Winter Break, Day 3 – January 20, 2019


The Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, California

I woke up in Roseville, California, where my cousin lives.  A relatively large group of my relatives had settled in here for a few nights.  Originally, we where set to explore some of the nearby Gold Rush towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, but rainy skies changed our collective mind and instead we drove into Sacramento to spend a day in town.  Our first stop was to visit the Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park.  Leland Stanford, along with three other men, was one of the so-called Big Four who dominated California’s political and economic history during the mid Eighteen-hundreds.  He had a big hand in developing the Transcontinental Railroad, and I thought it interesting to see his residence after having traveled over the rails that he had helped bring to fruition.

The mansion is open to guided tours daily.  The house started off originally as a two-story four-thousand square foot edifice and was then added onto after the huge floods of the early Eighteen-sixties.  Governor Stanford had had to take a rowboat from his residence to the state capitol for his inauguration.   In Eighteen Seventy-Two the mansion was both raised and added onto.  It became a four-story house with about nineteen thousand square feet of living space.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century Leland’s wife, Jane, donated the mansion to the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento for use as an orphanage.  Her only child had died in his mid-teens, and I would suppose this influenced her decision.  Stanford University is properly named for this same child.  Leland himself died in the mid Eighteen-Nineties and left no further offspring.

The orphanage operated at this location, on the corner of N and 8th Streets, up until the late Nineteen-Eighties.  It then became a historical site and underwent a renovation somewhere on the order of twenty million dollars.  It is simply amazing to see the opulence that well-to-do people could live in.  The original furniture had been restored, as it had been simply shoved up into the attic during the orphanage’s operating years.  All of this information and more can be found on the park’s website as well as the Wikipedia page.  I could drone on and on, but all the pertinent information is there.  What really made this tour come alive was our guide.  She had worked at the orphanage during its final years of operation and thus had some fascinating insight into both phases of this building’s history.  Two of the rooms had been preserved as bedrooms used by the orphanage but otherwise the rooms were restored to their appearance of the mid Eighteen-Seventies.  Pictures were not allowed to be taken indoors due to copyright issues on some of the paintings and photographs displayed.  The gas-lit chandeliers and lighting I thought fascinating to see how cleverly the pipes and valves were blended into the fixtures.  Birds had been prominent throughout the house, and this supplied musical chirps but more importantly they served as a literal canary-in-the-coal-mine.  Should a bird keel over then there was most likely a lethal gas leak about.

We, my relatives and I, then drove over to J Street where a number of restaurants serve the businesses and government institutions downtown.  Lunch was served at Thai Basil and we enjoyed the food served family style so that we could all try the dishes.  My older cousin then said that he had a special treat for us and we walked down the street a few blocks to a place called The Jungle Bird, a tiki bar of sorts.  Specialty drinks were ordered all around and I enjoyed a rare Mai Tai.  A younger cousin, underage, enjoyed a virgin drink and thus graciously became our designated driver.  This bar enjoys quite the patronage, and I can understand why.  Decorated in a tropical manner, it would be a fine place to escape the mundane.  All but the youngest wobbled out of the bar and as we walked back along J Street a certain rosy tint came over my view of the world.  Ambling along, I thought how pleasant the weather was although the locals all thought it somewhat cold.  We drove back to Roseville and spent the remainder of the day relaxing and enjoying our mutual company.  My first full day in California was exactly what I needed – good companionship, and a hearty measure of relaxation!

Winter Break, Day 2 – January 19, 2019

Leaving the station in Salt Lake City, Utah, on the California Zephyr during the middle of the night had found me snuggled up as comfortably as I could in coach seating.  I mostly slept but as the reclining seats do not entirely guarantee a full night’s slumber I woke often and watched the world go by under the light of a full Moon. West of Salt Lake City, and east as well, for a time, the tracks cross the Great Basin, a closed region where the waters don’t escape to the ocean.  Thus the Great Salt Lake has been formed from the ancient Lake Bonneville.  The countryside here is sere, composed mostly of vast swaths of sagebrush or salt flats.  I only know this because of my repeatedly driving across Interstate 80 over the last three decades.  Not too many people inhabit this region, and thus the night was illuminated only by moonlight, and the relatively light traffic on Interstate 80.  Semi after semi plied along eastbound, an occasional passenger car breaking up the routine during these wee hours of the night, yellow lights in front and red in the rear, minute sparkles against the pervasive darkness.  Even the headlights don’t really brighten up but a minute speck of pavement.

Somewhere west of Wendover the tracks veer away from the interstate and very few artificial lights are seen until rejoining the highway near Wells, Nevada.  I’m not certain but I believe the tracks between Well and Salt Lake City were built by the Western Pacific.  At Wells we switched onto the route of the original Transcontinental Railroad as built by the long-defunct Central Pacific.  We rambled on into Elko in the early morning darkness, and I studied the neon from a distance, as it is all crowded along the roadways.  The westbound trucks and cars we kept pace with, fairly impressive as the interstate is posted at seventy-five miles an hour.  I thought about the occupants of the vehicles, and while I relished their independence of movement and schedule, I was also content to sit back and travel while I slept.  This particular train seemed a bit cursed, as the conductor had said that we would make up the lost time, something that I have experienced before, but instead it seemed we fell further behind the published timetable.  By the time we reached Winnemucca, Nevada, the dawn had begun in earnest and my growling stomach directed me to inquire as to the time.

The previous evening the lights had shut down somewhere around ten and the announcement over the public address system had intimated that breakfast would be served in the dining car at six in the morning.  Finding that time had advanced a half an hour beyond that point, I made my way down the aisle, through a car or two and entered the diner where I was seated with three Britons.  I have done this trip over a dozen times, and I find that this outbound breakfast is the only meal that I enjoy in the dinning car.  Otherwise, I snack or buy a hot dog from the club car.  I had my usual dining car breakfast repast, namely a vegetable omelet with grits and coffee.  We conversed about a number of topics but stayed away from current events!  I had planned the breakfast meal to coincide with the sunrise and was not disappointed.  Although a bit cloudy, I am always interested in watching night transition into dawn before moving onto day.  Here in basin and range country I could see a plethora of isolated mountains spread out far and wide, separated by numerous valleys.

We kept on rolling across the Nevada desert until we came hauling into the marshaling yards at Sparks, Nevada.  The great Sierra Nevada range reared up ahead, and the first real suggestion that we would leave the basin behind occurred as we twisted up along the Truckee River.  Pulling into Reno a great many people boarded, as is often the case, to return home to California after a stay for gambling, shows and dining.  It’s a lifestyle for some of those folks.  For me, however, I was thrilled to watch as ponderosa pine became more numerous as we left Reno and rolled on up to Truckee, California.  This stretch of rails I consider among my favorite, as the stately pines reach up from the banks of this large mountain river.  This stop collects more passengers from the Tahoe area and the train, mostly quiet before became a bit more enlivened.  Leaving Truckee we began the to climb in earnest to Donner Summit.  A fine view of Donner Lake presents itself, and it was gratifying to see so much snow clinging to the slopes.  The name attached to the lake and pass is somewhat infamous due to the tragedy that struck a group of snowbound pioneers who eventually resorted to cannibalism.  Whether I drive or ride over this pass, I think of those unfortunate events so long ago, and give a prayer of thanks for my own safety and comfort.  As recently as the mid-Nineteen Fifties this very train became snowbound itself for a number of days before rescue.

I had had the foresight to bring along atlases of the various states that the train would cross.  I enjoyed picking out the various topographic landmarks along the way, when I could see them, and now followed our progress down the western slope of the great Sierra Nevadas.  We rambled on along rivers basins with well known names such as Yuba and American.  The incredible history, not always positive, of these rails that tied the two coasts together cannot be overstated, and so much has been said over the years about the various players that I will not add more to it.  As near as I can tell, much of the original alignment is yet in use, a testament to the engineering acumen of those involved.  As we wound around sinuously, we slowly lost elevation and passed through Auburn, which I call, with absolutely no authority beyond my own perception, the last mountain city.  Then we glided on down into Roseville, where the railroad has established a great many yards and shops to arrange its business over the mountainous passes to the east.  Now mostly a bedroom community for Sacramento, the city still displays some of its railroading heritage in the older part of town.

The train pulled in some two hours late and I was happy to disembark.  A happy reunion took place between me, my cousin and uncle, both of whom had graciously come to pick me up at the station.  We had much to talk about on our drive to another cousin’s house nearby but as much as I enjoyed the company what shocked me the most was the warm weather!  I knew that this was coming so I wasn’t surprised, but still was awed by the quick transition from below zero frigidity to the vast greenness and such sub-tropical oddities as waving palms and citrus laden with fruit.  The remainder of the evening was spent commiserating on our relative experiences since we had all last seen each other.  I felt blessed to be here and looked forward to the week’s coming adventures.  In retrospect, I do wish that I had taken a few snapshots along the way, however, I suppose I just wasn’t in the mood.

Winter Break, Day 1 – January 18, 2019

Sometimes, somehow, a vacation can seem like work.  Packing, closing the house, stopping the mail and a host of other chores requires a certain amount of fortitude.  I had to work up to the day before I left, but did manage to get a few things prepared.  On this morning of my departure, though, I still had to drive up-valley to drop the shepherds, Draco and Leah, off at the kennel, come home and visit the post office, shut off the water and then finish packing.  Catching the train up at Grand Junction, Colorado, around four in the afternoon, I wanted to leave by noon for the two hour drive and this I did.  Making a last check around the house, watering the plants, I left home right on time, driving west out of Gunnison on U.S. 50 towards Montrose.

Winter storms had been more prevalent this year than last, so it came as no surprise to me that my rush to leave home occurred in the middle of a small tempest that blew snow sideways across the road.  The first ten miles along the highway I began to wonder if I had left myself enough time to get to the train station.  Traffic moved along at about twenty-five miles an hour and I was sure I’d find a truck sideways across the road or some other obstacle in my path.  I had already checked the schedule and due to snow up north near Denver the train was running a bit late, so I didn’t worry much, taking my time, happy to make forward progress regardless of the slow pace.  Soon enough, the roads began to clear and normal highway speeds resumed.

I should have taken more photographs on this trip and now regret that I didn’t.  The drive on U.S. 50 from Gunnison to Grand Junction seems so perfunctory to me that I forget how much beauty exists in the day-to-day mundane scenes we all come across.  Only in my mind do the scenes play of blowing snow or open road, the passage from the mountains to the Uncompahgre Valley and north to the desert between Delta and Grand Junction.  There is much to see and admire, if you know where to look, for the geologic history on display tells a story millions of years in the making.  I took it all in, or at least as much as I could cruising along at sixty-five, enjoying the new compact disc player.

In Delta I stopped at a supermarket and bought a few provisions to take with me on the train.  Naturally, “stadium pricing” prevails on the train so I bring my own snacks.  Arriving at the station with two hours to spare I took the car to get washed and then wandered around town a bit.  I returned to the station with about half and hour to go, parked the car and diligently hung my parking permit.  It wouldn’t be good to return and find the car had been towed!  Travelling on Amtrak is always an adventure, especially in Winter.  Trains are delayed by weather, faulty equipment or, like two days prior, an avalanche outside of Denver.  Considering the wide-ranging continent-spanning storm that I was in the midst off, I was happy that the train would be only half an hour delayed.

The train came smoking into the station and then the great transition began.  People getting off for a smoke break, others having reached their destination, the mass in the station waiting to get to their assigned cars.  The nice thing about Amtrak in the Winter is that it isn’t crowded and I found myself in coach enjoying two seats.  With an almost imperceptible bump we began to move and slowly we picked up speed until we matched the traffic on the nearby interstate.  Knowing that I would be in this seat for the next twenty-four hours I made myself comfortable, changing out my shoes for slippers and piling up blankets and pillows so as to make a nice little nest for myself.  We would barely have an hour and a half of light, at best, so I forsook my magazines and such to watch the landscape pass by.  I bid adieu to Grand Junction, the city, and watched Grand Mesa, a high escarpment and landmark that I am familiar with, recede until the train slowed to slide down Salt Creek and follow the Colorado River in the Ruby Canyon for a bit.

I watched the red rock, weathered sandstone, slide by in all their different forms.  The river itself begins to eat into the basement rock here but beyond the banks the gray rock wasn’t especially prevalent.  Near Westwater, Utah, the California Zephyr leaves the river for cross-country travel and follows the general path of Interstate 70 to Green River, Utah.  To my south I enjoyed a sunset-view of the La Sal Mountains and the high plateau where Arches National Park sits.  I have never been able to determine whether the spot of light on the horizon is an actual arch or just a trick of light, but I believe it to be the former.  To the north the great masses of the Book and Roan Cliffs create the epic western landscape, layers of rock jutting from the Earth and broken off jaggedly, the remnants seen heaped up at the base.

As night enveloped day lights began to shine, but they were few and far between in this region that lacks population.  A near-full Moon beamed down and I took pleasure in watching the moonlit landscape sail by.  The train’s rocking motion was almost soothing, and I began to fade into unconsciousness.  A moonbeam daydream, almost.  I watched the traffic zip by on the adjacent highways, thinking about where people were headed to.  Travelling by train lends a different perspective to travel, and while I think trains a bit more vibrant than portrayed by Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” I also believe he describes the scenes of “graveyards of rusting automobiles” accurately.

The farther I got from home the more I began to focus on this trip, and generally let my mind wander.  I had originally wanted to only be gone for about six or seven days but the trip had morphed into twelve or so.  Winter had been treating me right, in the Gunnison Country, and I had been enjoying the skiing and the Winter blanket that I know will bring forth a fine Spring and Summer.  I was in a groove and didn’t want to leave it, but this would be a singular chance to visit family.

We passed over Soldier Summit after the station at Helper.  I should have been sleeping but couldn’t help watch the world go by.  But sleep I did, and more or less missed the stops at Provo and Salt Lake City.  Sleeping in coach is no easy task, so my mind is filled with snippets of neon, traffic lights, commercial districts, condominiums, townhouses and especially all the sidings, strings of boxcars and other artifacts of the railroads not normally seen.  I’m not exactly sure where I was when midnight turned today into tomorrow, it may have been before Provo, or between that city and the next.  Possibly even after Salt Lake City but I doubt it.  Regardless, I’ll call Salt Lake City the end of the day.  Since I had been on the train some eight hours by then I decided to step off onto the platform just to have a fresh breath of air.  Five minutes satisfied me, and I climbed back up to my little nest and faded out, letting my mind and body rest.

Skiing on Carbon Creek – January 15, 2019


Leah on snowbound Road 737, overlooking Carbon Creek and Whetstone Mountain

An afternoon ski on Carbon Creek felt like the right thing to do.  The clouds had been keeping the Sun at bay all day, thus keeping temperatures cool.  I had spent the morning packing for an upcoming trip to California and still had to work a couple of shifts before my departure.  Today would be the last day to get the shepherds and myself out and about in the Winter landscape.  Like my hiking, my skiing tends to bounce me around from one end of the Gunnison Country to the other.  I decided to head out towards Carbon Creek, a confluence of Ohio Creek which drains the swath of land between Carbon Peak and Whetstone Mountain.  Carbon Peak is a conical mass rising up some dozen miles upstream from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, and is plainly visible on clear days.  However, with the cloud cover sitting at about eleven thousand feet most of the higher peaks remained invisible and could only be implied.

Nonetheless, the clouds had added a layer of insulation to the atmosphere and kept the temperatures merely cold, instead of the deep freeze we had experienced the week before.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds and stout-hearts both, eagerly leaped into back of the Forester and we drove a short ways on Colorado 135 to the Ohio Creek/Gunnison County Road 730 and drove up along Ohio Creek, a major fork of the Gunnison River.   A dozen or so miles later the pavement ends at a fork in the road, and I piloted the car to the right on Road 730.  The snow crunched under the tires as I kept close to the center line and away from the shoulders.  Not many folks come out this way and I had no intention of becoming stuck!  Just before the road crests a small ridge and drops into Carbon Creek proper the county ends plowing operations.  A gate limits wheeled motorized access beyond this point, although snowmobiles and other over-the-snow vehicles are allowed.  I turned around and parked in a way that I hoped wouldn’t block others from flipping a “u-ey”.  An improper parking job can create hassles for other users, and sometimes I find myself dwelling upon the adequacy of my parking.

As the shepherds scrambled around, I admired the views though they had been obscured a bit.  To the west rise the West Elk Mountains, a volcanic mass active some thirty million years ago.  The south leads my eyes to the great valley of Ohio Creek.  On a clear day I could see the distant San Juan Mountains but the tempest pushing through the region today does not allow that.  Looking towards the direction of the road, northwards, I can see Carbon Peak, Mount Axtell and Whetstone Mountain all relatively masses together.  Carbon Creek has its headwaters between the three, and the setting is sublime.  A series of laccoliths, these masses of igneous rock had risen up to push aside the overlying sedimentary layers aside.  Now exposed to the forces of erosion, they have all been chiseled by glaciers during recent ice-ages.  Carbon Peak has some steep chutes on the south face and I look for any sign of recent avalanche activity but don’t see any.  It’s always something to keep in mind.

At the Winter trailhead the road lies up above Carbon Creek.  We begin the ski by gliding downhill and crossing a small bridge.  This used to be the home of the Kubler Mine, where coal was extracted from the buried sedimentary layers and shipped out by rail.  These rails were owned originally by the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad before that organization went bankrupt.  After being part of a few other companies this line ended up under the umbrella of the Colorado and Southern, although I believe it was essentially operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Western.  Not much remains to let folks know of the history.  Only a shanty of some sort remains standing, and even foundations seem scarce.  The rails were torn up in the mid Nineteen Fifties.  Because it is all on private property I never have walked around to explore what might remain.

Passing the old mine site by, the road began to rise up to a shelf above the creek.  After skiing a mile and change we crossed over onto the Gunnison National Forest and soon came to fork in the road.  People had taken over-the-snow-machines along this route quite a bit, but it seemed that the left fork had less tracks so that is the way I went.  A fairly serene day, we only skied out about another half a mile before I came to large avalanche chute that I decided not to cross.  I have in the past, but one time I saw the aftermath of a run-out and was awed by how massively destructive the slide was.  I had thought it entirely safe because the road was on the opposite side of the creek from the chute and didn’t think the sliding snow could continue uphill as far as the road.  I was wrong, and have been reluctant to cross this run-out again.  I was content to stop here and stare at the willows!

I stopped at the edge of the chute’s potential path and gazed upstream for a bit.  After a quick rest and having slaked my thirst I turned around and led the pups back down the road the way we had come.  The clouds had lifted a bit but the heavens remained overcast.  A bit of blue streaking indicated thin breaks in the cloud cover but I could see no sunlight.  The wild forest of conifer and aspen that we passed throught I find soothing during the Winter.  The aspen forest stands starkly, the trunks nearly as white as the snow.  When the snow sets up a bit I’ll wander through the forest, but its been so cold that no crust has formed.  It’s a fun place to explore.  When I got back to the forks I saw some of the folks out riding around.  One fellow had a snow-cat, and that machine was fairly impressive.  Once back at the trailhead I reveled in the view of The Castles, oddly eroded pinnacles that are a prominent local landmark in the West Elk Mountains.  I could now see the distant San Juans, and my heart soared taking in the vastness of the scene.  Yes, this had been a pleasant little ski on a cold, blustery day in a remote corner of the Gunnison Country.

Skiing out to Gothic – January 13, 2019


Gothic in Winter, the former mining town is now home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

A blessing!  Bright blue sky arcs from horizon to horizon, courtesy of the high pressure ridge that has been dominating the realm for the last few days.  Due to the low temperatures that have been commonplace this Winter I wait out the morning at home, enjoying a nice breakfast while exploring the world via the internet.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, become antsy, wondering why we haven’t gone out on our usual morning walk.  By ten-thirty they are poking me with their noses and my rise from the chair is greeted with yawns, stretches and yips.  I have never skied out to the old mining town of Gothic, Colorado, before and decide that this would be a good day to do so.  The pups load themselves into the open gate of the Forester after I have made ready my pack and gear.  We leave Gunnison via Colorado 135 northbound towards Crested Butte and the ski area.

The state highway ends at town but I continue on via County Road 317 to the base area town of Mount Crested Butte.  I follow the main road all the way to the end of Winter plowing operations.  This area is extremely popular with locals and I am not the least bit surprised to find about three dozen cars in the lot ahead of me.  People and dogs are moving all around, coming and going.  I add my own pups to the canine bedlam, and let them all sort it out while I don my gear.  The trailhead has fine views of the local Elk Mountains, and on this sunny day the landscape is fairly stunning.  Many people go up Snodgrass Hill but others, including myself, opt for continuing along County Road/Gunnison National Forest Road 317.  There are great opportunities for touring via ski and snowshoe along the road and a few groups have already departed ahead of me, bound for Winter fun. After a few turns along the road all travelers are treated to a fine view of both Gothic Mountain and the East River.  This drainage is closed to motorized use during Winter and this helps to explain the popularity of the area with the quiet set.

Leaving the trailhead the road winds around through aspen forest before gradually dropping down to the level of the East River.  It takes about three and a half miles to get out to Gothic.  Most of the route getting out is downhill but not very steep.  Draco and Leah generally run ahead in their own inimitable canine fashion while I glide along.  Here and there people more adventurous than I  are going uphill on the eastern slopes of Snodgrass Mountain.  They have skins and can climb a surprisingly steep slope uphill.  As we approach this area I am on a bit of high alert as snow can form avalanches.  These slopes could slide and I am happier once the dogs and I are past the area where people above me are skiing.  The road keeps away from the run-out leading down from Gothic Mountain but I am still wary.

The snow is deep and powdery.  The shepherds are more or less confined to the path as they wallow ineffectively whenever they leave it.  We cross the East River but it is barely visible due to the snow load that has gradually narrowed the distance between banks.  Climbing up the other side we travel a short distance and reach Gothic.  A winter caretaker or two live out here but otherwise it is very quiet.  Part of me wants to continue onward, up past town but I decide to stop here, on the south side of town, respecting the recent recuperation from an unwanted injury.  No wind bites my face nor do clouds obscure the warming Sun.  I stop and enjoy the moment, looking up at the tall peaks and enjoying the mountainous majesty of a Rocky Mountain Winter.  The deep snow causes that in me which loves life to rejoice, knowing that the deliquescent crystals will form the life-giving water that all living things so require.  White snow now means green vegetation later.

Every day that I am able to visit the great outdoors is a blessing in one way or the other.  Most such days end with me feeling invigorated and recharged, while some days are notoriously bad, so much so that their infamy lives on in memory.  But some days just shine.  A special aura places these days above the others.  Why exactly is difficult to put into words, perhaps it was due to the weather, the topography, wildlife seen or some other such example.  Regardless, this ski tour shined for me.  It was one of those days when everything clicked, each little perfection adding with the others into a synergistic total that pushed the emotional totality up a notch.  I realized this blessed day at the mid-point and skied back towards the trailhead under a halo of sorts.

On our return we started off heading directly into the Sun but soon reached the deep shadow formed by Snodgrass Mountain.  The avalanche threat is minor but real, but for today the consensus is that passage is safe.  I worry until the threat is behind me, not wishing for my perfect day to end in disaster.  Admiring the cabins that dot the valley with one last glance the shepherds and I head up into the aspen and keep climbing until we ascend a few hundred feet.  The view, when permissible, follows sinuous East River down past Brush Creek on the east side of Mount Crested Butte.  Double Top and Farris Hill, slopes swaddled in forests of dark green conifer, rise up beyond.  The dogs and I encounter more and more people the closer we get to the trailhead.  Everyone seems to have had, or is having, a charming day.  Salubrious Winter day, indeed, has been bestowed on us all by this gracious corner of the Elk Mountains.

Venerable Old Monarch Pass – January 08, 2019


Rimed conifers on Old Monarch Pass Road

My fourth day in a row of skiing took me out to Old Monarch Pass.  Unlike the previous three days, I had to work a shift in the evening and thus needed to limit myself with regard to distance and time.  Skiing the old pass fits all requisites and is an easy way to enjoy the high country in Winter.  The Old Monarch Pass Winter Trailhead is about three-quarters of an hour away, just over Monarch Pass on U.S. 50.  I loaded up the shepherds and we all drove east out of Gunnison sometime just after nine in the morning.  The remnants of the previous storm lay blanketed all over everything but the clouds had flown off elsewhere leaving behind a nice clear day.  Reaching the trailhead I offloaded the dogs onto the high berm adjacent to the highway.  This was an advantage for me, as I could more or less safely contain the canines away from traffic while I gathered my gear.

Gear donned we headed up the hill and followed San Isabel National Forest Road 237, most of which used to be old U.S. 50 up until the current highway was built in the mid to late Nineteen-Thirties.  I don’t believe the old route was ever plowed during Winter especially since the technology and mandate hadn’t yet existed.  Today, though, I relished the exhilaration I always feel when outdoors in the Rocky Mountains, up on the Great Divide, the Spine of the Continent.  No wilderness, there are power lines, the highway, Forest Service Roads and Monarch Ski Area all packed into a relatively tight space.  Still, the area may be considered backcountry and needs to be respected as such for common sense safety reasons.

The result of beetle killed forest is a patchwork of destruction similar to wildfire.  Thus the area is also home to salvage logging, a practice I find a bit dubious as I believe the nutrients found in the old trees are better left in place. Many trees perish but some survive.  Dead trees may not be pretty but they do provide habitat and shade.  I’m not really in the mood to go off on a tangent nor deliver a treatise on the problems of the world, but let me say that I support quiet non-consumptive use of our public lands.   Let Nature heal her own wounds.  The dogs led out front, exploring the scent of other dogs while I ruminated on the situation.  I let the thoughts fade away as I focused on the beauty found all around.  The old road skirts the ski area, and as I climbed uphill an number of people swished on down on the opposite side of a rope barrier.  Leah, naturally, wanted to walk via the groomed ski trail instead of the loose snow where the old road sits.

This short ski trek can be terminated at the summit, where a fine view to the west unfolds.  Looking back down into the Gunnison Country I could also see out across the vast distance towards the San Juan Mountains.  Despite the modern constructs this area still seems remote and in my mind’s eye I can feel the wildness of the realm, what it might have been prior to settlement.  The pups and I continued another quarter of a mile on the western side of the pass.  The wind had poured a large cornice up onto the road and this I mounted to get a better view.  Almost every time I had past visited Old Monarch Pass the wind has poured through the gap on its way east but today only a small breeze pushed the air around.  The sunshine kept things fairly comfortable, and the rime covered trees created a bit of iced magic.

As much as I admired the view, and enjoyed breathing in the fresh cold air scented with conifer, I still had to clock in to my shift in the not-too-distant future.  I turned my skis around and piloted them back to the pass, where I posed the pups near the sign erected by the Forest Service to denote the parting of the waters by the Great Divide.  In a fairly short time we had retraced our route back down to the car.  I kept the dogs in check until I could get the car unlocked and the gate open so they could immediately hop up into the back.  My gear loaded up I drove back over the pass and down into the Gunnison Country, and made it home with plenty of time to spare for a shower, lunch and commute.  In other words, just another great day…

Skiing to Brush Creek – January 07, 2019


A blustery day on Brush Creek Road

Precipitous storms had been active the previous twelve hours, fresh snow blanketing the valley and region.  Finding myself in a fine Winter groove I decided to journey out to the Brush Creek Trailhead, though I was in no haste.  Having made an enjoyable morning of sumptuous breakfasting (hot black coffee and my very own patented bachelor one-frypan stir-fry), chore mismanagement and goofing-off on the computer, I had strategically avoided the peak of the storm.  I waited so long that I enjoyed a light lunch at home, and when I reached the trailhead at half past one there were only two cars in the lot.  Because of the accumulation on their hoods I deduced that their owners may have gone for an overnight in one of the huts located up-valley.  I pulled in and donned my Winter gear as the dogs scurried from one scent-post to the next.

Mid-week I didn’t expect to see many people but I was surprised by the total lack of fellow recreationalists.  Driving up from Gunnison to Brush Creek, Highway 135 was fairly busy with traffic and there were a handful of people walking along Brush Creek Road, also known by its associated designation as Gunnison County Road 738.  Pondering this mystery I skied down about a quarter mile over plowed road and passed the county sign, painted that particular shade of yellow that denotes a warning message, that no Winter maintenance beyond this point could be expected.  Over-the-snow machines are allowed but mostly people go touring out this way.  Thinking that I had beat the system by getting a late start, and thus having other folks make tracks, I was just a bit startled when I realized that nobody else had been out.  Imagine my chagrin when I realized I would have to push aside my own snow!

Fortunately for me, Draco the shepherd was in a fairly adventurous mood and ran ahead looking for rodents and canine message boards.  I still had to push aside some eight to sixteen inches of new snow but at least it had been broken up a bit.  Normally the views here near the confluence of Brush Creek with the East River are fairly extensive and impressive.  The Elk Mountains rear up to their crest, layer upon layer of ridges rising one above the other.  Numerous peaks great and small flank the valley, their slopes covered in extensive forest of aspen and conifer or meadows of wildflowers.  Today, though, all this was obscured by the dense cover of clouds spitting out flurries of snow.  I began to understand why people had eschewed this area today.  Still, there is something enjoyable about a storm – the freshness of it all, a certain vital energy in the pulsing gusts… Pushing through the snow I exerted myself enough so that I decided to strip a layer off.  The gusts, nominally cold, felt more cool and carried away my accumulated heat.

From the trailhead I skied out about two miles before deciding that I had had enough of pushing aside the deep snow.  The dogs and I had crossed the bridge over Brush Creek and gone a bit further before ending at the base of small hill.  It is difficult to say what exactly is on a dog’s mind, but I started to get the feeling that the way Leah was wallowing through the snow she was thinking to herself how comfy the couch is.  As we had headed along the snow had become deeper and Draco pushed it aside with is chest.  We stopped for a bit, but just long enough for me to quench my thirst.  The clouds were a kaleidoscope of constantly morphing shapes, and the Sun would occasionally burst through the swirling masses.  Turning around, Leah suddenly became more animated and trotted off ahead, just behind Draco.  Heading back, into the wind, I reapplied the doffed layer and enjoyed the frozen landscape with their tricks of light.  So imposing, the icy expanse, but, yes, with this ample snowpack the flowers will be sublime later on.  I shall wait.  The shepherds trot out ahead, Leah still waddling a bit but now with a certain rekindled enthusiasm.  The couch is barely an hour away!  Spring, aye, that is weeks away, and the willow and aspen slumber waiting out the chill for their annual rejuvenation.