Archive for the ‘history’ Tag

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!

Visiting Zion National Park: Part III   10 comments

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Morning light at chilly East Zion.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park in Utah by picking up the story of human presence in this southwestern corner of Utah.  For the history of the ancient ones, the American Indian at Zion, check out Part II, and for the geologic history and formation of Zion, see Part I.

EARLY EXPLORERS

During the time leading up to the mid-1800s, the Zion area was wild and populated thinly by the Southern Paiute.  They may have avoided Zion Canyon itself because they believed it was inhabited by capricious spirits.  Their names for features in the canyon indicate as much: Temple of Sinawava (Coyote the trickster), Mount Wynopits (god of evil), etc.  All this time the area was claimed by Spain, and then by Mexico once they had gained independence.

In the late 1700s Spanish explorers penetrated southern Utah, apparently missing the Zion region.  But the reports of Escalante, Dominguez and Rivera, and the beautiful maps of the artist-cartographer Bernardo Miera, greatly helped later white settlers.  In particular the Mormons were intrigued by the Spaniards’ tales of Utah, a fact that would determine the future for the Zion area.

Bernardo de Miera's map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

Bernardo de Miera’s map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

In the early 1800s, trappers and mountain men, while mostly staying to the north and east, did explore Utah.  They found (a word I use loosely) many of the old Indian trails like the Old Spanish Trail.  These would several decades later be used by white settlers.  John Fremont explored Utah in the mid 1840s but he too missed Zion.

It should be noted however that the quirky and tough mountain men befriended many natives that they met.  (They preferred Indian to white women as brides.)  Some of them took secrets of their travels to their graves.  So the odd mountain man could have walked up the Virgin River looking for beaver sign.  Or even wintered in the relatively mild climate of SW Utah.  We know Jedediah Smith, perhaps the widest-traveled mountain man (and my personal favorite), knew of the Virgin River.  We just don’t know if any of them stepped foot in Zion Canyon.

This is actually a replica not the real deal. But forts were required to subdue the native populations of the west.

This is actually a replica. But forts were certainly required to subdue the native populations of the west.

THE MORMONS

Led by their leader and prophet Brigham Young, in the summer of 1847 thousands of Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.  This was after their persecution back east (their founder and original prophet Joseph Smith was murdered while in prison).  At the time the area was beyond the boundaries of the U.S.  A year later that changed as all of Utah (including Zion) was part of the huge area ceded to the U.S. by Mexico.  This was the result of Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American war.

That didn’t deter Brigham Young.  He later became territorial governor of Utah, but the relationship between the government and Mormons has always been a tempestuous one (it’s a great story of its own).  After being named president of the Mormons, Young sent parties to explore SW Utah in the 1850s.  A mission to convert the Southern Paiute was established near what is now St. George not far from Zion.  They took Indian lands in order to grow corn and other cash crops, including cotton.  It didn’t take long for many Paiute to die of disease and starvation.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Because cotton and tobacco could be grown in the mild climate of SW Utah, and also because many of the settlers were originally from the American South, the area was named Dixie.  The mission and settlement was largely unsuccessful and many fled.  But Young kept it alive, sending more settlers south.  He also sent Mormons to other places in the intermountain West.  Mormons discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and even founded Las Vegas (of all places).

Under the cottonwoods in Zion Canyon, Utah.

ZION & THE POLITICS OF PLACE-NAMES

John Wesley Powell (another favorite figure of mine) led an expedition to the Zion area in 1872, recording the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap.  This is a Southern Paiute name meaning “straight canyon” or “arrow quiver” depending on who you believe.  Powell may have been using the actual Indian name for the canyon or he may have gotten it wrong.  But in 1909, when the area was given national monument status, it was called Mukuntuweap.

This is despite the fact that it was named Zion decades earlier.  In 1858, the Mormon Indian interpreter and explorer Nephi Johnson explored the canyon (he is recorded as the first white person to see it).  Despite the typical Mormon take on it that he was just exploring, he was very likely looking for a place to hide and lay low.

Johnson was directly involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, not far north of St. George.  About 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, including women and children, were murdered by Mormon militia-men (disguised as American Indians).  A group of Southern Paiute, under direction of Johnson, also took part.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

In 1861 another Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin, armed with information from Johnson, entered the canyon and built a one-room log cabin at the site now occupied by Zion Lodge.  Like anyone, Behunin needed a name for his spectacular new surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

Under great political pressure from Mormons, who had all along been calling the place Zion and who were angry about the Paiute name, the acting director of the Park Service bowed to pressure and renamed it Zion.  This was fortuitous for the Mormons, since the iconic director of the NPS Stephen Mather, who was dead-set against a name-change, was on leave at the time, suffering one of his long bouts of depression.

When the fantastic canyon, which by this time was well known thanks to the wonderful paintings of Frederick Dellenbaugh (see below), became a National Park in 1919, it was called Zion.  And so it remains today.

Zion is a biblical word meaning place of refuge and peace.  Considering their long migration to seek refuge from persecution, it’s a name near and dear to Mormons.  But Nephi Johnson and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a way twists the ideal of Zion.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

TOURISM ARRIVES

A road was completed up Zion Canyon in 1917 and Wylie Way Camp was established to house pioneering visitors.  Early tourists came to Zion in special convertible buses.  Using these buses, Zion became part of the “Great Circle”, which took in Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  When you take the shuttle bus or drive up Zion Canyon today, as you crane your neck trying to view the soaring canyon walls, you may wonder why that fantastic original idea of topless buses didn’t last.

Zion became Utah’s first National Park in 1919, and in that year about 3700 people visited.  William Wylie’s camp was purchased and Zion Lodge was completed in 1925.  Tourist access continued to increase when the road to Zion became a thru-route in 1930.

After three years of innovative but dangerous road engineering that cost one worker his life, a tunnel was completed through the high cliffs east of Zion Canyon, connecting the park to points east.  The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with its charming skylight windows overlooking Pine Creek Canyon (its route is very close to the cliff wall), is still one of the country’s most marvelous road-works.

Eastern entrance of Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Eastern entrance of Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The same year the tunnels were finished (there are actually two), tourist numbers had increased to about 55,000.  Visitation hit one million annually by 1975 and two million in 1990.  In 1997, with visitor numbers exploding and the canyon becoming a veritable parking lot in summertime, the Park Service instituted a long-overdue mandatory shuttle system.  From mid-March to the end of October, and also Thanksgiving weekends, you must take the free shuttle to access Zion Canyon.

Annual visitor numbers are now in excess of 2.5 million.  So Zion can be quite a busy park.  Next post in the series will focus on ways to come away from Zion with a positive experience while avoiding the potential negatives of all those fellow visitors.

Autumn is a magical time at Zion: ranch not far from the west entrance at Springdale.

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!

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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!

Single-image Sunday: Scotty’s Castle   1 comment

This incongruous place is located in a remote area of the California (Mojave) desert, in the northern part of Death Valley National Park.  Though officially it was called the Death Valley Ranch, it’s better known as Scotty’s Castle.  This post is about a friendship between two men as improbable as a castle in the desert.  I think when you really consider unlikely pairings real truths are often revealed.  These pairings can tell larger stories and illuminate the motivations behind the often-strange behavior of  human beings.

Despite the name, Scotty’s Castle never belonged to Scotty.  Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) was a colorful character who lived from 1872 to 1954.  He worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show for some time, then tried gold mining near Cripple Creek Colorado.  That would be the extent of his working life, as he spent most of the rest of it convincing rich easterners to invest money in fictitious gold mines out west.

Scotty’s last and best benefactor was a Chigagoan named Albert Johnson.  When Johnson was a young man he was fascinated with the west.  While young he made a lot of money investing in a mine in Missouri, and he planned to invest in mines out west.  He wanted a life there.   But a broken back from a bad train accident (which killed his father) changed his life.  He was temporarily paralyzed and made a miraculous recovery.  But his health was never the same and he was forced to settle on a career in the insurance industry.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Johnson would fall in the sights of Walter Scott.  After Johnson had invested some thousands of money into Scott’s secret (and fictitious) Death Valley gold mine with no return, he became suspicious.  It was soon apparent that Scott was lying.  Strangely, despite all the evidence he was being conned, Johnson remained convinced of the mine.

It took quite a number of years and several visits before Johnson finally gave up on the secret mine’s existence.  Through all of this Scott tried to deceive him with several elaborate schemes.  This included (of course) the salting of various fake mines, but Scott was not one to stop there.  He once planted a group of friends in a canyon masquerading as outlaws. They surprised Johnson, Scott and their companions and a fake gunfight (but with real bullets!) ensued.  The ruse was meant to scare away Johnson and his associates in hopes they might forget about seeing the mine with their own eyes.  But the plan quickly went awry when one man was shot and seriously injured.

Scott had learned the art of Wild West theater from the best (Buffalo Bill) and he used that flair for the dramatic in his long career as a con man.  He had a certain boldness. His colorful personality made him a media star in fact.  He made it into newspapers nationwide on several occasions.  And he parlayed that fame into a number of gigs (including a play about himself, starring himself).

Albert Johnson, though a genuinely rich insurance executive, was enchanted with Scotty in the same way he was enchanted with the mythical wild west.  Perhaps Johnson saw his alter ego, the embodiment of a life he wished he had lived.  Of course it was all based on false premises.  The era when the Wild West was real overlaps with the succeeding (longer) era when the concept of the wild west was parodied and used to fire the imaginations of sedate city-goers from “civilized” America – for profit.

Incredibly, Johnson eventually forgave Scott for defrauding him and the two became good friends. You would not expect a man to befriend a man who had conned him out of money, but that’s exactly what happened.  Johnson and Scott genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.  Scott was known as an entertaining storyteller.  All of this might explain why Johnson believed in Scotty’s secret mine for so long, and why he later forgave him.

His early dreams of an adventurous life out west ruined by his devastating injury, Johnson made repeated trips back, particularly to Death Valley.  Trains made some places in the west at least as accessible (in some cases more so) than they are now.  In 1915 Johnson bought and developed an old ranch in Grapevine Canyon.  Though Johnson was content to rough it on his visits, his wife Bessie convinced him to build a vacation home.  And Johnson did not go halfway!  Both he and Bessie loved the peace and quiet of the desert.  As for Scotty, he lived his later years five miles from the the Castle in a cabin built for him by Johnson.

Though Scotty’s Castle was never quite finished, it remains a stunning place.  It was originally run on direct current electricity from a Pelton water wheel powered from the same spring that supplied water.  Johnson did much of the original engineering himself.  The National Park Service purchased the place years after Johnson’s died.  It is nicely preserved and rangers dressed in period costume lead daily tours.

In the picture you can see a cross on the hill overlooking Scotty’s Castle.  This is the grave site of Walter Scott.  He is buried right alongside a beloved dog.  I think this little fact alone might explain why I have a charitable opinion of a man who lied and cheated for most of his life.

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Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park, California.

The San Juan Mountains   11 comments

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

The San Juan Mountains are my favorite mountain range in Colorado.  They are not the highest mountains in the state, though with six peaks surpassing 14,000 feet (4270 meters) in elevation they’re close.  It is the largest range in Colorado by area.  They slice spectacularly through the southwestern part of the state, forming a stunning Rocky Mountain landscape.

The major towns bordering the San Juans are Durango, Montrose and Alamosa.  Telluride, Creede and Silverton are smaller towns with historic, touristic and recreational personalities.  Hiking, mountain climbing & biking, horse-riding and white-water rafting are very popular, as are 4WD jeep rides.  There are four ski areas in the range, with Telluride being by far the biggest and most famous.  There are a plethora of summer homes and ranches, many owned by wealthy people.  Some are even famous (Tom Cruise is one).

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

William Henry Jackson, a photographer’s photographer

An intrepid photographer named William Henry Jackson, whom many of you might already know about, trekked through this range on his mission to document the best of the rugged American West in the late 1800s.  As part of the Hayden Expedition, he used pack animals and his own strong back to lug his large-format camera (complete with huge glass plates) up and down these steep mountains.

He set up make-shift tents that served as darkrooms, developing his prints often on the very summits of the mountains.  All in all he made about 300,000 black and white pictures.  These images, reproduced in newspapers in cities worldwide, played a large part in forming an idyllic image of the American West in the minds of those looking for new opportunity.  The call of “Go West young man!” now had superb pictures to go with it, and the mass migration soon followed!

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.

 

Geology

The San Juans are a large western branch the Rocky Mountains.  Like the rest of the chain, they formed by the uplift and buckling of a large pile of older sedimentary and volcanic rocks during the late Cretaceous (the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago).  This massive crustal “squish” happened because of a collision between two huge chunks of Earth’s crust: the Pacific and North American Plates.

Some of the highest and most rugged peaks in the San Juans are made of very hard igneous intrusions (granite is an example) that resist erosion.  These so-called plutons were intruded as the mountain building process got going.  Many of the flat-lying layers of sedimentary rocks forming the canyon walls of the adjacent Colorado Plateau lap up onto the San Juans.  There they take on a different look, being strongly deformed by folding and faulting.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Hard sedimentary rocks like quartzite, which is metamorphosed (heated and changed) sandstone, form prominent peaks and cliffs because quartzite is hard like the plutonic intrusions.  Other sedimentary rocks, such as the mudstones and sandstones of the dinosaur fossil-bearing Morrison Formation, typically form the rubbly slopes bordering the peaks.  Many valleys and canyons follow faults.  Ouray, Colorado lies at the base of a steep grade because of the E-W trending Ouray Fault.

Volcanism is one other important force that helped to form the San Juan Mountains.  Large and explosive volcanoes erupted in middle Tertiary times (about 30 million years ago).  Many calderas, including the Silverton Caldera, make up what’s called the San Juan Volcanic Field.  Calderas are bigger than craters and are formed when the volcano violently explodes and collapses back into its emptied magma chamber.

You can see these volcanics (tuffs – rock from volcanic ash and lavas) by driving up and over spectacular Red Mountain Pass.  In the San Juans, the colorful volcanic rock forms high but more rounded peaks that are less rugged than those formed by earlier igneous intrusions of the main mountain-building event.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Thar’s Gold in them thar hills!

In the late Tertiary, from about 20 to 10 million years ago, the slowly cooling granitic intrusions that were the sources for those explosive volcanoes sent forth gold and silver-bearing fluids into the faults and fractures of the calderas.  So like so many mountainous regions of the world, the events that formed valuable mineral deposits were the penultimate phases of the mountain-building process, the last gasp of the big granite bodies solidifying deep underground.

In southwest Colorado as in similar places throughout the world, these events dictated the much later human history of the area.  The mining history of this area, while interesting, also has a dark side.  The Summitville Mine in the eastern San Juans was worked by the old-timers in the late 1800s, well before modern environmental regulations.

The pollution from acid drainage resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declaring the area a Superfund site.  They have been trying to clean it up since the 1990s.  The EPA wanted to list an area near Silverton for Superfund status, but local opposition forced them to drop the idea and rely on the mining company to help control acid drainage.  The local economy relies heavily on tourism, and residents did not want that reputation tainted.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton's mining-driven boomtime was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.

Silverton’s mining-driven boom-time was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.

 

The San Juan Mountains, a real Rocky Mountain wonderland, make for outstanding landscape photography.  In early summer there are spectacular wildflower displays. In autumn the aspens turn gold beneath the snow-dusted peaks.  If you have never been to this part of Colorado, I recommend making every effort to visit sometime soon.  And don’t forget your camera!

Click on any of the images to go to my image galleries.  They are all copyrighted, so aren’t available for free download without my permission.  If you’re interested in purchase of fine-art prints or high-resolution downloads please contact me.  Thanks for reading and have a great day!

The setting sun's light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains,  Colorado.

The setting sun’s light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

A Visit to Photograph Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico   8 comments

Adobe rules in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Adobe rules in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I had never been to this part of the country and I wanted to see why it was so popular as a travel destination.  Great Sand Dunes National Park was still closed because of the Govt. shutdown, and thinking it might open very soon (which happened) I made the detour down from south-central Colorado last week.

I drove down to the little town of Questa in spitting snow.  Camping above the Rio Grande River, I woke next morning to find about 4 inches of snow had fallen.  The weather gradually cleared and warmed a bit over the next few days.  I made my way first to Taos and then to New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe.  Both are chock-full of adobe architecture, some of it very old and restored.  This post will give tips for visiting the region and touch on its history.  Images of the architecture will take center stage.

The Rio Grande Gorge near Questa, New Mexico on a snowy morning.

The Rio Grande Gorge near Questa, New Mexico on a snowy morning.

Both Santa Fe and Taos are great for strolling and exploring.  Santa Fe is the more touristy of the two and is larger.  But you’ll find no tall buildings in Santa Fe, and really not much traffic.  Both are small enough to walk but Taos is very much a town compared to Santa Fe, which is a small city.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Santa Fe

I started in Santa Fe, America’s oldest state capital (and highest at 7000 feet).  It was founded by the Spanish in 1607 and played a big role in the early western expansion of the U.S.  Many famous people have spent time here, both in historic and more recent times.  The artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted here in the early 20th century.  It also has a world-renowned opera.

There is paid parking throughout the downtown area, in old-fashioned coin meters.  If you’re willing to walk into the center, you can find free parking.  I visited the friendly Capital Coffee, which is only 5 minutes walk from the edge of the historic center.  After coffee, I used their parking lot to strike off into the streets and shoot.  I was only a little over an hour doing this.  I would not take advantage and spend half the day parked there.

Adobe houses are, above all, simple.  You can see the straw used to mix the adobe.

Adobe houses are, above all, simple. You can see the straw used in the adobe.

I recommend simply wandering through the streets around the central plaza.  The plaza (zocalo in Mexico) is a good landmark to keep circling back to.  There are innumerable art galleries to visit of course.  The town is a magnet for artists of all stripes.  I focused on shooting exteriors here.  I photographed mostly when the sun was low but not so low that shadows dominated.

Built in 1607, this is America's "oldest" house, though since it is adobe, it's been continuously patched and rebuilt over the years.

Built in 1607, this is America’s “oldest” house, though since it is adobe, it’s been continuously patched and rebuilt over the years.

Rather than list places to visit, I urge you to check out Wiki’s travel guide (which includes a walking map) or do your own Googling.  For the rich history of this 400+-year old city, you couldn’t do much better than start with the Palace of the Governors.  This is the former center of Spain’s colonial government here and is now New Mexico’s state history museum.

While you’re strolling, it’s very worthwhile trying to get access to the placitas (commonly called courtyards in most areas).  Placitas characterize the architecture here. Found throughout Latin America as well, here these delightful open-air spaces are surrounded by low-slung adobe buildings.  During my travels in Mexico, Central and South America, courtyards have been a favorite place to chill out and soak in the sun: reading, journaling and relaxing.

Inside a traditional placita.

Inside a traditional placita, this one at the Blumenshein Home in Taos.

Traditionally several families would live in the homes bordering the placita, sharing it as an outdoor living and animal husbandry area.  Some flowers and other plants were grown but placitas were not traditionally devoted to gardens as they mostly seem to be these days.  Modern placitas (courtyards) also differ in being most often surrounded by one single-family dwelling.

I found Taos to be much easier than Santa Fe in terms of wandering in and out of placitas, but you might have better luck than I did in Santa Fe.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral is located a mile or so from the center of Santa Fe but is a magnificent building worth photographing.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral is located a mile or so from the center of Santa Fe but is a magnificent building worth photographing.

The moon rises over the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Santa Fe.

The moon rises over the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Santa Fe.

I like Taos a little better than Santa Fe.  Santa Fe seems a bit strange to me.  Maybe it’s because of all the tourism clashing with history clashing with the modern influx of wealthy retirees clashing with the older residents of the area (many Native American) clashing with the new-age types.  It seems to me to be a place lacking an identity. Also, real estate prices are way out of whack.

So much of the adobe in Santa Fe looks like it was built yesterday, which I think takes away from the real history of the place.  Taos suffers some of the same, but I’ve found this effect to run rampant throughout the world, anywhere history and authenticity gets in the way of modern life and “progress”.  At least they keep to adobe construction and style here.

A house in Taos.

A house in Taos.

Taos

Taos has some of the same vibe as Santa Fe but it’s much smaller and has a definite character.  Besides being a gateway to mountain recreation (including great skiing), Taos is a fine place to wander around and photograph.  Kit Carson, the famous scout and mountain man lived here.  Or I should say his hispanic wife and their kids lived here while he passed through from time to time.

One of the few windows in Kit Carson's old home.

One of the few windows in Kit Carson’s old home.

The restored placita next to the Kit Carson Home in Taos, New Mexico.

The restored placita next to the Kit Carson Home in Taos, New Mexico.

There is a main plaza in Taos as well.  In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America these zocalos or plazas seem to be much more “alive” with activity than in Taos and Santa Fe.  I think it’s because of all the limitations in the U.S. for people to just set up carts with cheap eats.  Here they serve as centers for shopping, much of it high end.  In Mexico they’re places for street performers, strolling couples and great street food.  The ones in New Mexico look just like zocalos but are not the same at all.

A church-bell in Taos.

A church-bell in Taos.

You can park very near the plaza at one of the public parking lots (feed coins into the meters) or look for free spots 10 minutes walk to the plaza.  You can just wander through the streets surrounding the plaza.  The placita bordered by Kit Carson’s house is interesting, restored to near what it would have looked like.  The placita at the Blumenshein Home is a great one too, and the narrow street it’s on, Ledoux, is lined with attractive adobe architecture.

A great mural at the entrance to Ledoux Street in Taos, New Mexico.

A great mural at the entrance to Ledoux Street in Taos, New Mexico.

A couple places I neglected on this trip but which are certainly worth checking out are Taos Peublo just north of town and Ranchos de Taos a couple miles south of town.  Taos Pueblo has some of the oldest buildings in the area.  At Ranchos de Taos, the deservedly famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church is an amazing building.  I suppose I need to skip some things to have an excuse to return!

A bit of fall color in Taos, New Mexico.

A bit of fall color in Taos, New Mexico.

This high and beautiful area of New Mexico is certainly worth visiting.  The climate is darn near perfect and the Sangre de Cristos Mountains are gorgeous.  Also, the Rio Grande River flows through it.  It’s a very beautiful stream that runs in and out of rugged canyons.  One morning I took a frosty walk along the river and found some fall colors (image below).

As usual, clicking on any of the images takes you to my gallery page, and all the pictures are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. Please contact me if you are interested in any of them; they’ll be uploaded to my site soon.  Thanks for reading and have a superb week!

The Rio Grande River and colorful cottonwoods between Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico.

The Rio Grande River and colorful cottonwoods between Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico.

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