Monday, August 13, 2012

Westward: Ruins to Bridges

7/24/12: A damp morning on Roaring Forks Road.  I’d woken up earlier than usual; the stream beside my tent and the dampness of the air were unusual sensations.  The sky had cleared somewhat, no worries there.  I put on many more clothes than usual (Trixy’s thermometer later told me it was 39 degrees) and began the morning processes: breakfast, ablutions, qi gong, and packing.  My tent was hopelessly wet, but I presumed it would dry rapidly as I headed down and west into drier country. 

Yes, just short of Telluride I’d reached the north-easternmost corner of my trip; now I had the better part of a week to return to California.  Still many sites to visit.

But first a gentle drive down a muddy road.  Plenty of traction; this route was well built, well drained.  Left and west-southwest onto Route 145 towards Dolores.  I had hopes of coffee, but the town was still very quiet at 7:30 am.  Well, I was in the Paradox Basin: sediments shed off the Ancestral Rockies.

My first stop was the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.  This BLM facility is a museum, research center, and the information source for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  Canyons of the Ancients sounded pretty amazing; it has 6,000 known archeology sites, which seems at best an estimate.  Topographically this density made sense: the Monument comprises most of a pair of large drainages without extreme relief like at Navajo or Canyon de Chelly: probably plenty of sites for living and farming. 

The Monument was largely inaccessible to Trixy.  Just as well: the great houses and other sites that had been excavated for research purposes had been backfilled to preserve them.  Little to see, I had read.  I thus planned to skim the southern margin and call it good, en route to Hovenweep National Monument: my real goal for the morning. 

Guidebooks recommended the Center.  I was digging archeology enough to visit.  I arrived at 8:15 am; the Center opened at 9.  No worries, I used Trixy as a platform to dry the various parts of my tent, and sat in the shade (it was now 85 degrees) pondering my future route.  Good to have a rare bit of time not in motion.

The parking lot gradually accumulated a variety of large American vehicles.  Even though Dolores is within maybe 20 miles of Mesa Verde National Park, it seemed to be off the main tourist route.  That is, no Europeans appeared. 

I enjoyed the Center’s permanent exhibits immensely.  Wall panels provided a good chronology Puebloan and pre-Puebloan migrations and settlement.  These were matched by artifact displays.  Somehow, I’d missed or ignored these at earlier stops.  I was most impressed by a deductive presentation addressing the wide range of pottery sizes found in the ruins, such as cups that could hold a teaspoon to ones that would contain a pint or more: all the same shape.  The best explanation, based on cultural analogy, was that the smaller pieces were made by children: training for “adult” work.  A neat connection.  The pottery designs on Mesa Verde work fascinated me; the painted black geometries on white clay were beautiful.  If I had been in an acquiring mode the museum store – good reproductions - would have been a threat.  Another exhibit documented rescue excavations near Dolores triggered by reservoir construction; a hard effort to survey ahead of rising water.  Hmm, I wonder if this provided rationale and/or a dowry for the Center’s construction.  No worries, it was a true asset to the community.

The route past Canyon of the Ancients led through Cortez.  I needed ice, Trixy needed fuel.  Cortez seemed big enough for coffee.  Via my guidebook, I visited The Silver Bean, an Airstream trailer converted into a coffee bar.  Easy recognize by the white picket fence, flamingos, and astroturf yard in front.  A good dark roast.  

Two towns were enough for one day.  Thus, further west on Montezuma County Road G and Indian Route 5068 towards Hovenweep.  Road G traced the floor of McElmo Canyon, cutting downsection through Jurassic rocks: the Junction Creek Sandstone and Morrison Formation.  More terrestrial muds and sands; elsewhere the Morrison is particularly known for its abundance of dinosaur fossils.  Saw a few of those in Montana about thirty years ago.  We called it “The Doors” Formation, which our instructors did not understand.

McElmo was not a deep canyon, but plenty of intermittent cliffs of aeolian sand gave a sense of being enclosed.  The drainage was on the same scale as those in Canyons of the Ancients; there looked to be enough relief to avoid summer heat, plenty of loose rock for building (and mud for mortar), as well as flat land for agriculture. 

Fun driving, a windy and uncrowded road.  Hmmm, I intermittently heard a grinding noise coming from under Trixy.  I stopped.  Nothing caught on any of the plastic or metal bits on her underside.  I revved the engine: no correlation.  I drove slowly: the noise continued slowly, so it was something with the wheels.  Stopped again; looked again.  Nothing obviously caught.  Well, I had not tried reversing.  This produced an immediate clunk.  Going forward again, the noise was absent.  That was too easy.  In my relief I drove away without looking for the whatever that was temporarily attached.

Hovenweep National Monument: late morning, 96 degrees.  The weather forecast I had heard approaching Dolores promised a pair of relatively monsoon-free days.  This was coming true.  Hovenweep includes seven isolated sites.  The visitor-accessible area was the largest: the Square Tower group, in the aptly named Little Ruin Canyon.  This small not too deep drainage housed seven distinct ruins on its rim or within, constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.  They were clustered around the head of the Canyon; supposedly this reflected increasing arid conditions leading up to the late 13th century megadrought. 

I stopped at the VC, got good orientation from the ranger, and charged out to the two mile loop trail around and through the Canyon.  My first thought was: damn, it’s hot.  I had plenty of water and sunscreen, so not a problem.  My second was: bugger, I wish I were here at sunrise and sunset.  It was clear that the Ruin Canyon structures would have excellent light.  Oh well, at least I had two hours.  I wanted to get to Natural Bridges National Monument for overnight. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah: note the structures built into the large boulder on the right.
Hike and photograph, repeat until water depleted.  I meet a couple dozen other visitors on the trail; mostly families, mostly Americans.  Proportional to the remoteness of the locality again, I supposed. 

Like McElmo on the morning drive, Little Ruin Canyon was relatively shallow: maybe 150 feet deep, cut into the Dakota Sandstone and the underlying Burro Canyon Formation.  The accessible ruins were concentrated around a pair of tributaries near the head of the canyon.  These included a check dam, so I bet that the Dakota, being a porous sandstone, had a bunch of springs or seeps when the Puebloans lived here. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah, unnamed ruin near Tower Point

The trail guide did not quite correspond to the posted stops.  This made me stop and actually look at the Canyon.  I also picked up the tip that collapsed ruins could be spotted as piles and debris fields of book-sized platy buildings stones.  This was a “duh” moment; as I looked around the drainage these clast concentrations were quite obvious.  Anomalous particles: the rest of the sediment in the drainages was sand, mud, or house-sized boulders. 

The architecture and siting of these structures was different.  The structures on the rim were multi-room “houses” for lack of an accurate term, up to four stories high.  Unlike the one large structure at Betatakin or Aztec Ruins, here several isolated houses dotted the rim.  At least one of these shows evidence of astronomical alignment.  That was cool enough, but then there were the structures below the within the canyon.  At Betatakin and Canyon de Chelly, the builders had adapted their work to the irregular shape of the alcoves where they worked.  Here, this approach was taken to an extreme.  Structures perched on top of large rocks, and were built around and into the crevices between them.  One structure stood by itself: a multi-story tower with a pinnacle-like aspect ratio.  Although square –sided, the walls gradually spiraled with height.  Crazy.  I made well over 100 photographs, again ruing the high sun.  Well, it was a challenge to work with. 

Back to the VC and a few minutes of cooling my core temperature.  I had a question for the ranger: the brochure and stops featured the same motif, a bird, which I assumed was something local like a raven: was I right?  Not even close: the motif is interpreted as a macaw, based on feather and bones found here and at other sites.  Someone kept birds here.  Wow, more evidence of trade and travel: like cocoa, macaws are from well south of the current border.  The ranger clearly enjoyed surprising people with this information.  I would too. 

Lunch on a picnic table, then to the road.  Trixy was noiseless.  I tried to wrap my brain around the Hovenweep site.  The small portion I saw just felt different.  While some of this was the geography and geology, but the abundance and spacing of such small complex structures did not seem like the usual habitation.  Moreover, the rim structures were visible from a distance; all the other ruins I’d seen were concealed.  I’d need to do more reading before more speculation, lacking adequate understanding of Hovenweep’s place in Puebloan time and space.

Trixy and I jogged west on Routes 401, 461, 5099, 414, and 262.  A final transect of the Navajo Reservation, past Hatch Trading Post.  There were quite a number of such attractions, holdovers from the initial American conquest, which seem to serve as a mix of tourist attraction and actual store.  Not being in search of curios of any quality, I did not stop at any.

North on Route 163 to Blanding: my first Mormon town on this trip, manifest in the number of solid brick structures, the expected temple with six steeples and the extremely wide streets.  Residential roads were easily four lanes wide.  Another fluids stop, then west on Route 95 to Natural Bridges.

If you have read The Monkey Wrench Gang, Route 95 should sound familiar.  It crosses Comb Wash and Comb Ridge, a lovely monocline in the Navajo Sandstone, which was the site of destruction of lot of road construction equipment.  I felt both interested and guilty driving the route, which did pierce through beautiful and otherwise desolate country.  A faster way to across the upper end of Lake Powell was needed, I assume. 

Route 95 also passed near a number of Puebloan ruins.  I don't know the overall density of sites here, but the topographic relief was similar to Hovenweep; maybe this was a factor.  I wasn't hot enough, so I stopped at Butler Wash Ruins.  A 101 degree hike over sandstone slickrock: no worries, at least it was light colored.  Butler Wash is a 12th century site, in an alcove setting similar to Betatakin, but a lot smaller as visible from the overlook.  The Navajo Sandstone created deeper canyons with steeper rims than at Hovenweep.  Several kivas and storage rooms tucked into an area well above the drainage floor.  A seep dripped directly down into the Ruin, and another was near the viewing area.  If the hydrology was similar when Butler Wash was occupied, there would have been abundant water.  I swatted mosquitoes and tried to capture images of the slickrock.  Hard in mid afternoon.

Butler Wash Ruins, Utah: note seep above structures.

Butler Wash area: stream in Navajo Sandstone slickrock.
Butler Wash Ruins was my last Puebloan stop.  Investigating these sites and their history added an unplanned dimension to my trip, which I enjoyed.  I moved too fast to build a coherent archeological space/time map; I was content to absorb the bits of information that washed over me.  I've thus tried to limit my observations in these posts to what I could see directly, learn from park rangers and interpretation, and infer from them.  Hopefully I don't sound like I know what I am talking about - yet.

I pulled into Natural Bridges by 3:30.  It was 98 degrees.  I had worried a bit that its small campground would be full, as I was getting back onto the main attractions of the Colorado Plateau route.  I drove the camping.  Bugger, pretty populated, but a decent spot near the entrance with only one neighbor through the trees.  No one was around.  I parked Trixy for a 15 hour rest, set up my tent, and took a nap.

I woke up in a pool of sweat on my Thermarest; noise outside.  My neighbors were back.  A family with several rambunctious children across the way; I was never sure how many.  A couple of college students next door; they seemed quiet and much more interested in each other than anything else.  An RV shoehorned into the space across the road: English accents from within.  The rent-an-RV approach seems popular with foreign visitors; I passed such vehicles of all sizes on this trip, rented by domestic outfits that I’d never heard of before.  Seems practical, but not speedy. 

Downtime: I sorted gear, rehydrated, backed up photographs, read up on upcoming travel, ate dinner, and tried to pretend I was alone.  This was my first night near people on the trip; a necessary choice as it had water and wasn’t reservation land.  No complaints, just adjustment.  I anticipated a similar setting the next night in Capitol Reef National Park. 

Sunset, finally cooler.  The monument map suggested that the three bridges accessible from the loop road: Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo, would be more photogenic in the morning.  I didn’t need an excuse to relax.  I lolled.  The big family across the way trooped off.  I assumed they were going to a ranger program, but then noticed that all were carrying towels and toothbrushes.  I guess that running water in the VC bathrooms was worth a mile walk.

7/25/12: 6 am.  The campground was dead quiet.  I’d woken up early, not the first occurrence.  Well, time to go for a run.  The Monument is at ~6,500 feet; I wanted to do at least four miles.  Best option: go out the loop road.  A lovely run; I made it as far as Sipapu Bridge and its overlooks, and resisted the temptation to circuit.  I was quite distracted by the slickrock exposures of Cedar Mesa Sandstone (Permian, I was going down section); amazed that yet more aeolian deposits weren’t getting boring.  I didn’t bring fluids, and it was getting warm.  I returned via the VC, startling the maintenance crew when I ran into the bathroom for a rinse. 

The campground was beginning to wake.  The small children were up, poking their father (?) where he slept alone in a hammock.  Breakfast and off to see the bridges of Natural Bridges.  I was happy to get out early, before the expected heat, while the sights were empty. 

Trixy and I retraced my run to Sipapu Bridge.  While eating breakfast, I’d watched an RV lumber out of the campground, thinking, they must have a ways to go today.  Wrong: I came across the RV at the first scenic pullout: a German family.  They were having what was clearly a very proper breakfast - tablecloth, china, flowers on the table, etc - in the parking lot next to their RV.  Goodonem.  While this seemed stereotypically Teutonic, what bemused me was the location.  The parking lot had no view other than the road.  I would have made a bowl of fruit, yogurt, granola and supplements and had contemplation at the Bridge while I ate.

I took a healthy look at each bridge.  They were very large and robust structures, but in the morning light, they underwhelmed.  Sipapu and Kachina were shadowed.  Hard for photography, and this uninspired me to make the short access trails to get under them.  But it was also appearance.  The Cedar Mesa Sandstone is essentially flat-lying; the bridges thus have very linear tops, which did not stand out against the surrounding sedimentary layers. 

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 
That said, the abundance of bridges in such small area is remarkable.  The park interpretation gave an explanation of bridge formation, related to the various streams in the White Canyon drainage system cutting tight meander beds and then piercing the resulting goosenecks to form the bridges.  This is basic but old school geomorphology.  I assume the particular lithology of the Cedar Mesa and landslides were also important.  I also wondered if there was a newer explanation that particularly explained why the streams cut so quickly through the rock.  A rapid phase of vertical erosion must have been necessary to get the relief needed to make bridges.  Something else to research; likely tied to the most recent uplift of the Colorado Plateau.

Owachomo Bridge was in decent light.  This pleased me; it's also the most delicate, i.e., oldest bridge.  I was a bit stiff from running, so I descended the access trail for a closer look.  Still no one else around.  It was quiet other than bird songs and the tread of my sandals on the slickrock.  Ahh, getting below a bridge was much better; cooler in the shade, and the oblique views of Owachomo were particularly good.  The drainage dropped steeply below the bridge into a rock pool: water and mosquitoes again.  Traversing around the rim of the pool looked like fun; then I remembered I was alone, and that Capitol Reef National Park, my next destination, was several hot hours away.  More pictures, a stop at the VC, and away. 

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Sun behind Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Flakes of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, near Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Road Trip 2012 Part 3: Close to the Elements

7/22/12: After some casting about, I’d arrived at the Bisti Wilderness trailhead: late afternoon after a long drive from Canyon de Chelly.  Where to camp?  The monsoonal rains were closing in fast.  A couple from Arizona were huddled in their Volvo at end of road past the trailhead; their camp was wrapped up in tarps. 

I went back to the trailhead to think.  I was exhausted.  No more driving, I was going to have a poke at this area tomorrow, period.  The road was good and gravelly, so getting stuck if the rain was intense was unlikely.  Thunderstorms were now all around us.  I sat in Trixy and ate my salad.  Intense intermittent rainfall; lightening strokes and subsequent thunder in every direction.  I saw several strokes leap upwards: hmmm, maybe there was fulgurite (lightening-formed rock) out there someplace.  I wasn’t going looking.  No signs of an end, just more clouds, light, noise and drama.  I had a full panorama in every direction.  It had initially been interesting to watch the storms move across the land; discreet downpours and areas of darkness.  Now this was becoming worrisome with the impending night.  The ground was getting soggy; I hoped the rainwater would evaporate or infiltrate by morning. 

I decided to sleep in Trixy.  Many manipulations later, I achieved vague comfort.  It was dark; I watched the monsoonal show, figured out how to crack the windows enough to achieve ventilation without letting in too much rain, and eventually slept.  A quiet woke me around 1am.  Stars were visible.  I shoehorned my way out of Trixy, set up my bivy, and went back to dreams.  Coyotes howled periodically throughout the night.

A night's rest, Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico
I awoke with an internal groan.  It was approaching dawn, but the dramatic night and close quarters had not been good for rest.  I didn’t rush to wander out into the Bisti; needed to move slowly to find balance.  The ground was dry: good.  Trixy was not stuck: better.  The mud on my sandals would dry and come off: excellent. 

Trixy in the morning, Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico.  Note standing water to the right.
It was dead clear; I was guaranteed a toasty hike.  The Bisti has no trails; all of my directions said to just wander in and around in it, keeping track of location.  No problem; I had my real GPS so I was confident I could get back to the trailhead.  Geared and watered up, I headed in.  The Bisiti exposes the Fruitland Formation, a sequence of late Cretaceous rocks deposited in terrestrial environments.  I essentially transited horizontally and vertically between a pair of similar sequences: sandy stream deposits overlain by coal-rich shales that formed in swamps.  Basically, sand and mud.  Both sequences were intermittently punctuated by brick red clinker; layers of coal which had ignited and been reduced to a massive but pretty stratum.  The main Bisti attraction was its badlands – hoodoos and their brethren -created by these two lithologies; the buff colored sands forming the cap rocks and the white, black and green muds providing the rapidly eroding breakaways below them. 
Into the Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico
My guidebook said to walk a mile, cross the drainage, and go south.  I did, and was immediately in minihoodoo heaven.  I laughed internally; most of the hoodoos were less than a meter in height: pretty tiny on the landform spectrum.  None of the pictures I’d seen during my research had a photo scale included.  Haw.  No worries, they were neat; the sandstone cap preserved tan mud below it, underlined by a healthy layer of near black coal.

Minihoodoos, Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico
Fifty pictures later, I wandered north, encountering a swarm of microhoodoos.  Beyond the drainage, the sandstone layer in the upper sequence thickened, which seemed to thwart hoodoo formation, instead encouraging steep popcorn shale hills.  This lithology is an absolute barrier to plant growth, so the outcrop exposure was near 100%: just rock, sediment and fossils.  Hard to beat.  Fossils?   Right, besides being colorful, some Bisti are rich in petrified wood.  I saw a pair of large stumps, but mostly small platy pieces that had eroded from larger logs.  Since this was the Cretaceous, dinosaur bones were also possible.  I might have seen two: a socket joint-looking blob that lacked the laminar structure of petrified wood, and a possible metatarsal.  The latter could have been Recent and bovine, if it was a really really strange cow.

Microhoodoos, Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico
Following a debris trail of petrified wood chips, I traversed up a small drainage.  Ahead, I saw an almost perfectly square opening in the hill: a solution cave: cool.  The muddy rocks sometimes dissolve, forming short subterranean passages.  My research had warned of this hazard; not a good thing to fall into and vanish.  Well, this one looked approachable, so I decided to check it out.  Then I looked down.  The ground leading up to the cave was covered with dog-like tracks.  Maybe not dogs: I guessed that I had found a coyote den.  I decided not to pay a visit.

Petrified wood fragments, Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico 
I was out of water in any event.  Four liters had gone fast, and geez, the sun had gotten high.  Time to bolt.  I navigated back to Trixy with the expected ease, and headed north to Farmington, New Mexico.  I found a Starbucks inside a Safeway and escaped the midday heat to write and get current on imagery backup, happily drinking a cup of medium roast.  Alas, this appeared to be the only Starbucks cafe lacking wireless; this earned me many apologies from the staff.

My next destination was the Angel Peak Scenic Area, south of Bloomfield, New Mexico, just east of Farmington.  I headed out in the afternoon monsoon.  East on Route 64, south on Route 550, east onto the access road.  Hmmm, I was in the San Juan Basin, here primarly a thick accumulation of petroleum-rich sands and muds.  As I drove out to Angel Peak, the landscape was punctuated by natural gas wells.  Angel Peak appeared.  OK, if I used my weaker eye and blinked rapidly, I could sort of see the resemblance to a classic angel with long robes and big wings.  Angel Peak crowned another area of badlands, this time in the early Tertiary Nacimento Formation: younger than at Bisti, but the same sort of geomorphology in action.  Alas, no hoodoos, but the classic largely vegetation free arrangement of rounded hills, striped in tan, purple and brown.  It was pretty.  Almost 40% of New Mexico is badlands; this must mean something.

The BLM had constructed a number of picnic areas and a campground in the Scenic Area.  While it was still midafternoon, I was happy plan on camping here and having a brief travel day.  The trip was beginning to wear at my resilience and resting and contemplating this area would be great.  I drove to the campground.  Dead center of each tiny campsite was a picnic table, blocking any possible tent pad.  Clever installation. 

I got out and looked around.  Whoa, the area was not quiet; the mutter of pump engines came from every direction.  Only the BLM would create a Scenic Area and then populate it with gas wells: or maybe the other way round.  Bugger.  I went back to one of the picnic areas.  A bit quieter, and it had nice big covered picnic sites where I could camp out.  Cool; I could sleep on a table and enjoy a full panorama. 
I set up camp accordingly.  The afternoon monsoon started.  Not much rain here, but wind.  I figured it would die down, so I lay on my table and watched storms cross the horizon, some close, some far, but not as intimate as at Bisti.  There was also a forest fire north, near Durango in Colorado.  It was cooking up pretty fast, highlighted by sunlight north of the storm fronts. 

Abortive Camp, Angel Peak Scenic Area, New Mexico
At twilight, storms continued to cruise through.  My shelter was at the edge of an overlook; the wind alternately raced up the cliff, or reversed and blew strongly over and down it.  This was fun during dinner.  Eventually it was time to crash on the table.  I arranged all of my stuff carefully on the seats.  More storms, more wind, and sleep, sort of.  I was warm enough in my light sleeping bag, but the wind would periodically inflate it: disturbing.  I got up to visit the pit toilet.  When I got back, my bag, pad, and gear had blown all over the shelter.  I thought, bugger, this is ridiculous.  So I got into Trixy for the second night in a row.  I found a better position than at Bisti, and slept.

7/23/12: I woke to an annoyingly calm morning.  The fire in Durango was still burning; still lots of incipient thunderheads all around.  Grumbling, I drove back to Bloomfield.  The main streets were full of large white pickup trucks with safety flags, radio antennae, extra gas tanks in the beds, and sleepy looking drivers.  I assumed it was the morning rush hour: commutes to various petroleum sites.  This was intense déjà vu for driving in Newman, Western Australia, only the trucks there were all coated in iron ore dust, not mud, and badged for petroleum, not mining. 

I had half a plan for today.  Check out Aztec Ruins National Monument, visit the TWS office in Durango, then ???.  I arrived at Aztec Ruins shortly after the site opened, sharing the Visitor Center with a couple of French families and a batch of local (?) pre-teens doing an outdoor education program.  The Monument features a number of large Puebloan ruins; the “Aztec” label is an inaccuracy from early Europeans. 

Aztec Ruins was something of a cultural center from the 9th to 12th centuries; a much longer occupation than at Betatakin.  Since it's also located adjacent to the Animas River, it supported a much larger population in bigger, free-standing structures.  No sandstone alcoves in view.  The excavated portion of the site, West Ruin, was a 500 room, multistory great house, incorporating a plaza and couple of freestanding kivas.  There are other similar scale structures in the Monument, but they are unexcavated and off limits.   

When I entered the VC to study the exhibits, the desk ranger practically thrust a self-guided tour brochure at me.  The daily heat was building, but I determined to spend a good hour wandering around.  The brochure proved to be a good guide to West Ruin, pointing out stylistic changes in its construction, reflecting different phases of occupancy.  The great house appeared to be planed off; I guess a lot of the upper stories were removed for post-Pueblo building.  Hard to be sure; the site was really cleaned up. 

Part of West Ruin great house, Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico
The tour led through a series of rooms within the pueblo.  Damn, the builders were small.  I almost but not quite had to crawl.  I paused a few times to feel the small spaces.  They were barren, via excavation and reconstruction.  I had difficulty imagining them as lived places.  Where these small cramped rooms for storage?  Warm places to sleep in the winter?  The guide indicated that they were full of trash, and in one case for human burial.  It was hard to tell. 

The tour eventually led to the Great Kiva, which had been reconstructed by the early heroic archeologist who worked this area early in the 20th century.  This large circular building, used for meetings? rituals? staying cool? was by far the largest space I’d seen in a Puebloan structure.  Its walls had been resurfaced with adobe and painted (red and white), giving a sense of completion lacking elsewhere in West Ruin.  This made it much easier to imagine this as a dynamic space.  I chatted with a ranger here for a good fifteen minutes.  I apparently asked the right question – about the source of the limestone foundation rocks in the kiva – which sent her into a long fascinating soliloquy on Aztec’s builders and recent archeological work.  OK, I asked intelligent questions too.
Interior of restored great kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico
This thorough look at Aztec Ruins took more than an hour: most of the morning.  A small park but a worthy stop: another gem. 

On to Durango.  North on Route 550 into Colorado, up the Animas River Valley.  Lovely Cutler Formation redbeds (more terrestrial rocks) dipping northwards on both sides of the drainage.  Another fire south of town, under aerial attack by a pair of helicopters. 

I found the TWS office, and chatted with my colleagues for a while.  They unequivocally convinced me that the next thing I should do was to drive the San Juan Scenic Skyway; a 240 mile loop through the San Juan Mountains north of Durango.  I’d contemplated on this already; more new rocks, enticing in spite of fatigue. 

Trixy and I headed north on Route 550, upwards into overcast skies, after a thorough reprovisioning.  We needed a lot more than fluids after a week on the road.  Rapid cooling; my first stop at Coal Bank Pass was at 10,640 feet.  A relief after the desert, even with gray skies.  Many of the peaks around me were over 12,000 feet.  Wow, trees, different flowers.  The landscape was beginning to look vaguely glacial as well; the Animas Valley was certainly filled by ice numerous times, based on the moraines visible around Durango, and the peaks had the ice-carved look of horns, cirques, and their relatives. 

View south from Coal Bank Pass, San Juan Skyway, Colorado
We sped on, passing large pickups from Texas and Oklahoma pulling trailers - containing horse, houses, or ORVs, but not all at once (I hope), and being passed by large SUVs and sports cars. 
Molas Pass (10,910 feet) and descent into Silverton: an old mining town.  I'd seen lots of abandoned headframes, wastage piles, and other debris along the road.  I cruised through town, glad to be off the winding road for a bit.  A paved main drag, but dirt streets.  Huh?  The downtown felt very touristy in a blue collar sort of way: tourist saloons, t-shirt shops.  Most of the big Texan pickups seemed to be here.  I dodged horse poop more than once.  Weather beaten houses, old cars.  Didn't need clothes or alcohol, so Trixy and I kept moving.

Abandoned headframe and mining debris, San Juan Skyway, Colorado 
Over the drainage divide, and now down the Uncompadre River Valley (U-shaped by glaciers).  Thus far, the road had been cutting down section.  I'd reached the down: the outcrops were now Uncompadre Formation; mashed-looking greenish crystalline basement rocks.  I'd last seen similar stuff at the bottom of Grand Canyon.  Much closer here, and telling a different story; these are the weathered roots of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains (an older orogeny than the current Rockies), which grew and were eroded during deposition on the Colorado Plateau.  The Paleozoic and older Mesozoic rocks I'd seen earlier on the trip weren't laid down here: it was uphill then.  Like all mountains, the Ancestral Rockies were eventually worn down and buried, only to become part of the current uplift. 

I was beginning to feel worn and uplifted too.  Maybe it was the elevation, or the windy road (now called the Million Dollar Highway).  We continued through Ouray; would be scenic in less sucky light.  The valley lowered and opened into narrow farmland.  A left turn on Route 62 at Ridgway, cutting across small drainages, then sharply southeast on Route 162 towards Telluride.  The sky was still gray; I was making good time.  Through Placerville and Vanadium, and traffic stopped.  Many trucks and end-loaders up ahead; as we eventually crawled past; the road had been blocked by a debris flow.  This was the clean-up crew.  Cool.  Glad I was not caught in the actual event.  Trixy got a coat of red mud on her rocker panels and bumpers. 

The turn to Telluride.  Would I ever come back here?  Who knows, so I went to check it out, immediately knowing I was in a different reality when I saw a well-populated running path and was passed by a series of Porches and Volvos.  I knew Telluride was a high end ski resort, but the meaning of this was stark after seeing Silverton and being in the field for a week.  Condos.  Sushi bars.  Boutiques.  Brokerage agencies.  New houses, spiffy cars.  Many, many, thin, fit-looking people.  No horse trailers.  No one from Oklahoma.  Well, the market under the tourist center did have gluten-free cookies.  I was both uncomfortable and bemused by the feelings that Telluride seemed more comfortable and friendly to me than Silverton. 

Down the Dolores River Valley, narrow at these high elevations.  What an appropriate name for a darkening road on an overcast evening.  Where was I going to sleep?  My atlas showed several campgrounds; they were all full and cramped with RVs.  It got darker.  We passed through Rico: nothing there for me.  The valley remained tight.  Darker, I was getting anxious.  We came to Roaring Forks Road: a route into the San Juan National Forest.  What the heck, at large camping looked good at this point.  Trixy thus took me up a good road, but cut into a steep slope in Cutler Formation (muddy red beds).  There was utterly nowhere to pull off.  One mile, three miles.  

Eventually we reached a hairpin turn, and an adequate campsite.  I gratefully stopped, savoring the sudden silence.  I set up my tent, staking down the fly just as the clouds began to dispose of their excess moisture.  There was a lot of it.  I ate sitting in Trixy; cold rice and saag paneer.  Not bad.  The rain got harder.  I looked at maps and read my travel guides.  A slight hiatus, and I broke for the tent.  Rain continued for most of the night.  I discovered that my rain fly leaked.  Bugger, at least it was not too voluminous.  I slept, wondering briefly if this drainage was prone to debris flows.  If so, well, Trixy and I would get a quick ride back down the valley.

Roaring Forks Road camp, San Juan Skyway, Colorado
7/24/12: Morning: partially cloudy.  Was that blue sky?  Yes.  Three days of the elements: it was time to go back to the desert.