Big Springs, Neb., to Avoca, Iowa

As you drive along Interstate 80, the people you meet in desert places, like in Winnemuca, tend to be friendly, tolerant of eccentricity, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards the world. The people you meet in mountainous places, like Laramie, tend to be outdoorsy and a little bit macho or macha, mountain-men and mountain-women who like to prove themselves. And the people you meet in the Midwest are courteous, pleasant, and just plain nice.

As anecdotal evidence to prove this theory, I offer the desk clerk at the Motel 6 in Winnemuca: friendly and tolerant even when he had to chase people out of the motel pool after the posted closing time, and on the edge of being eccentric himself. And I offer the clerk in the food coop in Laramie, who works in the ski industry, who obviously lives for his time outdoors, who was polite but uninterested in anything but outdoor sports. And I offer the waitresses as Ember’s Restaurant in Avoca, Iowa, who were unfailingly polite to me though I was the last customer of the night, the only customer in the place; they even chatted pleasantly with me and made me feel welcome while they were cleaning tables and mopping floors around me.

Of these three regions, where would I prefer to live? The idea of proving myself to the junior Paul Bunyans of the mountainous regions is not very appealing to me. I like the niceness of the Midwest, but I’m too much of a New Englander to trust constant niceness. But I’d like to live with the desert rats: I like friendly and tolerant people, and I’d fit in pretty well with the eccentrics.

East of Kearney, Neb., I saw a sign that said “Rowe Audubon Sanctuary Next Exit,” so I took the next exit. I crossed over several channels of the Platte River, turned right onto a gravel county road where a sign told me to, and soon pulled into the parking lot of the sanctuary headquarters, a stone’s throw from where the Platte River rushed by under cottonwood trees.


A staffer in the the headquarters building told me that they were experiencing a “high water event”: heavy snow in the Front Range in April, followed by heavy rains in May, caused high water in the Platte River in June. I found that the water was indeed high, right up to the main trail in places, and covering a number of small side trails completely.

It was hot — better than ninety five degrees, with humidity that made it feel hotter — and the mosquitoes were biting. But I hardly noticed. Northern Bobwhites were calling everywhere, and I saw several, running along the edge of a field, bursting into flight when I got too close, flying from a low perch in a cottonwood into the brush. I haven’t seen that many bobwhites since I was a child, and their calls brought me back to childhood, listening to them call in the fields behind our house: “Bob — white! Bob, bob, white!” over and over in the mysterious dark humid summer evenings.

It wasn’t just the Northern Bobwhites that drew my attention away from heat and mosquitoes. Dicksissels sang throughout the fields, a female Baltimore Oriole screamed at me when I got too close to her nest, a three-point buck stared at me from the edge of a corn field then sprang away, Tree Swallows zipped past just a few feet above my head. Overhead, high cirrus clouds refracted the sun into red, yellow, green, and blue; and since cirrus clouds are made of ice, this created a partial ice bow.


A big old rabbit stretched out in the shade with its legs splayed out fore and aft, so that its belly was on the cool, damp ground. It looked at me imperiously, daring me to come any closer, ready to spring into action if I did.


But I went back by the other path, because I suddenly realized how hot I was, and how good the air-conditioned car would feel. Besides, I had been walking around for two hours, and if I were to get to Avoca, Iowa, at a reasonable hour, I had better start driving.

Evanston, Wyo., to Big Springs, Neb.

About an hour from Evanston, I got off the interstate and headed north on state route 372. I drove over a rolling sagebrush-covered landscape; here and there along the road I could see the usual sights of the West: a railroad siding with a string of covered hoppers; a fence and gate with a sign saying something-or-other mine and huge piles of tailings in the distance; some kind of industrial complex blowing white smoke; and so on. Martin Heidegger talked about “enframing,” the way our technological society divides up the world with maps and grids, marking where there are resources we want, where we can run roads and railroads and pipelines, where we can enjoy recreation opportunities, where we can set aside some land for wildlife. I was heading to a national wildlife refuge that was created when the Green River was dammed, and a place had to be found for some of the displaced wildlife.

About a half hour from the interstate, I was pulling in to the headquarters compound of the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. I walked down a low bluff about thirty or forty feet high, into the broad basin of the Green River, and suddenly there was life all around me: horse flies buzzed my head, Violet-green Swallows flew overhead, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbrids calling in the cattails, birds and insects everywhere. In dry Wyoming, water means life, and water flowed throughout the basin, in human-made channels through the highly-managed wetlands.


I walked down one trail, but it got swallowed up in lush, thigh-high grass — besides which, I was obviously disturbing some Killdeer, who must have had a nest nearby, since they circled around me calling repeatedly, trying to distract me from wherever it was their nestlings were. The Green River was rushing by, little pockets of turbulence marking its surface. A Cinnamon Teal burst out of the rushes and flew away. An Osprey sat in a nesting box on top of a tall telephone pole, and I walked towards it for a closer look. But it grew increasingly agitated, and began to fly in circles around the nest, so I retreated again.


The remnants of an old log cabin and some agricultural implements were almost lost in the grass. I stopped to look at them for a moment, the new buildings of the refuge headquarters in the distance, and thought about how humans of European descent had made use of this land for a century and a half.


What I really wanted to do was talk over what I had seen with my father, but he really can’t talk on the phone any more. He likes wetlands as much as I do — Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is one of his favorite places, and the last place he took a real walk outdoors — and he would be interested in the birds I saw. When I see him in a few days, I’ll tell him about Seedskadee, and show him the photos I took.

Seedskadee N.W.R. was the highlight of my day; everything else was an anticlimax, even though I drove through some fantastic scenery. I already want to go back, and spend a week there, and fish in the Green River, and maybe see some Sage Grouse on their leks.

Winnemuca, Nev., to Evanston, Wyo.

This morning, I had a hard time getting on the road; a week’s worth of twelve-hour days running Ecojustice Camp finally caught up with me. I was a little bleary when I started driving. Yesterday in a truck stop I had found an audiobook, on CDs no less, of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and I put the first disc into the car’s CD player. When I was in high school, I had loved I, Robot; I found I still liked it, even though there were huge holes in the plot, even though Asimov doesn’t appear to like women very much, even though he mixes slide rules and space ships; I liked it even though the characters were caricatures, but they were engaging caricatures.

At some point after I passed through Battle Mountain, I began to notice how green the mountains looked — green by northeastern Nevada standards, that is. It had obviously rained in the recent past. Then I began to notice the banks of yellow flowers along the edges of the interstate; I could not only see them, but in a few places I could feel the pollen in the air. They ere so stunning in that desert landscape that I finally pulled over at the exit ramp to Welcome, Nevada, and photographed them. They looked bright and dramatic against the freshly green sage brush.


I rolled through dreary little West Wendover, Nevada, its faintly shabby casinos looking even more shabby in that huge landscape, with towering mountains, and the white expanse of the salt flats stretching eastward into the haze. I rolled across the salt flats — stopping briefly to eat a sandwich in the shade of the rest area in the middle of the salt flats — across the plains and hills on the other side, and got off at the Dugway exit. The directions said to head north, take an immediate left, go a third of a mile, then take the right fork. But the road didn’t fork, it terminated in the exit gate of a huge Cargill salt facility, with a railroad siding and towering piles of salt. Finally I figured out that what I was supposed to do was to turn right at the gates to the Cargill plant, and sure enough there I was at the entrance to Timpe Spring Wildlife Management Area.

One moment I was between the railroad siding and the salt plant, and the next moment I was driving along a narrow dirt road looking out at American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts squawking at me, and California Gulls soaring purposefully overhead towards Antelope Island, which loomed out of the invisible Great Salt Lake in the distance, and a Northern Shoveler dabbling at the edge of the marsh with that absurdly long bill it has.


I started walking out across one of the dikes, but Forster’s Terns and Black-necked Stilts began circling closer and closer to me, and Song Sparrows came up out of the brush at the edge of the dike, all of them giving calls of alarm. Obviously, I was getting too close to their nests. So I walked out along the other dike, but soon an American Avocet and a Wilson’s Phalarope came out of the marsh grasses giving their calls of alarm, so I retreated once more. By that time, I had been walking around for most of an hour, and the temperature was one hundred degrees even, and I was longing for a drink of water. I walked back to the car.

The birds were not so bothered by me while I was in the car. I drove out very slowly, stopping several times to see if I could see the nests of the American Avocets and the Black-necked Stilts, but I could not; the nests must have been well down in the marsh grass. I swatted one last biting fly, slow and stupid from the heat, that had landed on my face, rolled up the window, and drove on to Evanston, Wyoming.


San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemuca, Nev.

As usual on one of these cross-country trips, I got a late start on the first day. Carol was going off to Lake Tahoe with her friend Elaine, and I sat and talked with Elaine while Carol finished getting ready. Elaine has lived all her life in the Bay Area. She grew up in the city — that is, in San Francisco. Even though San Jose is more populous and has more land area, San Francisco is “the city” in the Bay Area, while San Jose is not even a place. Joan Didion, a fifth generation Californian, once wrote that the problem with California is that every place is starting to look like San Jose; not a real place, just featureless sprawl; but San Francisco is still a real place, and so it remains “the city.”

Even though I’m a relative newcomer to the area, Elaine and I both agreed that the Bay Area is a lovely place to live — except for the traffic and the cost of housing. Then Carol was ready to go, and they left, and I finished packing the car and started driving sometime after eleven.

I got to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at a quarter past two, my head still buzzing from the Bay Area traffic. At Parking Lot B, I got out of the car. Marsh Wrens were calling all around me. Through the cattails and rushes I could see that there was still water in some of diked areas. There were flowers everywhere: most prominent were banks of plants in the carrot family — call it Queen Anne’s Lace — with nodding umbrelliform flowers three to seven feet off the ground. I stopped to watch honeybees buzzing around these flowers.


There were plenty of birds, too: Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, and many more feeding in the shallow water. As usual at Yolo Bypass, the birds were very aware that there was a human nearby, and as I got closer they moved farther away.


Then it was time to get back on the road. Up over the Sierras where I could see dark clouds and lightning to the east, then down into Reno where the roads were still wet from a thunderstorm. Thence up through the Humboldt River valley, with dark clouds all around. Everywhere I looked, the hills were washed with a faint green, the desert coming to life after rain. At dusk, I pulled over to get gas near Mill City, and pulled over near the exit ramp to stretch my legs. As I walked through the low grass, grasshoppers sprang to life to get out of my way, and small burrs wormed their way into my socks, and swallows swopped close to my head catching evening insects.


Water striders


This afternoon, I went walking up Purisima Creek Trail, off Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. Purisima Creek flows down through a canyon in which grow Coastal Redwoods. It’s a perennial stream, but at this time of year the water is only a few inches deep. I was curious to see if I could find any organisms living in the creek.

The first organism I saw was a water strider, probably Aquarius remigis, Common Water Strider; in a half an hour of walking along the creek, I saw dozens of these water striders, in sizes ranging from tiny (I was barely able to see them) up to an inch or so long. They were mostly quite aware of my presence, and if I moved too quickly, or got too close to fast, they would skate away from me over the surface of the water. The only other organism I saw in the stream was a Banana Slug, which had somehow gotten to a rock in the middle of the stream; it was mostly out of the water.

But I didn’t see anything else living in the water. Most of the plants I saw grew on the steep banks at least half a foot from the water, and my guess is that the bottom of the stream bed gets well-scoured when water comes pouring down the creek after winter storms; any plants that manage to take root there in the summer get torn away in winter. Nor did I see any other insects, crustaceans, amphibians, or other animals living in the stream; though I suspect there are other animals in the stream. I did see several hatches of small insects dancing in a cloud a few feet above the stream; did they hatch from the water? do their nymph forms live in the water? I’ve seen California Newts (Taricha torosa) in this area; I would guess some of these newts breed in this stream, the largest stream in the vicinity, and that the tadpoles must therefore live in the stream for a time.

But today, the only organisms I saw in the stream were the water striders.

Dawn, Black Mountain

Standing on the top of Black Mountain this morning at about 5:45 a.m. and looking west, I could see the fog in the valleys below:


Where I was standing was about 2,812 feet above sea level; I’d guess that the top of the fog was about half that height, perhaps 1,500 feet high.

The view to the east was even more spectacular: the sun just peeking over the 4,000 foot high Hamilton Range, and the entire Santa Clara Valley covered with a blanket of fog — or, more precisely, covered with a layer of stratus clouds the tops of which were about 1,500 feet high, and the bottoms of which were probably about 500 to 1,000 feet above sea level. It was funny to think that there were ten million people down there under the fog who were enjoying a cool, cloudy, grey morning, while I was looking up at a cloudless sky and wondering where in my backpack I had put my sunscreen.

Obscure Unitarians: Mary and George Rosebrook, pioneers

Mary Frances (Greer) Rosebrook, and George H. Rosebrook, lived a pioneer life in Oregon before settling in Palo Alto in 1892. Mary Frances (known as “Fannie” at the time) traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852, when she was 6 years old, with her parents and siblings. George married Fannie in 1882, the same year he received a patent for a homestead farm in the Willamette Valley.

Here are brief biographies of Mary and George:

ROSEBROOK, MARY FRANCES GREER — Over the course of her life, she went by Frances, Fannie, and (after 1900) Mary.

She was born Jan., 1846, in Missouri; her parents, James and Margaret, were both from Ireland, where they were married in 1832. James went to the California gold fields in 1850, where he heard about Oregon; in 1852, James and Margaret took their family, including Fannie, on the Oregon Trail; a quilt that Margaret had made in 1840, and which came with them on the trail, may be seen in the book Quilts of the Oregon Trail (Mary Bywater Cross, 2007, p. 68). The family settled in Kings Valley, Ore., in Sept., 1852, and there James worked as a farmer.

“Fannie” married George H. Rosebrook on Apr. 12, 1882, in Polk, Oregon. She and George had no children together, although George had one child by a previous marriage. They moved to Palo Alto in 1892.

Mary was a member of the Palo Alto Woman’s Club. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and served as treasurer for the 1907 Annual Convention of the California Equal Suffrage Assoc. (Western Woman, vol. 1, no. 14, Oct. 1907 [San Francisco], p. 12).

Mary was one of the charter members of the Unity Society in 1896, a lay-led Unitarian group gathered by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, and she served on the Committee on Executive and Finance. Then in 1905, she became one of the earliest members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She joined the Women’s Alliance in about 1905. She also served in other leadership roles in the church.

She died after 1920.


ROSEBROOK, GEORGE H. — He was born Oct., 1846, in Gouldsboro, Maine. He married Margaret A. Graham, Sept. 9, 1874, and they had one son, Joseph Wilton (Benton County [Ore.] Genealogical Society,; Joseph was born May, 1876, in Oregon. By 1880, George was widowed and living “in [a] Lighthouse” (1880 U.S. Census) in Newport, Oregon, with his son Joseph and his mother Mary A.

George was issued a patent for 150 acres of land for a homestead near Willamette, Ore., on Apr. 10, 1882 (Benton Cty. Gen. Soc.). He married Fannie (Mary Frances) Greer on Apr. 12, 1882. He and Fannie came to Palo Alto in 1892; once in Palo Alto, he became a carpenter who built a number of houses, including a house he built for himself and Mary F. in 1893, at 225 Emerson St. (Historic Buildings Inventory, City of Palo Alto, 1978).

George’s son, Joseph, also moved to Palo Alto. He attended Stanford briefly in 1897. He became a builder like his father, married a Presbyterian in 1900 (Palo Alto Times, June 22, 1900); Joseph appears never to have gotten involved with the Unitarian Church.

George’s wife Mary was part of the Unity Society of Palo Alto in 1895-1897; George may have been, too, but almost no records of that early Unitarian group survive. George was one of the early members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, probably joining in 1905. He served on the Board of Trustees of the church.

He died before 1920.