Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Rural America: Summary Musings   15 comments

Rural ranchland of southwestern Colorado.

We’ve been rambling through the rural western U.S. on a series of road-trips.  Now it’s time to pause for a bit of reflection.  I’m greatly enjoying this series and hope you are too.  It’s been great to get away from photography topics for awhile and celebrate the reason I do it in the first place.  I first got into photography on my first ever solo road-trip at the tender age of 18.

A couple months after graduating high school I escaped my east-coast birthplace and drove across country in my Pontiac.  I’d been given a little manual camera as a gift.  Knowing nothing of the rule of thirds or anything else about photography, I shot many rolls of Kodachrome on that trip.  To this day documenting subjects I find while traveling is my #1 reason for doing photography.  I’m more serious about it now, with the added motivation of artful expression thrown into the mix.  But it’s still all about exploration and inspiration.

An old wood Baptist church sits in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

America celebrates horses (and doesn’t eat them): wild foal and mare, North Dakota.

The trips I’ve featured in this series have balanced visits to natural wonders with route variations that take in remnants of rural America and its history.  What is so fascinating about many parts of the country is the way that these three (the land, its human history and the way people interact with it now) are interwoven.  It’s possible when traveling in sparsely-populated areas, especially in the West and parts of the Midwest, to feel the power that the landscape exerted on past explorers and settlers, both native and white.  And it’s fascinating to see how the land continues to influence the way modern people live on it.

An old-time antebellum mansion on Georgia’s Atlantic coast.

Tending the land demanded bigger families in America’s past.  These folks lived at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in what was New Mexico Territory.

But everywhere you go in this great country it’s impossible to escape the obvious: things have changed in fundamental ways.  Gone are those days when most people made their living off the land, when they stayed at or very near their birthplaces for their whole lives.  Here’s an important fact about American history: those relative few who did not stay home were critical to shaping the young country.  They were responsible for America spreading westward to the Pacific.  They created the reality of the American spirit and formed the basis for the myths that would later be woven into that reality.

A cemetery out on the windblown plains of western Oklahoma.

Interior of a round barn: southeastern Oregon.

Nowadays nearly everyone moves somewhere else.  The same kinds of motivations are at work for us as for our forebears: a desire to start anew.  But since travel today does not entail near the hardship of days past, many more people move.  A person who is willing to take the chance that moving across country may mean that some of the family will die on the way is quite different than one who drives a U-Haul to California for a new job.  The latter is taking risks, but nothing like the former, whose life could literally collapse around her.

A cabin draws a small herd of free-range horses at the base of remote Steens Mountain, Oregon.

Crystal River runs down one of my favorite little valleys in the Colorado Rockies, home to a lucky few.

In my own travels through the west I’ve often tried to put myself into the boots of those risk-takers.  I imagine riding into rough country without maps, where my destination was more hope than reality, where I was in very real danger of being assaulted by robbers or bands of vengeful braves.  The change that has overtaken the world has not spared the western U.S.  But in out-of-the-way corners it is still possible to see things that have changed little, or even not at all.  And that’s what this series was all about.  (I say ‘was’ but I’ll return to the theme again when the mood strikes.)  Thanks for reading!

Spring daffodils bloom at an old cabin in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee live up to their name.

Rural America: The Desert Southwest   3 comments

The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.

We might as well face it.  America is no longer what it once was.  Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching.  They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies.  Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity.  Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation.  Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities.   To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes.  There are countless other examples.

Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated.  Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster.   And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas.  Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future.  But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot.  You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.

And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest.  This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.

It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.

Geography & History

The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau.  This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.  But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.

It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there.  Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension.  The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.

What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers.  It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other.  Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes.  One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel.  And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.

The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.

Appropriation

Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups.  Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century.  During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California.  Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe.  This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region.  Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).

But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that.  Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones.  Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years.  They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.

A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.

Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west.  That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century.  Santa Fe was founded in 1608.  That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil.  It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence.  It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico.  It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.

Taos to the north is also very old.  The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa.  They had eight children together.

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west.  Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country.  The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).

An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.

Mining in the Southwest

The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining.  While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache.  I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain.  If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.

When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued.  But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region.  For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find.  And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.

Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.

In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest.  Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country.  The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below).  Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.

Cowboys & Indians

One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective.  Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention.  In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang.  It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.

For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.

The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Road Tripping the Southwest

It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region.  You can too easily bite off more than you can chew.  And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation.  Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have.  Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.

In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips.  They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company.  The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest.  I’ll repeat myself:  whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once.  You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries.  That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset at Monument Valley.

Rural America, Part II: The Pacific Northwest   10 comments

Snowy Mt Hood catches the first rays of the sun as it presides over rural Hood River Valley, Oregon.

America is still largely a rural nation.  And not just in terms of area.  Many states lack major cities and most people still live rurally.  In states with metropolises, a well-documented trend, the return of Americans to city centers, has been going on for some time.  But another trend has continued unnoticed, and it involves far greater numbers of people.  Suburbs have expanded into more traditional rural areas, places once dominated by farming and ranching.  These so-called exurbs sit some distance from a city but are still connected to it in many ways.

While some of the exurbs resemble true suburbs and should probably be described as quasi-rural, many actually have a strong countryside feel.  They’re usually centered around small towns that retain much of their original character.  As mentioned in the last post, those living here are an important political force these days, as witness the last election.

In many exurbs it is only a matter of time before they lose any remnant rural feel.  A progressive expansion, fed in large part by retiring baby-boomers but also by steady population growth, is pushing aside America’s original rural character.  But this blog series is not about bemoaning that loss.  I prefer to celebrate what is left, which while inevitably changed from the old days, is still very much intact.

Western Oregon.

Seeing Rural America – The Pacific Northwest

Let’s start out in a part of the west that will always be special to me.  If you have read this blog for awhile, you know that Oregon is where my heart lies.  It’s a place I’ll always call home.  I was born and raised on the east coast, but I’ve lived by far most of my years there.  I’m currently living in Florida, in self-imposed exile.  But I’ll return someday.

A farmhouse sits in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.

DOWN (UP) THE WILLAMETTE

In order to see some of the prime farmland of that drew early settlers to this territory on the Oregon Trail (see the Addendum below), start in Portland and drive south up the Willamette River.  I know, south upriver sounds strange.  Avoid Interstate 5 wherever possible.  Instead take the back roads, hopping back and forth over the river using the few ferries that remain (Canby, Wheatland).  Visit Aurora, and Silverton, stretching your legs and being wowed on a hike in Silver Falls State Park near Silverton.  Continue south past Eugene, saying goodbye to the Willamette as it curves east into the Cascades.  The Cottage Grove area is famous for its covered bridges, so get hold of a map and enjoy the photo opps.!

Keep going south, making sure to stop at the Rice Hill exit off I5.  Here you should partake of Umpqua ice cream the way it should be eaten.  Delicious!  Visit the little town of Oakland just north of Roseburg, where I lived for a time.  Then divert west from Sutherlin on Fort McKay Road. to the Umpqua River.  Then wind down the river on Tyee Road.  Drive slow or better yet, do this on a bicycle!

You can keep going to the coast or return to I5 on Hwy. 138.  Another detour takes you east from Roseburg up the North Umpqua to Diamond Lake and the north end of Crater Lake.  If you’d rather stick with the rural theme and save nature for later, keep going south and visit the rather large but still charming town of Ashland, where a famous Shakespeare Festival happens every summer.

It’s difficult not to include Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak, in photos of rural bliss.

THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA

Let’s not forget the great state of Washington.  One of my favorite places in the world is the Olympic Peninsula.  It can be visited on a road trip that takes in both nature and rural charm.  The towns are spaced far apart here and Olympic National Park covers much of the northern peninsula.  But lovely farms still lap the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and talkative waitresses serve pie at cafes in towns like Forks, which retain much of their timber-town flavour.  Everybody still knows everybody in these towns.

Lake Crescent (image below) is incredibly scenic and a great place for a swim.  At dusk, in certain light, you can sit lakeside and easily transport yourself back to quiet summer evenings at the lake.  I wonder when vacations stopped being full of simple pleasures like jumping off a tire swing, fried chicken on a screened porch and word games in the dark, and became all about ticking off bucket lists and posting selfies?

Even areas quite close to the metropolis of Seattle retain much of their charm.  Take the back roads directly east of the city and drop into the valley of the Snowqualmie River.  Take Hwy. 203 north or south through Carnation, site of the original dairy farm of the same name (remember?).  Generally speaking you need to travel either east or, overwater via ferry, west of Seattle and the I5 corridor in order to experience rural western Washington.

Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula in very interesting dusk light.

HEADING EAST

I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the forgotten half of the Pacific NW.  It encompasses an enormous region east of the Cascades, one that retains in many places nearly all of its rural character.  The Palouse is a perfect example.  Lying in southeastern Washington and far western Idaho, the Palouse is wheat-farming at its purest.  It is an expansive area of rolling hills, backroads and picture-perfect barns.  Despite having become very popular with landscape photographers in recent years, its size means it always feels quiet and uncrowded.  I won’t say anymore about it since I posted a mini-series on the Palouse geared toward anyone contemplating a photo-tour.  Check that out if you’re curious.

There are so many other routes to explore in the Pacific NW that will allow you to experience the unique flavour of each region.  For example a fantastic road trip, again from Portland, is to travel east over Mount Hood.  But instead of continuing to Madras, turn off busy Hwy. 26 at easy-to-miss Hwy. 216.  Drop into the high desert and visit the little burg of Tygh Valley.  Continue east to Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its trout fishing and whitewater rafting.  Then drive over Bakeoven Road to historic sheep central, Shaniko.  Then drop east down twisty Hwy. 218 to Fossil and on to the Painted Hills.  This tour, by the way, is popular with motorcyclists in the know.  Thanks for reading and have a fun weekend!

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

Addendum:  Pacific NW History

I’ve always vaguely resented the fact that the Pacific NW is divided into two states.  I think the Oregon Territory should have been left as Oregon, no Washington.  To make 50 states we could have split off northern California (plus far SW Oregon) and called it the state of Jefferson.  I know a bunch of people who would be very happy with that!

Native tribes have occupied this region for thousands and thousands of years.  In fact some of the earliest remains of paleo-indians in North America come from eastern Oregon and Washington.  Now a semi-desert, back then it was significantly wetter, with large lakes full of waterfowl, and the rocky hills bursting forth every spring with all sorts of edible plants.

White Europeans began to take an interest in the area very early on in the 1700s.  But they only visited by sea.  To the north, British fur trading companies sent parties into the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest eco-region.  But it would not be until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a party of young, energetic men down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast near what is now the little town of Astoria, Oregon in 1804 that the young country signalled its intention to make the region part of America.

Edgar Paxson’s famous painting of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and Clark’s slave York at Three Forks.

In the mid-1800s mountain men of the west, with beaver all but trapped out in many areas, turned to guiding settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  The destination these hardy families had in mind was the rich farmland along the Willamette and other rivers of the Oregon Territory.  Some never made it all the way, instead stopping in cooler, drier areas like the Baker Valley of eastern Oregon and the Palouse, a dryland farming area in Washington.

Timber harvesting, farming and ranching have long been the mainstays of the Pacific Northwest.  If you’ve never read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Keasey you should do so.  It is expertly written and imparts an authentic look at traditional family-based logging in Oregon.  The movie is top-notch as well.

But times have changed.  The mills are shut down in most places.  Private timber lands are still harvested but with few exceptions federal National Forests are for reasons both environmental and economic no longer being cut.  The ways in which people here make a living have largely changed from natural resource-based to a mix of technology, tourism and a variety of service jobs.

 

Mountain Monday: King’s Mtn., Oregon   3 comments

The Wilson River flows west from the rugged peaks of Oregon's Coast Range, including King's Mtn. visible in the distance.

The Wilson River flows west from the rugged peaks of Oregon’s Coast Range, including King’s Mtn. visible in the distance.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve done a Mountain Monday post.  Today I’ll focus on King’s Mountain in Oregon’s northern Coast Range.  But since it’s impossible to visit mountains without also coming across rivers and streams, I’ll also highlight the main river in this area.  While it has a modest elevation (3226’/983 m.), King’s Mtn. is nonetheless a steep and rugged peak.  I haven’t captured the mountain in a photo before this, at least from a distance.  I know it mostly from a loop hike that I’ve done a half dozen times or so.  It takes you up a steep few miles to the summit of King’s, then over a very rugged traverse to the equally steep Elk Mtn.  You then descend a vertiginous trail to the Wilson River, where you loop back to the car.  Next morning you may feel like you’ve been kicked by a mule!

King’s is cloaked in a lovely conifer forest along its lower slopes.  In autumn tasty golden chanterelles pop up in dells and behind mossy logs.  The golden chanterelle is the official state mushroom (yes, there’s an official mushroom!).  This beautiful green forest  has grown in from seedlings that were hand-planted after the disastrous Tillamook Burn in 1933 (plus succeeding fires in the 30s).  The Burn laid low nearly 450,000 acres of prime Oregon timber, most of that in a hellish 30-hours where huge trees were uprooted and thrown into the air by the winds ahead of the inferno.  It’s a big part of Oregon history.

The other part of this image is the beautiful Wilson River, which is famous for its steelhead runs.  It rolls swiftly through the forested landscape, and its deep green pools are lined with volcanic rock outcrops that on hot days beg to be leapt from into the cool green depths.  The Wilson flows down to the Pacific Ocean at the town of Tillamook (where I’m writing this).  You always know you’re approaching Tillamook because of that wonderful (not!) smell of dairy cows.  It’s still the best cheddar cheese I know of for a grilled cheese sandwich, on good sourdough bread of course!  Make sure and get your free samples if you ever come this way on a tour of their factory.

The Wilson River banks are mostly lined with conifers and large vine maples, but frequent rock outcrops make for great places to fish or swim from.

The Wilson River banks are mostly lined with conifers and large vine maples, but frequent rock outcrops make for great places to fish or swim from.

Many springs empty into the Wilson.  I camped just a short stroll from this spot.

Many springs empty into the Wilson. I camped just a short stroll from this spot.

There are plenty of camping and picnicking sites to enjoy in the Tillamook State Forest where these images were captured.  A visitor center is located centrally not far west of the trailhead for King’s Mtn., and there are plenty of easier trails, including a rolling trail stretching 24 miles along the Wilson itself.  You obviously don’t need to do the whole 24 miles!  So if you ever find yourself traveling the Oregon Coast, consider a side-trip east along Hwy. 6 from Tillamook into the Coast Range.  Have a great week!

Hanford: Out of Madness, Accidental Brilliance   17 comments

Dawn on the Columbia River, Hanford Reach, Washington.

Recently I spent a night and day at Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington.  You may have heard of Hanford.  It is an enormous piece of semi-arid steppe in the eastern part of the state along the Columbia River used by the U.S. Department of Energy for nuclear purposes.  But we’re not talking energy here.  This is a little story (or travel post if you will) about how an idea of questionable moral foundation accidentally becomes a brilliant idea.

In the early 1940s, during World War II, the Federal Government came to this mostly empty part of Washington with an ultimatum.  They told the residents of the small town of White Bluffs, along with scattered ranchers and farmers in the region that they could support their country’s war effort by leaving their homes within 30 days.  The simple folk of eastern Washington didn’t know it but the Manhattan Project was getting started.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The Feds were interested in Hanford because it was remote, wide-open and with endless supplies of fresh water.  That last requirement was especially important because their goal was to do what Iran is trying to do more than 70 years later: enrich plutonium to make an atomic bomb.  They also used Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico (where the bomb was finally assembled and tested).

But Hanford was by far the largest site.  That’s not because they needed all the space.  Actually the main development would take place in a relatively small area at the center of the nearly 600 square-mile site.  A few nuclear reactors were scattered along nearer the river, close to much-needed water to cool the reactors.  The enrichment took place in the center with plenty of buffer space..just in case.

An early spring morning on the Hanford Reach, Washington.

Nowadays nothing much happens at Hanford.  Intense cleanup efforts have been partially successful, although there are fears of groundwater contamination miles from the site.  But along the Columbia River things are going along quietly as they have been since the U.S. government came here.

This is the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia above tide-water.  No farming or ranching has taken place since 1943.  So the quality of the habitat  (what’s called shrub- or bunchgrass-steppe) is exceptional.  And it’s all because of the Manhattan Project, of all things.  Also it didn’t hurt that President Clinton in 2000 protected it as the Hanford Reach National Monument.

The bunchgrass steppe.

The bunchgrass steppe.

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By the way, in 1996 the remains of an ancient hunter (Kennewick Man) was found eroding out of the river bank near the Reach.  The native tribes fought with Federal scientists to acquire and re-bury the remains in accordance with the law.  But scientists wanted to study the well-preserved skeleton to learn something about the earliest Americans.  The Feds won in court because it was unclear at that time if he was even related to modern tribes.  His skull indicated different looks.  But in 2015 DNA evidence pointed to the fact that Kennewick Man was most closely related to the native tribes of today.  If the tribes are still interested (which I’m assuming they are), all they need to do is take it back to court and I’m sure the decision will be reversed so that he may be reburied by his descendants.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

There really isn’t too much to see here, but maybe that’s the point.  Much of it is off limits for protection of nesting birds and native vegetation.  You can simply drive along the river, stopping at the few places where there is public access.  Or if you really want to experience it you can float a canoe or kayak down the river.  From White Bluffs viewpoint you can walk or bicycle along a closed section of roadway.  Whatever you do and however long you stay, you’ll enjoy the quiet, wide open spaces.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

What started off as a place to plan and build a device that would kill 200,000 people in Japan, a place that began the age when humans are able to destroy large parts of the planet, is now a windswept and pristine grassland, where a river that is largely dammed and tamed gets to just be itself.  That’s what I call a beautiful accident.  Or you could say “every dark cloud has a silver lining”.  Thanks for reading!

At riverside, Hanford Reach, Washington.

At riverside: Hanford Reach, Washington.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

Zion_National_Park_Nov-2013_5D3_046-Edit

VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Single-image Sunday: Fog and Fall Color   4 comments

Cottonwoods dressed for autumn peek out of a fog bank along the upper Colorado River in northern Colorado.

Cottonwoods dressed for autumn peek out of a fog bank along the upper Colorado River in northern Colorado.

Photographing fall color is never quite as easy as it seems.  It’s so easy to get excited about the vibrant trees, especially when they first turn.   I often find myself pointing the camera wherever the trees are, forgetting about finding interesting compositions and light.  And I know I’m not alone in that.  But after a bit of the enthusiasm wears off, it’s easier to settle down and shoot properly.

This morning in north-central Colorado was pretty dull.  The light at sunrise was not cutting it, and then the sun rose bright and harsh.  Although elevations are high in this area south of Steamboat Springs, there are no sharp rugged peaks.  But the area is spectacular in its own way.  The Colorado River, still fairly modest in size this close to the headwaters, winds through farmland and then plunges into Gore Canyon.

Gore Canyon was one of the major obstacles to a trans-continental railroad.  An early Denver railroad magnate named David Moffat dreamed of building tracks through and over the Rocky Mountains to tap the mining and cattle trade.  But it took a crew of death-defying men, called Argo’s Squirrels (J.J. Argo was crew leader) to complete it.

To survey the route through Gore Canyon, considered unnavigable at the time, the Squirrels came up with a plan.  Some of the crew floated logs down the river while others lowered themselves by rope down the vertical granite walls to river level.  Once there, they drove steel pegs into the rock, then caught and attached the logs to the pegs by rope, forming a precarious scaffolding.

This way the crew had a walkway, just above the raging whitewater, from which to survey the route.  Old pictures show the Squirrels seemingly at ease on the spindly logs a few feet from certain death by drowning.  They wore no life jackets, but amazingly no lives were lost.  It’s also interesting that most of the men were immigrants.

Nowadays Gore Canyon is famous among rafters and kayakers for being one of the roughest sections of whitewater in the country.  Gore Rapid is a solid Class V.  You can do a commercially-guided raft trip through the canyon, but you better be ready.  It’s considered by many to be the wildest whitewater accessible by guided trip in the U.S.  A much calmer way to see the roadless and remote canyon is to take the California Zephyr, a scenic train trip over the Rockies and on to the west coast.

Back to the picture:  I had stopped to make coffee, at a place that overlooks the river valley just upstream from Gore Canyon.  The sun was busy burning off a bank of ground fog that had collected overnight along the river.  Cold fall mornings that give way to warm sunny afternoons are perfect for this kind of fog.  I could see cottonwoods along the river, in full color, just peeking out of the fog bank.  I was some distance from the river, so I got my long lens out and zoomed in on groups of the golden trees as they emerged from the fog.

I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse of a remote but interesting corner of Colorado.  Have a great week!

The Apache   2 comments

I wanted to show some photographs I found of Apache warriors.  I often find myself in country populated by the ghosts of the original inhabitants, and it makes me realize how little time has actually passed between their time and ours.  I also thought you should see some of the country these impressive American Indians roamed through.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

It was almost dark when I came upon the well-done placard pictured above.  It’s located near the remote Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.  It tells the story of the Apache and their battles in the late 19th century, and it does so with a perfect blend of text and pictures.  These men and women gave the U.S. Cavalry all they could handle.  Yes there were women in the war parties.  A few were fierce warriors, fighting alongside Cochise and Geronimo.  And medicine women were on hand.  They were useful as healers of course.  But at least one, a famous Apache medicine woman called Lozen, was said to accurately foretell the enemy’s movements.

Freely crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the Apaches battled just as many Mexican as U.S. soldiers.  I think they would not have been much hindered by today’s fences and SUV-bound border patrol.  They mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare.  And as long as playing field was fairly level, they usually had the upper hand.  Heavy artillery was their eventual downfall.

The warriors took refuge in rugged mountains and canyons to rest and recharge.  Ranges like the Gilas, the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons offered abundant shelter (including caves), water, game, food plants and medicinal plants for healing the wounds of battle.  The unique geologic characteristics of the mountains made pursuit difficult.  For example, the Chiricahuas have expanses of maze-like rock formations near their summits.  This allowed the Indians to easily ambush parties of soldiers.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

There is not much to say about the character of these warriors that cannot be understood by looking at their photos.  But that record is incomplete.  Cochise, reported to be tall, muscular and graceful, was never photographed.  Neither was Mangas Coloradas.  The only way we know of what these Apache may have looked like is their sons, whose images we often do have.  Geronimo was an exception, as he was both famous and not shy of the camera.  But even he is only known from a few photos.

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The Apache Indian wars came to an end, inevitably, when their numbers were reduced, allowing the survivors to be rounded up and sent to distant reservations.  Cochise was able to live out his life in a free state, dying of natural causes in 1874.  His body lies at an unknown gravesite somewhere in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains.  Geronimo was not as lucky.  He died in 1909 on an Oklahoma reservation, far from the mountains and canyons of his birth.

Single-Image Sunday: Cataldo Mission   2 comments

I’ve been away from the wonderful worldwide web for awhile.  Hope you all have been good!  It has also been quite a long time since I’ve traveled through this part of the country; namely the Idaho panhandle.  I really like the little town of Coeur d’Alene, sitting alongside a big beautiful lake.

Cataldo is a historic Jesuit mission, the oldest building in Idaho.  It dates from 1850.  Obviously it has been restored, and quite nicely!  Located not far east of Coeur d’Alene and now a state park, it lies just off the freeway.  Nevertheless, I’ve never noticed it before now.  I saw the sign and pulled off, just at nightfall.  But the park was closed.

I could see the photographic possibilities from the road.  The attractive building was lighted up and the timing (blue hour) couldn’t have been better.  So I quickly grabbed my tripod and snuck up past the gate.  I snatched a few shots and stole away into the night.

Cataldo Mission, Idaho

John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

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