Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rural Nebraska - The Vultures are Circling

The old homesite is overgrown by weeds and sunflowers

The summer heat was oppressive as we pulled into the old homesite. It had been 25 years since anyone set foot in the place. Overgrown by weeds and giant sunflowers, the decrepit structure stood defiantly. Several turkey vultures were flushed from their roost and managed to catch an updraft in the still air. It was a bad omen. When these birds are circling, death is imminent. Rural Nebraska is dying.

Last weekend we departed from Colorado to attend a family reunion in Southwestern Nebraska. The early pioneers of my family homesteaded on the rolling prairie near McCook and worked the fertile land in the Republican River Valley. My childhood summers were spent at "The Farm" exploring the hills and tree rows in a quest for adventure.

We hadn't been back in a long time so I was excited to see the many relatives who still live in the area. I also wanted to revisit the old stomping grounds and get some photographs. Everything seemed smaller and quieter. A devastating drought has turned the hills brown and dried up the swimming ponds. Things were not the way I had remembered.

The region has been losing people for 70 years. The younger generation is not taking over the farms and businesses are not surviving. The factories are abandoned because they're too remote and not profitable. The stores are gone because the customers have left and huge discount chains have moved in. There is very little to keep the small towns going as they're struggling to stay alive. Rural Nebraska now contains several of the nation's poorest counties.

The rise of agribusiness has created federally subsidized mega-operations that have destroyed the traditional family farm. A strategically placed Wal-Mart can be devastating to the merchants trying to eke out a living in one of the smaller, rural counties. If the current trend continues, Nebraska will lose even more farms, stores and schools.

Most of the remaining jobs are dependent on farming but economists believe that must change in order for the struggling communities to survive. Stores that are successful sell the essentials such as gas, quick-stop groceries and coffee. Development experts think the future of rural America depends on small companies making unique products, artisans selling local crafts and historical attractions luring curious tourists.

It was a great time to be a kid. We wandered through the pastures, learned to ride horses and caught toads by the moonlight. Often we'd go into Lebanon and shoot hoops or grab a bottle of pop. It was a thriving community back then. Today, this part of the country is desperate for some good luck. I'm praying for a comeback but from what I observed, the vultures are circling.

We learned to ride horses at the farm

The area is dependent on farming

Buildings are abandoned

The younger generation is not taking over the farms

Rural Nebraska is dying

We used to play hoops

Main street Lebanon is a ghost town

I'm praying for a comeback

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Adventurous Spirit of Animas Forks, Colorado

Animas Forks

“Wherever nature has planted her richest treasures, neither heights or depths can withhold them from the grasp of man.” ~ The Omaha Commercial Record, September 1883

In February of 1884 a 23 day blizzard buried the small mining town of Animas Forks, Colorado under 25 feet of snow. Most of the residents had migrated down to Silverton for the winter. The handful of flinty miners who chose to stay did what miners do. They dug. The men created a network of tunnels that connected the buildings and they spent the entire month of March in a cold, underground city.

At 11,200 feet, Animas Forks is a stunning landscape but it’s downright inhospitable. The rush for gold lured prospectors to seek their fortune in the rugged San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. The hazardous topography was not a discouragement if they could just strike it rich in the end. After stories about the valuable discoveries spread, “greenhorns” poured into the region. Once claims were filed, merchants showed up to supply food, clothing and equipment.

Speculators, lawyers, hotel owners, grocers and saloonkeepers soon followed. It wasn’t long before small mining settlements saturated the district. By 1883, Animas Forks was a bustling community of 450 souls. Nearby mines produced galena and a silver-bearing gray copper. The town had its own post office and published a newspaper, The Animas Forks Pioneer.

After twenty productive years, Animas Forks began to decline when silver prices plummeted. The cost to operate in the mountains far exceeded the money being made. A resurgence occurred in 1904 when the massive Gold Prince Mill was constructed to process minerals from the Gold Prince Mine. An ingenious, multi-directional, aerial tram was designed to get ore from the mountain to the plant. In order to ship product to the smelters, the Silverton Northern Railroad was extended along a seven percent grade all the way to Animas Forks.

The noisy mill crushed rock for six good years before being closed down and disassembled. Animas Forks was a ghost town by the 1920s. While wandering through the dilapidated structures today, one can only imagine what life must have been like here. If you ever get the chance to explore Animas Forks, you won't find silver or gold but it's quite possible that you'll discover the same adventurous spirit our forefathers had.

Animas Forks is a stunning landscape

The rugged terrain was not a discouragement

Animas Forks was a bustling community of 450

Animas Forks has an adventurous spirit

Mines produced galena and silver-bearing copper

The Columbus Mill

A ghost town by 1920

One can only imagine what life was like

Animas Forks enjoyed 20 productive years

Animas Forks jail was built using 2x6 boards laid flat

The Animas River is clear and cold

The tiered foundation of the Gold Prince Mill

The Gustavson House was built in 1907

The Duncan House with its impressive bay window was built in 1879

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Magnificent Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado

The Mighty Flatirons

Five angular rock formations form a distinctive backdrop for the quirky town of Boulder. Originally called the Chautauqua Slabs or the Crags, the Flatirons were ultimately named by pioneer women who thought the uplifted peaks resembled the flat, metal irons used to press their clothes. The rugged beauty attracts hikers and photographers while geologists take great interest in the conglomerate sandstone. They say the arrangement was forced upwards and tilted about 45 million years ago. It’s a Mecca for rock climbers as some of the world’s best have refined their skills on the rocky outcrops.

Upon entering the park, a lush green meadow was dotted with pink and yellow wildflowers. Backlit by the evening sun, the peaks were a dark violet. We approached the First Flatiron via the steep Chautauqua Trail and began climbing the east face. The hard rock was warm and sticky which provided excellent traction. Curious chipmunks watched as we strained to reach the natural ledges and handholds. It took tremendous effort to get part way up but as the darkness descended so did we.

I revisited the place a couple of days later. This time the Flatirons appeared golden yellow in the morning light. I followed the Bluebell Road Trail because it parallels the mountain range and I was able to study the shark’s tooth profile from a better perspective. As for wildlife, I watched a mule deer bound across the grassy hillside and noisy magpies dodged my camera everytime I aimed it at them. I ascended into the forest, navigated a maze of shady loops and returned to the open meadow.

When I got back to the busy trailhead, a couple from Wisconsin was asking a ranger for instructions on how to get to the Royal Arch. She pointed them in the right direction and offered some good advice for hiking in the Rocky Mountains; pace yourself and take plenty of water.

Wildflowers dotted the meadow

The peaks have been uplifted and tilted

We climbed part way up the First Flatiron

Noisy magpies dodged my camera

There are five angular rock formations

It's a Mecca for rock climbers

The peaks resemble flat, metal irons

The Flatirons are a distinctive backdrop for Boulder

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bighorn Sheep - Colored Pencil Drawing

"Bighorn Sheep" Colored Pencil

Mountain thunder cracks across the crisp, blue, November sky. The echoes from the violent clash between massive combatants desperate to prove their dominance can be heard for miles around. The battle may last for twenty-four hours but the exhausted victor earns exclusive mating rights. The weapons of choice are the impressive, coiled horns that are the distinguishing feature of Colorado's state symbol, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Bighorn sheep are ultimate gladiators built to live in the steep ridges and rugged canyons of the mountains. This fragile species must carefully navigate the precipice of extinction as they are extremely sensitive to artificial disturbances in the natural environment. I know it's a familiar story but the numbers are staggering. Before 1800, two million bighorn sheep populated North America. By 1900, after the Western Expansion, only a few thousand remained. Hunting, loss of habitat and disease spread by introduced livestock decimated their numbers.

In 1936 the Arizona Boy Scouts mounted a sympathetic campaign to save the bighorn sheep. A "Save the Bighorns" art contest started in schools throughout the state garnered national attention. Once made aware of the dire situation, other powerful wildlife organizations joined the effort. Intense conservation methods such as reintroduction into areas the sheep had previously gone extinct along with protection from National Parks and a decrease in direct competition with domestic sheep have proved to be successful. In areas where the bighorn are allowed to roam unimpeded by man-made obstacles the animals are thriving once again.

Bighorn sheep were among the most admired animals of Native Americans. The Apsaalooka (Crow) people have a legend that expresses such respect.

An elder possessed by evil spirits attempts to kill his heir by pushing him over a cliff, but the victim is saved by getting caught in trees. Rescued by bighorn sheep, the man takes the name of their leader, Big Metal. The other sheep grant him power, wisdom, sharp eyes, sure-footedness, keen ears, great strength, and a strong heart. Big Metal returns to his tribe with the message that the Apsaalooka people will survive only so long as the river winding out of the mountains is known as the Bighorn River.