Summer Vacation 2010 (part the first)

I almost titled this post: The right trip at the wrong time.

Wanting to go to Missouri to see the Popster and then on to Michigan to the family reunion.  Yet tired of shooting across country on I-80…or I-70…or I-40; I decided to drive to Michigan (via Missouri) on secondary roads, thus avoiding the interstates.

Not wanting to have a rider along for a slow drive cross country, I found a Craigslist rider heading over to the Sierras, I figured I could stand anyone for half a day.  I ended up enjoying my rider’s company, Alex is a self professed backpacking bum, something that I can certainly respect.  He wanted to go over to Sonora pass (CA 108) to drop off his re-supply can and then go on over the Sierras so that he could hike back.  Never having taken 108 over the Sierras, I was game for taking him where he needed to go.  So I picked up Alex and we headed out to Antioch and got on Hwy 4 to head across the central valley where we got on Hwy 108 and headed up into the Sierras.  Sonora Pass is just under 10000 feet and I dropped Alex off on top.  Then it was East and down out of the Sierras.  Winding down out of the mountains there were 25% grades, the first that I have ever seen and the prime reason that trucks are not advised on this route.  Then 395 South to 120 East and out into Nevada on Hwy 6.  I was going to stop in Brighton and get gas but the cheapest I saw was $4.09/gallon; this made the $3.74 I paid in Lee Vining seem reasonable.  I slept along the road that night and the next morning found us in Eastern Nevada where we made a quick stop at the Great Basin National Park.

Great Basin’s main area is a 20 mile road that leads up to about 11000 feet on Mt. Wheeler.  At the top are numerous sub-Alpine and Alpine hiking trails.  The fact that it was hot and that dogs are not allowed on the trails led us to take a quick look around and head back down the hill.  I don’t really see how Great Basin makes it as a national park, perhaps it rises to the level of national monument, but even that is up for debate.  I assume that it was made a park as a favor to Nevada, a sort of handout (the Feds are big on welfare for the red states, they are universally the states that receive the most in Federal handouts).

Then it was back down the mountain and Hwy 6 into Utah.  Our entry into Utah was through the worst part of the state (driving up to Nephi it was a lot like Nevada).  From Nephi onward things were stark and beautiful.  We drove up Mt. Nebo loop Road looking for a nice place to camp.  There were lots of pretty spots but they were all over run by cattle and their droppings.  This led to a fly problem, so we ended up not staying there.  At one point we stopped along the road and found a skeleton of a cow, Smokey was ecstatic.  She dismantled the skeleton one bone at a time hiding the pieces in every direction.  I guess she figures that she will get back there again someday, as for me, I have my doubts.  We criss crossed the mountains in central Utah, enjoying the sights and the stark beauty of it all.  The highlights of this was Rt. 31 from Fairview to Huntington, a fifty mile drive through a canyon with a rushing river off to the right, it was comparatively cool and quite refreshing.  We stopped at a dry lake but the dogs wouldn’t get out of the van, it was that hot.  Then it was North to catch Hwy 40 and head East.

We entered Colorado near Dinosaur National Monument.  Due to the heat we skipped the monument (much more deserving of park status than Great Basin).  We headed South out of Dinosaur and into a waste land created and maintained by Chevron.  I did not know that Chevron owned or leased such large swaths of Colorado.  There were wells and roads everywhere you looked for over a hundred miles.  I believe this is natural gas exploration, drilling, and pumping land.  I also think this is the area that has had the water table fractured to such a point that tap water has become flammable.  Imagine being able to set fire to the water coming out of your kitchen sink, and then having the government and Chevron try to claim that the water is fine…even though they would never drink it.  If you can imagine that then you can imagine the hell that Chevron has made of this swath of paradise.

After swimming for a while in the Rio Blanco Reservoir, we headed up into the White River National Forest where we found a place to camp near Ripple Creek Pass.  A prettier campsite will seldom be found, at an elevation of 10300 feet in a small copse of trees surrounded by sub-Alpine meadows.  We saw signs indicating that there were moose in the area so we spent some time looking for them, but with no luck.  Back in camp at dusk I was scanning the tree line for the elusive moose when I heard a gun shot near by.  The shot was followed by someone yelling, “I told you to get your black ass out of here!”  I looked quickly around wondering what I had stumbled into.  Then I saw a horseman and dogs pushing a dozen head of black angus out of the brush.  It was interesting to watch the cowboy and the dogs working together.  There was a border collie and a red heeler and they were dashing and nipping and keeping the herd together while the cowboy pushed them forward.  I enjoyed watching them and followed them for a ways just to watch.

Saturday afternoon found us entering Rocky Mountain National Park.  The park was crowded and traffic was lined up into the distance.  I was dehydrated and woozy from the altitude so we headed straight through the park and out to Ft. Collins where we got a motel to rest, recuperate, and rehydrate.  The next morning we were up before the sun and headed up into the park to take in the sites before the masses were out of bed.  We had the park to our selves till almost noon and we enjoyed driving around taking in the sights.  Two things of import regarding the park are that it is over run by elk to the point that they are destroying it and that most of the trees are dying.

We must have seen 30 different elk.  There are so many of them that they are a nuisance destroying the riparian areas.  A common sense solution to this would be to cull the herd, but that isn’t the Interior Department’s way.  Instead they put up fences to keep the elk away from the fragile areas.  To each their own way of doing things, but if they won’t re-introduce wolves to the ecosystem, then they really need to cull the herd.

Throughout Colorado, pretty much everywhere we went, between a third and half the pine trees are dead and dying.  The culprit is the Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle.  A natural pest whose damage has been exacerbated by global climate change.  Generally, early freezes control the population.  But now, the frost comes later and later and the beetles are proliferating.  With this amount of dead wood standing, it is just a matter of time until a catastrophic fire occurs.  With more and more people moving into more and more marginal areas, there are sure to be deaths amongst both those who settle into the forests and the fire fighters who have sworn to protect them and their property.  There is really no mitigation for this pest, all we can do is hope for an early frost and keep brush cleared far from the homes.  If a catastrophic fire does not occur this year, then it will happen next year, or the year after…but it will happen.

Rocky Mountain is a great park, almost a third of the park is above tree line (11400 feet at that latitude).  While there are other national parks in the Rockies, this is the only one that is not specific to any one feature, this park celebrates the Rockies in their entirety.  The main road through the park goes up to around 12500 feet and gives great access to tundra that would ordinarily require a hard day’s hike to enjoy.  By early afternoon the park was getting crowded and we had seen what one can see on a hot day with dogs in tow so we headed back down the mountain to Ft. Collins.

The next morning we were headed out into the great plains.  At first it was shortgrass prairie, but that soon gave way to hay and corn and lots and lots of cows.  Sheep farming also seems to be a booming business in Eastern Colorado.  We continued East into Nebraska and eventually dropped down into Kansas and kept heading East.

I found that with the cruise control on 55 we got an easy 30 mpg, at 60 we got just under 28 (at my usual 70-75 I get 25).  This knowledge will make it hard to justify the higher speeds in the future.

The whole great plains have undergone a huge de-population.  I had heard that this was happening but had no idea how much it was already complete.  All along the rural routes there are abandoned houses in varying states of decay.  Most of the small towns downtown areas were off the main road.  While there were businesses that were doing fine on the main road, if you went downtown you would find half the businesses abandoned or dying.  It appears that there is just not enough energy to sustain life in this area anymore.  It may be time to return the buffalo to large swaths of the American prairie.

As the afternoon was winding down, the dogs became lethargic with heavy breathing.  While it was no hotter here than the other states, there also was no place for them to swim (well, that and the humidity).  In Utah and Colorado they were able to jump in some water 3 or 4 times a day.  Here in the plains, that opportunity was lacking and it showed in their behavior.  They pretty much just lay on the ground and panted, refusing to get out of the van when we stopped.  I decided it wasn’t fair to them to take a few more days to get to Missouri.  With this in mind I drove non stop through the night to get to Columbia early the following morning.  I was a couple of days early, but the dogs were appreciative and it is always good to get some extra visit time with Mike and the Popster.

They have a new 4 month old puppy, Fido.  Fido is a scrappy little fellow, half springer spaniel and half bichon frise.  Very cute and very scrappy.  Smoke and Shadow don’t know what to make of him and give him plenty of space.

The visit has been pleasant so far.  Laid back, which I enjoy much.  Tonight Mike and I went out to dinner and went to see the Old 97s.  I am going to spend the next few days hanging out with the Popster.  Then I’m going to Lake of the Ozarks on Saturday with Mike and on Sunday we are going to canoe the Missouri.

Then early Monday morning we are headed up to Michigan.  So far we are up to 2600 interstate free miles, that should be 3200 by the time we get to Michigan.  That shows that we have done a bit of sight seeing as it is only about a 2500 mile trip.

More to come….  I’ve posted a few pictures here.

Edit: A note on the alternative title of this post:  “The right trip at the wrong time”

It was the right trip because I got to drive nearly 2000 miles on new roads, seeing things that I have never seen before and may never see again.  It was the right trip because I got insights into areas of the country that I haven’t thought much about.  Seeing the de-population of the plains was an education all in itself.  It was the wrong time because it is hot, the trip  would have been much better had I been able to adopt a more leisurely pace.


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