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A tale of two mountains

June 23, 2006—This has been a week dominated by mountains: an extinct volcano and a mountain higher than Pike's Peak.

At 8:00 last Tuesday morning, Kate, Terry, our friend Tami and I headed off to Capulin volcano, about 30 miles away from Sugarite Canyon. The National Park Service has thoughtfully provided a road that leads almost to the rim of this 60,000-year-old cinder cone, which rises more than 8,000 feet above sea level. From the parking lot you can hike a short distance down into the crater, or up to the two-mile-long trail that winds around the rim. The view from the crater didn't look all that exciting, so we chose the rim trail.

Capulin

The trail was paved, with benches at intervals, but the rim has some steep ups and downs. We were glad we'd started early in the day, because we were panting and sweaty by the time we got halfway around, and exhausted by the time we finished. The view from the rim out across the hundreds of square miles of wavy terrain caused by ancient lava flows was spectacular, but my pictures were not. There are some landscapes that can only really be rendered in 3-D, and unfortunately I was shooting in plain old 2-D. I've posted stereo photo pairs to this site on occasion in the past, but most people don't know how to view them, so...

Crater

After taking time to catch our breath, we drove down the mountain and had lunch at the Mt. Capulin Country Store Restaurant. It was very good, and served in a pleasant dining room by a very attentive owner. Over lunch, I told Kate about the wristwatch-sized FRS walkie talkies I had ordered for both of us from Woot last night. She was delighted. Turns out she had tried to order a set herself, but was unable to, due to internet connection problems. Kate loves gadgets like this, and she deserves a present for all the things she and Terry have done for me...like taking me to this volcano!

The next day I left Sugarite State Park, descending the long, winding dirt road the same way I'd come up: very, very slowly in first gear.

Winding road

Driving north across, I crossed the Raton Pass into Colorado with a feeling of nostalgia. Nine months ago I had crossed this pass, heading south to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. After an overnight stay, Gertie flooded and stalled the next morning, leaving me stranded in an icy fog. Her old carburetor, adjusted for sea-level New Jersey, was just not up to dealing with 8,000-foot altitude. It was a desolate spot, but I was able to get an internet connection and ask my friends in the Yahoo Lazy Daze group for help, and within an astonishingly short time the answer came back: crank the engine while flooring the accelerator pedal—a trick I'd used back in the sixties, but had forgotten in the intervening decades. That timely tip got me going again... one more instance of my RVing friends saving my ass.

I was sorry to leave New Mexico. This state has shown me so much beauty, and its Annual Camping Permit has made staying in New Mexico state parks so economical (dry camping for free; hookups $4 a night), that if it weren't for the summer heat, I could cheerfully spend years just exploring New Mexico's forty parks. But in entering Colorado, I knew I was heading into a very different situation. Colorado has many attractions, but its state parks are greedy—there's no other word for it.

I had already made my reservations at Chatfield Lake State Recreation Area, paying twenty dollars a night (for full hookups— they don't offer dry camping, which is what I normally prefer) plus an eight dollar reservation fee. But that wasn't all. When I arrived at Chatfield, I found myself paying an additional six dollar a night "day use" fee at the gate, even though I'd already reserved and paid in advance for camping. I ended up spending $78 for three nights that would have cost me $12 in New Mexico. And when I entered Chatfield's bathrooms, I found they wanted fifty cents for a three-minute shower... and so on. Everywhere I turned, Colorado wanted to suck more money out of my pocket.

All of this might have been tolerable if the campground had offered a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. No such luck. It was exactly like Cherry Creek SP, where I'd stayed last fall: immaculate, sterile, and completely lacking in scenery. (I'd show you a picture, but it'd be a waste of bandwidth.) Frankly, I would just as soon have driven straight from northern New Mexico to southern Wyoming... but I was in Colorado to visit my friend Jan, whom I hadn't seen since last fall.

Thursday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 5:15 a.m., Jan picked me up in her Jeep at 6:30 and we drove to Mount Evans. We were hoping to see baby mountain goats, but the mountain vistas are reason enough to go there. Fortunately for us, Mt. Evans—like Pike's Peak—has a road that goes to within a couple hundred feet of the top (14,264 feet, or 154 feet higher than Pike's Peak).

The air was already feeling thin at 12,000 feet as we stopped to view Summit Lake, a glacial "cirque" that resembles an amphitheater with a lake in the middle.

Summit Lake cirque

Closer to the summit, we climbed above most of the clouds. It was fascinating to look over the edge of the road into the boiling cauldron of cumulus below.

Above the clouds

When I say "boiling," I mean it literally. One of the most remarkable experiences of my life was standing on Mt. Evans watching clouds—so close that I felt I could reach out and touch them—twisting, writhing, moving like living creatures... and moving quickly! The best way I can describe it is that it was like being in a time-lapse movie, where everything is speeded up... only this was real. I've never seen anything like it; it was breathtaking!

Altitude sickness is always a risk when you're three miles up in the sky. At the summit I felt a little shortness of breath and lightheadedness, but I was careful to drink lots of water and breathe deeply, and I suffered no serious ill effects aside from a very slight touch of headache.

Even at this altitude, plant and animal life flourishes. Incredibly tiny alpine flowers cluster between lichen-covered rocks, interspersed with tufts of hardy grasses.

Alpine flowers 2

And browsing on those plant morsels are... the goats. Seemingly fearless and surprisingly approachable, they clamber over the rocks, finding food in every nook and cranny.

Goat profile

We were lucky enough to find a family group with day-old kids (according to the rangers). At an age when a human offspring can barely manage to wriggle slowly like an insect larva, these baby goats were climbing the rocks like experienced mountaineers.

Kids
Three in a row

And not just climbing—they were chasing each other, leaping boldly from rock to rock, and engaging in the kind of rough-and tumble games you'd expect from more mature animals.

Kids montage

Always there was an adult or two standing sentry, looking out over the vast stretches of valleys and mountains while keeping an eye on the kids.

Sentry goat

There are three buildings just below the summit of Mt. Evans: a restroom, the remains of a restaurant, and the Meyer-Womble Observatory.

Observatory

Owned by the University of Denver, this observatory takes advantage of the thin air and lack of light pollution on the mountaintop. A big microwave dish peers out from under the roof's eaves at one end of the building. It's aimed at Denver, where the whole thing is remotely controlled. In case you're not up on astronomical developments, this is the way most big observatories run nowadays. No more white-coated scientists peering through their eyepieces at the endless heavens... all imaging is done with digital CCD or CMOS imagers similar to those in our digital cameras, and the images are transmitted to researchers in nice cozy offices hundreds or thousands of miles away, who view them on their computer screens. In short, nobody has to climb Mt. Evans to look at the stars.

The former restaurant has an interesting story. Crest House was built in the early forties and operated for almost forty years, during which time it was the highest building in the world. Of course the season was short—Mt. Evans is closed to the public nine months out of twelve due to severe weather. (Even in the summer, the road to the summit is often closed by snowstorms.) But when it was open, the view must have been amazing. What a spectacular place to eat! You can still wander among the ruins and get a good idea of how remarkable it must have been. A propane explosion destroyed Crest House in 1979 (fortunately nobody was hurt), and it was never rebuilt.

I noticed, by the way, that every building up there was liberally supplied with lightning rods. The small restroom building alone had four. Obviously lightning is a frequent occurrence on the mountaintop, and Dr. Franklin's invention is being put to good use.

We saw more wildlife than goats, of course. This white-crowned sparrow sat very patiently for its portrait, as did a baby rabbit and a fat, lazy marmot.

White-crowned sparrow
Baby rabbit Marmot

Although the temperature at the Chatfield Lake campground had been in the high seventies, it was cold and windy on the mountain. Fortunately, Jan had warned me and I was dressed warmly. Still, after a couple of hours up there we were both beginning to feel chilled. So we descended a couple thousand feet, coming down through the clouds into a less extreme climate zone.

Twisted bristlecone pine

There we found a grove of ancient bristlecone pines, some as old as 1,700 years old... and to our delight, a dense fog (well, a cloud, actually) moved in, softening the twisted forms of the trees. I love the way fog isolates and changes shapes, so I was in heaven.

Twisted bristlecone pine

Nestled in the curve of one tree's roots was a bouquet of tiny ferns and yellow flowers.

Alpine flowers

Another tree was bare of foliage, revealing how the prevailing winds had sculpted it. Bristlecone pines can remain standing for centuries after death, so this windswept skeleton may have been here for hundreds of years just as it looks now.

Windswept pine

On the way down the mountain, we spied a female fox that Jan thought she recognized from previous visits. This vixen was running along, crisscrossing the road—looking for a handout, perhaps. She ran from house to house, limping just slightly, as we watched... then loped off out of sight.

Vixen
Fox running

Exhausted, we drove down the mountain and had dinner at "Tommyknockers," a local restaurant named after miners' gremlins. Afterward, Jan dropped me off at the park, and I stayed up until well past midnight doing a preliminary edit of the day's photos. I finally went to bed tired, but exhilarated.

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