It was a long week for The Bearded Man. Tuesday morning he was attacked by a black-billed magpie in Mesa Verde National Park, leaving him with a needle-like mark on the bridge of his nose and missing half of his left eyebrow. According to Ranger Bob (two-beer Bob to friends and colleagues) the magpie was probably trying to nest in The Bearded Man's beard, which we find amusingly ironic. Tuesday evening, while pulling up his boots, a pack of whip scorpions repeatedly stung his left big toe - allegedly while hissing "take that." Ranger Bob insists that scorpions do not hiss words while stinging. He was quick to add however, that "the Vinegaroon scorpion has been known to occasionally quote Mark Twain." (Maybe it should be 24-beer Bob.)
Both of the incidents on Tuesday were mere preludes to Thursday's mishap in Great Sand Dunes National Park. In short, here's what happened. In an attempt to sand-board down the dunes, a popular sport in the park, The Bearded Man strapped on his snow skis and pointed them downhill. An avid snow skier, he was excited to try his skills on sand. There was only one small problem...sand-boarding requires special equipment with a very slick base. As it turns out, it only took about 10 seconds and the dead stop of his skis to clearly illustrate this point. Unfortunately for The Bearded Man, he did not stop when his skis did. Nope, he kept right on going, head over heels, head over heels, scattering people as he went. His screams could be heard for several miles. After gathering himself from his yard sale, he issued the following press release: Great Sand Dunes National Park, July 12, 2016. The Bearded Man is pleased to announce the creation of a new sport. "I believe human sand bowling will explode in the next 12 months. I am pleased to have created a sport that can be played by the entire family, right here in Great Sand Dunes National Park." We love this guy, but some days we think he has the IQ of a peanut.
Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt (of Teddy T fame) created the park to preserve the iconic cliff dwellings. It is home to numerous ruins of villages and dwellings built by the Ancient Pueblo peoples, sometimes called the Anasazi, who lived in the dwellings from approximately 600 to 1300 AD. With over 4000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people at the site, it remains the only cultural park in the National Park System.
The most famous Mesa Verde dwelling is Cliff Palace. Dating back more than 700 years and thought to be once painted with bright colors, the 150 room dwelling constructed from sandstone, wooden beams and mortar, is the largest in the park. Visitors to Mesa Verde are only allowed access to Cliff Palace via a one-hour, 1/4 mile, rather strenuous ranger-guided tour. The Bearded Man, still recovering from the magpie attack, chugged his way up, over and through the 120 uneven stone steps and five 8-10 foot ladders on his 100 foot vertical climb. He was reportedly overheard saying something to the effect of "I need a soft bed, a back rub and a Boston Cooler." Editors Note: A Boston Cooler is Vernor's Ginger Ale over vanilla ice cream. It is a Detroit original and why it is called a Boston Cooler is anyone's guess. However, rumor has it that it was named after Detroit's affluent Boston Boulevard to class it up a bit. One hundred and thirty five years later The Bearded Man is asking for one in Mesa Verde. So much for classing it up.
After enjoying a 60 minute ranger presentation at the Morefield Amphitheater (topic: why we wear wool), The Bearded Man settled in for the evening at the Fair View Lodge. (As an aside, if you built a beautiful lodge, why would you say it only had a fair view? Why not the Spectacular View Lodge? Or at least the Above Average View Lodge. Wait, I just found my glasses. Uh oh, it's called Far View lodge. Never mind.) Sitting on a high shoulder of Mesa Verde the Far View Lodge offers panoramic vistas into three states (now I really feel stupid.). It's a simple lodge, quiet enough to hear the ravens fly by. No TV, no internet. As the brochure says, " Nothing fancy. Absolutely beautiful. Peaceful. A place to linger and appreciate why people lived here for seven centuries." But not a masseuse or Boston Cooler in sight. What kind of a joint is this?
Up early Wednesday and heading northeast on Route 160 to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Only one planned stop for the 3 1/2 hour drive and that's the famous Hot Springs of Pagosa, Colorado. For centuries, visitors have touted the miraculous curative powers of these ancient waters. The first published testament to the healing benefits was written in 1890 by Dr. J. L. Weaver, U.S. Army Surgeon, following his experiences with several chronically ill soldiers. Add to that the healing powers proclaimed by The Bearded Man. "After one hour of soaking in the hot springs, the razor and flange cuts on my fingers were healed, the scar on my leg from an unfortunate run-in with a kayak was gone and my eyebrow grew back. I've filled 27 Gatorade bottles with this water for the rest of my trip. That's legal isn't it?" Probably not, but you try reasoning with a man who believes hot springs can make an eyebrow grow back.
Before arriving at Great Sand Dunes National Park, The Bearded Man checked into his room at Zapata Ranch, where he was scheduled to take a two hour bison tour. Offering the opportunity to see various species of wildlife including, coyote, elk, deer, antelope, rabbits, porcupines, great horned owls, red tailed hawks, and golden eagles, he was on the bus 45 minutes before the guide. This particular tour also included a stop at the at the Old Medano Headquarters, a set of ranch buildings that date to the 1870’s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Bearded Man inquired as to whether or not "bison rides" were available, he was politely ignored.
Thursday morning, after a peaceful evening and hearty breakfast at Zapata Ranch, The Bearded Man drove a few miles down the road to Great Sand Dunes National Park. As mentioned earlier, the sand-boarding incident was just ahead, but prior to his spectacular dirt-dive, he did a little horseback riding on the Mosca Pass Trail. An accomplished horseman, The Bearded Man was asked to lead a small caravan of riders on a beautiful seven mile out and back. The trail meanders through aspen forests before opening to meadows bursting with colorful wildflowers and what is obviously the vacation home of every mosquito east of the Mississippi. The Bearded Man's assessment, "All in all a peaceful ride and within a few days I'm certain the swelling will go down. Would love to stay and share in some friendly banter, but I'm off to sand-ski." You know the rest of that story. "Look everyone I'm skiing on sand," and he eats it.
Before heading back to Zapata Ranch, The Bearded Man took in a perfect evening of sights and sounds. They say "Half the park is after dark!" and with a combination of dry air, little light pollution, and high elevation, the night sky at Great Sand Dunes is perfect for viewing thousands of stars on a clear moonless night. Add the sound of a burrowing owl and you have the making of a beautiful night. The Bearded Man would have gladly slept under the stars, if not for being awakened by a raccoon filching the Moon Pie from his pocket. However before leaving, the raccoon shared an Almond Joy he had just pilfered from Mrs. Edleman's tent.
Back at the ranch (literally), The Bearded Man had a spectacular meal of grilled salmon, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes and a green salad with walnuts, dried cherries and feta cheese, topped by a mild rosemary vinaigrette. A glass of Bullett Bourbon and our fearless traveler went to bed happy as a clam, ready for the five hour drive due north to Rocky Mountain National Park. There is an unsubstantiated rumor however, that The Bearded Man was seen in the kitchen around 3 AM, drinking milk and making waffles with a raccoon.
Route 24 winds its way north through small towns and beautiful vistas, eventually splicing into Route 91. Past Mt. Princeton, Mt. Harvard and Mt. Lincoln, named after two schools with dropouts that include Robert Frost, Bonnie Raitt, Norman Flipstone and a pretty good President, respectively. Leadville, Colorado sits directly on Route 91, a little over half way between Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountains National Park. Established during the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1859 and permanently founded in 1877, Leadville was also part of the Colorado silver boom and was know for its colorful residents as much as its mining. Doc Holliday took up residence after the shootout at the OK Corral and promptly shot an ex-policeman over a $5 bet. Holliday was tried and found innocent by reason of intimidation. Shortly thereafter, Marshall Mart Duggan came to town and whipped Leadville into shape. Historian Robert Dearment writes: "Mart Duggan was a quick-shooting, hard-drinking, brawling tough Irish man." Of course he was shot in 1889 after retiring as Marshall. Hollywood brought him back to life as Sheriff Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke in the 1950's. Dillon remained television's most popular bad-ass until 1975, when writers at CBS failed to find a plausible way to have Dillon wear a pair of bell-bottoms.
Rocky Mountains...Just the name conjures up images of majestic peaks, alpine valleys flush with bursting streams, abundant wildlife and open sky. And in no way does Rocky Mountain National Park disappoint. The Bearded Man rolled into the park late Friday after spending much of the afternoon in Leadville, searching for relatives of the lead character in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, 'The Angle of Repose.' The key word in the previous sentence is 'novel' and with that you can determine the outcome of his search. But we digress. Having spent the past several night in various lodges, The Bearded Man was ready to get back to sleeping on the land and eagerly set up camp at Glacier Basin Campground on the eastern border of the park. A few minutes of stargazing and the sharp lullaby of distant elk put our fearless leader to sleep in minutes. Somewhere the elk were put to sleep by the distant lullaby of his snoring.
With over 300 miles of trails, Rocky Mountain is a hikers dream. So after 7 cups of coffee and a Cliff bar (blueberry crunch) The Bearded Man set out for Bluebird Lake via the Wild Basin trail head. A 6 mile walk offering views of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds from Mills Lake, this hike is considered one of Rocky's finest. However, with an elevation gain of almost 2,500 feet, it's a fairly strenuous hike, unless your are the physical specimen that is The Bearded Man. Years of training and Moon Pies has prepared him for virtually any hike, regardless of distance or elevation. He is truly ripped and ready to roll. Upon returning to his campsite, he gave an impromptu talk on how the differential movements along faults in the park disrupted drainage patterns, resulting in higher mountains, waterfalls and large valley areas around Estes Valley. He was given a standing ovation by the 4 campers who were there and managed to stay awake through the entire lecture. At that precise moment the caffeine wore off and he was asleep in minutes.
The Rocky Mountain Elk or Wapiti (white rump) is one of the most majestic North American animals living today. Thousands of these beautiful, powerful, and graceful creatures roam the Valles Caldera National Preserve by the hundreds, and the best way to see them is on a ranger-led tour. The Bearded Man's tour was lead by Ranger Norm, a stout and hearty man originally from Wisconsin. Naturally, Ranger Norm recognized our boy and asked if he could lead a portion of the tour. As a long standing member of The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF.org), The Bearded Man was ready to jump in and throw out a few facts. "Calves are born spotted and scentless as camouflage from predators and spend their first few weeks hiding motionless while their mothers feed. Just like my brothers and I." Moving right along.
You would think the last thing The Bearded Man would want to do is get behind the wheel. But Rocky Mountain is a vast park and there are views that you can only access from park roads. Opened in 1920, Old Fall River Road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park offering access to the park's high country. The road follows a path traveled many years ago by Indian hunters in search of the area's plentiful game. In the minds of many park visitors, the relatively subtle old route remains a must see. With a posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour, the 11-mile-long primarily gravel old road quietly leads patient travelers from Horseshoe Park (a short distance west of the Fall River Entrance) through the park's wilderness to Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet above sea level. The journey to the alpine world at the top of Old Fall River Road is breathtaking and relaxing. The experience is one to be savored and The Bearded Man did just that. "One of the trip highlights so far. Tough to beat Taurino's chalupas, but this is right up there."
Back at camp, The Bearded man cooked up a fine dinner, complete with turkey stew, green beans and a skillet of cornbread. (Say what you will, the man has skills.) After scullery, he strolled down to the Glacier Basin Amphitheater for a presentation entitled 'The Bear Naked Truth'. Here is the overview: "Bears Everywhere! Roaming through the park, black bears thrive in harsh environments. With a little help from their friends, black bears can continue to leave their paw prints across the landscape for future generations." Naturally, The Bearded Man did not read the overview and came prepared to discuss something other than bears. Which explains his initial remark during the opening Q&A session. "Personally, I don't have an issue with camp nudity." Silence ensued. On his way back to camp he was approached by Paulette (dressed in her finest moo-moo) who softly said "neither do I" and kept on walking. The Bearded Man slept in his van.
This is how you get from Rocky Mountain National Park to The Bearded Man's next stop, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Route 34 to Route 40 to Route 131 to Route 133. A little shy of five hours on blue highways, skirting the Arapaho and White River National Forests, Capital Peak and Needle Rock. His one stop along the way is in Gypsum, Colorado, to take in a bit of the Gypsum Classic Car Show and grab lunch at Ekahi Grill, "A taste of Hawaii in the mountains!" The Bearded Man should arrive at Black Canyon with a belly full of Kauai chicken (#11 on the menu board) and hopefully not driving a 1963 El Camino.