When tumbleweeds quit tumbling


I've written before about the access issues of one of my favorite dog-walking routes before, and lately there's been something new in the way: tumbleweeds.

They're three or four feet deep along about a hundred yards of the path. They arrived about a month ago, seemingly overnight. I've been walking the dog down there for the past five years, and I've never seen anything like it.

Nor has any other dog-walker I've talked to. Naturally we theorize. One common suggestion is that the weeds accumulated because the route is now closed to vehicles, which would have pushed them aside. But the closure happened in the spring of 2009, and so if the lack of traffic causes tumbleweed piles, it should have happened last year, too -- and it didn't.

I called our county extension agent, Kurt Jones. He theorized as well, since most of his calls on the topic are about getting rid of Russian thistles (what tumbleweeds are before they dry up and blow away) where they grow, not about why they pile up somewhere one year.

We had an unusually wet summer monsoon season in August and early September, he said, which would encourage the growth of big tumbleweeds. And then, perhaps, the prevailing winds of late November and early December were such as to propel the weeds from open areas to the north, down a gulch, then under a small railroad bridge to get trapped by the cottonwoods and brush along the river. In other words, a wind sieve.

What to do about them? Basically, just make your way through and wait for them to rot away, he said. I suggested a quart of kerosene and some matches, but he said he couldn't approve of that, especially when it's been so dry here lately -- burning tumbleweeds can spread brush fires far and fast.

The tumbleweed is something of a symbol of the Old West, but like many such symbols -- e.g., horses and cattle -- it's an immigrant. The tumbleweed comes from the Ural Mountains of Russia. It's a relative latecomer which likely arrived in 1877 in a load of flax seed shipped to Ukrainian immigrant farmers in South Dakota.

Preferring disturbed soil and not needing much water, it has certainly spread and thrived in the New World, and now the tumbleweeds are piled up about two miles east of Salida. They block the rutted old road in the narrow stretch between the out-of-service railroad tracks and the Arkansas River. In theory, the route is legally closed because it crosses railroad property. In practice, well, if the Union Pacific won't use its property to provide rail service, why not enjoy it when walking our dogs?

The picture shows a clogged section of the route with my friend Forrest Whitman and my wife Martha. The dogs, Bodie (looks like a coyote) and Gus (mostly black Lab), are in there somewhere, too.

Has anybody else run into an unusual tumbleweed accumulation lately? Or is this just a local phenomenon?

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

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