Colorado’s Annual Gold Rush

BLOG #39, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
COLORADO ANNUAL GOLD RUSH
September 30, 2015

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Once again it’s Autumn in the Colorado Rockies. In recent days it sometimes seems like half of Colorado is on high country roads tracking down leaf-gold. For weeks now the media has been trumpeting the annual aspen gold-rush and guessing when it would happen—and where.

Where fall-colors are concerned, there are so many things that can go wrong: an early frost or snow, fierce winds, too much summer moisture, or too little summer moisture. That’s why Coloradans never take autumn splendor for granted

We always enjoy it when we get fall visitors as that gives us a good excuse to take full advantage of the season. This year, for some time now, our dear friends, Bob and Bev Mendenhall from Texas, have been calling, or e-mailing us asking when they ought to drop everything and head north so as to be at Maroon Bells on a peak day. Last year, we missed peak so they didn’t want a repeat of that! Problem is that peak color comes in Eastern Colorado at a different time than it does in Western Colorado. Not only that but colors turn at different times depending on elevation.

At any rate, we finally suggested they drop everything, jump in their SUV, and head north. The day after they arrived, we hit the road. We had plenty of company. Whenever we’d see a long line of cars stopped along the road, we stopped too. Usually, it would be spectacular vistas of autumn leaves, but sometimes people stop for animal life (usually elk, moose, big horn sheep, rocky mountain goats, marmots, pica, etc.). One lady told us, “Every year it’s the same: when the colors change I get so excited we just have to go see it before they’re gone!”

Colors varied: from Minturn to Leadville to Copper, colors were at peak. Coal Creek Canyon was disappointing as too much summer rain had resulted in a fungus that shriveled the leaves. Peak to Peak Highway was sub-par but had patches of great beauty. Rocky Mountain National Park was about average, as was the Lake Granby/Winter Park area. Squaw Pass was average as was Mount Evans—but the wildlife was more than worth the trip: especially the rocky mountain goats grandstanding near the very top of the highest paved road in America. And there was the almost surreal sight of a 1926 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost racing up to the top.

But then there was the piece de resistance: the two-day trip to Glenwood Springs, Aspen, and Maroon Bells. If we’d miscalculated its peak we’d have had some mightily disgruntled visitors! Not to worry: even though the colors along Maroon Creek were generally poor, past their prime, up ahead the ramparts encircling Maroon Lake (9,580′ elevation) were spectacular! Combine still-green, gold, umber, and orange aspens; the iridescent blue-green lake, the reddish maroon mountain walls; the deep blue high country Colorado sky; and the three iconic mountain bells: Pyramid Peak (14,018′), North Maroon Peak (14,014′), and South Maroon Peak (14,156′), lightly dusted by a recent early fall snow, and you’ll have the most photographed spot in all Colorado. Indeed, it adds up to being one of the most breathtaking natural spectacles in the world, on the bucket lists of untold thousands of travelers.

Like most of the enthralled visitors being bussed in, in a steady stream, we just didn’t want to leave; so we walked around the lake, took pictures, sat down on wooden benches, and dreamed in a sort of trance. Altogether: one of those extremely rare almost perfect days humans are granted so few of.

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THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA

BLOG #32, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA
August 12, 2015

It was clear back on June 26, 2013, at the tail end of our second National Park Series, that I annointed Highway 50’s seemingly almost empty stretches of mostly straight highway, stretching from Fallon, Nevada to Holden, Utah as America’s loneliest highway. I never thought I’d ever find one to rival it—much less upstage it. But I have. And we were blindsided by its existence. Not the road itself, but its loneliness.

So fast-paced is this life that we live that we rarely take long road trips any more: it’s much easier and faster to fly. But every once in a while we get nostalgic for auto-travel (not interstates but rural roads).

Early in July, we decided to put together a 2200-mile tangent, beginning in Conifer, Colorado, then angling south on I-25 to Raton, NM; angling SE to Amarillo, Texas; then south on I-27 to Lubbock; then angling SE on all kinds of country roads to Austin; then SW on I-35 to San Antonio. We hadn’t ever driven on the back roads between Lubbock and Austin; indeed, we hadn’t driven south of Fort Worth in over thirty years.

My what changes we noticed! First of all, instead of everything being July-brown it was the greenest green we’d ever seen in Texas in July. Reason being the nonstop rainstorms that just wouldn’t quit. And even Texas backroads were generally in fine condition with 75 mph speed-limits being the norm. And what a difference population-wise! I’d heard, of course, about the continually increasing population in Texas, but it was jolting to see how tiny hamlets were now towns, towns were now cities, and cities—well, just take Austin for example. Austin is a city that is growing so fast city-planners have all but lost control. It was one vast traffic jam while we were there—even on I-35. Locals we spoke with confirmed that sometimes it takes them up to four hours just to get from one end to the other! The other big change we noticed was that on ridge after ridge after ridge, as far as the eye could see, virtual forests of white wind-turbines. Connie and I agreed that these days—at least in West Texas—wind-millionaires must be rivaling oil-millionaires.

But then, after seeing how it was almost all city now between Austin and San Antonio, it was time to head home. Not having any desire to re-experience I-35 traffic again, we decided to explore a route we’d never tried before. Perhaps it would be a bit more serene. Little did we know!

Our chosen route was Highway 90 west through Hondo and Uvalde to the border-town of Del Rio. This is wide-open country with relatively few habitations. Only Del Rio of any size at all, no small thanks to being home to Laughlin Air Force Base and the vast Amistad Reservoir. Though I’d heard about Amistad it was something else to actually experience it! It took us well over an hour NW of it to get past it. About the only vehicles we’d see would be Border Patrol vehicles. Another epiphany was that the Rio Grande River is part of the Amistad Reservoir. Yet another was the discovery that the Rio Grande is America’s fifth-longest river (1885 miles long). It is born in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, meanders south through Colorado and New Mexico, then forms the entire 1240-mile border between Texas and Mexico. What a road-trip following the Rio Grande from its source to the Gulf of Mexico would be. Ah! As Lucy Earp would say: “A blessing for another time!” Believe me, I now realize what a daunting challenge it is for Texas governors to police 1240 miles of the river border with Mexico!

Though it was already a lonely road en route to Del Rio, it really became lonely once we left Del Rio. We stayed on Hwy. 90 until we reached Sanderson, then turned NW on the southern terminus of 285 [Denver is its northern terminus]. Then it was on through small towns such as Fort Stockton and Pecos in Texas; and Carlsbad and Roswell en route to Santa Fe, and it is otherwise almost entirely devoid of human habitations. Not until we reached the outskirts of Santa Fe did we get back into much cell-phone coverage.

It so happened that we had to drive through a very large storm front, driven by fierce winds and characterized by one huge purplish-black thunderhead after another. I don’t believe I’ve ever, in my entire life, experienced such dramatic constantly changing sky paintings. It was often difficult to stay on the road, thanks to extremely strong side-winds and torrential rain. But it was grand to experience!

North of Santa Fe, it was a little lonely, but not nearly as much as between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

So, if you ever want to get away from it all in the lower 48 states, I wholeheartedly recommend you take 90/285 from San Antonio to Santa Fe!

Try it!

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #12 SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

BLOG # 17, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #12

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

APRIL 25, 2012

 

 

Because Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park are administered as a unit, we will move to Kings Canyon next week.  Together, they encompass 865,257 acres.  Elevation-wise they range from a low of 1,300 feet to a high of 14,494 (Mt. Whitney), the highest point in the lower 48 states.  Nearly 808,000 (or 93.4%) acres are officially designated as wilderness, which means that no roads mar its pristine beauty beyond the few paved roads tourists know.  All the rest are known only to backpackers (80,000 a year), which strains the capacity of the park rangers to oversee.

 

OUR MEMORIES

 

Early in the morning, around 5 a.m., Bob and Lucy Earp and Connie and I arose, quickly packed the car, and nosed the car out of Furnace Creek Ranch onto road #190.  Here we made a fateful—and, it turned out, “stupid” mistake, in not paying over $5 a gallon for gas and filling up the tank.  Surely we’d find cheaper gas once we got out of the park!  Instead, we twisted up and up and up serpentine roads where we finally crested the Argus and Panamint Mountains; meanwhile, as the gas needle continued to drop, all four of us grew tenser by the mile.  Then the crest.  We breathed a sigh of relief; surely we’d find gas once we left the park. We did not, and even though Bob kept his speed down, and the needle slowed, neither town nor gas station did we find.  Our last hope turned out to be the town of Olanche on Highway 395; if we failed to find a gas  station there, with the needle solidly on empty, we’d be stuck.  By that time, we’d have been willing to pay $20 a gallon!  Mercifully, we found one, and the price, though still high, was still considerably less than Death Valley’s.  And not just the car was empty—so were we!  Here we stumbled on Ranch House Café, a place where, we were told, the locals frequented.  Turned out to be straight out of the Old West, the customers mainly ranchers and cowboys.  We were served by a pretty waitress who’d been transplanted from Tyler, in Texas rose country, to here where she’d fallen in love with a cowboy.  She “darlinged” us through a wonderful Southwest breakfast—and we were ready to face whatever the rest of the day brought us.

 

Though our destination was west, we couldn’t cross over at Olanche, but had to head south.  Reason being the massive wall of Sequoia/Kings Canyon/Yosemite that barred access to Sequoia.  As we drove south we could look up at the towering rampart crowned by two snowcapped fourteeners, Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley.  Several hours later, once again, we headed west on #178 via Lake Isabella followed by an unforgettable ride down Kern  River Canyon.  Because of the massive snowfalls the Kern thundered rather than merely flowing.  After which we headed north again, through oil wells and orange groves, strange bedfellows.  Even though I knew the great San Joaquin Valley was the breadbasket of the nation, I’d never known  before that its orange groves rivaled Florida’s.

 

Finally, it was mid-afternoon; by then, we turned east and began to climb into the Sierras.  At the Foothills Visitor Center, we were greeted by potentially bad news; because of recent snowstorms, the roads into the heart of the park had been closed.  However, there was the possibility we could now make it up into the Big Trees.  After Death Valley’s heat, the mere thought that we might be back into snow by nightfall seemed preposterous to us.  Yet as we climbed, the temperature gauge dropped from the 80s to the 70s to the 60s, to the 50s, to the 40s—and eventually colder yet.  For a while, all traffic came to a complete halt.  Just behind us was a long caravan of motorcyclists from Brazil (the same ones we’d seen in Death Valley earlier).   Since I spoke Spanish, I was able to chat with them about their American tour—they loved it! (Portuguese, being also a Latin language akin to Spanish, it wasn’t too difficult to communicate with them.) Finally, we were all permitted to move again, and we moved into the snowy foggy high country.  As we reached the Sequoia groves we could only see part of them, for their trunks disappeared into the mist.

 

 

It was early evening before we reached Wuksachi Village, where we’d stay for the next two nights.  Sadly, there are no venerable national park hotels gracing Sequoia and Kings Canyon, so Wuksachi is the only game in town.  It is one of the resorts run by DELAWARE NORTH COMPANIES.  At the front desk we were welcomed with the gladsome news that the water main had broken in the extreme cold, so all the water was contaminated—not potable.  But not to worry, we could still eat in the dining room, and a truckload of bottled water from Bakersfield arrived by early evening so guests could at least have drinking water.  After dinner, we retired to our rustic sleeping quarters, exhausted.  It had been a long day, where we’d moved from one world to another, so we collapsed early.

 

 

Awoke early next morning to a clear sky that didn’t stay that way.  After a great buffet breakfast, we returned to our rooms, where our ablutions were possible thanks to bottled water.  Then it was time to visit the great sequoias.  Cold clammy misty fog now closed in on us, but we took the several-mile-long walk through the sequoias anyway, though the snow, and shivering.  It got progressively difficult to see, but eventually the mist cleared enough so we could see the world’s largest living thing, the General Sherman Tree, as well as other giants.  In a meadow we encountered a mother bear and cub.  Keeping a “safe” distance, we shutterbugged—which was dumb, because a bear can run 30-40 mph, and if the Mama Bear had taken issue with us we’d never have been able to get to safety in time.

 

 

Back in the lodge, we had a good dinner, after which we played Phase Ten—Lucy beat us.  Then in the quietness of our room we turned on the TV and almost wished we hadn’t: a tornado in Joplin, MO had killed 120, wiping out a quarter of the city.   One catastrophe after another in months before: the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami; over 300 killed in a string of tornados; terrible oil spill in the Gulf—and earlier that day, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, closing down European air traffic.  Then, unable to sleep, Connie and I watched John Wayne in Rio Bravo and The Sons of Katie Elder.  Then—finally—sleep came.

 

 

Will have to give a lot of credit to the Wuksachi folk: in spite of the terrible odds against it, given the broken water main, they did their utmost to give us a good stay.  The only other negative: unfitted bottom sheets that strayed off the mattresses during the night.

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Kinopf, 2009).

 

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2009).

ALASKA—A STATE OF MIND

We’ve just returned from our third cruise to America’s last frontier.  Each time we go there, the realization that we’ve but touched the fringes of it sinks deeper.

For it is so vast that travel writers exhaust superlatives in vain attempts to describe it.  After all, it encompasses 580,000 square miles (as large as England, Italy, Spain, and France combined).  It has more shoreline than all the rest of our states combined.  It is blessed with 150,000,000 acres of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other designated preserves; 38 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Of its 15 national parks, only 5 can be accessed by road.  Much of it is barely charted, let alone touched by the human foot.  Indeed, of the 670,000 people who live there (about the number who live in Fort Worth, Texas), almost half of them live in only one city, Anchorage.

And it changes dramatically with the seasons.  That reality became evident during this our first spring visit to Alaska. Especially was it evident in towns such as Juneau and Skagway, that we’d experienced previously only during summer or fall; during those seasons, they seemed to be rather typical semi-frontier coastal towns, but now, in the spring, against the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, it felt like we’d suddenly been transported into the Swiss Alps!  It was a magical experience.

But why so few people?  Part of the answer to that question came to me in my research for “A Thousand Miles to Nome” (the fascinating epic story of the Great Serum Run of 1925, when dog-teams alone represented the difference between life and death in that northwesternmost Alaskan town, in the midst of a deadly diphtheria epidemic).  It was in the dead of winter, and ice had cut off all access to the town by sea until May—only by dog-sled teams could the life-saving serum make it through in time.  Of the ten lectures I gave to the SAGE group on board Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, this was the only lecture open to the entire ship.  In that lecture, I noted that, during winter months, added to the bitter cold and frequent blizzards, it was dark 20 out of every 24 hours—only the hardiest and bravest could stand it.  Offsetting this, of course, in the summer 20 hours of light each day made it difficult to sleep.

Not surprisingly, given our fascination with Alaska, our seventh story anthology of The Good Lord Made Them All series will feature Animals of the North.  It will most likely be released by Pacific Press in January of 2011.