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Natural and artificial colors

After a pleasant two weeks in the Lake City area, Jan and I headed for Gunnison for some serious grocery shopping at Walmart and City Market, and a very tasty lunch at Gunnison Vitamin & Health. Then we headed out into the boonies again, driving down bumpy, dusty dirt roads until we ended up on Forest Service land, in a field about fifteen miles west of Gunnison.

It was a slow, fatiguing drive, but the campsite was a pleasant one, with a grove of trees nearby. (There were even prettier sites inside the grove, but we're always conscious of the need for plenty of sun on our solar panels, especially as the fall days grow shorter.)

Boondocking

That night I heard mooing, and my heart sank. I've been surrounded by way too many cows this summer, carefully stepped over too many cow-pies, and wiped too many muddy streaks off my rig after cattle had rubbed against it or (ugh!) licked it. I had hoped to avoid any more bovine encounters.

The next morning fog rolled in, with a curtain of gray abruptly cutting off the world beyond the tree line. And yes, there was a cow or two wandering around, but not enough to be a nuisance.

Cow in fog

The fog eventually burned off, but was followed by several days of rain. We decided that the site wasn't that pretty, and decamped to higher altitudes. Heading up toward Owl Creek Pass (another long dirt road—25 miles this time), we found a spectacular site at 9,400'.

Owl Creek Pass boondocking

At this altitude, the trees were just beginning to turn. Growing up in the northeast, I was used to colorful fall foliage, but I had never experienced it in the Rockies. It's an equally impressive spectacle, but different—aspens and scrub oak, instead of maples, mean that the predominant color here is a blazing yellow rather than the reds and oranges of the east. It starts with a few clusters of leaves on one tree... then a few trees in a forest...

Cluster of gold

... until within a few days, whole groves of trees are blazing like the sun.

Backlit aspens

Natural colors

One morning we rose early and left our campsite at 6:00 a.m. to tour the area. Driving over mountain passes before the sun had cleared the peaks towering around us, we stopped to photograph the moon-like landscape, silver with frost, as the first touch of sun turned it to gold. The trees on the hillsides caught the first rays, reflecting intense colors in the ponds below.

Reflecting pond

When the sun rose a little higher—I could actually see the mountain's shadow ebbing away second by second—it touched the trees by the roadside and set them ablaze with color. Did I say there were no reds and oranges? Jan says, in fact, that she's never seen as many as this year.

Aspens touched by the sun

Once the sun was high in the sky, we moved on. (Morning and afternoon light are best!) After stopping in Silverton for an hour or so to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the visitors' center, we headed up to see some scenic mines.

This part of the state is littered with abandoned mines. It seems there's one every mile or two, and in some areas, every few hundred feet... everything from elaborate workings that look like a movie set from "Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom" to small boarded-up openings, scarcely high enough for a man to stand up in, cut into hillsides.

Minor mine

Colorado is rich in minerals—especially heavy metals such as gold, silver, lead, and platinum—and beginning in the 1860s, swarms of miners with visions of quick riches in their heads tore up the landscape with carefree abandon, dumping huge piles of unwanted "tailings" everywhere, and polluting streams with the toxic runoff from extraction operations. (For example, gold was extracted from ore using mercury or cyanide; then the residue was simply dumped.)

Everywhere you look, there are collapsed hundred-year-old wooden structures spilling down hillsides, and piles of tailings scarring the landscape. There've been some efforts at remediation, but they're pitifully underfunded. The traditional western attitude toward natural resources has been to exploit them as long as they're profitable and then move on, leaving the wounds in the earth to fester. It's the same basic philosophy as that of the early eastern settlers, who clear-cut virgin forests, plowed and planted single crops until the soil was exhausted, and then moved on to a fresh patch of land. That spirit lives on in the west. Conservation isn't popular here.

Mine buidling

Feeding the boom, the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act nearly doubled government silver buying, fueling a rapid increase in mining operations here. But the Colorado mining boom was a relatively brief one. Three years later, the repeal of the Sherman Act caused the value of silver to drop dramatically, and most of the hundreds of mines shut down within a few years. By the late 1890s very few were still operating. And when the miners left, nobody bothered to dismantle the workings, much less clean up the messes.

The Yankee Girl mine is a good example. Without a doubt, this once-profitable silver mine—closed in 1898—is one of the most picturesque in Colorado, and its pithead is one of the most photographed.

Yankee Girl

But the pithead sits at the top of acres of tailings spilling down the mountainside—unwanted minerals dug from a thousand feet below and dumped on the surface, leaving a mostly-bare patch on the otherwise heavily wooded landscape.

Yankee Girl tailings

Artificial colors

And down at the bottom of the debris heaps... see that orange-brown stain? That's the runoff from water leaching through the tailings, a toxic stew that kills everything in its path. Colorado has 18 Superfund cleanup sites—not nearly enough, from what I've seen—and scenes like this remind you of how slow the progress has been.

Toxic waste

Getting connected

When we came to this remote mountain campsite, we expected that there'd be no cell signal, and hence no internet. As it turned out, with my high-gain cell antenna extended to its full 16' height and my booster amp going full blast, I could just manage a very slow, intermittent internet connection—adequate for emails, but not for loading web pages. I couldn't upload the text and photos of this page—the 1 KB per second connection just wouldn't handle the files. But it was a lot better than no connection... and the truth is, I was probably the only person within ten miles who had any internet at all.

Every few days we'd drive over the 11,000' pass to a place where we could pick up a Verizon 3G signal. It was only ten miles, but took half an hour or more by dirt road. We'd pull over at a slight widening of the road, perilously close to the edge of a steep drop-off, and sit in the car for hours, uploading and downloading image files and software updates, while Jeeps, ATVs and dirt bikes buzzed past.

But it wasn't all business. We always combined these trips with a little exploring, looking for good photo opportunities. A few days ago we found ourselves in a dense stand of aspens, with the late-afternoon sun turning the upper stories to a shimmering golden haze as the breeze rustled the leaves.

Golden backlit aspens
Looking up at aspens

And driving back down to our campsite, each turn of the road brought new wonders. Rounding a curve to see Chimney Rock looming over the treetops was an awe-inspiring sight.

Chimney Rock

Closer to home, we took a side road (even rougher than the main road) to Rowdy Lake. Arriving a little after 6:00 p.m. on a late September afternoon, we discovered a mirror-smooth gem of a lake, reflecting the aspens—not yet all turned—and the stark cliffs beyond.

Rowdy Lake

At the other end of the lake, a stand of majestic evergreens, already in shade as the sun sank, stood guard over the still water.

Tall pines reflected

We arrived back at our campsite just as the sun brushed the tops of the nearby peaks. Everywhere we turn, the beauty of this location is stunning! It more than makes up for the poor internet connection.

Footloose at Owl Creek Pass
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