Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Harrowing Ride

by Conroy

In my last post I described the difficult, but successful climb to the top of Uncompahgre Peak in western Colorado. Well Sir Edmund Hillary I am certainly not, but I was proud of what I had accomplished and as we (my aunt, uncle, and their dog Bobby) took our Jeep to the bottom of the Nellie Creek Trail Road I was ready to finally relax and surrender to my happy exhaustion. There was just one critical choice to make. Turn left and head back on the relatively smooth road to Lake City and then the pretty boring two hour driver to my aunt and uncle's home in Montrose, or turn right and take the four-wheel drive road over Engineer's Pass and down to the Million Dollar Highway above Ouray. My instinct was to turn left, but my uncle chose right. As he noted, when would we have chance to drive up to Engineer's Pass again? I don't need to quote Frost in noting that this choice made a huge difference.

All I knew, what I had learned the previous day from the Jeep rental owner, was that we would be driving along a twenty mile stretch of rough road that would take us up to 12,800 feet and about three and a half hours to traverse. I imagined a few bumpy hours. I thought the major challenge of the day - the climb - was behind me. What I knew, imagined, thought were nothing like what I was about to experience.

The Climb to Engineer's Pass
As we headed east along the first few miles from Nellie Creek, the road was gravel but (relatively) smooth; the midday sun was bright overhead. We were slowly climbing up a valley parallel to the swiftly flowing Henson Creek; steep, timbered ridges rising on either side of us. The water was surging downhill (the way we should have been going).

I'm an engineer and I design roads for a living. I asked my uncle why this pass was called "Engineer's Pass", I thought maybe there was a good story behind it. He didn't know. I made a mental note to research it after we were got back.

We passed a sign that read "End of Road Maintenance". With a bump, bang, and shudder we were in four-wheel drive territory. The signs should have read "End of Road - PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!!". Our progress slowed substantially, the road turned noticeably more upward. I asked my aunt for the rudimentary map of these four-wheel drive mountain trails that came with the Jeep. I tried to read the map as we bounced all over the place and my hands, head, and eyes, jerked in different directions. We had about eight miles until Engineer's Pass and then about the same distance back down to an actual road.

Slowly, jerkily we crawled higher, above the trees into the alpine tundra. A string of vehicles were stretched out along the road, most headed in the opposite direction. It looked like a bad version of the Burma Road. At one point we saw a sign that must have been a joke, "Four Wheel Drive Vehicles Recommended Beyond This Point." I was too uncomfortable to appreciate the humor. I was already a little queasy from the earlier climb. The last thing I wanted to be doing was rising back into thin air. It got cold. Finally, a long hour after we had started we reached Engineer's Pass. The changeable weather had turned gray and it was starting to drizzle. I didn't see a pass at all, we basically had driven to the top of the 13,000 foot Engineer Mountain! (An explanation for the name; by then I wasn't interested.)

The Descent
Okay, we made it to the pass. I couldn't care less about the soaring views of mountains, valleys, and sky. I had enough of that on top of Uncompahgre, I just wanted to head down. I needed thicker air and warmer temperatures. We moved on. And that's when it got scary.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Climbing a Fourteener

by Conroy

Uncompahgre Peak
A few days ago I summited one of the tallest mountains in the continental United States. It was one of the hardest things I've even done.

I wrote last year about my plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the iconic mountain whose peak (at 19,400 above sea level) dominates the African savanna. In preparation, I wanted to climb one of Colorado's Fourteeners (a peak that stands more than 14,000 feet above sea level), to get a feel for high altitude hiking, including significant elevation changes and exerting myself in thin air.

My aunt and uncle, who built a home in western Colorado, have experience with climbing Fourteeners. They suggested that we climb Uncompahgre Peak (pronounced un-com-padre, and not "unpronounceable" as I had dubbed it), which is the sixth tallest mountain in Colorado at over 14,300 feet. The climb is reasonable for novices, such as myself, because it lacks technical sections like steep rock scree, ice fields, or genuine rock climbing. All I would need is my hiking boots, poles, and a lot of water. We would make the ascent in July when the mountain passes would be open and the weather warm. It sounded like a good plan to me.

Jeep on Nellie Creek Trail road
Unfortunately, Uncompahgre Peak is not easily accessible. On the day of the hike, we (me, my aunt, uncle, and their Golden Labrador) set out before dawn to drive the roundabout two-and-half hours to the base of the trail road that led to the start of the hike itself. The heavily eroded trail road was passable only to four-wheel drive vehicles and we took an adventurous and very bumpy four mile ride along Nellie Creek. We had to take our rented Jeep across the surging stream (it has been a snowy and rainy year) a couple of times, negotiate several narrow switchbacks, all the while climbing from 9,000 feet to 11,000 feet. After half and hour we were at the base of the hike. It was 8:30 AM. Our goal was to reach the summit by noon to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that tend to form over the western Colorado Rockies during summer. To make it in time, we would have to move quickly. The summit route was about four miles long and a general rule of thumb holds that uphill mountain hiking proceeds at about one mile per hour.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Wonderful Spectacle of the Tour de France

by Conroy

Every July the world gets to witness one of the great sporting spectacles - the Tour de France. Over the course of three weeks, nearly two hundred of the world's best cyclists traverse the roads of France. In the process of 21 racing days the riders will cover more than 2,000 miles, from the flat roads of northern France to the mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps, and ending on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

I like niche sports like cycling, but the uniqueness of Le Tour is compelling to even casual sports fans (or non-sports fans for that matter). Here are some reasons to watch the remaining twelve stages (two weeks) of this year's edition:

Beauty of France
First and foremost, the Tour offers its participants, spectators, and television viewers a chance to experience the beauty of France in summer. Each Tour crisscrosses the country, passing through distinct regions and the wonderful variety of French landscapes and townscapes. For its size, France must surely offer some of the finest combinations of contrasting topography, cities large and small, picturesque towns and villages, and the captivating contrast of historical structures (like castles and chateau) and modern creations (like new bridges and buildings).

Personally, I like that on any individual stage, and a typical road stages cover more than 100 miles, the race course will pass by agricultural fields, several towns/cities, stands of woods, and open countryside. Stages can be largely flat or radically undulating, travel along the coast or past vineyards, or through large cities and tiny hamlets, and often many of these in the same day. Mostly the Tour is bathed in bright sunlight (though rain in France is common in July) which beautifully highlights the dark green foliage and light colored buildings. The Tour organizers are also keen to vary the type of roads during each day, which includes freeways, boulevards, and narrow country lanes. This approach ensures that each day offers views of locations rarely seen by non-locals.

The Tour is greatly helped by the French TV that covers the event with what seems to be dozens of cameras including daredevil motorbike cameramen for close shots of the riders and roadside, and helicopters that offer expansive aerial views. There could be no better tourist advertisement than the daily coverage of the Tour. I'm sure anyone who spends a few minutes watching will be captivated and wish they were traveling in the places they see. Certainly this is my perspective.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Capital Cities

by Conroy

Above the Washington Mall
Have you ever wondered how capital cities ended up where they are? In some countries the capital city is just where you would expect; is it any surprise that France's capital is Paris or Italy's capital is Rome? These cities have been the historical center of their nations and have acted as the capital or seat of government for centuries. But for many "new" countries, this isn't the case. Consider a few interesting examples.

In Search of a Capital

Let's start with the United States. A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in New York City. Spend any time in New York, particularly Manhattan, and you must be struck by the vibrancy, the hum, of the place. New York is one of the world's largest cities and a major global center for commerce, finance, the arts, media, fashion, and international affairs (among other things). By multiple measures it ranks as an "alpha" world city, along with places like London, Paris, and Tokyo. But unlike those other three cities and despite its vast size and influence, New York is not the capital of the United States. Indeed New York is not the nexus or focal point of the United States in the way London is for the United Kingdom (and especially England), or Paris is for France, or Tokyo to Japan.

This was certainly true when the United States gained its independence from England. At the time the capital moved constantly, but the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 convinced the nation's founders that a permanent capital was needed. But where would this permanent capital be located? As a political and geographic compromise, the new city was to be situated on the Potomac River, about the halfway between Maine in the north and Georgia in the south. Uniquely at the time but emulated in several cases later, the new capital would not be part of any state but an independent federal region.

The L'Enfant Plan for Washington
George Washington picked the final location, the new city was named in his honor, and the new federal district, the District of Columbia, was carved out of portions of Maryland and Virginia (Virginia eventually took its portion back). For decades after its founding Washington remained a small city. But after the Civil War it began to grow quickly and as the federal government has expanded since World War II, Washington has become one of the nation's largest cities. Today, Washington is a major global city - the Rome of our times as Gregg Easterbrook has termed it - and not the southern backwater it was viewed as after its founding. The combined Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area is the fourth largest in the United States behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Being a new city, Washington was largely planned from scratch by Pierre L'Enfant as a city of wide streets radiating from squares and circles. This plan wasn't always adhered to during the city's first century of existence, but major modernizing and redevelopment efforts in the early twentieth century returned the city to L'Enfant's original vision. I've worked on road projects in Washington and I can attest to how ardently city planners continue to be guided by L'Enfant's plan.

In addition, the city is widely known for its neoclassical architecture exemplified by the White House and Capitol Building, but a visit will reveal that Washington, consistent with a new city, is actually a wide mix of styles from various times and movements. Its look is much less consistent than its older European counterparts like Paris and London. Still, over time Washington has grown into a very distinct place, a similar story can be told about America's northern neighbor.