Monday, August 25, 2014

North Country Redux: The wrap-up

July 27 2014

Yesterday, after cresting my third pass of the day, I coasted on down into Raton NM. Raton is a small little town with some charm but parts of it can get quite crowded. I think that's because it's the first or last, depending on which direction you're going, stop along I25 in New Mexico. This means that the Clayton Rd./US64 exit sees a lot of use because there's a truck stop and several fuel stations nearby. I've learned to skip those, and the jockeying crowd trying to maneuver a combined 60'+ of tow vehicle & RV around too-small spaces.

Instead I turn west at the top of the ramp, go a half mile to the light (The visitor center is right there at that corner too if you wish to partake.) and turn left. Just up ahead on the right is the Loaf 'N Jug. They usually have as good as or better fuel prices than the stations back there by the exit and never seem near as crowded. As a bonus the pumps are parallel to the road which makes getting large rigs in and out easier, eliminating that tight turn between knocking the pumps down and driving through the front windows that pumps perpendicular to the store force on you.

To make it even better there's a traffic light right there to make getting back on the road in either direction safe and easy, and just across the street is a decent grocery store. And if you're looking for one, a block or two further south is the KOA.

I was looking for one.

I've stayed here in the past and have a favorite site tucked in between one of the cabins and the residence that's just made for small rigs like mine. Unfortunately that site was already occupied. In fact, pretty much every site in the campground was either occupied or spoken for.

Being half way between Albuquerque and Denver  this campground is a popular reunion spot. I think the guy told me that some 30+ rigs in there at the moment were all from one group and he had three different groups in at the time. Add to that it's a Saturday evening during travel season and this place is hopping!

Fortunately I'm in a small rig that can fit into tight spots and they had exactly one of those left. It was one of those orphaned little patches of ground left over at the end of a row and carved up really small by the curve of the access road looping around it so nothing much over 22' feet or so will fit.

I took it!

OK, I have a confession to make. As I 'took it' I also jumped ship.

You see, I've been a loyal Good Sam'er for decades now; but I think maybe that loyalty has run it's course.

As I pulled in here I realized this is my third KOA of this trip and I can't recall seeing a single Good Sam park for the past 4500 - 4600 miles. I wasn't particularly looking for Good Sam parks so have probably missed a few along the way, but then again I wasn't particularly looking for KOA's either but found them anyway.

And there have been some changes at Good Sam in the past couple years. Perhaps most noticeable is that the Highways magazine is no more, instead I get a sales flier from Camping World every month or so. True, my Good Sam Deluxe membership has been merged with Camping World's 'club' discount program but really, how much do I buy there anyway??

So when I registered last night I finally, after all these years and hoping no Good Sam'er was looking over my shoulder, broke down and also paid for a KOA Value Kard.

My Good Sam membership is good through 2017. Between now and then I'll spreadsheet both memberships and see just where the value really lies.

Anyway, back at the campsite; even at this altitude the heatwave was still pressing down with uncomfortable strength but I just couldn't bring myself to stay inside so pulled out the Easy-Up and set up on the just barely large enough leftover patch between my door and the road to read for a while. But that got rudely interrupted when a micro-burst picked up half the dirt parking lot across the ally from me and threw it through the chain-link fence and into my face, hard!

Fortunately, based on the clouds playing around in the distance over the mountains, I had staked the Easy-Up down so it stayed pretty much where it was during this sneak attack. Two tents a few sites away didn't fare quite as well. (I had to go to the web to figure out which fair/fare was proper in that sentence. Maybe I should have paid more attention during English class. . .) But half blinded and with the clouds looming closer, I had had enough so folded up my toys, went inside and suffered the roar of the air conditioner.

That was last night. Early this morning, just so it wouldn't be one of those all-travel days, I broke camp and drove the few miles up to Sugarite Canyon State Park, dropped my $5 entry fee into the self-pay post because the visitor center wasn't yet manned, and hiked around the site of the abandoned town that used to service the mines up there.

I guess I hadn't had enough high altitude acclimation time because the 7500' altitude kicked my butt pretty well, and instead of gorgeous rising-sun lighting, high, hazy cloud cover kept the light grey and flat making for boring photos so I won't impose them on you, especially since I've been here before and posted about it in the past.

OK, well the sun is now setting on this trip.

I know, I know. Hokey, in fact groan-worthy hokey, but someone has to do it otherwise it wouldn't be hokey anymore. So you see? I'm just doing my part to keep order in the universe!!

I'm halfway across Texas tonight and will make it home tomorrow, (Texas is a two-day state!) just in time to buy a new car the day after tomorrow. Our strong and lively 2007 170K mile Ford Focus Wagon will be passed on to a relative that needs it more than we do and we will be driving around in a new Ford Escape. That will be the 4th Ford Escape currently within the family clan, but I have to say, that's not our first choice. If Ford was still building the Focus Wagon that's what we would be buying instead.

But once again I digress.

Truth is, this trip, in an attempt to avoid areas that are starting to get stale for me, was too many miles in too little time.  And, though I can spend all summer working out in my un-air conditioned shop all day long or standing at my computer station, which is also out in the shop, for hours at a time, when on the road I find that somehow the heat just sucks the life out of the trip and overshadows everything else.

Combine that with the school-break crowds and clearly summer is not my time for traveling. But that doesn't mean I won't be doing it again. . . Before I even got home from this trip the next family event had already been planned and scheduled.

You guessed it, for next summer. . .

21 days (Hot days!)
5154 miles
251 gallons of fuel
20.53 miles per gallon

Friday, August 22, 2014

North Country Redux: Two Passes and a Distraction

July 26 2014

You know how you sometimes see a little green sign when you pass from one county to another? But other times the only way you know you've left one and gone into another is a slight bump and a change in the road surface due to different road maintenance schedules and procedures? Well when I was southbound on I25 this morning I thought I passed the coolest county sign ever when I entered Spanish Peaks County.

Only it turns out there is no Spanish Peaks County.

Photo courtesy of Google Earth (Where I stole it from.)

At highway speed, delighted at the the sculptural mimicking of the mountains with solid, heavy steel that still succeeds in soaring lightly into the air,  I managed to read 'country' as 'county' as I went by.

Now personally I think Spanish Peaks is a much better name for a county than Huerfano, (Which means orphaned or devoid in Spanish.) but nobody bothered to ask me. Regardless, I thought the sign was pretty cool!

But, since I was hurtling down the freeway at the time - OK, more like turtling, but still too fast to snap a quick one-handed photo and no safe place to pull off, (In my humble opinion the shoulder of a freeway is not a safe place.) I later used the campground WIFI to go looking on the web for a photo of this unique and fitting sculpture, but surprisingly couldn't find one, so I ended up flying down the road on Google Earth and when I spotted it, helicoptered down to the virtual shoulder and screen-captured the image you see above.

But in the mean time. . . I'm supposed to be making my way towards home where I have a deadline to deal with, but not far from the Spanish Peaks Country sculpture I got distracted.

Way over on the far side of my laptop screen, which was acting as my GPS at the time, I noticed  the edge of a 'map note' peeking through. That's it in the screenshot above, that little blue box down in the corner.

For the past several years I have been adding map notes to several different layers of my mapping system as I read about places I think might be interesting, usually in the blogs of others, and this is the map layer I was using as I drove today

I was coming up on the Walsenburg exit at the time and got off to find a handy parking lot so I could take a closer look at my map. Once I could see the whole thing I realized this note was pointing at the Old Fort Garland Military Reservation, which is the official name of the Fort Garland Museum, and remembered putting it there (The map note, not the museum.) when I read an entry from Jim and Jackie Burton's blog Travels of the Mercury.

The museum is 50 miles away; 50 miles the wrong way and 50 more to get back on track; but hey, I've already got about 4500 miles behind me on this trip so what's another 100??

So off I went like a pin-ball that's hit an unexpected pin in the playing field, over North La Veta Pass on US160 and on down the other side into Fort Garland.

A shot of the 11,500 foot Mt. Mestas taken just before getting down to the business of climbing the pass
As a bonus it's a pretty drive up and over the pass, and the old Denver & Rio Grand narrow gauge railroad used to use go through here. In fact the original road alignment was on top of the old abandoned railroad and went over La Veta Pass, (No North) but there were two sharp turns that worked just fine for the railroad but not so well for a highway, so eventually the highway was moved a mile and a half to the north and straightened out. (The old road, now unpaved and lightly traveled, is apparently still there as CR443, wrapping around the south side of Dump Mountain on the first of those two sharp turns on its way up to the summit for those that would like to try it.)

For a bonus on top of a bonus, in 1899 the DRG converted the rails through here to standard gauge and moved the alignment about 8 miles to the south where it crosses at Veta Pass. (I know, all these variations on Veta can be confusing!)Today those tracks are still there and listed as belonging to the Union Pacific, though I don't know if they actively use them, but the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad does operate over these rails, of which I was able to catch a few glimpses of in the distance, but I didn't see any trains.

 Anyway, back to what I was doing after getting ricocheted off my planned track. . .

On the far side of the pass I got to the town of Fort Garland. A few blocks south on SR159 and the museum is sitting there on the west side of the road.

What you don't realize until you study the map of the old fort, is that you just drove over the site of the hospital, now buried under the state road about where the tracks cross, and that the stables, kind of important for a Calvary fort, used to be sitting over there in the empty field on the east side of the highway.

 Five of the original buildings are still here and many more that used to sit around the parade field have been reconstructed.  After paying my $5 and passing through the gift shop I found myself out on the parade grounds with a number of exhibits to choose from in the buildings around it.

So off I went, counter-clockwise because - well - that's the way I'm wound.

In one building I came across this really cool piano.

 A combination piano and table. Have a party and it can take care of the music while holding all the drinks and food at the same time! I've never seen one like this before but there was two of them here so maybe they were relatively common??

 The barracks may be empty now, but I think if you listen real close you just might hear a few raucous echos from the days when this room was home to a bunch of testosterone laden men with not a whole lot in the way of available entertainment.

Of course they may have been too wore out from the tough life for too much extracurricular trouble.

And I imagine the freighters passing through the area with their 'basic tech' equipment were equally tired by the end of the day.

As I wandered in and out of the various buildings and displays I kept seeing these floor patches made from tin cans and a few nails. These two seemed fairly recent to me but I can see the solders using the available materials and technology like this, except in my vision they're using the heel of a boot to hammer the nails home, to keep the varmint count, the native fauna, to a tolerable minimum.

Speaking of native fauna, as I toured the grounds I kept hearing the slow, ominous croak of these Common Ravens. I'm pretty sure that in some cultures that's not a good sign!

These guys, unlike the Ravens which stayed up there on top of their pole, were flitting around the grounds and, though I haven't taken the time to identify them yet, I'm pretty sure there's nothing ominous about them.

As I was leaving the museum this excursion train was sitting at a miniscule depot beside a more-field-than-parking lot with a tiny ticket booth and some stairs for getting into the cars. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad web site only lists terminals at La Veta on the east side of the pass and Alamosa on the west side, but clearly something is going on here. The train was just about finished loading and I had other things I was supposed to be doing, so I didn't stop and check into it but it's another note to to add to the map.

Having just crossed it east to west, I knew the road over North La Veta pass was easy with two lanes for the up-bound traffic no mater which direction you were going and, finding myself on an empty stretch of it, I felt comfortable enough to snap this one-handed photo.

Speaking of passes, I don't think I've ever been over Raton pass, which I crossed later in the day, from north to south without passing at least one breakdown along the way, and since the shoulder along here is only half-width, there's really not enough room to be breaking down!

I admit Raton is a tough pass, though I'm not sure why. At 9500' North La Veta pass is about 1700' higher than the 7800' Raton pass and both passes have a maximum grade of 6%, but the main part of the climb to North La Veta is about 1600' over 7.5 miles where Raton Pass is 1800 feet over 12 miles. This means the climb to North La Veta should be slightly tougher than the climb to Raton, yet somehow Raton is a harder pull.

I ran North La Veta at about 55 mph (The road has just been resurfaced and was smooth as silk.) and the engine coolant temp only hit about 207F. On Raton Pass, even though I was going 10 MPH slower than that, my coolant temp reached 232 just before I topped the pass and I was preparing to slow down even more and downshift one more gear to keep the engine RPM's, and coolant flow, up. (With a 16# cap the boiling point of 50/50 coolant mix at sea level is around 270F so, not being a physicist that can quickly adjust for altitude off the top of my head, 240F is the max I will let it get to at this altitude. That way I don't risk boiling off my coolant and melting the engine, or, in the case of today's computer controls, having the computer suddenly shut me down at a really bad spot.)

But regardless of the why's, Raton Pass is not to be toyed with and I don't understand why people feel the need to blast on up it at the posted speed limit while hauling a heavy load. As I already said, north to south it's about a 12 mile pull to the summit and the difference between running it at 65 and making the climb at a more reasonable 45 with your hazards flashing, is about 5 minutes.

I just can't see risking the engine and transmission of a $40,000 truck hauling a $50,000 fifth-wheel with three slide-outs, massively tall stand-up front room, 32" flat-screen and a fireplace in order to save 5 lousy minutes.

But then I often don't understand people and the things they do. So it is with great effort that I restrain myself from tooting and waving gayly at the driver that just blasted by me a few miles ago but is now blocking half the right lane sitting there in his billowing, smoking truck trying to keep that 12,000 lb. trailer from dragging him backwards down the hill. He's just not in the mood for sarcasm and I-told-you-so's. . .

Every time I go over this pass I can't help diligently scanning the railroad tracks more or less paralleling the road.

Back before the Santa Fe was absorbed by Burlington Northern in 1996 I would occasionally see freight trains tackling the 3.5% grade despite the longer but easier 1.25% Belen Cutoff over to the east, but ever since the creation of BNSF the only thing that goes over the pass is the once daily Amtrak Southwest Chief and I've never managed to actually see it up there. But I like seeing the tracks anyway. I like imagining the work crews pushing the roadbed through the mountains  and the countless engines that have labored over rails they laid. (But don't tell my psychiatrist because she doesn't know just how pathetic and sad I really am!!!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

North County Redux: Black Hills and more

July 25 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

OK, a little overly dramatic there and I shouldn't be playing so free and loose with Dicken's iconic words. So let's tone it down a little closer to reality: It was a really good day today until towards the end, then it got very long, very very long.
Up and on the move at dawn once again, for two reasons, OK, three. OK four. I’m hoping to beat the heat that has settled on the north for the past several days, I’m hoping to beat the crowds. As usual, I’m up and awake as soon as the sky starts to lighten. And finally, it's a glorious morning and one shouldn't waste those, even if everyone else still seems to be asleep.

At Spearfish I’m poised on the northern edge of the Black Hills so that’s where I head without much of a plan.

My first stop is Deadwood. Typical of mountain towns, Deadwood is long and narrow, sharing the limited space between the surrounding peaks with Whitewood Creek. There’s a whole lot going on in Deadwood, or there would be if people were up this early. Lots of stores and shops and eateries, the usual touristy type mix, along with nice walking paths and pocket parks along the creek.

Oh, and there are loads of motels with little tiny parking lots jammed in wherever there's a leftover spot. (One major chain hotel has an additional parking lot over on the other side of a stream with a footbridge to get back to their front door without having to take to the shoulder of the road.) All of these parking lots look a bit untidy, being odd shapes and jammed full of cars and trucks with motorcycles, hundreds of motorcycles (The Sturges Bike Rally doesn't even  officially start for over a week yet!) slipped into any leftover space. As you may have surmised, most of these establishments had the no vacancy signs lit.

As I passed all this I had visions of all those people waking up, stretching, then getting up and heading for the handiest restaurant for some breakfast. Which was no big deal except that my vision also included the whole mass of them synchronously swallowing that last forkfull, paying the bill then clamoring into or onto whichever vehicle they came in (And maybe for a few lucky singles, sitting with the catch of the day in a vehicle they didn’t come in!) and, still synchronously, roaring out onto the limited byways of the Black Hills, the same byways I was enjoying pretty much all to myself at the moment!

But I was early enough that I needn’t have worried. It was a very pleasant morning tooling around the roads, seeing what was there and stopping when I had the urge.

One of those stops was at the  Deer Creek Trailhead on CR T229, otherwise known as Silver City Rd., just off US385. (There is a Silver City on up the road a ways, but it's across the creek and literally only 2 blocks big/small/miniscule!) This trailhead is at mile 62 of the 105 mile Centennial Trail that winds north/south through the Black Hills.

A glimpse of the Pactola Reservoir from the Deerfield Lake Trail, no sign of any Deerfield Lake though.
Now 105 miles of trail is - well - a lot of trail! But going about a third of a mile south on the big trail then making a sharp right turn put me on the the Deerfield Lake Trail. Thirteen miles later, after passing such places as Goose Pasture Draw, Spaw Gulch, and Canon City (Which appears to be even less of a city than Silver City with absolutely no sign of habitation, present or past.) this trail ends at the Mickelson Trail with no sign of a Deerfield Lake to be seen anywhere along the way. Now a 26 mile round trip hike is pretty ambitious and I have to admit that after hiking up to Silver City I turned around and made it more like a 5 mile round trip hike before skipping ahead by driving up Jenny Gulch Rd. to FR142, which had some pretty hairy spots I might add, taking that to where it dead-ends, then ambling another half mile up Rapid Creek to the purported location of the elusive Canon City.

This wasn't a 'tourism brochure' type of hike with spectacular views and monumental points of interest, but it was a great, solitary hike through pretty mountains and quiet woods and that was just fine by me.

By the time I got back to the main road there was more wheeled activity, but not as much as I expected, as I continued south on US385 towards the obligatory stop at Mt. Rushmore. I was here once over 40 years ago and I’m pretty sure a lot of the infrastructure now plopped down at the foot of the monument, infrastructure packed with various ways to transfer some of that money in your pocket to - well, out of your pocket, wasn’t there back then. But now I can say, been there, done that; twice.
I liked this slightly oblique shot of the monument taken from a very small pullout along SR244 at a plaque honoring the sculptor better than the face-on shot you get from the monument visitor center. Too bad I didn't know that before paying $11 to park at the monument for 30 minutes!
Yes, no matter which way you twist it, it's kind of a cliche,

but taking these photos is also kind of obligatory when you're in the area.

The next bit of my trip was also sort of per-ordained. You see there's a family legend about South Dakota's SR16A.

Somewhere back in 1967 or so, we took a family trip that included the Black Hills. (One of those 2 week, one day here one day there, kind of whirl-wind trips forced by limited vacation time.) Our transportation was some heavy steel boat of a 4-door car pulling a Holly Travel Trailer, which was only 17 feet or so long but no lightweight in itself.

Coming north out of Cheyenne as we were I'm sure the maps of the day made it look like SR16A was a good way to get through the Hills to a campground that would stage us close to Mt. Rushmore for our scheduled morning visit the next day. But I'm pretty sure that if the internet and Google Maps had been available back then, that if Dad had had any way of knowing the strange design of this particular little stretch of road, that there's no way he would have tackled it towing a trailer!

You see, unlike most roads which are designed to get from here to there in the most economical fashion possible, 16A was designed to be just the opposite. For instance, the road includes several one-lane tunnels designed, if you're traveling south to north, to frame increasingly closer views of Mount Rushmore as you drive through the tunnel. (But be careful! One in particular has a turn to the left just as you exit so don't get caught up in the view and go driving off the side of the mountain!) And the road features a number of 'pigtails'. These are nifty little features where you pass under a wooden trestle, make a very sharp 270 degree climbing turn that any go-cart track would be proud of, and cross back over the same trestle, in one case with the trestle ending in the mountainside at one of those one-lane tunnels. And just in case that wasn't enough, instead of going around Iron Mountain like any other self-respecting road would do, this one switchbacks all the way to the very top of the mountain where you can pull off at the Norbeck Memorial Overlook and contemplate the fact that now you have to get back down off the other side.

 Even for us kids, who usually didn't know any better, this was one white-knuckle ride!!

In the Sprinter, going southbound against the majority of the building traffic, it wasn't all peaches and cream, for instance I wasn't tempted, not even once, to try grabbing some one-handed photos out the windshield, and the growing traffic imparted a sense of urgency (An affliction I really should do something about.) that precluded using the available pull-outs, but it was kind of fun revisiting our own personal family legend. And, obviously, just like we did back in 1967, I made it out the other end.

With all the hoopla going on just to the north, I think the Wind Cave National Park south of the Black Hills must feel like a forgotten stepchild.

The black of the Black Hills, the trees, are starting to fad off here which opens up the range land and, right on cue, I had to stop in the middle of the road to let a small herd of Bison finish ambling their way across. All that was left by the time I got there were a couple of youngsters that hadn't quite kept up with mom and the usual stragglers, like reluctant teenagers trying not to look like they’re tagging along, but not wanting to get left too far behind none-the-less. The youngsters got distracted by the view and some itches that needed to be scratched right about the time they were in the middle of the road and it took a little scolding from mom to remind them to pay attention.

As I continued my way south I stopped off at the Ft. Laramie National Historical Site in Wyoming. Like Bent’s Fort near La Junta Colorado which I visited on my US50 Phase One trip, this was built more as a trading post but necessity required some fort-like features. It was OK, but very much like Bent's Fort and, in my opinion, not quite as well done.

Shortly after that stop, as I was approaching Guernsey on US26 I saw a large Union Pacific rail yard and service facility and, of course, wanted to get a few photos. There wasn’t any place safe to stop right along there, but just up the road there was a perfectly placed, so I thought, rest area.

Well it wasn’t quite so perfect in terms of photographing the rail yard and facilities since much of the miles long facility was out of sight down in a cut alongside the North Platte River,

but the tiny little rest area was a bit of a gem with interpretive plaques and big, two-sided brick picnic table shelters.

Of course when you think about it, the solid brick walls sheltering the tables from the north and west should give you a hint of the kinds of winds they get out here, and frequently enough to warrant the expense. Fortunately today was not one of those windy days; I had enough of that back up in North Dakota!

Here's where things went a little cattywampus. My plan for the day was to nest somewhere around Cheyenne.

Well that didn't work out too well! You see it just happened that today was right smack dab in the  middle of Frontier Days. I suppose that was somewhat poetic being that back in '67 the reason our family was in Cheyenne before heading on up to the Black Hills was to go to a real live rodeo during Frontier Days, but it didn't feel very poetic after all the miles I'd already covered.

Hours and hours later, after fighting the constant slowdowns and traffic jams that are Interstate 25 along the Colorado frontrange on a Friday with the overhead traffic signs all warning about being prepared to stop because of heavy weekend traffic, I finally ended up in a KOA just south of Colorado Springs.

This is a big campground and it seems not many are interested in the water/electric only sites down near the concrete-rubble lined Fountain Creek that runs along the back side so it was no problem getting a site down there. Clearly this area of the campground is at risk of flooding and you have to climb steps up the bank to the safely perched bath-house, but it's not flooding now and the site works for me. Especially after such an unexpectedly long day.

I25 somewhere north of Cheyenne. I didn't know it when I took the photo, but this was the last time I would see anything resembling empty road for the next 180 miles. Here I'm doing about 62 in a 75 zone. It wasn't long after this that my best speed was no more than about 45 due to heavy traffic and, before stopping for the night in Colorado Springs, I stopped countless times in the traffic jam that is the Colorado frontrange on a Friday evening!

I suppose I could have tried finding a campsite farther back up the road. At first I think it was shock. Once I realized there was no room at the inn in Cheyenne I glanced over at my map and figured maybe I'd try once I got south of Ft. Collins.

Well I didn't expect I'd be hitting wall to wall traffic long before that and ended up passing the spot marked on my map as Ft. Collins with no sign of any centralized population center. Oh there was all the traffic you'd expect but no shopping centers, car dealerships, fast food, etc. At least not within sight of the interstate. It was kind of weird!

The next thing I knew I was getting too close to Denver (Very slowly as by now the traffic was spending as much time stopped as moving.) to expect to be able to snag a last minute campsite, even if I was willing to give up my precious and jealously guarded spot in the creeping mass of traffic.

Next thing I knew, my stick-with-the-herd inertia had me trapped in the environs of Denver itself; a city I used to travel to frequently for work and which has never my favorite place. (Seeing that dirty dome of pollution over the city that's associated with the Rocky Mountains was always disheartening whether I was coming in by road or by air.)

By the time I shook myself free of the machine that nearly swallowed me alive, I was coasting through Colorado Springs at slightly more than idle speed, which was a whole lot faster than the northbound lanes that were all trying to squeeze by one of those oh-crap-I-didn't-see-he-was-stopped chain reaction wrecks that had everything except half the right shoulder shut down, and I cast my eye on a truckstop, the first real truckstop since north of Denver. But one exit before I got there I saw a KOA sign and the siren song of electric hookups to run the AC with lured me in.