Colorado Trip


(This 957th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 26, 2009.)



Photo taken from the car window between Ouray and Silverton


I recently returned from a ten-day trip with my son through the Rocky Mountains west and south of Denver, Colorado. Part of the trip was a thousand mile meandering tour of the state from Denver to Durango by car and the rest a pleasant stay at my son's camp near La Veta. I will describe the tour here and the camp in a later column.


The Rockies certainly take some getting used to. The country is very different from here in western New York.


First, it is well up there in altitude. Denver checks in at a mile - 5280 feet - high. For comparison, the altitude of Buffalo is about 600 feet above sea level. In fact, New York has only one place higher than Denver: the top of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks at 5344 feet. And of course the Rockies go on up from there. Much of our trip followed roads at 8000 to 12000 feet. This gave me a real appreciation for the problems of people beset with emphysema. Ten steps and I found myself breathing hard.


The name Rocky perfectly describes the ground. The thin soil layer atop those rocks is meager sand, quite unlike our thick clay. Adirondack climbers can appreciate what this is like: the whole western half of Colorado is like the barren areas atop Adirondack peaks. Because of this, Rocky Mountain trees are mostly small and widely separated. Most of them are conifers but with some aspens and scrub oak, the oaks seldom growing more than six feet high. Beneath those trees the ground is generally covered with a flimsy growth of hardy grasses and weeds.


One outcome of this is that the country is remarkably open. There are very few of the lush tangles though which we have to pick our way and walking into what passes for a Colorado forest is like walking into a Buffalo city park. Except for the usual steepness of the terrain, that is.


The view flying into Denver always reminds me of how those pioneers must have felt as finally after weeks of marching across those vast plains of our nation's midsection they saw the mountains ahead. They must have felt relief from the monotony of their daily grind but at the same time serious concern at the challenges they would face among those forbidding peaks, some of them snow-topped even in early summer. When you drive Colorado highways, you realize how great those challenges really were.


Look at a highway map of Colorado and you will be surprised at how few roads there are. Colorado is almost twice the size of New York but it has only three-fourths as many highway miles. There is, of course, a reason for this. As the Colorado roads attest, you cannot construct and maintain many of them on the sides of sheer cliffs. That their highway department has been able to do so in a number of cases I find quite remarkable. There were many places where I found myself looking from my passenger seat down past a mere yard of road shoulder at a thousand foot chasm. And I noticed that my son, who years ago scared me when he clambered over the rocks at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, now drove as far left as possible along the road from Ouray to Silverton.


The scenery was, as you might expect, spectacular, but so too was the wildlife. Dave Friedrich had suggested that I check out a website called BirdingPal that lists birders willing to help visitors to a region unfamiliar to them. This led to several especially informative contacts. In one case I was told that a Lewis's Woodpecker, a species I had never seen, was to be found in the neighborhood near the corner of Brookdale and North Pleasant Avenues in Buena Vista. We drove to that intersection, got out of the car and immediately saw the bird.


Although I had been to Colorado several times before I found five other new species on this trip: black-chinned hummingbird, acorn woodpecker, Hammond's flycatcher, western bluebird and canyon towhee. The hummingbird was most startling. It was on a feeder across from a broad-tailed hummingbird, both birds displaying brightly colored throats.-- Gerry Rising