Monthly Archives: May 2014

2014
05/06

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Route 66 Slide Show: Part 2

Driving Route 66: A Natural Traveler Slideshow

Part 2

Photos and introduction by Steve Lagreca

 

Jack Kerouac, in On the Road wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” This aptly describes iconic Route 66, stretching 2,448 miles (3,940 km) across the United States. It passes through eight states, from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, starting at Lake Michigan and ending in the Pacific Ocean (map).

 

Volumes have been written about the importance and impact Route 66 has had on our culture. After being on our “bucket list” for years, my wife and I finally drove the “Mother Road”. We wanted to:

  • Journey into the past and experience a slice of Americana; it is, in effect, “3D” history
  • Savor the feeling of small towns connected by highways, increasingly missing in an era of Interstate freeways and global economies
  • Heed the irresistible call of the open road

 

Looking in the rearview mirror, Route 66 was not just a road trip, but an adventure. If you go, here are some tips for getting the most out of your trip:

  • Decide what’s important. Things to see and do on Route 66 can be grouped into several broad categories: architecture (especially art deco), bridges, churches, diners, murals, museums, neon signs, offbeat attractions, quirky road signs, road food, scenery, statues, and vintage gas stations. You can dig deep into a few categories or hit the highlights, i.e. visit the best-of-the-best in each category. You’ll see by the photos that we took the latter approach.
  • Tip: Use the book, Images of 66, An Interactive Journey Along The Length Of The Mother Road, by David Wickline, to prioritize your “must see” attractions.
  • Experience the road – it’s a category by itself. While you mostly travel over concrete and asphalt, at places you can drive on (or avoid) sections of the original brick and dirt. The road’s persona is ever changing; it can be one (yes, one), two or four lanes wide, ranging from long, flat, fast stretches to slow, twisty hairpins in the mountains.
  • Be prepared to actively navigate. Some Route 66 alignments (sections of road) have been replaced by I-40, some no longer exist, a few are dead ends, and there’s a plethora of name changes. Oh — and over the years some sections have been rerouted; e.g. there are several ways to traverse the St. Louis area.

 

  • Tip – we needed both:
  • Savor the experience. Route 66 can be driven in fewer than ten days, but you’ll regret it. More time is even better. This trip isn’t about horsepower and speed. The key to unlocking Route 66’s je ne sais quoi is to interact with the folks along the way, especially the Route 66 personalities. Give them a chance and they’ll open up to you.
  • When’s the best time to go? We chose May because it’s:

After the last winter frost, typically the third week in April for Chicago, the northernmost point on the trip.
After the spring rains — in most areas they taper off in early May. Less rain means a better drive. The bonus is greener landscapes to drive through.
Before the Mojave Desert heats up, typically in June.

 

Drive it, and you’ll come away with a newfound understanding of the quip: “the road is the destination”! Enjoy the photos.

Route 66 '13 - DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, "Here It Is" s

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, “Here It Is” s

Route 66 '13 - DAY 7 Tucumcari, NM to Albuquerque, NM, Miraculou

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 7 Tucumcari, NM to Albuquerque, NM, Miraculou

Route 66 '13 - DAY 7 Tucumcari, NM to Albuquerque, NM, "Mother R

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 7 Tucumcari, NM to Albuquerque, NM, “Mother R

Route 66 '13 - DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, "Standin' on t

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, “Standin’ on t

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, "Tucumcari To

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, “Tucumcari To

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Sandy, Mus

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Sandy, Mus

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Badlands B

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Badlands B

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, ugly crust pi

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, ugly crust pi

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, "The Legendar

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, “The Legendar

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, F-Troop, F

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, F-Troop, F

Route 66 '13 - DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Oatman Hotel

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Oatman Hotel

Route 66 '13 - DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Old Trails Ar

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Old Trails Ar

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, BNSF Engin

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, BNSF Engin

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Blue Dome

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Blue Dome

Route 66 '13 - DAY 11 Pasedena, Santa Monica, Mesquite, official

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 11 Pasedena, Santa Monica, Mesquite, official

Route 66 '13 - DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Roy's Motel,

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Roy’s Motel,

Route 66 '13 - DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Mustang, Sitg

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 10 Kingman, AZ to Pasedena, CA, Mustang, Sitg

Route 66 '13 - DAY 11 Pasedena, Santa Monica, Mesquite, "End of

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 11 Pasedena, Santa Monica, Mesquite, “End of

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, Mustang, Must

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, Mustang, Must

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Mustang, D

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Mustang, D

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, "Crock of Gin

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, “Crock of Gin

Route 66 '13 - DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, Mt. Taylor, Wa

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 9 Holbrook, AZ to Kingman, AZ, Mt. Taylor, Wa

Route 66 '13 - DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Mustang, W

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 8 Albuquerque, NM to Holbrook, AZ, Mustang, W

Route 66 '13 - DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, wood bridge o

Route 66 ’13 – DAY 6 Amarillo, TX to Tucumari, NM, wood bridge o

2014
05/05

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The Puerto Rican Dining Experience

Sofrito is New York's premier Puerto Rican restaurant

Sofrito is New York’s premier Puerto Rican restaurant

The Puerto Rican Dining Experience

Carlos Beltran of the New York Yankees Points to Sofrito Restaurant as the Ultimate Destination for Authentic Puerto Rican Cuisine

By JR Rosenthal

New York Yankee Right Fielder Carlos Beltran, 37, knows a thing or two about enjoying delicious food and analyzing flavor combinations. Having been bred in Manati, Puerto Rico, on the lively, complex and pungent nuances of sofrito — the blend of mild herbs and spices that lie beneath the surface of all Puerto Rican cooking, Beltran made his return to New York to find the best Puerto Rican restaurant in any city in the USA.

Beltran, celebrating his 37th birthday on a rare off day during a recent Yankee home stand, was honored in an event sponsored by Hennessy VS at Sofrito (400 E. 57th Street), a trendy, vibrant, colorful hot spot in midtown. “I always enjoyed something delicious to eat before I would head to the ballpark throughout my career,” said Beltran, whose wife is an excellent cook. “Food is a very big part of my life, with its effect of making me happy and also elevating any experience to a higher level. Puerto Rican cooking celebrates the bright, sunny, warm nature of the Puerto Rican culture, and that’s what Sofrito is all about.”

Sofrito Restaurant, under the culinary guidance of executive Chef Ricardo Cardona, offers a rare opportunity to savor authentic dishes in a colorful, warm dining room with an electric bar scene and casual dining—but dress nicely if you want to feel at home in this tony East Side fashion scene. Beltran and his friends were served a gigantic tray (behind a curtained-off area) of appetizers that ran the gamut from seafood to beef to fried cheese. Fortunately, the guests at this VIP-only soiree also had a chance to sample the full monty of appetizer options from the menu.

From the dizzying array of choices served on silver trays by the well-trained staff, my favorites included Mini Piononos, sweet plantains stuffed with beef picadillo; Bunuelos de Bacalao, cod fish puffs with house made tartar sauce; Chicharron de Camaron, crispy popcorn shrimp; Quesadilla de Ropa Vieja, shredded beef and farmer’s cheese melted on a house made flour tortilla; and a delicious selection of Totstones-Montaditos (fried green plantains) topped with either marinated skirt steak, shrimp, octopus or cod fish.

Sofrito Executive Chef Ricardo Cardona

Sofrito Executive Chef Ricardo Cardona

I came back for dinner the day after the Carlos Beltran party and enjoyed a wider sampling of dishes. Once again, the food was exquisite—a blend of subtle flavors with the most delicious fresh ingredients. The defining element of Puerto Rican cooking is the play of mild spice with the backbone of the sofrito, which includes (but is not limited to) onions, garlic, red and green sweet peppers, cilantro and tomatoes. The dishes are cooked with precise technique and with a respect for the authentic, fresh ingredients.

My favorites (based on an extensive sampling) off the dinner menu include the tender and aromatic Churrasco al Chimichurri, a medium-rare skirt steak topped with Chimichurri sauce; Pechuga de Pollo, a grilled chicken breast served with a fresh mango sauce; Pernil con Arroz y Gandules, a slow-cooked roast pork with pigeon peas and rice (a standard Puerto Rican starch) and sweet plantains; Salmon al Sarten, pan-roasted salmon in caper sauce; and Rabo de Res Guisado con Arroz, Habichuelas y Maduros, a magnificent oxtail stew with rice, beans and sweet plantains.

The service is excellent and the ambience—again, sort of a hip and well-dressed NYC vibe and dimly-lit dining room—is fun and entertaining. Reservations are essential. Plan at least a few days ahead, as this one of those up-and coming places in trend-setting New York.

 

IF YOU GO

Sofrito

400 E. 57th Street (near 1st Ave.)

New York, New York

PH: 212-754-5999.

www.sofritony.com

 

2014
05/05

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Puerta Vallarta

A typical beachfront setup, at a restaurant in Puerta Vallarta

A typical beachfront setup, at a restaurant in Puerta Vallarta

By Bill Scheller

Photos by the author

 

The yellow Lab had just taken another headlong dive into the surf.

 

He was after a plastic bottle, filled with just enough sand to give it sufficient heft for a toss. The bottle bobbed alluringly on an incoming wave, and seconds later the Lab had it in his maw as he paddled happily to shore. “Throw it again,” his dog eyes pleaded, to anyone within eyeshot.

 

We were watching this, my wife Kay and I, from beach chairs belonging to one of the dozen or more little restaurants that line the shore just south of the Malecon in Puerta Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and as we admired the dog’s tenacity and agility in the surf, we also marveled at the allowability of it all. At any beach back home, the bottle would be litter, the Lab would be canis non grata … and we certainly wouldn’t be eating a passing vendor’s skewered shrimp and mahi mahi, and tostadas heaped with ceviche, while drinking the restaurant’s Pacifica lagers and taking up his sandy patch of real estate. In short, we would be in the Republic of Rules. But not here.

 

Beach south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

Beach south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

Kay was spending the two-month core of the brutish Vermont winter of 2014 in PV, as the expats call it, and I had put aside my skis – they’re useless anyway at twenty below — to join her for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t known what to expect of the place; I couldn’t have told you which coast it was on, how many people live there, or whether it was a tourist haunt like Acapulco or a workaday city that just happened to be on the water. But it was getting rave email reviews from the person in my household who wasn’t raking snow off the roof at Forty-five North Latitude.

Elizabeth Taylor’s house, Gringo Gulch, Puerta Vallarta

Elizabeth Taylor’s house, Gringo Gulch, Puerta Vallarta

 

My plane landed at close to midnight, and the cab ride into the city didn’t raise my expectations. The main drag leading downtown took me past a Walmart, past a big indoor mall called the Galerias Vallarta, and past big beachfront hotels, featureless slabs with the American franchise names that draw honeymooners and college spring-breakers. This stretch, I later learned, is aptly called the Hotel Zone. I was headed, along streets that soon devolved from asphalt to cobblestones, to the Zona Romantica.

 

The Zona Romantica (there’s proof that PV has a chamber of commerce with a branding committee) is the old city center, the heart of a one-time fishing village that has grown into a community of more than 300,000. Here is where you get the clearest sense of the topography that made this a fine place for a village or a city: at this farthest-inland recess of the great Bay of Banderas, the Sierra Madre mountains descend almost to the water, leaving just enough space among their lower foothills for those cobblestone streets and their improbable blend of tourism and quotidian local affairs. Nowhere was this mix more evident that in a tiny courtyard at the top of a public stairway we climbed, in lieu of circuitous sidewalks, nearly every day: on one side was the gate to Kay’s condo, on the other the home of a family who set out tables for their evening meals, with hanging laundry as a backdrop. The first time I reached the top of the stairs, I thought that perhaps I had accidentally stumbled onto someone’s piazza.

 

Gringo Gulch, in Puerta Vallarta’s Zona Romantica

Gringo Gulch, in Puerta Vallarta’s Zona Romantica

The Malecon is the mile-long promenade along the waterfront, arching at midway onto a bridge across the mouth of the Rio Cuale, a little river that flows gently down from the foothills and barely trickles into the bay. It pools here into a pleasant swimming spot for city kids, whose mothers watch them from a sandbar in the shade of the bridge. Nearby, closer to the bay, the same span shelters the oyster sellers’ table, where you can sit and slurp the local catch (the same oysters are hawked along the beach all day by the city’s ubiquitous white-clad vendors, although the shrimp and mahi mahi seemed a safer bet than shellfish carted about with only fast-melting ice to keep them cool).

John Huston statue, Puerta Vallarta

John Huston statue, Puerta Vallarta

 

Pedestrian vendors, by the way, are an everyday fact of life in PV, peddling everything from the locally crafted (we bought a lovely hand-woven tablecloth for 300 pesos, roughly $25) to the Chinoiserie of everywhere, such as hats with sports team logos. Many of those logos belonged to Canadian hockey teams, and no wonder – PV is overwhelmingly popular with Albertans and British Columbians, who can get there on direct flights. (I flew from Montreal, and spent seven hours in Mexico City. I now know that airport by heart.) We were there during the Winter Olympics, and when Canada won gold in both men’s’ and women’s’ hockey, there was palpable good cheer along the Malecon … as if being in PV instead of Edmonton in February wasn’t already cause for good cheer.

 

Looking south across the Bay of Banderas, with the Hotel Zone in the distance, Puerta Vallarta

Looking south across the Bay of Banderas, with the Hotel Zone in the distance, Puerta Vallarta

If Puerta Vallarta strikes a chord of recognition among Americans as anything other than a winter getaway, it will likely be remembered as the place where John Huston shot his 1964 film “The Night of the Iguana,” starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Huston had known PV since the early 1950s, when it was a far smaller, sleepily provincial town, and it was the success of ‘Iguana” that was largely responsible for its arrival on the tourist map. The great director himself kept a place for years in Las Caletas, fifteen miles south of PV, and is remembered throughout the area. Within a space of days, any visitor will likely be told about various places where Huston lived, where he drank, where he filmed … and, in one small park in the Zona Romantica, there’s the man himself, cast in bronze, seated, in a thoughtful mood, above a plaque inscribed in Spanish and English with lines from his eulogy for his friend Humphrey Bogart. The quote is apparently intended as equally applicable to Huston himself.

 

Not far from the Huston statue, Kay and I were shown a small hillside house occupied during the filming of “Iguana” by Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t in the cast, but settled in PV to be near Burton in the first flush of their long, tumultuous romance. The house directly overlooks a quaint, almost alleylike street popularly known as “Gringo Gulch,” because of its popularity with an early wave of expats.

Looking towards Banderas Bay past the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Puerta Vallarta

Looking towards Banderas Bay past the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Puerta Vallarta

 

Strolls through places like Gringo Gulch became part of a pleasantly languorous routine for me and Kay, a routine that ran to walks in the morning, the beach in the afternoon, and a soak in the pool at the condo as the sun inched toward the bay. In the evenings, the big question was which of PV’s more than 600 restaurants we would amble off to. Saturdays brought a slight variation, as it’s the day when two farmers’ markets are held – one indoors, and the other, larger one outdoors in a downtown plaza. Both are heavily patronized by tourists and expats, although the indoor market mostly featured American and Canadian vendors as well. Setting up a stall to sell chicken liver pate or big slabs of coconut layer cake was a retirement model that had never crossed my mind, but maybe the beach gets boring when you’re in town longer than we were. Or maybe some ladies with a knack in the kitchen got left a portfolio full of Enron stock.

 

Los Arcos, south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

Los Arcos, south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

I almost got on a bus one Wednesday evening and headed out towards the Hotel Zone for a vastly different diversion, at PV’s plaza de toros. Yes, the bullfights. Our travel guides had billed these as a weekly event, held at five o’clock in a small bull ring right on the main drag between the big hotels and downtown. I had just read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and thought it would be interesting to see if the local talent was up to his standards, inasmuch as I could fathom them, but I changed my mind as Wednesday approached. I had, after all, seen the corrida at one of its great shrines in Ronda, Andalusia, and I couldn’t imagine the spectacle here quite measuring up. And when I passed the bullring on the bus and saw that it was right near the Walmart parking lot, well …

 

I would have been disappointed if I had gone, and it wouldn’t have because the toreros were sub-Hemingway. After I got home, Kay emailed to tell me that the plaza de toros had been closed for some time, as the proprietor wasn’t making any money. A sign, she said, hung on the gate of the forlorn little building: “Meat for Sale.” Not for some time, I hope.

 

Lunch on the beach, Puerta Vallarta

Lunch on the beach, Puerta Vallarta

The big departure from our routine was a day trip we signed up for with a German expat named Reinhard Dressler. Kay had met Reinhard when she took a walking tour of PV, for which the city had engaged him as a guide, and he’d told her that he ran day-long snorkeling trips on his own. We met him at a downtown bus stop and rode south along Banderas Bay to a little harbor where we met up with four Minnesotans, who made up the remainder of the tour group. Boarding a panga, one of the ubiquitous open, outboard-motored boats that ply the bay, we headed off to Los Arcos, a beachless hump of an island that roses just offshore (it’s named for natural arches eroded by the surf) and serves as the locus for a bird refuge. We suited up in masks, snorkels, and flippers as Reinhard pointed out blue-footed boobies perched among crevices in the sheer face of the island, and dove into clear water about thirty feet deep to be instantly surrounded by bright schools of clownfish.

 

Off to body surf. Reinhard leads the way (Troy Upsahl photo)

Off to body surf. Reinhard leads the way (Troy Upsahl photo)

Back on board, we headed farther down the coast to a beach where the waves were ideal for a vigorous, pounding session of bodysurfing, then took off further south still to picnic on a stretch of sand where a few patrons from a rustic cottage resort and a threesome of shamelessly mendicant dogs were the only other visitors. Along the way to the picnic beach, we stopped at a narrow cove for a swim, and a hike – more of a clamber, in wet flip-flops, no less – along a precarious trail that hung above the cove. When we reached an opening in the cliffside brush, Reinhard gave us an option. “You can continue along the trail to where it comes down to the water and the boat will pick you up, or you can jump in here and swim to the boat.” Kay and I opted for the jump, from about fifteen feet up – hardly a Butch Cassidy plunge, but high enough. Reinhard had jumped in first. We tossed him our flip-flops and dove, never touching bottom. The boat was about twenty feet away, and Reinhard, lean, brown, and sixty-nine years old, had already sprung up on board.

School of clownfish off Los Arcos, south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

School of clownfish off Los Arcos, south of Puerta Vallarta (Troy Upsahl photo)

 

On the other side of the cove from where we made our jump, a thatch-roofed, open-sided building – a big cantilevered cabana – hung over the water. There was a little pier below, and a narrow stairway up through the rocks to the entrance. This was the Ocean Grill, accessible only by boat. We learned that they offer three seatings a day – at eleven, one, and three – five days a week, and we made a reservation s soon as we got back to town. When our day arrived, we caught a bus to the little harbor village of Boca de Tomatlon, where the restaurant’s launch picked us up for the ten-minute ride. Over red snapper and big, meaty octopus tentacles we looked out over the cove and the bay beyond, off past Los Arcos, and all the way to the city. Closer at hand, there was the rock from which we had dived, looking less daunting now that we weren’t poised on its slippery lip. Nothing more athletically challenging than a pierside ladder would take us to our boat back to Boca, so we each had another Pacifico and ordered dessert.

Steeple of the cathedral, with a parasailer soaring over the beach beyond, Puerta Vallarta

Steeple of the cathedral, with a parasailer soaring over the beach beyond, Puerta Vallarta

 

It was a perfect lunch, on a perfect afternoon. The only thing missing was a dog catching bottles, but we knew where to find that.

 

 

 

 

 

The harbor at Boca de Tomatlan

The harbor at Boca de Tomatlan

The Ocean Grill, on Banderas Bay south of Puerta Vallarta

The Ocean Grill, on Banderas Bay south of Puerta Vallarta

The Sierra Madre, behind  Boca de Tomatlan

The Sierra Madre, behind Boca de Tomatlan

Trellis at the top of a public staircase, Puerta Vallarta

Trellis at the top of a public staircase, Puerta Vallarta

2014
05/05

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Florissant Escape: Bearing Witness to the Ever-changing Earth

By John H. Ostdick

A climber scales one of the formations in Garden of the Gods. Technical climbers are allowed by permit only

A climber scales one of the formations in Garden of the Gods. Technical climbers are allowed by permit only

Photos by the author

 

 

Fossil-rich Central Colorado offers another rocks-for-brains odyssey

 

 

The Earth beneath us is constantly, incrementally changing, even if our gnat-like attention span seldom notices until it slaps us across the face with a big event.

 

Perhaps it comes from decades of hiking, or associating with geologists, but the evolving Earth’s past fascinates me. Traveling with my personal geologists, whether it is brother Jim or dear friends Stan and Trish Ballard, often provides compelling insights into the terra firma about me. I endearingly call them my Rocks for Brains touring pals.

 

Whether I’m walking the canyons of Death Valley in the fall, hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, or gazing at the wonders of Yosemite Valley with Jim; or exploring lush Vermont or the crevices of Texas with the Ballards, I have access to as much (or as little, as the mood dictates) information as I wish about the ground we’re traipsing about on.

 

A National Park Service ranger discusses some of the rich wonders of the Florissant Fossil Beds

A National Park Service ranger discusses some of the rich wonders of the Florissant Fossil Beds

Stan and Trish own a summer cabin in the fossil-rich Colorado town of Florissant (incorporated in July 1891), 35 miles west of Colorado Springs on the flanks of Pikes Peak and within easy access to the Gold Belt Scenic Drive that includes the historic gold-rush towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Since fleeing from the summer heat to Colorado is practically part of a Texan’s genetic makeup, accepting an invitation to their hummingbird-thick repose in the Florissant hills seems a perfect evolutionary step.

 

Navigating the nearby trails of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument provides a refresher course in just how amazing our Earth is.

 

Eocene lake deposits here preserve a spectacular fauna and flora, ranging from microscopic ants to redwood stumps several feet in diameter. The ponderosa pine, spruce, fir, and aspen that thrive here today stand modestly against their predecessors — vast giant sequoias that were scissored and petrified by massive mudflows 34 million years ago. It’s almost unfathomable standing in front of “Big Stump,” at 12 feet high and 38 feet around, one of the largest petrified redwood stumps on the grounds, that it is 750 years old and once stood more than 230 feet tall when the mudflow buried its base.

 

The lava flows damned a stream in the prehistoric valley, forming a series of lakes in which fine sediments and ash accumulated and preserved a plethora of insects and plants. These beds have yielded more than 50,000 museum specimens from fossils of more than 1,700 species. The finds range from a perfectly preserved Palaeovespa, an ancient wasp, whose form has changed little in 34 million years, to female wolf spiders, to golden rain tree leaves (the tree no longer lives on the North American continent).

 

 

The Roots of This Curiosity

A painter tries to capture some of the past ages in the Garden of the Gods rocks

A painter tries to capture some of the past ages in the Garden of the Gods rocks

 

Many years ago on an elegant late-November morning about a mile deep into a Fall Canyon hike in Death Valley, my geologist brother Jim offered up a simple statement that resonates whenever I am out and about in nature’s playground: “The Earth is dynamic, continually changing and evolving.”

 

At that time of year, we had the canyon to ourselves. No other humans. No birds. No sign of animals, such as the fox that flashed his red eyes at our campsite the night before. The only disruption in the deadened force enveloping us is an occasional rock dislodged by our scuffling boots. The eerie quiet is the direct result of the annual six-month interval of searing temperatures (between 100 and 120 degrees) that broils and flattens everything in its wake here. While the crisp air was invigorating, my city brain worked overtime, manufacturing fill noise to cope with a deafening silence.

 

The mountains bordering Death Valley represent the divisions of geological time, relating the story of ongoing changes in the Earth’s crust — vast periods of erosion and deposition, contortion, and tilting — alternate shifting, uplifting, and lowering along faults, generating intense heat and pressure that changed the very nature of some rocks. In recent geological time, powerful forces of water, wind, and gravity have left their heavy handprints on the Valley as well.

 

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley

In the Valley, the air is so clear distances are telescoped. Alluvial fans, steep, rocky slopes draped beside the surrounding mountains, result from intermittent streams created by bursts of infrequent rains, and resemble a series of ruffled Earth-tone bedspreads cast across the horizon.

 

Recently, my brother told me that he sees himself “among other things, as a student of Earth and planetary sciences,” adding that “there is still a lot for me to learn.” (Jim earned a Master’s degree in geology and just recently retired after teaching high school Earth Sciences in California for many years.)

When Jim is in Yosemite Valley, for example, he sees “processes and puzzles.”

“I use the fundamental principles I first learned in school to interpret how landscapes formed and how they are changing,” he says. “Sitting on top of Half Dome with your legs dangling from the edge or, better yet, standing on Clouds’ Rest looking down on Half Dome, gives you an advantageous perspective to get this done. No matter how much you learn, though, those places are so thrilling just to see and smell and hear and touch, the science stuff is just a little bit of extra fun.”

Over the years, I’ve tried to join in the fun as much as I can.

 

The Pull of Man Meets the Force of Nature

Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods.  Erosion has done the rest

Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods. Erosion has done the rest

That native curiosity and scientific knowledge — and a good sense of humor — also make Trish and Stan stimulating travel mates. The front porch of their Florissant cabin provides a blood pressure leveler each morning and evening, as the sound of hummingbirds, mountain chickadees, stellar blue jays, and nuthatches flitting about creates a rhythm that is both stimulating and calming at the same time.

To the north and east, the Rocky Mountains loom over the Florissant Valley. To the west, undulating native grasses cover expanses of high meadows. During the summer months, they are painted by thousands of wild flowers. To the south, Pike’s Peak holds court.

 

Humanity has struggled to survive here for a much shorter time than its counterparts in nature. Adjacent to the Fossil Beds, the 1878 Hornbeck Homestead preserves the pioneer life of Adeline Hornbeck and her three children after her husband deserted them. This homestead involved the first claim in the valley under the “head of household” act (it was most unusual for women to be landowners in the West at this time).

 

A swarm of settlers answered the “Free Land to the West” call in the 1860s, according to the Colorado Historical Society. The Homesteaders Act of 1862 stated that “any citizen, or person with intention of becoming a citizen, who was the head of a family and over twenty-one years of age, could become possessed of 160 acres of the surveyed public domain after five years of continuous residence on his tract and the payment of a small registration fee.”

 

That Act brought the first settlers to the Florissant Valley. To keep their 160 acres, settlers had to build a home equipped with a door and at least one window, live on, work, and make improvements to the property for five consecutive years. If these criteria were met, the U.S. Government granted the settlers the land, as long as it was properly surveyed.

Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods. Erosion has done the rest

Geological upheaval along a natural fault line created the red rock formations of the Garden of the Gods. Erosion has done the rest

 

Standing next to the main cabin at the Hornbeck Homestead, it’s easy to understand the isolation that she must have felt here (the National Park Service has operated the site since 1973).

 

Colorado City, on the west side of Colorado Springs, was founded in 1859. Florissant became the first settlement west of Colorado City on the Ute Pass Road when James Castello established the small town on Twin Creek in 1870 (he originally came from Florissant, Missouri.)

 

When Colorado became a state, there were about 70 pioneers living in the Florissant area. By the 1880 census, there were 200 men, women and children living here. Florissant was part of El Paso County until Teller County was carved out in 1899. The 2010 Census put the town’s year-round population at 104, although that number swells a bit in the summer.

 

Today, the drive from Colorado City to Florissant takes about 45 minutes, unless runoff from heavy rains slows or closes traffic on US 24 near Woodland Park. Until the Colorado Midland Railroad was completed, it was a two-day journey for the trip from Old Colorado City up the steep, single-lane Ute Pass Wagon Road to Florissant. The Colorado Midland created the first economic boom in Florissant when the standard-gauge tracks were laid up the mountain in 1886.

 

According to the Colorado Historical Society, the Florissant area enjoyed a building boom when cowboy Bob Womack discovered gold in 1890 at Poverty Gulch. Mount Pisgah, in what is now Cripple Creek, was reached by stage or wagon from Florissant. Mining men needed supplies. Gold ore had to be taken down the mountain. Florissant was the chief railroad point for business to and from Cripple Creek. Those going to the mining district came up to Florissant by the Colorado Midland and then by stage or wagon to Cripple Creek until 1894 when the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad was completed. Florissant’s residents numbered about 300 during this time.

 

Canyon, Death Valley.

Canyon, Death Valley.

I borrow and zoom through the Ballards’ copy of Cripple Creek Days (Doubleday, 1958), written by local Mabel Barbee Lee, whose father was an early prospector. She grew up in the mining camps of Cripple Creek, and witnessed both their excitement and devastation. Her words illuminate much about the remnants I see of the area’s glory days.

 

 

There Is Gold of Other Sorts in Them Thar Hills

Stan allows that his favorite things about Florissant are “the quiet, the crystal clear sky at night that allows for unparalleled star gazing, and, of course, the great scenery when in a waist-deep trout stream.”

We savor each of these things during our visit. Our heady days of clear, cool air and star-crazy nights flow easily, as we pick our way through the mining towns of Victor, the birthplace of the famous travel writer Lowell Thomas, where roughly 500 underground gold mines still remain scattered about, and Cripple Creek, which today wallows in kind of a sad casino cloud.

“The Rockies, from the Garden of the Gods west to the mesas of the far western slope, provide an incredible outdoor laboratory,” Stan says. “The Garden of the Gods is not only beautiful, it also tells the story of the uplift of the Rockies. Cripple Creek, in the roof of the Front Range, is a great intersection of really interesting geology and economics. You can read in the western slope nearly the entire geologic history of the western United States. Driving in the Rockies is a life-threatening situation, if only because it is difficult for me to stay on the road while gawking at the geology.”

Gold was discovered in Poverty Gulch, six miles northwest of Victor, in 1890. The most productive mines were later discovered on or near Battle Mountain. Victor was established on its southern slopes in 1893. According to Victor historical accounts, more than $800 million worth of gold was removed from the 6-mile Gold Camp between 1891 and 1961, when the last of the underground mines closed (those values were based on prices of the period, when gold was capped at $22.50 to $35 an ounce; it’s mind-boggling to think of that haul when valued at 21st Century gold prices).

 

Light shows, footsteps from the overhead rooms, a Christmas moose toy with a mind of its own, and apparitions are all part of the lore of the Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant

Light shows, footsteps from the overhead rooms, a Christmas moose toy with a mind of its own, and apparitions are all part of the lore of the Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant

During its gold-fever heyday, the town claimed 18,000 residents, making it the fourth-largest city in Colorado at the time. The latest Census figures put the population at about 450 residents.

 

During our visit, the town is very quiet, with only a handful of people wandering its streets. Two bikers roar through town. The whir of electric drills float intermittently out of the vehicle bays at the Jet Service building. A lone employee mans her station at the Lowell Thomas Museum. Victor Trading Co., housed in the space that once was the home of Star of the West Saloon, boasts that its Wall of Brooms is “World Famous.” Keeping with the town’s slogan — “The Whole Town is a Museum” — scattered mining artifacts are displayed on a downtown lot. Mineshaft cars serve as downtown planters.

 

 

Surveying the Garden of the Gods

 

The next day, we slip into Colorado Springs for a glorious visit to the 5,100-plus-square-mile Garden of the Gods National Landmark, contemplating its tortured red rock formations that geological upheaval exposed along a natural fault line millions of years ago.

Mining artifacts are displayed on a downtown lot in Victor. Between 1891 and 1961, more than $800 million worth of gold was removed from the 6-mile area around Victor

Mining artifacts are displayed on a downtown lot in Victor. Between 1891 and 1961, more than $800 million worth of gold was removed from the 6-mile area around Victor

 

“Hidden in the rocks here, I try and visualize the scope and size of the Ancestral Rockies,” Stan explains. “In the tilted attitude of the rocks, I struggle with the forces needed to uplift the Rockies that we see today, and try to reconcile the life span of a mountain range with life span of more ephemeral things.”

 

This incredibly special place had the good fortune of coming into the hand of Charles Elliott Perkins, the head of the Burlington Railroad, who appreciated its unique features and determined that its magnificent beauty should be shared.

 

Although he originally purchased 240 acres in the Garden of the Gods to build a summer home, he decided to leave it in its natural state. He added to the property, and opened it to the public but had not officially made arrangements for it to become a public park before his death in 1907. Two years later, Perkins’ children followed his wishes and donated the 480 acres to the City of Colorado Springs, requiring that “it shall remain free to the public, where no intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed, where no building or structure shall be erected except those necessary to properly care for, protect, and maintain the area as a public park.”

The 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park is a testament to the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, and the tranquility of California’s High Sierra

The 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park is a testament to the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, and the tranquility of California’s High Sierra

 

Park literature explains the park’s lofty but fitting name as follows: “It was August of 1859, when two surveyors started out from Denver City to begin a town site, soon to be called Colorado City. While exploring nearby locations, they came upon a beautiful area of sandstone formations. M.S. Beach, who related this incident, suggested that it would be a ‘capital place for a beer garden’ when the country grew up. His companion, Rufus Cable, a ‘young and poetic man’, exclaimed, ‘Beer Garden! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.’ It has been so called ever since.”

 

 

Investigating a Ghost Story

 

Of course, we cannot leave Florissant without delving into a bit of local manmade mystery.

 

The Costello Street Coffee House serves up sandwiches and pies, and a little ghostly lore. The building has gained attention for reported apparitions that date back to its owners in the late 1800’s, James and Catherine Costello, who both died in the house, as did two of their grandchildren. Stories abound about sounds of footsteps, shadowy visions, and practical jokes played on the staff.

 

The Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant is full of ghost stories and down-to-earth pies

The Costello Street Coffee House in Florissant is full of ghost stories and down-to-earth pies

Light shows, footsteps from the overhead rooms, a Christmas moose toy with a mind of its own, and other apparitions are all part of the lore here.

 

“Before we bought this place I didn’t necessarily believe or not believe (in ghosts), but I do believe there are a lot of things I don’t know about so I try to keep an open mind,” current owner Dale Thompson says during a brief break from serving customers.

 

Thompson explains that a stuffed moose they put out at Christmas time at times seems to have a mind of its own — or the will of a spirit here, depending on your perspective. “It has a button you push, and it sings,” he says. “Every once in a while, a customer will walk up and the moose will sing for no apparent reason. You can say, yeah it has a short in it or something, but the timing of it randomly going off when a customer walks up makes you wonder.

 

The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument offers 14 miles of trails

The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument offers 14 miles of trails

“One of the funniest things that happened — we’ve not seen anything vicious or involving anger — concerned some self-published books we purchased from a local author who specializes in ghost books, haunted buildings in Cripple Creek and things like that,” Thompson said, explaining that he stacked the spiral-backed books on his office floor. While he was working, the books suddenly fell over. Thinking that he had stacked them crooked, he then put them up against the wall with the bindings alternating. “About three minutes later that pile of books went whump across the floor. It struck me funny. I thought, ‘Are you jealous, or what?’”

 

We see no signs of paranormal activity, but the tea is savory and the ethereal Fruits of the Forest berry pie are rock steady.

 

 

 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

The Perkins family gave much of the present Garden of the Gods to the city of Colorado Springs for preservation as a free public park

The Perkins family gave much of the present Garden of the Gods to the city of Colorado Springs for preservation as a free public park

For information about cabin rentals in the Florissant area, visit:

 

http://www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/usa/colorado/south-central/florissant

 

or

 

http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rentals/colorado/florissant/r22927

 

 

 

 

 

 

When completed in 1878, Adeline Hornbeck's four-bedroom log homestead house was the first in the valley to have more than one story. It has nearly a dozen glass-paned windows

When completed in 1878, Adeline Hornbeck’s four-bedroom log homestead house was the first in the valley to have more than one story. It has nearly a dozen glass-paned windows

Victor, whose city’s slogan is “The Whole Town is a Museum,” was established in 1893. In its heyday, the Victor area claimed a population of 18,000, making it the fourth-largest city in Colorado at the time. The City Hall dates to 1900

Victor, whose city’s slogan is “The Whole Town is a Museum,” was established in 1893. In its heyday, the Victor area claimed a population of 18,000, making it the fourth-largest city in Colorado at the time. The City Hall dates to 1900

Victor Trading Co., housed in the space that was once the home of Star of the West saloon, boasts that its wall of brooms is "World Famous."

Victor Trading Co., housed in the space that was once the home of Star of the West saloon, boasts that its wall of brooms is “World Famous.”

The Victor Trading Co. & Manufacturing Works offers handmade goods produced with tools from Victor’s heydays in the 1900s, including a wide assortment of brooms

The Victor Trading Co. & Manufacturing Works offers handmade goods produced with tools from Victor’s heydays in the 1900s, including a wide assortment of brooms