Snodgrass Mountain Skiing – February 25, 2019

I had everything planned out.  Making arrangements ahead of time with my boss at the restaurant where  I work, I drove up from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, to the town of Crested Butte.  There I picked up a pair of skis from his garage.  It was only after this, when I was driving up towards Snodgrass Mountain, that I realized I had left my camera at home.  Thus, no snapshots from the day’s activity.  If my memory serves me correctly, it was a fairly cold day with some fresh snow recently fallen, and high clouds diffusing the light of the Sun.  The trailhead was busy, as is the norm with this popular local’s ski area.

Some years ago, the nearby resort had attempted to install lifts on the mountain.  The ostensible reason for this was to increase the amount of ski-able terrain for intermediate skiers.  Many people suspect that it was in reality an attempt to add value to the resort’s nearby real estate holdings.  Regardless, the expansion was vigorously opposed by much of the local community and in the end the Untied States Forest Service declined the necessary permits after facing mounting opposition.  Today, Snodgrass Mountain remains lift-free as well as free to use.  Interestingly, many people pointed out that the resort had other areas  where they could expand that wouldn’t disrupt the locally popular backcountry area.  Now that the resort has been bought by Vail Associates they have pursued that other course and the alternate expansion has been approved with minimal comment or opposition.

Besides the camera, I had also left my two shepherds behind so that I could have a good ski unhindered by canine management.  My boss had gifted me a pair of boots and after I had parked the car I slipped these heavy objects onto my feet.  The Nordic skiing system is fairly lightweight but the AT (Alpine – Touring) setup I was now using  is much heavier.  Still, the advantages of having a locked heel when making downhill turns is of such a magnitude that I gladly haul the extra weight.  Accompanying the loaned skis were a set of skins.  The skins are a strip of some synthetic fabric that is backed with a sticky substance that adheres the skin to the base of the ski.  The exposed side of the skin grips the snow and prevents the skis (and skier) from sliding backwards when climbing uphill.  With the AT bindings I am able to keep my heel free and climb surprisingly steep slopes.  Leaving the trailhead, this is exactly what I did.

I knew the route and felt safe in the relatively avalanche free slopes by mostly following the route along the forest road.  Where other people had made short-cuts I followed those and somewhere within an hour I had climbed some fifteen hundred feet in three miles to reach the summit.  Snodgrass Mountain peaks out well below treeline, somewhere above eleven thousand feet in elevation (11,154).  There are some views of the Elk Mountains but the gazing is actually much better at the lower elevations near the trailhead where large meadows are spangled by groves of aspen.  At this elevation the aspen are out-competed by the conifer forest, and the pines gave off their characteristically pungent odor that oft invigorates the senses of those who draw in a breath.

I didn’t stay long, lest the cold should set in.  I was fairly warm after the climb, but knew that it would last.  I looked about but mostly focused on removing the skins from the skis and then locking in my heels.  With my heels locked in I could now make alpine downhills turns.  Without the dogs I could also go as fast as I wanted without stopping.  So I cut loose, slid down the road to gain speed and began to use my long neglected skills making curves.  I enjoy my Nordic skis but I was thrilled to be making speed on a stable platform, and whooped it up as I flew down the road.  I made some wide sweeping turns but would also sometimes make a series of short quick turns just for the sheer pleasure in it.  I don’t think it took me more than fifteen minutes to reach the trailhead, including all the stops I made to admire the scenery and rest my unused muscles.  Returning to the car, I undid the process, put on my winter boots for driving and returned the skis to my boss’s garage.  I then returned home to reunite with the shepherds and enjoy the remainder of the day relaxing.

Another Visit to Gold Creek Campground – February 23, 2019

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The snow has piled up some since my last visit to Gold Creek Campground

Ever since my vacation to California I had been working extra shifts each week to catch up a bit.  I wasn’t making forays into the backcountry as frequently as I would like but still I enjoyed the time outdoors.  Concurrently, the Rocky Mountains as a whole had been blessed with a Winter of deep snows and I was amazed at how much of the crystalline water had piled up since my last visit to Gold Creek and environs. The avalanche conditions had grown in degrees more dangerous and thus I relegated myself to skiing solely in places where I suspected that said slides of snow just weren’t possible.  The snow layers had become exceptionally unstable and large destructive masses of snow were being reported throughout the basin, state and the Rocky Mountains in general.  My choice of ski destination for the day was conservatively based.

On this day, in between storms, the Sun shone down through a nearly cloudless cerulean sky.  This somewhat enhanced my paranoia as I know that it is easy under such salubrious circumstances to dismiss the potential for hazard.  I could fathom no hazard on my chosen route, nor on the drive up.  However, if it was going to slide this would be the year when it would.  I thought about not going out at all.  Up north on Interstate 70 cars had been pushed off the roadway by avalanches, and nearby U.S. 50 had been repeatedly closed over Monarch Pass simply by the threat.  In the end, I just couldn’t stay indoors on such a day as this, and I decided whatever hazards existed I would just have to avoid.

In the end, I saw no slides and attaining highways speeds probably presented a larger probability of tragedy.  Driving up one-lane Gold Creek Road may have been the greatest challenge.  Already narrow, it was further constricted by the huge banks of snow heaped up on either side.  I drove slowly lest I should meet somebody head-on.  My ancient Subaru is old enough that I had to actually engage four-wheel drive instead of relying on the now more familiar all-wheel drive.  Reaching the trailhead I heaved a sigh of relief and let the shepherds romp while I gathered up my stuff.  The first half a mile of my ski would be on tracks made by a caterpillar-tracked over-the-snow machine, used by a local to access his house.  Beyond that I would have to wallow through deep snow in my old tracks.  Although easy to follow, I still felt as if I were breaking fresh tracks and the shepherds dared not leave the trace.  They did try once or twice but after about ten feet of creating a furrow as deep as their neck they gave up.

The going was slow and somewhat tedious and although I desired to see more countryside I decided to end the day’s adventure at the Gold Creek Campground.  I usually sit at the first campsite but today I used number two as it provided a bit more shade.  On such a warm day I needn’t sit in direct sunlight to keep warm, and certainly neither did Draco nor Leah.  I had brought some comestibles for both myself and the dogs, and we lingered on this fine day, lounging for a considerable time in the dappled shade under a large lodgepole pine.  When the time came to return home I followed the tracks back down without diverging.  Having previously smoothed out the tracks, I skied down significantly quicker than up.  Back at the trailhead I loaded up everything into the old Subaru and drove back down Gold Creek Road even slower than on the way up.  I was relieved to reach the lower seciton of road where it widens a bit.  I was also happy that I had invested in a solid set of snow tires!

Back on U.S. 50, I completely ignored the sixty-five mile an hour speed limit and cruised along at fifty.  The deer were having a difficult time finding forage and consequently crowded the shoulders of the highway for miles on end.  Driven by starvation they had become inured to the hazards of passing traffic and almost suicidally they would stray into traffic without warning.  I felt that those particular deer were quite literally the walking dead, wasted from famine.  Winter is a beautiful time of year but that same beauty comes with a price.  One of the things that I factor in when choosing a place to ski is my potential to disturb wildlife.  The mountains may be more hazardous to me and I could choose to ski in the sagebrush where avalanches are unlikely due to simple physics but I did not want to visit those areas under the circumstances.  Seeing the dead deer on the side of the road put me into a melancholy mood, but the skiing had been fairly good and the carnage on the local highways had finally caused the responsible authorities to act.

Evening Ski on Quartz Creek – February 17, 2019

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Leah and Draco on Quartz Creek as evening approaches

The Winter kept on a comin’; another sub-zero morning, another few inches of snow, another day off from work meant that the morning I spent imbibing cup after cup of hot coffee wrapped up in a comfortable bathrobe, another lazy day reading and writing.  Finally, in the late afternoon when the high temperature sustained ten degrees above zero, I deigned it the proper time to commence a ski up above the hamlet of Pitkin, Colorado.  Knowing that a waxing moon would rise in the evening I worried not about skiing after sunset.  Thus, I loaded up my gear, rounded up the shepherds and began the languid drive up Quartz Creek to the large turnaround where the county ends plowing operations.

The road continues onto the Gunnison National Forest as Road 765, and as the sign ably communicates No Winter Maintenance exists beyond this point.  An orange Road Closed sign is also present as a reminder not to drive wheeled vehicles onto the soft snow.  However, over-the-snow machines are allowed, as this is multiple use land and not a congressionally designated wilderness.  My ski tracks from the last visit the dogs and I made here had been obliterated by the addition of yet more snow, some of which had been packed down by recent snowmobile activity.  Snowmobile tracks are a mixed blessing for a Nordic skier like myself.  It is nice to have packed snow to travel over but the impressions can freeze and make skiing difficult.  Today, however, the impressions hadn’t frozen and consequently the skiing was fantastic.  The shepherds left the snowmobile tracks only once or twice and quickly rejoined them after wallowing around in the deep snow.  I tried it as well and also soon found that being a “purist” by desisting the use of said tracks proved too challenging.

Draco and Leah love the snow, and both dogs ran out ahead with happy canine exultations.  The cold doesn’t faze them that much and the fresh snow felt good on their paws.  Occasionally, Draco would writhe around on his back looking something akin to a fish out of water but this was a form of ecstasy for him and not distress.  After skiing on for about a mile I could look up and see the high ridges that form the Great Divide looming in the gloaming.  Some sunlight had accompanied our departure but now the clouds had filled the sky and all was hazy and dimly lit as the Sun sank towards the western horizon.  I skied up to the the turnoff for the Alpine Tunnel and thought about turning around.  Yet, I thought to myself, the snow is so nice and the skiing so enjoyable in this quiet valley.  I decided to keep going up towards the campground on Quartz Creek.

By the time we reached Quartz Campground the light had begun to fade in earnest.  I had my headlamp in the backpack but didn’t bother to retrieve it, for when I craned my neck up towards the ridgeline coming down from the Great Divide there hung the bright orb of our natural satellite, the Moon.  Once at the campground I paused to quaff some water and pause in our travels.  I wanted to sit still to enjoy the quiet serenity of the nook in the mountains.  Fairly typical for a ski trip in this area, I neither saw nor heard any machinery operating nearby.  Although open to most uses, this part of the mountains remains lightly traveled, especially in Winter.  After resting a quarter of an hour both the shepherds and I were ready to travel on.  I looked around at the snowy solitude, hoisted my pack onto my shoulders and turned around to commence the return ski down-valley.

Some days are just meant for skiing.  I had contemplated continuing up-valley another half a mile or mile but realized that even with a quicker ski downhill back to the trailhead I would arrive after dark as it was.  Draco and Leah kept ahead of me on our return, frisky with happy canine energy.  As the evening transitioned into dusk I began to discern objects rather than just see them.  Aspen and lodgepole turned into shadowy forms, and soon the forest and snow became mere contrasting shades of dark and light.  I had entered a happy place within my mind and heart, and the ski back to the car flew by in a peaceful passage through the mountains.  Arriving back at the car I loaded up the two pups and my gear.  I took it easy as the road was snowpacked and the deer abundant.  Once at home I unloaded the car under the same moonlight that had guided us along the final stretch of trek.  Inside, I bravely warded off the cold by turning up the thermostat a couple of notches and resumed my domestic affairs, curling up on the sofa listening to the dogs snoring while I enjoyed a tale of a distant land.

At Home in Gunnison, Colorado – February 14, 2019

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Draco looking in the direction of the “valley of ice”

Normally I don’t make snapshots of my domestic affairs as I find them somewhat tedious, but on this day I made an exception.  The day started off fairly normally in the sense that it was a workday for me.  The dreaded alarm went off at five and I lay in bed listening to the morning news via National Public Radio for some fifteen to twenty minutes before finally dragging myself out of bed.  Draco and Leah lay about, snoring contentedly, making it that much more difficult to lay aside my covers and leave my happy warm nest.  Once I stir the dogs generally become more alert, and Draco following his usual wont pushed his snout into my shoulder affectionately in a solicitous bid for an ear scratching.  The average low temperature for Gunnison, Colorado, at this time of year is just below zero and lately we had been enjoying temperatures well below the norm.  From the glow in the window I can tell that snow and clouds dominate the morning, but it will be a bit warmer than it has been lately.

I love my dogs.  No matter how cold, well, down to about thirty below, they remain frisky.  In fact, the colder it gets the friskier they become.  I may have to go to great lengths to ready myself for the morning jog at twenty below, in the dark, but Draco and Leah run circles around me, chase each other and generally face the starlit sub-zero morning with alacrity.  This morning we, that is, the community, faced the other extreme of Winter weather.  A powerful stormed dumped half a foot of snow on us overnight, which isn’t much really but if we here in this hole got that much snow then the high country must have received nearly two feet.  Plus, this storm brought some warmth.  A solid week of morning temperatures below zero and suddenly today it was twenty-five degrees above zero.  Yes, it felt balmy and that is no exaggeration.  I almost put shorts on for the jog but thought better of it at the last moment.

Leaving the house I led the shepherds through the snow.  Draco pulls and Leah lags but I keep a steady pace until reaching a point where I can let the leashes drop and go at my own pace.  This morning workout helps to clear and focus my mind, and I think about the coming day and all the challenges I will face, from my commute (extra time for snowy roads) to how I will shape my day at work (shouldn’t be too busy) to what I’ll have for dinner tonight (pull something from the freezer).  The jogging also allows the shepherds to spend some energy before I leave them at home all day.  They alternately investigate yellow snow and the voles that are active all Winter.  Sometimes I have to coax them along.  Leah, especially, isn’t into jogging and will dawdle.  She knows where my turn around is and will often stop shy a couple hundred yards or more and wait for me to return.  She becomes a bit more animated on our return, and if I am the same its because I’m thinking, now, that the likelihood of coffee and hot breakfast is much more a reality than before.

Typically I don’t see anybody else insane enough to get up into the Winter morning but I occasionally see a few other of the regulars who are hardened against the cold.  All is quiet but stormy and cloudy.  The dogs and I return via the quiet city streets and I commence with the breakfast routine.  Get that water boiling!  Grind that coffee!  Ready the oatmeal!  I dress for work and clean dishes while everything cooks, the morning cacophony complete with the sounds of the morning’s news.  Sometimes I think that the so-called “news” is really the same-old, same-old and ought more properly be called the “olds” and if you think there might be a bit of cynic in me you would guess correct.  Breakfast being made, steaming mug of coffee in my hand, I take it all out to the aptly named coffee table and make myself comfortable.  Then I glance up and see a large brown mass move by my window, thus the reason for my snapshots on this otherwise ordinary day.  The town deer have made themselves comfortable under my neighbor’s spruce and periodically browse my trees and shrubbery.  This is nothing uncommon these days, and most mornings I have to play “dodge-deer” with the small herd.  Sometimes we can establish an understanding and they stay in place while I walk the dogs by.

Winter maintenance is a challenge, but it is also fairly straight forward.  I went outside to make a snapshot of the deer under the tree but also made a couple of the backyard on such a snowy day in a snowy year.  While outside I also shoveled the walk and climbed the ladder of perdition to clear the “valley of ice” on my roof.  The valley in question faces southwest and readily melts before refreezing.  If it isn’t periodically cleared the ice will build up and eventually seep through.  Now that morning chores are completed I go back inside and imbibe cup after cup of hot black coffee all the while working upstairs on my computer.  Too soon and the clock has moved forward, reminding me that the time has arrived to commute to work.  I feed the dogs and leave them in the bedroom that serves as a defacto kennel.  I double check all the appliances before leaving and blessedly, on this relatively warm morning, turn down the heat a bit.  During the cold extremes I keep the house fairly warm to prevent pipes from freezing.  I bid the shepherds a final goodbye and then I am off to work, already looking forward to my return in the evening.  Just another day in the life!

Skiing on Quartz Creek – February 11, 2019

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Ski tracks on Gunnison National Forest Road 767, looking at Chicago Park and Fairview Peak

As much as that word had been abused I hesitate to use it, but this Winter was, indeed, setting up with deep snow pack enough so that the moniker “epic” was applicable.  Having the day off, I decided to get out and ski up past Pitkin on Quartz Creek.  That waterway is one of my favorite places to visit locally, as I find the topography and quietude combine to form a salubrious template where I can soothe my soul.  Also, that particular valley has a strong southwest face that collects solar radiation with ease.  This was an important consideration for a day that begun somewhere below ten degrees below zero and I wanted a bit of warmth.  In addition, skiing above Pitkin would allow me to go many miles before I had to seriously consider avalanche hazards, and, as the snow was piling up in ever less sturdy heaps, there were many areas that I would normally ski but now considered out of bounds.

Ski gear was gathered, shepherds herded and car warmed prior to departure and with heater roaring we sped down U.S. 50 to the turnoff at Parlin.  Sixteen more miles of twisty but well maintained road followed before we drove slowly through the sleepy hamlet of Pitkin, a municipality rife with voting strife.  It seems idyllic from afar but in reality there is much contention among the citizenry.  I continued past until reaching the end of the road, or where the county stops plowing during Winter.  A large turn-around and parking area are cleared out near the Forest Service campground, and this is were I parked for the duration.  Draco and Leah, my two stalwart canine companions, rushed the gate of the station wagon and leaped out of the car to immediately set upon all the fascinating odors in the vicinity.  In the meantime I hoisted my backpack to my shoulders and aligned the three pins with the holes in my boots before setting off on my Nordic skis.

Depending on where jurisdiction lies, the Quartz Creek Road is either Gunnison County Road 76 or Gunnison National Forest Road 765.  I believe that that division occurs more or less where I started and thus the shepherds and I trotted or skied, respectively, up the road alongside Quartz Creek.  The gurgling water was barely audible due to its being muffled by the layer of snow that more or less obscured the creek entirely.  Half a mile along and I reached the intersection with Gunnison National Forest Road 767.  I had been skiing on top of snowmobile tacks since the trailhead, and they kept on following the main road, so I turned right and followed somebody else’s ski tracks up along Middle Quartz Creek.  This is a favorite ski of mine, and a particular expanse of lodgepole pine forest I always find soothing and contemplative.

The skiing was excellent on this road, as a couple of inches of fresh snow lay atop a solid base.  This made for a nice glide for me, and a good tread for the pups.  Continuing onward for a couple of miles we kept mostly to the forest and whatever shadows had been cast down between the clouds.  Whomever had made the ski tracks had turned around after about the first half a mile, and I enjoyed making fresh tracks up to Gunnison National Forest Road 769.  The junction with this road more or less coincides with the confluence of South Middle Creek, and in the vicinity the forest opens up into a large meadow studded with shrubbery.  I didn’t have to worry about the Sun’s exposure on this day, as the clouds kept things fairly cool.  At Road 769 I stopped for a brief respite and enjoyed the view up towards the main chain of the Sawatch Range where the Great Divide parts the waters between the two oceans.

I moved the dogs and myself over beneath the canopy of a large Douglas fir along the road.  What little of the Sun’s radiation streamed down I collected here and kept warm while I drank some water and pondered.  My pondering wandered through the usual gamut of imponderables relating to the meaning of the world or, for example, human behavior.  The sunbeam not lasting long due to the shifting nature of the clouds I let my thoughts dwindle to my immediate presence and made ready to return to the trailhead via the route ascended.  Leaving the meadows behind I led the pups back into the lodgepole forest.  At one point there is a rewarding view of Fairview Peak and Chicago Park, but most of my ganders I directed at the forest or outcroppings of native granite.  Skiing downhill, we naturally descended quicker than our uphill journey.  All in all, a fairly standard ski out and back.  Cold weather indeed but good for keeping cool while warming up through the aerobic exercise that is Nordic skiing.  Once back at the car I loaded up all the gear and dogs before driving back down to Gunnison.  I always enjoy the drive, both up and down, along Quartz Creek which I consider quintessential Colorado high country.   I spent the remainder of the day ensconced in my warm abode, happily tired from the day’s activities.  The shepherds curled up in the usual places, content balls of warm fur that would occasionally twitch and kick while snoring away the afternoon.

A Momentous Day on Snodgrass Mountain – February 04, 2019

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Draco and Leah on top of Snodgrass Mountain, just before skiing back down

Prior to my trip to California, my boss at the pizzeria had given me a pair of AT (alpine touring) boots and on this day I finally got around to borrowing a pair of his skis so that I could skin my way up Snodgrass Mountain and then ski back down.  The major difference between this gear and a traditional alpine setup is that AT gear allows a user to go uphill with an free heel.  Said boot then can be locked in so that solid alpine turns can be made on the descent.  The skins attach to the bottom of the ski and prevent sliding backwards when ascending a slope.  I was surprised by how steep of a slope I could climb with these devices attached.

I drove up from Gunnison and picked up the skis at my boss’s garage in Crested Butte where he gave me a brief demonstration on the particulars of their use.  I then drove a short distance up past the ski resort to the end of the plowed road.  A large parking lot was fairly well filled and many people were coming and going, a gregarious crowd all enjoying each other’s company for the snow.  Fine views of the Elk Mountains filled the vistas, the towering masses of rock shrouded in a deep layer of cold snow.  I let the shepherds out of the car and they ran amok in the parking lot, mingling with the numerous other canines that were wandering about.  I attached the skis to my boots and otherwise made myself ready for the skin up to the summit of Snodgrass Mountain.

The ski up to the summit was a bit more challenging than I remembered but one disadvantage of this new-to-me setup is that the gear weighs substantially more than my normal Nordic gear.  Still, I followed the road up and it being well packed the shepherds were able to enjoy the hike.  They, however, couldn’t easily depart from the trail as they would immediately sink into the deep snow that hadn’t yet set up.  A new skiff of snow, about two or three inches, had come down the previous night and the cloud cover had kept the conditions relatively warm although well below freezing.  All around me, the conifer forest was blanketed with both snow on the ground and snow clinging to the branches.  The aspens stood starkly against the pale background, patiently awaiting the warmer seasons.

After skiing up about three miles or so and gaining over a thousand feet of elevation the pups and I reached the summit.  I have tried to find this road on a map but have failed to do so, so I can’t give a Gunnison National Forest Road number.  I’m not sure if it has been decommissioned or just overlooked.  Regardless, I had gone as far as I could so while the dogs investigated other dog sign, I strapped in and locked my heels into place.  I turned around and with a bit of apprehension began to slide back down the road I had just ascended.  This was the first time in eleven years that I had attempted skiing with locked heels and at first I found it a bit awkward as I couldn’t kick up my heels to gain momentum.  Likewise, on my first few turns I tried to bring my skis around as I would on Nordic gear.  But after a hundred feet I tentatively attempted my first alpine turn in one direction quickly followed by another in the opposite.  Success!

Suddenly I lost my fear of speed on the downhill.  The Nordic gear I would have had to go slow for as I would quickly lose my balance with any real speed.  I raced on down the road as the pups vainly attempted to keep up.  I stopped repeatedly and let them catch up before continuing downwards, making neat sets of turns for a few hundred feet until stopping to let the shepherds gain on me.  This method of skiing was a real revelation to me and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to descend the steeper slopes.  This area is fairly avalanche free so I was happy to practice here, but in the future if I ski out of bounds, or off piste, I will have to invest in some training and gear for the backcountry.

Returning to the car I was exalted at the results of this experiment.  I had given up alpine skiing mostly because I couldn’t ski at the level I wanted to without hurting myself, and I didn’t see the point of paying a resort for that privilege when I could take both Nordic skis and dogs with me onto the more level backcountry.  I loaded up and drove back down past Mount Crested Butte and the base area of the resort to stash the skis back in my boss’s garage.  I truly think that these were the most fun turns I have ever made, simply because I earned them by climbing uphill.  A fine way to spend part of a Winter’s day in the Gunnison Country!

A Trip to the Wet Mountains – February 03, 2019

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Where the prairie ends and the mountains begin; the high point of the Wet Mountains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain

In the midst of a cold and damp Winter I felt the urge to see the eastern side of the Great Divide where I had formally made my home.  Knowing that I was about to embark on a long day of driving, hiking and exploring I rose at the first light of dawn to get myself and the shepherds, Draco and Leah, ready for the trip ahead.  All loaded and geared up, I stopped at the local all-night convenience store to fuel up, grab a quick breakfast and the requisite coffee.  We left Gunnison on U.S. 50 and drove eastwards towards the massive promontory that is the Continental Divide.  The sky contained mostly clouds but enough of a gap existed to allow a gorgeous sky of bright crimson, oranges and yellows to glow overhead.

I allowed plenty of time to enjoy the sunrise by driving only forty-five miles an hour in the sixty-five zone.  This precaution I took to avoid crushing one of the numerous deer that were grazing in the low area along Tomichi Creek.  The highway shares the same southern face where the ungulates like to graze during deep winters and collisions were occurring near daily in the region.  While most locals slowed down especially during the crepuscular hours many out-of-towner’s refused to heed the advice of the electronic signs warning of the deer migration.  Some would become irritated at having to follow me or others who didn’t want to crush deer.  It is simply amazing at how impatient some folks can be, who are willing to thwart their own self-interest in shaving off a few minutes from what usually is a three to four hour drive regardless.

Slowly we made our way, but make it we did and before the Sun had crested the distant eastern horizon the dogs and I had crossed over the Great Divide and entered the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of the larger tributaries of the great Mississippi River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico and, consequently, the Atlantic Ocean.  I usually stop atop the summit but as the canines seemed to be especially reposed I decided to continue on down the road.  We drove past Poncha Springs and Salida and on into Bighorn Sheep, nee Arkansas River, Canyon.  At Texas Creek I pulled over where access to the river isn’t complicated by bureaucratic regulation.  Much of river access is managed as a state park and requires a daily fee to use the facilities.  But I know where the Bureau of Land Management allows access without any fanfare.  Thus, we stopped and I kind of rolled my eyes when the dogs didn’t even show any interest in gulping up some of the water proffered.  We hiked up Texas Creek Gulch a short distance, walking under the railroad bridge that carries the old mainline of the Denver, Rio Grande and Western Railroad.  Returning to the car, I began driving again, along the river in this especially winding stretch of U.S. 50.

Just above the Royal Gorge the highway must leave the riverside and climb a tall mesa to avoid the narrow confines of that restrictive canyon.  Descending the eastern face of the highlands we enter Canon City where I stop for more coffee.  We leave U.S. 50 to follow Colorado 115 south of town.  This highway follows the old original alignment of U.S. 50 through a number of small towns.  While not nearly as fast as the main route I find this road to be a bit more to my taste.  At the small city of Florence I pilot the car to the south via Colorado 67, a road that I used to traverse with regularity.  Even now, after many years absence, I still enjoy the visceral thrill that this road holds for me as it skirts the eastern base of the northern portion of the Wet Mountains.  At a signed point-of-interest I pull over to let the shepherds out again.  I read the sign about Hardscrabble, an Eighteen-Thirties trading post, and try to imagine the landscape sans highway and fence lines.  I stand facing west, towards the mountains, buffeted by the fierce winds that are racing out of the canyons on their out towards the Great Plains.

At the hamlet of Wetmore Colorado 67 ends at Colorado 96, another road that I used to be familiar with.  Towards the east the highway leads to Pueblo but I turn west where the road rises steeply to cross over the mountains.  I drive only a few miles along the paved route before turning to the south on Custer County/San Isabel National Forest Road 306.  Driving thus in the foothills, the road winds around a bit through both extant and burned forest.  Crossing the divide between Hardscrabble Creek and the St. Charles River, the road became surprisingly steep and needs switchbacks to make the grade.  Approaching from the north, I stopped at one place to admire the view back the way I came and could see out across the distant Arkansas River towards the much more distant Pike’s Peak.  We left Custer County and entered Pueblo County where the road became 212.  Entering the village of Beulah, I couldn’t but help admire the beautiful setting in a lush mountain meadow among rising hills covered in ponderosa pine.  A short distance south brought us to the Pueblo Mountain Park.  Many cities in Colorado own a parcel of land in nearby mountains where picnicking, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding and numerous other outdoor activities may be pursued.  Knowing that this park has numerous hiking trails I decided to see if any where snow-free enough for actual hiking.

The entry road had been plowed but not too far along and I parked the car under a grove of trees.  This made me a bit nervous as the wind was gusting somewhere in excess of forty miles an hour and the ponderosa trees were waving their branches with vigor.  The accumulated snow piled up to about a foot or so.  While not too comfortable for walking, I found a trodden path that led back towards a water collection site.  Returning to the car I decided to walk up one the roads, following the tracks of others, until I reached the Tower Trail.  This trail rises above the picnic grounds and leads up to a fire lookout.  A bit of a challenging hike due to the snow, although some parts of the trail were exposed enough to the Sun’s warmth that it had melted out.  Reaching the small summit after about a mile of hiking, I found the wind to be even more abominable, gusting somewhere in the region of gale force.  The tower, which I had hoped to climb as it is open to the public to do so, was swaying in such a manner that I decided against it.  In fact, I almost immediately left this place since the trees were being blown so hard that I began to fear for my and the dogs safety.  I was, in fact, sure that the tress couldn’t survive this assault and would snap off all too soon.  I led the dogs back down the trail until the wind had abated.

One of my favorite views from this little adventure was looking out towards the east, through the foothills barely able to discern the Great Plains beyond.  But the prairie was there, and I stood for a brief moment enchanted with the sight.  The trees proving more hardy than I had worried they might, I was happy to find my car unscathed.  In reality, the branches generally held to the boles and the only thing fallen were needles that now blanketed the snow.  I drove out to Colorado 78 and turned back towards the west.  This highway we followed until its terminus at Colorado 165.  The former highway is also something of an anomaly, and is only one of two state highways to remain unpaved, something that I find interesting.  Considering the relative proximity to the highly developed Front Range, it amazes me that the Wet Mountains remain yet so underpopulated.

I followed Colorado 165 south and east as it wound through the Wet Mountains.  The wind continued to howl and I was happy to exit the mountains near the town of Rye before the highway became blocked by downed trees or some such thing.  At Colorado City I made junction with Interstate 25 and drove south so that I could look at the eastern front of the Wets.  Now out on the open prairie my view was unobstructed for miles around.  The wind blew perpendicular to the freeway and I thought to myself that the people driving the big rigs must be a bit tense on a day like this.  I pulled over at Apache City, which is really just a place, at Exit 67 and admired the stunning sight of the Wet Mountains rearing up over the prairie.  Its amazing that nearly a thousand miles of relatively flat plains could end so suddenly and dramatically.  The stop was brief and I continued south towards Walsenburg before turning back to the northwest via Colorado 69.  Now driving into the wind, the car rocked back and forth as it was buffeted by the strong gusts.  I stopped one more time at Huerfano County Road 614.1 to again admire the views of the mountains as seen from the perspective of the Great Plains.

To the south reared up the great masses of the Spanish Peaks, twin peaks evolved from intrusive magma.  These peaks are separate from the nearby Culebra Range, and are also known for the dikes of intrusive granite that radiate out and form some of the best known examples of such dikes in the world.  Designated a National Natural Landmark for the unique geology, the peaks were also a well known landmark on the old Santa Fe and Taos Trails.  In some places they can be seen from up to one hundred miles away.  Within the region, a person often sees the moniker Huajatolla (Wa-ha-toy-ya) applied to the peaks.  This is a Spanish spelling of a Ute word that means “breasts of the Earth”, and it is hard to deny the appellation.  There are a number of spellings for this word and I have given the most common.  This area holds much history, from the early traders using the trails to the more recent coal mining as well as a big chapter in my own personal story.  Thus, despite the winds that nearly blew me off balance, I stood and gazed at this area for a while, reliving my own life.  I can still recall the first time way back in Nineteen Ninety-one when I first exited the Interstate and drove up to the small town of Gardner.  I never knew such a place existed and I was immediately smitten and after college moved here to work at a nearby wolf sanctuary.

Although I could have lingered I realized that even under the best of circumstances it would take nearly three more hours to get home.  So I continued up the highway until it crossed over Promontory Divide and on into Westcliffe and eventually rejoined U.S. 50 at Texas Creek.  I usually take a short-cut to Cotopaxi, but hadn’t taken the former route in many years and wanted to see the changes, if any.  At the main route I headed back west towards Salida and then continued up to the summit of Monarch Pass.  Now I understood the reason for the fierce winds.  While a few clouds had scudded across the firmament when out to the east, I immediately reentered a storm system that was depositing large amounts of snow upon the summit.  The clouds had backed up against the Great Divide, which acts like something of an air dam and the entire eastern slope can be thought of as a great sluice for the air to race down on its path eastwards.

I let the shepherds run amok atop the snow while I huddled against the blowing cold, happy to be nearly home.  Fortunately, I had been imbibing coffee most of the day and remained perky for the drive back to Gunnison.  This had been a long day of mostly driving with a few short stops thrown in.  The hiking was short, and I should have brought my Nordic skis, but it did satisfy my Travelling Jones and I got out of it a first-hand account of the snowpack on the eastern side of the mountains.  As I would have expected, not nearly as much snow had fallen as had on our Western Slope, and in a typical year some eighty percent of precipitation falls on the latter.  With the exception of the Pueblo Mountain Park, I hadn’t really seen anything new but I would say that this is one of my favorite places to revisit!