Wetmore and Westcliffe, Colorado – A Mother’s Day trip
My journey this past weekend took me to a new part of Colorado. My son has recently come (temporarily) to Colorado. He is staying in the tiny foothills town of Wetmore, a little less than 4 hours south of Loveland, with his girlfriend and her parents. Her parents lost their home to a fall wildfire last October, and are now in the process of rebuilding. They invited me to come down for the Mother’s Day weekend, and since it had been much too long since I had seen my son (and I wanted to meet his new girlfriend), I was eager to see him finally away from Los Angeles, where he had lived for the past 6 ½ years. And so I finally tore myself away from the studio and the roadrunner sculpture I have been working away on, loaded the car with food, clothes, and working camera equipment, and headed out!
I can’t say that I saw a tremendous amount of wildlife (either bird or mammal) on this trip, but spring in the mountains is always beautiful. Wetmore is a tiny hamlet about 30 miles due west of Pueblo. Naturally, the hardest part of a trip south from Loveland (where I live), is having to pass through Denver and Colorado Springs on I-25, which is at best, always challenging, and at the wrong times of day, downright miserable. Luckily, I left the studio at 1:15, and managed to avoid the miserable part! Once you leave the freeway behind at Colorado Springs, heading south on Hwy 115, it is good two-lane highway and pleasant driving. The landscape reminds me of northern New Mexico- a land of junipers and foothills, where you expect to see golden eagles nesting on rocky cliffs.
The closest town of size to Wetmore is Florence, Colorado, which is reported to be the antique capital of Colorado. And literally, it appears that every other shop in town is an antique store! I went through Florence several times during my stay, but we had such a fun-filled family weekend that I had no chance to go there and poke around. Being the middle of May, the trees are finally leafing out, birds are singing, prairie dogs are scurrying, and the world seems to be holding its breath in preparation for the bounty of summer. The “town” of Wetmore is pretty much a crossroad of highways. The little restaurant there is now only open on Friday and Saturday nights for dinner, which worked out fine as I arrived on Friday! We dined at the restaurant (steak and crab) and got caught up on how the move from California went, plus what kinds of activities they had been doing in the rebuilding process. I asked what they had planned for Saturday, and they just smiled and giggled to each other, refusing to tell.
A little history of the area:
Wetmore lies on Hwy 96 (called the “Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway”), nestled in the foothills of the Wet Mountains – so named because this part of Colorado seems to get more rain than most of our semi-arid state, ranchers discovered it to have good grass for grazing. As the grass is just starting to green up, that was a little hard to tell at this time of year.
Looking straight north from Wetmore, Pikes Peak (topping out at 14,110 feet) dominates the distant mountain landscape, surrounded by other 9,000 to 10,000 foot mountains.
Hardscrabble Creek runs through the area, and as the name says, this was a difficult area to make a go of it.
Originally, the Comanche Indians dominated the southern Great Plains, controlling all territory south of the Arkansas River for most of the 1700’s. Spain (and then Mexico) fought for the control of the area, finally defeating the Comanches in 1779, and beginning the opening of trade and settlement of this area. Fur trappers, hide hunters, and traders of the 1830’s and 40’s were encouraged to marry Native American and Hispanic women, to help promote cross-cultural trade and stability. But living conditions here were hard. Pioneers, though having concerns about Comanche, Ute, and Arapaho Indians, were more likely to have problems from starvation and bandits. Some bison ranching was tried, with cows used to lure in bison calves (as they were easier to handle than adult bison), but this angered the Indians, who would kill the calves and sometimes the homesteaders. Whiskey smuggling was also another industry for this area.
Eventually, mining came to the area in 1863, and several million dollars of gold and silver were taken out, but the ore was low grade, and the boom did not last long. By the 1870’s, miners had moved on to richer areas, helping establish the towns of Silver Cliff and Westcliffe, approx. 25 miles farther west at the base of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. Too far from the well traveled Sante Fe Trail, most tiny settlements of this area came and vanished. John C. Fremont came through this territory in 1848, while searching for a route through the mountains for the Central Railroad, and found the area almost deserted.
On Saturday morning, the family gathered (My son, me, his girlfriend, and her mother, father, and brother), and we traveled to Cañon City (pronounced “Canyon”), for the start of a rail trip up through the Royal Gorge. The railroad serves a very nice Mother’s Day brunch, complete with salad, main course, and deserts, in the observation cars. Passengers are encouraged to take advantage of the interspersed open flatbed cars for photography and scenery. As the train travels slowly up through the gorge, passengers learn historical tidbits about the engineering of a rail bed in a deep and narrow canyon, containing a river (at the canyon’s deepest, 1,250 ft deep with vertical walls, and 30 feet wide at the narrowest point, requiring a suspension railroad bed built out over the river! No photo of that bridge though because when they stop there, you can’t really tell that you are on it because of the solid railings.), and about the fight between two railroads to have the rights to lay track(first fought with vandalism, then physical violence, then guns, the dispute was finally decided after a two year court battle).
An Aside: Why the rights were important:
The object of the fight was to have the right to transport the goods to, and ore from, the silver mines at Leadville. Originally discovered for its placer gold in 1860 (which did not pan out that well), Leadville became huge with the discovery of silver-lead deposits in 1876. As the silver mines finally played out, it was also known for lead, zinc, and copper. At 10, 152 ft elevation, Leadville sits near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.
From Boom to Bust: By 1880, Leadville was the second most populous city in Colorado, and had a population of over 40,000! (As of 2005, its population stands 2,688.) Today, Leadville can be reached by several highways off I-70. A far cry from the world of 1860!
Ok, back to my trip….
On Saturday afternoon, my son’s girlfriend’s dad took me for a motorcycle ride on his “Can Am” (which is a 3-wheel motorcycle). Given that I have not been on a “bike” in at least 30 years, I appreciated the stability of the three wheels. (This area is a nice place for riding motorcycles, having rolling hills and mountain highways – and from what I hear, quite a few riders already know this!) The temperature was in the upper 70’s, the sun was shining, the helmets had music, and it was a very nice reintroduction to being on a motorcycle. Arriving back at their place, he gave me the grand tour of the property, reminding me once again how to drive a 4-wheeler, and showing me all the projects the kids have been helping with.
Sunday (actual “Mother’s Day”), the “kids” put on a brunch for the family that was amazing! Nice to see that my son definitely remembers his way around a kitchen, taking the lead at turning out a fantastic variety of breakfast and desert foods. Then, lulled into stupefaction, we sat around watching a movie and digesting.
Her Mom and I took off in a jazzy bright red convertible truck, and went over the mountain to see Westcliffe, a place a friend of mine told me I really should see while I was there! VERY glad I did!
It was a truly beautiful and very classic view of the Rocky Mountains, the Sangre De Cristo range, snow covered triangular peaks, rising up abruptly from a lovely wide valley floor, with the shadows from the clouds drifting across it.
And, made all the more picturesque by the buggies of the local Amish population traveling down the narrow two lane roads.
As far as wildlife during the drive, I saw a lot of mule deer, and may have seen a bighorn sheep far up a draw, but we went by so fast, I was not sure. I did see a wild turkey, but again, so far away that photos weren’t going to be good. Some doves, a western kingbird, and meadowlarks far out in the grasses…. Mostly the ride ended up being nice for the outstanding scenery and the company, which is also certainly ok!
Beautiful doesn’t even seem a big enough word.
Upon our return at the end of the day, my son was learning the basics of riding a dirtbike motorcycle. And as far as I know, that was a first for him. (Oh my, what have they started??)
Monday morning, the kids went back to work, and I putzed along back toward Colorado Springs, enjoying the sunshine, and stopping periodically to photograph meadowlarks and cactus, and to listen to a mockingbird singing his heart out. And this time, the trip through Colorado Springs and Denver was not bad. I arrived back at the studio in mid-afternoon, did a little reading from a book that my daughter had gotten for me for Mother’s Day, called “Illumination in the Flatwoods”- a season living among the Wild Turkey, by Joe Hutto. (It is the book that went along with the PBS documentary “My Life as a Turkey”, which I had seen previously.) It has been a great read so far. And then, I went back to work on my roadrunners!
I hope all you mothers out there had as happy a Mother’s Day as I did!
PS- A Word to the Wise…. I know I left this trauma out of my tale, but did not seem worth elaborating on…. Still think I should pass on this word of warning to those out there who don’t know this (and hopefully this is not special to my Subaru), but, if your air conditioner fails to come on, take a look at your temperature gauge! In my car, my air conditioner has a sensor in the radiator, and if the fluid is too low, the air conditioner won’t come on! This is how I discovered that my radiator cap had come off half way on my trip. The sun came out, and I kept trying to figure out why the AC suddenly wouldn’t run, especially since the car had been at the shop just the day before. Then, I happened to notice that my temperature gauge was all the way up past the red zone!! Thank goodness I saw it before it did real damage to my engine! I pulled over at the next exit, and a look over from the guy at Advanced Auto and a gallon and a half of coolant later, and I was once again on my way! AND the air conditioner was once again functional! Scary, but ok in the end, and no further problems on the trip.