Better late than never! I took a little hiatus from photography for the last few months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s time to pick out my favorite ten images in the past year. (Here’s my 2015 list, which focuses a little more on technique.) This year I continued my western travels, learned about lighting (not shown here), and got really into HDRs (shown excessively here).
After a year in New Mexico, some things grow familiar. Red or green chile goes with everything, in the morning there’s probably a hot air balloon somewhere, and at night I will hear people gunning their engines on Route 66. But the New Mexican sky still amazes me. Whether its the stars at night, the distant rain, or the views of mountains for miles, it’s so different than the skies I have lived under for the rest of my life. In Missouri and Virginia, the sky was overhead. In New Mexico, it wrap around you like a bowl, a massive semi-spherical window into the universe.
The west contains amazing variety. You can see lava fields, slot canyons, and dunes of white sand. There’s 400 years of Spanish history, and thousands of years of native history from multiple cultures. Artifacts in the hills and deserts of the west will stay put for a long time. The Animas River Spill led to coverage of abandoned mines in the west, remnants of the 1880s mining boom. This article at least suggests 150,000 abandoned mines, 4,000 of them uranium mines. On a happier note, many of the old mining settlements survive in some form today.
St. Elmo, Colorado is a beautiful little mountain town with nature and scenery. Its wooden buildings have been preserved very well, and are well-suited to photography.
Chloride, New Mexico, had one of the most excellent and unique museums I have visited. Mr. Edmund at the Pioneer Store Museum has spent decades of his life cleaning and documenting the store and the town history. He gave us a wonderful personal tour for over an hour.
St. Elmo, Colorado
St. Elmo is in a remote valley of central Colorado near the Arkansas River headwaters. We stopped by en-route from Great Sand Dunes National Park to Pike’s Peak. St. Elmo is a quintessential mountain ghost town, with beautiful timber construction, moody skies, and looming snowy mountains. Its population peaked at around 2,000 people. St. Elmo had gold and silver mining (over 150 claims in St. Elmo alone). It was near the Historic Alpine Tunnel, an engineering marvel, built in the 1880s and still the highest rail tunnel in the country. (If you want to see that, that requires some walking.)
When the railroad stopped maintaining the rail line in 1910, the town faded. One family stuck around, and today a lot of buildings survive in lovely condition. St. Elmo has mountain biking, an adorable-looking Bed and Breakfast, ATV trails, and more. Also nearby is Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, which looked inviting.
Chloride, New Mexico
How can you not adore a name like Chloride for a mining town? Chloride was named for its silver chloride deposits, and was a silver town. At its peak, it reached a population of 3,000 with 9 saloons. (Today, it has 11 residents.) The town collapsed when President McKinley made gold the monetary standard, and silver prices plummeted. Chloride had 42 mines, a crushing plant, and a smelter.
The general store continued on after the mining bust. In 1923, it was boarded up while the son went east to study. He studied physics and moved to California, so the store sat unmolested (except by bats) for 70 years. It is a time capsule rich with history. You can peruse the signatures in the post office book. The museum manager, who restored the building and its contents himself, will show and tell you about the many fascinating items within the store. There are purchase records, old bottles of whiskey, packages of gum, nails, ladies hats, and even a dynamite detonator.
Today, one mine is still active nearby, mining zeolites, which are cool, but a tale for another time.
Last week, I traveled through eastern Colorado, hitting Pike’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes. But the biggest surprise was a tiny national monument in central Colorado—Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Florissant Fossil Beds has provided fossils to the scientific community for over 100 years; an estimated 40,000-50,000 specimens of some 1500 species. As a visitor, you learn about how the fossils at Florissant formed and the era from which they came. The visitor center is full of great science and amazing fossils. A fossil learning lab is open from 1PM to 3PM. The most impressive part, though, are the massive petrified redwood stumps. The largest is 41 feet in circumference and about 10 feet high.
Scientists started coming to Florissant to document fossils in the 1870s. Unfortunately, tourists flocked to the site as well, fascinated by the redwood stumps and petrified wood. Once upon a time, petrified wood littered the landscape. Now, visitors take in the big stumps alone. The biggest stump has two blades still embedded in it, remnant of when someone tried to chop it up to sell pieces out east. Two tourist companies staked out the site and competed bitterly over traffic. One left nails at the other’s entrance; they also literally got into a shooting match.
Federal protection came very late for Florissant. Despite calls for conservation going back at least to the 1890s, it took until the 1969 for the site to gain national monument status. Before that, people wanted to divide the site up for houses. Environmentalists faced down bulldozers. Standing in the empty fields of Florissant, over an hour west of Colorado Springs and really in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to imagine why the area needed more houses. By contrast, Petrified Forest National Park gained National Monument status in 1906. When you visit Arizona’s Petrified Forest, they will tell you how much petrified wood has left the park through tourism—Petrified Forest is still littered with petrified wood while Florissant is not.
I learned a lot about fossils and fossil formation at Florissant Fossil Beds. I marveled at the great tree trunks, wondering how many more must lay still buried around me. But I think I was most struck by the story of conservation at Florissant Fossil Beds. The monument covers the fight to preserve Florissant, but it can’t editorialize. Florissant is a microcosm of when capitalism and general human interest don’t align. Many of our national lands tell the story of where the human interests won. Florissant tells a story where that interest emerged on top at the very last possible moment; I felt wistful wondering how many marvels wandered away with all the care of a tourist buying a souvenir shot glass.
If you find yourself in central Colorado, stop by Florissant for a visit. The stumps are truly other-worldly. I learned a lot about fossils. And I took a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The park implores us to imagine what the meadow was like 30 million years ago when the valley was in the flow path of a volcano. I also found myself imagining the place as a virgin bed of paleontology 150 years ago.
41 foot circumference petrified tree stump