Friday, September 22, 2017

Mesa Verde

We spent two nights at the Far View Lodge inside the Park, which made our sightseeing easier and gave us a little more time to decompress - the drive in and out of the park is great, but winding and long. I didn't want to have to do it more than once each direction.  The Lodge was fine, although these Park concessionaire operations always leave a little to be desired. Ditto with the dining room and the cafeteria.

The highlight was the cliff dwellings, as it should be. We headed down early and signed up for back to back walking tours of both the Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Which were great. They require a little dexterity - big ladders and small openings - but nothing we couldn't handle.

Like the other ancient Pueblo sites, it's difficult not to be impressed by their age and what they say of southwestern culture almost 1000 years ago. But the cliff dwellings have their own aesthetic character, too, with their striking positions on the canyon walls.


By mid-afternoon, we had gotten back to within 20 miles or so of where we had started that morning. Our circuitous route had been necessary, but nice - pretty classic Colorado, with the Black Canyon thrown in.

I first encountered Ouray on my grand 1976 walkabout, the day after I climbed Mount Elbert and just a few days after almost getting washed out of the Big Thompson Canyon (Estes Park: 2007). My last ride had dropped me in town and I walked up (it's a steep Main Street) to the switchbacks above town, where I spent hours watching cars and jeep tours pass by before finally crawling under trees somewhere to sleep. I was on the rode again early the next morning and I think I spent the next night along the Santa Fe mainline just outside Williams, Arizona.

Ouray, like all the other towns around it, was built on mining. Silver, mainly, and some of the other minerals often found in similar hydrothermally altered areas. The mountainsides are red as a result of the heavily oxidized minerals. The stream beds are stained red for the same reasons, though mining practices accentuate any natural tendency to rust. The ground beneath these mountains is riddled with small and large tunnels, at least one of which go all the way through to Telluride, the next valley west.

The road from Ouray over the top to Silverton is impressive (and expensive enough to be called the million dollar highway - although that would only buy a few thousand feet of guardrail in today's dollars). As noted, the roads I really wanted to take were the jeep roads back to Lake City or up above Telluride -- maybe another trip with more time and on a tour where someone else drives.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

It's only 15 miles or so in a straight line from Lake City over to Ouray and Silverton. A little bit farther if you drive your ATV over Engineer or Cinnamon Pass. But much farther if you have to drive around by way of Montrose, which we did. On the other hand, the drive down the Lake Fork was beautiful and despite some concerned looks from my copilot, took the Blue Mesa cutoff over to US 50. It probably saved some miles; it may have saved some time.

Taking the long way around gave us an excuse to visit the Black Canyon - not that we should have needed one. The best thing about this canyon is that it really looks like what a canyon should look like. Deep, vertical, sort of scary. And the rocks are beautiful, too.

Lake City

Lake City is tucked into a deep valley a long way from pretty much anything. We arrived on Monday evening, at the end of the Labor Day weekend, and were warned that the hordes from the previous days might have eaten most of the food in town. We ended up at the Cannibal Grill and finding food didn't seem to be a problem.

The drive from Taos had been very pretty, but long, including both Wolf Creek and Slumgullion Passes. Coffee for me in Pagosa Springs. A quick drive-by tour of Creede. And some great views of the uppermost reaches of the Rio Grande Valley.

We stayed at the North Face Lodge - the layout of a motel, but the trappings of a lodge. I felt it would have been particularly convenient if we could have parked our dirt bikes or our jeeps right outside the door. The bakery, just down the hill, was exactly what we needed the next morning. Although there were signs warning of bears, there was nothing about not feeding the dog. The very patient and ultimately successful dog.

This spring, I had wondered if there might be a scenic short-cut from Lake City over to Ouray and Silverton - a short distance as the crow flies - but found that although there were roads, they were for real off-road vehicles, not tourists in Outbacks. So the next day we took the long way around.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Taos Pueblo

Possibly the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States, although there must be some interesting debates about the history of the other pueblo villages in the southwest. But regardless, a village long before Europeans ever arrived in North America. A village that was standing much as it does today when the great cathedrals of Europe were built. A village that had been around more than half a millennium before the United States were even imagined.

As in other aboriginal cultures, but particularly in the southwest tribes, the Pueblo reflects a complex and fascinating blend of native and Christian spiritual traditions (Gran Quivara: 2014). And here, where water and electricity have not been added, a messy mix of ancient and modern lifestyles. It sounds like many of the pueblo's residents may live offsite, reserving their pueblo space for ceremonial and cultural uses.

I find it difficult to balance my fascination with these cultures with my consciousness of being a gawker or of sneaking glimpses into someone else's life. Maybe this is an inevitable, and perhaps not inappropriate, consequence of cultural tourism anywhere, but it still seems a little strange (as it probably should).


We spent Labor Day weekend in Taos - the southern vertex of our road trip triangle. Our adobe AirBnB was a perfect complement to the southwest geography and was beautifully situated just a little way outside town, on a slope along the western edge of the valley. This location, combined with its orientation on the property, provided a wonderful view east across to the Sangre de Cristos. It made for great sunrises - and if you walked around back, great sunsets, too.

A slow tire leak - and paranoia about older tires and a long isolated drive a few days in the future - might have potentially marred the weekend, but Saturday morning we dropped in at Silva's, where they found a staple and patched the tire for $10 cash. Right across from a laundromat. And not far from the Taos Diner. It all worked out so well. We drove up to the Pueblo (next post), then back into town. It was nice not to have to go anywhere.

We ate well in Taos, of course, aided by Trip Advisor and our perennial inability to turn down new places to graze. I was surprised how many of our choices ended up on the road north out of town as opposed in the village itself. The Love Apple, in an old church. The Taos Diner, twice. Gutiz. Orlando's. And more than one stop at the Coffee Spot. Besides food, we also bought a cool Navajo'ish piece for the wall.

Sunday we drove drove the Enchanted Circle, but the bright, hazy sky was less than perfect and we didn't stop anywhere for long. Which gave us more time to hang out in town and at the Caseta. After an early dinner, we also drove up the canyon to the ski area so I could check it out and get a closer glimpse of Wheeler Peak (a state highpoint that will have to wait for a future trip).

The bike remains a theme on the trip. Saturday morning I had an extremely pleasant ride down through the valley near town and then back on the mesa. And Monday morning, I drove a little way up 518, then rode my bike the rest of the way up US Hill (from 7500' to 8500'). Not fast, but great exercise! And very pretty (and chilly - glad I'd picked up full-fingered bike gloves at MEC a few weeks ago).

Cumbres & Toltec

We could have done the bus-train combination in either direction, but for some reason (likely the direction of travel and light and time of day), I had booked us to begin with the bus from Antonito CO to Chama NM and then returning to Antonito on the train. The bus leg was a beautiful drive (and only a few of us on the bus, so all in front rows chatting with the driver and enjoying the scenery).

The 60+ mile train trip back from Chama was wonderful and took much longer - the whole trip takes all day. Lunch is served cafeteria-style in Osier, where the eastbound and westbound trains meet - and resembled a more civilized version of powerful childhood images I had from old train books showing people piling off trains into crowded lunch rooms. We had opted for the intermediate level of service - the tourist car - which seemed to have been a good choice. Comfortable seating, free soft drinks and snacks, and easy access to the open gondola car.

The Cumbres & Toltec was built in 1880 as an extension to the Denver and Rio Grande. The narrow gauge line runs up and over Cumbres Pass from Chama and then follows the Los Pinos River and Toltec Canyon as it winds its way back down to Antonito, zigzagging back and forth across the CO-NM line.

It's remarkable that a small organization can successfully maintain such complex equipment and so much right of way. I guess they are regulated just as any other railroad, so are subject to much of the same oversight that major carriers are.

Pikes Peak

Note to self: next trip to the Rockies, don't schedule a quick trip to 14,000' on the first full day. In planning the trip, my main concern had been whether to drive up Pikes Peak or to reserve seats on the cog railway. The latter turned out to be a great way to do the trip. We dodged a few rain clouds and although the top wasn't completely clear, we could see back down to the prairies (not all the way to Kansas, nor west to the next major ranges). We heard some rolling thunder and saw some rain drops, but not much.

M did okay on the excursion itself, but spent the next several days fatigued and a little out of sorts, pretty likely an altitude response. I will know better next time.

I found the railway impressive and fun. It was a pretty crazy place to build it and amazing to think they run it year round. Must be because the weather is so much tamer here than on Mount Washington!

Pikes Peak is only 30th on the list of more than 50 peaks in Colorado between 14,000 and 14,500'. It's amazing how so many mountains can all rise to such a similar height. Geology - uplift history, isostasy, and glacial erosion have all been invoked (some problems with each explanation, although I guess the latter seems to have gotten the most attention recently). What's even more remarkable is that the other two highest peaks in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada and Mount Rainier in the Cascades, also are in the same basic range, despite completely different geologic histories and locations.