Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hiking in the buff

Journal Entry: Ten, Hiking in the Buff
The Orient Land Trust located in Villa Grove, part of the San Luis valley, has an abandoned iron mine. This site is the home in the summer to approximately 250,000 bachelor Mexican free-tailed bats. We take turns planning the social hikes on Monday. This week, it was Jazz’s responsibility to plan and co-ordinate the excursion. She is the planner of my circle of friends in the mountains anyway. As a teacher, I make decisions, all day, every day during the school year. So in the summer, I refuse to make decisions. I am just the follower, and I find that I like that stance more and more all the time. Responsibility, like cooking, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The bat hike was, of course her idea. Jazz does not do the ordinary things. This is why I like her so much. Like Jacque, her husband says, his life with her has been anything but boring. The hike was a night-time hike to view the exit of the bats to feed at dusk. These bats are migratory and have a traveling range of 1,100 mile trip. Their migration is the longest documented migration of any bat species. This colony of bats eats in the region of 2-3 tons of insects each night. A group of thirty three people arrived at the Orient Land Trust about one and a half hours before sunset. We had packed water, mosquito spray, and flashlights. We needed the flashlights to walk back down the path to our cars after the sunset in the dark.

I had somehow failed to inform my husband that the beginning of the hike took us through a clothing optional resort, hot springs, and camp ground. One of the first people we encountered, of course, was a dad and his diapered toddler returning from the mineral soaking springs. It was a sharp contrast to immediately view the dad in the buff and the toddler in his diaper. It seemed like the diaper should have been worn the other way around. I got that glaring look my husband is famous for giving. The one where he cocks his head to one side and has one eye closed. It definitely cannot be described as a wink, and I got the message. The look said, “You knew about this and did not tell me did you?” look.
I just shrugged and plodded along the upward ascent to the bat cave. But of course, that one man could not have been our only experience with men hiking in the buff. Before we knew it, two more naked men joined out group of merry hikers.
These men were clad only in their hiking backpacks and hiking sandals. I am glad they felt comfortable enough to join in. We hiked with an incredible sunset across the valley of San Luis. We were warned as we reached the bat cave, to be as silent as possible. No talking, no drags your feet on the pebbled path, and no clacking of your walking sticks on the ground. The first feature to become obvious to us prove that bats were in residence was an overpowering stench of dank bat guano. This is not an aroma that you encounter on a daily basis. The smell was covering the entire outside area and was emanating from inside the caves. It took a few minutes to adjust to the smell. There are actually several large cavernous holes in the side of a small peak of a mountain. These holes used to be the mining site. Our guide had directed our attention to one specific hole and informed us that the bats would exit that hole.

We stood staring at that hole for almost half an hour being absolutely silent and reverent. As we waited, we witnessed one large owl, who took a perch on a small rocky protuberance right in the opening of the cave. He took up the same watchful pose that we had, but his intentions were entirely different from ours.
This owl had cleverly learned previously, that he could snatch dinner from an errant flying bat as it made its night-time exit looking for food. We also saw a night-hawk who also had been waiting as patiently as he could before actually flying directly into the cave and obviously plucked a bat off the roof.
My husband and I walked very quietly and slowly about ten yards back up the path and just stood admiring the sunset. Suddenly, we began to see tiny silhouettes of bats flying before us with the golden, purple glow of the sun behind them.
Then the whole colony started seeking their dinner for the night. We had literally thousands of bats flying all around our heads as they anxiously flew into the night air. These bats were astonishingly accurate flyers, dipping, diving, and swooping around our heads. We stood holding our breath; mouths opened in awe, and clutching our hats in case a bat flew a little too close. All we could hear were the thousands of tiny bat wings calling whump, whump, whump as they frantically baptized a new night. One camper that was camped near the entrance of this campground was an astrologer. He had set up a powerful telescope. The conditions for viewing stars are optimal here because there are no city lights to interfere with the objects.
This camper was offering everyone a view of Saturn and the four moons surrounding it. This was something I had never seen before either and another unexpected treat that night.
We started out descent in single file back to our cars in the dark. The path downhill was just tiny lighted dots in the night from our flashlights that looked like a string of delicate pearls. And, the buff gentlemen? Yes, they did don a sweatshirt when the night air turned chilly.

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