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Saturday, 18 June 2011

I’m writing this by the shores of Smith Lake, where we camped last night. It’s a gorgeous morning: bright, cool enough to keep the bugs at bay, with the water rippled by a stiff breeze and sparkling in the occasional moments of sunlight. Pelicans circle lazily, convincing us they’re about to land but always shearing off in another direction. We arrived here last night about seven, put up the tent and dined on chile beans, with a couple of bottles of Moose Drool to quench the thirst.

We’ve been going back over the Old Jules Trail, trying to collect photographs for the Chainsaw’s proposed website.  Our aim is solely to enable people like us, with a modest three Bachelors degrees, one Masters and a PhD between us, to make sense of the various maps that get passed around and purport to outline the trail linking the significant sites in the Mari Sandoz story. Even yesterday, on my second tour within a month, we took two wrong turnings and got confused on a couple of other occasions. So as well as doing a service to fellow pilgrims, we’re giving ourselves an education.

I think I mentioned a few days ago that my motto is ‘live and learn’. Already this morning I have acquired a few more useful bits of knowledge – from a visitor who called by just now. Jeff Mitten is a biologist who teaches at Boulder University and writes a column for the town’s Daily Camera. Now, you don’t need to know this, but I met him when we were both wanting to use the earth closet last night, a fact I record simply because it reminds me how important it is to talk to strangers, especially in isolated primitive campgrounds. Jeff told me he was photographing turtles. Oh really, I thought, and left it at that. But this morning as I sat drinking my super-strength coffee and watching a stick bob up and down on the lake, he drove up, got out of the car and explained to me that the stick was in fact a painted turtle – and look, there’s another, and that log over there is in fact a snapping turtle. He added that he’d had reports of painted turtles trying to lay eggs in the road around the other side of the lake, and was off to investigate. ‘If I find one,’ he said, ‘I’ll bring it back and show you.’

Half an hour later we were in receipt of an abbreviated lecture on turtles and other reptiles. But first we were treated to a close-up view of the little fellow he’d picked up: plain on the back but vividly coloured on the underside.

These are harmless little things, he told us, whereas a snapper will bite through a broom-stick – should there be one to hand, that is. People like to try to grab its tail, he said, and have no idea how agile it is. It’ll extend its neck, turn around and have a finger off at the drop of a hat.

So, I said, you’re a reptile specialist. Tell me about this snake I saw a few weeks ago, the one that was olive green with a canary yellow under-belly. That, he told us, would be some kind of garter-snake. Placid, harmless, and you can pick them up if the fancy takes you. He also told us that it was indeed true that the bull-snake will chase down and eat a rattler. Now, one of the Arent family who visited over Memorial Day weekend had suggested as much, but somebody else I mentioned it too had looked doubtful – in the way that cowboys do, when they narrow their eyes, purse their lips and say nothing. We now have the word of a specialist, and that’s very reassuring.

Jeff was on his way south, to Crescent Lake, to take more pictures. I was able to hand him one of my new cards, which arrived in the mail yesterday. They’re a gift from the Chainsaw, who’d been badgering me to get some printed but obviously knew just how well I respond to harassment.

One of the advantages of having a travel companion is that I get to have my picture taken. For some reason, every time A. says ‘smile!’ I end up scowling; or, if she sneaks up on me, I turn out to have my rear end sticking up in the air. That’s why I was so thrilled with the Indiana Jones shot the other day – and with this one, which seems to portray me as an earnest seeker after facts.

Well, we’ve done the most challenging part of this. As soon as we’ve taken the tent down we’re off to Mari’s grave-site and the old orchard place. From there we’ll wend our way slowly back to Gordon where we have a dinner-date – with a lady I met on the plane. Chance encounters; you never know where they’ll lead you.

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