Category Archives: history

The Oregon Trail IRL

IMG_4783

We all remember playing the game as a kid. There was even a scene in the movie Boyhood, where the main character, Mason, is playing the game at school. Across multiple generations, it seems like nearly everyone, at least in the United States, has an experience playing Oregon Trail sometime between grades 3 and 8.

Strangely, I don’t recall the exact learning purpose. It seems like the game is about American History. However, nothing in the game requires players to remember historical facts. I bet that a lot of people play the game multiple times without even knowing that in the year it is set, 1848, James K. Polk was president and we were finishing up a war with Mexico. The game does seem to teach kids about geography, and some basic life skills like how to survive in the wilderness, plan a trip, and avoid disease.

The Oregon Trail IRL was a one time event, on a Saturday evening, at the History Colorado Center. It is only the third time I’ve ever consumed alcohol inside a museum, and is the kind of hands on event I would like to see more of at museums.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love all kinds of special exhibits, and the History Colorado Center had a great on on baseball at the same time.

IMG_4795.jpg

However, there is something about being able to physically interact with something like the Oregon Trail at a museum. As I had noted before, the permanent exhibits at the History Colorado Center are quite interactive, something I certainly appreciate. The Oregon Trail IRL, a one night event, is quite different a typical museum experience.

Participants took part in real life versions of the activities we all remember doing on the screen; fording a river, hunting, looking for wild fruit, and even fixing tires.

 

The only disappointment was that I sincerely expected to go to a room where we kill something like 2,400 pounds of bison, but are only able to carry 200 pounds of it back to the wagon. That seemed to always happen in that game.

It had not even occurred to me how much the event was about nostalgia until I entered a room called Ms. Frizzle’s Classroom Crafts.

 

Popular music from the late 1990s, such as Ricky Martin and Britney Spears were playing. There were old computers, overhead projectors, and everything people of a certain age range would remember about being in school. For a few minutes, I actually got quite emotional, remembering what childhood and being in school was like.

My mind instinctively turned to the good things, the things I wish I had more of in my adult life; Spending most of the day learning about a variety of different topics, and being surrounded by a community of people in the same situation as me (the class). Adulthood can be isolating, and many of us have jobs where we focus on one thing the entire day.

Nostalgia has its place. It is always fun to share fond memories with people. However, nostalgia can also be a trap. We often simplify the past, remembering experiences as only good or only bad, when the truth is far more complicated. I certainly long for the intellectual variety and the community I had during school. However, I would not want to return to an environment with all the social pressure and anxiety, where people are mean to those who do not conform to standards that in now way help anyone achieve success later in life. Like every chapter of our lives, this one had both positive and negative aspects.

Too much nostalgia can also get us too focused on the past. No matter how hard we try, the past cannot be re-created. However, the wisdom of these experience can help us make better futures, or, at the very least put into better context what we want, what we don’t want, what works and what doesn’t. The key is to not spend too much time dwelling on how much we miss our good times or how wronged we felt during our bad times.

At a young age, I recall hearing from a lot of older people that the music of “their era” was better. I started to recognize this as kind of a phenomenon, even though it does not have a name. It felt as if these people were culturally stuck, in a past era, 10, 20, or 30 years ago, however long it had been since their youth.

IMG_3753.jpg

I never wanted that for myself, because it feels like there is a connection between being stuck in the culture of the past, and being unable to adapt to a changing culture. As I get older, I plan to continue to follow whatever is new, culturally, as best as I can. In fact, despite the fond memories of the songs I heard in Ms. Fizzle’s classroom, I also remember that time period having some really bad ones as well. An idealized version of the past, in our heads, can prevent us from living our best lives in the present. Macklemore and Kesha, in their recent hit song Good Old Days, remind us that whatever situation we are currently in, is something we should be able to appreciate. This can’t happen if too much time is spent thinking about the past.

 

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

IMG_4526

Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

IMG_4521

There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

IMG_4522

Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

IMG_4529

Carhenge

IMG_4542.jpg

Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

IMG_4538

While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

IMG_4544

There is also a car where people can write on.

IMG_4545

A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

IMG_4547

And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

IMG_4548

Chimney Rock

IMG_4562.jpg

Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

IMG_4559

Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

IMG_4563.jpg

Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

IMG_4567.jpg

Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

IMG_4497

If you are anything like me, on a lengthy road trip, you are always looking for interesting places to stop. Stopping, for an hour or two, or for a night, breaks up the monotony of being in a car,  often on the highway, for many hours in a row. It also helps me take advantage of being where I am, and seeing interesting things I would not have been able to see had I flown. Depending on timing, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, in Chamberlin, South Dakota is quite possibly one of the most interesting places to stop and check out on a drive across the state.

Chamberlin is already a welcome break to what can be a monotonous drive. Where I-90 crosses the Missouri river, and interestingly enough close to where explorers Lewis and Clark had one of their more confrontational encounters, the bluffs of the Missouri River contrast with the flat open grassland that stretches about 200 miles in either direction.

IMG_4489.jpg

The museum itself is unique as it tells the story of the Western United States from the point of view of the Native Americans, specifically the Sioux Nation.

IMG_4491

Most other museums about Western history, mention the Native Americans. However, in nearly all cases, the story is told primary from our point of view.

A lot of these museums cover the fir trade and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Some even talk of the Native Americans quite fondly and empathetically, like this statue, named Dignity, also in Chamberlin. It is accompanied by a museum that focuses on the South Dakota portion of Lewis and Clark’s mission.

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, by contrast, tells the story of the region from the point of view of the Native Americans. It starts with life before European settlement. One of the first exhibits is an artistic depiction of what life was like across South Dakota before Lewis and Clark, and many of the fir traders had arrived.

IMG_4492.jpg

This depiction of life in South Dakota is quite easy to get immersed in. For a few minutes, I felt the way they felt, like I was living the life they lived. It is felt almost like the feeling people get when they truly feel a immersed in a movie or T.V. show and become emotionally attached to one or more of the characters. The people in this mural felt like my friends and family.

It made wish that I cared more, in the grand scheme of things, about the fact that the land they once occupied had been taken from them. Sure, change is inevitable, and given technological progress throughout the world, it is hard to imagine a scenario where South Dakota still looks exactly like this artist rendition today. However, there was a lot of misfortune brought upon these tribes.

This first part of the museum covers the culture of the Sioux. One thing I realized is that, the Sioux, being the group we interacted with most frequently in more recent years, likely created the caricature of Native Americans most of us live with today. The caricature of Native Americans are people who were at one with nature, in a way today’s hard core environmentalists can only dream of. They capture buffalo and use every last piece of it, giving the earth thanks for their bounty.

While this seems to be true of the Sioux Nations that Lewis and Clark encountered, and were among the last holdouts in the “Indian Wars” of the late 19th Century, it was not necessarily true of all Native Americans across the continent. Some tribes even exhausted their natural resources to the point of having to relocate.

What is astounding is how a culture can be so similar yet so different at the same time.

IMG_4494.jpg

Unlike in our culture, the Sioux place little emphasis on negative reinforcement or heavy-handed parenting. It seems as though positive reinforcement, likely mixed with a bit of peer pressure, generally brought children towards the right path. The general culture is interesting in the context of today’s current cultural divide. They saw children as a common tribal/communal responsibility, but also placed boys and girls on separate paths from a very young age; something both sides can agree with.

The museum then goes on to tell the story of the Sioux after European settlement. This story, oddly, starts out hopeful, which can be inferred from the diaries of Lewis and Clark. First, Spanish settlers brought with them horses, making travel faster. Later, British, French and Americans brought trade and all sorts of new supplies that made their lives easier. They became wealthier too.

IMG_4495.jpg

Unfortunately, they also brought disease. One aspect of the story of “How the West Was Won” that is rarely talked about extensively is how much of a role disease played in changing the North American continent for good. With the horses, guns, and new medicines, Europeans also brought diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to. These diseases would unleash plague after plague upon tribes throughout the 19th century, reducing their numbers. By the time the “Indian Wars” would occur, their numbers were reduced to the point that the outcome, victory for the United States, was all but inevitable.

What had started out as an interesting new development with opportunities had turned into a nightmare. The final part of the museum covers the next, equally depressing chapter in the story of the Sioux. For most of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, the U.S. government would sign treaties, establishing bounders with Native American tribes, only to break them anytime gold, or anything else of value was found on their land. The end result was today’s geographical distribution of Reservations, which covers only about 3% of the land area in the United States.

At this point, I am not sure what I can do about this terrible turn of events. It is hard for me to accept too much guilt for it, as I was born in 1980s New York, a time and a place where all this had already occurred. “My people”, if I can call it that, had happened to already successfully assimilate into the Nation that is responsible for much of the devastation brought upon the Native Americans. I was born into this country, and that is all I really know. Going somewhere else would be foreign to me.

I imagine a scenario where all this never happened, an alternate history, where Native Americans still control the North American continent. Rather than being born in the United States, I would have been born in Italy, spoken Italian and lived Italian culture. Still, in this case, there would likely be some story about how the Romans conquered the Etruscans.

At some point, it becomes necessary, in my opinion, to say that all I can really do is be mindful of history, live the life I know how to live in the place I was born into, for my own happiness, and try to look for a solution going forwards. Unfortunately, I do not have that solution, otherwise, I would probably be doing something else at this moment in time.

 

North Dakota’s Role in the History of the West

IMG_4296

In my childhood, I never knew what to think of North Dakota. Like most people living in metropolitan areas, I never gave the place much thought. I do recall hearing, at some point in the late 1990s, that North Dakota was the least visited state in the country. However, a more recently published list indicates that the state sees far more visitors now due to the recent oil boom. Apparently, Alaska, the hardest state to get to, is now the least visited state in the country, which makes sense.

My ideas about North Dakota were just kind of hazy. I’d wonder if the culture was just like that South Dakota and Nebraska. Or, if the proximity to Minnesota or Canada made it kind of different.

IMG_4316.jpg

A drive across North Dakota along Interstate 94 will confirm what most people think. It is a Great Plains State with a Great Plains feel. If anything, there are even less trees and fewer towns than the rest of the Great Plains.

However, there are some surprising encounters, with both natural beauty and history to be found, without going more than a mile off the Interstate.

IMG_4305

One of the most amazing parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Painted Canyon,  can be viewed just by going to a rest stop right off the highway.

IMG_4309

This is pretty amazing, considering that adjacent to the park in all directions is nothing but endless wide open prairie.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s significance to the history of the west is, as expected, related to the president the park was named after. Theodore Roosevelt first encountered this land on a train trip to Montana. He fell in love with the wide open spaces, colorful valley, and quiet seclusion the area offered. He would later buy a ranch here, and it is said that experiences like these influenced the conservationist policies he would pursue as president, including a major expansion of the National Park System.

Halfway across the State, I encountered another scenic area, or, at least the sign indicated it as such.

In both North and South Dakota, the Missouri River Valley, and the surrounding bluffs provide some variance in what is otherwise a fairly homogenous drive.

IMG_4326

This river crossing is also where explorers Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea, a 17-year-old Native American who would play an important role in helping the explorers complete their journey. The Shoshone were the predominant tribe in areas of what is now Idaho and Montana, where Lewis and Clark were headed to cross the Rockies. Sakakawea, a Shoshone who was captured by the Hidasta tribe and brought to present-day North Dakota, had the language experience Lewis and Clark needed for much of the remainder of the journey. She was even reunited with her brother, who turned out to be one of the tribe chiefs Lewis and Clark needed to trade with.

It was here in Bismarck I encountered a sizable North Dakota town, as well as a State Capitol building with a very unique shape.

IMG_4334.jpg

I was not sure how to feel. As I prepared to interact with people, my mind wandered to every pre-concieved notion I had about North Dakota. I wondered what people here do on a day-to-day basis. I wondered if, despite the fact that it was only the second day of August, people who live here are already dreading the winter to come.

I overheard some conversations from people who sounded like they were locals. What I heard was not complaints about excessive boredom, fear about a sub-zero temperatures four months in the future, or some foreign sounding discussion about fracking I cannot follow. I heard people with a lot of the same concerns I often have: How to help that one friend or family member going through some hard times. People’s concerns over changes being made at their workplace. Health concerns and other day-to-day topics that are common amongst almost all the people of all the world.

I thought to myself “Have I become this disconnected from really?” Do I now struggle to relate to people when they aren’t discussing some major global issue, an invention at a setting like start-up week or some grand adventure?

IMG_3395.jpg

Even in the most innovative cities in the world, more people would prefer to discuss their day than a diagram like this one.

It would be easy for anyone to say that, right now, North Dakota’s only really significance is in the world of energy production. However, that would be ignorant to history. For, if it weren’t for Lewis and Clark meeting a friendly tribe to camp with for the winter (Fort Mandan), and get the help they needed from Sakakawea, it may have taken several more decades for the West to be opened up. And, if it weren’t for a young future president finding picturesque Badlands he desperately wanted to preserve, the National Park system, which has a much larger presence in the West than the East, could look significantly different than it does right now.

usa-national-park-map

What occurred to me as I continued Eastward from Bismarck was that, whether the number of annual visitors is closer to 2 or 20 Million, most North Dakotans probably do not care about the relatively small number of annual visitors. It reminds me of some of the people I interact with in Colorado that were born there decades ago. Many of them actually did not want this gigantic influx of people and visitors that fundamentally transformed the state. Many of them just wanted to enjoy their state the way it was, and that is what North Dakotans get to do.

The Surf Ballroom; A little bit of History in Iowa

IMG_3613

When one thinks of Iowa, a specific image comes to mind: One of soft rolling hills, and farms as far as the eye can see in all directions, where the sky can sometimes take on a characteristically midwestern form of murky thin cloudiness, giving a feeling that is neither cloudy nor sunny. Traveling across the state, this scene shifts quite little as the miles go by. The scenery is as steady and reliable as the culture.

Some people have a deep appreciation for the role that this corridor plays in agriculture and transportation, as indicated by this wall art at the Worlds Largest Truck Stop.

IMG_3719.jpg

Others find it monotonous and unbearable. People have even written parodies about how uninteresting and unpleasant a drive across Iowa is. However, as is the case with most places, there is more to it than what one will see from an interstate highway, whose primary purpose is to provide the most efficient route between cities for trucks.

Tucked away among the endless miles of corn fields are a surprising number of lakes that cannot be seen from the interstate.

20130605-204854.jpg

As well as the sites of a surprising amount of our history.

Most music fans are familiar with “The Day the Music Died“, February 3, 1959, when three of Rock and Roll’s biggest stars were all killed in a tragic plane crash. It was an event that nearly torpedoed the still young music genre’s rise to the top. It had the potential to significantly change the path music took for the remainder of the 20th Century, which could have had a major effect on the social and political movements that transformed our society from the middle of the century to where it is today.

What few people know, though, is that all of this occurred in Northern Iowa, in a town called Clear Lake. Clear Lake is a town not unlike many other towns in Iowa, and the structure and establishments feel generally like anywhere in the Midwest.

IMG_3615

Like many place in Iowa, it has a surprisingly beautiful lake, depicted at its best by this postcard.

ClearLake_Iowa

It is also home to the Surf Ballroom, the last place anyone would ever hear the three stars of early rock and roll on the night of February 2, 1959.

IMG_3618

Why they chose to play at this spot, on this date, feels both natural and confusing at the same time.

IMG_3620

Perhaps because it is well preserved in its 1950s form, the venue itself feels like the exact place one would expect to hear Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valley, and the Big Bopper. It was also likely the right size, given the types of crowds that a music genre that was hot, but not quite mainstream would attract at that time in history.

IMG_3626

With traveling being a little more difficult than today, as the interstate highway system was just being built and flying was more likely to be prohibitively expensive, it seems logical for tours to come to smaller towns. Today, it would be more likely for musical acts to have tours that cover larger distances, such as a North American tour. Fans in Clear Lake would be expected to come to Des Moines or Minneapolis to see a show. Then, it was harder on both the band and the fans. However, I still wonder, why Iowa, and why in winter? Inclement weather is one of the reasons for the plane crash.

Another is how the tour, labelled the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour, was planned, as indicated by this display.

1959DanceParty_TripAdvisor

They toured by bus. So, having a tour date in Kenosha right after Milwaukee makes logistical sense. After that, the schedule had them meandering all over the place. These dates were all back-to-back. The show at the Surf Ballroom came at a particularly grueling time, having played in Green Bay, WI the night before, and having a show scheduled in Morehead, MN the next day. Frustrated, Buddy Holly chartered a plane to the next show- the plane that would kill the three performers. One could say that February 3rd was the “Day the Music Died”, but it was a combination of poor planning and a harsh Midwestern winter that killed it.

However, as anyone reading this in the 21st Century knows quite well, the music didn’t really die that day. A few years later, rock music would be infused with fresh life, in the form of new bands that would later be counted amongst the best of all time. The Surf Ballroom also refused to let the music die. They continued to host musical performances of all kinds, and still do to this day. They have hosted some of the all time greats.

IMG_3624

It probably helped that the venue itself did a good job of finding the right balance, between preserving this key moment in history…

 

While also staying in the here and now.

IMG_3628.jpg

Road trips are certainly more appealing when they involve more than just traveling from one destination to another, but rather, leave time to explore some of the places in between. Every place that exists, big or small, new or old, has a story to tell. The story of one small town, one of many, tucked away behind the interstate by one of Iowa’s gentle rolling hills, certainly ignites the desire to explore more, eagerly anticipating what is around the next corner, over the next hill, just beyond the horizon.

Colorado Continues to Surprise Me

IMG_3189

Life, at times, can be trying, with a lot of ups and downs, surprises, and endeavors that do not go as planned. Of course, not all surprises are bad. Sometimes luck is on our side, and many of us unfortunately fail to truly appreciate when it is. However, we all certainly have times when we are just on the wrong side of circumstance, and feel like nothing is going right.

When doing what feels like all the right things repeatedly fails to produce any results. When it feels like all sorts of people trying to take advantage of us. When the wrong, most inept and mean spirited people seem to be getting ahead, while those that don’t deserve it are suffering. And, perhaps the most frustrating of all, when no logical explanation can be found as to why nothing is going the way it should be!

At these times, it is helpful to get a little distance between oneself and whatever situation is causing stress.  It provides a bit of much needed emotional rest, and taking a step back, and looking at a situation from afar, or from a different perspective, can often produce clarity.

IMG_3182

In one of those situations myself, I decided to head to Mount Falcon Park.

IMG_3178.jpg

Mount Falcon Park is only about a 40 minute drive from downtown Denver, near a smaller town called Morrison. Traveling to fun and sometimes far away destinations is very important to me. However, it is also important to remember that taking a little bit of time to step away from a frustrating situation to gain a new perspective doesn’t require traveling great distances, and does not have to wait until a major trip is feasible. For most people, there is a place, a retreat of sorts, somewhere relatively close. A place that is possible to just pick up and go to on a whim, as opposed to having to plan ahead, save money and travel significant distances.

Of course, one thing that always needs to be accounted for is the weather. April can be a very volatile time in a lot of places. Here in Colorado, it is quite common to have snowfall one day, and warm pleasant weather the next. There is no way to around having to think about the weather, and if a retreat involves an outdoor experience, it can be delayed by the weather.

The hike itself is fairly straightforward. It felt good to be exercising the body and walking through the dense pine trees that one encounters here in Colorado when they reach elevations above about 6500 feet.

IMG_3193.jpg

The main trail a the park is called the Castle Trail. Originating at the trailhead, near 6200 feet in elevation, it winds most of the 3 mile trip, up to the peak of Mount Falcon, at 7851′. Trying to get my mind off of disappointments related to day-to-day life, I thought nothing of the fact that this trail was called the Castle Trail. After all, trail names don’t always translate into real life experiences. I recall backpacking two summers ago along a trail called Rincon La Vaca. I did not see a single cow (vaca = cow)!

First, I was surprised to see a sheltered picnic area.

IMG_3183.jpg

This isn’t something typically encountered close to the top of a front range day-hike.

Then, I encountered Walker’s Home, or, well, the ruins of it.

IMG_3184IMG_3186

The ruins of this castle made me feel as if I were in Rome, or some other ancient city where the ruins of historically significant structures are being preserved for cultural reasons.

IMG_3190

Sings even informed visitors to keep out the fenced off remains of the building for preservation, just as they do at other historical sites.

The strange this is, unlike many other historical sites, this building is only 109 years old. In most cities, significantly older buildings can be found, with no historical fanfare, as they have just been in continued residential or commercial use for several centuries. The primary reason this building lay in ruins is because it was struck by lightning in 1918, leading Mr. Walker to abandon his plan of using this structure as a summer retreat for the President of the United States.

IMG_3188

I did not expect an experience akin to visiting an archeological site. I did not expect to read about someone who appeared to be a multi-talented entrepreneur in the late 19th and early 20th century. I certainly did not expect to be pondering where presidents Woodrow Wilson, Waren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge would be expecting to spend their summers.

IMG_3196.jpg

Just like the ups and downs in the day-to-day weather, particularly in the springtime, and  the shadows produced by the mountains in the late afternoon, Colorado continues to surprise me. Travel to foreign lands and exotic far away places remains a very important part of my life. However, experiences like this provide us all a reminder to appreciate what is close to home as well.

 

 

The History of the Rocky Mountains

IMG_1691 (1)Many travelers are motivated to visit a variety of destinations by intellectual curiosity; Curiosity about culture, people and history. Curiosity about nature, science, and how our planet works. Unique natural features, such as Arches National Park and the Badlands, always make me wonder. How did this these distinct features come to be? Why can this be seen on this little section of our planet and seemingly not everywhere else? Is there anything similar, anywhere else?

This leads us back to history; history that pre-dates human beings. The geological processes that produced the colors, shapes and terrain we admire often occur over multiple millions of years. Some even pre-date any of our mammalian ancestors. Over the course of any one person’s lifespan, it is highly unlikely that any changes in our natural world resulting from geological processes will be noticeable. Nonetheless, geological processes can manifest themselves in some rather explosive ways, including earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes.

All this is true of unique natural features like Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the ring of volcanoes in places like Iceland and Hawaii. This is also true of the larger natural feature that in many ways defines life in Western North America; The Rocky Mountains.

As it turns out, the Rocky Mountains, as far as mountain ranges go, are quite unique.

IMG_1684 (1)

This past weekend, Drs. Robert Anderson and Lon Abbott of the University of Colorado-Boulder, lead a group of people up Sugarloaf Mountain to examine the geological history of the Rocky Mountains. This event was put on by the TEDxMileHigh organization as one of their adventures.

Sugarloaf Mountain is a relatively easy hike 15 minutes West of Boulder, along the Boulder Canyon. The distance from the trailhead to the top of the mountain is only about 1.4 miles, and the vertical gain is less than 600 feet. However, it is said to have one of the best views of Boulder Canyon in the area.

IMG_1682 (1)

This particular hike was chosen to as a backdrop for presenting Colorado’s geological history based on the specific terrain features that appear along the trail. For example, 1.7 Billion Years ago, Colorado was a shallow Ocean with tall mountains sticking up out of the ground, much the way present-day New Zealand is. Some of the mountains in the distance resemble the mountains that one would see had they been floating (or canoeing) across this area at the time.

300 Million years ago, it was a tropical seashore. The Rocky Mountains themselves formed from a period of time roughly 70 Million years ago to about 40 Million years ago. More recently (over the past 8 million years), the Great Plains, which the trail periodically overlooks, began to subside, creating the sharp contrast between the flat terrain east of the mountains and the high peaks of the Central Rockies that we see in our present day world.

IMG_1689 (1).jpg

At this exact elevation threshold, roughly 8500 feet, the type of rock observed changes, also a result of some of the long-term processes that created the Rocky Mountains.

The same combination of processes and events created some of the most celebrated unique rock formations of the region, including Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods. Thanks to the University of Colorado Department of Geology, this short hike became a trip through time.

IMG_1692 (1)

The view at the top didn’t disappoint. It was interesting to see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains on an October day with some sun, but also plentiful cloudiness. It felt quite different from many of my hiking days Colorado, where there is often near total sunshine. I had previously forgotten about how much I enjoy seeing mountainous terrain like this, with sections of it lit by the sun, and other sections shadowed by the clouds, creating unique color contrasts that gradually shift over time.

The geological history of the Rocky Mountains is somewhat unique, and has yet to be fully explained. Geographically speaking, looking at a present day map of the world, the Rocky Mountains are fairly unique due to how far away from any major fault line they are.

IMG_1678 (1)

Many mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayans are right on a fault line and associated with geological activity; earthquakes and volcanoes. Colorado is not a hotbed for either, making for a somewhat unique mountain experience.

Geologists are still trying to explain why the mountains formed here the way they did. The Rockies continue to puzzle the scientific community. Why the mountains are as tall as they are when other properties of the Earth’s crust would indicate otherwise? Why did the Great Plains subside and become “disconnected” from the Front Range? Nevertheless, since geological processes are so slow, the mountains, as we see them today, are unlikely to change too much within any of our lifetimes.

Regardless of whether we are intellectually curious about why they are the way they are, or simply want to ski, hike, raft and climb, there are there and will continue to be there for us. They are confusing but consistent, much like life itself.