Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 24- Alligator Rodeo, UFOs & Canoeing Down Sand Dunes

October 8th 2010, Friday

Yesterday when we drove from Nathrop to Great Sand Dunes we passed through many small “towns” if you can even call them that. According to Wikipedia they all had populations of around 100 people. If you blinked you literally would have missed them. There were, however, three interesting things that are worth mentioning.
The first is that we passed a huge field of photovoltaic cells. It was so weird because they covered a huge expanse of land and since they were on the ground where you’d expect crops to be it was like they were growing them! I found that it was the Alamosa Photovoltaic Plant and that it covered 83 acres of land! I guess solar power plants makes sense in a place like this where there aren’t many people who could be aesthetically offended, there’s not enough water to really be able to grow anything and there is definitely a lot of sun throughout the year.

The second sighting was of a sign for the Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca, CO. It started in the late 1970s as a tilapia farm and opened to the public in 1990 as a sanctuary with ponds fueled by geothermal energy that allow alligators and many other animals to survive. It is a refuge for migrating birds as well as abused or neglected reptiles. Every August the park holds Gatorfest, the world’s first alligator rodeo and roundup! Activities include roping, riding, and barrel racing! I wish that was going on right now so that I could see it. I mean, alligator barrel racing? How would that work? And the riding?? I hope they have an ambulance at the ready! Here is their website: http://gatorfarm.com/

The third and final sighting of note was a sign for a UFO Watch Tower just outside of Hooper, CO. Now I was sure we were getting close to New Mexico! The site is run by a female rancher named Judy. If you go to Roadside America’s website you will find descriptions written by people who have visited. This is one of my favorites: “In addition to the watchtower, she has a very strange garden consisting of rocks, sticks and an incredible amount of amazingly random junk offerings, laid out around what she describes as the location of a major Interdimensional Vortex. People leave offerings to the Vortex, which range from quite valuable items down to old hubcaps and half packets of chewing gum, all displayed with equal reverence. She will also show you a small dry shrub nearby, which has magical powers. I had to agree, it was the best small dry shrub with magical powers that I have seen anywhere in the world. It didn't do anything magical while I was there, but hey, I'm not about to argue with Judy.”

God, I love travelling. The thing that makes these sightings even more awesome and definitely more random is the fact that this is literally the middle of Nowhere. I mean, Nathrop, as a ghost town, was the beginning of Nowhere so that would mean we’re right smack in the middle at this point.

But anyways, back to the awesomeness that is Great Sand Dunes National Park!
An amazing view in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Tyler liked it right off the bat because in order to get to a lot of the trails you have to drive on these crazy unpaved roads that are truly ridiculous. Tyler was in off-roading heaven in his new truck while I had one white-knuckled hand clutching the handle above the passenger door and the other trying to make sure Hanz didn’t get thrown around too much in the back seat! We got to the parking lot and the jostling came to a happy end. Hanz and I got out pretty quickly, happy to have two (or four) feet on the ground where things seemed much more stable.
I'm prepared with my Camelback! Take note of the canoe because it's about to become very relevant.

Somehow Tyler had talked me into bringing our canoe out with us with the plan being that we would hike up to the top of the biggest sand dune with it and then “canoe” back down. Well, let me tell you, don’t attempt this. Seriously, I mean, I guess it makes for a good story but it was some seriously hard work hiking that thing down this trail, across the dried up river bed and over to the dunes alone. And then you get there, realizing it’s difficult to carry something heavy and bulky in sand because with every step you sink into the sand. Then you realize that you haven’t even climbed the dune yet! That’s exactly what happened to us but we had come that far so we didn’t want to give up. 
Carrying the canoe

Almost there!
We did take period breaks to sit down and groan a bit. Hanz was super excited the whole time. He didn’t know what to make of this huge pile of sand! He was almost constantly in wild puppy mode, running around at top speed with his ears back and his butt tucked under, mouth open in excitement. So on our breaks we couldn’t help but play with him a bit, as well.
Tyler playing with Hanz who is in Wild Puppy Mode.

The wind was fiercely blowing and the desert heat was intense. You couldn’t open your mouth or you would get sand in it. We finally made it up the dune, looked down and realized that the angle would be fine for us in the canoe until we got closer to the bottom where it dropped off much more sharply and we would definitely hit the ground with the nose of our canoe and topple over. Wanting to avoid this we decided to keep moving along the dune to see if the angles would work any better. This was no small feat, again because of the insane wind whipping the sand everywhere, and with exerting a lot of effort with each step because of how our feet would sink into the sand. 
We eventually found something that looked like it might work. I got out my camera, prepared to film the whole thing, and Tyler and I got into the boat. I was super excited because we were finally going to do it and at least we would have a fun ride down. Tyler had his leg over the side of the boat with his foot in the sand to stabilize it so we could get situated. He put his foot back in the boat and we both push off with our arms…. I think we moved about a quarter of an inch. NOOOOO! It wasn’t going to work! I was so pissed. All this work for nothing??? And now we were going to have to carry it back down??? I don’t think so. 
Not a happy camper!!
Tyler, being the very nice and level-headed person that he is was able to get over it fairly quickly and suggested that instead, I stay in the canoe and he would push me down. Aww, what a nice boyfriend! I wasn’t going to turn down an offer like that so I got back in the canoe with my camera recording away and Tyler gave me a big running push. It worked! I was going! And, oh… wait… this isn’t a good angle…. Crash. It kinda hurt but it was worth it. So now I can officially say that I have canoed down a sand dune. Thank you Tyler! And Tyler continued on his awesome spree and proceeded to carry the canoe all by himself as he ran/walked all the way back to the truck! Wow. Check that one off my bucket list. 
Thumbs up!
Hanz went into wild puppy mode on the way down the dune. He was so excited and confused about my being in the canoe and then crashing and shrieking that when I finally got out he ran over to me super excited, making sure I was okay and then running around in huge circles in the sand. What a good puppy.
Me and Hanz

Hanz giving Tyler a big lick!
It rained that night as we slept in the campground. When we woke up this morning we walked around. The sand dunes looked so different because there were ripples of wet sand that shifted the dunes from a monochromatic smooth look to one of more contrast. Quite interesting indeed. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Day 23- Great Sand Dunes National Park!!!

October 7th 2010, Thursday

This morning we had some extra pep in our step as we set out to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s funny but before this trip I had never even heard of this park. It was really only until we looked at the National Geographic Atlas that we’d brought with us and scanned for recreation areas near where we would be travelling that we found it.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from a National Park we’d heard nothing about but we kept an open mind. We passed along the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range, the peaks springing up from an otherwise completely flat landscape. They constitute the southern-most part of the Rocky Mountains, which is amazing to think about because it really makes you realize how extensive the Rockies really are. I would love to read more about the various experiences people had in settling and travelling through the different parts of the Rockies.

Tyler with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising up in the background.

Blanca Peak is the highest peak in the Range, hitting 14,345 feet! The Navajo called it the Sacred Mountain of the East. It marked the boundary of the Dinetah, which is the traditional Navajo homeland. The granite that makes up Blanca Peak is approximated to be about 1.8 billion years old!

I forgot to mention that yesterday, before we settled into Nathrop, we drove some beautiful roads winding through the mountains, evergreen trees surrounding us. We turned a corner in the road, however, and noticed that the road started to wind down and into an incredibly flat valley. It’s always interesting coming across extremely flat landscapes at very high elevations; at this point we were around 9,000 ft. The winds are so intense at higher elevations; I definitely wouldn’t want to live in an environment like that. If it’s going to be frigidly cold at least give me mountains!! That tends to be a commonality around this part of the country; flat land with a few intense mountain ranges popping up out of nowhere. Even as we drove by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains we experienced the same effect. When I read more about Blanca Peak especially, it made sense to me that these mountains would appear to pop out of nowhere because they rise about 6,000 feet above the San Luis Valley in which we drove.

We were still in Colorado but we were getting a lot closer to New Mexico. Colorado really is an amazing and quite extensive state, certainly worth several visits.

As we neared the Park we saw the Dunes in the distance and they were quite a sight! At first glance it just seems bizarre that there would be these huge 750 foot sand dunes next to these even larger mountains, how fascinating! Suddenly I was super excited to be there already so I could explore and find out more about this natural wonder.

The Sand Dunes in the distance.

Just outside the Park!
 When we got there and looked at the Visitor’s Guide I immediately fell in love with the place. There are several types of endemic species of insects and plants (meaning that this is the only place in the entire world where they exist!!) that are specially adapted to this specific micro-climate. You can read more about the endemic insects and see some photos here (The Tiger Beetle has such an amazing pattern on its back!): http://home.nps.gov/grsa/naturescience/upload/endemic_insects.pdf

Welcome to Great Sand Dunes!
The vegetation was very interesting in the area because it was low-lying and had some great colors that really popped against the mute colors of the landscape.

The gorgeous landscape in the Park.
Since we weren’t sure what the park would be like we had said we would spend the night if we wanted to but otherwise we would continue on. Needless to say we decided to spend the night. We unhitched our trailer in one of the park campgrounds and immediately headed out to explore.

There is only a general understanding of how the sand dunes formed and continue to form to this day according to the National Park Service. Basically there was formerly a lake where the valley is, and when they receded they left behind a sheet of sand that was fairly loose and susceptible to being blown around in the wind. The predominant winds blow from the southwest and pushed the sands into a gentle curve in the mountains. Wind funnels through the mountains in the opposite direction during high wind events and this force is what makes the dunes grow vertically instead of just piling up against the base of the mountains. The dunes continue to grow to this day because of two mountain creeks that carry sediment during times of high flow and then the winds pick it up and it gets added to the dunes when the creeks dry up. Scientists have loosely estimated that the dunes started forming about 440,000 years ago. It’s a very interesting phenomenon with really unique results! You don’t need to go to Asia to get crazy sand dunes; you can just go to Colorado!!

So how the heck had I not heard of this incredible place before? I could have easily spent a week there with all the hikes that start in the National Park and take you up into the beautiful mountains. What was formerly a National Monument, Great Sand Dunes became a National Park only in 2004 so that may be partially why I hadn’t heard of it before. For anyone in the Southern Colorado or Northern New Mexican area, go to Great Sand Dunes!! They have a really informative visitor’s center with a working model of the dunes formation that uses fans to simulate the effects of the wind and you can change the direction from which they blow in order to see how the sand is affected. I am so glad we didn’t by-pass this place!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Day 22- Chalk Creek

October 6th 2010 Day 22 Wednesday

We woke up this morning on the border of Pike National Forest, laughed a bit about the night before and hitched up the trailer to the truck so we could get the battery charged again. Without the battery we weren’t able to power the fridge so we hustled to get on the road so it wouldn’t go bad.

We drove only until we reached Nathrop, Colorado in the early afternoon when we decided to settle in for the night early on so we could get our affairs in order, clean a bit, read and write, etc. We found a really cute campground right on a creek called the Chalk Creek Campground. A husband and wife team ran the facility and it looked absolutely gorgeous with the aspens in full autumn colors, the leaves starting to drift down to the ground, creating a smooth blanket of yellows and oranges. Hanz was incredibly excited to once again be near some running water. When we arrived it was a beautiful, blue and sunny afternoon and for the most part it stayed that way, except a couple hours later a small storm blew by. All of a sudden it was incredibly windy and the blue sky was covered with menacingly dark storm clouds. For a brief period of time, probably about 15 minutes, it poured down with such ferocity coupled with equally intense winds that I was afraid our trailer would be pushed into the creek and float away. Of course that didn’t happen and before we knew it the sky had opened up into a cheerful blue and the winds had subsided. Were it not soaking wet outside you might have thought you had imagined the whole thing!

Our campsite on Chalk Creek
The mountains surrounding Nathrop and the few other towns close by were huge and gorgeous, as mountains often are. I doubt I could ever tire of looking at a mountain range. There are always new things to notice, even with a mountain that you're very familiar with. Thinking about how much variance there is in how mountains form starts to really make sense when you notice how different ranges can be from one another. Some, as I've talked about previously, like the Tetons, jut out from the earth, their youth made evident by their jagged peaks which have not been around long enough for weathering to dull them. Others have many foothills that look as though they were formed in the aftershock of a mountain jutting up towards the sky; they are the ripples that coursed through the earth for miles and miles. 

The Mountains near Nathrop, CO

The only two annoying things about the Chalk Creek RV Park were that it was definitely overpriced for what it provided and considering that it’s the off-season right now, and the fact that the showers are coin operated! You have to pay more money just to use one of their not-so-wonderful showers!! You would step into the stall and insert your quarters and realize that they had a maximum 15 minute time limit on any showers… WHAT?! Showers at this point in the trip are not merely a place to get clean but also a place to just stand for a few quiet moments with comfortably hot water cascading all around you. This shower not only had a time limit but the shower, when activated, emitted a high pitched squeal that stayed around for the duration of your showering. Oy vey! Major points got deducted from this place after that experience, let me tell you! 

Pasta with Sausage and Greens (Recipe)

Recipe for: Pasta with Sausage and Greens

This is one of my favorite fall back recipes to make at home because it’s fairly simple and easy. It also does well on the road and is easy to make in the travel trailer! It is worthy to note that if you have a boyfriend/ son/ person who eats extraordinary amounts of food, it is very easy to make a lot of this! Leftovers are great, as well.

There are several variations on this but essentially to make it you boil some water for pasta, either rigatoni or penne. Cook it according to the package’s instructions.

As the water for the pasta is heating up, heat a frying pan with about a tablespoon of olive oil.

Chop up some garlic and dice some onions and throw them into the heated pan. Add a pinch of salt, ¼ tsp chili powder, and about ½ tsp each pepper and garlic powder.

When the contents of the frying pan have browned a bit I then add any sausage (one to one and a half per person) with really good flavor (Andouille, spicy Italian, etc. but nothing too sweet. Antibiotic-free meat is always a good way to go, as well!). Cook it on medium heat until it’s lightly browned on both sides.

Then I add chopped mushrooms and spinach (remember that they both cook down a lot so use more than you think you should!) and leave it covered for about 3 minutes. You can be finished here. After you strain the pasta you’d just add a little olive oil and a pinch of salt, and then put the sausage mixture on top of the pasta and top it off with a good amount of parmesan cheese.

If you want more of a sauce topping you can add a can of diced tomatoes along with some Italian spices to the sausage mixture while it’s still in the pan and reduce it a bit until it’s a desirable consistency. Adding some parmesan or shredded cheddar to the sauce helps it to thicken a bit faster.

Also, if you're on a bit of a budget, like most of the country is right now, you can make flavorful sausage go a lot further by slicing it thinner. As long as it's good sausage it will still have enough of that great flavor and it's easier to brown the thinner slices. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Day 21- Mountain Goats! & A Midnight Propane Adventure

October 5th 2010 Day 21 Tuesday

This morning Aaron had a test but he had time to get bagels with us beforehand so we could chat a bit more and then say goodbye. After that we hit the road once again, not quite sure where we would be stopping for the night but we figured since we got an early start we could cover a good amount of ground and stop whenever we got tired or whenever the daylight started to run out.

We were driving along a narrow two land highway when we realized the car in front of us had stopped short. There was another car in front of it that had stopped because a herd of some kind of animal had decided to cross the road. At first I thought they were deer because they were so big but then I realized, well, those sure look a lot like goats but… Oh my gosh they’re mountain goats!! I had no idea mountain goats were so huge! They were almost as big as adult whitetail deer! We were stopped for about a minute as about 8 of them took their time crossing, not seeming too startled by the cars. I was able to get a picture of them out the window as we passed by.

Mountain Goats just outside of Fort Collins, CO

Mountain Goats!
We unexpectedly passed through Central City on our round-about, off the interstate path. Butte, MT, known for its prolific copper mines, was known as the "richest hill on earth" while the Central City, CO area, home to several gold veins, was known as the "richest square mile on earth." I think they were a little off there though because the deposits weren't enormous and at its peak the population numbered only a little above 3,000 people, whereas Butte at it's peak had over a million people living and working. 

Central City was one of the many cities created around gold veins during the Pike's Peak Gold Rush of 1858. This rush followed the California gold rush by ten years and brought over 100,000 prospectors to the area. Central City is one of the cities that has remained intact since its heyday. 

Central City- a small city in the middle of nowhere filled with huge buildings and ornate sculptures.
We decided to spend the night in Pike National Forest even though Colorado is kind of annoying in that they charge you an entrance fee to hike in their forests and they charge you $12 to park your car! In the woods! Almost everywhere else in the country national forest camp spots are super cheap, entry to them is free, and you definitely don’t need a parking permit for your car! People who live in Colorado or who hike there frequently can buy a pass to save money but that didn’t make sense for us. Even knowing how crazy Colorado could sometimes be we figured that since we needed a place to stay and we wanted to be in the woods we would check out a spot in Pike and see how much it would be to spend the night. We did not realize how long of a drive, on a dirt road (with a travel trailer, ouch), it would be to get to the camp site. When we finally got there we were so relieved but then we saw that it was totally ridiculously expensive and didn’t provide any kind of hookups (and definitely no Wi-Fi!). Luckily since we were in the middle of nowhere we found a place where we could pull off on the side of the dirt road, just outside the national forest boundary, and set up our trailer so we could spend the night. It sounds a lot sketchier than it was. The trailer was positioned perfectly, far enough off the road that if a car came by we wouldn’t be in the way but also right next to a trickling creek that Hanz immediately splashed around in. 

At this point we were starting to stress a little because this far north it was starting to get really cold at night. The last thing that we wanted was for our pipes to freeze and burst because that would cost somewhere around $2,000 to fix! We’d initially planned on going down the coast from Montana and then cutting up through the Southwest and Colorado on our way back. When taking winter weather into consideration it definitely made sense for us to take the coast back up north in November and December because even if it got cold it wouldn’t freeze.

After cooking dinner, using the built in fan to keep it aired and having the lights on, for some reason our battery was fried. We had so little left that Tyler repositioned his truck so he could hook it up to the trailer and use it as a generator. This didn’t work as well as it normally should have because, as we later discovered, the brake in the front of the trailer was being used for support since we were parked on a bit of an angle and that somehow drained the battery (understanding that kind of thing is Tyler’s department so for details ask him). We didn’t realize this at the time though so we just figured since we were tired we’d go to bed and figure it out in the morning.

Let me preface this story by letting you know that the propane detector in the trailer needs a least a small amount of battery life to remain on. As you know, we had very little and evidently, at some point in the night, we had none.

We woke up at some god-forsaken hour to an alarm going off. Bleary-eyed I looked around and saw that the noise was coming from our propane gas detector which was mounted about 6 inches off the ground on a pantry. I couldn’t tell if it was beeping because it had actually detected propane gas or if something was wrong, like maybe it was telling me it was turning off because the battery in the trailer was dead. Not wanting to think about it for too long in a possibly gas-filled trailer Tyler and I quickly grabbed Hanz and went outside. We were both very tired and it was uncomfortably cold out in the Colorado mountainside so we wanted to figure out what was going on and solve it as soon as humanly possible.

Tyler, in a moment of sheer half-asleep genius, decided we could tell if propane was filling the trailer by throwing a lit match onto the floor from outside. Somehow, when it’s freezing cold outside and it’s the middle of the night and you’re exhausted an idea like this sounds good because it means that if the trailer doesn’t blow up you can go back to sleep. We step about 5 feet from the trailer (great buffer zone, I know) and Tyler lights a match and chucks it inside. We both kind of cringed and then realized we weren’t dead so there probably wasn’t a propane leak but just in case Tyler tried one more time, lighting the match and throwing it on the floor. Once again, we were still standing there without any third degree burns so we figured it was a malfunction or at least nothing that posed imminent danger. And as for our problem solving technique, you all can hold on to your judgment because we figured that if there was a propane gas leak we would die from that in our sleep and the only way to tell for sure whether or not there was gas was with fire. However I will note we were very glad that there wasn’t any gas in the trailer, especially in recounting the event the next day while shaking our heads and looking a bit embarrassed.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Follow Up on a Mysterious Language

I just wanted to follow up on something that I talked about on Day 11 ("Mountain Lions and The Swiss"). If you remember my mentioning the Swiss couple that Tyler and I met at a campground in Lander, Wyoming, you also probably remember my embarrassment at being unfamiliar with the language that they spoke. 

When Tyler and I were in California his uncle Bill was kind enough to identify (and spell!) the language as being Romansch. I've been told there are different spellings but that's the one I'm using until someone tells me differently! And I feel a little less like the ignorant American I thought I was after I met them because Romansch is only spoken in a very small and specific section of Switzerland, a canton called Graub√ľnden. Despite it's few followers (not even 100,000 people) it is one of Switzerland's four official languages. The name Romansch was actually given as an umbrella term for a group of related dialects that were standardized in 1982. 

So, that was your linguistics lesson for the day, I hope you all, as I do, feel a little more worldly now. :)

Buna notg! (Good Night!)