Spring Break 2017: Ball Rock and Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

After a lazy day of driving, I left the Austin area looking for something relatively easy to hike. Sort of on a whim, I turned off towards Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and then pulled over to hike Ball Rock.

It was a pretty short hike and I found myself at the summit fairly quickly. The sun was warm but it was fairly breezy.

After I summited and looped back around to the van, I continued south to Berlin-Ichthyosaur. I immediately drove up to the fossil site excited to check it out. Unfortunately, tours of the shelter only happen on the weekend (and they charge another $3 on top of your $7 entry fee into the park). I had to content myself with just peering in the windows.

I spent a little time poking around the Berlin townsite before heading further west!

Topaz Museum and Historic Site

A cursory Google of my intended route had turned up the (free) Great Basin Museum in Delta, Utah. I figured I could use a leg stretch when I arrived after driving across the state so I pulled in behind the visitor center and walked around the corner.

Before I reached my intended museum, I noticed the Topaz Museum sign. This gorgeous building, with its exterior clad shou sugi ban style, stood out in the plain western Utah town. I’m a little embarrassed but I wandered inside partially not knowing what to expect and partially expecting a rock museum.

It only took me a few minutes of wandering around the lobby to understand what this museum was about. I was confused about whether there was an entry fee and about where to go. Eventually, a woman came out and ushered me into a group with a docent that had started just minutes before me.

We watched two films before the docent ushered us into the start of the exhibits. The first was about the history of Topaz and how it fit in with the rest of the internment camps in the western United States. The second was footage actually shot in Topaz by someone who was held in the camp. An administrator had helped him acquire a camera but didn’t fully give him “permission” to film. This is one of only two home movies to be housed in the Library of Congress.

I was nervous about taking photos of all of the museum exhibits but within minutes of entering the museum I had a sad sinking feeling in my gut. I attempt to not be overtly political on this blog but it is clear that our country has elected someone who is unclear on how much internment is in conflict with true American values and that underscored how important it is that we recognize how we failed ourselves in the 1940s.

The Topaz museum is astounding. The exhibits are incredibly well designed. Housed within the museum is a residence for four people and outside the backdoor is a recreation hall moved from the site. There is furniture from the site that was constructed from found wood and photos showing how Topaz interacted with Delta once it was realized that the internees were not actually a threat to our country.

The last piece of the museum is a discussion of how the internment was handled in the courts after it happened. This didn’t feel like the end of the story to me so I decided I should head out to the actual site of the camp, just outside of town.

I only made it to the memorial before I sat down on its sunwarmed granite and cried. I hadn’t even entered the site yet. The museum had so well laid the foundation for an understanding of how the internment of Japanese-Americans fit into our history and into our present that I couldn’t help but feel the moment so acutely.

While I was in the museum, one of the docents commented how terrible it was that they were confined to such an ugly place. I couldn’t help myself when I responded, “It’s only ugly if you’re stuck.” On the very edge of the great basin, I was struck by the mountains and the sky. But to imagine being trapped in such a space was unthinkable.

I grew up near the Puyallup Fairgrounds which had been an assembly point for those of Japanese ancestry while waiting to be sent to their permanent camps further inland. In elementary school, we’d had a presentation by the author of Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, and we learned about internment camps and how important baseball had been.

Standing behind what had been the backstop of one of the baseball fields, I finally started to feel some peace. I’m not sure if its the idea of baseball being “America’s game” or if its just that my long association with the game makes me feel closer to people or what. I sat on the hard dirt and looked out to the northeast, just like ball fields are supposed to, for a bit and collected myself to move on.

 

While my visit to Topaz wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t easy, I really recommend a stop. The museum is located in Delta, Utah right on the main highway and the camp is a relatively short drive outside of town. 

On The Page: Otto Mears and the San Juans

After reading Ouray my interest in learning more about local history was piqued and I dove right into Otto Mears and the San Juans by E. F. Tucker. I knew that Otto Mears was involved in the Rio Grande Southern and in the building of a lot of toll roads including one up and over Red Mountain Pass. Outside of that I’d heard that he was a little bit eccentric and that was all.

Otto Mears was into everything. Mears was born in Latvia (then part of Russia) before he was sent to live with family members in England and then to another family member in New York. When they sent him to San Francisco to live with yet another family member at age 11, he arrived to find that the relative had departed for Australia. From then on, Mears was on his own.

Mears eventually became an American citizen and served in the Union army during the Civil War. He was discharged in Northern New Mexico and used his money to enter business as a merchant. Mears slowly migrated north towards the Saguache area where he continued to operate businesses and became more and more involved with local politics.

As I’d learned in Ouray, Mears also got involved in Native American policy by both by accepting government contracts for supplies but later in helping negotiate treaties with the Ute Nation. As with most actions of whites towards Native Americans Mears actions when seen through a modern lens are really problematic. E. F. Tucker makes a good argument that while Mears was involved in the final expulsion of the Uncompaghre and Weeminuche bands from Colorado that he pushed for them to move directly to the reservation in Utah rather than settling near what is now Grand Junction because he believed that they’d be asked to move yet again. 

Mears briefly served in the Colorado legislature but didn’t stay long, opting to operate behind the scenes and start building his famous toll roads first over Poncha Pass and most famously over Red Mountain Pass, now the route of the “Million Dollar Highway” US 550. Later, he progressed to railroads including the Rio Grande Southern and a handful of smaller railroads servicing mines in the Silverton area.

Mears worked most of his life and only slowed down a little bit towards the end of his life. In his later years, as his wife Mary suffered from ill health, he traveled back and forth from Silverton to California. Aside from a couple of short stints in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Mears spent most of his adult life in Colorado.

I loved reading about Otto Mears. I drive Red Mountain Pass regularly to access recreation and have come to love and appreciate the ridiculousness of its precarious position above the Uncompahgre Gorge. While Mears never stopped looking out for his own business ambitions, he was instrumental in the development of the San Juans.

 

 

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Any money I make via Amazon goes to buy more books about the West so I can read them and tell you all. All opinions are my own.

Telluride Historical Museum

I have a weird relationship with museums. Sometimes there are things there that are cool enough to justify going but usually I just find them expensive and wish I’d applied my entry ticket to buying a book that would have given me deeper information than I got on the informational posters in the museum. That being said, since 2017 is going to be busy with non-travel stuff, I’ve decided that I should at least visit the Telluride Historical Museum, the Ouray County Museum, the Ute Indian Museum, and probably the Ouray County Ranch History Museum.

Luckily, for the cheapskate in me, the Telluride museum is free to locals on Thursdays! It was really important to me to make it there this winter because they had a special exhibit called “Treasure Maps: Cartography of the American Southwest.” Since I love maps and history it seemed like a match made in heaven.

Not to bury the lede: I loved it. The maps were arranged in chronological order and I poured over them seeing the deepening understanding of the Southwest’s geography. Some of the maps were particularly amazing, the Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco map of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition was probably my favorite. I’m not sure how old each of the map prints were at the exhibition but I loved the whole thing.

The other exciting piece of the museum was seeing the Telluride Blanket, an intact Anasazi blanket dating from 1041-1272. The only known intact Anasazi blanket in the world, the blanket was in gorgeous condition. (For lots more information on the blanket, check out this PDF from the museum.)

I really enjoyed the Telluride Historical Museum. I saw some awesome historic local photos that I hadn’t seen before. The museum was easy to navigate, it was fresh and modern. The museum is only $5 (and for locals, it’s free on Thursdays!). It’s definitely worth a visit.

On The Page: Ouray: Chief of the Utes

I have always loved learning about the area where I live. Growing up, I looked forward to the fourth grade study of Washington history very intently and continued to build my knowledge of the area into high school. I was initially drawn to Idaho’s Silver Valley by its history (mostly through reading Tim Egan’s The Big Burn) and then purchasing the cabin drove my research into the specifics of mine development in the upper valley. I have been pretty slow to develop my understanding of the history of the San Juan Mountain region. Lately, I’ve been doing better at delving into books, some of which I’ve talked about here recently.

One of the more enlightening things that I’ve read lately is Ouray: Chief of the Utes by P. David Smith. Inspired partly by the ongoing renovation of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, I picked this up at the library. I wanted to have some background knowledge before visiting the museum when it reopens this spring. (Recent political events have also inspired me to read more about not white men… I violated this by reading about Otto Mears so I guess I’m going to have to put Isabella Bird next…or perhaps Chipeta?)

Photo: Matthew Brady. Source: Library of Congress

The San Juans were settled relatively late, with the initial gold placer gold finds happening in the Eureka area (near Silverton) in 1860. Ouray spends some time discussing Chief Ouray’s early life but Smith wisely spends most the book discussing Ouray’s time as one of the leaders of the various Ute bands during the multiple treaty negotiations for the San Juan Mountain region and the Uncompaghre Valley.

As might be expected, the discovery of riches on lands granted to the Ute tribe (a loose confederation of approximately seven bands) lead to the US government continually renegotiating treaties with the tribe and shrinking their holdings. I am curious to see how the Ute Indian Museum presents the story of the tribe (the redesign of the museum features input from the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Northern Ute Tribe) because Smith’s interpretation of Ouray is extremely favorable.

The portrait painted by Smith is of a man that fought hard for his people while grasping the futility of the situation. While the story clearly shows a man that was able to coordinate diverse interests within the larger Ute Nation the picture seems entirely too cut and dried to me. Ouray himself was promised a salary for the remainder of his life while the reservation became smaller and smaller and predicated some negotations with the government on their willingness to search for his son who had been abducted by the Sioux. His actions (and the actions of his wife Chipeta) during and after the Meeker Massacre were certainly admirable―they welcomed the surviving women from the Indian Agency into their home while the recovered from the ordeal. Certainly, Ouray was a man of his time that did the best that he could with what he knew.

This book served as a great introduction to Ouray’s life. I was fascinated to learn that the hot springs that are now Orvis Hot Springs were considered holy to the Utes which lead to them attempting to hold onto the land that is now Ridgway for a long time. I’m sure that forming a complete picture of the man is difficult given the circumstances but I’m looking forward to reading more about his life.

1873 Treaty Negotiations

 

P.S. Can someone buy me the complete catalogs of Wayfinder Press and Western Reflections? My local history knowledge requires it…

This post contains affiliate links with Amazon. All opinions offered here are my own.

On The Page: The Western San Juan Mountains

Not having internet at home has been excellent for diving into some deeper reading material. I recently dived into The Western San Juan Mountains: Their Geology, Ecology, and Human History. Edited by a professor of geology at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, The Western San Juan Mountains has three sections exploring each of the topics mentioned in its subitites. Each section is divided into chapters written by experts in their fields (most authors hold doctorates).

The Western San Juans

While the book isn’t necessarily written for an academic audience, it is detailed and uses a significant amount of technical language (particularly noticeable in the geological section). The chapters all conclude with a reference section. These reference sections pose an immense threat to my book buying ban but that’s a personal issue of mine. I found it more than readable but for some readers it might be a sort of dense slog.

The geological section was probably the most condensed broad sweeping geological overview of the San Juans (or at least their western portion) that I’ve read so far. I definitely want to do more to make this all fit into an organized schema in my mind but knowing more about the deep history of my home mountains makes me really happy.

The biological section was detailed (and contains one chapter that will probably make an appearance as a reading in my biology class next fall) and as someone inimately aquainted—ahem, scratched to bits—with the “mid” elevation horrors of Gambel oak (more commonly known as “scrub oak”), I found it interesting if not particularly groundbreaking. The human history section was more adequately covered by Exploring The San Juan Triangle, recently reviewed on this blog.

The Western San Juan Mountains, published by University Press of Colorado, is probably only of interest to big old nerds like me. Since this is my blog, I’m assuming that at least some of you fall in my camp and, in that case, you might really enjoy this book before a visit to the region. Each of the sections could be read separately which means that it can be fit into a busy life before a trip. Theoretically, each chapter stands alone but I think they made a lot more sense when grouped with the other chapters in their section.

On The Page: Exploring The Historic San Juan Triangle

I finally go smart this summer and made a box specifically of “books I haven’t read” since I’m on a strict “you can’t buy any more books until you finish the ones you already have” budget. One of those books was Exploring The Historic San Juan Triangle by P. David Smith. I bought this book back in 2013 when I first moved to Ridgway and it just never seemed to be accessible when I needed a book. I definitely missed out due to my procrastination!

Exploring the Historic San Juan Triangle

Smith’s history of the San Juan Triangle, the area roughly bounded by Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton, is an excellent crash course in the history of settlement and mining in the region. The first chapters of the book describe the histories of the main towns in the region: Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride. (My beloved Ridgway sits just outside the triangle and has some definite ranching vs mining roots.) Just a few pages into the history, as Smith described how miners started to drift into the San Juans while they were still officially Ute lands, I realized I know nothing really about this area. Since the book is written partially as history and partially as a travel guide there was some emphasis on the locations (past and present) of key buildings but I really enjoyed that since I could picture each of the towns.

After the histories of individual towns, there is a series of chapters that give a fairly exhaustive explanation of mines and ghost towns that existed along Jeep routes in the area. I can picture many of the places he mentions but I’m just itching to get back out and check out the rest of them! In addition to covering the “classic” routes (Imogene, Black Bear, Cinnamon, Engineer, etc.) Smith talks about spur roads and lesser known routes as well.

Beaumont Hotel Ouray,CO

As I mentioned, the book is written as a guide to travel so sometimes the narration is a bit clunky. Dividing the history up into specific locations is helpful when you’re driving or visiting one of the towns but sometimes that also makes for a bit of repetitiveness to the history. That being said, however, if you like history and context for your exploring and you plan on visiting the San Juans (or if you need some inspiration to come check out my gorgeous mountains), Exploring The San Juan Triangle is an excellent place to start diving in!

Colorado Ghost Town: St. Elmo

Sprocket and I were so excited to head out for adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that we left Thursday evening although we weren’t going to meet Mike until Friday afternoon. By the time I got to Buena Vista I was starting to get a little bit tired so we headed up in the mountains and found a place to sleep just shy of the ghost town of St. Elmo.

Campsite

Founded in 1878 as Forest City the name was soon changed to St. Elmo since Forest City was too popular a name and it was causing confusion for the post office. The name came from a novel one of the founders was reading. In 1879, construction began on the Alpine Tunnel that would connect Pitkin and St. Elmo through the Continental Divide. Between construction of the tunnel and mining operations the town filled with the usual assortment of saloons, dance halls, and brothels.

St. Elmo

Alpine Tunnel opened in 1881 and St. Elmo became a stop on the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad. Along with the railroad came more “reputable” residents including the Stark family. Population of St. Elmo swelled to nearly 2,000 around the turn of the century with most working at the Mary Murphy Mine, Teresa C. Mine, The Pioneer, or the Molly.

St Elmo

The Stark’s descendants were some of the towns only year-round residents after Alpine Tunnel closed in 1910, the mines closed throughout the 1920s, and the last train ran in 1922. Anabelle Stark and two of her siblings remained in the town through the early 1950s, aquiring most of the structures in town believing that St. Elmo would rise again. Anabelle and her brother Tony were institutionalized for their own protection in the mid 1950s; they bathed rarely and let garbage build up in their hotel. Although authorities were later convinced Tony and “Dirty Annie” weren’t a threat to anyone, Tony died shortly after being released. Anabelle went to a nursing home in 1958 and died in 1960.

St. Elmo

St Elmo

Most of the structures in St. Elmo are privately owned and many are summer vacation homes. An effort is currently under way to find money to stabilize and preserve several structures including the Home Comfort Hotel and the Stark Bros. Store and the American House Hotel parlor with various grants. Historic St. Elmo & Chalk Creek Canyon, Inc. will be attempting to raise $18,000 in matching funds for these grants in 2016 with work to be completed by the end of summer 2017.

In the summer, the rebuilt town hall is open to visitors as is the general store. I’ll definitely have to stop when I come back through to explore more of the area including Tin Cup Pass!

St Elmo

St. Elmo

 

 

Sources:

Danger, Tatiana. “St. Elmo’s Fire: The Tragic Story of America’s Most Enchanting Ghost Town.” Roadtrippers. 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

DeJong, D.J. “St. Elmo receives grant for American House.” The Chaffee County Times. 13 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

“St. Elmo, Colorado.” Legends of America. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

On The Page: One Man’s West

I count myself among those that are feeling the Internet’s affect on my brain. I used to read all the time and now? Rather than reading one of the many books I’ve accumulated (I love books) I find myself browsing Twitter or skimming some silly Buzzfeed article. If I’m going to focus to read a good longform article, I send it to my Kindle… where it languishes until I finally binge on all the good stuff I’ve sent there.

Anyway, my mom clearly pursued my Amazon wishlist while she was Christmas shopping and bought me a copy of David Lavender’s One Man’s WestOne Man’s West fits in perfectly with my bookshelf of adventure, local history, geology, travel, etc. I love reading about the places I know animated under a different time or through the eyes of someone with a different background. In the book, Lavender relates tales of his young adulthood in southwestern Colorado.

One Man's West

While there is definitely a story line, Lavender focuses on groups of related stories in each chapter. While One Man’s West focuses on Lavender’s time as a miner and rancher, later in life he became an English teacher as well as a prolific writer. I was sort of surprised to learn that One Man’s West was his first book: I found it to be conversational and really compelling.

The “new edition” (2007) includes an excellent introduction by David G. Lavender (the author’s son) which set the stage for the book describing how David Lavender was born in Telluride in 1910 and came to return to his stepfather’s ranch in far western Montrose county after attending boarding school in Pennsylvania followed by Princeton and then a short stint at Stanford Law.

The book begins with a description of the time Lavender spent in Camp Bird mining and attempting to build up a nest egg before he married his wife, Martha. I’m sure part of my love for this book is driven by my knowledge and understanding of the region that he writes about but I loved his description of life high above Ouray. It is so much fun to imagine life in the basin and in town as it must have been and Lavender does an excellent job of facilitating it. (I also learned that Lavender Peak in the La Platas is named after the author’s brother!)

Hanging Flume

Similarly, the section of the book describing life as a cattle rancher are very rooted in place and time. The ranch operations happened primarily between the Paradox Valley and Lone Cone but Bluff, Utah and Indian Creek make cameo appearances as well. (Climbers will totally recognize places in the Indian Creek section!) He even discusses the Dolores Canyon Hanging Flume. But amidst all the places where my geography obsessed heart leaps there is a very clear eyed but tender picture of a west that was quickly fading.

Indian Creek Vistas

The book wraps up with a chapter added in (I believe) 1956 discussing how the uranium boom had impacted the region and I though it made for a really great end to the book since that period had a huge impact on the West End.

I highly recommend One Man’s West  to anyone with an interest in western history. Lavender paints a vivid picture of what life in far southwestern Colorado was like during the 1930s that is well worth reading.

Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

I spent a little time browsing the Canyon de Chelly visitors center and trying to get a sense for what I should spend some time doing. I really only wanted to allot time for one of the rim drives but I didn’t stress out about it too much because in the spectrum of western drives, this isn’t too terribly far from the San Juan Mountains.

I started out driving along the South Rim, pulling over at each overlook to enjoy the view. As much as this fit my MO for the morning, I can’t imagine letting something like this be my only interaction with canyons in the southwest! This really just gets back to my issues with national parks, I love them and understand why they’re run the way they are but I really struggle with the restrictions and the way that they seem to encourage very passive consumption of national treasures. BUT ANYWAY.

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly had been a place I wanted to visit for a long time, after having read a NYT piece about it. It really is gorgeous if occasionally it was sort of uncomfortable to politely turn down seemingly earnest Navajo jewelry and artist vendors in the park; I just don’t really know how to respond to someone trying to sell me a painted pictograph (when this area is characterized by petroglyphs) on a slice of sandstone. I don’t want it or need it but somehow I feel guilty for not buying it because, History. The world is complicated sometimes.

Canyon de Chelly

I decided to hike down to White House Ruins. It’s the only place in the monument where you can hike down to the floor of the canyon without a Navajo guide. Sadly, because Canyon de Chelly is part of the National Park Service, Sprocket had to wait for me in the Jeep.

No Puppy Service

The trail down to the White House Ruins is pretty great. It’s short, gorgeous, and pretty well constructed. There’s stairs carved into the sandstone at the rim and a couple of tunnels not to mention the ruins at the bottom.

Stairs in the trail

White House trail

White House Trail

White house ruins trail

Being on the canyon floor was pretty amazing. I’d really love to see more of the canyon. (Anyone want to go in on a Jeep tour with me?)

White House Ruins

After I got back to the car, we visited one more overlook and I let Sprocket walk out with me. I’m not sure if pets are allowed but I figured the warning sign implied that they were? Sprocket was delighted to get out and walk around on slickrock and no ranger chased us down so it all worked out.

Sprocket at an overlook