One sunny (slightly smoky) Sunday in August of 2018, a grumble of Atheists* set out to explore the howling wilderness that surrounds Mancos State Park. OK, it’s not an actually ‘howling’…nor is it an actual ‘wilderness’ per se, but there are many trees, it’s pretty and it’s full of interesting things to see and learn about. Towards that end, our little group made sure to pack along our own Max Macpherson…a man who seems to know each rock and plant in the forest, personally, and by name. I was first introduced to Max’s formidable and encyclopedic knowledge of Southwest flora when he, Wray Boswell and I were teamed up to de-clutter our stretch of Coal Bank Pass during one of DS&A annual road cleanups. We’d pick up a piece of trash and then, before moving on, Max would exclaim over a bedraggled bush, or a gaudy red berry or small blue flower, telling us the various medicinal uses for the plants by Native Americans or how the berry is vital to the subsistence of bears but not palatable to humans. It was a fascinating and dizzying display of outdoor lore which made the experience very enjoyable and memorable. Since then, I’ve been anxious to have Max share his deep understanding of folk wisdom with the rest of the group.
So, Carolyn and I were delighted when Max agreed to head a party of hikers on a jaunt around his home stomping grounds on the west side of the La Platas. We departed on a trail near the Transfer camp ground and soon were dropping 300’ down a rocky slope…we stopped every 10 yards or so to enthuse over a cluster of stems or a browned flower (it was well-past the prime wild flower season), marveling as Max delivered a master’s course in local flora and fauna. Even if you took notes, you couldn’t keep up with Max’s output! We all agreed that if we could retain just one or two of the facts that zinged past us at a dizzying clip we’d be satisfied.
Max pointed out ‘osha’, formerly known to us as ‘that raggedy-assed sort of fern-y looking plant’. Well, it turns out that osha (Ligusticum porteri for you purists) is useful as a treatment for flu, bronchitis and sore throat! Who knew? (As it turns out, the Native Americans did)! See those pretty red berries? They are chokecherries, aka ‘bitter berries. Aptly named, I am told; I abstained from trying them myself. But apparently bears love ‘em…and how do we know that? Because of the piles of bear scat on the trail heaped with chokecherry pits, that’s how. Those little blue berries growing in abundance all around us on the trail are ‘serviceberries’…sweet and beloved by humans and bears alike. Those big gouges on the aspen trees are signs of elk rasping their lower teeth on the bark (did you know that elk don’t have upper teeth in the front?). The smaller scratches on many of the aspens along the trail turn out to be claw marks from young bears who climb up the trees to avoid interactions with nosy Atheists and other clueless humans ambling through the bears’ home…you can see the indentations made by the ‘thumb’ and other ‘fingers’ as the cubs clawed their way up out of harm’s way. Have you ever sniffed a Ponderosa Pine? Next time you see one in the bright sunshine, go ahead and take a deep whiff. Is that vanilla you smell? Or is it butterscotch? Our group was divided on the issue, but united in our amazement of this odd quirk of Nature. That yellow flower? That’s cinquefoil (pronounced SINK-eh-foil), useful as an astringent or, if you mix it with honey, use it as a cough medicine. We couldn’t walk ten feet without encountering a new wonder. But until Max pointed them out, we walked heedlessly right past all these natural curiosities.
The outing lasted about three hours, covering 2.2 miles of trail out-and-back. Outbound, we lost 300’ and gained 200’; we reversed that on the return. All agree that Max is a treasure – an affable amalgamation of Mark Trail/Smoky the Bear/Marlin Perkins (that last is a reference for the over-60 crowd – remember Wild Kingdom?).
If you missed out this time, we can hope to persuade Max to reprise his role as nature guide next year when the wild flowers are in season. Carolyn and I want to RSVP for that future expedition right now. Thanks for sharing, Max!
*A ‘grumble’ is the term given (by me) to any gathering of more than three Atheists. Also known as a ‘grouse’ or ‘challenge’ of Atheists. If you have a nomination for the noun that describes a gathering of Atheists, I’d like to hear it…this is not a settled issue.
The above photos were taken by me and Beth Jones…here are some more of Beth’s photos from our day in the wilderness!