Rocky Mountain High - Part 8

Mark Walker MWalker at
Sat Aug 17 03:56:23 EDT 2002

We woke up refreshed in Ouray, and opened the door of our hotel in
anticipation.  To my dismay, the sky was bleak and overcast.  All I could do
was hope that this would clear up by the time we reached the high country.
Highway 550 heads south from Ouray, and drives over three high mountain
passes before it reaches the Wild West town of Durango, Colorado.  From any
one of these, there are a myriad of jeep trails that can take you even
higher.  The first pass is Red Pass, and is only a short drive from Ouray.
The closer we got to the pass, the worse things became.  By the time we
arrived on top, the temps had dropped below 60 degrees F. and the rain
started to fall.  I was flabbergasted.
The scenery up there is fantastic.  The peaks are not any higher than the
other places we'd visited, but they are seemingly more jagged and ominous
looking.  It's perhaps a bit of a surprise that southwestern Colorado has
such spectacular high country, but then the Continental Divide carves a most
bizarre and zig-zagging path through the state of Colorado.  All the maps
from our U.S. History classes don't do the Rocky Mountains justice - simply
showing them as a ridge of mountains that run on a slight diagonal through
the middle of the country.  Instead, they are like a jumbled hodge podge of
jagged peaks and glaciated ridges - all pushed and folded together as if
part of a huge train wreck.  You could spend a lifetime butterflying these
mountains - and you still wouldn't have it covered.
As a result, there are few places where you can cover a lot of different
ground in just a few hours.  Red Pass is one of them.  It's especially
painful when you've come all this way only to find that the few hours you've
set aside to spend here coincide with a timely blast of weather from the
monsoons brewing in Arizona and Mexico.  I parked the rental near an alpine
tarn, and convinced my son to get out and walk with me in the rain.  We
scoured the nearby meadow, spooking a few S. mormonia, but seeing nothing
else.  I sighed and looked about me, realizing that my joy had become way
too dependant on success.  What an incredible place to be so blessed to be
alive!  How had I gotten to the place where such an experience could be
disappointing?  I remember a time when raindrops falling amid the smells and
sounds of 12,000 ft. alpine terrain was as good as it got.  We stood in the
rain for a while before I decided to start the long haul towards the Four
Corners region.  Perhaps we should do a little sightseeing instead, and just
forget about butterflies for awhile.
Well, as you can imagine, this is a lot easier said than done for the field
lepidopterist.  We did actually see an occasional flyer as we drove past
Silverton and then Durango.  By the time we got to the Mesa Verde turnoff,
all hopes for leps were dashed for good.  The skies remained oppressive.  By
the time we got to Cortez, it was only 11:00 a.m.  We were already just a
few dozen miles from the Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah border, and the
day hadn't even started yet!  We couldn't throw the towel in yet - there
must be something lep related that we could do to kill a few hours!  But
And then I saw them - the high reaching mountains that poked their way up
from the desert floor just to the west of us.  I noted that they were tall -
easily 10,000 feet or more - and covered at their tips by juniper and pine.
The habitat called out to me - sort of a mixture of scrub oak and pine
forest, and clearly separated from any of the other mountains ranges to the
east.  The highest peak stood out, and looked as it deserved a name of its
own.  I would have to remember to check the map later to find out what it
was called.  In the meantime, I convinced my son that we should attempt to
find a road that reached into these enchanting mountains.
To my delight, we quickly found such a road.  It was all dirt, as was
expected, but well graded and easy to drive.  As we got up higher we had to
make a few decisions, as the road split off in many directions.  We drove
through a flattened area, and Christian pointed out that there were many
abandoned and primitive dwellings hidden among the oaks - dwellings made of
twigs and branches.  Curious - but then we knew we were in American Indian
country, and marveled at the evidence of their habitation.  As I navigated
the maze of roads, Christian then pointed out what he thought looked like an
Indian burial ground - complete with elevated racks made of logs.  I agreed,
but thought to myself that he obviously had been watching too much
television.  By now, I had my sites set on one of the taller peaks - one
that had a visible transmission tower on top, and clearly the destination of
one of the many road branches.  I decided to keep going.
As we wound ever higher, the driving quickly became more difficult.  I began
to regret this decision, as the hours began racking up and the tower
remained out of reach.  I could tell my son was getting fidgety, too, but he
held back any explicit opposition.  Up and up we went, the road forever
getting narrower, steeper, and rockier.  When we wound around what we were
sure had to be the last switchback, the road turned onto a steep hill that
led to the tower standing 300 feet above us.  My son was quite pleased when
I decided to stop the vehicle.  There was no need for me to attempt scaling
the hill in front of me - especially when we could both clearly see a pickup
truck parked on top.  We would just stop here, have a quick look around at
the panoramic 360 degree view, and be swiftly on our way.
"There's a man up there, too", my son informed me.  I looked, and sure
enough - not only was there a man up there, but he appeared to be staring
directly at us.  I decided to ignore him, and continued to have a look at
the vistas all around us.  I encouraged my son to do the same.  Before we
knew it, the pickup truck had been driven all the way down the slope and was
pulling up in front of us.
I immediately noticed the uniform AND the gun, and made an attempt at a weak
smile.  The stern looking gentlemen then said coldly, "Do you have a
"No, actually I didn't know I needed a permit", I replied, clearly thinking
the question was somehow lep related.
"You are on an Indian Reservation.  You are not allowed here", he said.
"Really?  Wow, I'm sorry, I had no idea - I saw no signs...", I spoke
truthfully, though it should have been obvious.  Even my roadmap would have
told me that.  The man, a wildlife official for the local reservation,
promptly requested my drivers license.  As he radioed the info, I returned
to my son, who nudged his head in the direction of our vehicle.  When I
turned to look, I was horrified to see my right rear tire as flat as a
pancake.  Oh my gosh - was I ever in a fix.
The ranger soon emerged from his truck, asking me what I was doing up there.
I told him we were just scoping it out and that we meant no harm.  And then
I pointed at my tire.  "Uh, my tire..."
"I know", he said, with a smirk.  "I noticed it right away".
Sheesh.  How delightful.  Stuck on this mountain, miles from nowhere, and we
had no idea how to get to the jack - no idea even where the spare tire might
be found.  Here we were, at gunpoint and minutes away from being driven down
the mountain chained in the back of a pickup.  "Don't worry", he told me
with a smirk, "We'll be glad to tow you down".  "I'll bet you would", I
thought to myself.
As it turns out, we were on "Ute Mountain", an ancient and conspicuous
mountain after which the "Ute Mountain Indian Tribe" has been so aptly and
imaginatively named.  Great.  Not only were we trespassing on Indian lands,
we were thoughtlessly recreating all over the very mountain this people felt
so fondly of they named their whole tribe after it!  The sooner we got off
this mountain the better!  Unfortunately, our tire wasn't cooperating.
It turns out that our Ute Mountain wildlife official (and tribesmember),
George Wells, Jr., actually helped us replace the tire.  This was a task
that took all three of us and resulted in the emptying of our personal
effects all across the highest reaches of the Ute Mountains in order to
access the jack and spare.  I'm sure that George was convinced he was
dealing with an absolute idiot.  I didn't argue (and, curiously, neither did
my son).  When we finally got the poor-excuse-for-a-spare tire mounted on,
George recommended that we start driving down the mountain - and that we
keep it slow.  He also insisted on following us down.  This made us nervous,
contemplating all the possible consequences of our obnoxious intrusion.  It
turns out we had irreverently wandered right through both the Ute Mountain
Indian Tribe Sacred Festival and Burial Grounds, an offense that was surely
as offensive as any.  
Thankfully, his insisting on following us turned out to be a gesture of
compassion rather than one of law enforcement.  He waved goodbye and smiled
as we finally made it back to hard pavement, no ticket or citation issued.
George Wells Jr. was truly a gem, and I would feel especially indebted to
him when I found out from the Goodyear mechanic in Cortez that his friend
had a vastly different experience.
"Ute Mountain?", he asked in astonishment, "How did you get up there?".
"I just drove", I replied.
Apparently he had a friend who was badly beaten by several tribesmen who
caught him sneaking onto Ute Mountain with a fishing pole.  I could only
imagine how I might have been dealt with had I been found by the same angry
mob swinging a butterfly net.
By the time we got back on the road it was already 4:00 p.m.   We had
somehow managed to waste five hours on this adventure.   And, you'll be
pleased to note, I never saw a single butterfly!
It was a long time before the silhouette of Ute Mountain would fade from my
rear view mirror.  Sacred mountain of the Ute Mountain Indian Tribe!
Perhaps someday someone will actually sample the insect fauna on this
mountain.  For now, at least, I'm comfortable with the notion that this
won't likely be me. 
Mark Walker.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...

More information about the Leps-l mailing list