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.

Garden of the Gods

We made it to the front range late on the second day out of Wisconsin. From Lincoln and North Platte (previous post), we followed I-80 and I-76 all the way to Denver, had a nice dinner in the rapidly upscaling RiNo (River North) District along Larimer, then tried to keep up with heavy 80 mph traffic on the curvy Interstate south to Colorado Springs. We had booked two days to catch our breath. Quite literally. Although in my following post I will admit to not really thinking this through very well.

Early Wednesday morning (we had been in Madison just Monday morning), I drove up to the empty visitor's center parking lot and unloaded my bike. The road up through Garden of the Gods includes a pair of rolling, smoothly paved, one-way loops that top out around 6500'.  What a beautiful, albeit oxygen-deficient, ride! I came back with M a couple of hours later. We mainly drove, and limited our walk to a fairly level one.

When the modern Rockies were forced upward (during the Laramide Orogeny), the Permian Lyons Sandstone was bent up and over the top of the older rocks underneath - like the precambrian granite that makes up Pikes Peak. The erosional remnants of these steeply tilted pink sand dunes are found up and down the front range.

Besides the Garden of the Gods, our trip also included Pikes Peak (next post). We did a neat loop up Gold Camp road and down North Cheyenne Canyon. We saw a little of older, downtown Colorado Springs, including Colorado College and the beautiful residential neighborhoods around it. And we had a great dinner at Shuga's. But much of what we saw was very generic strip malls and subdivisions sprawling up the hillsides around town.

Colorado Springs hosts a large collection of religious institutions (not just churches, but missionary organizations, Christian publishers, and other examples of corporate protestantism). I suspect that when the rapture comes, the angels may not waste much time trying to extract these folks from their gated communities.

Monday, September 18, 2017

North Platte

On our return trip in 2015, we had stayed in North Platte, but the viewing tower had been closed when I drove out early the next morning. And without the tower, it's very difficult to get a sense of the scale of what goes on here.

Union Pacific bills the Bailey Yard as the world's largest classification yard. It's a huge operation with two large humps to handle eastbound and westbound traffic. Hump yards refer to the way that freight cars are pushed one by one over an artificial hill, and then allowed to coast precisely onto any of a large number of classification tracks in the bowl from which new trains are built. I was mainly impressed by the number of big diesel locomotives moving around. Something like 130 trains a day pass through here.

M and I got together in part because of a shared interest in trains (at least it was one of our first conversation topics), but she just liked riding them. Little did she realize what an obsession trains were in my family! Of course, I don't even think of myself as a very serious train nut, but that's because I know just how much nuttier some folks can get. If the 8-mile complex was accurately modeled in HO (1:87), the resulting layout would need to be more than 500' long. In N-scale (1:160) it would still need to be almost as a long as a football field. In case you wondered!