Sunday, February 15, 2015

Heading to Ruins

When we learned that RV friends Harvey and Gayle Pagel were headed back to Texas after their Alaska trek in their truck camper, we planned to cross paths at an RV park outside Montrose, CO. Even better, RV friend Robin Kinney and her intrepid four-legged companion, Golda, were also on the road and they too planned on catching up with us and the Pagels.

roadside lunch break - with a view
The route from Chris and Robyn’s took us south through Leadville and Buena Vista, passing through the magnificent scenery of the San Isabel National Forest. Just outside of Salina, we turned west onto Highway 50 which wound up and over a couple of mountain passes before we dropped toward Montrose.
But before reaching Montrose we had to take care of a little birding business. In 2000 the endemic sage-grouse was split into two distinct species - the greater sage-grouse and the Gunnison sage-grouse. The greater sage-grouse was already on our ABA life hit list. Now there were two species to add.
The Gunnison sage-grouse range is restricted to southwestern Colorado and extreme southeastern Utah, with the largest population residing in the Gunnison Basin region. With such a restricted range and small population, it’s little wonder why the bird is on the Federal endangered species list.
Sage-grouse are notable for their elaborate courtship rituals. Each spring males congregate on leks and perform a noisy strutting display. These raucous courting rituals take place in the Spring. But it was now late summer. Birds were not being vocal and were far more wary so our chances of finding any were significantly diminished. Still, we were in the right habitat and had a few tips on where to look.

our site at Palisades Senior Park
Gunnison sage-grouse and CR-38
Our plan was to park at the Palisades Senior Park (very easy in and out), rise early the next morning, then scour CR-38, a gravel road just outside of Gunnison where there would be a higher probability of success (early morning being the key). Arriving earlier than expected at the RV park we had time in the afternoon to do a little scouting of CR-38 and wouldn’t you know it, we stumbled upon Gunnison sage-grouse!
With the early and unexpected sage-grouse find, our need to rise before O'dark-thirty the next morning evaporated. Still, we had time to kill in the morning before checking out of the park so we cruised CR-38 again. And son of a gun, if we didn't stumble upon more sage-grouse! This only served to bolster our belief in a well known birding adage - once you find a hard sought after life bird, they suddenly become easy to find.

site at Centennial RV Park and view overlooking park from hiking trail
Rain dogged us on our drive to Centennial RV which is located ten miles east of Montrose. We set up in the rain but by the next morning, the skies had cleared, presenting us with stunning views of the Gunnison National Forest and surrounding San Juan Mountains.

young Black Swift on nest in Box Cañon
Hwy 550
local brew in Silverton
Wasting no time, we headed first to Box Cañon Park in Ouray to find nesting Black Swift. Not a life bird but since we were so close to an area where finding some was so easy? Well, we couldn't resist.
Hwy 550 (the "million dollar highway") to Silverton is supposed to be a very scenic drive but not friendly to pulling a large RV. Now, without an RV in tow, we were free to drive the winding and twisty route. In Silverton we celebrated our drive at the Avalanche Brewing Company by sampling the local brew.
Back in Ouray, acting on a tip, we lunched at Buen Tiempo Mexican Restaurant. Then on our way back to Centennial RV we dropped in on the Billings Artworks in Ridgway for a chat with John Billings. Don’t know about Billings Artworks? Think Grammy Awards and about where those Grammy Awards are made.

dining with Harvey and Gayle
hiking and lunch with Robin, Harvey, and Gayle
The next morning while hiking one of Centennial RV trails overlooking the RV park, we watched Harvey and Gayle pull in, park, and setup their truck camper. Anticipating their arrival Carol had planned an early evening meal where we got caught up on more stories about their latest Alaska adventure. We'd followed their exploits on Facebook but there's nothing like hearing their stories in person. We made plans to revisit Box Cañon where we would hook up with Robin and Golda, then do a bit more exploring after another lunch at Ouray’s Buen Tiempo restaurant with Robin.

the gang at Buen Tiempo
Billings Artwork with John in his workshop
Harvey and Gayle had never been to Ridgway so quite naturally we had to introduce them to the funky little shop of Billings Artwork where John Billings informed us that we had just missed a visit by music legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. A walk-about through the Ridgway farmers market, a few Ridgway shops, and then a stop at the Dennis Weaver Memorial along the Uncompahgre River. We ended the day with happy hour, snacks and more RV adventure stories. Unfortunately Robin and Golda were by now no longer full time RVing but it hasn’t stopped them from feeding their travel bug with more adventures out west - just in a smaller form than they were used to in their motor home. Now they’re tent camping.

Carol and Golda
overlooking Ouray
Harvey and Gayle, Robin and Golda would be pulling up stakes and heading in their respective directions the next day but we beat them to the punch by heading out first. Our sights were set on Las Cruces where we would be staying with friends Frank and Paul who had completed work on their new home just in time for our visit.

our site at Ruins Road RV Park
Retracing our steps we stopped in Ridgway for breakfast at Kate’s Place. Wishing to avoid the RV unfriendly Hwy 550 we chose a more circuitous route that required an overnight stay in Aztec, New Mexico. It turned out that just up the road from Ruins Road RV Park - within walking distance - was the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Early the next morning we arrived at the monument just as it was opening.

Great Kiva - exterior and interior
Aztec Ruins. Early settlers mistakenly thought that people from the Aztec Empire in Mexico created these striking buildings. They named the site “Aztec,” a misnomer that persisted even after it became clear that the builders were not Aztecs but descendants from many Southwestern tribes. The people who actually were responsible for building Aztec (and other places throughout the Southwest) were the Anasazi. Archeologists had adopted “Anasazi” from the Navajo language, which they understood to mean "ancient ones," and then popularized its use. However, most Pueblo people today shun “Anasazi” and prefer the term “Ancestral Puebloans”.

Built and used over a 200-year period, Aztec is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies. Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.
The construction at Aztec shows a strong influence from Chaco Canyon, the site of a major Ancestral Pueblo community to the south. Aztec may have been an outlying community of Chaco, a kind of ancillary place connected to the center to distribute food and goods to the surrounding population. It may have also been a center in its own right as Chaco’s influence waned after 1100. In places, the walls at Aztec Ruins are three feet thick, making them over twice as thick as Mesa Verde cliff dwelling architecture. Masons used the “core and veneer” style, laying a thick rubble core within a finely shaped stone veneer.
In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

When Geologist Dr. John Newberry came upon Aztec in 1859, he was the first recorded visitor and found the site in a fair state of preservation. Several walls were 25 feet high in places and many rooms undisturbed. Newberry recorded much of the site but over the next 50 years, looters did a lot of damage. By the time anthropologist Lewis Morgan investigated the site in 1878, he estimated that a quarter of the Pueblo’s stones had been carted away by settlers for building material. Artifacts continued to vanish at an alarming rate until 1889 when the site passed into private ownership.
In 1916 New York’s American Museum of Natural History began sponsoring excavations directed by Earl H. Morris who spent seven seasons exploring and stabilizing the site. He began a supervised reconstruction of the Great Kiva in the 1930’s which by then, Congress had designated the site as Aztec Ruins National Monument. In 1987 it was declared a World Heritage Site.
Today the site consists of a visitor center, with self-guided tour of ruins in various states of reconstruction, including the Great Kiva in the central plaza.
Despite rampant looting, there still exists a remarkable variety of food remains, stone and wood tools, cotton and feather clothing, fiber sandals and mats, pottery, and jewelry made of turquoise, obsidian, and shell that reveal much about their use of local resources and trade with other cultures.
However, we still had a 700 plus mile journey to Las Cruces. We left Aztec behind by mid morning, and following a brief overnight at High Desert RV Park in Albuquerque (recommended by Frank and Paul), it was all I-25 until we reached Las Cruces.

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