Archive for October 2012

Shooting the Moon at Monument Valley   6 comments

The moon was near its full phase while at Monument Valley recently. I did some photography which included wonderful Luna, so I thought it might be time for a little photography talk. Don’t get too used to it though; I get bored easily with photography how-to (I’d rather do it than talk about it).

The full moon rises between Monument Valley’s famous stone sentinels.

As many photographers know, “shooting the moon” when it’s full can yield killer shots, but it can also be a pain trying to deal with the high contrast.  To be successful, be persistent, and keep in mind the following:

  • The moon needs to be one day before the full phase if you want to shoot it rising at sunset and include the foreground landscape.  It is ideal when at sunset the moon is as close to 24 hours before full phase as possible.  Realize that the moon’s full phase occurs at a specific time; it doesn’t stay exactly full all day and night.  One day before full means the moon will rise just before the sun sets.  This puts it in a good low position, where it appears bigger and is close in brightness to the foreground landscape.  A full moon means it rises right at sunset, which is really a little too late.  You’ll have a darker foreground, with too bright a moon, all of which means major contrast.  If you shoot when it’s more than one day before full, the moon will be too high at sunset.
  • The fact is that on some months, the moon’s full phase does not occur near the time of your local sunset.  Instead, it occurs closer to mid-day, or midnight.  And so you won’t hit that magical 24-hours before full phase, where the moon has fully cleared the horizon at the same time the sunset is at its peak.  It’s worth checking the actual time of the full moon.
  • A reflective landscape helps enormously, since your foreground will always be darker than the moon. In fact, the more reflective the landscape, the easier it is to get good shots even when the moon is very near full. Monument Valley, and really any desert landscape, is just the ticket. Snowy landscapes are also good.
  • A good view toward the eastern horizon is ideal, so you’ll catch the moon at the moment it rises.  You will have more options in terms of exposure, and the moon will be naturally color-saturated when it is adjacent to the horizon. Of course, as with any landscape photo, you’ll want an interesting composition.  It might be better in some cases to let it rise a little ways.
  • If you don’t like what you came up with, just wait a day or so.  On the day after full moon, get up before sunrise and make sure you have an interesting view toward the western horizon.  This time you’ll be photographing a setting moon at sunrise, instead of a rising moon at sunset.
  • All of the above assumes you want a fairly evenly exposed landscape shot.  But there are two other general options.(A)You can simply allow the moon to blow out (making it look like a little sun) while exposing for the foreground. This works best with a smaller moon; that is, shorter focal lengths (35 mm or less). See my image of the Totem Poles, where the moon is not technically blown out, but lacks details and is too small to form a major picture element.(B) You can use a longer focal length (300 mm or more) for a very big moon, and expose for the moon’s details.  Then you can place an interesting subject(s) in front of the moon and let your subject go black in silhouette.  If you don’t want to do a silhouette, you could use artificial lighting for fill light on your subject.  For the big moon/silhouette effect, it doesn’t really matter what phase the moon is in, though the most popular style is to use a full moon.
  • Speaking of focal length, remember that the shorter your focal length, and the further from the horizon the moon is, the smaller it will appear.  Also, the further from the horizon the moon is, the whiter and brighter it will be.  Again, the image of the Totem Poles is an example.
  • There is no chance to balance the brightness of the moon with your foreground when it is well above the horizon.  See next point for an option.
  • If you want to include the moon’s details when it is much brighter than your foreground, you will need to shoot a separate frame for the moon, then add this well-exposed moon back into your first shot using Photoshop (or Elements).  This is called compositing, and you can find many tutorials on the web.  Zoom in to the moon and turn on your spot metering.  Place the center focusing point right in the center of the moon, then snap the picture.  During your photoshopping, it might be tempting to make the moon much bigger.  Although it is probably okay to enlarge the moon by just a fraction, making it a lot bigger is not a great idea in my opinion.  You will see these sorts of silly, amateurish pictures all over the web, and they all look fake.  A better plan is to use medium focal lengths (50-70 mm) so that your moon is naturally bigger.

    Sand dunes and the Totem Poles in Monument Valley as the sun sets and the moon rises.

What with all this knowledge about shooting the moon, you would think I got super excellent shots at Monument Valley.  Well, the first night I tried, in the sand dunes by the Totem Poles, the moon had risen too high by the time the sun had set enough for nice color in the landscape.  So I just let the moon go bright and didn’t worry too much about it being small.  This is an example of making the best of your situation, rather than being disappointed that the shot you had in mind is not there.

On the next night, the moon almost rose too late.  This was one of those months, described above, when the full phase was much less than 24 hours after sunset time.  I knew this might be a problem, so I got to a high point with a pretty good view toward the east.  The dramatic monoliths that make Monument Valley famous formed nice framing elements for the moon.  I knew I had to shoot within a few minutes of the moonrise, while the moon was not too bright, and also showed some nice color.  I used the longest focal length I had – 200 mm.

Sadly, my 100-400L has been stolen on this trip (no more wildlife photography for the foreseeable future – bah!).  I tried for a very simple composition, just a few sandstone towers plus the moon (see top image).  It would have been better if I was able to zoom closer.  I did not want to move closer since then my viewpoint would have been lower.  Looking up at the towers would have made them appear a little shorter, and I would not have had a full view of the moon until it had risen too high.

By the time the moon had risen above the rock towers, it was too bright in comparison to the rapidly darkening landscape.  Though the shots I got are dramatic, they are also fairly two-dimensional, without much of a foreground.  This is a common drawback to using longer focal lengths in landscape photography.  I’m sure I could find a better place from which to get this type of shot at Monument, but since you only get two chances per month, that would mean hanging out here for quite a long time before I got it right.

At Monument Valley, dusk and the sand create a peaceful scene.

The succeeding night was bright with the essentially full moon, and it was tempting to get moonlit landscape shots.  But I had done some of that the previous night, and I had done a lot of staying up late and getting up early over this week.  So I found a lonely spot along the Douglas Mesa Road and drifted off to a deep sleep.  Next morning after breakfast I was on the way out, heading south. I saw a woman on the side of the road with a hand-painted sign that read simply “Fry Bread”.  I realized I had not had any of this Navajo staple on my trip, so I stopped and had her make me a couple.  They were delicious, and cheap!  The same thing was available at the restaurant for $5; she was charging $1 apiece.  I talked with her for awhile, letting her daughter pet my dog.

Friendly and down-to-earth she was, so I enjoyed chatting.  I finally drove off in a great mood.  There was no better way to bid goodbye to Monument Valley than to talk with this Navajo woman while chomping down on a hot Fry Bread covered in honey and cinnamon.  I was on my way to the Hopi Mesas, which is the subject of my next post.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

Monument Valley   2 comments

View of some of Monument Valley’s stone monoliths from the south.

I’ve seen my share of western movies.  In fact, I have to be honest and admit that they are one of my favorite film genres.  I have always wished I was born in St Louis during the mid-1800s.  When I was young I would certainly have headed west to be a mountain man, a guide on the Oregon Trail, or simply a cowboy.  John Wayne (the Duke) was most definitely a giant of western movies.  All this preamble is to say that some of my first impressions of the western landscape are of Monument Valley.

Old portraits of John Wayne appear throughout Monument Valley.

It was an area favored by John Ford and other directors at an early stage, and from the late 1930s through the 50s, large tent camps full of movie crews popped up from time to time amongst the buttes and mesas.  The era of big westerns, such as 1938s Stagecoach (the Duke’s breakout film) eventually came to an end.  But the valley still attracts crews filming car commercials and the like.  John Wayne’s image is a more common sight here than pictures of any Navajo.

Monument Valley is big country.  Lying in the arid American desert southwest, it straddles the Arizona/Utah border.  The valley is characterized by towering sandstone monoliths.  The rocks are reddish from iron oxides. Combine this with the fact that the monoliths take on such a variety of tall buttes, towers and extremely narrow fins, and also because the area between the monoliths is flat and mostly treeless, and you have a landscape that is dramatic in the extreme.  As a backdrop to wagon trains, or to big men in cowboy hats riding horses, it simply can’t be beat.  Photographers are drawn to the valley of course, and in the right light it certainly can yield amazing compositions.

The light was not bad during my visit just before Halloween.  When I arrived in the late afternoon on my first day, there were some promising clouds in the western sky, and so instead of trying to drive through the entire valley, I parked along Highway 163 near its high point and took off walking.  The countryside is easy to hike in this area, no trails required.

Of course, you want to be cautious about where you walk, since it is all Navajo land.  There are areas where one or a few families live, sort of like very small villages.  But by and large, the land is empty of people, so there is not much chance of being hassled.  Signs will warn you of private roads, or where trespassing is particularly frowned upon.  I found some pretty nice pictures in this area just west of Mitten Buttes, primarily because I was just high enough in elevation that trees, yucca and other interesting shrubs formed nice foreground elements.

I drove out onto the vast flat part of the valley lying north of Mitten Buttes, looking for a place to park and sleep.  I was tired and did not hunt in my usual careful way, so wound up parking fairly close to lights that indicated a settlement.  Soon a pair of headlights appeared, bouncing over the sagebrush, heading my way.  I pulled up to meet them (always a good thing), and was greeted by a three young American Indian men in a Bronco.

The driver informed me that I was on their land (which I knew).  But he also added that they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t a drunk or up to no good.  I offered to find someplace else to camp, but he waved me off.  He said I was welcome to camp there, as long as I didn’t hang around too long in the morning.  I was fine with that!  In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by their attitude.  I know that, were this land owned by a white person, and I was discovered there in the dark, that I would very likely be ordered off the land unless I wanted to deal with the police.

These native guys were naturally concerned about who was driving on their land.  But they were reasonable, able to tell immediately that I didn’t pose any danger.  Why not let me sleep a few hundred yards from their modest little houses?  What I’m saying is that they were not paranoid about a stranger, unlike so many folks I run into on the road.  They were secure men, secure in their judgment, and secure in their ability to handle me if they turned out to be wrong about me.  I like that because that’s the way I am.  And to think at Ship Rock I was worried about camping on Navajo land.  I should know better by now.  American Indians are more similar to the locals I met in African villages, or high in the Nepali Himalaya than they are to white Americans.  They are real!

The wind often blows through Monument Valley. piling sand dunes up against Rain God Mesa.

Over the course of the day, while taking care of laundry and the other necessary road trip duties, and while treating myself to a rare hot breakfast, I noticed a few things.  I never knew how much tourist traffic there was in Monument Valley.  This was the time of year when things wind down, and yet plenty of tourists were here.  There is an infrastructure under the name Gouldings – lodge, RV camp, restaurant.  Obviously this is not a Navajo-owned company, but they do provide jobs.  There are plenty of tour buses filled with overseas tourists (especially Japanese), and open-air tour vehicles ply the roads.  These are very much like safari vehicles in Africa, where the passengers sit above and behind the driver.  On the the gravel road that loops through the heart of the valley, this means a dusty ride.  It costs $5 to enter the tribal park and drive the scenic but very rough loop (such a deal!).

But as I was driving this spectacular loop, getting bumped and jolted by the rocks and dips, one thing was obvious: you don’t want to do this during peak season.  I can imagine that in late spring and summer, driving through the tribal park would resemble a sort of long, dust-choked follow-the-leader game.  I can’t recommend doing this drive unless you are visiting at a less-busy time, as I did.  Or perhaps you could start out at dawn.  You can certainly see much of Monument Valley without ever entering the tribal park.  There are other roads, including the one that heads out onto Douglas Mesa, and the road that goes to Oliato Trading Post and beyond.  Both of these roads explore the far western reaches of Monument Valley.

The Tribal Park is definitely worthwhile though.  Even the view from the spectacularly located visitor center is well worth the $5 entry fee.  From here, you can easily scan the loop road to see exactly how crowded with vehicles it is.  And finally, you can take a nice 3+ mile hike from near the visitor center.  Called the Wildcat Trail, it is a sandy desert walk that loops round the Mittens.

A lizard made its way across the sand in Monument Valley, Arizona.

I braved the dusty loop road through the tribal park late on my second afternoon in the valley.  I spied some decent-sized sand dunes from the far end of the loop road. Beyond the dunes stands several tall sandstone spires, called the “totem poles”.  And so I decided this was as good a place for a sunset photo walk as any.  I’m not sure it was legal to hike off-trail, but nobody hassled me about it.  I love photographing in sand dunes, and was looking forward to some shots of the rising near-full moon as well.  For some how-to discussion on moon shots (not on a rocket ship!), and using Monument Valley as an example, be sure to catch the next blog post.  It was not as colorful a sunset as the previous evening’s was, though there was some cloud cover to the west.  I still find it difficult sometimes to identify the types of clouds that will lead to a colorful sunset.

Desert sands and backlit rabbitbrush cover the southern portion of Monument Valley in Arizona.

I ended up shooting until dark, and since I was tired and the place had literally cleared out, I decided to just park it there and sleep.  Although it is not okay to camp inside the Tribal Park, I guessed (correctly) that nobody would be out there to hassle me.  If somebody did come by, I would have just apologized and left.  I think I know the Navajos well enough now to safely assume no undue officiousness on their part.  I shot some moon-lit landscapes, then slept until dawn.  I was alone when the sun first touched the rocks, burning them orange.  That little bit of sunshine was all it took to begin warming the clear, frigid air.  It warmed to 70 degrees that day!

Though hanging around on the Navajo reservation does involve small sacrifices (modern society’s conveniences, like a cheap grocery store, for e.g.), I really am getting used to it.  It is a bit like visiting a country like Mexico.  It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re there for a time, you begin to absorb and embrace the differences.  You begin thinking like the locals.  You begin to really be in the place, to really feel it.

Monument Valley shows off rare clouds at sunset.


Utah’s San Juan River   1 comment

The San Juan River flows through southeastern Utah near the town of Bluff.

The San Juan River surprised me. Never having traveled through the Beehive State’s southeastern corner, I had no idea it was such a significant and beautiful river basin. Rising in Colorado’s mountains of the same name (which I posted on recently), the San Juan enters canyon country in Utah and flows for hundreds of twisted, lonely miles, finally winding up in Lake Powell. This is the reservoir that, sadly, covers both Glen Canyon and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

Just west of the town of Bluff, Utah I stopped at a boat launch/campground called Sand Island. Here there is an enormous petroglyph panel, hundreds of feet long, with a dizzying variety of Native American rock art. Wandering down to the riverside, I was floored when I saw how much water the San Juan was carrying. This is the driest part of the year, after all. The sun approached the horizon, the light grew golden, and I took the opportunity for a great little photo walk along the river.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

The San Juan cuts some truly spectacular canyons on its way west, including the famous Goosenecks. This series of what geologists call entrenched meanders can be viewed from a state park off Hwy. 163. If you’ve never seen pictures of the Goosenecks, try to imagine a lazy river meandering across a broad river valley. Then imagine that pattern cut deeply into layered sandstone to form a rugged meandering canyon.

The sun rises behind a cottonwood tree in one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

This is the layer-cake geology of the Colorado Plateau, a stacked geological movie through the Paleozoic Era.  Frozen in time are huge sand seas, big river basins, seaside salt pans (as in the Middle East), coral reefs and muddy ocean bottoms.  The canyons of this region cut into this record.  The rivers had no choice as the entire region was lifted straight up during formation of the Rocky Mountains.

Ship Rock in northern New Mexico is formed from a spectacular dike that runs for miles across the desert.

I camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico.  Although I was a bit nervous about this, being visible for miles in the flat and treeless sage plain, I wanted to get moonlight and dawn pictures of Ship Rock.  For some reason I got little sleep, dreaming of my van being invaded by a group of angry natives.  I suppose it is all those old western movies to blame, when the wagon circle was attacked by the “savages”.  But there was a bright side to this; I got pictures of the stars after the moon had set – beautiful!

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

Ship Rock is an enormous volcanic plug sticking out of the desert.  The monolith trails out on either end (but more obviously on the south) into a spectacular dike.  A dike, in the geological sense that is, is a tabular sheet of magma that invades upward into a fissure or fault in the earth’s crust.  It hardens when it cools, just like lava.  Then, many millions of years later, when (if) the area is uplifted and eroded, the dike is left standing up because of its superior hardness compared to surrounding rocks.  It then resembles the natural version of a dike built to hold back water.  The one that Ship Rock is connected to is a classic “textbook example” of a dike.

Melting ice forms patterns on sandstone in a spring found while hiking one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

A cottonwood tree frames one of the rock ramparts in Valley of the Gods, Utah.


I also visited an area that seems to be known mostly to locals: Valley of the Gods.  This is a beautiful area of canyons and monoliths that is quite similar to the better-known Monument Valley to the south.  You need to drive a gravel loop road 16+ miles long to get in here.  It’s a wilderness study area, and is connected to an equally wild and huge area called Cedar Mesa to the north.

I camped along the gravel road, then in the morning took a hike up a canyon.  Quite a few vehicles were driving the loop, it being a weekend.  But nobody else was hiking, that is unless you count a horseman I ran into.  He was a nice fella, smoking a cigar as he rode.  As I scratched his horse behind the ears, I thought of my own horse back home.  Could she handle this rugged country?  It might take some getting used to.  I miss her and Khallie (the filly) both.

I traveled south from Valley of the Gods, past the Goosenecks (that I had visited in moonlight the night before) and on towards Monument Valley.  I came upon a just-completed wedding ceremony at riverside in the town of Mexican Hat.  Guess what the town is named for.  You got it, a rocky pinnacle with a sombrero-shaped top.

The happy couple were rafting down the river when I stopped and joined the wedding party in watching them float down the San Juan through town.  I didn’t take any pictures, feeling the wedding photographer might not like it.  But I did feel a bit sad and lonely, as I always do when I see weddings.  Not for long though.  It was a gorgeous day and Monument Valley at sunset was waiting not far away.  That will be the subject of my next post.

By the way, if you’re interested in downloading any of these copyrighted photos, please click on one and you’ll be taken to my website.  There you can browse my photos and order any of them, for download or as beautifully made prints (framed or unframed).  These particular photos will be up soon, but if you want one right away, just email me.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation in not trying to download any illegally.




Along the San Juan River in SE Utah, fall holds on in late October under a nearly full moon.

The Ancient Ones IV: Hovenweep   2 comments

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

A clan symbol etched into a wall at Painted Hand Pueblo in SW Colorado is of a figure bearing a torch.

This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool!  There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients.  It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M.  Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit.  They were very helpful.

One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874.  It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley.  And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley.  Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic.  It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous.  There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel.  All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air.  There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.

I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark.  Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner.  So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight.  It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures.  Way cool.  I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.

This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly.  At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos.  At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.

The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular.  But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples.  They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches.  They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them.  Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure.  It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time.  In fact, a few are named as such.  Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.

Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both.  Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting.  Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.

The iconic towers of Hovenweep Castle, an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers.  Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times.  So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.

After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning.  Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo.  I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now.  At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.

Along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a petroglyph panel over 100 feet long contains many drawings from a thousand years ago or more.

Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings.  It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations.  I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.

After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand.  Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled).  One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan.  Later I learned this was so.  It really reminded me of  medieval coats of arms.  Again back to the castle analogy.  This is fascinating stuff!  As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones.  But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.

Hovenweep Castle in the Four Corners region of the U.S. stands silent under the stars. Jupiter is at lower right.

Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

The Ancient Ones II: Chaco Canyon Intro.   2 comments

The ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan Greathouse, Penyasco Blanco sits on the rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

I have finally made it to Chaco Canyon.  This is one of those places I’ve been intrigued with for a long long time.  In fact, as I approached the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) site in northwestern New Mexico, on the long and torturous washboard road, I reminded myself not to expect too much.  It is far too easy, I learned a while back in my traveling days, to hype a place up in your mind, and to have inflated expectations as a result.  I did not want to be disappointed because of my own biases.

The Animas River of northern New Mexico flows peacefully through the town of Aztec as the sun goes down.

The approach, however, gives a definite impression of a dry, dusty and rather inhospitable place.  Once you are here, and in the canyon proper, it is a little nicer.  But it is dry, especially now, in the midst of a rainless late summer/fall.  No monsoon moisture has seeped up from the Gulf of Mexico in quite awhile in these parts, and the forecast shows nothing but sun sun sun.  There is an El Nino developing in the Pacific right now, and once that is in place, winter should be somewhat wetter than normal throughout the desert southwest.  If you live here, you pray for that.  But it also requires extreme caution around the arroyos, which can send a flash flood down upon you in…well, a flash.

Chaco Canyon was the center of the Ancestral Puebloans world, and it was a world not much wetter than it is now.  I’ve heard it described as their New York City.  But Chicago might be a better analogy, a Chicago during its glory days as a center for agricultural and livestock trade.  Chaco was where the ancient ones built their grandest structures.   Everything is aligned on N-S and E-W axes, and there are features of the buildings that make it obvious that these people were very much aware of the movements of the sun, stars,  moon and planets.

One thing you’ll notice is that these sights are mutually visible, by line of sight.  In fact, the Chacoans built signaling towers for communication throughout the canyon and beyond.  They used fires (the classic American Indian smoke signal), and also “reflective rock”, which I’m guessing would have been mica.  This enabled them to relay signals for tens of miles at the least, and very likely throughout their territory.


A constant feature of these ancient pueblos is the kiva. Similar to finding a church in even the smallest mountain settlement or ghost town, a kiva is found even in the smallest clan-sized dwelling.  Kivas are round stone structures built mostly below ground and roofed with cribbed wooden beams.  Like churches, mosques and synagogues, kivas were used for religious ceremonies.  

And yet, they were multi-purpose living spaces as well.  At Chaco Canyon, there are few to no fireplace hearths found in the rooms of the great houses, but every kiva had one.  Also, the first archaeologists found pottery, grinding stones, and other artifacts that indicate kivas were very much lived in.  

Today’s Puebloans continue to use them in a similar way as their ancestors, but they are more strictly relegated to ceremonies, not so much living rooms.  The degree of preservation amongst the ancient kivas varies greatly.  Mesa Verde has some nicely preserved examples.  At one site, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a fully enclosed kiva.  And at Aztec Ruins, north of Chaco, the great kiva is fully restored.  At Chaco, though the kivas are numerous and some very large, you cannot enter any of the well preserved ones.

 I descended into the kiva at Mesa Verde’s Spruce Tree House.  There is a certain feeling you get doing this, sort of creepy and magical at the same time.  If there were American Indians inside chanting, with a fire going, I think my body would literally buzz off the hook with chills.  A possible goal for the future I think, to be invited into a functioning kiva.  It’s really the living, breathing American Indian that I most enjoy on a physical-emotional level.  These ancient sites are interesting on a scientific level, and they are certainly sited in spectacular locales, but the lack of native guides at places like Mesa Verde does take something away from the experience.  At Chaco, you see more native peoples, working as (I guess) seasonal park staff.

The waxing half-moon illuminates the evening sky at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.


My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.

The Ancient Ones I: Mesa Verde   Leave a comment

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is the largest such site in the National Park.

You can’t visit the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. without your attention being drawn to the area’s American Indian history.  This history goes back over 10,000 years, but possibly the most fascinating chapter took place between about 700 and 1300 A.D.  The people who lived during this time period were farmers and builders, hunters and astronomers, travelers and artists.  They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and a few other small tribes, and so are called Ancestral Puebloans.

The interior of an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado


Their more common name is Anasazi, which does have a nice ring to it.  But this is a Navajo word loosely translated as ancient foreigner, or enemy.  The Navajo, when they migrated into this area from the north about 1500 A.D., found the abandoned pueblos but did not loot or even much disturb them.  They were cautious about entering the realm of dead spirits.  Also, the modern-day Puebloans and Navajo do not generally get along, it’s sad to say.  So the name Anasazi is inappropriate for both of the above reasons.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House basks in October sunshine.

I had been seeing the rock art of Fremont people to the north, but my first real archaeological destination on this trip was Mesa Verde.  A national park in southwestern Colorado between the towns of Cortez and Durango,  Mesa Verde is a high, forested plateau cut by rugged sandstone canyons.  It is here where some of the most well-preserved of the ancient ones’ pueblos are found.  The most spectacular sites are the cliff dwellings. but these are not the only sites at Mesa Verde.  They first lived atop the plateau, close to where they grew their crops of corn, beans and squash.  I visited a couple of these sites first, and I’m glad I did.


Take the Far View Sites, for example, just off the road near its highest point.  Since people come here to see the cliff dwellings, you will find few other visitors.  Here you’ll be able to closely examine the ancient pueblos at your leisure.  They used stone axes and other (non-metal) tools to precisely shape sandstone blocks.  Then, using a sandy mortar, these skilled masons built multi-room, multi-story houses, cylindrical (watch or signaling) towers, kivas and even a reservoir.  I’ll explain kivas in detail in the next post, but for now just think of them as sacred gathering places, maybe similar to churches.


By the 13th century, the people started moving their dwellings into the canyons.  Many are perched along improbable cliff faces.  Definitely visit Balcony House while you’re here.  Like Cliff Palace, it requires taking a ranger-led tour (stop at the visitor center to buy the $3 tickets).  You will certainly gain a respect for their mountain goat-like agility as you climb a 40-foot ladder up to the human aerie that was part home, part community center for these amazing people.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ construction of the easily defended cliff dwellings marked the beginning of the end, at least for their lives in the Four Corners region.  For reasons that are still uncertain, the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south towards the Rio Grande, fragmenting into the several tribes that make up the modern Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of the dwellings were abandoned on short notice, with pots, tools, even precious works of art, were left strewn about the stone rooms.

One of the bigger factors contributing to their leaving was overuse of resources such as timber, soil and water.  Drought, a changing society, and other unknown pressures were likely causes as well.  But their overuse of environmental resources surely sticks out as a precautionary tale for our supposedly more advanced time.

In the Pacific Northwest, while leading science-oriented educational camps for native kids, I was lucky enough to share campfires with local tribal folks, drumming and singing under the stars.  Very special it certainly was.  But with respect to the dwellings and sacred places of the Ancient Ones in the Four Corners region, I am torn between the desire to respect them (i.e. leave them alone) and to experience them on a more intimate level.  To be in the company of a Hopi or Zuni elder, descending into an ancient but smoking kiva, undergoing purification, learning of these things from the source; that would get me going.  So, although I can’t recommend that you skip these archaeological treasures, I think coming into honest contact with the modern Puebloans, at any level, would beat a conventional trip to Mesa Verde National Park any day.

A forked horn buck mule deer wanders the forest atop MesaVerde in Colorado.

In 2010 my uncle and I visited Canyon de Chelly, traveling through the canyon on horseback and camping for two nights in the canyon.  We were accompanied by a young Navajo guide.  This, of course, was very cool (especially when we galloped after a wild stallion!).  One of the things that has stuck with me since then: I promised the young Navajo that someday I would visit Chaco Canyon (he insisted that I do so in fact).  So my next post will be about keeping that promise.

On Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, a recent fire has left huge areas of burned trees.



San Juan Mountains, Colorado   Leave a comment

The Rocky Mountains in southwest Colorado are mantled in the year’s first snowfall.

As I entered this beautiful mountainous region of the American Rockies, I had to go pretty far back to recall the last time I had been this way.  I hitchhiked through here in 1987.  Believe it or not this road trip I’m currently on started off as a shortish foray into the Canadian Rockies.  Because of factors out of my control, it’s become entirely a domestic trip – a quest to visit corners of the West in which I’ve either not been in a long time, or have missed entirely up to now.

Three aspen trees keep their leaves longer than the rest of this stand in the mountains of southwest Colorado.


The San Juan Mountains had just seen their first snowfall of autumn a few days previously.  To my disappointment, if not my surprise, I was a bit too late for the golden glory of the quaking aspen.  Still, the valley floors were showing plenty of color in the form of cottonwoods and late aspens.  It’s a reason to return to this area sometime in late September.

Dawn finds the camper at the base of Mount Sneffels in southwest Colorado.

In the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness of SW Colorado, the terrain is rugged and unforgiving.

On the way over Colorado Hwy. 62, cutting west over the beautiful Dallas Divide, darkness made me turn up gravel West Dallas Road.  I camped where I thought dawn might reveal a pretty view of the San Juans.  Later I learned I had camped on the sprawling ranch lands owned by Ralph Lauren, the clothing magnate.  No harm no foul.  After sunrise, I parked just up into the National Forest and took off hiking.

I know this mood, the attitude that has gotten me into more than one pickle.  I was not into following a trail.  There were hunters in the area, and I met one while following the trace of an old road.  The guy, who was from Minnesota, must have been 70.  He was alone, and I chatted with him for awhile.  I love elderly gentlemen like him.  I hope I have the same quiet confidence, the same even temper and kind manner when (if?) I am that old.  I passed a trail and soon was following animal trails.


I think it was because I wanted to see the elusive prey that the hunters were tracking.  Most hunters, I’ve found, spend way too much time in their vehicles, wasting gas driving up and down forest roads.  Are they hoping a bull elk hops into the back of their pickups and says “take me”?  The old guy was a marked exception.  At any rate, I played the hunter, cradling my weapon (Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens).  I moved quietly through the woods, up and up.

I topped out just above treeline, having followed a set of bear tracks through the snow.  What a gorgeous view, even if it was a bit too early for golden light.  I was short on oxygen, as I realized (belatedly as usual) that I had precious little daylight to find my way back, with no trail in an unfamiliar patch of mountains.  I had a lighter, but no warm clothes.  It was already dipping toward the subfreezing night as the sun appeared to speed towards the western horizon.

I ran down the critter trails and as dusk descended wound up in a huge area of fallen logs, strewn like giant matchsticks across the forest floor.  I had to use all the skills I originally learned doing fieldwork  in SE Alaska, walking 3 or 4 feet above the forest floor as much as I walked upon it.  I finally saw my quarry in the failing light.  The big white rumps and heavy-footed crashing of elk being flushed from a marshy, grassy hollow caused me to pause, but just for a moment.  I also walked right up on a porcupine, who climbed a small tree and looked at me with an indifferent expression.

I reached the old road just as dusk made walking difficult.  Darkness fell completely as I finally saw the van.  I wonder how it is that so often in these circumstances, I have arrived back at the vehicle right at dark.  Of course there have been the occasional miscalculations, but given my penchant for pushing things too far, I can’t think of any other explanation for my good fortune other than dumb luck.

That night I got little sleep, as I battled a trio of mice who had moved into my van while I was hiking.  After listening too long to their munching away on my oatmeal, I set a makeshift trap and, one by one, gave them the boot.

Aspen leaves float in a Rocky Mountain stream after their brief and colorful glory.

I went on to Telluride, which lies on the other side of the mountains from where I had been hiking.  It is quite a charming town, I think much prettier than Crested Butte.  The canyon that extends steeply into the mountains from Telluride is somewhat marred by the remains of an underground mine.  They are supposedly reclaiming the area, but in my opinion there is way too much detritus lying about.  Why wouldn’t they start by cleaning up some garbage?  And this from someone who is generally friendly towards mining.  The waterfall, called Bridal Veil, is tucked into a corner where the sun does not shine often.  It’s an icy spectacle as a result (see image below).

Just outside Telluride, Colorado lies a steep canyon and icy Bridal Veil Falls.

I really enjoyed shooting that late afternoon.  Although there were no clouds, the light through the bare trunks of aspen, and reflected off the San Miguel River was just fine for this photographer.  I traveled south on Hwy. 145, which is the western half of a very scenic loop (the eastern half travels through Ouray and Silverton).  I took a gravel detour, which loops north from the paved road and allows easy access to the Lizard Head Wilderness.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the animal trail.


After sleeping along this route at about 10,000 feet (Brrrr!), I hiked up to Navajo Lake, this time on a real trail.  This is a classic alpine mountain basin that just says you’re high in the Colorado Rockies (image below).  The lyrics of John Denver, bless his soul, were ringing in my head.  The light was really too harsh for good photos, but I had a fine time.  Later, towards sunset, I took Charl along on a short hike to Dunton Hot Springs.  The late light through the mostly-bare aspens was pretty.  I had not had a shower in a week, so the mineral-rich pool, sitting in a draw among beautiful Colorado blue spruce, was a sweet reward.  For my little buddy, it was a tough hike.

The high San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.

The entire area around the town of Dolores and north is very beautiful.  There are excellent mountain-biking trails that cut through the forest that borders McPhee Reservoir.  The whole area is a parkland, with pines and abundant open meadows, creeks and wetlands.  It was empty of people when I was there.  As you head south to Cortez, the land dries and opens up.  Next stop, the cliff dwellings of the ancient ones, the ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi).

Quaking aspens after the fall of their golden leaves, in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado.


Alpenglow illuminates the San Juan Mountains and San Miguel River near the town of Telluride, Colorado.


Western Colorado: Pinyons and Pistols   2 comments

The road that hugs the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado affords gorgeous vistas of the Rockies.

It was a beautiful afternoon in the small town of Montrose, Colorado, the last place I would ever expect to have a loaded pistol pointed at my head.  This was the third time in my life that this adrenaline-producing event has taken place, and I hope it’s the last.  More on this later.

Heading into western Colorado from the Dinosaur country of northeastern Utah, I drove through the lonely canyons and mountains north of Grand Junction.  It’s a beautiful drive south over CO Hwy. 39 between Rangely and Grand Junction, but with few official sights.  Nearly every canyon you choose to walk up along this route contains Fremont rock art (see image below).  The Fremont people were semi-nomadic native Americans who lived off this land roughly 1000 years ago.

A remote part of western Colorado features many rock art panels from the now-vanished Fremont people.

I visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and upon waking I felt the bite of the hawk on a cold and incredibly clear morning.  After Utah, which always seems warmer than the bordering states, it was a shock to my system.  Although I have been spending nights at 9000 feet or higher for most of this past week, the days warm rapidly to a gorgeous autumn perfection.

On a cold autumn morning at Black Canyon of the Gunnison N.P. in Colorado, the fog spills off the plateau and into the canyon.

A pinyon pine that is over 750 years old survives along the rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado.

A beautiful species of pine tree grows along the rim of Black Canyon.  The pinyon pine is an incredible tree.  They can live a long time; in Black Canyon as much as 800 years or more.  Pinyon pine nuts, produced in the fall by the cones, are incredibly nutritious.  They are high in protein and (good) fat, and are chock-full of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

Native Americans going back thousands of years have collected and dried them in the fall.  The high-energy nuts helped them survive winters.  I hiked the short but very scenic Walker Trail along the Canyon’s south rim, and the ancient pinyon pine stand here had me mesmerized (see image at left).

Now back to my little misadventure.  I stopped in the town of Montrose for some groceries.  I was only in the store for about 10 minutes.  When I came out I noticed one of my tires was completely flat.  A guy got out of a pickup and told me he had seen a guy bend down by my van, then run off with the air rushing out of my tire.  He said the guy had a bandage on his left arm, and also indicated the direction in which he fled.  I gave chase for a few minutes before realizing the futility.  So I called 911 and reported it, then headed back to my van to meet a cop who was to meet me there.

But before I got there a cop pulled up quickly and, jumping out, he ordered me to the ground.  I realized he was looking at my left hand, which was encased in the splint that I’ve worn since breaking my hand last month.  I tried to explain but he was not having any of it.  It was then that he pulled his gun.  He had his taser in the other hand.  Well, I was on the ground after that.  Eventually I was able to convince them (a 2nd cop showed up of course) that I was not the “perp” but the victim.

The appropriate reaction in this case had nothing in common with the reaction that saved me the first time I was faced with the cold blue of a gun barrel pointed my way.  I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland.  On one occasion, at age 18, I was driving my Pontiac through a neighborhood I knew wasn’t exactly a safe one.  My passenger was a “friend” I knew I should not be hanging out with.  But I was young and dumb.

My partner asked me to stop, where he was going to talk with friend for a minute.  I pulled off into an alleyway, where it became immediately obvious that he wanted to buy a bag of pot from two black guys who appeared at the passenger window.  Before I could even protest, I felt something cold and hard against my left temple.  I had not seen the third guy in the darkness.  He demanded all our money.

I could barely speak, whispering to my friend to get my wallet out of the glove box.  But as he opened it, I did something I had never done before, and rarely since.  I reacted before even experiencing a thought in that direction.  In one motion I slipped the shifter into drive, at the same instant slamming my foot on the accelerator.  That Pontiac was the quickest car I’ve ever owned, and it was fairly new then.  The car leaped down the alley and I heard the guy’s yelp of pain as his right hand hit the door jam.  My heart was racing faster than the car as we rocketed down the alley, whipped the corner, and were out of that neighborhood in a flash.

Back to the precious present.  After a visit to the tire shop, I finally was able to leave Montrose behind.  Anxious to leave civilization behind, I immediately headed into the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado.  This region is one of the most beautiful corners of America, and it will be the subject of my next post.

n Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a fence blends in with the fall foliage.

Dinosaurs of Utah   Leave a comment

Sheep Canyon on the north side of the Uinta Mountains in Utah blazes in fall colors.

I’ve somehow in the past missed this corner of Utah during my travels.  But heading south from the Grand Tetons, I followed the Green River into the land of dinosaurs.  This is the path that John Wesley Powell, one of my heroes, traveled twice in the post-Civil War years.  It seems appropriate that I am retracing his route at this moment.

I am still one-handed, having broke my left hand recently.  Of course, mine will soon heal, while Powell’s would never heal.  He lost much of his right arm in the Civil War, but that certainly didn’t slow him down.  As many of you know, he was leader of the first party to navigate the wild Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah are quiet on an autumn afternoon.

I love the photos produced by John K. Hillers during the second Powell expedition.  Take a look at his photos, which include much more than the Green and Colorado River basins.  The party boated down the Green River, through Flaming Gorge (now sadly drowned beneath a reservoir), then into the land of dinosaurs, south towards the confluence with the Colorado.

Life on the road means a healthy dose of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

This area of northeastern Utah, still quite remote, exposes Mesozoic-age sedimentary rocks, including the world-famous Morrison Formation.  It was in the Morrison and similar formations that the so-called “bone wars” erupted in the late 1800s.  Not a real war, but a dinosaur fossil-collecting frenzy, the bone wars was a rivalry between two palaeontologists, both with healthy egos.  Their names were E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, who each represented a different prestigious eastern museum.  Both men yanked tons of dinosaur bones from rocks of the American west.

Neither of these two discovered, however, the richest trove of fossils in the Morrison.  That was left until 1909, when Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum found eight tail bones arching out of the ground.  They belonged to an enormous plant-eating Apatosaur.  Today, this dinosaur quarry is the centerpiece of Dinosaur National Monument, not far from Vernal, Utah.  It’s a beautiful patch of land, watered by the Green River and surrounded by gorgeous canyons.

This is a fantastic place to get off the beaten track in the American west.  Most people visit the dinosaur quarry and a few drive up to the main road’s end at Josie Morris’ cabin.  But there are great sights and short hikes to do along the Harper’s Corner Road as well.  This road actually starts off Hwy. 40 just east of Dinosaur, Colorado.  In the warm months, consider a float trip on the Green River.

I camped inside the monument, alongside the Green.  During the night I was awoken by the sound of raindrops on my van’s roof, the first time in quite awhile I’ve heard that sound.  We’ve been in a long period of dry weather in the west.  In the morning I got a nice (and rare) morning rainbow.

I was interested in Josie Basset Morris.  Her homestead included a small cabin by a spring, backed by box canyons and surrounded with shade trees.  Josie was a character, the kind of independent pioneer woman I admire greatly.  How can any woman today think that women magically became stronger and more independent when they were finally liberated in the late 20th century.  Women have been strong for all human history, and it can be argued that today’s women simply can’t match the grit displayed by women of the past.  Neither can the men.

Josie cavorted with famous western outlaws, who often holed up at her place along Cub Creek.  She also divorced 4 husbands, running one off of her homestead with a frying pan.  She occasionally rustled cattle, made bootleg whiskey, wore pants most of the time, and cut her long red hair short.  She lived the last 50 of her years, alone most of that time, caring for livestock on a remote ranch without plumbing, electricity, or other conveniences.  She died in the 1940s.

Dinosaur National Monument reminds me much of the John Day river country of eastern Oregon.  The canyons are a bit more spectacular here, but otherwise there are many parallels.  For instance, in the John Day country the rocks are laid bare, as at Dinosaur.  But being much younger, the badlands are rich in mammals instead of dinosaurs.  The whole feel of the land, with valleys covered in sagebrush and bunch-grass, badlands and canyons stretching in all directions, and with few people around, made me feel I was back in my old stomping grounds in the Clarno Basin of Oregon.

The most complete skeletons of the meat-eating dinosaur Allosaurus are found in the Jurassic rocks of northeastern Utah. One of these prowls the Quarry Bldg. at Dinosaur National Monument.

The famous dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah is known as the Wall of Bones.  Taken with a 15 mm. fisheye lens, this picture takes in the entire wall of fossil dinosaurs.

Hope you enjoyed this little slice of history.  I really encourage anyone with time who is traveling Interstate 80 across southern Wyoming to take a jog south into NE Utah.  The Flaming Gorge, Uinta Mountains, and Dinosaur National Monument make the detour very worthwhile.  Our adventure (Charl and I) continues, as we make our way south through western Colorado, headed for Four Corners and Monument Valley.

The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

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