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|
|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.