Colorado’s Hidden Canyonlands

(c) 2012 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, June 2012

Colorado is best known for its lofty peaks, and rightly so.  Fourteeners, peaks reaching at least 14,000 feet elevation, number 53 in this not-flat state.  A lesser known side of Colorado is its canyons.  On the west slope of the Rocky Mountain Range, sliding toward Utah, are several remarkable canyons.  I set out on a sunny August day to explore these hidden chasms carved into red and black rocks.

To get to the Colorado canyon country, I coasted downhill from Red Mountain Pass on the Million Dollar Highway.  The first rough grey canyon burst out of the rugged mountains near Ouray.  The Uncompaghre River tore through ancient Precambrian bedrock and flowed north toward the Gunnison River.  I followed the river’s rushing route through Montrose, then turned east for eleven curving miles up into Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The approach did not prepare me for the Black Canyon.  Pulling in to a turnout inside the park, IIMG_0006 stepped to the railing, looked down and gasped involuntarily.  Sheer cliffs dropped vertically for 2700 feet.  I wondered if U2 had been at the Black Canyon when they wrote their lyrics: “Hello hello, I’m at a place called Vertigo.”  I literally had to grab onto the handrail to keep from pitching forward.

After following a pleasant winding park road out to its end, I rode down the East Portal Road, five miles long at a 16% grade, which led to the bottom of the Black Canyon.  Down at the canyon’s floor, the Gunnison River described a paradise of still water running deep below the dam.  A tiny campground beckoned, but it was too early in the day to camp.  Besides, I had learned at the Visitor Center that poison ivy grew lushly along the river, which spelled trouble in paradise for me.  The BMW agreeably powered me back up the grade to the canyon rim and I resumed my journey north.

Broad agricultural valleys and small towns dotted the route from Montrose through Olathe andIMG_0064 Delta to Grand Junction.  There I crossed the Colorado River and rode up into Colorado National Monument, a preserve of red sandstone and shale eroded into graceful formations.  The road through the monument was twenty miles of nonstop twisties, with another dazzling view around every corner.  Arriving at the campground an hour before sunset, I paused while setting up the tent to watch virga slanting over the Book Cliffs, and canyon rocks flaming red in the sunset.

The next morning I backtracked through Grand Junction to reach the Unaweep-Tabegauche Scenic Byway.  This sliver of blacktop runs for 90 miles over remote Uncompahgre Divide.  Two creeks named simply East and West drain the region.  Near West Creek, in the middle of nowhere, I stopped to look at a ruined structure in the shadow of towering canyon walls.  “Driggs Mansion” was part of an early 1900s effort to homestead and irrigate the isolated parcel.  The long-abandoned stone building waits patiently for the elements to slowly reclaim it.

Without warning around a curve in the road, a fancy resort appeared.  The Gateway Canyon Resort boasted luxury lodging, fine dining, adventure tours, a spa, a car museum, mountain bike and hiking trails, and special events such as music festivals and artists’ retreats.  Briefly I considered venturing onto its manicured grounds, but in my grubby riding clothes and twelve year old motorcycle, I felt out of place. From a distance, it appeared that its location, along the bank of the Dolores River overlooking the Uncompahgre Plateau, was first class.

After Gateway, the scenic byway ran southeast alongside the twisting, turning course of the IMG_0089Dolores River through increasingly stunning red rock canyons.  The only traffic on the road was other motorcyclists; I waved at a dozen of them while swooping through long delicious curves.

I stopped again at a remarkable historical site farther down the Dolores River canyon.  Peering over the edge of the canyon, I spotted the wooden framework affixed to the smooth red canyon wall with no visible means of support.

Exactly how did this gravity-defying flume get there?  Little is known about the specifics, but the flume was built as part of a failed attempt to turn a profit placer mining along the Dolores River.  Sections of the skillfully designed flume still cling to the rock to this day, mute testimony to the ingenuity of humans on the trail of gold.

IMG_0103At the end of the Scenic Byway, I turned west, to check out one more of western Colorado’s canyons.  Paradox Valley lay about 25 miles of seldom-used blacktop west of Naturita.  I had to know: what is the Paradox?

Turned out the answer was geological.  Instead of running from one end of the valley to the other, the Dolores River bisected the valley and exited to the west into the rugged La Sal mountains.  There was a logical explanation which involved ancient anticlines, uplift and erosion.  Still, it was an Escher-worthy jarring visual, to see the river’s path cross-cut across the valley.

I left the Paradox Valley the same way the Dolores River did, and rode through a fierce rainstorm over the mountains into Utah.  For the next couple days I rode the red rock country of Arches and Canyonlands.  But as I departed those famous parks with their crowds, I found myself longing to return to the remote, beautiful and less known western slope of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s hidden canyonlands.

Arkansas Heat Stroke Ride

 (c) 2006 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in Sidecarist magazine, May 2007.

Summer in the South: always oppressive, always miserable.  I don’t know what I was thinking, agreeing to attend the national sidecar rally in Arkansas last July.  The journey took us eastward into record-breaking heat, wilting humidity, and muggy nights – along with campgrounds populated by thieving raccoons, burrowing armadillos, and shrieking worms.  It was, shall we say, an entertaining trip.

Arkansas_0003Brian and I, along with Dina the Dog, launched from southwest New Mexico riding our two sidecar rigs in searing heat.  But, as we desert rats are fond of saying, “It’s a DRY heat.”  By the time we reached Sumner Lake I felt like a fried egg on the sidewalk; so I leapt off my bike and jumped into the cool water of the reservoir.  Desperately diving into any available cold water source was to prove the theme of the weeklong trip.

Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, we crossed over the hundredth meridian – the invisible line that divides the arid west from the humid east.  The mercury stood at 100 degrees outside the Texas BBQ restaurant in Dalhart, where we stopped for lunch.  Peeling off sweaty riding pants and sprawling in a wooden chair beneath the air conditioner, I revived myself with ice water and barbequed pork.

Oklahoma surprised me with its green treed creek beds and fields of crops.  I had the idea (probably from reading Grapes of Wrath) that Oklahoma’s was a landscape of dust.  A 400 mile day landed us in Boiling Springs, a state park whose springs, boiling or not, had long ago been plowed under, piped away, or otherwise diverted.  All they had was some cold showers, but those would have to do.  I ran into them fully clothed, thinking I could do laundry and cool off at the same time.  The next morning, I discovered that wet clothes don’t necessarily dry out overnight in humid climates.

A strange noise coming from the leaves around trees in the campground caught Brian’s attention.  Moving closer, he discovered the source.  I never would have believed it if I hadn’t poked it with my own fingers.  For on the ground was a fat, bright green worm.  Little more than an inch long, it appeared to have no eyes, no feet, no way to propel itself.  But when prodded, the worm emitted an ear-splitting metallic buzzing noise and squirmed around in the dead leaves.  Very strange was this creature of the heartland.

The next day it was on with the eastern trudge… more heat, more ice water.  I eyed clouds floating across the horizon, wishing one of them would move up to cover the sun for a few minutes of relief.  The next night’s campground in eastern Oklahoma sat on a heavily treed knoll next to a public swimming pool, which we gladly paid an extra four dollars to use.

Returning to camp after the evening swim, Brian hit the brake when he noticed a shuffling movement off to the left.  At the edge of the woods near the road, an armadillo rooted boldly through some dead leaf litter.  Laughing, I leaped from the sidecar with my camera.  The shy creature saw me coming and burrowed under.  In the half mile from the pool back to the campsite, we spotted three more armadillos.  “Will they try to get into our tent?” I wondered aloud.  Living in New Mexico, I had experience with lizards, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, but no clue about the behavior of armadillos.

As it turned out, armadillos weren’t the creatures we needed to worry about.  At dawn we arose to find Brian’s tonneau cover ripped to shreds.  Food from one soft-sided ice chest was strewn all over the floor of his sidecar.  Raccoons!  Missing were a loaf of bread, some nuts, a bag of cereal, and – horror of horrors – the Zenny Butt Muffins.

We always carry some of Brian’s special bran muffins when we travel to keep everything, uh, regular.  I was sorry to see them disappear.  When I thought about how much sorrier the raccoons were going to be, though, I cheered up.  Once, when we were traveling in Mexico, Dina the Dog got into a batch of Zenny Butt Muffins set to cool on a low counter.  A couple hours later, she made a poop that looked like a baguette – well formed, cylindrical, and nearly two feet long.  The raccoons are probably still talking about their trips to the bathroom that day.

When we reached the rally in Beaver, Arkansas, I entered a short version of the raccoon story inArkansas_0001 the “hard luck” contest.  Someone else had a story more worthy of the prize, but I did manage to win second place.  I also won an award for longest distance woman rider.  Actually I think it was an award for stupidity.  Women in their right minds had stayed in the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles for the trip, trailering their rigs and showing up cucumber-cool.  But not me.  I draped the award medals around my neck and clanked through the campground, sweating and showing off my helmet hair.

Sidecar games beneath the blazing sun were a challenge.  Someone turned on a lawn sprinkler, where we gathered, panting, while we awaited our turns trying to riding our sidecar rigs blindfolded.  In one of the games, Brian sat behind me on my bike, circling my waist with his arms and grasping a pie pan full of water above my lap.  The object was to traverse a few ruts and two-by-fours without spilling.  Truly that was one of those games, like the song says about Waterloo, that “I feel like I win when I lose.”  At that point, I was willing to take cold water any way I could get it.

Temperatures all week long had set new records in Arkansas.  Humidity saturated the air.  Returning to the campground, I encountered Jim Krautz, a friend from Colorado who was also suffering from too much heat.  Even though he hadn’t brought a bathing suit, I talked him into going swimming in his jeans.  We waded into Beaver Lake and languished in water up to our necks, ducking heads under periodically for a refresh.

Two other men came over and joined our conversation.  We discovered that, with 21 years of marriage, I was the newlywed of the group.   I was impressed.  What was the common denominator that would explain each person’s ability to stay married?  Were we all just old-fashioned?  Possessed of high morals?  Not likely.   Perhaps it was just that folks with sidecars seem to have more patience with complications and more tolerance of the quirky – both desirable qualities for long-term marital harmony.

Arkansas_0002On the return trip home, we stayed at a “high elevation” campground on the Oklahoma- Arkansas state line.  Now, in New Mexico we wouldn’t have even called it a hill, but the campground was near the highest point in the state of Oklahoma: 2,558 feet.  An actual cool breeze blew through the holler that evening.

We descended from the campground the next day into a wall of heat.  Bob and Cheryl Elder, fellow sidecarists from New Mexico, had warned us at the rally that they saw the mercury hit 110 degrees in Wichita Falls.  Lunch was a plunge into Lake Texoma.  Even Dina the Dog, who hates water, had to be thrown in to keep from overheating.  Riding westward with the sun in my eyes, I lead us into Ardmore, got lost, and forgot to refill my water jug.  An hour later, when we stopped for gas, I was so hot and dehydrated that I burst into tears in a C-store.

Faced with a hysterical woman, Brian did the sensible thing: he asked for directions to the nearest water.  Fortunately it wasn’t far away.  A ten minute ride later, we reached a tidy campground on the shore of a sparkling lake.  Once again, I did the Oklahoma shuffle: leap off the rig, shed the clothes, sprint to the water, plunge.  Hooray for the Corps of Engineers.

Some time the next afternoon, we celebrated re-crossing the Hundredth Meridian with an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen in Earth, Texas.  Moving westward into a stiff wind like a blast furnace, we finally reached Sumner Lake.  After the standard swim in the reservoir, I sat with Brian on a sandstone ledge, watching the zigzag flight of a kingfisher patrolling the lake as the sun went down.

“If you ever again see me heading east in the summertime, hit me,” I instructed Brian.  “I’m serious.  No more summer riding in the South.”

We did enjoy the national sidecar rally, of course, and we might consider riding to it again next year.  That is, if they hold it in a place with a climate more temperate.  Somewhere, for example, like Fairbanks, Alaska.  In January.  At night.

Black and White and Red All Over

Copyright © 2007 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, August 2008

Question: What’s black and white and red all over?  Answer: A motorcycle route through the region surrounding Lincoln National Forest in southeast New Mexico.

Lincoln1_0005At the north end of the route, black folds of lava clothe the desert landscape in an eerie moonscape.  At the southern end, unbroken acres of dazzling white dunes roll out into infinity.  In between, mountains rise to a cool 9000 feet elevation, offering evergreen forests, twisty back roads, cute resort towns, museums, spectacular sunsets, and a refuge from the sizzling black and white desert below.

My ride began at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, just west of Carrizozo.  The stark landscape of the park was created by a volcanic eruption 1000 years ago.  Ropey black flows, called Lincoln2pahoihoi in the Hawaiian language, reach over 100 feet thick in some places.  An ear-splitting buzz of cicadas in the cottonwood trees provided a sound track.  Though the July morning was still early, heat radiated from the black sea of lava.  I headed for the hills.

The Capitan Mountains are one of only two mountain ranges in the continental United States which is oriented east-to-west.  (The other is California’s Santa Ynez Range.)  A road skirting the southern margin of the Capitans brought me swiftly up to altitude.

I’m a wildland fire dispatcher by profession.  In the town of Capitan, I indulged in a “busman’s holiday,” stopping to visit a museum dedicated to our firefighting mascot, Smokey Bear.

Smokey’s life began on an advertisement agency canvas, created in 1944 as World War II propaganda.  The original two-dimensional Smokey encouraged Americans to “prevent careless fires” and conserve timber supplies which were needed for war.

Lincoln3Six years later, during the 17,000 acre Capitan Gap fire on the north side of Capitan Mountain, an orphan bear cub was rescued from a scorched tree by a forest ranger and brought to town.  Ceremoniously named Smokey, this bear toured the country for the next 20 years as the living symbol of fire prevention.

Besides displays about Smokey, the museum presented excellent interpretations about various aspects of my chosen career.  In the garden behind the building, I lingered for a reverent moment next to Smokey’s grave.

My next stop, a few sweeping curves up the road, was Lincoln, a frontier town which reached its zenith in the 1880s.  The Lincoln State Monument preserves old buildings and historical items from the Lincoln County War during the era of Billy the Kid.  I ate lunch there under a shade roof, watching thunder clouds build to the southwest.

Back on the red BMW, I pointed my front tire toward the clouds, but was distracted a few miles Lincoln4further along by Fort Stanton.  This frontier outpost, established in 1855, served stints as a tuberculosis hospital at the turn of the century, and as a German internment camp during World War II.  A small museum displayed souvenirs from each of Fort Stanton’s incarnations.

The road ran through the mountains southwest of Fort Stanton, following graceful curves past lush alpine meadows.  Just before I reached Ruidoso, the heavens opened and I was pummeled by stinging rain and hail.  July and the fire season seemed a distant memory.

Ruidoso is well known to thousands of motorcyclists who attend the Golden Aspen Rally in September.  I coasted past art galleries and gift shops on Ruidoso’s main street before detouring down a side road to reach Mescalero.

The heavily forested Mescalero Apache Reservation is richer in resources than most Indian reservations.  The tribe has successfully capitalized on the region’s natural beauty by creating the Apache Summit ski resort and the Inn of the Mountain Gods casino, to attract visitors and their money.

From Mescalero, my route wound south into Otero County, eventually leading to the hamlet of Cloudcroft.  A few motorcycles cruised Main Street slowly; I waved and sipped a coffee and considered my options.  A detour out Highway 130 would take me through Mayhill and Weed, tiny towns tucked into the Sacramento Mountains.  Another possible side trip was a ride up to the observatory at Sunsites, elevation 9,200 feet.  But the storm drifted off, the sun re-emerged, and I suddenly craved the heat of the desert.

Lincoln5Downhill I rode, then, sweeping through generous curves and dropping an astonishing 5,000 feet in less than 15 miles.  My gas stop was Alamogordo, a typical military town full of payday loan places, used car dealers, and Chinese buffets.  With unlimited time, I could have visited the Museum of Space History and Imax Theater for some indoor entertainment.  But instead, I opted for the natural world, white counterpoint to the black lava of Valley of Fire, at White Sands National Monument.

After paying a $ 3.00 entrance fee, I rode past gypsum dunes impossibly white against a blue sky that showed no traces of the storm just past.  Frequently along the eight mile scenic drive, I stopped to photograph shadows and the graceful contours of the dunes.

Lincoln7My 200 mile ride ended in a blaze of red sky at Dog Canyon Campground near Alamogordo.  Images of the day ran through my head: red motorcycle gliding past black lava and white dunes; a coat of hail on asphalt; a sunset sky the color of flames.  Black and white and red all over.  A warm breeze rose off the desert, sweeping me into a dreamless sleep.