A few weeks ago, I devoted a blog to the enchanting state of Colorado. But we must tramp that way again on our current excursion through the Endless West. So I’ll offer a few more glimpses of what seems like the “Top of the World” when you’re winding among Colorado’s “14ers” ― the 53 Rocky Mountain peaks over 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) high.
One of them ― Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Range ― is said to rise exactly one foot above 14,000 feet. How that was calculated, anyway? Did somebody climb to exactly 14,000 feet and then use a ruler for the rest?
If you’re ever in those mountains, I suggest that you stand perfectly still and listen to the wind, whistling or moaning or barely whispering ― but ever moving ― through the evergreens. I once took my kids across the country, including a white-knuckle drive up a one-lane, gravel “scenic route” through a corkscrewing Colorado pass. Somehow, through the sheer terror, one of my daughters thought to ask me, “Bops [an affectionate version of “Papa” from her childhood], why does the wind blow?”
Up here, I told her, it blows just about all the time. Even on a clear, sunny day, anyone who has ever flown in a small plane above the crests knows the distress of bouncing and dropping, and bouncing again, on churning ripples of air. Some wind currents can produce downdrafts so powerful that they smash airplanes into mountainsides.
The wind howls in snowstorms and in violent thunderstorms that spring up in an instant, sending terrifying peals of thunder echoing through the canyons. Coming down off the eastern slopes of the Rockies, surges of cold air have been clocked at 180 kilometers an hour and higher. “Chinook,” or “snow-eater,” winds, they call them.
Yes, but what makes the wind blow? (Hush, I’m stalling.)
OK, here’s my best shot:
The atmosphere would be deadly calm everywhere in the world, I’m told, were it not for differences in air pressure as measured on a barometer. When there’s high pressure and pleasant weather here, there’s lower pressure with unstable conditions somewhere next to it. Air is drawn from here to there, causing it to move like, well, the wind. The greater the difference in pressure, the faster the breeze.
Once that wind gets to blowing in the mountains, it’s magnified by the funnel effect of canyons. I can testify that it swirls through the deep slit called the Royal Gorge ― our destination that scary day years ago. It’s a slice 316 meters deep and only a few meters across, gouged into pure granite by the rushing Arkansas River.
Differences in temperature can stir the air as well. So, high in the majestic Rockies, you have just the recipe for strong, almost nonstop winds.
We made it safely to and across the gorge and on to even steeper country at Wolf Creek Pass, on winding U.S. Highway 160 near that Top of the World.
Save for the wind; the babble of a cold, rushing creek somewhere below; the cry of a hawk or rustle of an unseen deer; or the grind of gears shifting as older cars and motor homes labor to negotiate the 10-kilometer-long, 7-percent incline, it’s uncommonly still there.
They call it a pass, but for much of the winter, when snow falls so hard that plows cannot push it fast enough, there’s no getting through Wolf Creek Pass at all. You see, it snows into June and starts again in September ― so much snow that they built a steel shed over part of the road to catch the avalanches. Driving under them and thinking about tons of snow cascading down, the overhangs look kind of tin-roof flimsy.
Not all the snowslides come out of nowhere. The Colorado Department of Transportation sometimes closes the road and sets off avalanches on purpose. Men take aim at the mountain with old Army howitzers or newfangled nitrogen guns. Sometimes they drop explosives from a helicopter. A fun job for action-lovers!
All the long wintertime, highway workers and their families live up there in green metal sheds, right along the road, so they can get the plows moving before too much heavy snows build up. Imagine what it must have been like when there were no trucks, no bulldozers, no helicopters, and the road through Wolf Creek Pass was little more than an Indian game trail. Mules and wagons provided transport, and then only in summertime.
If they wanted to cross the Rockies, the Indians and early “mountain men” trappers, and then pioneer white settlers, had no choice but to push through this or some other high pass. Did they know, as they paused at the summit, that they were literally standing atop the Western World, on the Continental Divide?
The Great Divide, Americans came to call this spine of the Western Hemisphere that runs from Alaska, through Canada, and all the way down to Patagonia at the tip of South America.
Look to the west, down into the San Juan National Forest, and the water from every river, every brook, every sewer pipe in pockets of civilization eventually runs to the Pacific Ocean. And to the east, down into another sea of green, the Rio Grande National Forest, every drop of water that does not evaporate finds it way into streams that head east and south, toward the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico.
Europe and Asia and Africa ― even Australia ― have continental divides as well: their own Tops of the World.
In high Colorado valleys, you’ll find colorful Old West towns like Silverton, which got its name when a miner told a friend, “We may not have gold here, but we have silver by the ton!” Scenic, narrow-gauge, steam trains bring tourists up to Silverton from Durango, hub city of southwestern Colorado.
Legendary characters lived in these high, rugged places: men like Bat Masterson, a fierce saloonkeeper whose reputation was so nasty that, it was said, he never had to draw his gun; and Calamity Jane Cannary, a cigar-smoking drifter with a heart of gold. The outlaw Butch Cassidy, made famous generations later when Paul Newman played him opposite Robert Redford in a stylized 1969 movie, made his first unauthorized bank withdrawal hereabouts, up in the town of Telluride.
And then there was Alferd Packer, the only one of six prospectors who went into the snowy San Juans one winter and came out alive. He was found guilty of murder ― and cannibalism.
This is also a region with a real mystery.
Up near the top of a red and tan cliff called Mesa Verde, there’s a wide, horizontal slit in the rock. For reasons unknown ― to defend itself, maybe, or to find shelter from the searing summer heat and winter blizzards ― a civilization called the Anasazi ― the ancient ones ― carved a secret, rocky trail down to this slit in the mountain and built a sophisticated city of stone. It had brick and stone dwellings with walls and windows, ladders and burial pits.
That was back about 1200 A.D., as the Magna Carta was being written in England, Constantinople was being sacked by Christian Crusaders, and the European trader Marco Polo was visiting Mongolia and the warrior Genghis Khan.
It would appear that the Anasazi lived comfortably. They dragged down small game and crops from the top of the mesa, and there’s no sign that enemies bothered them. In fact, there are few signs at all, for these people left no written language, no cave drawings, no carvings in the stone.
About 75 years after they constructed their elaborate city in the hillside, the Anasazi abandoned it ― just up and left! ― leaving behind only their ladders and a garbage dump.
Not even anthropologists know why. Where did they go? Probably south, where it was warmer, where they blended in with other tribes. But who knows? It’s part of the mystery of Mesa Verde.
And of the charm of “Rocky Mountain High” country, as singer John Denver called Colorado.
I’m pretty sure he was talking about the view.
Howitzer A large, high-angle, muzzle-loaded artillery piece that fires shells high into the air but for short distances. Its name, from the Dutch, first referred to catapult-like siege guns of the 1700s.
Newfangled Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning “addicted to novelty.”