Colorado

Whitewater Rafting the Colorado River

Rafting the Colorado River
From one adventure to another we continue!  We have been on the go non-stop for over a month now, and our lack of posting regularly clearly shows that.  We finally got caught up on our national park visit posts (we’ve visited 58 of the 59 now!) but then once again we were away from Internet service for ten days, so suddenly we were behind again!  The activities of this post took place September 23 – October 1 — we’re now only a week behind, so that’s not so bad; it’s been a lot worse….

Fred, Claire, Kyle and I getting ready for a day of paddling and whitewater rapids running on the Colorado River
Fred, Claire, Kyle and I getting ready for a day of paddling and whitewater rapids running on the Colorado River

Our most recent trip was conceived sometime around 1977 when Fred and a Navy buddy did a two-day rafting trip on the New River in West Virginia.  Fred absolutely loved that experience and ever since then he has wanted to run the Colorado River.  So the time had come to do it, and well over a year ago he made reservations with Outdoors Unlimited, choosing this company and this time of year very carefully as he had some criteria for his trip: 1) he wanted to do it in a wooden dory like John Wesley Powell and the brave river runners of old (that’s my old school guy, Fred!); 2) he didn’t want any power boats around messing up the quiet beauty of the river trip; 3) he wanted us to be active participants and have the experience of paddling; 4) he didn’t want it to be too hot and sunny as we’re sun avoiders anymore. Continue reading

Fred’s Rocky Mountain National Park

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My piece on Rocky Mountain National Park, park No. 58 out of No. 59, will be shorter than my usual dispatches as we are packing for our rafting trip with Claire and Kyle down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. By the time you read this is post, we will have already been on the river for a couple of days experiencing what I know will be great adventure. We have been here in Estes Park, Colorado, for the past eight days staying at a campground near the entrance to the park.

The weather has cooperated and I took full advantage of this going into the park almost every day to hike and shoot photos. Like in Glacier NP, there is a 45-mile scenic road that winds through the park with many places to pull over and take in almost surreal vistas. Also as with Glacier, the hikes were really spectacular, and many of the ones that I did climbed up to beautiful alpine lakes. On quiet mornings, the lakes were like glass and reflected perfectly the mountains of the Continental Divide that soared behind them. Laura was still taking it easy as she recovers from her bout with giardia, and did not get into the park as much as she would have liked. Her top priority was ensuring that she is 100% for our nine-day raft trip and then the trip to visit our last national park, National Park of American Samoa.

So this odyssey is slowly winding down, but we have indeed saved some really wonderful parks and experiences for our final turn. Continue reading

Fred’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

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The dunes came into view over five miles out from the entrance to our 57th park, Great Sand Dunes Naitonal Park and Preserve in southeastern Colorado. Almost in unison both Laura and I saw them for the first time and had a similar reaction: WOW! Looming behind the dunes, which cover around 30 square miles of terrain, was the dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain range with peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. As we pulled into our campground just outside of the park and made our way to our site, we were treated to a sweeping vista of the dunes and the mountains behind them. This would be our view for the next five days.

Besides seeing the park, we also rendezvoused with friends whom we met two years ago when we were camping outside of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Like the two of us, Ron and Tina enjoy everything that is the outdoors, and Ron and I in particular share an interest in photography. We had a wonderful time catching up with them and shared a number of delicious meals during our stay. Ron, Tina and I also took on the challenging hike to the summit of High Dune. Laura did not go as she was still recovering from a bout of giardia, picked up during our time in the Alaskan backcountry.

Looking back on the experience, I really did not think that it would be that challenging of a hike. After all, it could not have been much more than two to three miles to the peak of High Dune (the second highest dune in the park) with around only 700 feet of elevation gain. Normally, a hike with this profile would take no more than a couple of hours. It took us five. Granted, we did take many photos, took our time at the summit to enjoy the incredible view, and lingered on the way down to watch a few folks descend the dunes on snowboards (photos of one such individual are in the photo group below entitled, “Wipeout.”), but this was one tough hike, with much of the trek through loose sand with no best route to the top defined. Did I also happen to mention that the hike started at an elevation of 8,200 feet and topped out at almost 9,000 feet. Pretty thin air at that altitude for flatlanders like the three of us. But nonetheless, we made it up and back and had not only an incredible experience to show for our efforts, but also a few decent photos to share. I also took advantage of ideal conditions a couple of nights to star gaze and photograph the stunning milky way that was clearly visible at such a high altitude in the pure, dark sky. Continue reading

A Couple of Weeks in the Rear View Mirror

The posts we are sharing here on our travel blog are on a delay with our current location; in other words, we’re behind with posting about our adventures once again!  I’m writing this from Flagstaff where tomorrow we pick up Claire & Kyle from the airport to commence our rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  But a lot has happened between our last post and today that we’re trying to capture because this travel blog also serves as our personal trip journal.  Fred has some great photos and is finalizing a couple of posts on our visits to Great Sand Dunes NP and Rocky Mountain NP — places we’ve been in the past two weeks — but before we get to those, let me share a few of our other adventures, albeit viewing them in the rear view mirror.

Fort Laramie NHS — Yet another fort we have had the pleasure to visit, this one in eastern Wyoming, Fort Laramie’s history dates back to 1834 when it was established as a fur-trading post bringing trappers and traders together.  By the mid-1800s, as weary westward-heading pioneers followed the North Platte River along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, they found Fort Laramie a good place to rest, repair their wagons, and resupply for the next portion of their journey.  The fort was acquired by the U.S. Army in 1849 as tensions with Northern Plains Indian tribes grew.  Finally, it was abandoned in 1890 and homesteaders took over the upkeep of the little settlement until local public agencies came along to protect it permanently.  Today, Fort Laramie National Historic Site tells the story of commerce, westward expansion, and the Indian Wars; it is a blend of beautifully-restored buildings and foundations of what once was.

Continue reading

A Night At The Races

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Every son quotes his father, in words and in deeds.

                Terri Guillemets

It is as Americana as apple pie, weekend football games and election cycles that never really end. At this time of year roll through almost any small town with a dirt track on a Friday or Saturday evening and you will almost certainly hear the screaming sound of race cars tearing around a tight oval. That is what folks do for entertainment when the Friday night lights of football are dim. You load up the car with the family, drive to the local track, which is typically at the fairgrounds, pay a nominal admission fee, settle into the stands, and prepare to be entertained for the next three to four hours. All in all, one of the best deals going.

In late June we found ourselves in Cortez, Colorado, in the southwest part of the state, with nothing really to do on a warm Friday evening, but that would soon change. You see there are county fairgrounds located on the outskirts of Cortez with a 3/8th of a mile dirt track just waiting to accommodate drivers who wish to prove that they are the fastest in the land, or at least the fastest in this part of Colorado. Laura decided to take a pass on the races, but I loaded up some camera equipment and made my way to the track in advance of the start to the racing at sunset.

My late father loved watching racing, any kind of racing: stock cars, Indy cars, dragsters, sprint cars, sports cars, motorcycles – like I said, any kind of racing. When I was growing up in central Illinois, my father would often load up my three brothers and me in our station wagon on a Saturday evening and we would head to the nearby Fairbury Fairgrounds where there resided a quarter mile of dirt oval that drew some of the best drivers from the area. Sometimes my Uncle Cappie would come with us. Mom would typically stay at home, needing a break from the aforementioned four young boys.

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Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde NPMesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt as our nation’s seventh national park.  It was created to preserve ancient Ancestral Pueblo culture and prehistoric architecture that dates back from A.D. 550 to A.D. 1300.  As I mentioned in my last post, we have seen a lot of ancient Native American dwellings lately, but none hold a candle to Mesa Verde — it’s a very special national park, indeed.

Fred & Laura at Long House
Fred and I touring Long House while trying to avoid the sun

There are some 4,500 archaeological sites that are known to exist within Mesa Verde including pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures, but it is the large, beautiful cliff dwellings that are the big draw to this park.  Most of the smaller sites aren’t even visible with a typical visit to Mesa Verde (the exception being some pit houses that have been excavated and are featured along one of the scenic routes), but drives across the two main accessible mesas take visitors down to the five main attractions.  Cliff House, Long House, and Balcony House are accessible only via ranger-led tours; Step House is visited on a self-guided tour.  Spruce Tree House can presently only be viewed from across the canyon as a rock slide has forced this normally self-guided area to be closed for safety concerns.

Laura & Fred in Long House
Laura & Fred in Long House

While there is some hiking in this park, it is limited to protect the fragile archaeological sights from damage, thus all our hiking was done through the ranger-led and permissible self-guided tours.  That turned out alright, though, because the scorching heat that was present every day we were here was a big deterrent for wanting to take a big long hike anyway.

The ancient dwellings protected here in the national park represent over 700 years of life in Mesa Verde (Spanish translation: “green table” — a reference to the forested flat-topped part of the larger Colorado Plateau) and there is most certainly evidence of evolution in the ancestral Puebloan peoples’ time here.  From the early period of the “basketmakers” who lived in pithouses for the first 200 or so years through to the final 100 years when the large cliff dwellings were built, advancements clearly came about over time.  Pithouses evolved to kivas, then multi-story brick structures.  Building materials evolved from mud to stone and brick.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

Developmental Pueblo people diaorama - wonderful!
Incredible diorama – one of five in the museum – created in the 1930s/40s by WPA workers

In addition to visiting the pithouses and cliff dwellings, the [air-conditioned!] Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum was a wonderful place to take in the park movie and learn more about the history and culture of these peoples who built their homes in the cliffs and lived off the mesas.  Through some wonderful older exhibits and displays, we learned all about how they planted their corn, squash and beans atop the mesas, gathered a variety of edible and useful plants nearby, and hunted their wild animals in the surrounding areas.  They made ingenious tools from stone, wood, and bone, and over time they became prolific potters.  Over time, too, they acquired the bow and arrow which was more efficient for hunting and replaced the old atlatl, an ancient type of spear thrower.

Also in the museum was an incredible set of five dioramas depicting the evolution of these ancient Puebloan peoples.  These detailed scenes were made back in the 1930s and ’40s by participants in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the artist in me particularly liked seeing these marvelous works of art made so long ago.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Visitor Center at the entrance to the park.  That one, too, housed more modern displays of the life and times of the ancient Puebloan people who are remembered and admired here in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Songbird of Mesa Verde

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One afternoon during our recent visit to Mesa Verde National Park  I took a tour of the magnificent Cliff Palace ruins. I purposely chose the last tour of the day in hopes that I would have wonderful light on the ruins from the setting sun. Kailey, the park ranger who led the tour, did a wonderful job of explaining how the ancient residents lived in this large cliff dwelling over 800 years ago. Because we had the last tour before the twilight tour, Kailey was kind enough not to rush those who wanted to stay a bit longer, so I kept shooting taking advantage of the incredible light. I was alone with the ruins with one exception, a couple was there with me using the ruins as a backdrop for their own shoot. As I clicked away, a woman, who was barefoot, had long blond hair and was wearing a flowing black dress, sat down next to a kiva (a ceremonial area that is recessed in the ground), while her husband took pictures of her in perfect light. I took the above photo of the beautiful scene.

While I was chatting with the ranger, the woman politely asked us if we could lower our voices as she wanted to record something with her phone. I thought that she was simply going to record a message greeting for her voice mail or perhaps record a video of herself with the ruins in the background. I was wrong on both accounts. The surreal experience that followed in this extraordinary setting is something that I will never forget.

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I need to apologize for the poor quality of the recording, as I have much more experience shooting photos than video. Steven Spielberg certainly has nothing to worry about. After she sang her first song, we asked her name and learned that it is Deya, and that she and her husband are from Australia and currently traveling around the United States with their two kids performing at various festivals and other venues. More about their music and performance schedule can be viewed at: www.deyadova.com.

How incredible it was to hear this beautiful sound in this place that seemed to have almost perfect acoustics. We asked what language she was singing in, thinking that it might be a Native American dialect, but were told that it was not in a given language, but rather she just sang whatever came into her heart. We also learned that she was part Aborigine and was taking the opportunity in her travels to visit other sacred sites like this one and sing as she had done here. Both the ranger and I thanked Deya and I looked at the ranger and said, “Can you believe this? That was incredible!” Even though we were well past the time that we should have left the site, I half jokingly asked Deya if she would want to sing another song. When the ranger said that this would be okay with her, Deya was kind enough to oblige us with one more beautiful piece. 

How wonderful it was that I went on this tour only hoping to take a few good photos, and end up experiencing something as absolutely extraordinary as this. And that I could just be there in the moment allowing it to wash over me. 

 

Fred’s Mesa Verde National Park – Land of the Ancients

LAND OF THE ANCIENTS

“…for a moment I was transfixed off this world of ours to another planet and stood gazing with wide open eyes and listening, expecting to see fairies or people of another world appear, before I realized that what I saw was real. You cannot wonder when I describe the buildings and how the sun shown on them, a pure white marble city. These buildings were made of white sandstone taken from a ledge in the bottom of the canyon. The debris appeared as a paved highway and the large, beautiful, yellow pine and spruce trees with their light green foliage was a picture and thrill that I will never again feel or see. The wonderful new world that I saw and felt as if I had gone to a new abode for the living as well as for the dead; such was my feeling when I first sighted the Cliff Palace.”

        – Photographer Thomas M. McKee upon seeing Cliff Palace Ruins for the first time

In an upcoming post Laura will provide a more complete overview of our time in Mesa Verde National Park, but since mine was ready to go,  I wanted to share some images of this wonderful park. While this was Laura’s first time in the park, it was actually my second visit, the first trip being when Claire was young. I did not remember much from that previous visit, so it was exciting to set out to see and explore the extraordinary ruins at various sites in the park. And I must admit that when I would come around a bend in a trail and gaze down into a canyon and see for the first time the remains of an ancient civilization tucked in a spectacular alcove under an enormous slab of rock, I could not help but feel as photographer Thomas McKee must have felt when he first saw some of these same ruins in 1896. Many of these settlements date to the early 1200’s, predating Machu Picchu in Peru by some 250 years.

For Your Consideration

The approximately 4,500 archaeological sites within Mesa Verde NP, 600 of which are cliff dwellings, are protected and expertly maintained by the National Park Service. We owe this group of dedicated professionals our sincerest thanks as without them, we and future generations would not be able to fully experience the incredible park system that we are blessed with today. As with most federal agencies, they are under constant pressure to secure funding that is adequate to address the required maintenance and improvements within the parks. Given this, Laura and I are contributors to the National Park Foundation, a Congressionally chartered national philanthropic partner of the National Park Service (NPS), which works to address the needs of the park system that cannot be met by the NPS. Our wonderful park system needs our help and if you would like to provide your support please consider making a contribution to the foundation at: www.nationalparks.org. By doing this you will be investing in a legacy for both current and future generations that is arguably, as stated by writer and environmentalist, Wallace Stegner, America’s best idea. “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Images from our visit to Mesa Verde NP are below.    

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


IN BLACK AND WHITE





MESA VERDE – MORE THAN RUINS





CLIFF PALACE





BALCONY HOUSE






LONG HOUSE





OTHER RUINS




They Came Before Us

Four Corners Visits
NPS park units in the American Southwest — we’ve visited those highlighted in pink

We have spent the better part of these last six months in the American Southwest, and we seem to keep criss-crossing the Four Corners region that is Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico — there is truly so much to see here!  In our many passes through this area, we have visited more than twenty different national park units that preserve and protect ancient Native American dwellings, artifacts and history.

No Refugees!In each and every one of our visits to these sacred places, a theme, obvious as it is, kept running through my head — they were here first.  A long time ago.  Between 12,000-13,500 years ago.  The First Peoples of our country.  Not the Spaniards who wanted this territory to expand their own in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Not our European ancestors who took over this land in the 18th and 19th centuries.  No, it was the American Indians who were here long before us.  Navajo and Zuni and Shoshone and Paiute… Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute… Apache and Comanche and scores more.  They all came before us and lived their lives here long before we ever did.

I won’t use our travel blog as a political platform, but with all the talk of refugees and building walls and the clear rise of xenophobia, not just in the United States but throughout much of Europe, as well… and now just this week as the reality of the true meaning behind the “Leave” vote associated with Brexit sinking in, I can’t help but think back to the Native Americans.  The cartoon on the right was posted on Facebook and it seems to punctuate my point.

Enough said in my non-political post.  Here are the highlights and photos from our visits to the last three national monuments we have visited, all designated to protect ancient Native American dwellings that belonged to those who came before us.  [Note the Native Americans don’t consider these places ruins, but rather sacred places.]

Tuzigoot National MonumentTuzigoot National Monument can be visited by taking a nice little ride south of Sedona, Arizona; we toured this place a couple of weeks ago when we returned to this area.  Managed in conjunction with Montezuma Castle which we visited back in February (see my Montezuma Castle National Monument post) this place was one of the homes of the Sinagua peoples; ancient farmers in the Verde Valley.  Evidence of their agricultural lifestyle has been found, chronicled, and preserved in this place that means crooked water in Apache.  Tuzigoot pueblo was originally two stories high, crowning the summit of a long ridge rising above the Verde Valley.  In addition to walking around this ancient dwelling, the Visitor Center is home to a wonderful little historic museum featuring incredible artifacts and explanations of the life of the Southern Sinagua peoples.  Most impressive to me was the intricately painted pottery.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



Yucca House NMYucca House National Monument was a bit underwhelming, but then again, there is nothing at this monument other than two mounds of rubble covered with vegetation.  This site that is eight miles south of Cortez, Colorado, is unusual in that the pueblo being protected has never been excavated, so it remains just the way it was abandoned eight centuries ago.  One of our guidebooks had a photo of what looked like a sign on a locked gate, but we didn’t find any such sign when we attempted to visit.  This photo is it — the unearthed remains of the pueblo called Yucca House.  As no services whatsoever can be found at this location, we had to get our passport stamp at the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez.

Fred & Laura at HovenweepHovenweep National Monument was just the opposite of Yucca House; this place was spectacular as it features dramatic evidence of once-thriving Pueblo communities grouped at canyon heads in this area along the Colorado-Utah border that is otherwise just full of pinion, juniper, scrub sage and yucca.  There are six sections to this monument that is in the heart of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, a property managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  We visited two — the Square Tower Group, which is the main area with a wonderful Visitor Center, and the Holly Group which took a lot more effort to get to.  As one of the photos below shows, it’s a good thing we drive a Subaru!

Square Tower Group — After watching the overview movie in the Visitor Center, we hiked the 2-mile loop trail that took us up one side of Little Ruin Canyon, down through and across it, and up the other side.  Along the way we passed a dozen archaeological sites with ancient structures atop the mesas — these round, square, and D-shaped towers were the homes and ceremonial buildings to the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indian tribes.  Although these dwellings have not supported life for some 700 years, the remains show that the Pueblo people were skilled builders.  They shaped very uniform bricks and held them together with mud mortar, often studded with smaller, decorative stones.  Incredible are these remains as they demonstrate the skilled precision with which these three- and four-story towers were built centuries ago.



Holly Unit — This nearby unit was also built in the 1200s at the edge of another cliff on another mesa.  A couple of towers remain here at Holly Unit, and so well constructed are they that even after the foundation boulder split off the canyon rim long after its residents moved away, the bases still remain, if even at a tilt.  Another feature of this unit is the remnants of a solar calendar, including rock art that is illuminated at the solstices.



Throughout Hovenweep, examples of well-made pottery, jewelry, and clothing clearly suggest that these villages were part of a well-developed society.  Our day spent here was perfect, if not a little hot; truly an Out There day!