Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Rio Grande

As we approached Taos we came upon the Rio Grande Gorge, and the large steel bridge over it. Ironically, we initially stopped in the area because there was a rest stop, and it was only after we parked that I noticed the canyon right next door.

The source of the Rio Grande is in Colorado, and it flows from there south through New Mexico eventually forming part of the natural border between Texas and Mexico. For much of the river's path through Colorado and New Mexico it follows the Rio Grande rift, and area where the North American plate has stretched and thinned.

Indeed, the dark rocks of the Rio Grande Gorge are volcanic flows that resulted from the rift. Luckily for those of us living in the Southwest now, mysteriously the rifting stopped, and the area is fairly geologically quite now. For a view at what Taos and the area would be like if the area was still pulling apart, look at other rift zones like Iceland or Africa's Great Rift Valley.

While on the bridge I was thinking less of geology and more of just how far down the river was. I timed the drop and it was 17 seconds to the river below, a very long fall indeed.

I actually encountered a few photographic issues while shooting the gorge. The first was simply that I didn't a wide enough lens to capture both the shadow of the bridge and the full length of the view, so I shot another vertical panorama, such as you see below. Another issue that I didn't notice until I got home was that every single one of the photos I took was horribly overexposed, unusable. Thankfully, some post processing in Lightroom saved the day.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chama, New Mexico

After an overnight in Durango we headed towards Taos, and Liz's first trip to New Mexico. En route I actually took a wrong turn and ended up in Chama. Chama is one end of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Both the Cumbres and Toltec and the Silverton and Durango narrow gauge railroads are leftovers of the Denver and Rio Grande Western spur line that went from Antonito all the way to Silverton and it's famous mines.

While I had been unimpressed at the level of access within Mesa Verde, I was very impressed with the Chama yard. They had a variety of volunteers in the area restoring train cars, organizing tools and whatever else needed doing, and any of whom was happy to answer questions. The only area that was off limits was the engine house, where they were performing repairs. Other than that the whole yard was open. Imagine, an organization that trusts that people won't break things, hurt themselves or otherwise won't make a fuss.

I had a fantastic time wandering about the yard, poking my head into rail cars and just generally have a good time. My poor sister soon was soon wondering if I had been kidnapped by the trains, but I was just exploring down a side spur.

Pretty soon that was it for Chama, and we were back on the road towards Taos. While it was a wrong turn, I think that all together it was a right turn, even if it cost us over an hour of me poking about the trains!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pause Button

I had planned to depart for Europe on the 22nd, but the lack of a visa delayed me. I pushed the flight back to a tentative Sept 15th. However, today I got back my passport with a form letter stating that my request for a Swedish Residence Permit had been denyed. I can appeal the decision within the next three weeks, and I may well do that. It is certainly a disapointment, however I am not as surprised as I might have been. For some reason, the past few weeks I have felt like something like this would happen, and that I would NOT be going to Lund to study. I can't say why I felt that way, just that I did. Of course now the big question is What's Next? For that, I have no answer as yet.

Stay tuned.

Cliff Palace

While our legs felt rather rubbery after our hike, soon we had to head back to the overlook for our tour of the Cliff Palace. While waiting for the ranger, I heard a fair number of people griping about how they didn't know you needed tickets to actually go down to the ruin, so I felt better knowing that I was in good company with my own previous ignorance.

The group was about a hundred people, and we made our way past the ranger who was collecting tickets and down the stairs. The Anasazi didn't have anything so easy as a steel staircase to travel between the mesa top and their homes, rather they used precarious hand and toe trails that were cut into the rocks. While I didn't discover this on the tour, which was of dubious educational value, I found later in our Geology of Colorado book just where all of the cliff side caves in this area came from. Water seeps very easily through the upper layers of sandstone that make up the mesa, but when it hits the less permeable layers of shale, it flows to the side, creating springs along the sides of the mesa. The shale is also much weaker rock than the sandstone, so the springs easily erode it way, and the departure of the lower layer of rock has predictable effects on the upper layers, causing cracks and collapses that form the caves that the Anasazi moved into.

The opportunity to see the Cliff Palace close up was amazing, and the extra $3 per person is hardly a hardship, but I must say that the overall experience was less than optimal. The ranger selected a pair of younger travelers, and used them as his conduit of information. He would ask them speculative questions about daily life in Mesa Verde, and then go over the answer with the group. It was a very slow process, often punctuated by Umms and Hmmms from the two assistants. While I did learn that Pinon nuts are an excellent source of calories, I didn't learn much about where the Anasazi came from, why they built their cliff houses or where they went. These are all subjects that I find much more interesting than the nutritional value of nuts.

While the educational value of the tour itself was minimal, the experience of being down in the palace was totally worth it. I would have preferred more freedom to explore, but I can certainly understand why they would place such stringent limits on the amount of tourists and where they are allowed to go.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Green Table

One of the major reasons I wanted to go on the road trip was the chance to see Mesa Verde. Anybody interested in history in Colorado has heard of the Anasazi ruins and the great Cliff Palace they created. My father and I had actually tried the trip before, but had barely made it past the small town of Baily before we had to turn back due to car issues. I've been waiting years for my chance to return.

The first thing that struck me as I drove up the side of the Mesa was just how large Mesa Verde truely is. The Mesa is huge, and you can see how the early Spanish explorers who named it could have missed finding the cliff dwellings.

This is actually a panorama of 5 vertically oriented frames

While there are over 600 cliff dwellings in the park, I made a bee-line for the Cliff Palace overlook for the chance to explore the largest and most famous of the structures. Imagine my dismay when I got there and found out that in order to go down to the Cliff Palace, you had to have a ticket for one of the ranger led tours. I hadn't bought one, so we made a quick drive back to the Visitors Center to see what time slots were still available.

The earliest time that could accomodate us was 4:30, so we had a few hours to kill, and decided to take in the views at the Spruce Tree House, which is a smaller but better preserved cliff dwelling on the opposite side of the Mesa. After our quick walk by the house, we decided to take the 2.2 mile "strenuous" hike to view petroglyphs along the canyon wall.

Well considering the National Park Status and the hordes of Californians and Europeans, we figured that 'strenuous' meant 'if you are from Colorado, you MIGHT break a sweat.' Well, I think I shattered the sweat, but the views from the canyon walls and top were totally worth the trek. The petroglyphs were fascinating, and even better was the fact that a trio of girls from a nearby camp were there too, one of whom was an archeology major who could interpret the symbols for us!

After the hike we swung through the museum, but it was a quick pass as the many Californians and French that had avoided the strenuous trail were in the air conditioned museum instead. I drank a ton of water to avoid dehydration in the dry southern Colorado air, then it was off to the crown Jewell of Mesa Verde...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Scenic Route

View Larger Map

My sister and her friend had planned a trip to Mesa Verde and points south for a week in August. Liz needed the vacation, and wanted to spend some time seeing the further reaches of the state before she leaves for Hawaii. Sadly, her friend had a family emergency right before they were scheduled to leave. This left Liz without a companion, a car that could drive that far, and a driver comfortable with the interstate. Luckily for her, she had a few people volunteer to go with her!

I was one of those, and so early on a Saturday morning we headed south from Denver along State Highway 285. I've been down that way as far as Buena Vista in recent memory, so once we got past there it was all new to me. On a whim we stopped at the Gunnison Pioneer Museum, and what a stop that turned out to be. Not only did they have a full narrow gauge train (with bell to ring), they had one of the premier car collections in the country, a military collection with weapons from every major power in World War II, fashion from the last hundred years, a school house right out of 1925, a homestead, farming equipment and more. I was shocked to find such a unique museum just along the side of the road. It really does show that sometimes life's unplanned stops are the most rewarding.

From there we passed Blue Mountain Reservor and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was hard to keep my eye's on the road sometimes, a problem that would only get worse as we drew closer to the San Juan Mountains in the South Western corner of the state.

We stopped for Dinner and gas in Ouray. We considered stopping for the night there, but there weren't many hotels that had room, and we wanted to get as close to Mesa Verde and Durango as we could in our first travel day.

Climbing out of Ouray was something else. I hadn't realized it, but we were on our way up the Million Dollar Highway (built back when a million dollars was a lot of money!) to Red Mountain Pass, one of the most beautiful passes in the state, and this is in a state with a LOT of gorgeous high mountain passes.

We made it to Silverton around 9:30 that night, and decided to go ahead and stay there rather than push on to Durango. It was only another 50 miles to go, but we'd be summiting another pass, and quite frankly I was getting tired! Also, I kind of wanted it to be daylight for the next pass in line.

Like a good Boy Scout, I'd come prepared for the hot, dry weather in the Four Corners area and Taos, not the crips cold night air of Silverton. This made for an interesting night and morning, as I walked around town in shorts and sandals, teeth chattering.

We ate at a nearby diner the next morning, and pondered if road trips would be possible without the traditional bottomless cup of coffee. Well fortified it was on the road again, this time headed to Molas pass and then on to Durango.

Molas Pass wasn't quite as distrubing a drive as the climb out of Ouray to Red Mountain Pass, but it was still full of amazing high country views. I'll admit that like many Denver dewllers, I tend to forget that there are patches of the Rocky Mountains that lie off of I-70, and that those patches are very well worth visiting.

After a quick photo stop at the top, we made top speed for Mesa Verde, for I knew that there would be a lot of sights to see there...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When a week is mere hours yet also eternity

In one week, if all goes well, I'll be departing Denver on a British Airways flight to Copenhagen via London. From there I will take the train 25 miles to Lund University, Sounthern Sweden, and start a new, more studious life. If all goes well. My student visa has not yet arrived, and I'll admit that that fact is causing me some stress. I sent away the documents back in early June, and have been eagerly checking my mail daily. My irrepressible optimism still thinks that everything will work out fine, but a certain level of worry has intruded into my life.

Really, the visa, though troubling, is only one part of my mess of worries. Despite the fact that I have done this sort of thing more than once, I still worry. Change is healthy, necessary and inevitable, but that doesn't mean we have to like it! On the other side of any big change is a vast ocean of uncertainty, and that is intimidating. However, I have been trying to look at it in the light that uncertainty is only another word for possibility, and so on the other side of any change is a blank slate of possibilities and opportunities. When we weather change, we become better people. At least, that is what I keep telling myself when I say good-bye to everybody... again.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mt. Bierstadt Redux (Now with 357 degrees)

The other weekend I decided it was past time to head to the really high country, and so I conviced Jen and my dad to go summit Mt. Bierstadt with me. I did Bierstadt last summer too, but it's convinient location and the ease of the hike made it a no brainer to try again. This was especially true as it was Jen's first 14er, and Bierstadt makes an excellent introduction to Colorado's high mountains.

I was excited both to climb and to hone my Panorama skills. I really enjoy shooting panoramas, and the scenery above treeline almost demands the extra space. Every photo on this post is a panorama, most of them stitches of at least 4 or 5 photos. The above image is a stitch of five vertically oriented images, basically creating photoshop super wide angle lense, without a fisheye lens's distortion.

We were blessed with excellent weather, the sky was clear until long after we had decended from the summit. I would much rather mosey down from the mountains than flee the wrath of Zeus and his lightning bolts.

On top I decided it was time to try something new, a 360 degree panorama of the whole view from the summit. When I did the initial photo stitch, I actually forgot to include a couple pictures to make it a total 360 degree image, the result looked great, but is more like 350 degrees of view. When I figured out that I had the rest of the coverage, I redid the image, but I actually like the composition on this one better, so I am sticking with it. Interestingly enough, it wouldn't upload onto blogger (The high quality version is 25 megabytes, this one is 5) so I had to upload it to flickr and link from there. If you want to view the whole panorama, you'll have to click over to flickr, and if you want to see all the detail, e-mail or post in the comments and I can send out the high quality version.


The Flowers of Herman's Gulch

Herman's Gulch is a valley and cirque high above Interstate 70 near the Continental Divide. I hiking trail leads up from the highway to a series of glacial lakes (tarns) above tree line.

Herman's Gulch is famous for its vast arrays of wildflowers. This plus its close proximity to Denver and the dog friendly rules make it a very popular place on the weekends.

It is worth braving the crowds because the trail winds through a wide variety of scenery, from pine forests and waterfalls to high meadows and then all the way to the rocks and tundra above the tree line.

While at the lake we saw a huge marmot flee into his hidey hole under a rock. He was pretty upset with all the people around him, whistling his displeasure for the world to hear. I tried to get down into the hole a bit so I could take a picture of him, but even though the marmot was large and the hole was small, I never did see him in there.

We also got very lucky weather wise, with a little bit of rain as we started out, and then clear skies and warm weather all the way to the top and back. I've been chased out of tree line by lightning more times than I can count, so I was pretty glad that Thor decided to let us stay and enjoy the high mountain scenery for a while.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Most of the time we spent in California was spent at my Uncle's place in Vacaville, and my Grandfathers in Hopland. Hopland was famous for it's beer brewing and especially the aromatic Hops that gave the town its name. Beer has (with the exception of the Mendocino Brewing Company) moved on and now the dry hills are covered in vineyards.

We spend most of our time in the area on my Grandfathers property, driving tractors and shooting the lever action .22 at the copious beer cans my uncles provide.

Though there is a fair amount of exploring to do as well, there are a pair of creeks and a network of roads and deer trails in the area, so there are plenty of nooks and crannies to check out. On one of our walks down the road my Mom, Sister and I saw three skunks one right after the other. I had never seen a living skunk before, so I was pretty excited, even chasing after one of them. I didn't get too close though, so I managed to avoid being sprayed.

While not a skunk, my Grandfather's cat Elvira is a tad wild. She won't often come up close to humans, but I managed to persuade her to accept my pets.

While in Vacaville, my dad decided to break out the croquet set and teach The Youngest Cousin (TM) how to play. I avoided the game myself, as open toed sandals + beer + heavy balls + mallets = pain and suffering.

I have been trying to work on my portrait photography lately, and this is one of the results of that effort, I think it came out looking pretty good.

It has been a very busy summer for me, and my remaining weeks in the United States will prove even busier, with hikes and climbs and a road trip to the Four Corners!