Category Archives: Scenic Drives

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

The Longest Day Hike of My Life

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Conundrum Hot Springs

The hike from the Conundrum Trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is roughly 8.5 miles.  Round trip is at least 17 miles of hiking.  I say AT LEAST as I have been on plenty of hikes where side excursions, both planned and unplanned, lead to covering a total distance that exceeded the official distance of the hike.

Due to the distance, and the destination, nearly all the people we encountered on this hike were backpacking.  This is an attractive option, as the trail is pretty long but not terribly challenging, and the hot springs are the kind of destination one would want to spend a significant amount of time at.  However, Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular destination, and there are limited camping sites in the immediate vicinity of the springs.

Conundrum Hot Spring is close to Aspen, which is three and a half hours from Denver.  Some of the people in our group, myself included, were not able to leave early enough on Friday for us to be confident that we could secure a camping spot.  We ended up deciding to find a campground somewhat close to the trailhead, and hike to and from the springs as a day hike.  As an added bonus, we would not have to bring, or carry nearly as much equipment, as we would be “car camping”.  The hike would be both easier and harder.  We would not be carrying nearly as much weight, but we would be cramming 17 miles of hiking into one day.

Up in the mountains of Central Colorado, trees change color earlier in the Fall than they do in many other parts of the Country.  In general, the second half of September, and maybe the first few days of October, is the best time to see the Aspen trees here change colors.  I was partially surprised by how vibrant the colors were, by September 16th.  For the first two hours or so of the drive, before sunset, we saw a preview of the kind of colors we’d be seeing during the hike, certainly early season, but vibrantly colorful, with sections of bright yellows and oranges periodically appearing in front of us.

To be sure we would have enough time, we had to wake up, eat breakfast and leave the campground at Lincoln Creek (dispersed camping roughly 40 minutes from the trailhead) all before sunrise.  We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking at roughly 15 minutes after 7 A.M.

The morning chill was both an obstacle and a boost.  Overnight temperatures dropped to roughly 30F (-1C) at the campground.  For the first 90 minutes of the hike, the ground was covered in frost.  In fact, the frost even made our first river crossing a bit slippery.

This morning cold made me cary several layers, adding a little bit to the weight of my backpack (although it was still way, way, lighter than it would have been had we been backpacking).  However, the cold weather motivated us to begin our hike at a rapid pace.

We would cover over four miles before we even reached the sun!

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I would describe at least the first five miles of the hike as “easy” from the standpoint of evolution gain.

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Many sections of the trail are actually close to perfectly flat, giving me plenty of time to take in the natural beauty that is around me, and also connect with my friends who I was hiking with.  When hiking, it is challenging to have a conversation when hiking up steep terrain, but fairly easy to do so in largely flat sections.

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The appearance of small lakes precludes the transition to the more challenging part of the trail.

This occurs somewhere around six and a half miles into the hike.  First of all, there are sections that are more technically challenging, including a couple of tricky creek crossings, and a section where one must scramble over rocks.

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There last two miles of the trail also includes some fairly steep sections.  I wouldn’t say they are overly challenging, but in the context of a 17 mile day that included hiking at a rapid pace towards the beginning, they ended up being fairly exhausting.

We ended up spending roughly two hours at the hot springs (including changing and eating lunch).  There were a lot of people in the hot springs, but it was not as crowded as some of us had feared.

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For a variety of reasons, the fall colors appeared even more magnificent on the way back down!  The most significant reason had to be the manner in which the trees appeared in the mid-afternoon sun.

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I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant amount of deep orange shades.  In prior experience with fall in the Rockies, I had almost exclusively seen the yellow shade that seems to be the most common fall color for Aspen trees.  While “autumn gold” is pretty, I had, in some ways, missed wide variety of shades that leaves on maple trees take on during fall.

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I would definitely describe the color we enountered as “early season”.  There were still many Aspen trees primarily shaded green, particularly at lower elevations.  This indicates that the next two weekends could be just, or perhaps even more, colorful!  The colorful trees, the yellows and the oranges, tended to be those higher up.  The several patches of deep shaded orange I saw were nearly exclusively up closer to the tree line.

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Both the hike up to the hot springs and the return trip took roughly four hours.

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We got back to the trailhead sometime just after 5 P.M., and, after the 40 minute drive back to Lincoln Creek, I finally got to see what the campground looked like.  And I got to do something I had not previously done.  I got to park my car with the rear left tire on top of a rock, showing off just how rugged my vehicle is.  Well, at least in an auto show pamphlet sort of way.

Capping off an exhausting day was a side excursion, to a waterfall, well, multiple waterfalls, that those of us in our group lucky enough to be able to leave early Friday had located roughly a quarter of a mile from the campground.  In fact, they hyped this place up over the course of the hike.  So, we had to go.  Additionally, this side excursion was enough for me to achieve something meaningless, but also something I am likely never again to achieve.  I recorded 50,000 steps on that step counter thing that comes with every iPhone6.  Yay me!

We would explore this likely unnamed waterfall area again Sunday morning before departing for Denver.

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If you count all the places where water squirts out of random places in the rock, there are probably close to a dozen “waterfalls” in this area.  What a great unexpected treat!

The return trip on Sunday was eventful as well, with some great stops at Independence Pass and Twin Lakes, both places I had driven by on Friday, but after the sun had already set.

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I titled this blog “The Longest Day Hike of My Life”, as, well, I can not picture a day where I hike more than 17 miles on a day trip.  However, I probably would have never imagined hiking 17 miles in one day a few years back, so there is no way to definitively say never.  I am prepared, though, for this to be my longest hike, and understand the significance of it. Like many of the adventures I had over the course of this summer, and in previous years, it was both exhausting and amazing.  But, most worthwhile experiences, from relationships to starting successful businesses and such, are.  Being exhausted after this experience should be a reminder to all of us that what is easiest is often the least rewarding, and that which is most challenging often comes with the greatest reward.

 

 

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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Glenwood Springs: Where Canyon Country Begins

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When people think of the American West, certain images often come to mind:  the unique natural features of Yellowstone.  Iconic mountains that tower over the nearby landscape, such Rainier and Hood.  The canyons that carve through the American Southwest, creating popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is not the only canyon of the American West.  In fact, it is not the only canyon carved out by the Colorado River, the continent’s fifth longest running river.  The river, has its source at Rocky Mountain National Park and snakes through the west carving out  numerous canyons.  In fact, there are some that believe that the canyon in Southern Utah that was flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was built, a couple of hundred miles upstream of the Grand Canyon, was even more scenic than the Grand Canyon itself (some are even looking to remove the dam despite the Wests water needs).

An overly simplified model of Colorado’s geography, is that of the three flavored boxes Neapolitan Ice Cream.  Colorado’s three sections are the Plains, the Central Rockies, and a region generally referred to as the Western Slope.  While the Western Slope is officially defined as anywhere west of the Continental Divide, culturally, we tend to think of it as west of Ski Country, which also happens to coincide with where canyon country begins.

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On the above map, the two yellow stars are Denver, where the Plains end and the Central Rockies begin, and Glenwood Springs, where, traveling west the terrain transitions from tall peaks to canyons, mesas, and plateaus.

The official reason for the trip to Glenwood this year was whitewater rafting, a group trip that I organize every year, with a different destination each time.

This year, the trip was a little bit later in the season, early July, rather than mid-June.  The later date allowed more of the mountain snowpack to melt, particularly this year, as the period around the fourth of July was quite hot across the state.  As a result, the rapids were not nearly as intense as the previous two years.  However, the trip was not without its moments.  This time, everybody stayed in the raft!

As was the case last year and the year prior (this is the third year of my annual trip), we camped.  We selected a somewhat peculiar place to camp this year, on top of the White River Plateau north of town.

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To get to the Plateau, we had to follow a road called Coffee Pot Road, a bumpy road that rose up out of the Colorado River Valley below us and onto the plateau several thousand feet above it.

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Here is where I fully came to the realization that I was on the border of two of Colorado’s “stripes”.  Looking east from the campground, in clear view are the tallest peaks of the Central Rockies, the Sawatch Range, which includes Mount Evans, Colorado’s tallest peak.

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A mere mile to the west of our campsite sits Deep Creek Canyon.  I had no idea this canyon existed.  Deep Creek is a tiny creek, carrying very little water at the time we saw it.  Yet, it manages to carve a 2100 foot deep crevice in the landscape in a manner similar to Black Canyon and other Western Canyons.

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What really made this feel like a peculiar place to camp was the range of temperatures we would experience over the course of the weekend.  We spent the middle part of the day in the valley, first rafting in the Colorado River than in town, all at elevations below 6000 feet.  Daytime temperatures soared well into the 90s!  At night, we returned to our campground, above 10,000 feet in elevation, where nighttime temperatures fell into the upper 40s.  If one were looking to experience comfortable temperatures, it would make sense to do the exact opposite, spending the daytime hours at higher elevations where it is cooler and then returning to the valley at night.

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The town of Glenwood Springs is a touristy town.  Everyone around, from the rafting instructors to the bus drivers describe it as such.  However, it is touristy in a different way than some other places I’ve visited.  I didn’t see 50 ice cream shops like I do in South Haven, MI.  I did not see anything like Ripley’s Believe it Not or the other places I see at the Wisconsin Dells.  And, I certainly didn’t see 150 T-shirt shops as I do when I visit Cooperstown.  It seemed like more bars and restaurants than anything else here.  And, of course, one of Glenwood’s other main draws, the hot springs.

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Maybe Glenwood’s tourism industry is simply trying to accommodate a different mix of people than those other places, or maybe they are simply trying to stay true to their own unique identity.  After all, there are a lot of activities in the area, and a lot of reasons for people to visit.

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Just east of town, is the area known as Glenwood Canyon.  Due to the narrowness of this valley, there are sections of I-70 where the speed limit drops to 50 miles per hour, the westbound lanes are stacked on top of the eastbound lanes, and parts of the highway are tunneled underneath rock that goes right up to the River.

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It is in this canyon, several miles east of town, where Glenwood’s signature hike, Hanging Lake Trail draws so many tourists, that the parking lot is commonly full.  In fact, both Friday and Saturday, highway signage indicated that this lot was full anytime we drove by it.  We were able to get parking spots in the later part of the afternoon, around half past four, after the rafting trip, and lunch in town.

Hanging Lake is a short but challenging trail.  Only 1.2 miles long, it climbs 1200 feet in elevation.  This, both made sense and surprised me at the same time.  Being in a canyon, I knew that any hike in the area would be steep, and this one sure had its steep parts.  What surprised me was, how far up the canyon hanging lake is.

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I had seen pictures of this lake before, and knew the trail was short, I just pictured it being much shorter and much closer to the bottom of the canyon.

The trail was crowded, which should not be surprising, given that the parking lot was still almost completely full when we arrived.  What surprised me was the ethnic diversity of the crowd hiking this trail.  On the way up to hanging lake, which probably took a little over 30 minutes, I heard people speaking all sorts of different languages!  I enjoyed seeing so many different kinds of people enjoying scenery, nature, and, as I speculate, a weekend away from it all.

There is only one area attraction I did not get to, the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.  It’s hard to get to everything on a short weekend trip.  I guess there is still a lot more for me to see here in Glenwood, where Westbound travelers leave the high peaks of the Central Rockies and enter the land of deep canyons.

 

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

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Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

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The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

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The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

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The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

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One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

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Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

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The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

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Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

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It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

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The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

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Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.

 

 

Road Trip to Santa Fe

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I spent about half a decade working in the Insurance Industry, an industry with a significant presence in Bermuda.  At workshops, conferences, and in meetings, I would regularly interact with people who lived there.  The place certainly has its draw, and with the right opportunity, a person with experience in the industry could make a really good life there, despite the high cost of living.

I often imagine what it would be like to have a totally different life, in a totally different place, particularly when traveling, or when I meet someone from somewhere far away.  While working in the insurance industry, although I never seriously considered up and moving to Bermuda, I did imagine what it would be like a couple of dozen times.  Each time I imagined it, I would always end up dwelling on the lack of room to roam around there.  The island is only 20.6 square miles, and getting anywhere else requires a flight.  I pictured myself moving there, getting my swimming trunks out, snorkeling, attending a few parties and such, but then, eventually, just getting restless, and missing something I love to do here in mainland U.S.A.; taking a road trip.

There is something I really love about road trips.  When I refer to road trips, I am not talking about simply driving somewhere.  A lot of people drive to work every day, or to a relative’s house every other weekend, and those drives don’t feel like “road trips”.  I’m talking about driving somewhere a significant distance away that is not a routine trip; somewhere that is somewhat unknown.  On road trips, we have somewhat of an idea as to what to expect, based on what we have heard, read, or researched, but we do not know it intimately.  We have not experienced the towns we will pass along the way, which exits have the best deals on gas, and where the best restaurants are.  In other words, there are still some surprises, and we are still going to encounter something unexpected.

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Driving south along I-25, the first indication that one is reaching the Southernmost portion of Colorado is the Spanish Peaks.  While visible farther north, they take prominence south of Pueblo. The Spanish Peaks are nowhere near the tallest features in Southern Colorado.  In fact, within 30 miles or so, there are 5 mountains taller than 14,000 feet (14ers)!  But, since they are relatively isolated from other natural features, and can be seen quite some distance, they are a prominent landmark toady (an entire region is named Spanish Peaks country, as well as the names of countless business in the region), and were a prominent landmark on the old Santa Fe Trail.

Approaching Trinidad, CO, the last town before the New Mexico border, the Spanish Peaks disappear from the horizon as the highway enters a much hillier region approaching Raton Pass.  It is here that the path of Interstate 25 joins with the old Santa Fe Trail, which it will more or less follow for the remainder of the trip to Santa Fe.  This trail was first pioneered by the Spanish and later played a pivotal role in American history including westward expansion, and the eventual conquest of the Southwest from Mexico.

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I had mixed expectations of Raton Pass.  Many years back, I was on a ten-day storm chase. Our group was situated in Clovis, New Mexico, which is quite close to the Texas-New Mexico border.  We were discussing the possibility of chasing upslope storms roughly an hour northeast of Denver the following day.  Some of us brought up the possibility of driving west to Raton so we can take the Interstate to our target destination, but the group leader balked at the idea, instead suggesting driving up 385, as he felt it might be risky to take a large convoy of chase vehicles over Raton Pass.  We ended up deciding not to drive up to Northeastern Colorado, as, in the morning, the storm outlook had weakened, and we no longer felt it worth the drive.  By the way, this is common on storm chases, you really never know where you will end up going.  However, ever since then, I had kind of wondered what it was like to drive over this pass.

As the photos indicate, the road gets windy as motorists climb from Trinidad, at roughly 6000′ in elevation, over Raton Pass, which tops out at 7834′.  It’s definitely not nearly as rough as heading over the Rocky Mountains along I-70 or I-80, but definitely is a much more major incline than anything a group of people that drives largely in the Great Plains from Texas up to South Dakota would typically experience.

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Oh, and in one of the strangest of coincidences, the top of the pass is right at the border of Colorado and New Mexico.  This is odd as, first of all, the Colorado-New Mexico border is defined as the 37th parallel, and has nothing to do with where any mountain pass is located, and roads through mountain passes are built to take the safest and most effective route.  The fact that the place where this road crosses the 37th parallel most effectively happens to also be the high point seems to me as a pure coincidence.  Maybe someday I will read into this, the story behind the road and such, but I have yet to do so.

After a descent into Raton, the road reaches a segment that is long, flat, open, and rather empty.

I switched the music on the radio to classic rock, The Clash, Ozzy, Queensryche and such.  For some reason, there is something about the sound of guitar rock that makes more sense while driving through scenery like this than many other forms of music.  As the afternoon passed along this landscape, cloudy skies gave way to peaks from the sun only every once in a while.  A few periods of gentile, chilly rain fell from the skies.  In some ways it reminded me of a storm chase gone horribly wrong, the day slowly but surely slipping away with no prospects of favorable storm conditions developing.  However, in other ways, the drive was relaxing, allowing me to think without any distractions.

After passing through a town called Las Vegas, NM (which I assure you is nothing like the Las Vegas in Nevada), the highway turns West.  It kind of loops the last 60 or so miles into Santa Fe, even heading back northward for the last ten miles, following the route of the old Santa Fe trail.  However, unlike the previous 100 or so miles, this part of the trail, and the drive, is far from flat.

To the right, is the southernmost part of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and an area now part of the Santa Fe National Forest.  It is these mountains that the trail routed 19th century pioneers around.  To the left are a series of bluffs which, luckily, the trail did not have to also bypass, as it would have added many more miles to the journey.  The road itself slowly climbs over Glorietta Pass, descending only slightly into New Mexico’s Capitol City- Santa Fe.

Places that Used to Be

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Many different types of images come to mind whenever anyone talks about “ghost towns”.  I think of all of those images of abandoned, and partially decayed buildings that are pictured on the cover of books about ghost towns.  I think of that abandoned cabin you see while on a hike.

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Sometimes I think back to the recently abandoned town in West Texas I passed through a decade ago on a storm chase.  I even think of other, more recently abandoned, “21st Century” ghost towns.  Heck, sometimes parts of Detroit even come to mind.

But something felt creepy when I came across the site of not one, but three towns that used to exist, as recently as the middle part of last century.

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I looked around in all directions.  There were no buildings at all, not even one of those rotted out wooden buildings that appears to be on the verge of collapse due to neglect.  I looked far and wide along the valley for some sort of evidence that there were three whole towns in the area as recently as the 1960s.  Maybe an abandoned platform along the tracks.  Or even piles of wood, or rocks.  Nothing!  The only evidence anyone passing along this route would have that there ever was any human civilization in the area is a historical marker that marked what once was the site of the highest masonic lodge in the U.S.A.  It’s creepy enough that these towns appeared to be completely erased out of existence.  But, the only indication that these towns ever actually existed is due to the Masons, a secretive organization that many also find creepy.

Three miles up the road, is Fremont Pass, another place with echos of the past.

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Fremont Pass, it appears, is home to another “ghost town”, the town of Climax.  Here, I at least found some evidence of this town’s existence.

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This particular location played a significant role in history on two occasions.  As indicated by the historical marker, the Continental Divide is the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase.  In fact, this very location was an international border from 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was signed, until 1821, when the Adams-Onis Treaty established slightly different borders between U.S. and Spanish territory.  The border would remain in a somewhat nearby location until the conclusion of the Mexican-American war in 1845.

Later, the Climax Mine would play a pivotal role in the U.S. efforts in both World War 1 and World War 2, as it sits on one of the largest deposits of a little known substance of molybdenum.  To be completely honest, I have no clue what molybdenum is.  All I know is that it is one of those middle elements on the Periodic Table, which, I am guessing is more than the average person knows.

What I did gather, though, was that like the three other ghost towns in the area, this is a place that was significant, actually quite significant, at a point in our history, but now it is basically gone.  In fact, the only real reason I know about Climax is related to one of my other projects.  I recently created an algorithm to calculate seasonal normals at any given point in Colorado for the purpose of planning out activities across this beautiful state.  To develop this algorithm, I needed to find as many reliable weather observation sites in places with different geographical features as possible.  Climax, it turns out, is the site of one of the highest reliable CO-OP weather stations.

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Not only was this weather station particularly helpful in developing that algorithm, it is also a great source of information regarding snowpack conditions at high elevations for the purpose of avalanche forecasting, as well as determining where to hike or snowshoe.  So, although that molybdenum plant re-opened a few years ago, in my world, this weather station is currently Climax’s most significant attribute.

The fact that places both rise and decline in significance is not a new concept.  Places like Egypt and Sumeria formed the cradle of civilization, only to eventually cede that power to other cities and regions.  Similarly, in today’s United States, we are currently seeing places like Texas and Florida gain province, while parts of the Northeast and Midwest decline.

This particular situation is strange though.  When I think of the “Fall of Rome”, for example, I think of a process that occurred over roughly two centuries.  The ghost towns near Freemont Pass were culturally significant a mere half a century ago.  Today, they are all but vanquished from existence.

I am also not accustomed to seeing this process occur over such a small spatial scale outside an urban area.  Most of Colorado is thriving, particularly the mountainous part of Central Colorado.  These three erased towns are only ten miles up the road from Copper Mountain Ski Resort, a resort that is so popular that it one of only three ski resorts to receive its own detailed forecast from OpenSnow (the other two are Steamboat and Vail).

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Roughly ten miles or so in the other direction, is Leadville, a former mining town that also appears to still be doing quite well for itself.

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When I think this all through rationally, I understand why the civilization left the Fremont Pass area.  The economy was largely driven my one obscure material.  When the price for that one material declined, the entire economy left.  Sometimes, though, it takes some time for information to process through the logical mind.  My gut reaction was still one of disbelief, as it still definitely feels strange to see a set of towns decline so quickly to the point of non-existance in a region that as popular and ascendent as Central Colorado.