Four Corners, Part 4 (Native Americans)

On August 13, 2017 · Comments Off on Four Corners, Part 4 (Native Americans)

It would be difficult for anyone to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado without encountering signs of its original inhabitants. Archaeological evidence stretched back for millennia. Ruins defined an era of large, complex settlements beginning more than a thousand years ago. Their descendants still lived in the area, preserving a rich tradition and culture. The clash between archaic and modern bewildered me at times. It differed so completely from my experience on the Atlantic coast where a building from the Seventeenth Century would be considered "ancient."

Our journey went backwards in time, from the current day to successively older epochs. I hadn’t planned it that way. It simply unfolded as we drove along.

Taos Pueblo


Taos Pueblo

People still lived in Taos Pueblo, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. I didn’t see the Pueblo during my visit to Taos in 2013 so I made a special point to get there this time around. My older son accompanied me. My wife and younger son decided to take a rest day back at Angel Fire, at a higher altitude with lower temperatures. The desert climate of Taos climbed into the mid 90’s that day (35° Celsius). Our first contribution to the pueblo economy got us two bottles of cold water.

Taos Pueblo (map) stood distinctly apart from the nearby town of the same name. Native Americans speaking a variant of Tiwa, a Tanoan language, first settled there about a thousand years ago. They built multistory adobe structures, from mud and straw supported by log beams, on both sides of a gently flowing stream at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The called themselves the Red Willow people and they prospered in a large farming community. The Coronado expedition arrived there in 1540, beginning a long era of Spanish contact. Pueblo structures that Coronado would have recognized appeared much the same to modern visitors. Only the addition of a church sometime around 1620 changed the landscape inside its walls dramatically.

Somehow, against all odds, descendants of the original inhabitants still occupied and owned Taos Pueblo. Little shops selling traditional crafts occupied many of the ground floor rooms today. However, no electricity or plumbing served these ancient places. I’d heard that a few people still lived within the pueblo although most occupied modern homes just beyond its gates. Its buildings also needed constant maintenance to keep their earthen walls from washing back into the desert during summer storms. The whole experience seemed otherworldly. No wonder it made the UNESCO World Heritage site list.


Pecos National Historical Park


Pecos National Historical Park

The residents of Pecos Pueblo (map) didn’t fare as well. Their settlement started around the same time as Taos, about a thousand years ago, and it prospered for centuries. Perhaps two thousand people filled its towering adobe structures during its apex. They chose their location well. This high ground separated the Rio Grande valley from the Great Plains. That allowed the people of Pecos, known as the Cicuique, to become middlemen in a vast trading network. They controlled contact between the Pueblo tribes to which they belonged, and various migratory tribes of the plains. This brought wealth, prosperity and power to the village. The Coronado expedition encountered Pecos at its peak, at a time when it dominated the region.

However, the situation slowly changed over the next couple of centuries. Spain eventually consolidated its governance in nearby Santa Fe, about eighteen miles (30 kilometres) to the northwest. Previously unknown European diseases such as smallpox ravaged the population. Great Plains tribes like the Comanche raided and harassed its inhabitants. Only a handful of people remained by 1838 when they finally abandoned their ancestral home and moved to Jemez Pueblo.

Pecos Pueblo became a ghost town, crumbling slowly back into the mesa. The largest remaining structure actually reflected Spanish rule, a church dating back to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Only the bare outlines of residences and ceremonial kivas remained elsewhere throughout the site, accompanied by a couple of modern reconstructions hinting at its former glory. The few surviving ruins of Pecos Pueblo became a national park property in the 1960’s.

I loved this photo by the way — perhaps my favorite from the trip.


Bandelier National Monument


Bandelier National Monument

Another pueblo rose during that same era near the present city of Los Alamos. Unlike Taos and Pecos, the people at Bandelier (map) did not build their village upon an open plain. Instead they used local geology to their advantage. Sheer cliff walls defined nearby mesas, with layers of soft volcanic stone called tuff. People could dig into the tuff to create rooms. They could also carve holes that anchored logs to attach external buildings. Thus, the pueblo grew in three directions, out from the cliff, into the cliff, and up.

However, the ancestral Pueblo residents left Bandelier before Europeans arrived. Early Spanish explorers found only ruins, long abandoned. Oral tradition and archaeological evidence pointed towards overpopulation and an extended drought. The people who lived there likely migrated from their Frijoles Creek homeland to more successful pueblos in the Rio Grande valley.


Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park

Pueblos in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde also rose and fell before Spanish explorers arrived. I’ve written about Chaco and Mesa Verde previously based upon my visits there many years ago, so I won’t repeat their stories again. However, for the sake of completeness, I offer a couple of pictures I took during my recent trip.


Chaco Culture

This was a nice overlook of Pueblo Bonito (map) at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.


Mesa Verde

And this was part of the scenery at Mesa Verde’s Sun Point View (map)


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Four Corners, Part 1 (Orientation)

On August 3, 2017 · 12 Comments

Our family visits a different part of the United States every summer. This year we decided to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We made it as far west as the Four Corners monument although we we spent only a few moments in Utah and Arizona. We toured through parts of Utah back in 2011. Arizona will need to wait for another day.



The embedded map showed our approximate route. We began our adventure at the Denver International Airport where we landed and rented a car. From there we drove down to Angel Fire, a ski resort town in New Mexico where I have family. That offered a nice base for a return trip to Taos, a place I last visited in 2013 during the Dust Bowl adventure. The next swing included a series of National Park properties: Pecos National Historical Park; Bandelier National Monument; Chaco Culture National Historical Park; and Mesa Verde National Park. We also spent time in towns along the way including Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Durango. Then we drove back to Denver.

We packed a lot of activities into those ten days. From mountains to desert, from cold to warm, from historic to modern, we tried a little of just about everything. I didn’t capture many new counties on this trip though, for a couple of reasons. First, the immense size of counties out there made it difficult, although each capture covered a lot of territory on the map too. Second, I’d been to several of the places before. This was more about visiting friends and family, and showing the kids places I loved seeing during an epic road trip I took a quarter century earlier. Even so, I still found time for a few county captures, some under interesting circumstances


Pecos Subterfuge


Pecos National Historical Park

The path from Angel Fire to Santa Fe, New Mexico would ordinarily go through Taos and enter Santa Fe from the north. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to capture a couple of new counties by traveling along the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then looping back to Santa Fe from the south. That inefficient route led directly past Pecos National Historical Park. I used the park as my excuse. We enjoyed Pecos — and I’ll talk about that some more in a future article — although the actual reason focused squarely on the new counties, Mora and San Miguel.

The park fell within San Miguel and the photograph above gave a nice overview of its terrain. Each afternoon the "monsoon" rains of summer covered the plains. Mora County looked similar, maybe a little greener, with an economy seemingly based on ranching. I didn’t see a lot of wealth in sparsely-populated Mora. At one point we drove through its county seat, also called Mora, and the speed limit dropped down to 15 miles per hour (24 kph). You better believe I didn’t go a single mile per hour over that limit. It seemed like one of those places where speeding tickets probably funded the few public services that existed out there. I admit I had no evidence of that and perhaps I’ve made an unfair assessment. I didn’t risk it either.


Let’s Make Sure at Los Alamos


Bradbury Science Museum

I’d marked New Mexico’s smallest county, Los Alamos, as one I’d visited previously. Los Alamos made my tally many years ago during that previously-referenced epic road trip. However, I’ve since doubted that I actually captured it. No major roads between popular destinations cut through there. That was by design. Los Alamos served as the secret hideaway for scientists designing atomic bombs during World War 2. Nobody was supposed to travel to Los Alamos without a specific reason to be there. The county, established formally in 1949, covered barely a hundred square miles (250 square km). I simply couldn’t see how I’d crossed its borders on that earlier trip. Why had I concluded otherwise so many years ago? This time I made sure to record my visit photographically for the sake of accuracy and completeness. It didn’t "count" as a new capture even if that might have actually been the case.


Giving William McKinley His Due


Chaco Culture

My exceedingly brief visit to McKinley County, New Mexico probably set a record for my most absurd county capture ever. It also became another exceedingly rare example of a "walk only" county like my recent visit to Cass County, Michigan. McKinley happened during my trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Nothing was easy about getting to Chaco Canyon. The National Park Service recommended the northern route that involved about 16 miles of mostly decent dirt and gravel roads. I took that route. Visitors could also approach from the south with about 20 miles of "at your own risk" dirt roads. The southern route, if I’d been more adventurous, would have brought me through McKinley County.

However, I noticed that I could head south from the Visitors Center, go a couple of miles along the southern dirt path, and reach McKinley. I decided to touch McKenly at its closest point, where the road ran directly along the county line. I simply needed to stop the car and touch a point of land just beyond the roadside (map). A barbed wire fence ran along there too, so I put my foot between the strands of wire. Then I gently patted the ground with my foot. County captured.


Colorado Backcountry


Durango, Colorado

Actually I captured most of my new counties on a single day. We drove from Durango to Denver using the default route. We had some friends to visit in Denver so I didn’t want to go out of the way. Even so, that brought me through Archuleta, Mineral, Rio Grande, Saguache, Chaffee, and Park Counties for the first time. Driving through Saguache offered particularly remarkable scenery. Much of the county sat in humongous bowl surrounded by mountains on all sides. Amazingly flat, filled with fertile fields, and yet the wide plain sat at an elevation of something like 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). Park County also offered a little entertainment, if only as the setting of the South Park cartoon. That included a drive through Fairplay, the inspiration for the quiet mountain town where Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman lived.

Nine (possibly ten) new county captures didn’t seem like a lot from a numerical perspective. Nonetheless, we covered quite a bit of territory and had a great time doing it.


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Longest Distance in an Hour

On October 16, 2012 · 8 Comments

It’s the easy questions that seem to be the most difficult to answer sometimes. The search engine query captured in my web logs appeared to be a simple affair. "What is the longest distance someone can drive in an hour." I figured the answer would probably be the portions of the Autobahn in Germany that don’t have a set speed limit (albeit 130 kilometres per hour / 81 miles per hour is recommended) and the new section of Texas highway that has been fixed at 85 mph (137 kph).

I established some ground rules. First, I’d stick with measurements as applied by specific nations. Thus, for countries that post their speed limits in miles per hour — primarily the United States — I’ll specify miles per hour first with kilometers per hour in parentheses. I’d flip the order for other nations. Second, I’d keep it to legally-recognized speeds. Third, I’d use Google Maps as my arbitrator. Whatever Google Maps said could be covered in an hour was what mattered for this investigation.

Here’s the interesting thing. The distances Google said could be covered in an hour were generally less than the posted speed limits, and sometimes considerably less. Also, I checked some of the exact same segments a second time and they would change slightly. Don’t blame me if what I stated below differs from what you see on the map when you open it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps Google changes its calculations on-the-fly depending upon local conditions.

I’ll start with Texas first, not Germany. The reasons will become obvious soon enough.



View Larger Map

I distinctly remember reading about a spot in Texas with an 85 mph (137 kph) speed limit. Unfortunately it appears I jumped the gun by a few weeks. The New York Times reported that Texas is Reclaiming the Title of Fastest in the Land. Unfortunately that 41 mile (66 km) segment between Austin and San Antonio won’t open until November 2012. This could become the one-hour distance champion depending on how traffic flows on either end of that stretch. I’ll try to check it in a few weeks and provide an update.

Thus out of necessity I shifted to other parts of Texas that currently have 80 mph (129 kph) speed limits. Those are practically on a par with recommended speed limits for unrestricted sections of the Autobahn. The best Texan example I discovered was a section of Interstate 20 in the vicinity of Pecos. Google Maps estimated that 72.4 miles (116.5 km) could be covered in one hour.

See what I mean? The speed limit is 80 mph and Google estimates that a driver can be expected to cover only 72.4 miles during that interval. Maybe that calculation would make sense for a long journey, however I’m pretty sure I could put the car on cruise control at 80 mph in this empty quadrant and drive for a single hour without stopping for a meal or a restroom break. I could probably get away with more than that, and likely would if I ever attempted this segment in the physical world. However, let’s remember the ground rule about obeying the law for this exercise.

Nonetheless, I relied upon Google as the decision-maker with the assumption that whatever algorithm they developed would level the playing field to account for "real world" conditions as opposed to theoretical maximums. I guess I can see their reasoning. Certainly there have been plenty of times when I’ve gotten stuck in heavy, slow-moving traffic where the posted speed limit taunting me like a cruel joke.

Portions of Interstate 10 in West Texas also feature 80 mph speed limits. I calculated a 72.3 mile (116 km) distance over an hour west of Fort Stockton (map) and 71.6 miles (115 km) east of Fort Stockton (map).

Utah has a 20-mile segment allowing an 80 mph speed on Interstate 15. The best I could do there was a theoretical 68.4 miles (110 km) over the hour-long period (map).



View Larger Map

Germany was a huge disappointment. Sections of the Autobahn may not have speed limits per se, however try arguing that with Google Maps. It won’t work. I found a nice resource detailing unrestricted sections of the Autobahn (legend) and attempted various map segments. The best I could produce was a portion of A20 and a portion of A24 that both returned values of 109 kilometres (68 mi) for the fictional hour (above and map).



View Larger Map

Poland and Bulgaria both have 140 kmh (87 mph) maximum speed limits. My attempts to find decent results in Poland were a bust. Bulgaria was much better and produced a value esentually equivalent to Texas. The best result was 115 km (71.5 mi) over that imaginary hour.

Finally I turned to Australia, somehow figuring that areas in the Northern Territory zoned for 130 kmh (81 mph) over wide open spaces would generate excellent results. They did not, or I didn’t find them, or something. Google Maps didn’t like the Northern Territory at all. 81 kilometers (50 mi) for an hour on the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere (map)? Really?

Let me know if you find anything better than the Texas and Bulgaria results.


Totally Unrelated

Regular reader "Josh" thought the 12MC audience might enjoy a website with 9,308 photographs of North Dakota. I did, and I found the premise even more interesting. The photographer visited every single dot on the map of North Dakota and took at least one photograph. Wow!

Thanks Josh!

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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