To Cortez and Back

On Monday, we set off on a little two-day drive down some old familiar territory in search of a little fall color. (Leaf changing seems to be delayed this year.) 

On the way, we took a short detour into the old mining town of Ophir. I had hoped to stop for a Lemonade, but it seems the kids’ upscale shop was apparently closed for the season.

Our route took us down the San Juan Skyway to Lizard Head Pass (named for a spire that doesn’t look like the head of any lizard I’ve ever seen). 

From there, we took detoured down part of the Galloping Goose Trail. 

The graded roadway follows the route of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, once the tracks of the Galloping Geese .  Along the way, we passed an abandoned trestle…

…and an historic water tank from the bygone railroad days.

We camped for the night in the Super 8 in Cortez.  Tuesday morning, we headed for home on a route through Colorado’s canyon country.  Our first stop was a return visit to the Lowery Pueblo ruins in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a site I’ve enjoyed several times before. 

From there, we drove through the self-proclaimed Pinto Bean Capital of the World and soon turned onto a highway that would follow the Dolores River northward.

Along the way, we stopped to look down on the remains of the famous hanging flume…

…a wooden water trough clinging to the cliffs, 150+ feet above the canyon floor.

We continued on toward Gateway, motoring through a wide canyon with ruddy cliffs towering skyward on both sides of the highway. (Yes, friends, this is a pretty part of Colorado.)

Entering the Grand Valley, we made a detour to Dos Hombres (our favorite Mexican restaurant) in Clifton for burritos (excellent) and margaritas (not excellent).  Then on toward home.

Onion Creek/Thompson Canyon

Once again, it’s Photo Friday, time to post a few shots from this week’s “explore the neighborhood” photo excursion.

On Tuesday, we took our new vehicle (which my wife has now named the SOB for Subaru OutBack) on a trip to explore the Onion Creek and Thompson Canyon roads located across the border in Utah.

We started out on Onion Creek Road, which was so nicely graded that even Jeep drivers from Iowa had no trouble negotiating the route. 

The scenery was scenic…

…and 27 shallow stream crossings added a dash of fun to the first part of the journey.

A fork in the road comes about 9½ miles from its start, and following Yogi Berra’s wise advice, we took it. 

As the roadway switchbacked up the cliffs, its surface soon began to get more interesting, which allowed us to test out our SOB on rockier terrain.

Our SOB performed like a pro.

After a dozen miles of this form of fun, we reached the well graded Beaver Mesa Road. 

A left turn would have taken us to some old uranium mines, but with clouds building, shadows lengthening and our lack of a Geiger counter, we decided to turn back to Colorado and head for home.

If the amount of dirt on the car is indicative of the amount of fun we had, this was another fine day spent exploring the neighborhood.

Sego Canyon

It’s Photo Friday, time to post a few shots from this week’s “explore the neighborhood” photo excursion.

On this trip, we took Obie (our new Subaru Outback Wilderness) on a trip to explore the remains of Sego, a coal mine ghost town located across the border in Utah.

In addition to the remains of a few structures, the cliffs around the site also display a plethora of Indian rock art.

While impressive, the artworks have been excessively marred by bullet holes and graffiti.

I will normally refrain from disclosing the location of backcountry rock art and ruins, but these are so well known and locally promoted, there’s no point in hiding the location.

As always, the sign of a good trip is a dirty car at journey’s end.

On our January trip to Zion in 2022, we passed a collection of railcars parked along the Sevier River not far from Richfield, Utah. 

Called Caboose Village, it’s part of the Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort complex that also includes motel rooms, a restaurant, convenience store, cabins and a gas station.  It looked intriguing, so this year, we and longtime friends from Gridlock City booked a pair of cabooses for a three-night getaway.

We loaded bikes onto the back of Obie and headed off to Utah, with a lunch stop at Ray’s Tavern in Green River.

After burgers and a beer, we continued on to Caboose Village.  Our unit, the Northern Pacific, featured walls finished in rustic, beetle-kill pine.  There was a bathroom with shower, satellite TV, a microwave for popping popcorn and a small refrigerator for chilling the beer.

Outside was a massive deck overlooking the Sevier River with picnic tables, grills and firepits in the lawn below. 

Occasionally we’d catch rafters slowly floating downstream.

A paved, rails-to-trails bike path from Caboose Village leads downstream along the river and into Richfield.  Our plan was to bike one day and hike the second.  The rain gods (and hurricane Hillary) had other plans for us, however.

Instead of pedaling in a downpour, we drove south to Marysvale for breakfast, then backtracked up to Fremont Indian State Park where during a dry spell, we walked their paved nature trail past walls of Fremont rock art.

That night we dined on delicious $30 filet mignon steaks at the Big Rock Candy Restaurant, which we downed with an excellent, $45 bottle of 19 Crimes Australian wine.

The next morning dawned clear.  We unloaded our bikes and pedaled ten miles into the small farm town of Joseph where we devoured cooked-to-order breakfast sandwiches and burritos at a gas station-convenience store.

The rain returned on our departure day, so we were once again treated to stormy skies and wet pavement as we motored the interstate back to Colorado. 


            I’m a guy and proud of it.  I don’t wear pink, don’t eat quiche and don’t watch figure skating on TV.  For me, it’s black T-shirts, fried eggs and Broncos football.  I wear my “man card” stapled to my forehead.

            When guys like me travel, we don’t go shopping. 

            Okay, there are exceptions.  Bookstores and photo galleries lure me in faster than a poodle to table droppings.  But I don’t consider that shopping.  I’m a professional writer/photographer.  That’s research.

            I do, however, have one wallet-emptying weakness.  It began years ago on a trip to photograph Canadian polar bears.  At a gift shop, I saw a stuffed example that I thought would make a welcome present for my wife.  Out came the credit card and home came the critter.

            That first boughten bruin was soon joined by a California black bear, an Alaskan grizzly and a Chinese panda.  Then came kangaroos, kiwis, koalas, raccoons, ravens, wolves, bison, foxes, otters, owls, penguins, prairie dogs, mountain goats, moose and more.

            Being a guy, not all of my critters qualify as cute.  I’ve got a Tasmanian devil, desert javelina, jackrabbit, skunk, shark, lobster, gator, tarantula and bearded Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia doll.

            My wife’s favorites are my stuffed rattlesnakes.  She still shrieks with delight every time she encounters one coiled in her dainties drawer.

            I’m now matrimonially barred from gift shops when I travel.  Still, new critters continue to appear.

            Yes, it’s a good thing I wear my man card stapled to my forehead.

Road Trips

            Road trippers fall on a scale between two extremes. 

            At one end are travelers for whom the trip is more important than the destination.  They drive uncrowded byways, taking time to explore the communities and attractions along the way.  They snap pictures at scenic overlooks.  They read the entire text at historical markers.  They seek caffeine from independent coffee shops, and they dine at hole-in-the-wall eateries with regional fare served by waitresses older than their mothers. 

            By midafternoon they’re ready to stop and relax poolside, choosing comfortable lodging properties where duvets drape beds and towels hang over-sized and fluffy.

            My style lies at the opposite extreme.

            I’m destination oriented.  When I go on a road trip, my goal is the endpoint on the TripTik map.  The only stops I make are of the in-and-out variety – fill the tank and drain the bladder.  Food comes from gas station mini-marts.  Sure, I enjoy the scenery, but I do so with tires spinning at the legal speed limit.

            On longer journeys requiring overnight stops, I simply look for the cheapest chain motel offering a AAA discount.  I don’t care if its rooms resemble those at the Bates Motel, as long as I can shower without any Hitchcock-worthy “Psycho” dramas.

            Come dawn, it’s time to fill the tank and hit the nearest Starbucks for breakfast and a bold.  Then it’s onto the highway where I’ll wave to all you folks snapping shots from scenic overlooks and reading every last word at those historical markers.


            I’m sorry.  Driving or dragging an apartment on wheels into a pull-through parking site, tapping into water, sewer and power lines and then thinking you’re having a wilderness experience because you’ve got Animal Planet on the satellite TV is not camping.  That’s bunkering.

            For me, camping means getting far away from cement slabs and campground hosts.  It’s hitting the wilderness à la Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket and Kit Carson, albeit with a better brand of toilet paper.

            When I camp, I cram food, clothing and shelter into my backpack and traipse into the wild.  When fatigue sets in, I look for a place to pitch my tent.  A peak-view site between forest and meadow is five-diamond perfection.

            Oh sure, backpack camping has devilish drawbacks.  Bedding is a mummy bag, the bathroom is a tree and bathing water comes straight from a heart-haltingly frigid stream.

            And then there are the bugs.  Mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, midges and biting flies arrive like the Luftwaffe over LondonThe few that don’t feast on flesh plop onto dinner.

            More perilous beasts such as scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, skunks, ringtails, coyotes, bears and troops of wild Boy Scouts have been campsite neighbors.  For me, delight trumps danger.

            From camp, I watch as the setting sun ignites clouds and paints peaks with blushing hues.  Birds, frogs and crickets chirp soothing serenades while squirrels scale nearby trees.  Across the meadow, a doe browses with her fawn.

            I’ll take scenes like this any day over Animal Planet on satellite TV.

[While we now own an apartment on wheels, we prefer camping in Forest Service and State Park campgrounds.  We don't have a TV in our trailer.] 

Volunteers Help to Preserve a Uniquely Colorado Slice of Railroad History

“We have to be very aware of traffic at highway grade crossings,” explains senior motorman Larry Spencer.  “We don’t look like a train.  We don’t sound like a train.  People see this coming, and they don’t recognize it as being something on rails.” 

Instead of a smoke-belching locomotive, Spencer and fellow volunteers are driving Galloping Goose #5 – a silvery, rail-running contraption with a vintage auto front-end and a passenger-toting boxcar behind.  It’s one of seven such creations cobbled together during the Great Depression to keep the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) in business.

In the late 1880s, silver gushed from the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, and miners needed an economical means to haul ore out and supplies in.  To that end, Otto Mears, the famed Pathfinder of the San Juans, founded the Rio Grande Southern. 

Snaking between Durango and Ridgway, it serviced the mining communities of Rico, Ophir and Telluride.  The line, which opened in 1891, immediately proved profitable.

The good times ended two years later with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  Prices plummeted, mines closed, and towns emptied.  With little to carry but the mail, RGS precariously hung on.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929.  Requiring a minimum of three to four employees to operate, running coal-burning stream trains over the mountains had always been an expensive proposition.  With demand further diminishing, the cost of plying the RGS route often exceeded the revenue earned.  Needing a cheaper way to conduct business, the railroad hatched their first Galloping Goose.

RGS crews in Ridgway took a 1925 Buick, shortened its cab, extended its frame and bolted a stake-bed platform in back to carry cargo.  They installed a swiveling rail-wheel undercarriage in front and flanged drive wheels in back.  Goose #1 hit the tracks in June 1931.

Burning cheap gasoline and requiring only one employee to operate, it paid for itself in less than a month.  A second Buick-bodied Goose came two months later with five more goslings to follow, all of which employed cast-aluminum, Pierce-Arrow bodies.

To help keep motors cool, these piston-engined creations often ran with open hood panels, which flapped like wings at speed.  The vehicles appeared to waddle on the ill-maintained RGS tracks and to some listeners, the original horns sounded like a goose with gas.  The railroad originally referred to their creations as “motors,” but it didn’t take long for folks to bestow them with their fowl moniker.

The RGS made modifications to the Geese over their two-decade life.  They replaced engines, added air brakes and resprayed their creations with longer-lasting aluminum paint.  In the late ‘40s, Geese #3, #4 and #5 had their Pierce-Arrow cabs replaced with war surplus bus bodies. 

After the RGS lost its mail contract in 1950, they cut windows into the boxcars, installed seats salvaged from Denver streetcars and tried to operate as a tourist train.  Few folks came and the railroad folded in 1952.  The Geese became orphans.

A faithful reproduction of Galloping Goose #1, which had been scrapped for parts in the ‘30s, can be seen at the Ridgway Railroad Museum. 

Goose #2, which originally went to Alamosa, now nests at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.  Knott’s Berry Farm bought Goose #3 for their California amusement park. 

A restored Goose #4 sits in downtown Telluride, and Goose #5 fronts the Galloping Goose Museum in Dolores. 

Geese #6 and #7, which were originally used by scrappers to tear up the tracks, have also found a home at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

“Seven was in very sad condition when we got it and #6 was, too,” explains museum volunteer Al Blount.  “Both engines were completely shot.  We found three 1956 Chevy six-cylinder engines and got two of them to work.  One is in Goose #7 and the other in #6.”

A retired global nuclear service specialist, Blount saw his first Goose in the late ‘40s on a Dolores River fishing trip.  He didn’t get to ride in one back then, and when he started volunteering at the museum in 2002, none of their three Geese were operational.  Blount recruited volunteers and personally took on the Goose restoration project.  By 2008, they had all three running.

“Some parts we had to manufacture ourselves,” he recounts.  “You can’t go down to a Pierce-Arrow dealer and buy something.  You have to make quite a bit.”

The upholstery in Goose #7 was unrecognizably rotten, but Blount discovered a usable sample of the original hidden behind some wood.  He found a near match, and using 14½ yards of fabric, he personally sewed the replacement upholstery himself.

“It took a while to do it.  I would have to sew something at home, come down and see how it fit and then go back and make alterations.”

While the upholstery is close to the original, the volunteers had a little fun with other parts of their restoration efforts.  The dashboard of Goose #6, for example, appears to hold an aircraft air speed indicator and an altimeter.

“They’re nothing but pieces of paper glued on the dash,” laughs Blount.  “Our Geese don’t fly that high.”

For those who would like to take a jaunt in a Goose, the Colorado Rail Museum frequently offers three-lap rides in Goose #7 around their 1/3rd of a mile circuit.  For longer excursions, the Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores periodically runs Goose #5 down the scenic Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec tracks.

“Our Fall Color Special on the Cumbres & Toltec is pretty spectacular,” brags society president Lou Matis.

Like the driver of a bus, the motorman sits at the left front.  There’s a clutch pedal and accelerator on the floor, a gear shift lever to the right and a rear-view mirror overhead.  What’s missing is a steering wheel.  The Goose boasts a five-speed transmission and a 140-horsepower, GMC straight-six engine capable of pulling its eight tons up four-percent mountain grades.

“It’s geared in such a way that the top speed on this is about 45 mph, but we’re limited to 20,” explains senior motorman Larry Spencer.  “Above that we start to oscillate with the front section going one way and the back the other.”

Spencer, a retired Denver firefighter, developed a lifelong fascination of railroading, especially narrow gauge railroading.  On family vacations to Ouray, his father and brother often explored the Rio Grande Southern railroad grades, which had only been abandoned a few years.

“In 1999, a good friend of mine belonged to the Galloping Goose Historical Society and asked if I would like to come down for a ride.  I got hooked,” he recounts.  “Since then, I’ve done maintenance, learned to drive and been a motorman for about eight years now.  I’ve driven all of the existing Geese except Knott’s Berry Farm’s #3.  They wouldn’t let me because I wasn’t an employee.  I wanted them to put me on the payroll for ten minutes, but they had very strict rules.”

Running with doors open and no glass in back, passengers hear the pounding of the engine, the whine of the transmission and the clacking of wheels on rails.  Whistles blow and bells ring at every roadway crossing.  Cars stop and people stand beside the tracks, waving and taking photos.

It doesn’t look like a train.  It doesn’t sound like a train.  The surprised looks on faces suggest most probably have never seen a Goose galloping down the rails.

[Story originally appeared in the September-October 2016 issue
of Colorado Life magazine]

Head Hunting

            Our springtime trip to Utah’s canyon country began Saturday with a two-night stay at James M. Robb Colorado River State Park Fruita Section where we dewinterized the trailer and sanitized the freshwater tank.  These are jobs that I would have been done at home when we lived back in Gridlock City.  Can’t do that at our Village in Fruita.

            After taking care of a few errands on Monday morning, we hooked up the trailer and drove across the street to the Strayhorn Grill for lunch.  Then it was off on our 90-mile journey to Green River State Park in Green River, Utah.  There we had an excellent site with an excellent view of water line construction workers digging holes with their excavators.

            Tuesday, we headed off for the San Rafael Swell.  Our first objective was the Black Dragon Pictographs – rock art panels painted centuries ago by the Fremont Indians. 

The guidebook said it required a hike of somewhere between one-half and seven miles to reach.  That might be true if we were driving the family Buick.  In Tighty, our 4×4 Nissan truck, we drove right up to them.

            Our next targets were the Head of Sinbad pictographs and an old log cabin built by the Swasey boys.  The route to the Head of Sinbad (which is named for a geologic formation, not the content of the artwork) took us up a sandy track across the flats.  No problem for the Titan, but that family Buick would never make it up here and still have a muffler attached.

            Several side-tracks intersected our track and we didn’t know which to take.  We finally stopped and hiked up the road a half-mile or so in search of the artwork.  We found incredibly beautiful geology and Dutchman Arch, but no pictographs. 

Giving up, we turned back and headed up the well-signed route to Swasey’s Cabin.

            It was there that I had a Eureka moment.  I pulled out my phone and surprisingly found here in the wilderness, I had one bar of precious Verizon coverage.  I checked my Gaia app, found the location for the Sinbad pictographs, plotted out a route and we were on our way. 

The effort proved worth it.

Exposing Ourselves to Art

Keeping with the rock art theme, Wednesday would be a driving day through Nine Mile Canyon, which offers numerous rock art sites, mostly petroglyphs, scattered along its length.  The route begins near Price, about an hour’s drive northwest of Green River.

We had a hand-out map of the canyon, which had a few rock art sites marked.  Nine Mile Ranch, site of the only campground in the canyon, displayed a sign saying they had canyon guidebooks and maps available.  We stopped to check it out. 

The elderly owner handed us one, admitting that at $30, it was “kinda expensive.”  The one inch-thick, spiral-bound book had descriptions, photos, GPS coordinates interspersed with pages of local history.  We bought it.

 We didn’t need the guide to get us to the first site, and had no trouble finding it since there was a roadside sign with an arrow pointing to “First Site.”  We walked around, shooting photos of the rock-pecked artwork. 

Using the guide we had purchased, we found numerous unsigned rock art locations along with the big ones that had roadside arrows.  Moving from site to site, we shot a few million megapixels of images of this ancient art, the meaning of which can only be guessed.

Of course, this image clearly was a Fremont Indian ad for a prehistoric Hooters.

 There were also old ranches and buildings to explore along the way.

Most of the Nine Mile Canyon art was petroglyphic.  One notable exception was a deer painted on the back wall of an alcove known as Rasmussen Cave.  The site is on private land and when the owner got fed up with people entering his property, he supposedly hired some Boy Scouts to paint a “No Trespassing” warning on the back wall of the alcove.  Their spelling was about as poor as the Scouts’ choice of location.

Fortunately, the Boy Scouts never got to the Great Hunt petroglyph panel farther up the canyon.  This was perhaps the highlight of the canyon gallery.