Canyons, cliffs & a bear!

From Silverton we drove over Black Bear Pass, past the Red Mountain mine, through Ouray, another historic town which is lovely but more touristy than Silverton, and on to Black Canyon of the Gunnison (river) National Park. We are now in bear country and you have to pack away all of your food if you are going ‘more than an arm’s length away’ from it. We didn’t see a bear but were startled by a young mule deer running right through our camp.

The next morning we got up early and walked down to Oak Flat for a quiet view of the canyon before it got too hot. It was great to be able to sit quietly for as long as we wanted and soak up the granduer. While it is not as deep as Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is a spectacular combination of depth, narrowness and sheerness and it is a magical place.

Another great stop (though somewhat busier) on the scenic drive was Painted Wall, which at 700m is the highest cliff in Colorado. We next walked to Warner Point (v. hot) which is above the canyon’s deepest point of 844 metres.

There was quite a bit of birdlife here and we had a great view of a peregrine falcon (they look slightly larger than ours) and also a hummingbird.

From Black Canyon we drove over Douglas Pass and we saw our first black bear – nice and safely from the comfort of our car. It crossed the road in front of us and paused to look at us as we oggled it. They can move uphill really fast and are big!

After descending from Douglas Pass we were back in what looked like desert to us and went past various types of mining activity before we got to Colorado National Monument – which is a scenic drive (with overlooks and short hikes) through more spectacular rock country with areas of Utah Juniper trees, which are small but over 500 years old. Once again it was hot, hot, hot so we didn’t do too much walking. We had dinner once the sun went down and things got a little cooler.

Lots of eroded landscape! Next stop dinosaurland….

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Land of the ancients – the Colorado Plateau

From Arches National Park we headed south and crossed the border from Utah to Colorado. The Colorado Plateau is an enormous upland with towns at 5,000 to 6,000 feet (1500-1800m).

It is still dry country, though large scale irrigation schemes for crops of alfalfa and pinto beans mean that the area looks pretty green.  While we are driving there was a sudden thunder and lightning storm with hail so heavy that we have to pull over.  We are on our way to Mesa Verde National Park to see the remains of the Puebloan people who lived on this ‘green table’ several thousand feet above the plateau (at about, 2,400m). People have lived on the plateau for about 12,000 years (the prey of the early hunter gatherers included woolly mammoth) and started settling at Mesa Verde in about 600 AD. They grew corn and squash (and beans after they developed pottery which meant that the could cook beans) and lived initially in pit dwellings which evolved into above ground villages. In about 900 AD they began building cliff dwellings and while there is evidence of all the different building types on the mesa it is the cliff dwellings that are the main draw-card.

To see the best ones you need to go on park ranger led tours which are really good. What was apparent from the two tours that we did (Balony House with Ranger Bill and Long House with Ranger Jo) was what amazing crafts-people the Puebloans were, the stone work is incredible and the pottery shows great skill and is beautiful as well as functional.

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We loved Mesa Verde though it was hard to sit and quietly contemplate because of the large number of people. A highlight of our tour of Long House was Ranger Jo telling us that at weddings mud balls were thrown for good luck – mud being a combination of two very important things – water and soil. We could see the splats made by the mud balls and then Ranger Jo invited us to look up and there was a hand print which had been made high up on the rock wall – breathtaking!

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Next we headed north over 10,000 & 11,000ft mountain passes to the old mining town of Silverton. We had intended to camp at Molas Lake nearby but when we arrived we saw a sign saying ‘no alcohol in the campground’ which, of course, wasn’t going to suit us. It wasn’t a great campground anyway and the showers were an additional $5 per person. Silverton (popn 600) is a national historic area and is amazingly well preserved. The main road is sealed but none of the side streets are. Gold was discovered in the 1860s and the area opened up for mining in 1874 after negotiations with the resident Utes. I can’t imagine that the outcome was favourable to the Utes and about ten years later they were expelled from Colorado altogether.

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Quite a few old movies scenes were filmed in Silverton (Run for Cover, Maverick Queen, Ticket to Tomahawk with Marilyn Monroe) and Wyatt Earp dealt cards at the Arlington Saloon. We splashed out and got a suite at the Grand Imperial Hotel which was built in 1882 and still has the original pressed tin ceilings.

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We had a bad mexican meal and then a lazy morning before setting off to see more rocks – the Black Canyon of Gunnison & Colorado National Monument.

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“It don’t rain in Green River” – the desert

After leaving US50 (which was pretty dry) it got really dry. Interstate 70 was an unexpected pleasure. We’d thought it was simply the quickest was to get to our next destination but it travels through some amazing scenery – including the San Rafael Swell, an eroded anti-cline (hope my geologist parents are impressed) with fantastically coloured layers of rock.

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Thunder clouds had been gathering all afternoon and we could see lightning and rain the distance so when we got to the Green River State Park campground Eddie asked the camp host if it might be going to rain. The man looked at Eddie in disbelief, “It don’t rain in Green River – it’s the desert”. “Ever?” asked Eddie. “No.”

Eddie’s conversation-opening gambit of making an observation about the weather isn’t working here. A comment like “What a great day” is met with blank looks and several times a surprised laugh. The weather is pretty much the same from one day to the next so Eddie is going to have to come up with another tactic to get people talking.

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When we arrived at the Green River campground the temperature was 105 F, way too hot to do anything, although I got wilting down to a fine art. We couldn’t even start cooking dinner until after it went dark. It was pretty cosy in the van that night. An unexpected pleasure the next day was the John Wesley Powell Museum. Green River is only a small town so I wasn’t expecting much (how often do people think this about Hokitika Museum?) but it was excellent. Powell was a one-armed civil war veteren who in 1869, with a party of tough men, explored the previously unknown and uncharted Green and Colorado Rivers in 16ft long wooden boats. The journey from Wyoming to downstream of Grand Canyon took months and included many terrifying rapids. Three men, who thought that carrying on was suicide, left the party to try and walk out but were killed by the local tribe. The rest made it but most of the men never wanted to see the river again. Except Powell, who went back in 1871. It is a great story told really well through an audio-visual which recreates the journey with men paddling replica wooden boats through the rapids – frightening to watch!
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From the museum we drove to Canyonlands National Park. I was worried about how hot it was going to be but thankfully it was cloudy and the temperature didn’t get much above 90 F. We loved this park, lots of great rocks and it was cool enough to do a few walks though basically it is like a long scenic drive with overlooks (lookouts) and interpretation panels.
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Late in the afternoon we drove to neighbouring Arches National Park which was quite different considering they are close. We drove into the Devil’s Garden Campground and were initially a bit disappointed with our site – it was opposite the toilets and not flat – but we sorted that out and had a good night.

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Next day we checked out some of the arches themselves. The light wasn’t that great but we took lots of photos anyway, along with everyone else. There must be many millions of photos taken of the arches each year! Next stop – the land of the ancients.
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US50 – not such a lonely highway anymore (but still very cool)

After leaving San Francisco we drove to Sacramento and then on to Lake Tahoe, which is huge and beautiful but horrendously busy. We’d planned to have a late picnic lunch but when we drove in the carpark it was full and, as we’d already been freaked out by the crowds, we turned around and kept on driving.

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We stayed the night at Fort Churchill State Park in Nevada and when we arrived just before dark (8.30 p.m.) it was a beautiful balmy night. We hadn’t figured out where anything in the van was so we had a meal of bread and cheese (and wine of course) before crashing out. We woke early and were up by 6.00 a.m. re-organising the van so that it could comfortably fit us and our supplies. By 8.00 it was hot and the sun was merciless when we walked around the ruins of the Fort. Fort Churchill was built in 1860 after the local native Americans retailated against bad behaviour by white settlers. More than $10,000 was spent building a large complex which really is in the middle of nowhere. It was abondoned and sold for $750 in 1869. The heat was intense and we had great sympathy for the people who built it and the regular soldiers who were stationed there – the officers had it pretty sweet with a two storey dwelling each.

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After stopping in at Walmart in Fallon for more supplies (!) we started out on the ‘Loneliest Highway in America’. US50 through Nevada was negatively described as this by a travel writer in the 1980s but Nevada State Tourism began promoting this as a positive and now the tourist traffic is such that the title of ‘loneliest’ is debatable.

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It is a fantastic drive with long open stretches of road and endless vistas. The speed limit it 75 mph which makes it pass faster too. We loved Austin, a small town of 300 people with an old courthouse which now serves as visitor info centre as well. On the wall was a fascinating story about someone who had allegedly shot a man, was arrested and was awaiting trial. During his first night in custody vigilantes broke into the jail, subdued the sherrif and hanged him. The surprise was that this happened in 1880 when I would have thought the lawless days of the West were past, but apparently not. Eddie lost patience before I could read the story about the man who was hanged three times.

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We stayed the night at Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park and had the newly renovated camping ground to ourselves. It had been as high as 94 F while we were travelling but thankfully it was cool during the evening. The ovens, which look totally alien in the landscape, were built in 1876 to supply charcoal for smelting silver from the nearby mines. Each oven needed 34 cords of wood (each cord is 4 ft x 4 ft x 8ft) to make a load of charcoal and this took 10 days.  They operated for 3 years after which time they had run out of wood locally (what a surprise).

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After leaving the ovens, which were on a gravel side road, we came across a pronghorn lying on the road. It got up when we got closer but didn’t move too far away. Pronghorns can run 97 kph and have 3x the lung capacity of most mammals. They are pretty attractive too.

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We drove along more of the highway to Great Basin National Park which we loved. We camped at the Wheeler Peak Campground and lucked on a site with a view of Wheeler Peak itself. The campground is at an altitude of 10,000 feet and we coastal dwellers suffered accordingly but we still had a wonderful time and enjoyed seeing the world’s oldest living trees – bristlecone pines. While doing this walk the weather closed in and a ranger advised us to go back as there was a high chance of lightning – so, of course, we carried on. Obviously we didn’t get hit but it did get a bit spooky.

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From Great Basin we went on to Delta (which was the loneliest section of US50 that we drove) and then left US50 and headed to our next experience – the desert.

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‘Welcome to San Francisco, it’s very expensive.’

This from John, the shuttle bus operator who expertly hustled us at SF airport. We’d had such a long day – 32 hours by the time we touched down – that we took the easiest option and allowed John to boss us and two other couples into his unmarked people-mover in the carpark. John, who came from Vietnam 35 years ago, was a great fund of local knowledge. We were staying at the Donatello Hotel which turned out to be a good choice. We were pleased with our room though initially I couldn’t work out why the bathroom mirror had a black square on it:

TV in the bathroom at the Donetello Hotel, SF.

TV in the bathroom at the Donetello Hotel, SF.

Our flight to San Francisco left Auckland five hours late – leaving at 12.30 a.m instead of at 7.15 p.m. There was a mechanical fault which turned out to be unfixable and another plane had to be substituted. The new plane was about 70 seats smaller so some passengers were put on the flight to Los Angeles while others must have been bumped. We ended up in seats we didn’t like but at least we were on the plane. Thank goodness that we had Koru Lounge passes – at least we were moderately comfortable though it was still a long five hours and way past our bedtime! Air New Zealand handled it all really well and the service during the flight was great. I even got a kiss from John, the head steward, when we left the plane because he’d never kissed anyone from Hokitika before. We had a late but gorgeous dinner at the hotel and tried to familiarise ourselves with the tipping  process. Ryan the bar-tender said the easiest way was to simply double the sales tax. We also discovered pretty quickly that sales tax (about 8.5%) is not included in the displayed price so by the time you add tax and tip having a meal was a lot more expensive than it looked on the menu. Love New Zealand’s no tipping and GST inclusive prices! We had breakfast next day at Pinecrest Diner which was just down the road. We were fortunate to get a table straight away and were soon eating a HUGE and very tasty breakfast – Spanish Omelette for me (omelette, toast, home-made hash brown, avocado, salsa and sour cream) and a Pinecrest breakfast (sausages, mushrooms, omelette etc etc) for Eddie. IMG_0857

Breakfast at the Pinecrest Diner.

Breakfast at the Pinecrest Diner.

Suitably fortified we went off to catch the #5 bus to Golden Gate park. Luckily we’d had a big breakfast as it took quite some time to find the right bus stop during which time we inadvertently wandered down some dodgy streets. Eddie was very brave about his broken toe and insisted on catching buses rather than cabs. The bus trip was a great way to see the suburbs. I was impressed to see that there was a queue to get into the California Academy of Science but less impressed at paying $30 each (!!) to get in. There were some great exhibits but there wasn’t a lot of bang for the bucks (I think I’ve been spoilt by Te Papa) and the crowds later on made the experience positively unpleasant. Eddie was very keen to see the show in the planetarium (the largest digital one in the world) but as we were going in (after queuing for some time) we found that it was about earthquakes which, since the dreadful earthquakes in Christchurch, we’ve learned quite a lot about. It was pretty good (and I imagine hugely expensive to produce) but we were a bit bored by the end. We liked the aquariums (including the white alligator which apparently wouldn’t survive in the wild) and seeing a kiwi as the logo for the exhibit about plate-tectonics. Unfortunately the stuffed kiwi in the ratite display had a broken beak! IMG_0872IMG_0875We spent the next day buying gourmet food and red wine and lugging it back to our hotel in preparation for our expedition. At Bevmo Eddie thought he’d gone to heaven with all sorts of deals like buy 2 bottles of the same wine and you get the second for 5c. That was a heavy trip back to the hotel.

Packed up and ready for our expedition.

Packed up and ready for our expedition.

We picked up the camper on Sunday morning. We got lost instantly and ended up in a housing estate before figuring out how to use the GPS. Eddie did a wonderful job of driving out of SF which we were pleased to be leaving behind. San Francisco is pretty cool but it is still a city and not massively differrent from others that we’ve been to and yes, quite expensive. IMG_0896 So, we were off in our Dodge Grand Caravan (think small people mover), stocked up and heading to U.S.50 – the loneliest road in America.

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Hi there

Welcome to my page for occasional blogs and for information about my books and research projects.

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