USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
Most good towns always have two ways to leave. Chama was no exception. The direct road in the Carbondale direction was Highway 84 to Baxterville over the Wolf Creek Pass of 10850 feet.
There was a much longer way that went
You probably don't need to even guess which way I took, but just in case, look at the sign.
Now I'm not sure who in their right minds would want to blast hell out of an innocent road sign? I thought the National Rifle Association was telling everyone about how respectable and resposible the average gun onwer is. But as you can see, the sign is only a matter of feet from the edge of the road way. One suspects that the National Rifle Association is talking total carp, and one isn't surprised.
In my opinion, I think that the NRA has got it totally wrong, and that the American constitution really means to say that all American citizens have the right to arm bears. But that did remind me of the time a girl friend of mine, Anna Holowtschuk, was ejected from a church in Bruges for not wearing a long-sleeved dress. She would have been okay here in the USA, what with the right to bare arms and all of that.
This is the climb out of Chama up to the summit of the Cumbres Pass, all 10022 feet of it. It was still quite early in the morning but it wasn't all that cold. Mind you, it was towards the end of September and we were at 10,000 feet, so the fact that it wasn't that cold was certainly something.
When you see the railway track at places like this, it makes you appreciate the efforts of the builders and the motivation they must have felt to get the railway line right up here at this altitude. I suppose the lure of the wealth must have accounted for a great deal.
La Manga Pass
Here just below the summit of the La Manga Pass is a turning loop for trains. There are many reasons why they put turning loops in but usually in the mountains some turns are just too tight and too steep for the locomotives and their wagons, so they have to do an outward loop to get themselves pointing at the correct angle to do the next ascent.
You can understand this if you can visualise a figure-of-eight approach, where the railway line would come in, turn in the opposite direction to that required, make a large wide loop and cross back over the incoming track to shoot off up the side of the next mountain range. The turn required, although longer, would be nothing like as tight or as steep.
You are really learning an awful lot by reading my site, aren't you? You should be paying me for all of this. If you are having pangs of guilt about profiting from my financially-embarraseed state, by the way, you can always use the links at the side to buy something from my site sponsors or make a donation to my paypal account.
Here I am at the top of the pass. The view wasn't as spectacular as I'd expected as it was actually a bowl between a couple of higher hills all round. There wasn't anything like a good view across a valley. I was so disappointed.
But never mind. The best is yet to come, the Valley of the Gods notwithstanding. Even here, I was convinced of that ( and don't forget - after all, I have seen the script).
THE STUNNER PASS
Right - here we go. Up alongside the Conejos River and into the San Juan Wilderness. This was another road marked "4-wheel drive vehicles only". Again, I cannot for the life of me see why. God help the Americans if ever they get to drive on some of the green lanes around where I live, that's for sure.
There was a notice around here that said something like "Welcome to The High Chapparal" but as far as I can remember, the TV series of the same name was filmed in the Arizona lowlands, so I dunno about that. Unless I'm confused. I mean, there's nothing high about the lowlands of Arizona.
The river was cool and crystal clear - nothing like any river I've seen anywhere else in the rest of the world. I took five minutes out to take a couple of photographs, but you can only get a brief idea of what I mean, which is a real shame.
The mountains around here were absolutely amazing. It's really hard to realise that I'm up already at 10,000 feet or so, and these mountains peaked out at between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Everything here is so clean and so green.
Nothing aound here seems spoilt or damaged and there's very little sign of human intervention up there, or at least, the kind of human intervention that you might have at a place like this.
Having said that, however, just come with me a bit further along the road, and you'll be sorry I said that. There is some evidence of an example of human intervention of a most unwelcome kind.
Now I've no idea of the names of the mountains around here, but they are absolutely superb, standing up here above the tree line like a sore thumb. Nevertheless it was really hard to appreciate the height of the mountain because I was so high up myself. From sea level, I would reckon that the mountain would be truly magnificent.
You can see the road quite well here. I'm amazed that it's recommended that only 4-wheel drive vehicles come down here. Fair enough, it's a real dirt road, as you can see, but nicely graded, smooth and level. I wouldn't go flat out down here, but a steady 30 or 35 mph gave me no problems at all. And that was in a Mustang, too. In an ordinary saloon, like the Pontiac I had last week up the Moffat Road and the Rollins Pass for example, the only limit would have been the speed and the visibility issue from the volume of the dust cloud I would have created.
At first it seemed like no great adventure to come here, but you can see just here how, little by little, the mountains have started to close in. Ever so slowly and ever so imperceptibly the road was starting to climb.
Suddenly I burst out onto a plateau where I arrived at the town of Platoro. From here, I continued to climb, leaving the town behind, as you can see.
Just a little further on from here I took a wrong turning (my excuse was that the map wasn't detailed - enough. It wasn't the first wrong turning that I'd taken either on this holiday, and somehow the tradition of finding much more interesting things down wrong turnings continued. No - when you look at some of the views down this wrong turning, you can understand why I wasn't complaining at all. If I'd have taken the correct road I wouldn't have seen any of this!
The Platoro Reservoir
This is the Platoro reservoir, which is a couple of miles further on from Platoro and higher up in the mountains.
You can get an idea of how cold it was up here - that really is ice on the water.
You also need to bear in mind that this is a cheap end-of-series digital camera that was obsolete when I bought it 18 months ago. So imagine what I could have reproduced with an expensive camera - and imagine what it was like for real! This was magnificent!
The mountain in the background is Conejos Peak, all 13172 feet of it.
You probably think, like me, that the quality of these three photographs is excellent. In fact, the third one was the desktop wallpaper on the computer at reception at The Conference Board Europe for a while.
And good as they might be, I promise you that I have not done anything at all to enhance these images. Quite the revese in fact, for they are even reduced in quality by 70%. Click on them (remember to click the "back" button on your browser to come back!) to get a better view.
It was one of those rare occasions when the light, the atmosphere and the colours all combined with a wonderful subject matter. There would have been a magnificent shot with a pinhole camera here, I reckon
The road I was on (well, okay, track then) ended just here and disappeared down a footpath. There was a little hut place with a register in it, and you had to sign yourself in if you passed this place, and say where you were going and when you were likely to be back, and you'd have to sign yourself back out again.
Everyone seemed to be going to "the waterfall" which made me regret I didn't have time to go too.
The Americans take the idea of disappearing into the wilderness quite seriously. As indeed you should if ever you decide to do so, for the rather prosaic reason that you have to pay all your own rescue fees. Helicopters work out to be rather expensive!
I had time for a quick shot of the Mustang under Conejos Peak, and then I retraced my steps back down the road to where I had taken the wrong, turning, and hung a left up to the Stunner Pass.
Stunner Pass - the summit
This is the summit of the Stunner Pass, all 10541 feet of it. And I was so disappointed with this after everything that I'd seen on the way up. It was another place where you were surrounded by mountains so you didn't really get a good view of the surrounding countryside.
As far as here anyway, it was starting to be a toss-up as to whether the San Juan mountains or the Valley of the Gods was the most beautiful place I've ever seen in my whole life. And I was sure that there was more to come too.
There's another good view of Platoro here. If you compare it to the photo sw3066 that you saw a little while ago, you can see how far up I've climbed.
If you look very carefully at the foot of the mountains to the left of the valley way down there, you can also see the road I drove along to get here, and appreciate the height that I had made. Don't forget, we were already at about 10,000 feet when we were down there. This must be at least another 1000 feet higher up.
That was the end of "looking back" - it was now time to look forwards and onwards - there was still a way to go.
And just look at the colours in the rocks here - they are wonderful. I can't say that I've ever seen any colours so vivid as these.
You can tell, though, in the colours of the trees and leaves that the light up here was magnificent. There's no big city for miles around, and at 10,000 feet we're well above any limit of ground-level pollution.
It's All Downhill From Here
Now remember that just after I'd started up the Stunner Pass, I' told you how beautiful it was and how I was more-than-likely going to regret it? Well, this is a sign that was very unpleasant to see up here in an area so beautiful.
First thing I thought about was gold extraction. A cheap way to extract gold was to precipitate the gold-bearing rock in a cyanide solution. The chemical reaction causes the gold to fall out of the chemical mixture, and then you just pour the liquid away.
Needless to say, back in the olden days this was not very ... er ... controlled, and at 11,000 feet in the middle of a range of inhospitable and inaccessible mountains, even less so. It would normally take place adjacent to a nearby stream where there was water to make a solution, and the waste was inevitably tipped away into the stream. You don't need me to tell you how poisonous cyanide can be, even in the tiniest of doses.
Consequently, when you see signs like this in the wild, particularly in mountainous, isolated areas it's a fair bet to say that there has been some Heath-Robinson extraction of gold in the past. It would be far too expensive to transport the ore down to a real extraction centre, and you could live up here for years without anyone noticing what you're up to.
And by the time they did, then you'd be rich and long gone, or you would have been long eaten by bears or massacred by Indians.
Here are some photographs of Lookout Mountain, all 12448 feet.
The sign was definitely pointing to the peak in the photograph just here.
The colours once more are magnificent.
Having said that, however, it seemed much more reasonable to assume that it is in fact this peak that is Lookout Mountain. It is adjacent to the other and somewhat higher.
If you know for sure, .
Well, deer me! So you can see from the photograph on the left that "we are not alone". I'd rather have seen a couple of bears, I suppose, but in the absence of any of those, I suppose these will have to do to be going on with.
Believe it or not, these were the first large-sized examples of wildlife I'd seen up in any of the mountains I'd been in.
On the right, yet another mountain lake. This was really cool. In fact it was so cool it was absolutely flaming freezing! And yet again, the colours were just absolutely magnificent, as you can see.
On the left, you can see why it was cool. I was starting to get really high up in the mountains. You'd seen on a couple of peaks in some earlier shots that there was snow high up in the mountains, but now in isolated, sheltered spots I was starting to enounter it.
One thing to note, though - regardless of how cold it was or might have been, I still hadn't put up the top of the car. I was enjoying myself in the cold, fresh open air. it was so invigorating
These three photographs here and below are of a gentle valley that has some really impressive views that, once more, can't be appreciated by just looking at the photograph. You should have been here with me.
This first shot is down to the bottom of the valley.
This shot is looking up to the top of the valley.
Apart from the general magnificence of the view (which doesn't come out in the photographs, just like always) there was a very good reason to take these pictures, and I can't now remember what it was.
I did in fact dictate it in my notes and if the dicatphone had been working and the batteries hadn't gone flat on me at a crucial moment without me noticing, I would have been able to tell you what it was.
I reckon it was something to do with a name on a signpost that meant something to me as soon as I saw it, a name from history or something that I'd read - but I can't remember now.
This shot is looking downwards and to my left, which was vaguely the direction in which I was heading.
Of course, two things happen to you when you start to get old. Firstly, you lose your memory, and secondly, I can't remember what the other thing is.
But never mind any of that. Apart from the obvious beauty of this area, there was another reason why I'd come up here.