into bed and fell instantly to sleep - all that from driving 70 miles of dirt road!

And oh my goodness, I have now attended A BROADWAY-STYLE PLAY! I can't believe it - luckily there was no dress code. There is this really great theater in the nearby town of Creede (30-minute drive from our campsite), and they are producing eight different plays this summer. Last night we went to see DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS at the Creede Repertory Theatre. It is a very small theater (EVERY seat in the house was a good one), in its 51st year. The play was long - two and a half hours - but they served peanut M&M's at intermission so I was a happy camper.

I was kind of shell-shocked at how FAST everything on stage was unfolding - so MUCH going on at the same time! It was a tiny stage, with a four-piece band in the back corner that sometimes interacted with the actors during the play - and their music was really very terrific. Anyway, I think I spent more time looking at the other actors than the main characters - sometimes there were a dozen people on the stage at the same time doing different things. And while I'm sure the acting was very good, what impressed me the most was their ATHLETIC ability - in football terms the entire show was a two-minute drill, and they executed each play with great precision! I have no idea how they were able to do so much, so fast, and so good! Their singing was also terrific - and SO much of it. Having never been to a play like this before I did not know what to expect. Ooops, I take that back - I was actually IN two plays while in kindergarten, but that probably doesn't count.

Anyway, one of the really neat parts of it all was during intermission. There was a light rain falling and we stepped outside for some air and to stretch (and munch on peanut M&Ms). Creede is a small historic mining town with really only one main street, which is where the theater is located. Walking around out there at night there was a very special feeling that came over me - I'm not normally drawn to city lights or buildings, but this was different somehow. We didn't get the chance to enjoy the town before the show, and it was very late when it ended, but next time we plan to soak up a lot more of the local flavor of Creede - if you are ever this way during their summer season, I highly recommend you have at least dinner and go to the theater - no tie or coat required!

Day before yesterday we made a trip around the upper San Luis Valley area in search of photo locations for some nighttime Milky Way scenes. And we found plenty, including a great natural arch that is carved out through a fin of volcanic rock that rises up from the valley floor. We went on one mountain road that scared me to death - sheer dropoff on one side, and a very narrow, steep winding road, totally exposed with no trees to cling to. As we were driving up to the top of a mountain a big storm started to move in, and the thought of having to drive back down the same path on a slick road found me hunting for a place to turn around, which we did, and headed back down into the low country. Pam found a terrific, colorful old adobe church that will be perfect for a plain air pastel subject sometime later this summer.

One last note from Colorado. We've had unlimited DSL internet at Cloudland for almost 20 years and so never paid much attention to our data usage. Both Pam and I have been on the road and used our Verizon data plan whenever we needed to, inching our usage up to near 6gb a month now. But something changed this summer - our data usage has gone way, way UP, and it is costing us so much for the extra usage that we've had to scale back nearly all of our non-essential online business use while we search for an internet provider for here (we can no longer handle Verizon's high costs). And ironically, it cost us so much just to search for a new plan that we put that off - until a couple of days ago when we were actually using 1gig of data per HOUR - yikes!!! But we think we have found a small company here in Colorado that will work for a lot of our extra use - $30 a month for unlimited high-speed internet, with no contract, and pay month-to-month (so we only pay for 2-3 months each summer). But until we get that system up and running, we won't be surfing the web or posting much in the Journal.

OK, we've had another rain shower pass overhead while I've been typing this, and the festival music seems to be getting louder and more clear - perhaps the late-night air carries a tune better. And the robins have all gone to bed. I'm headed there too - hope you have a GREAT WEEKEND! And thanks for reading my ramblings...

08/08/16 Clouds. Clouds. And more CLOUDS! The sky was perfectly clear and brilliant blue at dawn yesterday morning - first time since we've been here this summer there have been no clouds at dawn. Then as sunrise approached, a single puff of pink appeared above the valley, and steadily grew both in size and intensity. It got really PINK. Several more clouds joined this main one, also pink. They all just kind of floated there, waiting for the sunshine that would light them up - but that same light would dry them up and cause them to evaporate right into, well, into thin air.

So the sky was clear again for a short time, but quickly more clouds formed above the distant peaks - this time they were puffy white clouds. As the sun rose higher, the clouds grew - some of them into large billowing thunderheads. I remained at the campsite all day while my lovely bride made a run into town for groceries and other things on our "list." I spent a lot of time scanning the sky and watching the clouds form and move and turn into all sorts of shapes and colors. All day the clouds were on the move, marching on, some just sitting and feeding on the moisture in the mountains and getting larger, taller, and more powerful.

The clouds at CLOUDLAND back home in Arkansas tend to be below us, forming in the canyon below the cabin and doing most of their dancing and moving around down there; often rising up and engulfing the cabin, sometimes for hours on end, or even all day long. But the clouds here mostly happen above us, which makes them more available for the moods of sunrise and sunset, while the "sea of clouds" back at Cloudland are often hidden from sunshine deep in the valley below. I believe I like both locations, Cloudland and Cloudland West. No, I take that back - I LOVE both locations!

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Clouds continued here in Colorado throughout the day (midday photo above) and on into evening. About an hour before sunset I leashed up the puppies and headed out for an evening hike around one of the loops near our campsite. We hadn't gone more than 1/4 mile before I was stopped in my tracks by some of those same billowing thunderheads back to the southeast - they had built up behind a ridgeline full of naked spruce trees. And while it is so sad that this are burned so badly back in 2002, I think the tree trunks and limbs void of vegetation can add quite a bit of character and drama to the landscape.

I spent the next 30 minutes working along a couple hundred yards of that ridgeline and thunderhead, taking pictures as best I could. My setup on these hikes is normally my trusty small camera, a point-and-shoot that has a moderate zoom lens on it. If you are a workshop student of mine please disregard the following - but I usually don't use a tripod or polarizing filter with this camera, so I consider everything a "snapshot." But if the camera is set up correctly, I'm able to capture an amazing amount of fine detail with this little camera - partly due to the zoom lens, which cost twice as much as weights three times as much as the camera body itself.

I was also equipped with an anti-tripod, something that tugs and pulls and tries to make me as unstable as possible. Two wild puppies are tethered to my waist, and we were right in the middle of prime chipmunk and marmot neighborhoods! So not only did I have to concentrate on finding good compositions and using perfect shooting techniques, I also had to counter the weight and pull of the puppies - there were more than a few blurry photos! But the clouds and the trees were just spectacular, and even if none of the photos turned out I had a front row seat experience of incredible beauty.

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ARKANSAS PROPERTY UPDATE. Finally, after five months of delays, yesterday they drove the first nail for the new book warehouse and canvas print gallery building on our property back in Arkansas near Jasper. (Note - this is not a new home for us, but rather just a new business building - we still live at Cloudland, although Cloudland is still for sale.) But there was only one worker constructing the first wall, and he got clobbered with 60mph winds and several inches of rain, but the first wall has been completed. We still don't know when we'll be able to use this new building, but I'll keep ya posted. I'll be back in Arkansas later this week and will post a picture or two of the progress.

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Pam spent the afternoon cutting out squares for her next quilt project.

As the light began to fade last night, Momma Nature was not done with her work on the clouds. My bride and I stood there in awe as more brilliant color lit up clouds all around us - the color started with the bottom of the clouds (see photo below) and worked it way up until the entire sky was illuminated pink and orange and salmon and red. There was a huge lightning storm going on in the north at the same time, but I was unable to capture any of the bright silver strikes.

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It is now about an hour before sunrise today, and once again clouds have gathered 'round to watch the day begin. A new week at Cloudland West is about to begin, and I try and capture some of the great color and beauty to share with you.

08/09/16 Visions in your head usually don't pan out to be quite as nice as the real thing. Last fall while driving around I saw a sign that said "Natural Arch." My head was filled with visions of a giant stone arch, glowing orange, with a towering Milky Way rising behind it. After a bit of searching, I found it on a map and it was really more of a "window" than an arch, normally not as interesting. Last week my lovely bride and I drove over to the arch to have a look, and while it was an impressive wall of stone with a nice window in it, it didn't seem to line up with my vision of the towering Milky Way rising behind it.

Anyway, I after a solid week of rain and cloudy skies, we got a break last night and I headed out for the arch about 9pm. An hour and some very slippery road later, I parked at the base of the arch. Not a single cloud in the sky - in fact it was a spectacular clear night - YIPPIE! There was a 1/3 moon that lit up the landscape - and also lit up the sky, so not nearly as many stars visible, which I knew would be the case. My plan was to wait until the moon set at 11:30, then try to find a composition with the Milky Way.

Instead I discovered the entire wall of stone was glowing in the moonlight, and it only took me until shot #3 to get what I thought was a really nice image. It was hard not to look up and stare at the spectacle. (I had to remember that while there are no snakes in most of Colorado, there were rattlesnakes in this part, so I had to watch where I stepped!)

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I loaded up my camera bag and made the steep scramble up loose rocks to the base of the arch, stopping a couple of times along the way to take pictures. I had no idea it would be possible to photograph both the arch and the "galactic center" of the Milky Way from this front side. And with all the rock still let up by the moon - it was pretty amazing!

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As the moon got lower I got higher, and soon was standing beneath the giant arch, stopped to shoot a few pictures, then climbed even higher and came out on the other side - where my original vision had taken place inside my head. But due to the terrain on that other side, and many trees blocking the view, I was not able to find the composition that I wanted.

BUT, I was able to find a new view, one much closer to the opening, and much to my great delight, the Milky Way - the brightest part of it - was slowly moving into view and would soon be standing straight up right smack in the middle of the arch - YIPPIE COYOTE! The images that popped up on the back of my LCD screen were actually much better than my original vision, and I was a very happy camper! I spent the next hour shooting a couple hundred photos within about ten feet of each other.

In order to bet the view that I wanted I had to get the camera lower and lower to the ground, until a point after midnight when I was literally sitting/laying on my backside with the camera just a few inches above me. With the Milky Way, you just have to go with the flow of wherever it takes you. It was one of the more incredible nightscapes I'd ever been witness to - and I'd never seen an image of it anything like it before. (There must be hundreds though - it's about the only arch in the area.)

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At one point very late into this shoot (or should I say "early" since it was after midnight), while I was on the ground waiting for a long exposure to complete, I heard footsteps. I had to cock my head just so in order to hear them. Where those the steps of an animal? It was pitch black and my night vision was pretty blown out since I'd been examining the photos as they appeared on the back of the bright camera screen. I strained my neck to look around and see if I could see anything, not wanting to make any noise (nor not really wanting to FIND anything out there besides me). And then, THERE IT WAS - and I nearly fainted. Silhouetted against the starry sky was the outline of a cougar, crouching above me not twenty feet away (there had been reports of big cats in the area). I was about as helpless as one could be down there on the ground, and for a couple seconds I thought I was a goner - it was one of those wet-your-pants moments. And then the long exposure I'd been taking completed and the picture of the arch and Milky Way popped up on the big LCD screen on the camera - and the light lit up the scene behind me. The crouching cougar was none other than a rock formation. WOW, big sigh of relief!!!

There have been many moments like this in the middle of a long night, out there in the wilderness all alone and far away from home. So far none of the monsters or dangerous animals have materialized, but I continue to be wary. And keep telling myself that there is nothing out there in the night that isn't there in the daylight, so what is there to be afraid of?

It was 2am when I pulled into our campsite - I tried to be quiet so as not to make Pam or the puppies, and I made it all the way to within about twenty feet of camp, when all three pups started to bark and wail. Oops, sorry - Honey, I'm HOME!

Three highlights from today that come to mind besides the arch and almost-cougar attack. We now have UNLIMITED INTERNET!!!!! The little storage shed here has a small dish that points to a tower on a mountain peak across the valley. The wireless signal beams throughout our campsite. Happy campers for sure. After we dropped off book orders at the post office in town, we grabbed sandwiches from one of the two food trucks in town. Each of us declared ours to be the BEST EVER! Mine was egg salad, and it was so refreshing to find real eggs chopped up instead of some pile of crumbles from a bag.

And then this evening, after sunset as clouds turned pink and twilight settled in, we all were gathered 'round the fire in camp with four mule deer bucks appeared in the meadow in front. We've seen them before, and their racks continue to grow - one ten point (soon to be 12 point), an eight point, six point, and a "forked horn" - he had the most beautiful fur coat. They spent about fifteen minutes munching on rose hips and meadow grass, and got within about 100 feet of us - I think they came in close to see who was snoring (it was Wilson). Then all four turned and wandered off into the middle of the meadow - and started to jump and play and dance around - in fact they were springing too! Like a bunch of little kids. They were, and we watched. It was a beautiful day in the mountains...

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