Monthly Archives: September 2013

Mount Evans The Easy Way

The United States of America is not perfect.  There are definitely some aspects of our history that seem a bit shady, and there are definitely some things I would change if I had my way.  But I still love this country, and feel lucky to live here.  One of the things I love about this country is that we attempt to accommodate nearly everybody.  We have lifestyles that range from the crowds of Manhattan to empty parts of Wyoming, and many other things in between.  Despite the fact that I have come across a few Americans who would like to eradicate one or more of our prevalent lifestyles, we remain a county that accommodates.  If anything, we are becoming more accommodating, as more and more places add bike lanes, and some communities allow people to follow their dreams of traveling everywhere by golf cart.

To get to the top of the mountains in Colorado, we also accommodate many different methods.  Most Coloradans prefer to hike up our tallest peaks, and nearly every tall mountain here has multiple hiking trails to the top.  Two of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Evans and Pike’s Peak, have paved roads to the top.  During the summertime, people can drive or ride a bicycle to the top of these peaks.  In fact, the ride from Idaho Springs to the top of Mount Evans was featured as one of Bicycling Magazine’s Top Bike Rides.  Pike’s Peak can even be reached by train.

The easiest way to the top of a mountain is to drive.  Having already hiked three of these peaks this summer, I decide to take a drive (or, more accurately, go along for a ride) up Mount Evans.  The road up to Mount Evans is actually North America’s highest paved road, and a very scenic one.  There are plenty of wonderful places on the way up this highway, including dense pine forests, alpine lakes, and places where you can see the mountains in the distance.  These are the kinds of images you will often find on a calender.

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One added bonus of taking this trip in late September was the fall colors.  The fall colors here in Colorado come primarily from the Aspen trees, and primarily turn the color yellow.  This makes a fall image here in Colorado quite different than what you would see in the east.  Firstly, with more pine trees here, not all of the trees are changing colors.  And, with the trees mostly changing the same color, yellow, there is less variety.  In that sense, I would say anyone looking to take a vacation for the primary purpose of viewing fall foliage would be better off going to New England or the Smoky Mountains.  But, the colors did add an extra element to the views on this trip.

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Some places in higher terrain just recently received their first snow of the season.  The snowfall was not particularly heavy, but it still could be seen, especially from the shaded areas once we climbed above 9,000 feet.

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As a result of this recent snowfall, as well as a heavier snowfall at the highest peaks (during the floods a couple of weeks ago), the road was not open all the way to the top of Mount Evans.  The farthest up we could go is Summit Lake, which is around 12,800 feet in elevation.  This is not too atypical, as these higher elevations typically start receiving snow in September, and plowing a road at this elevation is not an easy task.

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I love science!  I love the way some scientific phenomenon can create some unique observations, and I love the process of figuring it all out.  It was a very windy day at Summit Lake, and I could feel it as soon as I got out of the car.  In fact, the wind confirmed for me that it would have been quite unpleasant to try to hike at this elevation.  What I observed on this lake is a phenomenon I had seen years back when I was living in Madison, WI.  On a cold, windy morning, the wind blows water off of the lake onto nearby grass and rocks.  If it is cold enough, those water particles freeze on contact, much as they would in an ice storm.

When I observed this in Madison, WI, it was a similar situation.  In that case it was December, as it gets cold a lot earlier in the year at high elevations, but the progression of events is the same.  Water has a higher heat capacity and therefore both warms up and cools down slower than air.  It takes more than a few cold mornings to freeze over a lake, even a smaller lake like this one.  So, at the time of year when winter-like chill first arrives, this phenomenon can be observed near lakes.  Larger lakes like Lake Michigan and Lake Superior never freeze over in the winter, and sea spray events like this one can be observed pretty much all winter long.  Although I have seen the result of this combination of weather conditions a couple of times, I am now kind of curious to see it actually occurring.

The world is a tough place to understand.  Life often seems to unfold in ways that do not make too much sense.  Often times, after a particular endeavor does not turn out the way I had hoped, I spend a good deal of time scratching my head, wondering why.  When something impacts my life in a negative way, my response is always to try to figure out where it went wrong, as to avoid making the same mistakes.  But, most of the time it does not work that way, particularly when social interactions and group dynamics are involved.

In a way, I feel like I can take comfort in science.  In science, there are universal laws, and certain things that will always behave the same way, even in an unfamiliar place.  The cold windy night on Summit Lake created the same ice patters that it did on Lake Mendota.  No matter where you are light waves of 550nm will appear green to the human eye.  This, and a host of other things, can be counted on, will always make sense, and can provide some comfort in unfamiliar situations.  Yet, unlike some predictable things, like re-watching movies and T.V. reruns, it does not become mundane and uninteresting over time.  There is always something new to be discovered, a new phenomenon to be observed and investigated, and a new possibility to be opened up.

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On the return trip, we stopped in Idaho Springs, walked around and ate lunch.  I have driven by this town many times, but never really spent much time here.  In a narrow valley, with steep terrain on either side, the town actually has some houses on higher terrain.  From the highway, it’s appearance consistently reminds me of model train sets.  In addition, the town, which champions itself as “Where the Gold Rush Began”, actually named it’s high school team the “Golddiggers”.  I still wonder if the the marching band plays that Kanye West song when the team comes out onto the field.

I was pretty impressed with the downtown.  It is a nice, kind of small, western town.  It is not over touristy, as it is not adjacent to a big attraction the way Estes Park is.  The shops seem well kept, and also seemed to have variety.  We ate at Tommyknockers, a microbrewery downtown with bar food, and also a lot of buffalo burgers.  From walking around town, I see several other places I would like to try, on subsequent trips.  But, I really do not know when I will be coming into town again, as it is not a typical stop-off for me on ski trips and such.

A Journey to Another Nation

In some of my travels earlier this year, I was exposed to more of the history of the American West; particularly our series of battles and treaties with the Native American population. Earlier this week, as I gazed towards the east, towards the Great Plains, I pondered people that society often overlooks. Quite possibly the most overlooked people in our society today are the Native Americans. In that vein, I took advantage of an opportunity I got to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Southwestern South Dakota. This is one of the poorest places anyone can find within the United States, and a place where a lot of people in the West go to do charity work.

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The drive up to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is primarily through the Nebraska panhandle, through an area I am mainly familiar with through storm chasing. With a little bit of extra time, we got a chance to visit a couple of roadside attractions near Alliance, NE. The primary attraction there is a place called Carhenge. Carhenge is a replication of Stonehenge with old cars that was built by some rancher a couple of decades ago. Apparently, ranchers have nothing to do in the winter, and often end up bored. So, from time to time, they come up with something creative, which explains why we also saw this roadside attraction, only a couple of miles further up the road.

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As we travel north and approach the border of South Dakota, the empty and largely flat land typically associated with Western Nebraska gives way to some rolling hills and pine trees. This first begins to appear near the Niobrara River Valley, a river that actually produces some of Nebraska’s most interesting scenery. In fact, farther down this river, just east of Valentine, NE, is a place called Smith Falls, a waterfall with a 75 foot drop, which is really not to shabby at all.

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On the road we came in on, Nebraska highway 78, we enter the Indian Reservation as soon as we cross the border into South Dakota. On the border, there is a town called Whiteclay, NE, where Native Americans largely go to buy liquor, as for some strange reason it can’t be sold on the reservation. The town of Pine Ridge, the main town on the reservation is a mere couple of miles into the reservation. There, I met the people who assist with coordinating the volunteer efforts of those looking to help. They have an office, which looks like a small house from the outside. Inside, I see a map showing the poorest counties in the United States, a good amount of Native American artwork, and a calendar, with plenty of appointments for people to visit and help written on it.

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Out of respect, I took a limited amount of pictures on the Reservation. However, I did take a couple of pictures, one of one of the houses we were working on, and one of the neighborhood. At some point, I was under the impression that Indian Reservations are places where people still live in tepees and chase buffalo off of cliffs. But, in reality, they live in towns much like how the rest of us do. We always kind of romanticize the idea of Native Americans as nomads who hunt and gather their food, but history does show that is not always the reality. Particularly in the Southwest, ruins of villages from long before any European Explorer arrived can be found in places like Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde National Park.

The town did look obviously poor. Many of the yards had broken cars and many of the homes were in disrepair. In that sense, it kind of reminded me of some of the poorer parts of Chicago that I had seen, on the West and South sides. I did definitely feel a lot less danger in being there than I had when I had ventured to those parts of Chicago. I guess I did not feel as if I was liable to get jumped, or be hit by a stray drive-by. However, the level of poverty did not feel any less.

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After working on a few homes, we got to go to lunch with a couple of the people who coordinate the volunteer effort, at a place called the Lakota Cafe. I got a chance to have a small discussion with a couple of the people who coordinate the volunteer efforts, and also have some involvement with Indian affairs (with the U.S. Government). I have a ton of questions I would have liked to ask them. I really do not understand everything about our relations with the Native American tribes, as it is a topic that is not commonly discussed in depth. These reservations are sort-of another nation, but also sort of not. Apparently there are a lot of legal controversies in situations where our federal law is different than the laws enacted by the tribes. There are also controversies over water rights, particularly for water from the Missouri River. The water rights controversies in some ways remind me of the ones along other rivers, with those downstream accusing those upstream of taking too much. However, there is definitely a component of it that relates to the treaties we had formed with the tribes (some of which we blatantly violated). Apparently, one of the treaties permits some of the tribes to take the water from the Missouri River in South Dakota.

The biggest mystery to me about our affairs with the Native Americans is why we cannot simply just live together like we do, more or less with other racial groups. I mean, we do self-segregate, but we live under the same governmental and societal structure. And this is with different groups of people with differing histories, including some that did not come here willingly. Of course, the history with the Native Americans is also unique, as they were here long before Columbus introduced the continent to the Europeans. Seeing that the reservation has houses, cars, roads, stores, etc. just like us makes it even more of a mystery to me, as the idea of a place where people still chase the buffalo would definitely not vibe with our modern day American culture, but they seemed to have opted to live in towns now.

As much as I would really like to know their perspective on this, I decided it was not my place to ask them these questions. It could have been taken the wrong way, as there are a lot of people who feel like the Native American tribes should not have their reservations, and have become a drain on society. They don’t know me, and do not know my intentions, or how I feel about anything. Nor do I really know how I feel about all of this stuff. The more I hear them describe how the law operates within the confines of the reservation, how they coordinate with Badlands National Park and such, the more confused I get.

It is the point of view of the Native Americans that their land was taken away from them, little by little, and that in a large part their culture was taken away from them. However, nearly all of the world was once nomadic hunter-gatherers. One by one, different places took to living in cities, agriculture and the like. So, can the Native American tribes be expected to do so as well? It seems like there are towns in the reservations, so I get the impression that the issue is not even necessarily about the idea of nomadically chasing the buffalo. From my visits to places like Crazyhorse, and Fort Larmaie, it does seem like we made a lot of treaties, and broke them. But I don’t know the reason why. Nor do I have anything near a good understanding of that history.

I was born nearly a whole century after the last “Indian War” happened. I did not chose to come to a new continent, nor did I chose how we relate with the Native Americans. The only other time in my life I even encountered Native Americans was in Wisconsin in 2004, when we were protesting a professor by the name of Ward Churchill for making outlandish claims about the victims of 9/11. The Natives stood alongside us, as they felt Professor Churchill, only something like 1/16 Native American was stealing their identity to make a political point. So, while it is natural for me to feel that we did historically treat these Native Americans well, I also wonder how much I can personally be expected to feel responsible for something that was done by people who only really have one thing in common with me; their race?

In the end, the conclusion I came to today is that I am in no place to take a position on any of these issues, as I simply don’t understand them. I have become tired of people taking strong, decisive political opinions, often deriding those who disagree with them, based on incomplete understandings of facts and history. I believe that people should at least understand the uncertainty around their points of view before they start saying things that could potentially upset others. At this point in time, I am applying the same standard to myself with regards to this particular issue. To take either side, even if I were to take the side of the Native Americans due to what appears to be a failure on our part to honor the treaties, at this point in time would be disingenuous. And, I believe that the Native Americans would think this to be so even if I did take their side with what little knowledge I have of the true history, and the true reasons why thins are the way they are at this present point in time. All I can do is listen, to all points of views, learn more, and be willing to help out those in need.

Green Mountain; The Edge of Two Worlds

A lot of rivers, mountains, and land features are named for the color in which they appear.  According to the Wikipedia disambiguation, there are eight land formations, and three towns named “Green Mountain”. This, in addition to the “Green Mountains” in Vermont, which refers to the entire mountain range.

The Green Mountain I am referring to here is the one in Lakewood, CO, inside William F. Hayden Park.  What makes this particular mountain so special is it’s location.  At 6,855 feet, it is not particularly tall, but it is amongst the first actual peaks that one would come across as they travel to the West.  At least geographically speaking, it marks the border between the Great Plains to the East, and the Rocky Mountains to the West.

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It is also only 12 miles from central Denver, and is known to be one of the places that dries out the quickest after a precipitation event.  So, if there is a place to check out on a nice sunny day only half a week after one of the worst flooding events in Colorado history, this is the place.

To get to William F. Hayden, I rode my bicycle, as it is only 12 miles away from my apartment, and I found a route through Lakewood, mostly on 1st Avenue that did not involve the bicycle trails, most of which are in river valleys in this area, and could still be muddy or sandy from the recent floods.  Most of this route, heading to the west through Lakewood, is a steady but slight uphill climb.  However, after I cut over to Alameda Ave. and followed the path alongside that road to the West and Southwest, the climb got steeper.  By the end of this climb, I was already at an elevation over 6100 feet.  This means that I had already done most of the climbing on my bicycle, before I even started this trail.

IMG_1040 IMG_1041Upon entering the parking lot, I was surprised to see that the trail conditions were still labeled as “Very Muddy”, and that they were still not recommending use.  I am assuming that these ratings were designed mostly with mountain biking in mind.  Still, the idea of a “very muddy trail” does not appeal to me for hiking, and I traversed the parking lot expecting not to be able to hike at all, but prepared to be satisfied with my bike ride.  However, I saw a lot of people, both hiking and biking the trails, and they appeared fine.  Two mountain bikers, who appeared to have already used the trails, confirmed that the conditions would be fine, so I decided to assume that the sign above was not updated, and hike the remaining 700-ish feet to the top of Green Mountain.

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There are several routes to the top of this mountain, but the best option for someone who really wants to do some uphill hiking, traverses a radio tower, which is near the top.  Although this may take away from the pureness of a hiking experience, it seems to me like a good idea, from a scientific perspective, to have a radio tower on top of a hill, where it can reach more people.

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The top of this hill did feel like looking at the edge of two worlds.  Looking to the West, one could see the Rocky Mountains, well, mostly the foothills, but it was clear that anyone headed west would encounter taller and taller peaks.  Gazing Eastward there is a pretty good view of the skyline of the city of Denver.  In fact, observing the skyline of Denver from Green Mountain kind of reminded me of all of those iconic movie and T.V. show scenes where a small group of people would drive up to somewhere like the Hollywood sign and gaze at their city below them.  This would usually involve some kind of deep moment, either someone contemplating their life, kissing for the first time, or reminiscing on something.  Either way, I have this idea that major moments occur at places like this.

I hung out at the top of this mountain for a while today.  For a while, I switched back and forth between looking west and looking east, pondering what each direction meant.  To the west, the mountains represent excitement, challenge, and dreams.  A lot of people think of the glory of living the good life in a town like Vail, or Aspen.  To the east, I initially thought of Denver, but then started to look beyond Denver itself, towards what lies to the East of Denver, toward an area that is periodically overlooked and ignored.

If the west view at this peak represents challenge, dreams, and the possibility of achieving the good life, the east view represents being ignored, overlooked, and stagnation.  In fact, if I had not become interested in storm chasing, I might still have no idea what this place is all about.  The cultural centers of this country, primarily New York and Los Angeles, do not think about this area too much.  People from large cities either just fly over this area or resentfully drive across it.

There have been periods where people in large urban areas achieved greater and greater economic prosperity, while the people of the Great Plains continued to struggle.  Politicians routinely ignore people living outside the urban centers as there are fewer votes to be won there.  In fact, there are some people in the Great Plains portion of Colorado feel so ignored, they are developing plans to secede from the state.

As I leave the mountain, I think about how I am lucky to have had the experience of storm chasing, an interacting with all of these people.  Their lifestyle is not one that I would want, but what they do is still important.  People don’t think too much about the farmer and the rancher when they buy their food, but they are benefiting from what the people in this forgotten part of the country do.  Most of the interactions I have had with the locals while storm chasing have been positive and friendly.  In fact, one time in Sublette, KS, our entire chase group got free hamburgers, as they were having a celebration for the opening of their new co-op gas station, and let us join.  One of the great things about this country is that we do provide a variety of lifestyle options; something for everyone.  Hopefully one day, we will heal this urban-rural divide, and come to appreciate one another as parts of the complete social and economic system that makes all of our lives richer