My mind drifted back to my happy place-- Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. I missed the sights and sounds of those magnificent sandhill cranes, and missed my volunteer and staff friends there.
The 30th annual Festival of the Cranes was quickly approaching, and I noticed this year for the first time, they would be having all the major mirrorless camera vendors (Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji, and Sony) joining the old stalwarts Canon and Nikon.
I'd already been starting to plan a return visit to Bosque for a very different reason, but when I saw the workshop schedule for Festival of the Cranes with some new seminars focused on Panasonic, I just knew I'd just have to make 2 trips! Festival week is the busiest time of year for the Refuge staff and volunteers, and there wouldn't be much time to socialize. So, better for everyone to make it 2 trips. Besides, I'd get added opportunities to photograph the birds!
The Festival was a terrific time. Great weather, thousands of cranes and snow geese, very informative workshops, and of course, the great New Mexico cuisine of green chili cheeseburgers in San Antonio!
A lack of strong Fall wind storms had left golden leaves still on the cottonwood trees. Even though they were past peak color, it was still great for photographs!
I also enjoyed seeing the sunrise morning fly out of the cranes and snow geese. Bosque has been enjoying the largest flocks they've had in years (likely due to the much-improved yield of corn and other crops that the birds thrive on).
These 3 cranes stood "guarding" the corn field most of the day (and waiting for a nice Refuge worker to come push down a few rows so they could invite their friends to the buffet). Cranes won't walk into a standing corn field due to not being able to see predators.
While just a quick trip, it was sure a thrill to be able to attend Festival again, see all the new camera and optical gear, and chat with many other like-minded bird-lovers and photographers.
The second trip to Bosque occurred the weekend before Christmas, and while not on the grand scale of the public Festival trip, it was a far more-meaningful and important event for me. Not only would I be seeing my old Bosque volunteer and staff friends, I'd also finally be meeting in-person a couple who'd become terrific online friends over the past year. I'd also be driving my View again and camping a few nights-- something I'd never thought I'd be able to do again!
Hector and Brenda were full-time RVers and bloggers for a number of years (Island Girl Walkabout), but decided about a year ago to buy a house and settle in the Albuquerque area. They sold their big Class A bus this past summer, and thought they'd wait awhile to buy a smaller rig for short trips. That was, until I posted that my friends Hans and Ursula were selling their mint-condition Winnebago View! Within a few short weeks, Hector and Brenda became the new owners and were super-excited for our "Skinnie Winnie" Views to reunite!
I had a great drive down to New Mexico from Colorado. It was wonderful to be behind Winnie's wheel again and see all the pretty mountain scenery glide by. But it's a long trip, and days get dark early in December. I rolled into the campground about an hour after dark, where Hector was waiting to grill me one of the best steaks I'd ever eaten! It felt so surreal to be eating at the same dinette that Ursula had presented so many great dinners in Mexico, but I think the View is quite excited about its new owners! Hector and Brenda have adapted to the small rig quite nicely and have lots of future adventures planned.
Hector is an incredible photographer, so we knew that we'd have a few photo expeditions on the weekend's agenda. We started out with a Saturday "O-dark-thirty" sunrise shoot at the crane ponds just down the road from the RV park. We got there a little late for the super-colorful pre-dawn skies, but there were double the number of snow geese waiting to lift off than there'd been a month earlier. Their lift off was loud and spectacular!
We then hustled down to the Refuge Visitor Center to take the free weekend van tour with my dear volunteer friends John and Betty. I'd visited John and Betty when I was in Houston and they were volunteering along the Texas coast last Spring, and it was wonderful to see them again.
Their tour did not disappoint! John always seems to be a magnet for attracting all kinds of interesting birds (and has some amazing photographs to show for it!). Betty provides the always-entertaining "color commentary." I guarantee you will laugh and learn a ton if you ever happen to take one of their tours!
Perhaps the coolest find they showed us was a tiny little Western Screech Owl who was expertly camouflaging itself in the hollowed out section of a dead cottonwood tree. He was too busy sleeping to open his eyes, but was it ever a thrill to see an owl this close!
We also saw raptors like this Red-tailed Hawk--
this little, colorful Kestrel--
and this pair of adult Bald Eagles--
Saw thousands of ducks like this pair of male Northern Pintails--
and this well-fed lonely coyote!
Of course, my favorites were still the Sandhill Cranes. Their ancient, gurgled calls just never get old!
Note the mud on this big guy's "paws"! John had photographed a few cranes with "ice bracelets" the morning before we got there.
After a successful photo expedition and tour, Hector, Brenda, and I met up with my friends Deb and Don at the famous Owl Bar Cafe' in San Antonio for some green chili cheeseburgers. I failed to get any pictures of our lunch, but here's a web photo of the Owl's famous burger.
The Owl has a fascinating history of inventing these burgers for the scientists who were working out at the Trinity site (unbeknownst to all, preparing for the world's first nuclear bomb test in 1945). I suppose if you're a scientist assembling the world's first nuke, you like your burgers with a kick to them!
The next two days involved much more photography, another fun van tour with new volunteer friends Bob and Amy, bird-watching, eating, and socializing. We met up with John and Betty one night for dinner at the legendary El Camino diner in Socorro. It's truly a 1960's time-warp, but the food is great and quite reasonable.
I also got a great photo of my old and new friends! John and Betty on the left, and Hector and Brenda on the right-- sure love these guys!
As much fun as the photo shoots and meals with friends had been, the most important part of the weekend was still to come....and it turned out to be one of the most-meaningful experiences of my entire life.
Since learning of my terminal cancer diagnosis a year ago, I've had a lot of time to ponder my life's journey and legacy I might leave. While I was blessed with a fairly successful corporate career, I always felt something was missing in my life during those years. No husband, no kids. Just a spoiled yellow dog and the self-absorbed desire to travel to all corners of North America and take pretty photos.
It wasn't until after I retired and began volunteering at parks and wildlife refuges that I finally discovered true serenity and fulfillment.
I'd grown up on the lean side of middle class-- my mom struggled to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. So when my brother and I started working, we focused fully on working. No time for volunteering I thought, and I always felt too financially insecure to give any more than around $100 or so to those in need.
It's only been in this past year that I've really discovered what an amazing "drug" the act of giving can be. I thought I'd no longer feel that now that I could no longer physically volunteer my "time and talents." But I was wrong. Giving financial and physical gifts has been just as powerful-- no matter if its a few coins into a Salvation Army can, or a major legacy donation.
The latter idea came to me this past Fall. Now that my "expiration date" would no longer be into my 90's, I had much more financial confidence to make a legacy donation before I died. I considered the usual suspects for such a gift-- my old college, a large non-profit group, etc. But nothing really jumped out to tug my heart until I started thinking about the place that first gave me the opportunity for life-fulfilling giving and volunteer work-- Bosque del Apache!
My friend Deb happens to be the director of Bosque's Friends group which does some incredible work to assist the Refuge in fund-raising for major capital projects and provide local volunteer support. When I told her of my decision to make a major gift to the Refuge, she was honored and thrilled. But she went well-beyond that.
She took it upon herself to arrange a party in my honor and invite all the Refuge staff, volunteers, and Friends staff to attend. We avoided any grand speeches or proclamations that night and focused on what really mattered-- lots of hugs, laughs, and deeply moving comments to me from dear friends about what my friendship has meant to their lives. It felt as if I'd received a continuous tidal wave of love that night. I'd never ever experienced anything like that before, and it touched me profoundly.
Deb holding the cutest attendee, little 2-year-old Henri, whose mom (next to him) runs the Bosque Nature Store at the Visitor Center.
The biggest surprise of all happened just a few hours before the party started. Hector, Brenda, and I were wandering the Nature Store passing some time when all of a sudden, an unexpected visitor walked in. At first, I thought it was just a random coincidence that my fellow volunteer friend Bob happened to be visiting the Refuge the same time I was, but he soon told me that I was the reason for his visit-- he drove all the way from the California Redwood coast to New Mexico just to attend my party and see me in-person again! Wow!!!
I was literally blown away by such a selfless act of giving! But then again, as I've now learned, giving is the most powerful drug in the world, and its highly addictive to both the giver and the recipient.
After some fun laughs at the party, Bob and I had a wonderfully touching conversation that nearly made me start bawling my eyes out.
This community of volunteers and staff, united by our common love of Bosque del Apache, are the people I am confident will continue to care for this special Refuge for decades to come. I know they will use my financial gift wisely and, perhaps, will continue to think of me from time to time well after I've left this Earth.
I am truly blessed.