Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Teller County travails

Victor gets quiet on a Thursday afternoon, even in summer. Only a handful of older folks milled around, likely stopped before they crossed the hill and hit the slot in Cripple Creek. 

Had one of the German bakeries in Colorado Springs closed its interior and move to window-service since the pandemic, we might not have ventured this deep into Teller County. 

But here we were, taking the mountainside road hugging Pikes Peak’s eastern foothills to reach the mining towns. 

Victor’s businesses were open, from a stately old downtown hotel, several patios and German bakery with its own selection of delightful sweets. We loaded up on sandwiches with fresh-based bread and desserts including carrot cake and peanut butter pie. Preparation took a little while but was worth the time. Being at the front of the line helped. 

Victor’s murals don’t hide that its heyday was a century ago, when the mines drew prospectors to give it a population of 15,000. The number has since dropped to about 400 hearty souls. 

We looped around the silver mine that separates Victor from Cripple Creek, crossing the state’s highest bridge and seeing smoke where we might have normally spied the conical peaks of the Sangre de Cristo. The mountains could not be pried free of the haze today. From the road the open pit mine seems like an unnatural mountain, reconstructed after the mining operation tore it apart. From satellite photos, the terraces of an open pit are plainly visible. 

For all the mountainside driving required to reach either town, they are just minutes apart. Early on we cross the Arequa Gulch Bridge, crossing the state’s highest bridge, built by the mining company when the mine tailings overcame the lower road to Cripple Creek. Even the gambling mecca of Cripple Creek had a lazy feel this afternoon.

Teller County Road 1 swung us out of town. I had never driven this road and felt better for finally tackling it. We were on the far side of Dome Rock State Wildlife Area and there was no traffic. The small rugged mountains felt more like rockpiles at times. Farms rolled past, including one fenced field dotted with llamas.

A familiar crossroads emerged. The national monument signs halted the rows of housing developments. The rumple hills and the former lakebed of Florissant emerged. We got our lunch at the Barksdale Picnic Area. 

The creek through Barksdale was dry this fall. Every other time I had visited, clear waters bubbled down the narrow channel shaded by grasses. The grasses were parched, the waters gone months earlier. I only hoped the water would return when the precipitation returned, and that it would not be long. 

Barksdale always felt like a slice of heaven. How could it not? A placid roll of hills, a grassy meadow and a creek that few people bothered to visit. 

The ride down the hill to the Springs would come soon enough. A few beers at a craft brewery would suffice for an end to the evening. The taproom windows faced the mountains, and even with the smoke, the peaks delivered a show of color and light. The sun set directly behind the peak of Pikes Peak, the red-orange ball descending through smoke-tinged haze.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

One year of the rescue

Tallahassee, my favorite cat at the rescue.

 A few photos of the many cats with whom I crossed paths at the rescue where I volunteer. All of these cats have been adopted, some have new names, and Tallahassee (Tally) is still the one I miss the most. 

I have more to write about this volunteer gig and working with cats, but I'm not there yet because it evolves every week. So for now, we'll highlight a few favorites.

Alex always found a sleepmate, even Tallahassee

Rocky Raccoon had a great fur pattern
I gave this girl meds, and she hated me
The rare photo of Tally not sleeping
All have been adopted

The more common photo from Tally
This one got adopted in about 20 minutes

Three lakes deep in the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Isabelle's near shore

The road snakes out of Boulder’s north end through a canyon before rising into Ward, which felt like a mining town that gradually transformed into a roadside hippie village – if you looked closely enough, there were coffee shops and businesses among the crumbling buildings and rows of cars that had not moved in years. 

We had to reach the Brainerd Lake Recreation Area early - 7 a.m. early, and with cash for the admission fee. The area reduced its capacity to 75 percent thanks to the pandemic, so an early start guaranteed a parking spot. Stunningly cold winds pushed at us, and immediately I felt underdressed for this hike. I was certainly not prepared for the scenery.

From Brainerd Lake

This might have been the most scenic hike of the summer. From the time we left the car, the jagged ridges sprouted from the treeline and seemed to rise directly from the lakes. By the time we entered the Indian Peaks Wilderness and reached the shores of Lake Isabelle, they would. 

Stepping out of the woods on the trail to Lake Isabelle, we ran into Brainerd Lake. It’s a stunning vista, and many casual visitors don’t go far past this point. South St. Vrain Creek flows into and out of all three lakes, and cuts close to the trail in many places.

Long Lake lookout

Long Lake doesn’t lie too far up the trail, and it isn’t a challenging span outside of the elevation. The wide path moved quickly to Long Lake and its shores before it moved deeper into the woods and away from water for the first time. We passed a handful of early morning hikers and plenty of dog owners going illegally off-leash, making me wish the Forest Service would deputize me to write tickets. Snow began to deepen as we started gaining elevation toward Lake Isabelle.

South St. Vrain Creek
I had to watch my step to avoid slipping although the shores of Lake Isabelle were not far off. We dubbed the point at which people broke off for their pictures “Douchebag Rock.” But the trail was not done, just less traveled. The trail quieted after Douchebag Rock, but grew increasingly technical as it pass through fields of scree and boulders, with stands of pine hanging on at the treeline.

My footwear and the indiscriminate path became an issue on the far side of Lake Isabelle. We were maybe a half-mile from Isabelle Glacier but I had no stomach for an attempt with snow rapidly turning to slush on the path. I knew my shoes would make it a rough ascent. The glacier would hold for another season. 

We moved down quickly through the rocks, roots slush until Long Lake, at which point the path stayed damp and muddy back to Brainerd Lake. The day warmed considerably from our initial steps and the crowds thickened around Brainer Lake, mostly for quick pictures. The glacier would hold for another year, I had to hope, even if the ring of majestic peaks around the three lakes wasn’t going anywhere for millennia. 

Mountains ringing the lakes
Picturesque Lake Isabelle
From Isabelle's far shore

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Carpenter Peak, top of Roxborough

From Carpenter Peak

Not every park in the Colorado system demands repeat visits, but Roxborough State Park is mostly a hikers park, and there are always new challenges on its slopes. 

My friend Karen and I decided on the Carpenter Peak trail, which leads to the highest point in the park. 

While a 7,166 summit might not seem impressive to those climbing 14’ers, Carpenter Peak is a quintessential Front Range hike, with plenty of challenging inclines and narrow passages.

The 6.4-mile roundtrip started with a series of steep switchbacks that traversed different types of forest. 

The red rock slabs at the center of the park grew smaller as we ascended. That red rock is the connective tissue of the Front Range, from Garden of the Gods to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre to the paler chunks of angled rock that form Boulder’s Flatiron formations. The chunk in Roxborough are just as special, even if the park boundary ends and expensive houses push against them. 

On my last Roxborough hike, the trails were packed with icy snow and passage required hiking poles or spikes. This Sunday saw the temperature headed into the 90s, and much of the Carpenter Peak trail had light vegetation and little shade of note. 

Several miles in, the trail entered a pine forest and left the hills covered in chest-high trees. The temperature grew more comfortabl. The peak was often in sight from the trail. That alone could propel me along.

Near the end the trail grows narrow, with room for one single-file line. There were few places to step off the trail with the dropoff in some places (not hundreds of feet, but I don’t want to fall off any drop) and steep inclines along the switchbacks. The trail to the top is a short spur. Trails continue outside Roxborough into the adjacent Pike National Forest. Other trails extend into Douglas County’s system and Waterton Canyon. 

It’s worth winding through the boulders atop Carpenter Peak to find one for your party. The peak is placid, especially at the hour we reached the top. People were not sitting next to each other; the closest group was maybe 20 feet away and had their own views of Denver skyline through the forest fire haze. 

We descended rapidly, with me babbling about how much I enjoyed the hike the whole way. I had no right feeling so good at the end of a 6.4-mile hike with significant elevation change. In a hike near the treeline, I would have huffed and puffed. Here we moved steadily, and I rarely held us up.

The other observation was the number of people headed up the trail. Temperatures soared into the mid-90s and we received a mild respite from the poor air quality induced by Colorado’s raging wildfires. At 11 a.m., the heat was becoming oppressive. People pressed up the trail with limited water supplies, no hats and little indication they thought out this hike. 

But we were done, having sped up and down Carpenter Peak, our summer of hikes in the central Rockies making one on the Front Range a much more pleasant proposition. 

The rock formations at park headquarters

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The shrine calls but once a year

Looking down on the zoo and the Springs

A series of storms had raced across the Pikes Peak region all day. If I did this hike at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, I wondered if I would get poured upon. A rain poncho went into my hiking pack. 

Zoo staff lined up participants, who all picked a start time. I breezed through the zoo before I started the run. I had to see the newest acquisition. By this time, the new moose calf has a name – Akta – and has started to bulk up. He no longer looks like two pairs of spindly legs and a head devouring everything in sight, especially the bundles of branches around his enclosure.

Akta peeks through his fence

Then I started the Run to the Shrine, with no intention of actual running. Originally set for May, the zoo moved it back to late August, and switched from a Saturday morning to a Sunday afternoon, with the race starting a few hours before the zoo ended. There was no timing for participants, freeing people to go at their own pace.

Shrine from the road

The run feels good since it’s the only day of the year when the zoo opens the shrine road to pedestrians. Otherwise, it’s car-only. Just covering those first steps past the zoo’s public boundary felt like stepping into forbidden territory.

While the road rises another 1,000 feet above the zoo in two miles, all the mountain hiking from the summer prepared me better than I could hope. Treating the run as a hike enabled me to keep moving the whole way. A few rounds of sprinkles fell on the road but nothing heavy. Near the shrine, the road takes some of its steepest turns. Still, none of them proved too difficult, at last not at this elevation. 

To no one’s surprise, the actual shrine was closed due to the pandemic. I toured it in January and didn’t mind the omission. People posed outside the gates once they reached the top.

Shrine after the turnaround

The biggest reason I signed up for this race was the views from the road, and the sun complied for a short while. Coming down from the top, I ran. Well, gravity helped. It was a nice feeling, zipping past walkers and coming around the last corners back into the zoo. 

Just like that, four miles had gone by. The zoo had closed to regular visitors and was only open to run participants. I took a swing through the new African exhibit for one more look at the massive hippos and their pool. 

The pockets of sunlight were gone as another storm front moved over Cheyenne Mountain. At that, I moved fast for the car. The winds grew fierce. The rain started as I drove down the zoo road, the shrine standing sentinel above the Springs. 

The storm....
Shrine from the parking lot

Under the Sawatch, under the stars

Morning view from Twin Lakes

Leaving Colorado Springs, the haze would not go away, not with forest fire plumes rising across the state. When we reached the Sawatch, would it hold? The skies would not be perfectly clear around the state’s highest peaks, but it would be clear enough past Twin Lakes. 

Even in peak summer, Thursday held camping promise in the Sawatch Range among Colorado’s highest peaks. There were too many campgrounds between Twin Lakes and the road to Independence Pass for us to strike out on a campsite. If all else failed, there was camping along Twin Lakes, albeit on a hill without a hint of foliage to cut the fierce alpine winds. 

Looking west from the campsite

We marked out a few as the road ascended from the village of Twin Lakes, a cluster of buildings where people stopped for pictures of the Sawatch Range, home to Colorado’s tallest peaks. One was full, but another held promise, with a lot of empty sites off the road. More options arose past the Lost Gulch trailhead.

The debate over campsites ended as soon as we rolled into Twin Peaks, perhaps the most loaded name of any campground on this stretch. But the name did not lie. Mountains soared on either side of the campground, tall peaks that barreled upward past the treeline. Every patch of the campground was scenic. 

The sites sat on a bluff among a roaring river whose name lied. Lake Creek was full of glacial boulders and rolled over several cataracts with a whitewater flow, the rushing waters hurrying off to Twin Lakes. 

Lake Creek at Twin Peaks Campground

We picked a site, paid and set up camp. The sites were huge and wooded, affording easy privacy. We had 20-30 feet between us and the sites around our loop of the campground. We walked down to the creek, a series of paths winding on the floodplain below the cliffs. There was plenty to explore and no one around. 

Even with water down in large stretches, the creek had a dangerous look thanks to many drops and swift-moving waters. As night and cold crept in, the smoke moved east, and the skies began to open up. We mostly just hung around camp and talked before it was time to call it a day. 

Campsite view east

At midnight, after every wind touching the tent signaled the presence of a black bear, lynx or mountain lion eyeing me up for dinner, I crawled out to sit. The Milky Way delivered – the fire haze moved along, and the banded arms of the galaxy emerged from the stars. It was magnificent. 

A few hours later, I did the same, and the sky seemed even clearer. Even in a fire emergency, the skies could show their full nighttime beauty.

Morning came. As with every camping trip, I reached a point when I had to move around because the cold air, the cold that those unfamiliar with camping never knew, had hugged me too long. Indian blankets and winter gear ran out their usefulness. In mid-August, I ran up against a 40-degree night. 

We tore down and headed out, stopping in Twin Lakes for pictures, as the tiny town beckoned everyone to capture its summer beauty. 

Turquoise Lake

There was a “road closed” sign where we needed to turn. Hagerman Pass was closed from secondary impact of the forest fires and unexpected traffic tackling its unpaved heights. 

The fires further west had led all sorts of fools to resort to Google maps alternatives. Scores of people crossed the Sawatch Range on unpaved passes, roads only suited for high-clearance vehicles and sometimes not wide enough for two cars. Nothing like putting yourself into peril because you listened to an app and didn't check reality.

But all those inappropriate trips over Hagerman Pass forced the Forest Service to shut the road. We reached another series of trailheads west of Turquoise Lake, a jagged mountain reservoir, and found cars spilling out of parking lots onto the roads. EVery trailhead was packed and our hopes of a Sawatch hike sunk quickly.

Trout pond

We backtracked to the National Fish Hatchery outside Leadville, nexus for several mountain trails. But the one touted on hiking websites had a trailhead we could not find. At that point it seemed this was not our day for hiking.

But I had always wanted to visit the hatchery and its massive ponds delivered. Scores of tiny trout swam over each other in the hatchery ponds. Eventually they would be trucked to rivers and lakes across the Mountain West, restoring native stocks where they could. 

The buildings are stately, harkening to the early 20th century when government buildings could still show style. A series of cottages for hatchery staff sat in a line at the edge of the forest.

Traveling cat
Before leaving the hatchery, we spotted a large white van with a cat sitting in the front seat. Even with windows down, he made no effort to escape, as 99 percent of cats would. His owner came by - she toured the country in the van, and the cat had logged almost 30,000 miles with her. That's a dedicated pet.

At least there was Leadville. It doesn’t take long to wander the nation’s highest incorporated town, where the sun beats down with unexpected intensity and breaths don’t always come easily. 

But Leadville has the advantage of sturdy old buildings and a few tasty lunch spots. A burger joint on the south end of town checked all the boxes for a quick lunch before crossing the passes back to the Springs.

Crystal Lake overlook, south of Leadville

Summer 2020 beers

Beer haul from Montana

Lizardhead Red (Durango, Colorado)

July 16, 2020
I picked this up because I knew Lizardhead Pass would get crossed on my trip, and it might be my new favorite beer. A red ale that hits all the notes – it had both malty and hoppy notes, although the malt tends to win out. Less than 5 percent ABV, there’s not much baggage here. It’s a session beer, play and simple. Nice, creamy and rich, it is one I plan to revisit as often as I can. 

The Fast and the Hazy (Pondaseta Brewing, Amarillo Texas)
July 16, 2020
It’s a refreshing hazy IPA, even if hazy IPAs have become passe and don’t generally offer a lot of variety. It has a good complement of Azacca, El Dorado, and Jarrylo hops, plus white, oats and triticale malts. Not overwhelming but it has its hoppy moments. I get tangerine and mandarin more than the pineapple the brewery notes - it doesn’t radiate sweet, and I don’t mind. 

Wachu Saison (Hill Farmstead/Grassroots Brewing, contract brewing by Crooked Stave, Denver)
July 29, 2020
This Far East-style saison was among the first beers brewed by Hill Farmstead Brewery of Vermont. Having spent almost a decade without a pour from Hill Farmstead, I jumped at the chance when finding they had contract with Denver’s Crooked Stave to brew their recipes. Wachu Saison contains red rice, yuzu juice, yuzu zest, Szechuan peppercorns, and fermented with Brettanomyces, the wild yeast that defines far too many saisons. In this case, it works pretty well, given the ingredients. The beer is intensely dry, owing a major debt to the wild yeast but clearly influenced by the yuzu. There’s a seductive creaminess, almost a lemon meringue feel from the lace. There a bit of heat of the tail end from the peppercorns – not a lot, and it only emerges after a few passes. But a 5.5 percent saison would not have any sort of peppery heat from alcohol content. 

Russian River Happy Hops IPA
July 31, 2020
Very lemony hops on this one – It’s a throwback IPA, a recipe honoring the defunct Happy Hops brewery in Santa Rosa, a spiritual ancestor to Russian River. Definitely not a hop-forward beer, but the hop influence is strong. Very piney, resiny at times, muted lemon at others. I don’t know that I need to have it again, but it was a worthy diversion.

Petit Sour Reserva Marionberry (Crooked Stave, Denver)
Aug. 3, 2020
Marionberry sour was a new pick for me, and Crooked Stave’s reputation sold me. Marionberry is a varietal of blackberry, but the name sounds a bit more exotic. The sour is still exotic, even at a sessionable 4.5 percent ABV. The sour character is quite intense, producing a fast-fading pucker at a pass or two. The strong marionberry flavors lends itself well to a powerful sour. After brewing the base beer with the wild yeast, CS’s petit sours get a second fermentation in oak foeders with the fruit. This is no kettle sour, just a strong sour perfect for a summer evening or a special occasion demanding a rare beer. This sour does not hold back. Since it won’t be a regular offering from Crooked Stave, it should be as forward as possible. 

Fossil Mosaic SMASH IPA
Aug. 7, 2020
This IPA is on the hazy side and brings all the grassy goodness of Mosaic hops to the forefront. This is the perfect style to highlight Mosaic, which often gets paired with more citrus-driven hops. I've always found Mosaic presents well on its own, and Fossil proves that theory. 

Weldwerks From Nelson, With Love
Aug. 12, 2020
The gnarly Nelson Sauvin hop strikes again. I may hit a limit with my NS beers but this one won’t be the one to jump the shark. Weldwerks went the double IPA, 100 percent NS route, and it isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hop I see infrequently enough that I enjoy it every time. Nelson produces all sorts of citrus and tropical notes but drops a big herbal crunch into the mix. You move from tangerine to basil and kale, but for me it works. It produces a beer of contrasts, where the hops’ citrus subtlety runs into a more bruising character. Finish is clean, lemon-orange with fingers of grapefruit even as the crunchy herbs linger. 

Fossil Tripel
August 12, 2020
This is a good tripel, not a world-changer like the barrel-aged versions, but not enough breweries dabble in tripel. It’s a big beer at 8.5 percent, although it rarely feels too heavy. The orange-lemon parade of flavor is intricate enough to hide any booziness that might reveal that. There are sprigs of herbs on the finish, nice notes that leave a milder presence than such a beer might deliver. I might not have needed a crowler given that a small bottle of Westmalle used to suffice, but since that was Fossil’s only takeout option, I won’t complain. 

Montana Brewing Company Huckleberry Wheat
Aug. 22, 2020
This growler is now officially the fresh beer that has traveled the longest with me: 670 miles home from the Billings brewpub that does not can or bottle. I needed a few Montana flourishes from my stop in Billings- huckleberry beer and something from Montana Brewing Company. MBC sated my thirst during lunch and made this epilogue possible. Good huckleberry beer goes a long way, and this huckleberry wheat is superb. Good tart fruit notes, lots of huckleberry – the beer even turns a little chewy on the finish, like the taste of muddled huckleberries. While I hoped for more huckleberry brew options in cans and bottles from Montana, one sip at the brewpub made this take the one for me. 

Russan River Sanctification
Sept. 2, 2020
Brett has been the blessing or curse of many a craft beer. When not used properly, the wild yeast can prove off-putting. This one goes 100 percent brett with a blonde ale … and as a Russian River product, it does not ever turn to ruin. All the tenets of the wild yeast pop up – bone-dry tropical fruit, a sizzle of sour, a bit of mustiness and horse blanket character. There’ a blast of tangerine and kiwi on the finish, and this is no kettle sour. Those flavors feel earned. But it is not a blistering brett. The finish is quite sharp and herbal. 

Weldwerks New Hops Who Dis?
Sept. 4, 2020
First run with Weldwerks IPA series. In its third iteration, the double IPA has Citra, Mosaic and Experimental Hop CBC 692. Impact of those first two is a common IPA pairing, but the third veers more into Nelson Sauvin territory. There’s a leafy, crunchy herbal character overlaid on a grapefruit bitter finish. Thirsty Street Bear’s Delight Sept. 5, 2020 This Billings brewery puts longtime honey wheat producers in Montana on notice. It’s not big but Bear’s Delight delivers a fresh, cloudy wheat beer rounded by honey. Honey adds an orange clover layer to the typical banana-clove of a hefeweizen, presenting a much more complex brew. 

Big Sky Summer Honey
Sept. 6, 2020
So how does Montana’s oldest craft brewery stack up to the entrepreneurs? Pretty damn well actually. Like Montana, where almost every town has or had bars named Mint and Stockman, Big Sky’s long-running summer seasonal continues to perform well. It’s a clear filtered wheat but the honey influence stays strong. there’s a little more bitterness that I would expect from a honey wheat, a little less roundness to the finish, but it’s a good summer drinker. 

Fossil Oreo Stout
Sept. 8, 2020
The name will probably change once the cookie’s corporate owners get wind of this beer. But I got mine on the day when summer vanished in one of the earliest winter storms on record for Colorado’s Front Range. This stout pushes the normal milk stout flavor up a bit. There’s a nice velvety cream undertone that meets the intensity of the stout character. For a stout, it’s pretty easy drinking. The 32-oz. crowler - are there other sizes or is that redundant – will be enough. 

Off Color Beer for Brunch (Berlinerweisee-style ale brewed with orange and Chardonnay juice)
Sept. 14, 2020
Whew. This doesn’t hold back the Berliner-style sour, the orange that runs bone dry from the get-go. The orange juice flavor meets the Berliner at a perfect junction while any impact from the chardonnay grape juice is softer and more in the background. Perhaps I should have waited to drink it during breakfast or brunch, but at 7:30 on a Monday.

Walter’s Pueblo Chile Beer
Sept. 20, 2020
Local ingredients meet craft lager. Pueblo Chiles are of comparable heat to jalapenos, just a different sort of heat. Walter’s takes those local peppers and layers them onto a golden lager with noble hops. Since the pepper flavor is so critical to this beer, I appreciate that Walter’s went with a quenching beer for its chiles.

Ommegang Neon Lights
Sept. 25, 2020
Finally, Ommegang caves in – IPA, and not just everyday Belgian IPA but a New England-style hazy IPA. Dry hopped with Citra and Mosaic hops, the beer is finished with Topaz and Simcoe hops. There’s mango, pear, cantaloupe and kiwi on the noise, promising this won’t be a pedestrian hazy. Indeed, Neon Lights sizzles on the palate. The second round of hops bring a dankness to this hazy that most wouldn’t dare but it’s refreshing to face a bitter uptick at the beer’s conclusion. I doubt I will revisit this, but I’m glad Ommegang brings the same quality to a popular style as it does with its Belgian-style ales. 

Lawson’s Hopzilla
Sept. 29, 2020
This is the big, dank old school DIPA I hoped for. It’s a muddle of hops, not really hop forward but a full-on citrus army. Lots of orange, tangerine, kumquat and spritzes of lemon and grapefruit. It’s a big strong beer with a name I’d swear a dozen other breweries have already used. But as a cult beer, Lawson’s version gets extra cache. 

Ommegang Apripeche
Oct. 1 2020
Ommegang drops the last of summer in this tart wheat ale – brett alert – with apricots and peaches. It might be the most cidery beer I have tasted in ages, and could stack up against a good off-dry peach cider. The sour is not overpowering; it blends effortlessly with the peach and apricot, an amazing fruit blend. I wish it was still a little warmer for enjoying this one, another understated, delightful brew from upstate New York. 

Lawson’s Super Session #4: Centennial
Oct. 4, 2020
This has a rich perfumy nose, radiating all Centennial all the time. The bitterness is balanced by a cut of creaminess at times. The hop is everpresent, as it should be but one can of this number is really special. Centennial doesn’t hold the same ways it did before people zeroed in on other hops of the moment. Not heavy, this Lawson’s creation goes down easily while offering plenty of hop character without overwhelming the palate or demanding more than a minimal malt backbone. At 4.8 percent it’s one of the better session IPAs I have tasted.

Black Forest Pueblo Wheat
Oct. 18, 2020
I'll close with one last dose of local produce, a nice wheat ale loaded with Pueblo chiles. It's not all that hot but there are plenty of moments laden with pepper flesh notes. Pueblo chiles are not scorchers, closer in heat to Anaheim peppers, but they work well with a wheat beer foundation. Even the pepper aftertaste is a little too mellow at times - Walter's chile beer has more bite and it better for it. Black Forest's wheat leave some ambient heat on the back of the throat.  Combined with the vegetative character of the beer, it makes for a nice remembrance of summer on an overcast October Sunday.

I forgot to review. It was as fantastic as the label.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Billings sidebar


Views from the Billings Rimrocks

The thought was in my head all morning – you have the time to make it to Billings. Montana was too close to my stops in northern Wyoming and the Bighorn Basin.  It weighed too heavily.

I needed that taste of Montana. Sure, the Bighorn Canyon park road crosses into Montana just before the Devil’s Canyon Overlook, but I needed a bigger taste. 

I could reach Billings in less than 90 minutes. I saw people for pictures posing in front of the state line marker and set off north. 

Montana has more scenic cities than Billings. It just does. Few towns can compete with the peaks that hem Missoula or the beauty of the broad Gallatin Valley that frames Bozeman. But Billings has its soaring rimrocks and a big-city charm that’s welcome after days around the sparsely populated lands south. It’s not only the largest town in Montana, but the largest town in a 500-mile radius. 

I could roam for a restaurant but decided to stick with downtown and started with one I knew. The Montana Brewing Company had open seats at the bar.

Having only had snack crackers and water all morning, the menu was a welcome sight. They recently tapped their summer seasonal huckleberry wheat, a fruit beer I always chased whenever this far north. Upon first taste, I already knew I needed a second pint. Montana’s original brewpub has stuck to its guns, only selling to-go beer in growlers for its 26-year run. I had to leave with a growler of huckleberry wheat. 

A brief stop on Billings Rimrocks must accompany any visit. The Yellowstone River carved these imposing cliffs over millions of years. 

While not the mountains looming over Missoula or Bozeman, the Rimrocks give Billings a unique flair. Plus, it’s a always one of the state’s great spots for a picnic, which allows you to look out onto the Bighorn, Absoraka and Beartooth ranges. 

On this Sunday it was too steamy or a picnic. I stopped at City Brew for coffee, the voice on the drive-thru box double-checking that I actually wanted hot coffee on an afternoon when Billings hit triple digits. I did, and they supplied a good cup of it. Down the road I ran into City Vineyard, a restaurant and retail alcohol establishment. I loaded up on Montana libations to hold me over during the next few months. The staff could not have been nicer, even helping me to carry the beer out. I crossed several Billings neighborhoods to return to the interstate. 

Edgar post office

At Laurel I headed south again. I loitered a bit at the Yellowstone, the great river pushing tubers and kayakers down toward Billings. Someday I’d like to paddle part of that river, maybe drop a fishing line in hopes of landing a trout. Someday that change might come. 

On this day, I was headed back to Lovell. The drive from Billings to Lovell crosses the mostly flat northern exit from the Bighorn Valley.  

There was only one stop I wanted to make. Edgar was a few dozen houses, a post office and a tavern. Years ago I had stopped at the post office at the end of the gravel road east to Pryor, the Crow Reservation and the former house of Plenty Coups, the Crow’s last traditional chief. It was a cold, snowy day and the road felt treacherous. 

Today it was dry, and the bar was packed, too packed for me in a pandemic. I had my taste of Billings, but I can’t go to Montana without stealing a moment in a small town or two.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Wide open Wyoming

Many hundreds of miles to go

Into wide open Wyoming After two nights of Saratoga’s raucous bars carousing into the early hours, I had no qualms about an early goodbye. At 5:30 a.m. I sped off into first light on the Wyoming prairie. 

I must mention the Wolf Hotel – staff were friendly and responsive, the lobby and saloon full of animal heads were an easy draw. Between the hotel, the only grocery for 40 miles and the outfitter, Saratoga had more taxidermied animal heads per capita than anywhere else I’d visited. 

An old landmark

In a few miles, I forgot all about Saratoga. The road to the interstate was quiet, as was the interstate to Sinclair, home to a giant oil refinery and a company town, then Rawlins, where I intended to turn north. I gassed the car just to ensure I would not run out short of Riverton. 

Outside the city, the road turned sparse. I only stopped at the old sign for a restaurant and truckstop that had not operated in several decades. But I needed a picture of the weathered sign with the doe-eye antelope. 

The first city I crossed was Jeffrey City, a certified ghost town. The former uranium mining town had risen and fallen in a few decades. Jeffrey City became just a place you sped through on the way to somewhere else. This was a route that led to Grand Teton, so it was not hard to imagine a day when traffic could have filled cafes in a humming Jeffrey City. But that was decades past. 

I never felt fully alone on the edge of the Red Desert. Hundreds of pronghorns, spread out in groups from one to dozens, grazed across the treeless expanse. For most of the drive from Rawlins to Riverton, there was little but buttes and crumbling mountain chains. After the highway split off for Lander and I went north for Riverton, every band of rock in western mountain ranges glowed red in the morning light. 

The scenery greened at Riverton, a clear band of the Wind River and its tree-lined path cutting through town. Farmland along the river receded back into desert terrains. Turning at the Boysen Reservoir, there were few trees to note. The Wind River headed east and the road followed. The road circles the Boysen Reservoir then comes out near its namesake dam. As the road took me around, I wondered where I could cut through the Owl Creek Mountains, the soaring, treeless mass of rock blocking the horizon. 

Until I was about to enter the Wind River Canyon, nothing tipped off its existence.. At the dam, the Wind River descended deeply and majestically. In a few miles I drove 2,000 feet below the cliffs of the canyon, some of the rocks half as old as the earth itself. I wish I spent more time below the canyon walls before I was spit out into the tourist town of Thermopolis. 

The giant mineral spring in Thermopolis


But I knew those walls would be there no matter how soon I returned (spoiler – I passed back in less than 24 hours). After the canyon, the Wind River becomes the Bighorn at Thermopolis for reasons I don’t quite understand. Known as the Wedding of the Waters, the name just changes, with the Bighorn running the rest of the way to the Yellowstone. 

Overlooks along the Bighorn River provide glimpses of the giant hot spring giving Thermopolis its name. The state park that surrounds it also includes a bison herd. People ran across the giant formation of travertine rising along the Bighorn River. With the park already seeming crowded, I pressed through a series of towns cut from the same brick followed – Walford, Greybull – until I reached the end of Lovell, and one of Wyoming’s undervisited spectacles. 

Before its conversion to a national recreation area, Bighorn Canyon was a place to avoid, a sudden but stunningly deep canyon on the Bighorn River. While the rivers no longer flow freely, the Bighorn is no less jaw-dropping. The sharpened cliffs rise more than 1,000 feet above the greenish waters, made more dramatic by the frequency with which the Bighorn bends. 

Bighorn Canyon majesty

Even more majesty
Last time I visited, the winds were staggering at the Devil’s Overlook railing. Not even the lightest breeze blew this morning. A few boats cruised the waters hundreds of feet below the rim. I took on a few short hikes. The canyon has desert vegetation and the trails were almost completely exposed. One took me down a short trail that ended in views of an awe-striking cave below the massive fins of rock that formed the river’s bends through the canyon. 

 Heading back up the park road, I spotted some horses from the Pryor Wild Horse Range grazing closer to the road. another herd stood far in the distance. A trailer pulled up, then its occupants began photographing the same horses. “It wasn’t even worth it to drive back here.”

Wild horses stare back

 All sorts of comments ran through my head. Fortunately for those folks, they stayed there. I could have laughed. I watched the horses and didn’t acknowledge them, because I couldn’t without shredding that foolish comment. 

They couldn’t have heard me as they lumbered away, not in their trailer large enough to make Lucy and Desi jealous (yes, a reference to The Long, Long Trailer.)

Back from Billings (see next post), I was antsy. Lovell had an interesting main drag. I wanted a twilight walk to photograph its murals and vintage buildings. 

But my interest would fade after the first round of stings on my legs. Mosquitoes hit me in clumps. I swatted them, smashing them against my legs and seconds later a new generation began to take their place. Not even Chincoteague mosquitoes could compete with these vicious buggers. 

Bighorn Mountain morning

I retreated to the motor court room, ready for the morning , where the first two episodes of Lovecraft Country ferried me out of the day. The red swirled across the eastern horizon. 

Sunrise against the Bighorns made the early drive worth my time. The sun wasn’t really a factor till I left the Wind River Canyon, then began the 100-mile sprint to Casper. 

Stops were easily avoided till I passed an old motor court/lounge on the Wyoming plains, its wide-bottomed neon mascot a clear mockery of similar signs down in Texas. 

Decades had passed since anyone stayed the night or tasted a steak off the griddle. It felt comfortable even as the prairie winds slowly picked it apart. I wished the lounge could have held on. I didn’t need a steak at 9 a.m., but the allure of a pre-interstate roadhouse would have been a solid draw, at least to me. 

Another abandoned roadhouse