Goatrekking Adventure 3 – Colorado Peaks, Prairies and Plateaus

Acclimating to the altitude, beauty and history

We’ve been at 6,000+ feet for a week now, and the altitude seems to be little problem now. Have been up to 11k without headaches or intolerable shortness of breath, but we still drink lots of water and keep the caffeine to a minimum. So far, so good.

Getting used to the eye-popping beauty is another matter. Don’t know if we’d ever stop sucking in our breath at the snow-capped 14ers (mountains of 14,000’). They’re a constant reminder of the scale, majesty and endurance of Mother Earth. Keeps you humble.

We took the old Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge train a couple days ago, and it was quite magical. Reminded us of the cogwheel train up to the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland, but much quieter. The train covered 50 miles and 3,000 feet of climb in about 2.5 hours (the 100-year-old track prevents faster speeds). Carried two skiers on board who disembarked at Rock Creek to camp and climb to the snow to stretch their season to the max.

Arrived in Silverton, an 1880’s mining town that hosted Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and Bat Masterson (Silverton jailor) way back when, and had a nice lunch at the hotel where the three of them gambled. Silverton is a fly stuck in amber: very little has changed, cosmetically, since the 19th century. Every street is still dusty clay, every old building is historically preserved, and you can still see the mine tailings on the surrounding slopes. Feels like the frontier, but at 10,000 feet. Even Notorious Blair Street, full of houses of ill repute, makes good business promoting the history of the “ladies with negotiable affections.”

We met a wonderful Native American crafts merchant in Silverton in her tiny store, and she introduced us to her family’s history of selling crafts since the early 20th century. Each winter she goes to 28 pueblos to buy for her store, and we were her first sale of 2017 (store opens each year in early May). We purchased a Zuni bear fetish rendered in Bumblebee Jasper. Arlene, you have the best goods in town!

The bus ride back made better time, landing back in Durango in 80 minutes. It passed gorgeous landscapes, peaks and valleys still ensconced in snow, while down in town, it was already summer, at 78 degrees with flowers and trees in full bloom. Side note: you can see three different lateral moraines as you drive south into Durango. Evidence that this area saw three different glacial periods in the past 100,000+ years.

The limited hikes we could squeeze in made us hungry for more hiking than fits into three days. We caught the Colorado Trail Kennebec Section along Junction Creek and saw a prolific number of falls in a short distance.

Of course, you get the best of the rushing water in May and early June, so it was a real treat to hear the thundering water all along the path. Unlike on the Appalachian trail, we didn’t meet any through-hikers this time, but we’re convinced that Colorado’s #1 pastime is dog-walking, as every human has at least two if not three dogs along.

We also hiked the Falls Creek Trail behind our campground, which was a stunning 4-mile loop leading past a roaring waterfall (we forded the waterfall on a narrow log (that’ll get your heart going), through spruce forests and aspen glens, over a spring meadow full of boggy spots, and out to a prominent overlook of the Animas River before the path finally snaked its way through lupine glades back to the trailhead. Wondrous. The plants we saw included lupines, wild larkspur, chokecherry, serviceberry and hackberry, the fattest juniper berries we’ve ever seen, bluebells and potentilla.

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The red siltstone, grey slate and tan and white sandstone slopes and mesas of the San Juan Mountains are on display everywhere around Durango, and we couldn’t get enough. The red rock is called Chinle siltstone, from the upper Triassic period (230 million years ago), and it is my favorite. I love the dark red kidney bean color, and would love to see it mixed into clay and shaped into a pot. It’s a very soulful shade.

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We’ll go back to Durango again. Definitely. We’d been hearing about it for 30 years, and now we know what friends were raving about.

Reservations for a dig at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center of Cortez are calling, so we left Durango for the southwestern-most corner of this beautiful state on Sunday, Mother’s Day. George treated me to a visit at the Anasazi Heritage Center, where visitors are acclimatized to the need to treat all paths, plants, ruins, stones and nature with ultimate respect. Basically, you don’t get your maps to the hiking trailheads until you understand your own responsibility to respect and protect the sites.

This was followed by a gorgeous hike in the Canyons of the Ancients, where the desert was bursting with color and two splendid cliff dwellings could be seen from the path. Spellbinding. Plants here included hedgehog cactus in bloom, cushion daisies, more larkspur, cardinal flower, calendula, stattice, sego lily, white erigonium, globe mallow, penstemon, apache snakeroot, pygmy serpentweed, brown-eyed susans, ranunculus, shortleaf rockpink, torch lily and stonecrop. Locals say this year’s bloom are due to the great winter and rainy spring they’ve had. What luck!

Goatrekking Adventure 3 – Colorado Peaks, Prairies and Plateaus

Bee-lining it through springtime in the plains, to get to the Rockies

Just as the MI weather turns mild, sunny and utterly lovely, we’ve hopped into the MoHo (Motor Home) for a mad dash across Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas to get to our jumping off point, Colorado Springs, for Goatrekking Adventure #3.

For most trips, we stay the first two nights of transit driving (400+ miles/day from home to get to the target destination) in the parking lot behind Cracker Barrel restaurants, and it’s the simplest way to go. Boondocking behind a restaurant where they serve real maple syrup with their pancakes always makes George a happy driver for the day. It’s much better than figuring out where there’s a campground close to the interstate and having to unhook our tow car. No muss, no fuss, and we’re rarely in “transit-land” to see sights, so the simpler, the better.

Once again, we detoured through Minneapolis and spent the weekend with our kids/grandkids, from there overnighted in Lincoln, NE, after which we toughed it out over 540 miles to get to Colorado Springs the second day.

Cheyenne Mountain State Park was the sleep spot in CS –just beautiful. It’s a new facility, spanking clean and modern, with views of Colorado Springs, the Cheyennes and Pikes Peak that are second-to-none. As Goatrekking readers know, we have loved the state parks along the way, and Cheyenne Mountain is one of the best.

Out of CS, the driver headed southwest through Cañon City, skipping Royal Gorge (just too touristy) and transiting Salida, Saguache and Del Norte. The Arkansas river accompanied us through the first two towns, not as turbulent as we expected (got to the white water flows later on). Lots of high-altitude hayfields irrigated in circles – we’ve seen these from overhead flying across Colorado, but never up close. Wherever the irrigation ends, nothing grows but sagebrush. In that respect, the valley between the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains is reminiscent of the Central Valley in California. Without irrigation, there would be no crops.

The high point from Del Norte to our campground tonight in Ute National Forest was the drive through Wolf Creek Pass, at 11,000 feet. It snowed furiously at the summit, but we had rain on either side and the valleys and vistas were so green, it almost hurt the eyes. Along the way, the roaring Rio Grande and many other cascading tributaries rushed down the mountains. Lots of snowmelt and spring-fed lakes at altitude – this Eden must be a well-kept secret that only Coloradans in the know appreciate. A verdant stretch of Hwy 160 all the way to Pagosa Springs.

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We are the only camp guests in the Ute National Forest campground tonight. The host told us there are only ever about 2- 3 camping parties here, except for July 4 weekend, when it’s full. It is so quiet back here, the tall pines and pine straw-covered ground make for good sound insulation, and with a light rain, it will make for perfect sleeping weather. On to Durango tomorrow for hiking!!

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Wending our Way Home

Mostly focused on racking up the miles, we are bee-lining it to Wisconsin for a meetup at Kalahari Water Resort in the Wisconsin Dells with our kids and grandkids. But along the way, we made time for a quick stop at Teribithia Goat Dairy in Paola, KS, where Vince and Becky Thorpe have a lovely herd of about 35 Oberhaslis, including 12 milking does. We are so lonesome for our goats, who always kidded about this time every year. We fed the Teribithian does apples, cooed and cuddled with them for about 30 min before getting back on the road!

One thing is for certain: after nearly seven weeks of communing with nature, forests and mountains, we are shell-shocked to reenter civilization. It’s more disorienting than the process of leaving civilization…more fatigue, more anxiety, less inner peace, and I miss the trees and rocks and scaled quail talking to us. We’ll be counting the days until we take off for adventure #Three!

Continuing to Learn about Indigenous North American Peoples

This adventure has included many opportunities to see history through native eyes. We saw some of it in San Antonio, Big Bend National Park, Fort Davis, El Paso, Guadelupe Mountains, Palo Duro, TX and Lawton, OK. Yesterday’s visit encompassed the Comanche Museum and Cultural Center in Lawton, where the 15,000 remaining members of the Comanche Tribe live. This is our third visit to a museum dedicated to one tribe alone (the others being the Eastern Cherokee and the OK Chickasaw Tribes. We’ve also seen the outstanding Heard Museum in Phoenix).

It is deeply engaging to see the artifacts and art, to hear the stories and meet people who are focused on their people’s history and culture. The pride is always evident, especially when a special role was played in American history (e.g., 17 Comanche Code Talkers were instrumental in WWII European Defenses and D-Day).

It is also interesting to hear how the telling of history differs, depending on the teller. Anglo Texans shade the stories in a way that stands apart from the Indian way of telling facts. Perhaps this is to be expected. Old animosities and boundaries endure. On a future venture through OK, we’re going to the “Five Civilized (i.e., assimilated) Tribes” Museum in Muskogee and to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, one of the largest collections of all tribes’ art and artifacts. Trying to view the dynamic and the details from all sides.

Last Rock-Geek Post of this Trip!

Our visit to Alibates Flint Quarry National Monument took us to a singular place on earth: the mountains where dolomite rock was turned into super-hard agate rock by silica ash particles from a volcanic eruption in Yellowstone 280 million years ago!! Nowhere else on earth has this occurred in a similar fashion, and it is eye-poppingly gorgeous. Have a look.

The public can only access these ancient quarries, which have been mined by indigenous peoples for at least 13,000 years, by getting in on a once-weekly 2-hour tour given by volunteers and rangers. There are over 700 quarry digs done by paleo Indians, antelope canyon Indians, Apache and Comanche Indians across the eras.  The site is VERY remote, and visitors CANNOT keep any of the fantastic rocks to be seen. But just knowing/seeing such beauty is a pretty cool thing, in and of itself. We’re happy campers.

On the way home to our MoHo, we saw many Swainson’s Hawks. They are as ubiquitous here as our Red-Tailed Hawks are at home. Big, burly and super-swoopy. Gorgeous raptors.

Heaven for Hikers, Bikers and Birders beneath the Spanish Skirts

Ok, first, “Spanish Skirts” is a reference to the conical, flared rock and soil formations at the bottom of the Palo Duro Canyon. Easy to visualize what is meant when you actually see them, right?

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We had another wonderful 8.4-mile hike on the GSL Trail today. Since I have been ITCHING to get down into the intense red earth, I was delighted to discover that the entire path ran on soft red clay. Such a treat for the eyes to get up close and ogle the rock formations, and since the earthen path was so soft, it was like hiking on foam rubber!

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GSL is a multi-use trail, so we had ample opportunities to cross paths with bikers, joggers, birders and other hikers. Since we have hiked 7 of the last 8 days, it was a relief to have the entire trail running mostly on level ground and not at elevation. Time for a rest from the climbing! We’ve clocked nearly 50 miles, much of it with substantial climbs in elevation.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 4.06.00 PM.png

The Palo Duro Canyon runs much further than the borders of the park. We wanted to drive somewhere that was not on park property, to stop at road cuts and collect interesting rocks.

Ranger Jeff pointed us in the direction of Farm Road 207, so we took off after lunch for prospecting. Got a lovely cross-section of specimens, including dark red claystone and satin spar gypsum. Yay!! Our granddaughter is gonna love them, to say nothing of our rock-hounding friends!

 

The Grand Canyon of Texas

Several months ago, Palo Duro State Park was plunked into the itinerary, with no clear idea of the majesty on display here. It was just a convenient TX state park on the way to Amarillo. Turns out it is one of the best hiking parks in the state, a rainbow of many-colored rocks on display across 250 million years of erosion. Ochre, burgundy, verdigris green, carrot orange, deep chestnut brown, lavender, burnt umber, charcoal black, and smoky white rocks and packed earth delight the eyes. The canyon is composed of claystone, gypsum, mudstone, sand, silt and caliche (a calcium carbonate rock), with tumbled quartz, selenite, celestite, malachite and agates thrown in for good measure. No rock-harvesting allowed, though, and it’s a good thing. The beauty is left for viewing by generations to come.

We hiked about seven miles today through the Rock Garden Trail, at the rim and deep down through the canyon. Can’t get enough of the views, and we have to admit, late afternoon is our favorite time for views, when the light is golden and the shadows are long. Unforgettable. But once again, the WINDS blowing in west Texas are crazy!! The memories of grit in our teeth will stay with us forever.

Finally, Guadelupe Mountains National Park!

The stalling and delays have gone on long enough! We pulled out of El Paso today and barreled eastward across the Chihuahuan desert to Guadelupe Mtns NP, which by now has neither snow nor sub-freezing temperatures. And since the furnace is now fixed, we don’t have to worry as much about the nights being cold.

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The first hike, to a destination called the Devil’s Hall, was an exhilarating and slightly hazardous 4-mile scramble through boulder-strewn washes and up into a limestone slot canyon – simply magnificent.

The second hike had been anticipated for weeks: a 2.2-mile hike up to the top of a 1400-foot limestone reef!! The Guadelupe Mountains are part of what was once a large marine reef arc, submerged in a vast inland salt sea some 260 million years ago. The reef was uplifted by tectonic forces about 50 million years ago, the sea dried up and what you now see is a series of limestone and dolomite mountains which encase billions of fossilized animal and plant remnants, life in the former reef.

As we rose through the higher elevations, the path led between the main mountain and a tall piece of not-quite broken-away limestone (as big as a semi-truck on end). What remained between was a curious and luxurious little microclimate: an Eden protected from wind and the worst of the mountain’s weather, it sheltered trees, shrubs, cacti, grasses and ferns. After 150 steps, it was gone and we were back to wind-whipped rock along the arid path.

Every section of the trail reveals a view of fossils that were once either sponges, one-celled marine creatures, clam-like brachiopods, coral and algal remains, fusulinids (shell-housed amoebas), ammonoids (like the multi-chambered nautilus), sea fans and stromatolites (some of the very first intertidal communities to exist) embedded in the rock.

The hike was totally fascinating to both of us…except for the 45-mph winds which nearly blew us off the mountain. Only two other hikers braved the weather, so we nearly had the mountains to ourselves. We hiked to the very top layer, and looked out through a saddle gap to see the hills and valleys around us.

The Permian Reef era is so significant that Permian is actually a named slice of geologic time, similar to triassic or jurassic. As is Guadelupe. I know, I’m geeking out now. Back to pix!

The following two days included two splendid hikes, one of which was a peak experience for us – up to the 8,700 ft.-high Guadelupe Peak. Over the course of seven hours we hiked 8.4 miles with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet, into the stratosphere. This mountain is the highest in Texas, and on a clear day (which we had!) you can see hundreds of miles, south to Mexico, North to White Sands and the Sandia Mountains (snow-covered), east across the vast flatlands of west Texas. We had a picnic lunch on the summit, and were dive-bombed by peregrine falcons hunting for songbirds to eat. Nearly as many fossils to see as on the previous Reef trail, along with huge outcroppings of selenite and calcite. Glorious, and like nowhere else we’ve ever been!

El Paso Conspires to Keep us in Town

We wandered west to El Paso as a brief waystation to Carlsbad Caverns and some other New Mexico sites that are warmer than Guadelupe Mountains, which had been reported to be seeing snow and sub-freezing temps (for that, we could be in Michigan!).

But fate took a hand, and we ended up “stuck” here for four days while our Moho furnace was being fixed. Making the most of this delay entails sightseeing in the city’s historic district,

hiking in the Franklin Mountains State Park,

and taking in the Archaeology and Art Museums downtown.

Saw a fascinating National Monument called Chamizal, commemorating a land dispute between the US and Mexico that was settled amicably…after 100 years of conflict over 600 acres of river bottom land.

We also scooted up to Truth or Consequences, NM for their lovely hot springs baths,

and over to White Sands National Monument for a 4.5-mile hike over the sands and alkali flats. White Sands offers sand dune surfing, but we opted for the walk instead. From the sands you can see all the way to the snow covered peak of Sierra Blanca near Ruidoso, NM (20 miles away).

The El Paso Art Museum’s featured an historic grouping of African American artists’ works on paper, which was marvelous. Then we made a trip to one of the only rock shops in the city, where George bought my Valentine’s Day gift: two beautiful cabochons, one of mookaite jasper and one of sarape jasper. The first is from Australia, the second from Chihuahua, MX. We seriously considered going into Juarez for an afternoon, but called it off as an underprepared jaunt…maybe next time. All in all, we were taken with El Paso, which has the nation’s most beautiful urban freeway, the Transmountain Highway up across the Franklin Mountains on the edge of the urban zone.

Seriously? A full moon NOW?

Heading up to Fort Davis, TX from the Big Bend area makes sense if you have reservations for starwatching at the McDonald Observatory (a campus of the University of Texas at Austin), which we did. But it seemed very bad luck to get there at the same time the moon reached its full phase. Until we got there.

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Upon arriving for McDonald’s “Star Party,” we and over 100 other guests were ushered into a one-hour informative theatre discussion about all things Lunar, which was great fun. A humorously-gifted researcher led the conversation on topics like “Why is it we only see one side – the lit surface with the familiar craters and ‘seas’ — of the moon’s surface, never the Dark Side?” (because the moon is in synchronous orbit with earth and always turns her lit side to us), and “What are the relative ages of the moon’s various ‘seas’ and craters?” (they range from one to four and a half billion years old. This confirms that the moon is almost the same age as the earth, having been formed from a large space object that collided with earth and combined with some of its fragments to form the moon we know). We now know a lot more about the moon’s Seas of Tranquility, Serenity and Crises, and the craters Tycho and Langrenus than before, and why the Apollo Moon Missions landed where they did.

 

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At 7pm, the crowd went outside for a brief presentation about the constellations in the night sky. The moon had not risen yet, so the clarity of the stars was brilliant and not yet dimmed by lunar light. Even the Milky Way was visible. For those of us who can never find Cassiopeia, Pegasus or Orion up there, we had some mental Aha’s and think we can now find them when we are home on the farm. After the moon rose, we moved on to the telescopes, which number into the dozens at MacDonald. We got to see the Nebula in Orion’s Sword, Venus in her brightest phase, and several open-star clusters whose images are so far away that we were viewing what state they were in, some 1438 years ago (they’re 380 trillion miles away). We skipped the close-up of the moon’s surface, as the line to see it was about 50 people long and the temperature outside had sunk into the high 40’s.

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It’s hard to keep a perspective on how large the cosmos is, but the rate of change is quite like the geologic calendar. Several of the stars visible in the sky have an orange cast, meaning that they are Red Giants (a star in decay, getting ready to explode and disappear). Our own sun will turn into a Red Giant in approx. five billion years. If earth and humans survive that long, we’ll have to find somewhere else in another galaxy to live by then, as our own galaxy will be annihilated by the explosion when the sun goes. So, earth is just about halfway through her life cycle. Fascinating.