Category Archives: Colorado Mountains

Wildfire Revisited

Ventura Fire

Things are hot in Southern California.  Earlier, it was hot in Santa Rosa and the Napa Valley.  When there is a high pressure system over the Great Basin and a low develops off the California Coast, the pressure gradient gives rise to hot downslope winds blowing from east to west.  The Santa Ana.  Wildfires proliferate in the mountainous chaparral country.  As the population continues to grow, the urban areas extend into the brush country.

That Great Basin high is also a fire maker for Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Here in Colorado, low pressure systems move down the Plains and the pressure gradient creates winds similar to California’s Santa Ana.  As with most natural phenomena, it is not if, but when.

It’s gonna burn, folks.

The brush country is that way because frequent wildfires prevent any significant tree growth.  When the brush burns, it tends to return in just a few years.  With trees, not so much.

Rawah Burn. Over 100 Years, Trees Have Not Returned

I remember backpacking through a 100 year old burn in the Rawah Wilderness here in Colorado.  The trees had not returned, and the topsoil was eroded away on the hilltops.  Fires in Colorado’s chaparral country such as west of Glenwood Springs burn and in five or ten years the brush is back, ready to burn again.

I have seen this happen in my lifetime.  The  ridges south of the Colorado River and west of Glenwood have burned at least twice.  Lightning causes some of the fires, but once a fire spread from the town dump.  The tragic 1994 fire that killed fourteen firefighters was north of the river and just west of Glenwood.  The fuel load was greater because the area had not burned for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Storm King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go back to the Storm King fire area, you will see the brush returning.  It’s not ready to burn yet, but given some time and a few wet years, it will be ready to go again.  The town of Glenwood has built up right to the brush on both sides of the river.

Brush Returning

Back to California, the towns have grown up to the brush and those wanting a view are living in the brushy areas.  The canyons are more heavily wooded and full of houses.  All the coastal mountains from San Diego north are in the chaparral zone.  All the urbanization is also in those areas.  Quick commute? Live just below the hills in a canyon.  Nice view, build your house on the ridge.

Those examples of the urban-woodland interface are not unique to Western Colorado and California.  The Colorado Front Range is another example.  Fires have burned from west of Fort Collins to south of Colorado Springs.

Waldo Canyon Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Waldo Canyon fire burned into town on Colorado Springs’ west side and into Manitou Springs.  The Black Forest Fire was in a different climate zone with Ponderosa Pine , but with lots of brush.  That area is wetter, but is also subject to drought and wildfire, just less often.

Arizona and Utah have similar country, and fire killed 19 firefighters in mixed brush and timber just outside Prescott.  I am waiting for a big fire just west of Denver.  It’s only going to get worse.  People are moving into the brush country in increasing numbers,  if you move to Colorado or California from Chicago, you want the mountain experience.  The jobs are in the cities, and the closest mountain areas are brush country.  Four Mile Canyon outside Boulder and Ojai, California are examples of what fire does to development in the chaparral.

Young people looking for an exciting career should look into wildland firefighting.  It is a growth industry.  Oh, I haven’t even mentioned climate change.  It will increase job opportunities.

Denver Basin

Denver Basin

The Denver Basin is a deep syncline just east of the Southern Rocky Mountains.  It started around 300 million years ago when the Ancestral Rocky Mountains were uplifted.  A little plate tectonics here, folks.  A tectonic plate is a huge plate of rock slowly moving on the earth’s mantle at or near the surface. When two tectonic plates collide, one of them often dives beneath the other.  As the plate subsides, it runs into hotter rocks at depth.  The subsiding plate has lots of water which lowers the melting point of the rock.  Then things really go on the move.

The subsidence zone, usually along a coastline, gets pretty active, meaning earthquakes, volcanos, and the intrusion of huge blobs of granite known as plutons.  New rock coming in from below means the overlying rocks get uplifted into mountain ranges.  The other side of this mountain building is known as the foreland and usually subsides as its mass goes into the new mountains.  As it subsides, the new basin fills with debris eroding from the mountains.

The Flatirons, Dakota Ridge, the Garden of the Gods, all are built from rocks buried thousands of feet deep just a few miles from the outcrops.  I am sitting here writing atop thousands of feet of mountain debris.

The mountains eventually get hauled away in rivers or dumped into the basin.  This happened twice here in my home country.  The second event occurred at the end of the Cretaceous and the early Paleogene, about 60 million years ago.  Our current Rockies came up, known as the Laramide Orogeny, came up again, and the foreland deepened even more.  It ended up being about 13000 feet deep, filled with the stuff washed and blown off the mountains.

This all took a while.  Rivers formed, seas came and went, and lots of life contributed organic material to the basin.  The result?  Coal, oil, and gas.  The first oil well was in Boulder County, producing from fractured Pierre Shale, which was deposited by an inland sea.  Now this Basin is big, extending into Nebraska and Wyoming.  Huge amounts of oil and gas have been produced, and horizontal drilling and fracking are releasing even more.  The Denver Basin is an oil patch.

Water from the mountains also entered the basin, creating aquifers producing lots of water.  We pump the water and because it is in an enclosed basin, it doesn’t recharge as fast as it is pumped.  Douglas County is going to run out of groundwater some day.  Then the water will have to come from the rivers, and the supply is limited.  Thus, seemingly crazy proposals to pump water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in northern Utah to Eastern Colorado.  Problem: California and Arizona also want that water.

Climate change has the potential of reducing the available water as well, eventually ending population growth.  Amazon, Stay Away.  Mining started Colorado development, and today the money still comes from the ground, but is from oil and gas. As we transition to alternate energy sources, where is Colorado’s wealth going to come from?

Wildfire

Some of the golden hills of California just turned black.  This time it is north around Santa Rosa and the wine country.  Usually it is the San Gabriel mountains or other Southern California areas.  The conditions leading to destructive wildfire are the same.  There are essentially two seasons; when it rains and when there is no rain.

This year there was a lot of rain in what passes for winter in all of California.  Everything greens up and grows.  It means good feed for cattle, and lots of fuel in the fall when it dries out.  You are probably familiar with the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.  The desert Great Basin east of the mountains cools off, creating an area of high pressure.  The pressure creates west-flowing winds, blowing to the coast.  As the winds hit the mountains, they rise, cool, then flow down the west side of the mountains, warming as they flow west.  Thus the Santa Ana winds, hot dry wind flowing west and drying all that foliage that grew during the rainy season.

In Northern California, the winds are called Diablo winds, after the local Diablo mountains.  The high pressure west of the coastal region originates from high pressure following storms blowing into the basin from the stormy northwest.  The high pressure again creates west flowing wind howling down the west side of the mountains.  The fires are set or lightning started, and burn across the valleys.  That means the golden hills, vineyards, and Santa Rosa suburbs.

The fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen.  The fuel grew, much heat comes with the wind, which also supplies plenty of oxygen.  Add an ignition point, and it burns.  The wind and fire blows down canyons, and people like to live in the canyons.  When all the space in the canyons is full, people move into the hills.  It is called the urban-wildland interface.  The entire American West is growing in population, and the new people moving in want to experience some open space.  The open space is open because it periodically burns, thus no forest, just chaparral and grassland.  And houses.  Destruction.

Is climate change partly responsible?  You decide.  California has always had destructive fire blowing in from the west, but is climate change exacerbating the natural phenomena?

Here in Colorado, we also have destructive wildland fires fanned by downslope winds.  Here the winds are from the west, hit the mountains, rise, cool, and roar down the eastern side of the mountains, fanning fires.  People are moving into the areas where the fires have always burned, and their houses burn.  The Plains east of Denver see huge grassland fires, especially after a wet spring.

Storm King Fire, Glenwood Springs CO

Western Colorado also has wind accelerated fires.  Westerly winds encounter the west side of the Rockies, rise, cool, and descend into the area around Glenwood Springs.  The country is the Colorado equivalent of California Chaparral.  The brush burns got, killing firefighters and threatening towns.  It is only a matter of time before things get hot in Glenwood, Newcastle, and Carbondale.

The West is a wonderful place, with open space, mountains, deserts, and a harsh climate.  People moving there beware, the conditions are more violent than in the well-watered East.  Oh, and don’t forger the landslides and avalanches where it is steep, along with fire.  There is lots of steep country.   There is steep country just west of all the people living along the Front Range.  The fires just might burn into town, just like Santa Rosa.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs has seen fire, along with Boulder.  Some day a fire may want to go downtown in a Front Range city. It is also likely a mountain town like Evergreen or Estes Park will burn.  The Mountain Pine Beetle has left a lot of standing dead trees ready to burn.

Why do I seem to be writing about fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other means of destruction? Maybe because I am confronting my own mortality.  I just turned 75.  I know it is surprising because I look so young.

The Empty Quarter

Portion of Flat Tops Wilderness

Well, its not a quarter of Colorado, but it’s big and pretty empty.  North and west of the Colorado River and south and west of the Yampa River, the only towns of any size are Rifle, Silt, Newcastle, and Glenwood Springs along the Colorado; and Meeker in the middle.  Craig and Hayden are on the  Yampa.  I don’t count Rangely on the White River west of  Meeker as a real town.  It is just a bunch of oil field junk with a few forlorn people. I recently traveled through the heart of the region.

I am a Western Slope native, so I have been over the relatively well traveled roads.  I-70 (previously highways 6&24) and SH 13 from Rifle to Craig.  As a kid, I went fishing on Rifle Creek with my parents.  The

White River

White River drains the White River Plateau and The Flattops.  Piceance Creek drains the Piceance Basin and enters the White between Meeker and Rangely.

Meeker is a pretty town in the valley of the White River.  It’s a farm and ranch town with a sad past.  The Meeker Massacre in 1879 was the end of the Utes huge reservation  lands in Western Colorado. They were shipped to Eastern Utah.  The reason was the systematic U.S. Policy of cooping the Indians up or killing them.  There are grisly details, but it was just another example of the U.S. Policy of mistreating Native Americans that continues to this day.

Maybe you have heard of Trappers Lake.  It is an enclave surrounded by the Flattops Wilderness, a huge area of timberland dotted with many small lakes.  The only access is on horseback or backpacking.  It’s wet country, catching the storms as they leave the lower country to the west.  Hunters, fishermen, and tree huggers are the only travelers.

I never backpacked there, but two friends humped there way in years ago.  They talked about the beauty,  but mostly about the rain.  One of them had one of those convoluted open foam pads with no cover.  When the water came into the tent, he was lying on a sponge in a soaked down sleeping bag.  They left early.

West of SH 13, along the Grand Hogback,

Grand Hogback Between the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains

you are on the Colorado Plateau.  Go east, and you are in the Rocky Mountains, but not the Rockies you are used to.  The hogback is a remnant of the uplift that formed the Rockies.  The equivalent on the east side are those red rock hogbacks called the Flatirons, Red Rocks, and the Garden of the Gods.

No big mountains here, just a region of high plateaus.  The reason? Volcanism in the form of lava flows.  The White River Plateau was uplifted along with the rest of the Rockies, but instead of being eroded into those jagged peaks we are used to seeing, the basalt from the lava flows formed a resistant, flat caprock.  It’s not rugged mountains, but it has a beauty all it’s own.

Flat Tops Trail

The is a scenic byway between Meeker and Yampa I took for the first time,  At first, it is in the White River valley, then climbs up on the plateau and heads on east to Yampa.  The view to the south is where the Flattops drop down to the river.  It’s not a gentle slope.  The basalt caprock is underlain by the soft White River Formation.  The steep slope is subject to landslides, leaving large open, green slopes surrounded by timber.  It’s great summer range country for sheep and cattle.  It is also some of the prettiest country in our state.  I think I met two pickups on the road east of Buford, where the road turns off to Trappers Lake.  It’s gravel much of the way, but good gravel.

West of SH 13, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, is the huge Piceance Basin.  It is a Structural basin next door to the Uinta Basin, mostly in Utah.  The basins are separated by the Douglas Arch, crossed by Douglas Pass, country where I spent a lot of time in my youth.  The arch is a western extension of the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain building period that formed the Rocky Mountains.  The edges of mountain ranges usually have foreland basins, areas of subsidence.   I am sitting over the Denver Basin.  The Piceance is the equivalent west of the mountains.  As the mountains rose, the fringes sank, creating huge synclines filled with the erosion products of the mountains.    The basins formed huge inland lakes which filled with sediment that became the Green River Formation, famous for its fossils and oil shale.

The Greater Piceance Basin

Because of all that rising and sinking, pockets form, trapping reservoirs of gas and oil.  The Piceance is one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country.  Rangely’s oil is also from the Piceance.  I drove the road running along Piceance Creek, which drains the basin to the west.  The area is all about natural gas, with some ranching along the creek.  There is a gas plant every few miles, and lots of truck traffic.  The basin used to be the home of a huge migratory deer herd, the deer summering in the Flattops and wintering in the basin.  The herd is still there, but all the drilling has greatly reduced the numbers.  Lots of elk there as well, their numbers increasing somewhat, probably due to less competition from deer.

The area is known as the Roan Plateau, which drops off to the Book Cliffs, an escarpment runnng from Palisade, CO to well past Greenriver UT.  It feels like home country to me, with memories of deer hunting in the Douglas pass area.  The scenery isn’t as dramatic as the red rock country to the south, but has its own beauty.  Plus, it isn’t as cluttered up with people.

Piceance, Uinta, Roan Plateau, Book Cliffs, all names for roughly the same country.  My list now includes going up into the basin proper, known mostly by Ute Indians, ranchers, oil field people, geologists, and aging wanderers.

Breckenridge

Breckenridge

Breckenridge

Recently we spent a week in Breckenridge for a family celebration.  There were five of us in one big condo and two studios.  Late October is an interesting time in ski country.  The Quakies have shed their leaves and the only snow on the mountain is what they are making, or trying to make.  We thought the town would be pretty empty, but there crowds on the weekend, mostly from Denver. 

Summit County is one of my favorite mountain resort areas.  There are the old mining towns, Breckenridge, Dillon, and Frisco.  There are the three upstarts, Silverthorne , Copper Mountain, and Keystone, with old Montezuma a few miles up the Snake River.  The Blue River Valley is fairly large, and ringed by mountains.  The view is fine in any direction.  Our condo was just down from the lifts, so our view was east.  One night it snowed a couple of inches, so we got to see the transformation.   

Boreas Pass Road in Fall

Boreas Pass Road in Fall

We could see the Boreas Pass road as it winds up the mountain.  It is the old railroad grade for the Denver, South Park, and Pacific.  Several of those narrow gauge railroads had grand ambitions, looking to the ocean.  The South Park, as people called it, never got past Crested Butte.   

The part we are interested in is the branch that ran from Como in South Park over the Continental Divide to Breckenridge, up the Snake to Montezuma, and up Tenmile Creek to Kokomo.  Kokomo was a silver mining town and now is buried under tailings from Climax.  On the Blue and Snake rivers it was gold.  East of the Snake near Silverthorne are sedimentary rocks, the same as exposed at Dinosaur Ridge in Denver, the difference being a four thousand feet elevation difference.  No gold there.   

Gold Dredge, This One at Fairplay

Gold Dredge, This One at Fairplay

Most of the gold along the Blue River came from the Park Range, with Boreas and Hoosier Passes connecting Summit County with South Park.  Most of the gold from the Park Range came from placer mining, extracted from the gravels eroded from the mountains.  Placer mining started with gold pans, went to rockers and sluice boxes, and when mining became industrialized, big dredges excavated huge amounts of gravel, sluiced the finer dirt, sand, and gravel for the gold, and dumped the leftovers in the river.  The big rocks went out the back of the dredge, creating those huge boulder fields you see below Breckenridge and Fairplay.  Pristine mountain meadows were turned into barren rock fields.   

Above Breckenridge, some hydraulic mining went on.  Mountain streams were diverted into ditches and big canvas hoses with big nozzles. The mountainside was washed down into the sluice boxes for the gold, and everything else was dumped, creating more barren areas. 

Mining developed and scarred Colorado.  The new city of Denver produced much of the machinery making the scars.  The Tenmile range wasn’t heavily mineralized, so remained untouched for later ski area development and scars created by ski runs.  It was the Park Range holding the gold, much of it still there.  Where the Tenmile Range transitions into the Mosquito range, the mountains were again mineralized.  Gold, then silver at Leadville, Molybdenum at Climax (where I worked as a miner one summer), and lead, zinc, and copper most everywhere. 

Next, Leadville.

The Green River Formation

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

About fifty million years ago the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River did not exist.  The area was surrounded by the Wind River Mountains, the Uintah Mountains, the San Juans, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the newly formed Rocky Mountains.  This huge area had no outlet to the sea.  The climate was similar to our current Gulf Coast, warm and moist.  During the six million years we are exploring, things changed.  Lakes formed and receded, land rose and subsided, and through all this the surrounding highlands were sending their sediment into the lakes.   

The Green River Formation is the result of all the sedimentation.  It is up to ten kilometers in depth, thinner at the margins.  At first the lakes were fresh water, but later became saline, leaving large deposits of carbonate rocks.  The trona deposits at Green River, Wyoming are some of the richest in the world.  The margins are sandstone and conglomerate interlaced with the fine silt that filled most of the basin.  The formation is rich in the fossils of the abundant life in the lakes.  They are world famous for their variety and abundance.   

There was an anoxic layer at the bottom that preserved the organisms settling there.  The lakes were abundant in blue-green algae.  The remains of the algae are the source of the oil shale deposits the region is known for.  The oil shale is there in millions of barrels, but it is expensive to extract the petroleum from the rock.  It may never be commercially viable, but the formation has been extensively studied as a result.  

Green River Formation Map

Green River Formation Map

Standing in my home town of Fruita looking north, the white cliffs behind the Book Cliffs are the Green River Formation.  The Roan Plateau is huge, but does not attract visitors like the red rock country to the south.  A huge exposure is the highlands west of I-70 from Rifle to DeBeque Canyon. 

My interest is from visiting ranchers and hunting in the Douglas Pass area in my youth.  Most of our visits were to ranches in the Green River Formation.  The elevations varied greatly.  The ranches were along West Salt Creek, but there were back country roads that went from sagebrush desert to piñon-juniper to oak brush shaly hillsides with sandstone rims to high country timber with world class mud.  In fact, the mud is world class everywhere in the region. 

Back before four wheel drive became common, there was a pile of rocks at the bottom of every big hill.  Load them in the back of your pickup, go where you planned, and unload them on the way home.  There is a network of canyons with side canyons branching off.  All of it is fine deer habitat.  My favorite places were at the head of a canyon with the wind in my face and a view of the LaSal Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.  Flat, wooded country gives me the creeps. 

Access to a lot of the country is difficult.  Most of the land is BLM land, but the early ranchers homesteaded the choice land that had water.  The private land meant locked gates.  We knew some of the ranchers, family friends.  Hunting season was a big deal.  There were maybe a dozen or more people, hunting during the day and drinking and playing poker at night.  The big ranch house had a big kitchen with a wood burning stove along with the stove in the big main room.  There was a light plant in the shed next to the house.  It looked like no generator you see these days.  There were also lots of Coleman lanterns when the light plant failed.  Good times and lots of venison.  The unheated bunkhouse was upstairs. 

Douglas pass was up the main road, gravel in those days.  It isn’t that high by Colorado standards, but made up for it with the switchbacks up the head of the canyon to the summit up through that shale.  When the shale is wet, it moves.  The road trapped the runoff, wetting the soft shale, and most every spring one or more places slid.  The mountainside now is braided with old road cuts.  It wasn’t much of a main road in the 1950’s, but now there is so much oil and gas development that the road is a paved state highway that the highway department spends money on. 

The road crosses the desert above the Highline irrigation canal before it goes into the canyon.  It is on the Mancos shale, responsible for all that flat desert in Colorado and Utah that turns to grease when it is wet.  There was one hill the road went over then descended into the wash on the north side.  That meant the road was on a north facing slope for a distance.  That hill was named Coyote, because it could bite and gnaw on you if it was wet.  A bit farther north was a ten or twelve foot high rock on the side of the road, all by itself.  

The county employee maintaining the road in those days had his grader blade scrape on that rock every time he bladed the road.  It would leave a bump, so he would have to drag dirt over to level things out.  One day he got fed up and dug that rock up and moved it off the road.  It was probably a two day project, but he never had to fight that damn rock again. 

After I could drive, I ran around that desert quite a bit.  I learned how to drive a two wheel drive pickup in that greasy stuff from my father.  He was the telephone man in Fruita, responsible for maintaining the toll line as far as Cisco, Utah.  That meant navigating two ruts through the cheat grass and sagebrush.  He could put a two wheel drive pickup into places that were a challenge for a Jeep.  Rocks in the back, chains if needed, put it in second gear and putt along.  He seldom used the granny gear or used the gas pedal.  Those old Chevy sixes would just lug their way along.   

I am as guilty as any back country explorer for spending most of my time in the Rocky Mountains or the Utah red rock country, but the Mancos Shale and the Green River formation are calling me.  I just need to see if my tire chains are in good shape.  I think I will go over Douglas Pass, loop around and look the Piceance Basin over. From Rifle I will go down to Plateau Creek (my father and grandfather said platoo crick) and up to Collbran to look at the big slide.

Time

Time

Time

Time is relative.  It is all a matter of perspective.  It is said that realized beings like Jesus or the Buddha lived entirely in the moment, which connects them with the timelessness of being.  For mortals such as I, it is sometimes difficult to have a perspective greater than the next few hours.  Carol and I do a weekly plan, setting our schedule for that span of time.  For people in the corporate world, time usually means the bottom line for the quarter.  Children see summer vacation as lasting a long time; for us old people, it’s over in a flash. 

I seem to have several time perspectives.  In my spiritual life, I attempt to be in the moment and in the eternal.  In meditation, however, I find myself planning the next day or reviewing childhood events, not in some exalted state.  My everyday life tends to be day by day, checking the weekly plan if I remember to.  Often I can’t remember which evening I am supposed to cook. 

I have developed something of a longer perspective on life as I age.  I am shocked to realize that a lot of people were born in this century, which for me is a relatively short time.  Y2K wasn’t that long ago. I can remember Senator Joe McCarthy and the Army-McCarthy hearings when the country was experiencing  a right wing resurgence a lot like now.  That time ended, as will this one, probably in November.  I was in the Army when Kennedy was shot.  Obama is in year eight of his presidency; we have watched his daughters grow up.  As teenagers, I wonder if they think their dad is hopelessly clueless, even if he is The Man. 

Newspaper Rock, Utah

Newspaper Rock, Utah

My history professors talked about developing a historical perspective, to take a long view about human events.  To some degree I succeeded.  I can connect the pagan deities of Mesopotamia with elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  Four thousand year old Greek myths influence our current thinking.  Because of the American Civil War, I dislike grits, sweet ice tea, deep fried fish,  y’all, and that strange flag.  Most southerners are wonderful people, but I am not one of them.  But, I feel a connection with the people who illustrated their world on the sandstone canyon walls of Western Colorado and Utah. Parents with children born in 2009

2009So, where are we?  From “Do I have to go to the bathroom?”, to what’s to cook tonight, to the doctor’s appointment Thursday.  From there, it’s my lifetime and all that has gone on, even to those kids born in 2009, when my pickup was built (with a faulty airbag).from there it is the span of human history as recorded by symbols such as writing, the digital cloud, or rock paintings.  Then I  go to archeology and the origins of humankind. 

Next is yours and my favorite subject, geology and the universe.  Time changes, from hours to days to weeks, years, lifetimes, and all of human history, all mere blinks in the span of geologic time.  Four billion years ago our planet was a ball of very hot rock.  2.7 billion years ago what is now Denver was part of an island arc similar to Indonesia headed for a collision with Wyoming.  Lots of things crash in Wyoming. 

65 million years ago this place was a sea bottom, with shale accumulating that runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  Denver has gone from a hunk of hot rock to an island, a sea floor, a place being buried in the stuff washing out of the Rockies as the glaciers melted, to a place with a lot of people and their accumulated toxic waste and a lot of used plastic.   

The planet and the universe will go on, with humankind gone, mostly as a result of their own folly.  What does it all mean?  Maybe what is important is the time I took this morning to watch a big hawk fly over the DU campus looking for a little critter to eat.

 

Motorcycles

Kawasaki KLR 650

Kawasaki KLR 650

I have owned and ridden three motorcycles.  I like motorcycles. They are as close to flying as one can get on land.  There are challenges, such as trying to stay upright on two wheels. I know people who have never been down on their bikes.  I once fell over right by the front door of the biggest motorcycle accessory shop in Denver.  It trapped my leg and some guy had to lift it off me.  I bet he is still telling that story.

I have crashed on city streets, on a paved canyon road (sand), in parking lots, and an uncountable number of times in the dirt.  Two of my motorcycles were what is now called dual sport; they are able to be used on the street and in the dirt.  They aren’t top notch in either role, but some riders do things most people can’t imagine.  80 mph on the highway, and some challenging back country roads and trails.  Lots of good dual sport roads in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming, where I traveled.

One of the best grew up riding on the streets of Mexico City, where you have to be good to survive.  I could keep up with him on the highway because we had the same bikes.  In the dirt, he could go places with that fairly heavy thing that I didn’t even dream of.  He and quite a few others have done 50 mountain passes in Colorado in 50 hours.  I am good for about six in a day, and hurt for two days. He also did a lot of single track trails, something I never attempted.

I liked road trips with some gravel or dirt roads thrown in.  Forest Service roads were about as gnarly as I wanted. On the asphalt, it was curves in canyons.  Fortunately, Colorado’s Front Range has lots of canyons.  There was a geological event that bumped the long bench from Conifer to its Estes Park.  That bench was once at Denver’s elevation, but got pooched up to where it is now.  We call the road the Peak to Peak Highway.

Golden Gate Canyon

Golden Gate Canyon

Go up any of the canyons from Deer Creek to the Big Thompson, ride those fast sweeping curves a ways, then down another canyon.  My favorite was Golden Gate Canyon, where I tore my posterior cruciate ligament when I hit some sand on the road.

It’s the lean, folks.  Go around a curve on two wheels and you lean.  Go faster, lean more.  Go faster, and crash.  I went fairly slow for a motorcyclist.  I still got some lean, and was able to look at the geology.  A low side crash is when the bike slides out from under you and goes off the road ahead of you.

High Side Crash

High Side Crash

A high side crash is the bad one.  The front wheel starts to slide, then gets traction.  You are flipped off and into the air, while the bike bounces along behind until it lands on you.  Both are bad, but you really do not want to high side.  Some riders get flipped into the guardrail.  Ouch.

My knee wrecking crash was a low side.  My knee was bent, the tibia-fibula stopped on the pavement while the femur went a little farther.  It really hurt.  Hurt bad. I picked the bike up and rode on until I couldn’t stand the pain and called for help.

Aside from the crashes, I loved motorcycling.  Yes, it is dangerous.  Other drivers don’t see you and turn in front of you.  You crash all by yourself.  There is a famous twisty road in North Carolina where a biker went into the bushes. Just in front of him was another motorcycle with the remains of the rider.  He went into the bushes and nobody saw a thing.

Yamaha SR 400

Yamaha SR 400

I always wore all the protective gear.  Those Harley riders who won’t wear a helmet because their balls will protect them are nuts.  Mass delusion, those Harley people.

This spring I got the itch again.  Yamaha makes a single cylinder bike that looks a lot like the classic British thumpers from the 1950s.  It isn’t fast, but sure would be a good canyon bike.  Nah.  Too old and slow myself.  I guess I will stick to four wheeling.

 

Backpacking in the San Juans

Getting Off at Needleton

Getting Off at Needleton

My backpacking days are over.  I’m old, I have a titanium knee, and I hurt in lots of places.  The inspiration for this piece is Reese Whitherspoon’s Wild.  The movie is about a woman who decided to pull her life together by backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail.  She did it and found herself on the way.  I didn’t find myself backpacking, but had some experiences that are still with me.  I even had some parallel experiences, the main one being: don’t go on a long backpack with boots that don’t fit unless you enjoy pain.

On a long trip through the San Juans, my boots were too small.  We took the narrow gauge train from Durango to Needleton, just a stop on the line halfway to Silverton.  We got quite a few looks from the flatland tourists as we got off for a trail into a canyon a long way from anywhere.  From the trailhead it was several uphill miles to Chicago Basin in the heart of the Needle Mountains, where we planned to spend some time.

Don't Buy Them Too Small

Don’t Buy Them Too Small

About halfway, we came across some guys helping their friend with a badly sprained ankle to get to the railhead.  He was in serious pain, unable to put any weight on his ankle.  His friends were looking pretty strained.  That first trail is where I began learning about my boots.  It was the seventies when you had to have those massive European climbing boots for a walk in City Park.    I think I spent something like $200.00 for them.  I was determined they would fit OK once they were broken in.  Hint: those things could be so worn out the soles are falling off, but they won’t be broken in.  There was only one thing to do, keep walking.

Chicago Basin

Chicago Basin

Chicago Basin was miraculous.  It is a large glacial basin ringed by mountains, three of them fourteeners.  Windom Peak, Sunlight Mountain, and Mt. Aeolus.  The area is full of thirteeners, not as famous, but challenging.  It is steep country.  Most of the San Juans are volcanic, but the Needles are the cores of ancient mountains, much older than the relatively recent volcanos.

In the 1970’s, the United States Geological Survey was changing from 15 minute topographical maps to 7 1/2 minute maps.  The map for the Needle Mountains was somewhat behind in the revisions.  It was published in 1900.  No color, no modern changes to man-made features, but still useful for navigation. 7 1/2 minutes is roughly 7 miles.  It is possible to walk through the area covered in one day.  The Needle map was 15 minutes with a note to add eight feet to each elevation.  No GPS in those days, just triangulating from one peak to another.

The Needle Mountains are one of the most remote mountain ranges in Colorado.  A big glacier once sat in that basin at the foot of those mountains and ground away for a long time.  There are lots of places in the Rocky Mountains with great views, and Chicago Basin is right up there.  The other good thing is that it is hard to get to.  Keeps the riffraff out.  We had the basin to ourselves, even during the backpacking boom.

Columbine Pass

Columbine Pass

As a bonus, the weather was good.  When it was time to leave, we thought a good breakfast was in order.  Pancakes and coffee.  Lots of both.  We struck camp and headed over Columbine Pass.  The trail switchbacks up that glaciated wall to a summit over twelve thousand feet high.  Hint number two: don’t climb a steep trail at high altitude with a stomach full of pancakes.  They didn’t feel like pancakes, they felt like lead in there.  I guess suffering is one of the aspects of backpacking.

The descent led us to Vallecito Creek, and a long hike to Vallecito Reservoir, where my father gave us a ride to the car in Durango.  Now, it is day hikes or four wheeling.  The knees are the first to go.

Our Little Planet

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Stephen Hawking says we need to have to develop means to get off the planet when the Big One, whatever it is, is about to strike.  That is not terribly realistic, relocating several billion people to a place light-years away.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Someday.In the meantime, life goes on.  It is spooky how we are fouling the planet.  We humans may create the need to get off this little ball without the means to do so.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Sometime, maybe sooner.So, let’s deal with what we have while we can.  There are things we can do, but the means to act are part of a political process.  As long as politics is motivated by greed at the level it is currently, we are likely toast.  Maybe sooner.

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge - an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - RTR3JE4A

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge – an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) – RTR3JE4A

As individuals, we must do what we can, and get along with our lives.  We can help, and maybe stave off the inevitable to some degree.  We can respond to natural events.  Floods, earthquakes, tornados, landslides, hurricanes, those things we can react to and help.  We must do more than sit in the Lazy-Boy looking at the screen eating Doritos.  We can give money away, stir things up in meetings, vote, and give some time.

Well, we can do things until Yellowstone blows.  It is surprising how resilient humans are.  Ice ages, cataclysms, droughts, they may kill some and move others around, but the species has struggled on through it all.  We haven’t been around very long, however, and haven’t had to deal with any Really Big Ones in the blink of time we have been around.

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Park Service says the Yellowstone super-volcano is pretty safe, that most eruptions are limited lava flows.  But, someday, it will be like the last big one that created a caldera almost as large as the park.  The Snake River Plain in Idaho with all those lava flows is the track of the Yellowstone hot spot as the North American Plate traveled west.  The plate moves at about the rate your fingernails grow.  As it moves, it erupts.  It just takes a while.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, all interest me, but I am most interested in geologic cataclysm.  One of my favorite potential geologic disasters is climate-related.  Years ago I read an article proposing that sea level rise could lead to the Gulf Stream moving over the continental shelf and invading the Arctic Ocean.  Europe would cool off with the loss of that warm water and the Arctic Ocean would thaw.  With all that open water in the north, evaporation would increase, snowfall would increase in the Arctic, precipitating a new ice age.

I haven’t seen much on that hypothesis lately.  Researchers seem to be concentrating on the rapid melting going on without Gulf Stream migrations, although the Gulf Stream does seem to be weakening.  There are just so many variables to consider.

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

With respect to the Yellowstone super volcano exploding and killing most life in North America, there is only one variable: when.  A couple of years ago I was on a ramble in Wyoming.  Fort Laramie was my destination, but on the way I looked for the Oregon-California trail wagon ruts along the Platte outside Guernsey.  The ruts are dramatic, going up from the river bottom to some higher ground.  They are axle-deep in some tan colored rock that looks like sandstone at first glance.  It is volcanic tuff from the last time Yellowstone blew.  The layer is four or five feet deep about 200 miles from Yellowstone.  That is a lot of stuff blown into the atmosphere.  All that material along with the CO2 and SO2 would kill most everything for many hundreds of miles.

The most recent volcanic eruption in Colorado was about 4500 years ago at Dotsero.  The entire San Juan mountain range is volcanic.  Huerfano Butte near Walsenberg is a volcanic neck.  There are eroded lava flows on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are lots of hot springs in Colorado.  Where is all that heat coming from?  Will the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool erupt?  Will Steamboat Springs’ boiler explode?

Landslides.  There is even one not far from Fruita on I-70.  Debeque canyon on the Colorado River is famous landslide country.  That landslide that killed three men outside Collbran last year is the same geologically.  Green Mountain in Lakewood has a landslide that destroyed several houses.  The Vail/Eagle River valley is good landslide country.  All it takes is a lot of moisture in spring. The canyons incising the front range are landslide prone.  All that rock will eventually find its way to Louisiana as mud.

The upside of all that landslide country is that it gives geologists and earthmoving contractors work.

There is a radioactive isotope of radon gas that is common in some of our Colorado rocks that houses are built on.  Basements become carcinogenic.  There is an anthropomorphic cause of radioactive basements as well.  In Grand Junction, uranium mill tailings were used as backfill around basements is some subdivisions.  More work for geologists, and a Superfund site.

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Earthquakes.  Again two causes, natural and human-caused.  All those earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma caused by injecting fracking water back underground have a Colorado history.  Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver was used to manufacture poison gas for military use and later poison gas for agriculture.  They pumped a lot of the toxic wastewater down wells and set off earthquakes.  They stopped that.  The oil companies are not stopping.  Yet.

Colorado is earthquake country.  Making mountains, shoving rock around to make room for more rock shakes things up.  The Flatirons outside Boulder used to be flat.  North and South Table mountains are capped with basalt from lava flows.  These processes are still going on in lots of places.

The Rio Grande Rift is a Rift Valley stretching from Southern New Mexico to north of Leadville.  The earth is pulling apart.  Look at the San Luis valley, that is a lot of pulling.  It is still going on, but slowly in human terms.  There will be earthquakes.  The biggest quake-causing fault near Denver is the Golden Fault, formed when the Rockies were uplifted.  That uplift has happened about three times.  The mountains come up, get eroded down, come up again, get eroded again.  Will it happen again?  There seems to be some weakness in the crust around here.

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

There are asteroids out there that have orbits that coincide with the earth’s orbit.  It has happened before, could again.  I saw Charlie Rose interviewing Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he mentioned the possibility.  We have the technology to deal with the the threat, but it will take a lot of money and cooperation.  Will it happen before we need it?  Will it be too late when the danger is imminent?  Ask a Republican.  I hope you sleep well tonight.

 

 

 

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