Colorado Sky Islands and Vermillion Basin 2021

My friend Chase and I backpacked for four days in the NW corner of Colorado, a land with more mountain lions than people, the nearest gas station 50 miles away. We encountered wild horses, rattlesnakes, pronghorn, deer, horned toad, rare flowers, stunning scenery, Native American rock art, and fossil algae balls.

Colorado Transect Five Mountain Passes

Boreas Pass, Ten Mile Range, Vail Pass, Shrine Pass, Two Elk Pass

TAP or HOVER over images for captions, 50 photos.

Backpacked 59 miles and 9,200 vertical feet from Como to Minturn over Colorado’s central Rocky Mountains July 9-13, 2020. This mountain section differed from the rest of my route across the state: nearly all hiking trails, I saw other hikers, and the paths were high–over 10,000 feet in elevation. As I left Como in South Park I felt worried and intimidated about the mountains ahead of me.

Colorado Transect Animal Photos

In the summer of 2020 I hiked 732 miles across Colorado from the southeast to northwest corners across the prairie, mountains, and sagebrush steppe.

HOVER over or TAP images for animal and location, 39 photos.

I saw antelope, deer, moose, eagles, burrowing owls, squirrels, jackrabbits, marmots, trout, snakes, butterflies, porcupines, and a badger, and managed to photograph some of them with my Panasonic Lumix compact camera and iPhone 8. Total number of photos taken: more than 3,500.

Colorado Transect: Press and Podcasts

Colorado Transect: Final Expedition Stats

Map of India's diagonal hike across Colorado in 2020
I charted my hike in red across the Colorado map, a wild woman’s waltz along my diagonal yellow transect line. Many people helped me along the way, the Friends of India’s Diagonal Expedition Colorado (FIDE CO).

Official stats for India’s Diagonal Expedition Colorado:

  • 732 miles hiked
  • Waltz partner: Matilda the Gregory backpack
  • Started expedition May 11, finished August 18, 100 days
  • 65 days of hiking in 5 segments
  • 35 days during expedition needed for route planning, scouting, food resupply, water caching, rest
  • 44 days hiking solo, 21 with friends
  • Cumulative elevation gain: about 50,300 ft. = Mt. Everest + Denali
  • Hiking path: dirt roads 31 days, paved roads 14, public land trails 14, private ranches 6
  • Where I slept: tent 39 nights, Bessie the 4Runner 9, motels 9, friends’ houses 8

Colorado Transect: The Joys of Paper Maps

“Wow, you’re starting in the southeast corner of Colorado. I just love Durango and Telluride. The mountains are fantastic.”

“No, not that corner, the SOUTHEAST corner, at Kansas and Oklahoma, the high plains and Picketwire Canyon.” I put my fingers to my forehead.

“Oh. Near Pueblo?” My good friend who has lived in Colorado for 30 years wrinkles her brow.

“About 150 miles east of Pueblo, but close enough.” I am baffled that most of my friends can’t draw a map of Colorado even though it is square. I yearn for the paper restaurant placemats of my childhood showing a map of colorful Colorado beneath my plate of fried chicken, with icons for oil, corn, and cattle areas, major highway lines, and the plains, mountains, and plateaus. Nobody looks at a state paper map anymore, choosing the convenient get-there-now tunnel vision of Google Maps.

I began this journey by inking my red diagonal line from SE to NW on a paper GTR Recreational Map of Colorado in January 2020. I then transferred that line to a sequence of 14 regional maps showing federal land ownership along the way. I could see the big picture of my journey on paper that spanned three pool tables.


Colorado Transect: Planning for a Dream

This is the first post about my hike across Colorado in May-August 2020. Follow my adventure on Facebook and select “see first” so they don’t get buried in your feed.

CO map of India's diagonal expedition line

Have you ever dreamed of doing something you thought you couldn’t do? I’ve been dreaming of hiking across my home state for several years, and in January 2020 decided to go for it: 750 miles on my own two feet, with a little help from Friends of India’s Diagonal Expedition: Colorado (F.I.D.E. CO).

This was a bit like a barnyard pony deciding to enter the Kentucky Derby. A big hike was five miles and the extra weight I carried was in my own skin, not in a backpack. I thought I was a kinda-old has-been at 53. As to how to train for this adventure and set up the logistics, I had no idea. Distance-hiker friends said hiking 15 miles a day with a 30-pound pack would get me across the state. Oy!

But the dream of hiking from one favorite corner of the state to the other, from southeast to northwest, from prairie to mountains to plateaus, electrified my adventurous mind at bedtime. Sleep evaded me, but not the dream. This barnyard pony has always loved camping and meeting new people and observing nature. I was tired of the shouting between groups of people, everyone putting each other into buckets of dislike. I want to listen, hear good stories, understand people, and make new friends. I want to walk, not drive.

The physical challenge worried me the most. So I hired an endurance coach, Kara Wooley, in mid-January, for 12 weekly conditioning sessions. Glutes! Glutes! Get that butt in shape! Core muscles! Kara dictated weekly workout plans that I followed with the intensity and precision I usually apply to cake-baking recipes. By mid-April I could hike 16 miles with a 30-pound pack. My old Wrangler jeans fit again.

I had hoped to begin my hike in late April, before southeast CO got too hot, but then COVID-19’s dirty breath blew in. I reset my first hike day for May 11, after the end of Colorado’s stay-at-home order. The virus made me question whether I should go at all, but friends said the expedition would entertain people sitting at home, and my chosen route would take me through the least-populated counties in Colorado. (For example, Baca County covers 2,500 square miles and sustains 3,800 people.)

I assumed the logistics would be simple in these wild places. I thought I could get water at stock tanks, carry many days of food, camp places, follow the dirt roads on the maps. Ha! You city slicker. The maps are outdated, some by 40 years. The cattle tank water’ll flatten a human. You can’t carry more than a few days of food. Federal land where it’s okay to camp is scarce. Some regions are blank, with no roads or trails. I didn’t think people would help me much, same as in Boulder where neighbors don’t even know each other. But I was wrong, and happy.

Return here often for updates on our adventures with squirrelodactyl, the official mascot of the Friends of India’s Diagonal Expedition (FIDE) Colorado. Friends old and new are welcome to join me along the way as hiking pals or camp wranglers. Give me a shout.

Squirrelodactyl, the official mascot of the Friends of India's Diagonal Expedition: Colorado
Logo design by Charli Mandel, my daughter


Some Favorite Nature Books

My nature bookshelf

I try to keep my library to fewer than about 1,200 books, but there are so many good ones! Here are my favorites from the nature shelves:

  • The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams
  • Encounters with the Archdruid, by John McPhee
  • Peaks, Plateaus and Plains: The Ecology of Colorado, by Allen Crockett
  • In Beaver World, by Enos Mills
  • Dirt: a Love Story, edited by Barbara Richardson
  • North American Mammals, by Roger Caras
  • The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen
  • A Neotropical Companion, by John Kricher
  • Wilderness Management, by Hendee and Dawson
  • Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin
  • The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
  • Do Elephants Have Knees?, by Charles Ault
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Parody Titles for The Dinosaur’s Daughter

The Girl with No Dress: the incredible story of a girl raised by dinosaurs (The Girl with No Name)

Gray is the New Pink: my three years in a dinosaur quarry (Orange is the New Black)

Dig, Question, Screw: one woman’s search for everything in stone (Eat, Pray, Love)

Beyond Dead Animals: growing up inside paleontology and my harrowing escape (Beyond Belief)

Impertinent: surviving Colorado Springs and paleontology (Troublemaker)

Paleo Pinup: the incredible true story of a bone addict’s double life (High Achiever)

Digging up Alícé: one American girl discovers the wisdom of a Laurasian upbringing (Bringing up Bébé)

Dig Up: women, pickaxes, and the will to dig up (Lean In)

Digging and Driving: and other Woody blunders (Drinking and Tweeting)

Call the Bone Digger: a memoir of discovery, passion, and odd characters (Call the Midwife)

Battle Hymn of the Dinosaur’s Daughter (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)

The Dinosaur’s Daughter: two-page version

Jim Lindsey and I excavating the allosaurus, 1983. Photo by Robert Wright ©DMNS

The Dinosaur’s Daughter is my 1980s memoir as an unparented Colorado teenager with a Jurassic meat-eating dinosaur in my bedroom. The fossilized bones are both a possible museum display and ticket to the profession of paleontology, but I want family and financial stability, too.

Improbably, I find the first bone when I am 12 years old, hiking alone along the rainbow-colored Jurassic mudstone cliffs of Sage Springs Ranch. Mother’s friends Minford and Judy Beard manage the 150-square-mile ranch of rocky plateaus near Dinosaur, Colorado. Judy makes canes out of bull penises and loathes children, so she teaches me how to find dinosaur bones to get rid of me. Minford thinks I can do anything and loans me his pick axe, a screwdriver, and a splayed paintbrush. I have my own geology hammer but know nothing of real paleontological techniques, blithely tossing bone fragments down the hill. I dig up joy and confidence and more bones on multiple visits, with the occasional help of my responsible sister Kate as we shiver in the snow and burn ourselves purple in the desert sun.

Meanwhile my family goes up in flames. Daddy divorces his wife and moves into a cottage with no room for me. My stepfather divorces my mom, stealing back financial stability and his horse and cattle ranch. Mom flees to a mountain outpost, leaving me to live mostly alone during high school. My best friend Marjorie and our Yoda-like housekeeper Edna tell me I’ll be okay. I take refuge in my dinosaur dig. I identify the bones from library books but keep my dinosaur secret except for a surreal attempt to exhibit the bones as part of a middle school history fair. I do not think a girl could have found anything important.

Then my mother, a poet with an alternating current of loving and suicidal, a writer I want to emulate but can not follow, wants the dinosaur gone so she can rent our house out for urgent cash. Nearly 16 years old, with no help from my parents, I must find a summer home for me and this beast I’d named Alice. I leave several allosaurus bones in a Nocona boot box at the front desk of the Denver Museum of Natural History (DMNH). A call from Don Lindsey, the DMNH’s curator of paleontology, changes everything.

Don says the museum wants my bones, I say give me a job. So the museum hires me at age 16 to excavate the allosaurus alongside Don and his teenage son Jim. I have such high hopes for Don, but he is a bullheaded drunk. Jimmy, hardworking and kind, becomes my excavation partner, good friend, and first love; together we excavate Alice while Don sleeps off hangovers. I am determined to get Alice on display and prove myself as a real scientist but so much stands in my way: Don’s laziness, his allegiance to his son and growing dislike of my fame, a site where the bones dwindle and surge, the desert’s heat and floods and horrendous biting insects, a broke museum with a creationist board, stone-age men, my yearnings for companionship and financial security, my bald truth-telling, and artist parents with no money and no guidance to give. I keep a big black journal while insisting I won’t be a writer.

After two summers the museum closes the dig, my North Star during my teenage years. Directionless, I fall asleep at the wheel after a drunken party and unconsented sex, nearly killing myself in a highway rollover. I realize I must steer. Television shows and People magazine feature my dinosaur story. I work in the halls of the museum for my 18th summer, realizing how much I love interacting with people and not dead animals. So I swear off paleontology and enter no-dinosaurs Dartmouth College where I stagger through Meisterbrau-scented pool games and land on academic probation. Meanwhile the museum fires Don and closes the paleontology lab, dumping my dream that Alice will become a museum exhibit.

In the face of these failures and the indoor boredom of college Latin and calculus, I return for one last dose of my intellectual joy drug, field paleontology. I break into the museum’s lab through a ventilation duct to take pictures of the rare fossils we had found alongside the allosaurus. I use the photos to win grants for my own three-month paleontological expedition to the old Sage Springs site. I hire a field assistant, a New York college friend who has never seen a cow, and invite a couple other Dartmouth friends to help. At age 19 I learn to manage a crew, a budget, and scientific excavation processes despite my youthful impatience, fossils that may not exist, desert solitude, hordes of insects, and limited expertise. I call on paleontologists at Harvard and Dinosaur National Monument who teach me techniques Don never mentioned.

I am now a real scientist, having written a scientific paper as a college sophomore and been nominated as a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. But I am majoring in English literature and writing hundreds of pages of philosophical and racy letters to my boyfriend. I tell my mother again I will not be a writer. Growing up alone and with no money, I cannot face becoming a paleontologist, either, a lonely cliffside career with few job prospects. So I quit paleo and use my fossil-fueled capabilities to fly off to an internship with the Peace Corps in Africa. Meanwhile the museum plunks Alice’s bones into a closet. Goodbye, Alice, I think to myself, as if she had died.

Alice and I on exhibit at DMNS.
Photo by Essdras Suarez (C) Denver Public Library

Finally, nine years later, my husband and daughter join me to meet Alice once again, reborn as the stegosaurus-attacking centerpiece of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s new paleontology hall. I now have what I have always wanted: a museum dinosaur with my name on the plaque, a loving family, financial stability, and a future of nature adventures and writing.

You can’t outrun your literary mother, or an allosaurus.