I just returned from a lengthy western road trip, including, amongst other things, 4000 photographs filling many gigs of space. I have hours of editing ahead of me. Today, enjoy some images from Monument Valley, one of the famous vistas of the American West. This lonely place is in northeast Arizona, near the Four Corners. It’s where Forrest Gump stopped running, and it’s appeared in many movies. And it’s only 6 hours from Albuquerque!
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.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito, has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.
When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.
Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.
I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.
A year ago this week, I arrived in the Land of Enchantment and called myself a New Mexican. Since then, I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot, much of it I have posted here at this blog. More than I could ever fit into a single post. So instead, I include 24 of the 24,000 pictures I’ve taken since I moved to this lovely state. They are images of architecture, culture, geography, wildlife, weather,industry, and celebration from all around New Mexico.
Happy anniversary to me. New Mexico, I can’t wait to see what you show me in the next year.
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