I stepped out of the Forest Service trailer into the morning sun and walked to its west end. A group of tall forested peaks rose to the south; the tallest one had an odd shaped clearing up near the top. To the north, jagged, orange-brown cliffs rose up above the small town. I was in awe and the first thing that came to mind was, “This sure doesn’t look like Maine!”
The night before, Jay Wahrenburg, my first supervisor with the Forest Service, picked me up at the Alamosa Airport, drove me to Creede and dropped me off at the crew trailer. I was a 21 year-old college student going to the University of Maine and had never been further west than the state of New York. When I stepped out of the trailer and saw the mountains of the Upper Rio Grande, I instantly knew the trajectory of my life had changed.
Since that first day in Creede in June of 1978, I have worked for the U.S. Forest Service and lived in the Upper Rio Grande at least part of every year. On February 28th, I will retire. This is the last Land, Water and People column I will write.
The highlight of my USFS career really can’t be pinned down to any one occurrence; instead there have been several highlights that are experiences I was lucky to enjoy over and over again. Here are a few.
The smell of the forest first thing in the morning while working on the timber crew. And then hunkering down later in the day as lightning flashed all around and thunder echoed in the mountains.
Watching and listening to first graders as they jockeyed for position and argued about who would hold my hand as we went on nature walks. And listening to the excited voices of fifth graders as they looked into dissecting scopes and saw a sea of life in the small sample of water they collected from the Rio Grande.
Hearing the words, “Thank you, that helped a lot,” as I helped visitors with their recreation planning or reporters with their questions for a story they were working on.
No final column would be complete without expressing a few of my own thank yous.
Thank you to all the folks I have worked with over the years (too many to name) at our local radio stations and newspapers. You all have a fabulous ethic of wanting to inform the public about current events and telling the whole story about controversial issues.
Thank you to all the teachers and camp coordinators I worked with over the years for sharing your students with me. I always felt a bit like a grandparent: I got to have all sorts of fun with your students and then sent them home with you.
Thank you to all the county, state and federal employees I have worked with (and those I haven’t worked with) over the years. Your dedication to your work makes a difference.
Thank you to all my comrades at the Rio Grande National Forest. I appreciate your dedication to managing the Forest and your friendship.
In November of 2017, I introduced my friend Pam in a story about hiking in the Needles District of Canyonlands. Last August, writer/teacher Pam Houston and I got married at her ranch west of Creede. Like me, Pam loves the natural world and likes to hike, snowshoe, and sleep in a tent. I don’t think there was ever any doubt we would fall in love. In my retirement, I will join Pam on her many work-related travels all over the country and world.
Several years ago, a well-travelled friend of mine told me, “There are a lot of beautiful places in this world, but only a few where you connect with the people in a way it feels like home.” Thank you, residents of the San Luis Valley for being so awesome. I live here because of you.
I hope to see you on the trail.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.