Western Loop, Days 11-12: Kansas Folk Art

Trip Dates: June 16-18, 2019 | Photo Album

Our return home would be through Kansas. Four years earlier, we had enjoyed seeing Monument Rocks, chalk formations in the middle of nowhere (aka west central Kansas) before driving south and east to return via Dodge City and Wichita. This time we would visit some oddball attractions a few miles off I-70: the Fick Fossil Museum in Oakley and some fun and bizarre folk art venues in Lucas.

One day was just a haul east and south from Denver, CO to Colby, KS. We returned to Oscar’s Bar and Grille for lunch in Limon, surrounded by portraits of movie stars from yesteryear. The kitsch was a welcome relief for me from the monotonous flat landscape of eastern Colorado and Kansas. But Wendy loves the lack of stimulation when traveling through the great plains. She was inspired by our sojourn to paint her own reminder of the landscape.

Wendy’s Kansas landscape

We spent the night at a Sleep Inn in Colby, rising the next morning to drive a few miles to Oakley.

Buffalo Bill outside Oakley, KS

Oakley has erected an outsized statue of Buffalo Bill shooting a buffalo to commemorate the following:

In 1868 William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill”, made his living as a contract buffalo hunter feeding the crews laying track across Kansas for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.  At the same time William Comstock, who was also sometimes called “Buffalo Bill” hunted buffalo to provide meat to feed the soldiers at Fort Wallace.  To determine who would be the real “Buffalo Bill” a wager was made and a contest was staged west of Oakley in Logan County, Kansas.  The contest was to see which hunter could harvest the most buffalo in one day.  William F. Cody won the contest 69 to 46.  By the turn of the 20th Century, with his Wild West Show, “Buffalo Bill” Cody had become one of the most recognized and famous persons in the entire world.  Cody helped shape the world’s image of the American West.

A monument to slaughter…I suppose you can derive your own meanings from it.

Fick Fossil Folk Art

But we weren’t interested in Buffalo Bill; we were there to see fossil folk art at the Fick Fossil Museum at the town’s library. It had been on our radar since our visit to Monument Rocks, having noted that the museum had fossils from that area.

Back in 1964, Vi Fick looked down at the ground on her ranch near Monument Rocks and noticed 72 shark teeth, deposited millions of years earlier in what was an inland seaway in the Cretaceous period. She and her husband, Earnest, borrowed a beginner’s fossil book from their nephew, and thus began a quest. Vi and Earnest collected 11,000 fossilized sharks’ teeth on their land, along with many vertebrae, fish jaws, shells, and crinoids.

Eagle formed of shark teeth

I’ll admit I am even less interested in shark teeth than in Buffalo Bill. It is what Vi did with the teeth and other fossils that lured us to Oakley. She started combining them with melted wax, papier-mâché, oil paint, and glue to create bizarre folk art. She made eagles, American flags, the Presidential Seal, the State Seal of Kansas, and more. One of the museum curators once commented, “They didn’t have cable back then.” Ha! How delightful that this quirky art was preserved for us to enjoy.

The docent during our visit was a Mennonite lady who pointed out that the museum had a number of beautiful minerals, a sod house, a fire truck, and some large fossils. And yes, their 15-foot Xiphactinus audax is the world’s oldest known mosasaur fossil.

Xiphactinus audax

But as I gazed at the beautiful minerals in their display cases or pondered a turtle skull, my eyes inevitably wandered to linger on paintings of trees where tiny shells formed autumn leaves and to contemplate eagles adorned with feathers of shark dentin.

The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas

Our next stop a few hours deeper into central Kansas proved even more entertaining. We diverted from I-70 north on highway 232 past Wilson Lake to Lucas, a town of less than 400 which happens to be home of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

Sam Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran who went on to teach school for five years in Illinois. I can only imagine what his teaching was like given his eccentric creations later in life. He married Frances Barlow Journey, a widow of considerable means, and took up farming, moving to Kansas in 1888. In 1905 he retired and moved into Lucas, buying a quarter block. He constructed a log home, but his logs were made of postrock limestone he had quarried nearby in long narrow lengths up to twenty feet long. The stone was then laid up with dovetailed corners in the manner of a log cabin.

Dinsmoor’s Stone Log Cabin

Once he completed his “cabin home“, Sam set about, at age 66, creating intertwining concrete sculptures. He erected scaffolding and worked alone, save for an assistant who mixed cement. Over a couple of decades, supported in part by a clerical error that resulted in him receiving an extra monthly government pension check, he covered steel reinforcements with chicken wire and 113 tons of cement to form over 150 statues supported by 29 cement trees, standing up to 40 feet high.

Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden

On the west side Dinsmoor depicted his personal understanding of the Bible. I purchased a copy of the small guide book Dinsmoor published entitled Pictorial History of the Cabin Home in Garden of Eden. It is a hoot. Of his Garden of Eden sign over the grape arbor, he wrote, “I could hear so many, as they go by, sing out, ‘What is this?’ so I put this thing up. Now they can read it, stop or go on, just as they please.” I labeled a photo with some of his explanations about Adam & Eve, the angel of the tree of life and all-seeing eye, Cain & Abel, slain Abel, and fleeing Cain.

Garden of Eden explained by its builder

The north side of the property tells the story of modern civilization, featuring his hatred of trusts and their chartered rights. I enjoyed his sequential tableau of a girl after a soldier, who is after an Indian, who is after a dog, which is after a fox after a bird after a worm eating a leaf. Dinsmoor said, “This shows how one animal is after another down to the leaf.”

North side of Dinsmoor’s creation

I fashioned a photo identifying his north side sculptures and their intended meanings from his guidebook, and we got close-ups of a trust monster, how Liberty and the ballot could destroy the trusts, and how labor is crucified by grafters led by lawyers, doctors, preachers, and bankers, who “eat cake by the sweat of the other fellow’s face. The Lawyer interprets the law. The Doctor has his knife and saw ready to carve up the bones. The Preacher is saying to this poor fellow crucified, ‘Never mind your suffering here, secure home in heaven for A-l-l E-t-e-r-n-i-t-y and you’ll be all right.’ This is the stuff he is giving Labor for his cake. He knows nothing about Eternity and that he does know if he knows anything. What fools we be to sweat to give the other fellow cake. The Banker has the money, takes the interest and breaks up more people than any other class.”

Crucified labor

In the spring of 1917 the first Mrs. Dinsmoor died. Left alone while immersed in the construction of the Garden, Dinsmoor hired a young Czechoslovakian woman named Emilie Brozek as a housekeeper. When Emilie was twenty years old she married the 81-year-old Dinsmoor, and the marriage produced two children. In his guidebook, he proudly included a photo of their daughter, Emily Jane, who grew up to become a music teacher and passed in 2013, with a portion of her ashes now inside the Dinsmoor Family Mausoleum at the Garden of Eden.

Sam was interred in that large stone log cabin mausoleum in a coffin with a plate glass lid. His will directed that none but his widow, descendants, and their husbands and wives should go in to see him for less than $1.00. He promised everyone that came in to see him that if he saw them drop a dollar in the hand of the “flunky” (who oversaw the mausoleum), he would give them a smile. It looked more like a grimace to me on his decayed corpse. Before his death, he posed inside and outside his coffin in a double-exposed photograph he sold on postcards.

Dinsmoor Mausoleum

According to Jo Farb Hernández, after Sam died in 1932, Emilie allowed tours of the house and grounds until 1941, when she moved out of state to seek employment. The property was eventually sold for back taxes, and the house was subdivided into apartments. For many years the site remained unkempt and vines covered the sculptures. In 1967, the owners of a Lucas hardware company, Wayne and Louella Naegle, and a local banker, Rex Dewey, purchased the Garden of Eden and restored it. The Naegles later purchased Dewey’s share; through their efforts the site was listed in 1977 on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the Naegles sold the Garden of Eden to a small group of preservationists devoted to the site. In 2012, the Kohler Foundation sponsored an extensive preservation of the Garden of Eden.

The experience of touring the house, walking about the yard, and glimpsing Sam Dinsmoor’s corpse in his coffin was suitably weird. I was thinking we would head on to our hotel in Salina when Wendy spotted a sign about an art center in the tiny downtown a few blocks west. Boy howdy, we had no idea what was still to come.

Grassroots Art Center

The Grassroots Art Center​ “curates permanent and temporary exhibits of art work from over 22 self-taught, outsider, visionary yard environments from across the Midwest. Usually these artists are over 65 years of age when they begin to create and continue for 15-25 years until they die. They use all types of recycled materials such as metal, cardboard, aluminum pull tabs, wood, computer motherboards, electrical wire, and even chewing gum.”

Pull-tab art by Herman Divers

We came in the middle of a tour and were welcome. Favorites of mine included the pull-tab art of Herman Divers of Topeka, who constructed his models in the evenings after his day job. He’d work on his pull-tabs each evening until one broke to tell him it was time to quit for the day. He first made a bedspread and then a full-size automobile in his living room (with removable wheels to take it outside). A complete suit of clothing followed and a motorcycle constructed of 179,200 pull-tabs.

When pull-tabs became obsolete, Herman turned to covering objects with buttons and creating sculptural models of copper scrap and wire. We also saw many carvings of Kansas limestone by Inez Marshall, who was an auto mechanic, truck driver, and traveling evangelist. She carved in stone for five decades. There was also a fun game by John Woods where you touched a contact pen to nails beside various items to light up visual puns.

Post rock art

Outside they exhibit some steampunk pieces along with various limestone carvings and architectural forms from 1870-1920 carved from post rock limestone. One of my Kansas cousins crafted from the same material the “Meador stones” planted near the front doors of Meador Manor in Bartlesville as well as my parents’ home in Oklahoma City. This summer Wendy tackled the peeling paint on our stone, grinding away the old paint and renewing it.

The post rock stone at Meador Manor

Florence Deeble Rock Garden and House

Our delightful tour guide, who worked for the postal service to make ends meet, walked us over to Florence Deeble’s house. Florence grew up watching S.P. Dinsmoor constructing his Garden of Eden. In 1935, the schoolteacher began using postcards and drawings to help her craft miniature scenes of places she had visited or read about.  She created stone-inlaid bridges, columns, towers, altars, and cactus plants, using rocks brought back from her travels and her memories and imagination to craft her impressions of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and Lucas Lake, the view from her cabin at Estes Park, Colorado plus a Kansas Mount Rushmore, and more. She also crafted somewhat bizarre tributes to local historical figures. Florence labored on her garden for almost 50 years until she passed at age 99 in 1999.

Florence Deeble’s recreation of the view from her cabin in Estes Park

Mri-Pilar’s Garden of Isis

The front yard featured artistic conglomerations, and inlays adorned the porch. But when our guide led us inside the house, we were taken aback. Since 2002, artist Mri-Pilar has sheathed the walls and ceilings with silver insulation and covered the walls in bizarre and hilarious collages which often use doll parts. It looked like Barbie had mated with aliens. The living room featured a mannequin dominatrix and/or goddess who had enchained various Marvel character dolls on the floor. It is quite a knockout.


Wendy and I were entranced, slowly pacing along in wonderment at the hilarious and disturbing creations. She enjoyed seeing circuit boards, something she is quite familiar with from Chromebook repairs, repurposed into folk art. The bathtub and sink were filled with dolls. We loved it! What a wonderful find in an unexpected location.

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Dazed, we were led to nearby home where a skeletal figure was sitting on the porch and a window on the side of the house afforded a glimpse of other artistic creations. But the resident kitty bounded up to the window glass to look back at us peering in, favoring us with his attention. The reflection in my shot looks like a double exposure which will help us recall our friendly guide and the wonderful grassroots art of Lucas, Kansas.

Diving into art in Lucas, KS

It was late, but when we made our way back to the museum, the docent insisted on showing us some pieces we had missed when we arrived mid-tour even though it was past closing time. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and will be back someday so we can hopefully take in the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things and other attractions. In keeping with the artwork around a telephone pole in front of the Grassroots Art Center, Lucas really made a splash!

That stop was the perfect ending to our adventure, showing how the monotonous prairie landscape can be enlivened with quirky folk art. We spent the night in Salina and then drove home to Bartlesville, all the richer because we veered off the interstate to actually see something.

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< Western Loop, Days 9-10: Denver

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Western Loop, Days 9-10: Denver

Trip Dates: June 15-16, 2019 | Photo Album
I set aside wrapping up my posts about our June vacation for a few months because I was immersed in multiple technology deployments for the district. There is still much to do, but I finally found time to do another post!

While making reservations for the trip back in February, a friend of mine from high school and college, Sam Falkner, invited us to visit him and his wife, Ardith. They live in Louisville, a suburb of Denver near Boulder. I had connected with them a number of times in various states across the country in the 1990s, but had last seen them and their children in Louisville way back in 2001. So it was fun to adjust our trip to allow us to reconnect and introduce them to Wendy.

Trip Map, Days 9-10

Denver’s Kirkland Museum

So Wendy and I made the drive up Interstate 25 from Manitou Springs to Denver. Wendy had never been there, and I was only familiar with the Tattered Cover bookstore and the sole remaining Casa Bonita restaurant in Lakewood. Since Wendy and I both enjoy art museums, TripAdvisor led us to the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art in Denver’s Golden Triangle district.

Denver was a crowded and busy place after our long country drives, and the Denver PrideFest in nearby Civic Center Park meant there were some literally colorful characters out and about. The museum dates back to 2003 but moved into a new home in 2018.

Back in January 1929, Vance Kirkland became the Founding Director of the current School of Art at the University of Denver. He resigned in 1932 when the university refused to grant credit for art courses toward graduation. He ran the Kirkland School of Art until 1946, with classes accredited by the University of Colorado, when he returned as Director of the Art School at the University of Denver, retiring in 1969. Kirkland had leased and later purchased a brick Arts & Crafts building which became his studio. It was part of the original Kirkland Museum and was moved in 2016 so it could be incorporated into the new facility as well.

The museum is quite nice, with an international decorative arts collection of pieces from 1875 to 1990, ranging from Arts & Crafts up to postmodern. There is also a Colorado/regional collection, and a rotating Kirkland retrospective.

Decorative Arts

Wendy noted an Emerald Deldare Ware Vase from 1911 and Despondency Vase by Artus van Briggle from 1915, and I thought she might like a 1902 cake platter by Christian Neureuther which featured enameled roses. Some 1912 glassware by Wiener Werkstätte and a 1902 tea set by Kolomon Moser and Jutta Sika seemed far more modern to my untrained eye, while a huge and impressive Sparton Nocturne Radio from 1935 screamed Art Deco.

Ruba Rhombic glassware

I loved the Ruba Rombic Glassware by Reuben Haley from 1927-1932, finding both their shapes and colors fascinating. I wondered what the Ruba Rombic light bulb designed by Reuben’s son Kenneth looked like when illuminated, and was happy to find out via the internet.

A lightning stem martini glass by Libbey Glass made me smile, and a 6-panel screen from 1925 or so by Jean Dunand had clear Art Deco imagery along the top. Wendy noticed some Bizarre Ware from the 1930s by Clarice Cliff, which lived up to its billing. A jazz cocktail tray was more in keeping with the era, with the museum’s green specimen a rarity since most of them were red. It was fun to see houseware eras illustrated by the museum’s specimens.

Colorado Artists

Pines by Vaclav Vytlacil

In addition to a woodcut self-portrait by Werner Drewes, there were many nice paintings and other works by Colorado artists. Wendy was attracted to Union Station by Don Allen and Sunlit Summit by Eve Drewelowe. Night Dreams by Margaret Mullin was clearly influenced by Dali.

We both liked the bold colors and slashing style of Vaclav Vytlacil’s Pines, while Werner Drewes’  Colorado Sunset was also bold, but too sketchy for my taste. I didn’t share Wendy’s interest in the abstract Untitled (Painting Class) by Charles Bunnell. Untitled (Western Sunset) by Frances Frakes Hansen was a bit plain for me, as was the more recent Number Forty by Cassandra Lillard. A more recent work I liked better was The Passage of Time by Sushe Felix.

Circles by Susan Cooper

The large Circular Composition #118 (Change in Scale #102) by Dave Yust was part of a triptych in a bank in Greeley and certainly in keeping with much public art of that era, which have not aged well for me. Circles by Susan Cooper was a whimsical and colorful trompe l’oeil with painted boards evoking a floor lamp with a seemingly three-dimensional lampshade, a table with a bowl and ball, etc.

Wendy likes mobiles, so she enjoyed Anemotive Tower by Bob Mangold, along with his static but interesting sculpture TetrahedralhypersphereThe latter evoked memories of weird mathematical manifolds and similar forms I used to see in Scientific American in my college days. Tangentially, I’ve had a weakness for blue-and-white lithographs since I read an old edition of Relativity for the Million by Martin Gardner which was illustrated by Anthony Ravielli. So I liked Herbert Bayer’s Seven Convolutions series, in particular Wasserfallwhich I see is also in the Smithsonian.

Piano Man by Ed Dwight

Wendy noted the ceramic Cactus by Martha Daniels, which needed more than one shot to illustrate, and Jeff Wenzel’s Vessel with Fish. She also liked Bottled Birds by Donna Marecak. I liked the evocative Piano Man by Ed Dwight, with its disembodied hands.

I thought the Aspen Series Ceramics vase by Jim Doty and Olga Wolosyn was fine, but didn’t care for the mug, which appeared to have something noxious spilling over its brim.

There was an exhibit of works by University of Denver instructor Barbara Locketz, including her Moonrise collage, a fun Life with Barbara Bowl, the abstract work Brother Jake, and a beautiful dress inspired by the colorful dresses she saw in Mexico, although she consciously avoided using Mexican forms or content in her work.

Dress by Barbara Lockertz

Vance Kirkland’s Retrospective

The museum has many examples of Kirkland’s five painting periods: Designed Realism, Surrealism, Hard Edge Abstraction/Abstractions from Nature, Abstract Expressionism, and Dot Paintings.

Central City, Colorado by Vance Kirkland

From his Designed Realism period, we liked his 1921 Central City, Colorado and 1930 Ronda, Spain painting of a monastery as well as his 1931 Mountain Ruins. All of those were made with his own secret mixture of watercolor paint with denatured alcohol. His 1935 Colorado Moonlight and 1946 Self-Portrait were similarly styled, but painted with oils, and the latter was made with a mirror since the background is a reverse image of his own Foggy Landscape of 1943.

We didn’t capture any works from his middle periods. Surrealist works often bore me, as they often seem to draw upon similar ideas of melting forms and objects out of scale amidst plain planes. But I liked several of his dot paintings. He created those by painting a background in oil and then, suspended in a sling over his larger works, applied large dots of paint with a wooden dowel, leaving high bumps of contrasting color.

The sling Vance Kirkland suspended himself in to create some of his dot paintings

He liked to relate some of his late works to astronomy, such as 1980’s Explosions of Energy on a Sun 25 Billion Light Years from Earth and The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years BC in 1978, and Forces of Energy in the Open Star Cluster K 1, which he painted in his last year on Earth. A lovely ribbon dress by Nadezhda Bogdanova was inspired by one of his dot paintings.

Forces of Energy from a Sun in the Open Star Cluster K 1 by Vance Kirkland

But the real stunner from his dot paintings was 1975’s The Illusion of Floating Mysteries in Red Space. My still photograph did not capture the effect he achieved, where the darker objects appear to float in front of the red background. It was somewhat disturbing to perceive the illusion a distance from this large painting and then approach to see it dissolve into obvious blobs of oil paint.

The Illusion of Floating Mysteries in Red Space by Vance Kirkland

Casa Bonita

Casa Bonita

Having grown up in Oklahoma City with Casa Bonita as a fun treat, I had been looking forward to returning to the sole remaining Casa Bonita restaurant. It features cliff divers, and I had not been there in decades. But the return was ignominious. We had a ludicrously long wait in line to order, worsened by inconsiderate families who waited until reaching the cashier at the very end of the long wait to debate at length what to order. From there we proceeded into a crowded and noisy venue, sat near the cliff diving show with deafening narration from a sound system turned up way too high. The food, except for the sopapillas, was as mediocre as ever, and Wendy was absolutely miserable. We quickly bailed.


Thankfully our next stop was with the Falkners in Louisville, which a friendly host at the Kirkland Museum had politely indicated was pronounced like Lewisville, not Lueyville or Lou-a-ville. It was great to see Sam and Ardith again and find them doing so well. Our gracious and friendly hosts led us to The Huckleberry downtown where we enjoyed dinner with them and their son, Grant, who attends the prestigious Colorado School of Mines. Their daughter Julia had already flown the nest for New York.  In 2014 she was named a National Student Poet and was part of a White House poetry reading with First Lady Michelle Obama. She graduated from Smith and now works for Penguin Books. Both Sam and Ardith are smart cookies who have raised some very bright kids!

That evening, after Wendy and Ardith had gone to bed, Sam and I stayed up to watch Room 237, a documentary about crackpot theories on symbolism in Kubrick’s The Shining film. Sam had introduced me to Kubrick films back in our college days, and we had fun guffawing at the crazier ideas. Purely by coincidence, I had recently seen several of Rob Ager’s videos analyzing different Kubrick films, including The Shining. I agree with some of Ager’s points, while others struck me as tenditious and highly improbable. I was not surprised to later learn he was approached about being part of Room 237 and had wisely refused. I was happy to later find out that Rob actually enjoyed the documentary.

The next morning the Falkners cooked breakfast for us before we had to head back home. Wendy was impressed with how fast Ardith’s convection oven cooked some muffins, prompting her to later try out for the first time the convection feature on our ancient JennAir oven at home. And Wendy also loved the crushed ice dispensed from the door of the Falkners’ refrigerator, which would prompt us to update our kitchen to a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer with in-the-door ice and water. We had to special order a narrow unit to fit the slot in our galley kitchen, which delayed its delivery by over a month. During the wait, I noticed on Amazon’s Prime Day there was a sale on an Opal Countertop Nugget Ice Maker. Wendy loves the little ice pellets it produces.

The traffic in Denver was pretty hectic as we began our journey home. We tried to stop at the botanical gardens on our way through, but the lousy traffic and packed parking sent us on down the interstate for our two-day trip home via Kansas. We had some bizarre stops picked out for our journey through the sunflower state, which will be covered in the next and final post about our trip.

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Western Loop, Days 11-12: Kansas Folk Art >

Western Loop, Day 8: Victor

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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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