Last week my friend Christine found out that Fort Collins' Natural Areas Program was hosting a free guided art tour up at Soapstone Prairie, home of the famed Lindenmeier archaeological site. Subsequently she, myself, and fellow painter-in-arms Ken Knox took the hour's drive north to explore.
This year's rain had made the semi-arid desert lush with life. Pronghorn antelope lounged about and our trek was accompanied by flashes of black and white lark bunting wings. We all remarked to one another that we hadn't seen this many wildflowers in years.
Even the locoweed was pretty
We were met in the parking lot by Gary Raham, who conducted the tour. Gary is a gifted science writer, designer and paleo-illustrator whose passion for the area's history was contagious. He began by showing us a yardstick with cultural periods painted on it: thousands of years of silent pre-history, with only the last 500 years of recorded human existence at the very tip. Or was the pre-history so silent? The ancient peoples who occupied the area might not have left written documentation, but they DID leave a lot of intricate tools that speak volumes to those who can decode their message. Gary explained the significance of the discovery of a projectile point stuck in a giant extinct bison's vertabrae; hitherto scientists thought that people hadn't migrated to the Americas before 10,000 years ago. With the new evidence jutting out at them, they had to reconsider the timeline.
Gary gave us handouts and showed us replicas of the projectile points, needles and beads found in an washed out arroyo in the distance. He described how the area hadn't changed much in the 80-odd years since the Smithsonian sent out an archaological team to investigate the finds. Artist Edwin Cassedy was a part of that team, recording the lay of the land in watercolor sketches, and it was fun to walk in his footsteps as we hiked past a riot of wildflowers: larkspur, Nuttall's sunflowers, mariposa lilies, and prickly pear cactus blooms. While Ken opted to paint in this botanical wonderland with another adventurer, the rest of us pressed on to “see what we could see” at the top of the ridge. We were rewarded with a view that gave us an idea why ancient peoples favored this spot: you could see forever!
We set up shop and began to paint. Well, everyone else got to paint, as it turned out that I'd forgotten my paint palette at home(!) Normally it lives in my backpack, but it had gotten so dirty from the last couple of trips I had taken the time to carefully wash it out...only to leave it behind on the sink counter where I'd left it. Arrrrgh.
Not to be deterred, I took the opportunity to do a slower sketch than usual with the intent to take color notes and paint it from memory when I got back home. And so I did:
That'll teach me to double-check before heading out. Ha.
As we painted, we got to chat further with our guide as well as another artist who joined us, the lovely Cathy Morrison. She, too, illustrates books and was a great addition to our natural history expedition. The sun was intense, but a steady breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The only setback we had as we worked was that our location was discovered by various biting flies. I couldn't help but wonder if the original Smithsonian team was as harassed as we were!
I kept expecting Julie Andrews to show up behind us singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of muuusic..."
As we headed back down, our guide stopped in his tracks. Was it a rattlesnake? Nope...a pair of dung beetles, rolling their “treasure” along the trail. Fascinating.
Even though we'd run a little over in the allotted time, Gary was gracious enough to chat with us some more, and to share some iced tea and water he'd brought in a cooler. We had a real hoot, and learned a lot. In fact, we half-joked that from now on we should hire a natural history guide for all our paint-out adventures!