Western Loop, Day 8: Victor

Trip Dates: June 14, 2019 | Photo Album

A highlight of our vacation would be meeting up with folks on the Front Range of the Rockies. We first rendezvoused with Betty and John Henderson in Manitou Springs. They had been fishing with some of their family members for several days on Taylor Park Reservoir, a three-hour drive to the west. The focus of our time together would be a day trip to Victor for a rock and mineral show.

Manitou Springs

We stayed at the Magnuson Grand Pikes Peak, with a view of the mountain in the distance. I picked out the Crystal Park Cantina for our rendezvous dinner in Manitou Springs. John and Betty were far more familiar with the town than we, but had not ventured south into Crystal Park, which is a 2,000-acre gated community. The restaurant was the Mission Bell Inn under the Masias family from 1962 until it was purchased by Justin Armour and partners in 2011. He was a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos in 1999 when the team won Superbowl XXXIII and later became the Manitou High football coach. His mother, Anne, signed on to assist with the cooking after having run other eateries in the area.

Then we drove to downtown Manitou Springs and found a parking spot. It was across the street from the Cliff House Inn, where I had originally made reservations for us when planning the trip but later canceled in favor of the less pricey Magnuson Grand on down the highway from the historic district.

John sporting the sheriff badge we gave him so he could keep us all in line

We enjoyed a stroll through the district, where I bought John a sheriff’s badge so he could keep us all in line. At a sign shop, I was picking out a suitable sign to give Betty for her classroom when I heard a commotion. Sharp-eyed John had spotted Susan and John Staats from Bartlesville across the street and called them over. We all got together for a group shot and realized the Hendersons had likely seen the Staats in the distance getting ready to go rafting earlier in the week, neither party able to recognize the other in the distance at the time. It’s a small world.

Unexpected rendezvous in Manitou Springs with the Staats

Victor & Cripple Creek

The next morning we had a meager breakfast at the hotel and then piled into the minivan for an hour-long drive on highways 24 and 67 around the north end of Pikes Peak up to the old mining town of Victor, which sits at the foot of Battle Mountain. John and Betty had been up on the mountain before, visiting Cripple Creek and Victor, the twin towns which straddle the enormous former Cresson Mine.

Cripple Creek and Victor straddle the open pit gold mine

In 1995 the historic gold mine was reworked as an open pit. Now a low-cost, low-yield operation, it produces less than one gram of gold per ton of ore. Yet it remains the largest producer of gold in Colorado with 211,000 troy ounces, or over 14,000 pounds, produced in 2014. My calculations say that would have required processing over 6.5 million tons of ore.

Bob Womack found gold on his cattle ranch on the small Cripple Creek stream in 1890, setting off a gold rush. Within a decade, the area population skyrocketed from less than two dozen people to over 50,000. Cripple Creek became the county seat and evolved into the home of the bankers and financiers for over 500 mines that operated in the area. Less than two miles away, Victor was platted in 1894 at the base of Battle Mountain, where the majority of the most productive mines were located, and served many of the miners.

The Victor and Cripple Creek mining district became the second largest gold mining area in the country, eventually producing about $10 billion of gold in 2010 dollars. Over 500 mines operated in the area. Headframes, which are erected above underground mine shafts for their hoists, still dot the hillsides around Victor and hint at hidden underground shafts. The Cresson Mine famously produced 60,000 ounces of gold in a few weeks in 1914 from a room-sized crystalline “vug” discovered 1,200 feet below the surface.

But gold production peaked in the early 20th century, and both towns waned. Cripple Creek’s population fell from over 10,000 in 1900 to about 400 by 1970. Its empty storefronts and picturesque homes led to it becoming a so-called “ghost town” destination in the 1970s and 1980s. Colorado legalized gambling in the town in 1991, reviving Cripple Creek as a gaming and tourist town which now has about 1,100 residents.

Victor had peaked at almost 5,000 residents in 1900 and fell to 258 by 1970. It has not embraced gambling and boomed like Cripple Creek, but does now sport about 400 residents, and it is easy to do a walking tour of its historic district.

Historic block in Victor

What had drawn us to town was Wendy’s discovery there would be a rock and mineral show; both Wendy and Betty are rock hounds. We pulled into town before the booths along the street opened, so we stepped into the Fortune Club Hotel where John and Wendy enjoyed biscuits and gravy. The building was a saloon, gambling house, and brothel in the gold rush era. A sign on the street depicts some of the ladies of the evening with a sentence about each one.

The bawdy side of town

The building’s construction was funded in 1899, by Adolph Coors of brewing fame, after one of the town’s major fires. After prohibition in 1916, it became a drug store, and the marble soda fountain still in the building was acquired from a store in Denver in 1937. When we later had lunch in the restaurant, the presence of the fountain led me to order a shake.

The show booths eventually opened, allowing Wendy and Betty to peruse the merchandise. John and I are used to entertaining ourselves while those two are obsessing about geology, and I strolled around downtown to explore the history on offer.

The town’s visitor center is in Alta Vista station, a tiny depot from an old narrow gauge railroad that once ran from Victor south to Florence, the prison town we had passed through a day earlier. That depot was moved from the old route, which is now Phantom Canyon Road. Outside the depot was one of the old streetcars that ran on lines which connected Victor and Cripple Creek to the mines and each other during the rush.

Victor streetcar

A block away from the Fortune Hotel is the Victor Hotel, which occupies the old First National Bank of Victor building, which housed a succession of banks and businesses and then went vacant. It is said that during the rush they stored bodies on its top floor between October and June, waiting for the ground to unfreeze to allow for burials.

History mural

City Hall

I walked to City Hall, encountering a great history mural. The old building underwent a restoration in 2004. Jack Dempsey once trained as a boxer in the city hall building, and his signature is on a wall in it. Before winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1919, Dempsey had worked as a miner in Gold Camp and boxed in Victor as “Kid Blackie”.

I enjoyed walking to the old Masonic Temple, which housed many fraternal organizations over the years. It is now vacant and neglected, although I would soon encounter a couple of artifacts from the Masonic Temple in a nearby museum.

Victor Masonic Temple

Adjoining the temple is the Victor Record newspaper building, which was where Lowell Thomas, the town’s most famous son, got his start as a newspaper boy and later editor. Thomas would become a writer, actor, broadcaster, and traveler, best remembered for publicizing T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). His career was before my time, but he was a world traveler who invented the movie travelogue and was a pioneer of electronic journalism.

Colorful rock slabs from Mozambique and petrified wood

I made my way back to the rock show area, where John and I waited for the girls to finish their tours of the booths. Wendy purchased some opals, a few colorful stone slabs from Mozambique, petrified wood slabs, and a beautiful “champagne crystal”. Wendy enjoys adding glow-in-the-dark pigments to some of her paintings and other works, and she bought an egg-shaped stone that was treated so that it glows a bright green in the dark.

Rose rocks

Wendy loves rose rocks and has purchased specimens from the Timberlake Rose Rock Museum in Noble, which is the area where most barite roses are found. She was amused to buy two more of them in Victor and tried to educate another customer who speculated they might be coprolites. Like me, she just can’t help being a teacher.

Pillars from the Masonic Temple

As we made our way over to the Fortune Club for lunch, it began to snow a bit, reminding us that we were at an elevation of 9,700 feet. Afterward, John and Betty led us across the street to the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum. The museum had memorabilia about the old broadcaster, but of greater interest to me were the Masonic pillars preserved from the town’s old temple.

One was topped with a moon globe, the other one of the Earth. There is some typically complicated mumbo-jumbo about the symbolism, but suffice it to say they are weird echoes of two pillars that decorated Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Back in junior high a friend convinced me to be initiated into the DeMolay youth organization associated with the Masons. I survived an elaborate initiation at the huge Temple in Guthrie, but had no patience for all of the pseudo-religious and quasi-historical nonsense that surrounded their practices. So I only attended a couple of meetings before bailing out.

Behind the pillars was what was termed a “diamond dust” mirror, so-called because of the sparkles in its soft reflection. Online sources differ on what the terminology means, whether it is an effect of mercury evaporation or simply the breakdown of an old mirror’s silver nitrate coating, but I am skeptical any actual diamond dust was used in its manufacture.

One room had a collection of old dolls, one of which was winking at me in a rather creepy fashion. Wendy took shots of various apple head dolls on display. I speculated that the glass case might be to protect us from them rather than vice versa.

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Our panning treasures

The museum had a trough set up outside so we could pan for gold and gems. Since the brief snow was already just a memory, we indulged. The Hendersons are quite experienced at panning, but I just swished and swirled my pan to extract as much pyrite as possible, since I found the tiny specks of real gold were too much to bother with. I gave Wendy my little treasures to join with hers.

Before we left town, Betty made a deal on a petrified wood specimen she would add to the items she and Wendy purchased a couple of summers back in Holbrook, Arizona. Then we went over to Cripple Creek to drive along its more prosperous streets before heading back to Manitou Springs. We had dinner at the Mason Jar and bid the Hendersons adieu, since they would be up early the next morning to head back home while we drove up to Denver and Louisville where we would visit with friends I hadn’t seen since 2001.

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Western Loop, Days 9-10: Denver >

Western Loop, Days 6-7: Walsenburg & Bishop’s Castle

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Western Loop, Days 6-7: Walsenburg & Bishop’s Castle

Trip Dates: June 12-13, 2019 | Photo Album

A week into our trip, we had memorable stops at the Museum of Friends in Walsenburg and Bishop’s Castle in the Wet Mountains.

We had left Pagosa Springs, driving up and over the continental divide at Wolf Creek pass, bound for Walsenburg, an old mining town on the plain northeast of the Spanish Peaks. We had previously taken this route in 2013, enjoying lunch at the La Plaza Inn and shopping in some junk stores in Walsenburg to break up a long drive to Dodge City, Kansas. But this time we would be staying overnight in Walsenburg before heading north to Manitou Springs.

We chewed gum as our drive took us upward almost 3/4 mile from the 7,126 feet elevation of Pagosa Springs to Wolf Creek Pass at 10,857 feet. Then we descended to the Rio Grande River at South Fork and headed east to Del Norte. Our minivan was halted just east of Del Norte for several minutes as cattle from the Off Family Ranch were herded west along highway 160, surrounding us. Wendy, thinking of a funny scene from the movie Twister, exclaimed, “We got cows!” We giggled as the cows struggled to find their way among the halted traffic, loudly mooing and bellowing.

We crossed the heavily irrigated San Luis Valley and drove south around Blanca Peak to take the North La Veta Pass into Huerfano County. Huerfano is Spanish for orphan, and later in this post I’ll explain how the county earned that moniker.

We passed 11 miles north of the Spanish Peaks, which the Utes called Huajatolla, meaning “two breasts” or “breasts of the Earth”. The two igneous intrusions are separate from the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, predating them by over a million years, and rise 7,000 feet above the plain. They were important landmarks for the Old Santa Fe Trail.

Spanish Peaks from the minivan


Walsenburg began as La Plaza de los Leones in the mid-1800s, incorporated in the 1870s, and became a center for coal mining in the early 20th century, with over 100 mining camps in the county. Multiple miner strikes were put down violently. The town peaked around 1940, and the mines closed in the 1960s. In recent years the town had a private prison and a modular-building factory, but they have closed. In 2015 the town sold 330 acres to be used for cannibis production, hoping to grow weed to be sold up north in Denver, but it remains one of the poorest communities in Colorado.

We enjoyed our lunch at the Library Café at La Plaza Inn and then visited the Museum of Friends. Artists Brendt Berger and Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger so named their museum because it began with over 600 pieces given to them or the museum by fellow artists. The two have lived in places across the country, from Maine to Hawaii, building up a diverse collection over 50-odd years. Many of the artists were active in the numerous “hippie” communes that popped up in southern Colorado 40 to 50 years back. Their collection has now grown to over 1,700 pieces.

Museum of Friends in Walsenburg

We met Maria, who happily told us how they were finally going to be getting an elevator so the older folks in town could go upstairs to see the permanent collection. Wendy was wearing a t-shirt depicting horses and Santa Fe, and Maria, liking the colors, asked if she could photograph it. Wendy, who has made various artworks with color schemes reflecting our travels, readily agreed.

We toured Earth, a Plein Air Artists Colorado Group Exhibition downstairs. Wendy liked Stacy Erickson’s French’s Field.  Then Maria had Candice Knowles take us upstairs, where the walls were covered with their friends’ art.

Candice was a hoot, saying she didn’t have a great memory and then proceeding to share details about each piece of artwork hanging on the walls. When another couple came upstairs, she merrily focused on them while we strolled about the rooms. Wendy liked Arnold Wechsler’s Ancient Books 1968 acrylic, and when she circled back to us, Candice shared how noticeable slashes across the painting had been made by one of Brendt’s girlfriends years ago. He now says the painting saved his life, “The person I was living with at the time took a knife to this painting and just started slashing it. That could have been me, very easily.”

Ancient Books by Arnold Wechsler

Brendt was working in his office, which Candice led us through to his Hawaiian room, with walls covered in tapa cloth paintings and displays of island art ranging from fine to kitsch. Who would ever think there would be this sort of fun oasis up above what was once a Colorado coal mining town’s JC Penney store?

We wrapped up our visit in the small museum store, where I spotted a dark moonlit seascape by Earl Daniels. I like to decorate Meador Manor with paintings and photographs purchased at vacation stops, alongside Wendy’s many beautiful pieces. I had to grin when Candice asked me, “Are you sure you want that one? It’s expensive!” I was happy to have it, both to decorate our home and in a small way help support the Museum of Friends. I have even bought one of Earl’s old art instruction books on eBay to see more of his works.

Moonlit seascape by Earl Daniels

Candice bundled up my purchase, and we packed it in the minivan. Wendy thought the colorful cats decorating the planters in front of the museum were hilarious, while across the street I noticed the interesting timbers of the Miner’s Park.

We checked into the Best Western Rambler on the north end of town and did our laundry. The dryer’s coin slot was jammed, so the clerk let us finish our loads in the hotel’s industrial dryer. Dinner would be back downtown at a pizza joint.

That turned out to be part of Rosa’s Cantina on main street. Our waiter told us he would also be the cook and that we should help ourselves to drinks in a nearby refrigerator. He pointed out that his mother’s famous lemonade was in there, as she’s been making it with freshly squeezed lemons for 40 years, along with cucumber water. I’d never heard of the latter, but the next day would find Cucumber Sour Beer for sale in a convenience store in the prison town of Florence, Colorado. So I guess the flavor of cucumbers appeals to folks in those parts. Wendy speculated it arose when the locals discovered melons and other Cucurbitacea grew well in that high desert climate.

The pizza was fine, and we enjoyed meeting the two brothers running the restaurant. Wendy, who hears far better than I do, got a kick listening to the patrons in the adjoining bar. One “lady” told a fellow he was a number of profanities, to which he calmly responded, “I am a man of many titles.”

The Orphan

Busy bee restroom door

We had a good breakfast the next morning at the Busy Bee Cafe & Malt Shop back in town, which had Elvis photos and old 45 rpm records on the wall with cute decorations on the restroom doors. Then we drove north out of town. Wendy noticed El Huerfano, the volcanic plug butte I had first driven by in 2012. I’d forgotten about it, but The Orphan is how Huerfano county got its name. When the Spanish Peaks formed, it was one of the outlying igneous intrusions that never broke through the surface of the inland sea. Erosion has since stripped away the sediment that once covered the top of this plug, leaving a 300-foot isolated butte amidst the high desert plain, orphaned from the other peaks.

The Orphan

Through the Wet Mountains

We turned west at Colorado City to head up past Greenhorn mountain along highway 165. You would be mistaken to think the mountain’s name refers to inexperienced frontiersmen; it comes from Cuerno Verde, or “Green Horn”, which was what the Spanish called the Comanche leader Tavibo Naritgant because of the green-tinted horn he wore on his head-dress in battle. He was killed in the area back in 1779 by Spanish troops with Ute, Apache, and Pueblo indian auxiliaries. The “green horn” headress was taken from the battlefield and presented to the Spanish Viceroy, and then reportedly passed along to the King of Spain and then the Pope. So perhaps it is still buried somewhere in the Vatican archives.

We drove up and up, rising from 5,800′ at Colorado City to over 9,000′ in the Wet Mountain range, so named because of its heavy snowfalls and subsequent runoffs. We passed the tiny Lake Isabel as we made our way upward to Bishop’s Castle.

Bishop’s Castle

Jim Bishop is an obsessive and cranky old man who has labored for decades to construct a castle of sorts up in the Wet Mountains. What began as a cottage has morphed into an enormous and rather perilous structure that attracts tourists like us.

When we pulled up on the highway, we could see a tall spire poking up above a road cut as well as a large metal dragon head, probably sporting an inactive flamethrower of some sort. A short walk brought more of the castle into view, with tourists clambering about on metal grates and stairways from one spire to another. It didn’t look particularly safe from afar, and a sign out front saying we were guests and Bishop was in no way not responsible for our safety was not reassuring. We visited the portable toilets out front and then climbed up to the castle grounds, passing through a separate two-story gatehouse onto the dusty hillside.

The lay of the land makes it hard to get enough distance from the tall structure to capture it with a camera. We had to resort to shooting video and assembling panoramas from multiple shots.

Bishop’s Castle

I immediately climbed a long concrete exterior stairway leading straight up a buttress to the third floor, which was encircled by a grilled walkway. I noticed how the cast iron railing’s balusters were spaced far enough apart to allow a young child to slip through, which was surprising. As I circumnavigated around the building, I came across a part of the railing that had broken away, with only a simple rope tied across the gap. Another part of the railing had separated from the deck and hung loosely, vibrating along with the grilled floor with my steps. Yikes!

Third floor of Bishop’s Castle

How I entered the third floor

Wendy made it only partway up the exterior stairs before deciding to turn back around and instead explore the perimeter and a nearby gift shop. I ventured into the third floor through a large Gothic window/door, into a huge open room. The opposite end had a triangular glass window with many panes linked to open as a group for ventilation. The peak of the roof was glass skylight panels, with the remainder consisting of wood planks resting on what appeared to be a cast iron filigreed truss. There were high and narrow stone fireplaces, but the wooden floor had some damaged boards.

I found an enclosed stone spiral stair that led down to ground level, exiting out the back side of the building. I went and found Wendy and showed her the enclosed stairway, and we toured the second and third floors. The second level had separate end windows: one set had nice stained glass flowers, while the other had a kitsch Betty Boop angel and some colored panes with various remembrances.

Second floor windows

We were both struck by how some interior stairs would abruptly end in drop-offs. We had no interest in ascending into the towers to partake of their perilous exterior walkways, which looked like something out of a video game fantasy or a teenager’s sketchbook. If we were parents, we agreed we would never allow young children to roam the structure because of its multiple safety hazards.

The ground floor had an uneven dirt floor and featured large painted signs where Bishop ranted about governmental interference and his successful escapes from lawsuits and included a stereotypical “they took our guns!” section.

Challenging stair

The ground floor also had a rusty abandoned range and other signs of how it might have once been on the trajectory of becoming a functional cabin yet evolved into a fairly barren interior for tourists to roam through. We exited, and I noticed a man had halted on the exterior stair about where Wendy had also decided that was quite enough. It is indicative of my personality that I wished I could have groups of people try to climb that stair and record and chart which steps they first halted on. He eventually clambered on up.

The dragon portion of the structure has an interesting history. From Bishopcastle.org:

Enter The Dragon
In the mid 1980s, a friend of Jim’s was driving a truck full of discarded stainless steel warming plates from the Pueblo County Hospital to the landfill. He decided that Jim could probably put this mother lode of expensive stainless steel to better use than the dump could, so he dropped it off at the Bishop Ornamental Iron Shop instead. Jim spent the winter building a chimney out of the steel, riveting thousands of hammered “scales” that he had cut out of the plates together around a steel frame. The dragon was completed in the spring and Jim hauled it up the mountain to tackle the daunting task of raising and installing this incredible sculpture to where it rests today perched off of the front of the Grand Ballroom eighty feet in the air! Later on came the addition of a burner from a hot air balloon (that was donated!) which Jim put in the back of the dragons throat, making it a true Fire Breathing Dragon! The dragon usually gets fired up weekends through the summer.

I left a donation in the begging box, glad that Bishop shared his passion project with us, even if he is certifiable. When he passes on, I fear the castle will be at high risk of having vandals burn it up (it appears they had already lost their interior gift shop to a fire) and turn it into an abandoned ruin. So I’m glad we got to see it near what might be its peak.

Rear of Bishop’s Castle

I walked up the hillside to shoot the back side of the castle, and then we returned to the minivan to make our way north to Manitou Springs.

To Manitou Springs

Highway 165 continued as a lovely scenic drive through the Wet Mountains for another 20 miles until it descended to the plains. I had hoped to find restrooms at Wetmore, but had no luck at that tiny place built on Hardscrabble Creek. We took highway 67 north to Florence, passing a large federal prison. Florence was larger and had services, but looked pretty tough. Seeing Cucumber Sour Beer at a convenience store reminded me of the cucumber water we’d been offered in Walsenburg.

We took highways 115 and 24 to Manitou Springs, just east of the far larger Colorado Springs. We had stayed at the nearby Garden of the Gods Resort in 2015 but had only made one drive through crazy little Manitou, which reminded both of us of Eureka Springs in Arkansas with its mountainous setting and shopping district.

This time we would be staying a couple of nights in Manitou Springs itself, meeting up with fellow teacher Betty Henderson and her husband, John, as they returned west from fishing at Taylor Park in Colorado. The next post will cover our travels together in Manitou Springs and to a rock and mineral show up in the historic old mining town of Victor on the southwest side of Pike’s Peak.

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Western Loop, Day 8: Victor >

< Western Loop, Days 4-5: Pagosa Springs

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Western Loop, Days 4-5: Pagosa Springs

Trip Dates: June 10-11, 2019 | Photo Album

On past vacations we had driven north on US 84 from Santa Fe, NM to Pagosa Springs, CO, stopping along the way to hike at the beautiful Ghost Ranch. But by now we had hiked each of the major trails there, and I wanted to take a different route. So I opted to turn off at Española to take the High Road to Taos and then US 64 across the Rio Grande back to rejoin 84 at Los Ojos and proceed to Pagosa.

I had been through Taos 28 years earlier, never returning as I had not been impressed when my father and I drove through in a Volkswagen Westfalia Camper back in the day. But when I mention our travels to Santa Fe, people often ask if we also visit the smaller town which is likewise known for its artists. So I thought it would be worthwhile to drive through, almost three decades later, to see what I thought.

There are two primary routes from Santa Fe to Taos. The Low Road parallels the Rio Grande River for part of the journey, while the High Road I opted for is a scenic byway which takes one through a series of tiny Spanish Land Grant and Pueblo Indian villages amidst the Sangre de Christo mountains.

The winding road was a serene 40-mile-per-hour drive with few vehicles. The only drawback was a lack of roadside restrooms, which resulted in a crowd at a pit toilet facility in the forest. We drove on to Rancho de Taos, just south of Taos proper, to find relief.

I wasn’t in the mood to stop at the little villages, opting to cruise onward, although I did pull over at an overlook on NM 518.

Overlook on NM 518

Overlook on NM 518 on the High Road to Taos

After the peaceful drive to Taos, the overloaded highways 68 and 64 through it were miserable. It was lunchtime, and the downtown parking areas overflowed. The overcrowded, crawling drive through town put me in a foul mood, unwilling to fight for a parking place to find lunch and then take in the art museum at Fechin House as I’d planned. I wouldn’t call it road rage, but road resentment.

Farmhouse Cafe at Taos

So I drove to the north end of town, where we ate at the Farmhouse Café and Bakery, a farm-to-table operation.  The setting was pleasant enough, with pretty flowers and soothing quiet. But it was also one of those annoying hippie places that refuse to serve fountain soft drinks, and our waitress did not even know to offer their fake “Dr. Becker” version of Dr. Pepper to Wendy when she ordered. While neither of us cared for our bland turkey sandwiches, we enjoyed getting a break from the road.

Then we took a thankfully lonely drive west on US 64 to cross the Rio Grande, as my father and I had done in 1991. Wendy was interested in the buried houses we saw on the west side of the river, all with one side dug into the earth and a series of windows on the opposite side to capture the sun. The Greater World Community there is the world’s largest off-the-grid subdivision.

The relaxing drive took us into the Tusas Mountains. We stopped to take in the panoramic view of the Brazos Cliffs over the Chama valley, and below you can compare the photograph I took there in June 1991 on a cheap film camera to my digital shot in June 2019. There was more snow lingering on the ground this time around, and my iPhone X captured the panoramic view quite nicely.

The remainder of the trip to Pagosa Springs was quite familiar, and we stayed once again at Pagosa Springs Inn and Suites, where Chester offered a nice new hiking map. We had dinner at Junction Restaurant and walked downtown along the raging San Juan River. I had never seen it so high and turbulent, and it was fun to stop on a pedestrian bridge and view the heavy runoff flow. No one would be tubing down the San Juan during our visit!

The next morning Wendy maintained our Pagosa Springs tradition, walking across the street to Higher Grounds Coffee Company to get us breakfast treats to enjoy on an ironing board in our room, since the hotel’s rooms lack proper tables. We then drove north up the Piedra Road 16 miles to the Piedra River, passing from asphalt road through the ever-expanding Pagosa Springs Village onto the dirt road leading toward the mountains.

They were grading the road, and I almost high-centered the minivan in trying to cross into the parking lot for my favorite trail in the area. I had to back off and park a bit down the road by the river, with us walking back up to the trailhead.

Like the San Juan down in town, the Piedra River was also flowing more strongly than it had on any of my previous visits. The water was closer to the overhanging eastern bluff than usual, and I posed for a shot.

The Piedra River

We hiked a total of three miles along the river, working our way about a mile south, as the crow flies, along the canyon carved by the river until it turned west, and then turning back.

Mountain climber

Mount climbers

Along the way we noticed a pack in the brush below us and wondered what was going on until we spied ropes leading up to the top of the canyon. Some guys were rock climbing, and we could see a variety of pitons left behind in the bluff by previous climbers on the west side of the trail.

After returning to the minivan and driving back into town, we had a late lunch at Dorothy’s restaurant and relaxed. The next day we would head northeast to take Wolf Creek Pass across the continental divide and then descend eastward to the old coal mining town of Walsenburg to visit a rather unusual art museum.

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Western Loop, Days 1-3: To Santa Fe

Western Loop, Days 6-7: Walsenburg & Bishop’s Castle >

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Western Loop, Days 1-3: To Santa Fe

Trip Dates: June 7-9, 2019 | Photo Album

For 12 days in June 2019, Wendy and I drove a 2,000-mile loop from Oklahoma through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. We stayed overnight in 8 different towns, never staying more than two nights in a particular place. Despite having the luxury of traveling in Wendy’s comfortable mini-van, I suspect this is the fifth and final such big-loop road trip for us. We both found the pace grueling and agreed that our future vacations will be shorter overall but feature longer stays at particular locations. This last big loop featured an interesting mix of familiar and novel experiences and happy if brief meet-ups with two different sets of friends.


The first part of our trip followed a well-worn route for us from Bartlesville through Oklahoma City to Amarillo and onward to Santa Fe. We had previously made similar journeys in the summers of 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. We enjoyed lunch with my parents, which featured burgers from a Five Guys on Northwest Expressway rather than the usual Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. 25 years ago, Johnnie’s built a large location there, which they later reworked into a smaller restaurant. We were astonished to drive up and find a Del Taco planted in its place. However, a new Johnnie’s is being built directly to the east, so I’m sure we’ll be dining there in a few months.

Our overnight stay in Amarillo began and ended with a Friday night dinner and Saturday morning breakfast at Calico County, our favorite restaurant there. But I did want some novelty for our fifth visit to Amarillo. Wendy and I had seen the Texas Outdoor Musical in Palo Duro Canyon in 2013 and visited Sisemore’s RV Museum in 2014, Cadillac Ranch in 2014 and 2017, and the Amarillo Museum of Art in 2015. What was there left to see in this dry cowtown? You might suggest The Big Texan with its silly eat-enough-steak-and-get-it-free challenge, but a dinner there decades ago, with a friend who has since passed on, was enough for me.

2nd Amendment Cowboy near Cadillac Ranch

So we made a desperate stop at the 2nd Amendment Cowboy, a Muffler Man statue near some mounted finned Cadillacs, three-quarters of a mile east of Cadillac Ranch. (The Ranch itself was a muddy flooded mess when we drove past it this time.) Odd roadside statues were fresh on my mind because Bartlesville native Mary Beth Babcock recently unveiled one in Tulsa along Route 66: Buck Atom, Space Cowboy. But the wind-borne stench of a nearby feedlot led us to cut short our visit with Buck’s strangely unarmed Texas cousin.

Determined to see something else new before we left Amarillo and turned out the lights, I looped back into town. (Yes, that was a Bob Wills reference, and if you have never seen Bob and his Texas Playboys in performance, here’s a treat for you: Ida Red at the 8:10 mark in this 1951 video.)

So we found ourselves in a parking lot near a six-story high structure of four stainless steel columns, each of which is a time capsule: the Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument. In 1868, the French astronomer Jules Janssen aimed a spectroscope at the sun’s chromosphere during a total eclipse in British India. He observed a bright yellow line of wavelength 587.49 nanometers created by cascading electrons from an unknown type of atom. Scientists would name it helium based on its solar origin. Later the same element was found mixed in with natural gas from manmade wells on Earth, such as the Cliffside Gas Field of Amarillo which would become the home of the Federal Helium Reserve.

A century after the discovery of helium, a monument of four hollow columns was erected in Amarillo. Each column contained a helium-filled time capsule of artifacts, books, and documents to be opened in 1993, 2018, 2068, and 2968. In 1982 the monument was airlifted by an army helicopter to a new location in town, and its 25-year and 50-year capsules were eventually opened as scheduled. A fresh batch of items has even been encapsuled to be opened in 2093, so this odd monument, complete with helium atom dangly bits, lives on.

Helium Time Columns Monument in Amarillo

Santa Fe

We drove onward to finally angle up to Santa Fe, where our first stop was a late lunch at Tomasita’s so Wendy could enjoy their green chile tamales. Our meal also featured the first paper straws we’d shared as a couple, reflecting increasing environmental concerns about single-use plastics.

Nearby was the Santa Fe Motel & Inn, where we had previously stayed in one-room casitas, including the one with the patio where I proposed to Wendy in 2015. This time I had rented for two nights the Casita Bonita across the street, which included a full kitchen and large patio. She loved the crushed ice dispenser in one of the side-by-side refrigerator’s doors, something we’d see again when visiting some friends in Louisville, Colorado. It was clearly a feature the next refrigerator at Meador Manor had better have.

Our Casita Bonita in Santa Fe

We then walked to the rose garden in the Railyard, where Wendy admired the many different huge and quite colorful blooms.

Wendy at the Railyard Rose Garden in Santa Fe

Across the street from the rose garden is a substation with one wall adorned by a 30′ long and 15′ foot high mosaic of a jaguar and snake. In 1995 it took six months for 21 youth muralists, ages 13-19, to place the 1″ square Venetian glass tiles that form Duality and the Fifth SunIt seemed fitting that I would see this reference to an Aztec myth about the creation and destruction of the world even as I embarked on my summer reading project: the late Gene Wolfe’s epic The Book of the New Sun

Duality and the Fifth Sun mosaic

Tammy Garcia’s Andrea

The way art can both attract and repel were evident outside the nearby Blue Rain gallery, where Martin Spei’s Hold Down of a fat, naked, and ogre-like man sitting on a gold box contrasted with Tammy Garcia’s Andrea, which I recognized as being a copy of the one in the Roland Sculpture Garden up on museum hill. I much preferred the latter, which depicts a Pueblo Indian adorned for the butterfly dance.

The next morning we walked downtown for the first of two breakfasts at Tia Sophia’s. Then we headed down Cerillos Road to a former bowling alley that has been converted into an art adventure called Meow Wolf. There is an elaborate back story to the adventure which neither of us bothered to explore, but we did note how the name of the project came from randomly drawing words from a hat.

Meow Wolf art adventure in a former bowling alley

The venue had plenty of visitors on a Sunday morning, enough that we two introverts were eventually overwhelmed. But it was intriguing with things like a glowing life-size mastodon skeleton you could whack to hear musical tones, a neon coral reef you walked, rather than swam, through, a three-dimensional line drawing room, and much more. At one point we sheltered in a balcony nook that featured rows of huge teeth along its entry walls. It was nice to be out of the flow of visitors until a child ran up to Wendy and yelled, “Whoa!” at the teeth, which likely caused both of us to bare our own at him.

Wendy sits in a three-dimensional line drawing

We escaped to enjoy lunch at The Plaza Southside. Then I surprised Wendy with a rose garden we had not visited previously: the Harvey Cornell Rose Park. It is a narrow sliver set aside by a neighborhood’s developers in 1957 when it was at the south edge of Santa Fe, which then had a population of about 30,000. 62 years later, the population has reached almost 85,000, and the city’s southern edge is two miles away and extends at least five miles to the southwest.

Harvey Cornell Rose Park

Huge blooms

Harvey Cornell designed the garden area at the request of the newly formed rose society when he retired in the city,  and club members have kept it going ever since. It boasts about 425 roses that are large and beautiful, forming a peaceful oasis for Wendy after the crowds at Meow Wolf. Some ladybugs seemed to like it as well.

We returned to Casita Bonita, where Wendy relaxed on the patio with a robin for company. We walked to the Blue Corn Cafe for dinner, stopping by on our return walk to check on the somewhat neglected but immense rose bushes at the state capitol. Santa Fe’s wonderful food, art, architecture, and roses have made it a favorite stop for us.

Wendy with the roses at the state capitol

Our next stop on our big loop would also be quite familiar as we returned to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. But instead of our usual route up US 84 by Ghost Ranch, we would divert to take the High Road to Taos and then US 64 back west.

Photo Album

Western Loop, Days 4-5: Pagosa Springs >

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Decked Out

June 1, 2019

Have you ever watched a home improvement show or video and thought, “Well, even I could do that!” Two psychologists at the University of Chicago hypothesized that people overestimate how much their abilities improve after extensively watching others perform. They found people built a false illusion of competency after merely watching someone else perform a task.

My own reaction when watching shows like the venerable This Old House or seeing Chip and Joanna Gaines transform houses in Waco is, “That is harder than it looks.” I have never been tempted to tear down walls in my house, replace gypsum board, or the like. I would prefer to pay others who do such things for a living handle them with confidence and competency. When the tile walls around one of the bathtubs at Meador Manor was collapsing in 2007, I was relieved that the guys from The Quarry in Dewey were willing to install new greenboard on the studs to anchor the new acrylic resin walls. But I had to remove the old tile and decayed gypsum board myself.

I had to screw up my courage to tear away the lower decayed portions of the failing shower walls and buy a small reciprocating saw to free the upper sections. I managed to chip the edge of the porcelain bathtub in one spot, but overall it went well. I still happily dry off the sleek panels after each shower, thinking to myself, “I will never scrub tile grout again!”

When I purchased the house in 1994, I disliked the original 1981 wallpaper in that bathroom. Yet in 2019 it is still there, since I know my limits: hanging wallpaper is something I will never tackle. I am certain it would turn out a bit crooked or have small bubbles or curls or cutting errors which would drive me crazy. Installing a self-stick border around a window is the most I’ll tackle before calling in professionals.

The Shed Deck

The shed John and Betty Henderson provided and built for us

I’m no carpenter, so I was truly grateful when Betty and John Henderson not only purchased a Lifetime high-density polyethylene shed I had picked out at Costco for a wedding present, but John built a platform floor and assembled the shed while Wendy and I were on our honeymoon in July 2016. Three years later, it is in perfect condition and the happy home for our yard equipment and tools.

When Wendy and I were in the yard a few weeks ago, she remarked how she would like to sit on the north side of the shed, shielded from the neighbors, and enjoy the view of our next-door-neighbor’s backyard plantings and her own roses. I decided a little deck tucked against the shed would be just the thing for that, with a wood screen to give her greater privacy. I wasn’t about to craft anything myself out of wood, however. I figured there must be some sort of small deck kit I could assemble and a prefabricated wood screen I would plunk down.

Surface panels and screen beside the shed

Surface panels and screen beside the shed

I found various deck kit systems and read the reviews, finally settling on a very pricey UDECX kit from a small firm in Ohio, which I ordered for home delivery from Home Depot. I was reassured in taking on the project by their component and installation video.

So I ordered a kit on April 8 and Home Depot said it would arrive by April 21. But then it was back-ordered, and the lift truck didn’t show up with it until May 16. The deliveryman deposited the 460 pound kit on a pallet on our front walkway.

Wendy helped me unpack the kit, and we stacked the polypropylene piers on the patio and stacked the 9 40″ square polypropylene surface pads by the shed. They sat beside a folding wood screen I ordered from Wayfair. Its four 2-feet-wide by 5-feet-high sections would fit nicely on the edge of two surface pads. I positioned the structural piers on the ground beside the shed using a cardboard positioning template in the kit. The ground falls away to the north and west toward our neighbors, so I had to use the 1-inch plastic shims and 3-inch risers to level out the pads I positioned atop the piers and cam-locked into place.

Deck panels and screen

I used 5 of our 9 panels

I used five of the nine panels in the kit to form the shed deck. The stump of an old volunteer tree prevented me from placing a panel in one corner by the shed, and I figured Wendy might like to plant something there someday. I used the remaining shims and risers to place one more surface panel beside a rose planter of concrete blocks which Wendy built earlier this spring.

Of course the fierce winds we get meant we would have to somehow anchor the wood screen along the east side of the deck. Wendy cleverly suggested we use a spare bed head frame stored in the garage rather than purchasing an expensive UDECX railing kit. So I pounded the legs of the frame into the ground and tied the screen to it. Wendy propped it up with a patio chair while we endured a week of thunderstorms in late May which led to the highest flood in town since 2007 and the first indoor commencement for the high school in 25 years. Once that exhausting week of wild weather subsided, I pounded a stake into the ground to help anchor the railing. Eventually I’ll use wire to replace the ugly orange string tying it to the screen.

PE Rattan Wicker Furniture

The new furniture for the shed deck

Both of our patio chairs, Wilson & Fisher sling chairs we picked out at Big Lots a few years ago, had been damaged by squirrels or cats ripping through the fabric seat. So I wanted something different for Wendy’s shed deck. I opted to purchase two Devoko wicker chairs and a matching glass-topped table made of synthetic polyethylene rattan. They were delivered during the wild weather week. Wendy said it perfectly illustrated our different personalities that while we were under a tornado watch she was busily checking and preparing our interior closet refuge while I happily sat on the living room floor, laboriously screwing together the new patio furniture.

Shed Deck

Our new shed deck

Decking Out the Patio

Now that we had a cute little shed deck, the pressure was on to do something about the concrete patio. It had some big long cracks when I purchased the place in 1994, and over the years I had filled them a couple of times with urethane caulking. But over time the caulking had split, allowing the freeze-thaw cycle to exacerbate the separation and settling of the concrete slab segments on the clay-rich soil. Multiple earthquakes this past decade which were induced by wastewater injection wells hadn’t helped, either.

Wood patio pavers

So the cracks were now up to an inch wide, with grass growing up through some of them. My success with the UDECX kit led me to look into what I might cover the patio with to improve its appearance. Wood patio tiles or pavers, stapled atop interlocking plastic backing grids, were simple enough I could handle them. Having spent plenty on the UDECX kit, I budget-shopped and fixed on fir wood tiles by Yaheetech, purchasing 216 one-foot-square tiles.

They sat in their boxes in the living room while I pondered what to do about the cracks. All but one of the cracks was now far too wide for caulking, which had not held up anyway. It was time for YouTube!

I watched a bunch of different videos of folks repairing various types of cracks in sidewalks and driveways. Our patio had only one long crack that was shallow and narrow enough for concrete crack sealer to work. The rest would need actual concrete patches, but even at age 52 I had never mixed any concrete before. (I know, I know; I can’t drive a stick shift, either.) So I watched videos on that as well, finally deciding that I would buy a 60 pound bag of Quikrete Sand/Topping Mix. At Lowe’s I bought the mix, a bucket, a mixing tub, nitrile gloves, bonding adhesive, a brush, and a couple of trowels. I think one is called a mason’s trowel and the other a square trowel, but to me they were pointy and flat.

Cleaning the cracks

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I put the garden hose nozzle on its tightest stream and washed out the cracks in the patio, pulling out the old caulking. Almost all of the cracks were filled with dirt and teeming with worms which were rather upset by my rough treatment. I cleaned the cracks out as deep as I could. Sunday was rainy, but on Memorial Day I was able to mow and edge the yard and sweep the patio.

Then I used a heavy rake to mix the sand/topping mix with water in the tub. I painted a crack with the bonding adhesive in hopes it might help the new concrete bond with the old, then used the pointy trowel to fill it with concrete. I then used the flat trowel and brush to smooth out the top. One by one, all the cracks were filled.

The bricks of Meador Manor spall wherever water regularly contacts them. Much of the chimney façade has spalled away, revealing the red interiors of the bricks, with the same happening to all of the lowest bricks around the perimeter of the house. The bottom east corner of the chimney had deteriorated to where you could see the mortar down in the brick holes. So, in addition to the sand/topping mix,  I had purchased 20 pounds of mortar repair mix. I mixed that up in my bucket and applied it liberally to the lower courses of bricks on the corner of the chimney, plumping the area up. I used the pointy trowel to cut grooves in the mortar to mimic the mortar patterns of the surrounding bricks. Given the spalling surface of the chimney and how our patio bench would obscure the area, I didn’t bother trying to tint the mortar repair concrete.

Then I applied concrete crack sealant to a lone shallow crack and began laying down the wood tiles. I kept them several inches from the edges of the patio so that I would avoid damaging them when edging. It took 18 tiles to cross the length of the patio, and I steadily laid them down. It was hot work, and on one of my cool-down rests in the manor Wendy wet a dish towel and wiped off my face and scalp, draping the cool towel over my head and providing me with Gatorade.

With renewed vigor, I finished tiling the patio and shifted the furniture back in position. Waterproof pillows that had come with the rattan chairs for the shed deck were repurposed to make the older ripped patio chairs usable again. I raised the shade umbrella and admired the rejuvenated patio.

Rejuvenated patio

It was fun to create a new seating area in a side yard and spruce up our patio. There are still various home improvement projects to eventually undertake, but this summer will be packed with a 12-day vacation out west, followed by a week-long conference in Philadelphia, plus plenty of Chromebook deployments and distributions along with configuration and interconnections of many online services for students and staff in the school district. I am glad I finished up these projects before June.

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