Category Archives: Unique Rock Formations

North Dakota’s Role in the History of the West

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

Greyrock Mountain- An Ideal Hike for May

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For the majority of people who like to hike on weekends, or in their spare time, hiking anywhere in the American West in the month of May requires two additional considerations.

  1.  There is typically still a residual snowpack at higher elevations.  While this can vary quite a bit from year to year and even day to day, even on a warm, sunny day, those that don’t want to encounter slippery conditions or deep snow covering the trails should generally stick to lower elevations.  In Colorado, that generally means below 9500 feet in elevation.
  2. Although everyone’s body behaves differently, most people still respect the seasonality of the activities they take part in, hiking less frequently in winter than in summer.  Therefore, most people still need to, in some way, work up to the most challenging hikes they will take on later in the summer.

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Tucked away in the Poudre Canyon 15 miles West of Fort Collins, Colorado (which is an hour north of Denver), the Greyrock Trailhead starts at an elevation of roughly 5600 feet.

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The hike to the top of Greyrock Mountain, on the most direct path is 3.1 miles, with an elevation gain right around 2000 feet.  For those who spent their winters either sedentary or on unrelated activities, and maybe have done two or three hikes thus far in the spring, it is strenuous enough to help get the body back into summer mode.  And, topping out at 7600 feet, it remains well below the elevations where residual snowpack and large amounts of mud would still be present on a sunny day in May.

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Of course, many people are aware of these seasonal considerations.  Therefore, the area does get busier than usual, particularly if it is a nice day and/or on the weekend.

Still, there is plenty of quiet to be found on this appropriately named mountain, just not the level of solitude one would expect on, say, a remote backpacking trip.

On the 13th of May 2017, a dry day in which Fort Collins reached a high temperature of 85F (and was preceded by two dry days) nearly all of the trail was dry.  It was only in certain sections, close to streams, where mud would appear.  These sections got interesting, as groups of butterflies, both red and blue, would loop around the sky, periodically congregating in and around areas of standing water.

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The blue butterflies are actually extremely well camouflaged, only showing their color when the wings are flapped open.

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A closer look at the muddy surface reveals dozens of these butterflies nearly completely blended into the muddy surface, something many hikers don’t even notice!

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Roughly 2/3 of the way up, the first real scenic overlook is reached.  This is the point just before the two trails merge back together, at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet.

The final 600 feet of ascent looks, well, far more daunting than a typical 600 foot climb.  And, well, it is.  After a short flat area, following the scenic overlook, the trail begins to climb up a series of rocky areas, often referred to as “scrambles” by hikers.

These parts require some strategizing, both on the way up and on the way down.

The final section of the trail is the one area where it is possible to get lost.

On top of rocks, the trail passes by several lakes, where the sound of frogs can be heard, and is marked only by periodic signs 2-3 feet tall and the occasional standard rock pile (referred to as a Cairn).

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The summit is also just kind of a series of rocks, that need to be climbed over to reach the best lookout point.  Being at the top of Greyrock Mountain is somewhat of an unique experience.  In some ways, it feels just like being on top of the world, as noting in the immediate vicinity is at a higher elevation.

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However, out on the horizon to the West and Southwest reveals mountains whose peaks dwarf this one by over 5,000 feet.

It feels like a metaphor for a certain life situation that nearly every human being will find themselves in at one point.  The mountain has been climbed, a goal has been achieved, and there is reason to celebrate… temporarily.  But, there is still a lot that must be done, and much higher aspirations.  It is finishing a degree and moving on to start a new job.  It is successfully navigating nine months of pregnancy now knowing that it is hard work to raise another human being.  It is knowing that one has achieved as much as is possible in a current endeavor, and that there is something more meaningful, a higher calling, awaiting that requires a pivot, a new strategy, and renewed effort.

 

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.

 

 

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 2

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Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way.  While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer.  Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months.  Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months.  In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year.  The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.

In Colorado it’s all different.  In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February.  At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.

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Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one.  The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut.  At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly!  Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.

It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour.  All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain).  Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds.  These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see.  On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere.  This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.

The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.

Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls.  This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.

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I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls.  In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name.  It didn’t even seem important at the time.  We just liked what we saw.  At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.

We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.

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This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.

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It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion.  We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”

We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00.  As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain.  A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.

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We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!

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I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago.  I called it “precipitation jambalaya”.  But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August!  Once again, that thing about the seasons!

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The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.

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The scene looked familiar.  The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day.  The trail, though, was hard to find.

For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass.  We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!

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We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”).  The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.

We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.

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The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown.  I rushed back into my tent!  With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold!  I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August.  For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.

All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY.  I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset.  I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!

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With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night.  We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion.  But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.

I also did something I never do on group trips; read.  I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it.  This time I actually read.  It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist.  Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!

I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans.  In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices.  In nature, it is the weather.  But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain.  Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place.  I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.

 

July 2015 Bicycle Journey Day 2: Chico Hot Springs to Yellowstone’s Grant Villiage

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I was 43 miles into a 100 mile bike ride.  I had already climbed over 1,000 feet from my starting location.  I knew I had over 2,000 more vertical feet to climb before I would reach the high point of my day.  The road mercilessly took a turn downhill.  This was vertical height I had already worked hard to climb.  I knew that somewhere down the road, I would once again have to climb this several hundred vertical feet that I was now descending.  I sped up and continued down the road, already exhausted, knowing that I still had more than half my day left to go, both in terms of milage as well as vertical climb.

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That was when I found myself going over a bridge, over the Gardner River.  The views in all four directions, including downward were spectacular.  Not only was I viewing all of the scenery in all directions, I was smelling it.  I was feeling the air around me.  It was at this moment that I realized that, despite how exhausted I already was, and despite how agonizing the steep hills I had in front of me were going to be, that all of this was worth it.  The effort of pedaling harder than I had ever pedaled before, and enduring hours of pure pain was worth it to experience what I was experiencing on that day.

Miles 44 and 45 would take forever, as I climbed up and out of the river valley and onto the Blacktail Deer Plateau in the Northern part of Yellowstone National Park.  Knowing that I still had so much painful climbing left to go, once again “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt” by Maroon 5, a song that I had heard many times this year, and, like most Maroon 5 songs, catches in one’s head quite easily, popped into my head as I pondered the pain that I was enduring, as well as the pain that would come.

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That morning, I woke up in Paradise Valley with a strange feeling.  I was half worn out from my first day of cycling, but also felt ready to go.  It is a feeling that people who cycle long distances probably experience quite frequently, but it was a feeling that I had not truly experienced before.  Sure, I had undertaken multi-day tasks before, but never one like this, where in my head I knew I was about to tap into pretty much everything I have, physically, but I also knew that it would make for one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had.

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On the way out of Paradise Valley, we encountered the only other cyclist we would encounter that day, an Austrian gentleman headed for the Grand Canyon.  He was traveling fully self-contained, with all of his camping gear attached to his bike, and therefore taking it slower.

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After turning back onto US-89 South towards Gardiner, we entered an area known as Yankee Jim Canyon. It is here where we started to see some rafters.  Over the next few miles, we would wonder who was this “Yankee Jim” that this canyon was named after.

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Unfortunately, even the signage along the highway, the signage that eluded to both history and Yankee Jim, did not tell me anything about who Yankee Jim was.  After the trip, I did a full web search.  Nothing.  I still have no idea who was this man they call Yankee Jim. Maybe if I ever go to a Montana History Museum of some kind I’ll find out, but to this day, it remains a mystery.

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Luckily, several miles up the road, as we approached Gardiner, there was a distraction.  We encountered a place called Devil’s Slide, a uniquely shaped exposed area of red sedimentary rock that appears to lend itself to stupid, and potentially dangerous adolescent ideas.  I am quite thankful that nobody turned it into a cheesy touristy site.  There are enough overpriced alpine slides elsewhere in the West.

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We stopped for Ice Cream just before noon in Gardiner, Montana, and stepped out into much hotter air as we entered Yellowstone National Park.

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Back when I lived in Chicago, I never understood why advertisements for Montana tourism would feature images of Yellowstone National Park, which is primarily in Wyoming, with the phrase “Gateway to Yellowstone”.  But, apparently, this was the original entrance to the National Park, and, when the park first opened up, the only way to get in.  This structure right here, that I found myself riding under, was the first entrance ever created to the first National Park established.

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And I knew the climb was coming, the first climb of the day, which would eventually take me past the 45th Parallel, into the State of Wyoming, and up to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was now roughly 1000 feet higher than Gardiner.

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But, it wasn’t just the climbs that made the ride exhausting.  It was all of the other rolling hills I was not 100% expecting.

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There are very few flat parts of Yellowstone National Park, and even the area between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Falls, which starts and ends at a similar elevation had many hills of different sizes.  It was around there that I decided that I was in no hurry to get to the campsite.  After all, I was in Yellowstone National Park, and in a part of the park I did not get to see the last time I visited.  I was gonna see some stuff.

After having to climb back up out of the Gardiner River Valley, I took a look at the Undine Falls.

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Unfortunately, I did not feel I had the energy to add a mile of hiking (round trip) to my day, and see the Wraith Falls.

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But, I stopped several other times to enjoy the scenery along the Blacktail Deer Plateau, and even got a chance to see a blue-billed duck through some bincoulars.

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In the middle of the afternoon, I reached one of Yellowstone’s more breathtaking, but underrated features, Tower Fall.

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It was here I took a more lengthy break, as I knew ahead of me I had a climb tougher than any climb I had ever undertaken in my life.  After that exhausting 30 mile stretch from Gardiner, up into the park and then over the plateau and all of the rolling hills, I would climb over 2000 feet, to the highest point of any road in Yellowstone; Dunraven Pass.  But, it was here that I also realized that not only was I more than halfway through my trip overall (63 miles into today with 61 miles behind me yesterday), but I was now at a higher elevation than where I would end the trip (Jackson, Wyoming is at 6200 feet).  In every sense of the phrase, I was more than halfway there.

The climb, 12 miles and almost 2600 feet in elevation gain, took me nearly two hours.  It was exhausting, and intense.  I pretty much had to stop every mile.  Somewhere roughly halfway up the pass, I started to see some beautiful alpine flowers; yellow and purple.

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But, signage told me that the presence of these wonderful flowers also signified that I was in Grizzly Bear territory.

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So, it should not have been too much of a surprise to me that when I finally got to the top of the pass,  after two long hours of huffing and puffing, I saw my first Grizzly Bear!

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Just as I had realized 31 miles (and almost 3000 feet of net climbing) ago, when I was going over that breathtaking bridge over the Gardner River, all of the riding, all of the sweat, and all of the pain did have its reward.  To be honest, it would have been more than worth all of the physical exertion without even seeing the bear.  But, seriously, there was nothing like encountering this animal, so beautiful, so majestic, yet so dangerous and overwhelming, in the manner in which I did; from my bike, out in the open, yet at the top of a pass, knowing that if I needed to outrun it, I could by pedaling as hard as I could on the next downhill stretch.

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By then, after hanging out with the bear for a little while, it was nearly 7 P.M.  I had neither the energy, nor the remaining daylight to take the walk down to Yellowstone’s iconic Lower Falls.  Luckily I saw those last time I was here, so I was glad to have taken the time to see the other waterfalls in the park.

The last real feature I visited that evening was Yellowstone’s Mud Volcano area.

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There I stood, with the water bottle I had filled up something like 6 times that day, and I came to the realization of just how geothermal Yellowstone Park is.  Like many of the geysers in the park, this “mud volcano” smelled like sulfur.  In fact, it smelled kind of yucky.  And, while I had spent most of the day looking at waterfalls, scenic river valleys, and finally those yellow and purple flowers, it is these types of features that make Yellowstone National Park unique.  We do have waterfalls, canyons, river valleys and the like all over the west, including within an hour or so of home.  All of these geothermal features … I cannot think of where else to see them!  It almost felt like this park was built on sulfur.

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After seeing an elk on the side of the road, near Yellowstone Lake, I reached the campground at Grant Village.

It had been, without a doubt, the toughest day of riding I had ever undertaken.  Going into this trip, I knew it would be, so I was prepared.  But, I was still pretty much without any residual energy at the end of the day.  In fact, I was kind of acting like I was drunk.  I guess my body had gone through an experience that some would consider “traumatic”, given how far I pushed myself.  But, for me, it is how you grow as an individual, and it is how you gain confidence.  I know that soon I will have to return to “regular life”.  In “regular life”, there is competition, there is conflict, and there are things that are just plain hard.  But, they become easier for those of us that are confident in ourselves.  Accomplishments like these simply serve as a reminder to ourselves that we are awesome.  In fact, I would love to market a bumper sticker that simply says “Smile, you are you, and you are awesome.”  Or, something like that.  There is probably a better, and catchier way to phrase that.  But the point remains that experiences like these do remind us that we are often capable of more than we believe, and are told, that we are.

Testing Our Limits

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A good friend of mine once told me that nearly all people are capable of much more than what they believe they can do.  And that, in fact, when challenged, most would actually be surprised by what they are physically able to do once they have been pushed to their very limit.

When it comes to most activities, people generally tend to stop when tired.  After all, exhaustion is generally an unpleasant experience for most, and has the potential to make an activity no longer enjoyable.  However, from time to time, life issues some kind of challenge that forces us to give everything we have, way beyond what we had been wanting to give.  Most of us have experienced that unexpectedly challenging assignment in college that forced us to “pull an all nighter”, or had to tend to someone they truly care about at a time when completely exhausted.  It is at these moments, when we completely drain ourselves, that we figure out the true boundary of what we are capable of.  And, for physical activities, such as cycling, it is when our bodies actually physically begin to give out on us, that we truly understand what we are capable of doing.

Heading into a new season, I decided it was time to challenge myself.  Monday, I had an entire day available with no prior engagements, so I decided to take on a ride that would potentially test the limits of my endurance at its current state; A bike ride from Denver to Castle Rock, and back, in one day.

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The first 30 miles of this trek is on the Cherry Creek trail, from Denver to the suburb of Parker.  Most of this trail is relatively flat.  A gradual upslope, combined with a few uphill segments, takes a rider from Denver’s 5280′ in elevation to Parker’s 5900′.  This part of the journey was not too terribly challenging.  In fact, in this segment, my biggest challenge was finding water to refill my water bottle.  I had assumed, for some reason, since it was already the end of March, and that there have already been 12 days with high temperatures of 70 or above, that the water fountains around the suburbs would be turned on for the spring.  I was wrong, and was quite thirsty and relieved to see this sign, indicating that although the water fountain was not operational, that the bathroom had available water.  You would be surprised how many suburban park bathrooms do not have running water.

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To get from Parker to Castle Rock, one must follow a road called Crawfoot Valley Road.  The road is quite luxurious for cyclists, with a shoulder wide enough for roughly two bikes.  In fact, it is labelled a bike lane for some parts of this eight mile stretch of road.  The first three miles, headed southwest from Parker, however, is a bit of a climb, and a deceptive one.  The climb is nowhere near as steep as one in the mountains, and one only climbs 500-600 feet.  But, it is one of those frustrating climbs where the road winds around a bit, and, with each turn, a cyclist will wonder whether or not they are approaching the apex only to see another uphill segment gradually appear as they approach.

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Once this road levels off, facing southwest, the ride becomes almost surreal.  To the left of the road, one can see Pike’s Peak, standing there all by its lonesome.  To the right, the mountains of the Front Range, due west of Denver appear.  Riding sort of directly at these mountains, with the vantage point of being up at roughly 6500 feet in elevation, I cannot help but take a deep breath and marvel at how wondrous the world can be sometimes.

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After just over 40 miles of cycling, I arrived at Castle Rock.  When I got to Castle Rock, I decided to add on a mini-hike to my day of activity.  After all, I spent almost three hours getting here, why wouldn’t I head up to this little rock structure- my destination!

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This is a fairly short hike, with stair-step features that indicate that it was designed primarily for tourists, and not hard-core hikers.  So, I did not feel too bad about adding this hike to my already exhausting daily itinerary.

After all, the return trip to Denver would be much easier, after the initial climb out of town on Crawfoot Valley Road, the rest of the trip would be more or less downhill, descending, overall, from an elevation of 6200′ at Castle Rock back to 5280′ at Denver.

That turned out to be wrong.  As I approached Parker, a northerly wind developed, and, although the wind itself was not too terribly strong (10-12 mph range), the gusts began to pick up and become more frequent.  It was here, peddling into the wind, that an already challenging ride became one where I ended up testing the limits of what my body can do.

There are three levels of tired.  First, there is just general tiredness, where we just feel like stopping.  Many people do indeed stop at this point.  However, those who stop at this first level of tiredness generally do not develop any further endurance.  Level two tired is where we begin to ache, or feel some level of pain.  At this point, it is typically recommended that one stop.  This is the level of tiredness I had expected out of Monday’s ride.  However, the gusty winds on the return trip brought my level of tiredness to the third level, the level in which you simply cannot go anymore.

Working to each level of tiredness achieves a different goal.  An activity that stops at level 1 tiredness maximizes our enjoyment of an activity.  An activity that stops at level 2 tiredness is most beneficial to our fitness.  When we push to level 3 tiredness, we achieve personal accomplishments, the kind that make us feel as if we are achieving something with our activities.

The key is, for almost anyone involved in any kind of physical activity, to find a balance between working to each of the three levels, as they feed off of each other.  The original, and ultimate purpose of any activity should be to have fun, but, for most, an activity become even more enjoyable when we improve, take on new challenges, and accomplish new things.  Much like a skier that starts out on the green slopes, moves up to the blues, then blacks, and finally extreme terrain, I am looking to take my bike out longer distances, and to places that were previously unreachable.  However, in order to plan out how to test my own personal limits, I first have to know where those limits are.  So, as much as I can be pissed off that this ride ended up being more difficult than expected due to the wind, the wind allowed me to actually measure my personal limit, so I can start the process of improving.