Saturday, June 6, 2015

Black Canyon, Part I: Driving

What one thinks of in any region, while traveling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Where tumbleweeds go to die (Cimarron National Grassland, southwestern Kansas)

Disclaimer: Although I enjoy the autonomy afforded by an auto-mobile, I hate to drive and do anything I can to avoid using my car.  Poor thing has been parked for most of the winter, only for me to, mid-May, test its squeaky brakes, give it new tires, and ask it to carry me halfway across the country.

Another Disclaimer: Although I usually avoid interstates, preferring to meander along backroads and “blue highways,” I wanted to get back West as quickly as possible.  My car and I zipped mind-numbingly across 600 miles one day and 700 the next.  Aside from visits with family and friends, we barely stopped or slowed until past Salina, Kansas. Once the landscape began to unfurl—aah, open plains undulating beneath a broken grey sky—we escaped from I-70, cutting more leisurely southwest towards Elkhart.

I think this is my final Disclaimer: Although I hate interstates and really, really hate driving in cities / anywhere there’s traffic, I do thoroughly enjoy rolling along empty roads, windows open, car filled with the scent of sage and songs of meadowlarks.  U.S. 56 is now my second favorite drive in Kansas (behind Rte. 36)—mile after mile of windmills and pastures, punctuated only by the occasional intersection or town, all exposed to that indomitable sky.

My car and I were aiming for Cimarron National Grassland and the Santa Fe Trail. Luckily, I’d scribbled down directions to the Conestoga Trailhead—gathering dusk plus poorly-marked roads plus entirely unmarked turns would have made the spot to find otherwise. The USFS website had given me the impression that this was a popular location, but there were no signs that anyone had been down the rutted road for weeks. I had the whole place to myself—just me, my car, some livestock, and several gas wells humming away on our public lands.

I spent a cramped night in my front seat (I’d had neither the time nor desire to pitch a tent), then woke with the sun, or rather to cattle curiously mooing at and rocking the car.  My plan was to hike for a few miles out and back—not the entire 19 mile trail, but enough to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape.  After getting my pack ready and signing in at the trail register (first person for 2015—do people not use the trail, or just not sign in?), I set off.

I didn’t make it fifty yards before I lost the trail. There was a lonely sandstone marker, then nothing. Um. Knowing I was supposed to head westward, I just started wandering, keeping an eye out for prickly pear and, eventually, another stone marker.  Then I repeated the process all over again—wander, watch, aha! A marker! (At least, in grasslands, it’s easy to roam and hard to get lost.)

I felt vaguely sorry for tromping around so widely--the sign at the trailhead had asked me to please stay on the companion trail so as to not damage the historic Santa Fe Trail itself. But, then again, the "historic fabric" was pretty well ruined by the dozens of gas wells (plus wellpads, roads, etc) visible from each trailmarker.
 Maybe a mile later, a stone marker tried to send me right into a fence and tidy field.  There was a gate nearby, and, at its foot, broken signs announced private property and politely asked hikers to secure the gate behind them.  Looking more closely at the signs, I realized that they hadn’t just fallen—they'd been very purposefully cut. That decided it.  Feeling lost, unwelcome, and increasingly indignant (“I have a right to experience American heritage,” I held an imaginary conversation with the sign-cutter, “and explore public lands”), I turned around and headed back to my car, skirting yet another herd of curious cattle en route.

Less a matter of "Please stay on trail" than the message "You're not welcome here; Please go away"

"Who are you?" mooed the cattle, investigating the interloper, "And what are you doing here?"
Fine. So much for Cimarron. On to Comanche National Grassland—my main destination. For years, I’ve been hoping to hike to Picketwire Canyon, home to one of the largest dinosaur tracksites in the country, preserved in the same geologic formation (hooray, Morrison!) in which I’ll be working this summer.  I’d tried to visit the locality four years ago, but my low-clearance, front-wheel-drive sedan had been thwarted by thunderstorms/diverted to Vogel Canyon—a nice enough, though dinosaur-trackless, area to hike. This time, my only-slightly-higher-clearance-but-AWD Subaru and I arrived eagerly at Comanche early afternoon. We proceeded to navigate the rough, muddy road, growing increasingly nervous as the local radio station forecasted several days of rain.  Judging from my odometer, we made it within about 2 miles of the Picketwire Corrals (which are, in turn, 3 miles from the trailhead) when we encountered an impassable drainage—over half a foot of standing water, with thick oozy mud on either side.  

Um.  Option 1: try driving through (and, almost surely, get the car stuck; ruin the road.)  Option 2: park and hike the 5 miles to the trailhead then the 5+ miles to the tracks, hoping to make it back before storms and/or dark. (Darn it, I was going to see those tracks.) Option 3: Option 2, but starting early the next day. (I wanted to actually study the tracks, not rush in and out.)

Sigh. Opting for #3, I turned around and, on a whim, decided to return to Vogel Canyon.  I’d never expected to see the spot again, but at least it afforded an area to park and a trail to walk. I was surprised to find my memories of the place vivid—yes, this was where I’d lost the path before (and again); yes, I remember the curve of that cottonwood; wow, I photographed the sign from the exact same angle, emphasizing the daunting sense of space.  The last time I was there, though, I’d witnessed a transcendent transition from late afternoon to soft dusk to brilliant night, with a spectacularly fat full moon illuminating every dusty shrub and distant mesa. On this evening, thickening and lowering clouds cloaked the sky, convinced me to spend another night curled uncomfortably into my car, and, worst of all, portended rain.

Along the Prairie Trail, Vogel Canyon Trailhead (Comanche National Grassland, southeastern Colorado)

Sure enough, it started pouring at midnight. Waking to the pounding on the roof, I wondered whether I’d be able to get as far down the road toward the tracksite trailhead. As it continued to rain the rest of the night, I sleepily began to worry that I’d be stuck at the Vogel Canyon parking area.  When day dawned bright and new, I strolled out to see the prairie, fresh and alive, only to realize that the road was pure mud—boot-sucking mire, difficult just to walk on. There was absolutely no way my car would get out to the tracks; it was barely (nobly!) capable of slipping and splattering the several miles to solid pavement.

Beautiful morning!  Until the mud tried to swallow my boots, then my car
Relieved, but also tired, stiff, and disappointed, I drove to La Junta and rewarded my car with a tankfull of gas.  From there, I gave up on adventure—plans to visit Great Sand Dunes, Durango, and Silverton shriveled.  Instead, I decided on one last push—300 miles to Black Canyon.  The drive was uneventful, the scenery spectacular.  My car made it through narrow Canon City, over Monarch Pass (complete with a sparkle of snow flurries), into Gunnison, and from that point into ever-more familiar terrain—along the shores of Curecanti (hello, reservoir! Hello, Dillon Pinnacles!), past Cimarron (hello, train!), up the winding road to the park quarters (Grizzly Ridge! Green Mountain! The West Elks, and, of course: hello, Canyon!), where it’s been sitting ever since, resting and slowly sloughing mud.

Five days.  More than 2000 miles.  Traveling far and fast, only sometimes stopping to visit new things, what did I actually see of the country? My impressions and now my memories of each place are dependent on the time of day and weather while I was there, and, more subtly, my expectations and my mood. To me, Cimarron = cattle, gas wells, and a forlornly trailless trail; Comanche = muddy defeat. All of the Midwest = Interstate. Everything west of Gunnison = old friends.

Spiraling in and slowing down, I’ve now had two weeks to revisit most areas of the park and, better yet, have gotten to explore on foot. More thoughts, observations, and photos to come.

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