Why Dirt Road?

Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO
Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO

Why Dirt Road Journal?

The short answer is because my family loves to get off road and have an adventure. But there’s a lot more to it too. We are adventurous souls. Being on the road of life pushes boundaries and comfort zones, and adventure makes new rules and breaks old ones. That is is where real living is.

And sometimes, we have no choice, adventure finds us. Life is that way.  It happens, and how we respond to it is our choice. We can engage with courage and a sense of curiosity and self-reliance, or we can sit at the bottom of the mountain and cry at the steepness of the summit. Life is in the climb. Traveling gives us practice climbing. Traveling off road gives us tools and stories, experiences and love for tackling new and unknown life.

Sometimes off road is a new cafe, or a practicing a foreign language, or trying new food. It could be taking a hike for the first time, visiting a world heritage site or sitting in meditation.

Being in those places is sometimes like scare-your-socks-off, and sometimes it is pure and simple beauty that makes you cry. Life is funny and scary and when you’re on off-road, it is also pure. It is the place where my husband is truly himself, and where we work together in pure fun. It is the place where anything pretentious dissipates and where presence is profoundly cultivated. Of course, the 1,000 foot drop on the passenger side is a friendly reminder to stay present.

In the last decade, my family has driven hundreds of back country roads in New Mexico and Colorado. These photos and video (forgive my video-editing skills or lack thereof) give you a small glimpse into one way we cultivate presence and find ourselves through adventure. Most often my husband drives, my son navigates, and I document. We’ve driven the highest roads in the country, and they are magnificent! And we all look at roads like Devil’s Punch Bowl and think, “holy moly, how will we navigate that doozy?”

Yes. Hell yes, we’ve gotten stuck, many times. We’ve had to turn around, and a couple of times we’ve had to ask people for help. But I always think, “well, it is only a days walk to the closest town. That’s do-able if anything were to happen.” And really nothing does. Nothing we haven’t handled at least. One time the car died. One time we flooded the engine driving through water too deep. One time we were stuck in a mud bog. But we’ve always gotten through it, and in the end we have a great story and a satisfying day. Even if my finger nails are gone at the end of it.

Life in general is much the same. Sometimes it can be nail-biting. Sometimes we get stuck, really stuck, and need to ask for help. Sometimes we can recognize that it is a short trip back to “normal” and just go for it.

So this blog…not so much about dragging your truck through the mountains, as expanding your mind and body by traveling to places off your beaten path. Finding your own off-road adventures to open your hearts and mind.

That’s why this is the Dirt Road Journal.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.






Bumps, bruises and lots of mud

cloudscapeSpringtime here in the mountains of the southwest is muddy windy season. There are cold and wintery, blustery winds, and warm, feel-the-summer-coming kind of wind. There is snow, mud, dirt devils and hail. It is a tumultuous time for sure. But we all basically bask in the loveliness of the warm days, and enjoy the rainstorms and hailstorms as part of the season, knowing that in just a couple of months the glorious days of Summer and Fall will be upon us. Of course, it is obligatory to complain about the wind, and so there is a fair amount of grumbling about that, but mostly in good fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately. As spring and winter are dueling it out, the flowers clearly recognize spring. They are blooming regardless of the cold nights, and sometimes snowy days. They trust that their time is close. I recognize that I am not always as trusting as the flowers. When summer is approaching, we all know what to expect, but with human transitions, well damn, who can tell? We have to go with it and live the ride. Trust in ourselves. That is the adventure, and the freaking crazy part too. Who knows where the ride takes me?

When you live on a dirt road, spring also brings with it enormous potholes, the road washes out and the mud on the car, well, is simply like a new coat of paint. The transition between the pavement and the dirt is where the biggest potholes grow. Huge enough to lose the car sometimes! It is always the rockiest part. It happens in life too, that colliding of the old and the new. It makes a mess for a bit. But it also requires an alertness, a taking notice. I actually love this alertness, the need to observe my surroundings and find what’s new and different.

Dirt roads do take us to all sorts of adventures. To unknown places of curious vistas and small out-of-the-way spots. This is truly the beauty of dirt roads, a path less traveled. And sometimes those roads can be a bit too bumpy, or they can lead to nowhere. Such is true with lots of things in life. My son said yesterday that solving trigonometry identities can become a road to nowhere, and the only thing to do is to start again. And therein lies the adventure.

 The future is called “perhaps,’ which is the only possible things to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow it to scare you. ~Tennessee Williams

There are so many metaphors for seeing transitions as part of our ever-evolving lives, and still when they are upon me, they feel new and unknown. And difficult, sometimes. Or enormously scary. Or all of the above. I remember when my son was learning to walk. He would take a few steps on his own and then throw himself to the ground and crawl again. In the beginning he could crawl like a mad man, fast and furious, so it was quicker than stumbling around on his feet. But then one day, I noticed, no more crawling. He got it – his feet take him around a lot faster. And there were a lot less bruises too.

oh the mud

To move from here to there, sometimes there is a need to suspend the present realities; they can be a distraction. ~Bidemi Mark-Morda

Finding the Santa Fe Trail (Part I)

Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe Trail

Sometimes things that aren’t lost are pretty hard to find. And once you discover them, you realize you’ve simply got to tell everyone you know because the treasure just might disappear forever if other people don’t know about it. This is how we felt about finding Fort Union National Park about thirty miles north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. It is just off I-25, about 90 miles east of Taos.

My son studied New Mexico history, like every student in New Mexico, and for the last couple of months he has been talking to me about different places around the state. Fort Union came up, and together we looked it up on the map. Seemed like a good day adventure. So we headed out of the pass toward Mora, and followed the Santa Fe Trail. The ruts along the road are still visible along the route.

Once we arrived at Fort Union, we got a serious history lesson from my son, but also from the national park itself. The brick chinmeys pierced the landscape while the June wind whipped the prairie grass, and we walked the Santa Fe Trail. Trail travelers generally ventured between 12-24 miles a day (between a 1/2 and full marathon at todays standards). From this major outpost, Santa Fe was still two days travel at least. Beautiful to consider, what it must have been.

More than 3,000 people lived at the Fort in the early 1800’s. There was a major hospital on the grounds that was the best in the region. The hospital had over 126 beds over its life. This Fort was a booming place. And we, along with the one National Park Service Ranger, had it to ourselves.

It takes just a few hours to explore the ruins and trail in this area so we drove into Las Vegas afterwards for lunch at the historic Plaza Hotel.  It is worth the 30 miles drive south to see the plaza.  The Plaza Hotel was built in the 1880’s when the railroad was built.

Fort Union National Park is a beautiful little day trip to explore the southern end of the Santa Fe Trail.  It is definitely worth the stop, taking a break from a long drive along I-25, or as a day trip from Taos, Santa Fe or Albuquerque.

Santa Fe Trail

Fort Union 4Fort Union 12

Fort Union 9

Fort Union 7

If you wanna be onthe edge for a night: Kokopelli Cave

We’ve been thinking about summer.  It was warm yesterday, finally.  And as we were eating lunch in the sunshine we were remembering our trip to Kokopelli Caves near Farmington, New Mexico.  My son was laughing about feeding the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, while my husband and I were remembering carrying our coolers and luggage down the half mile trail to the cave where we stayed.  It was a magnificent and unexpected weekend away in a remote man-made cave.  It is called a bed and breakfast, and it is a unique one at that.  But it is remote and rustic, climbing down a 1/2 mile trail to the front door; yet so luxurious at the same time–being on the side of a cliff in a queen sized bed!  It was amazing and worth the effort.  If anyone is thinking about a weekend adventure that is out of the ordinary, check it out:  Kokopelli Cave in Farmington, NM.

Kokopelli Cave
Squirrels too
Squirrels too
Geologic features along the trails
Kokopelli Cave

Old tomboy mine and her brides

As I travel the backroads of the west and explore the past of the old roads, the stories take me to other stories and yet other stories.  The first time I traveled Imogene Pass out of Telluride, Colorado I found such a story.  The Pass itself is magnificent.  The road is a sight, and to know how it was driven more than 100 years ago makes it an even more humbling experience.

Near the top of Imogene is Old Tomboy Mine.  An old mine that at one time supported a town with a YWCA, a school and a bowling alley.  The remnants are not in the best shape compared to many of the old mines around, but I found an autobiography that made this adventure one of the best.  Harriet Fish Backus recorded her time at Tomboy Mine with her husband, an assayor, in her book, Tomboy Bride.  She and George Backus travelled Imogene to Tomboy Mine in 1906.  There, she and her husband braved avalanches, packrats, isolation from deep snow, death,  and the dangers of mining.  She writes about birthing and raising children at 11,000 feet in the winter, and maintaining a household with constant snowfall that left them buried in 20 feet deep.

She writes as though it was yet another day, challenges like I face raising my son, caring for my husband and making an evening meal.  As I stand in Tomboy Basin, after driving up Imogene Pass, somehow I cannot bring myself to her moment.  She describes such happiness, amongst the fury of the snow, horses and men falling to their death from the road, a friend being shot, whooping cough, flu and meningitis. She finds such joy in her home, while its interior is four feet deep in snow. She was a truly courageous woman, thick skinned, loving and amazing in her hearty-iness.

She describes pink eye, colic, and teeth infections. Not so different from any mother’s worry, and yet in such harsh condition. I admire her so. Standing in the basin surrounded by summer wildflowers I think that her strength and beauty to endure among the jagged ridge of the basin summit is something from women past.  And I hope somewhere being up here, I can capture bits of it to carry on.

The road to Imogene Pass
Tomboy Mine remains
Imogene Pass Summit
Imogene Pass

The Beauty of Pearl Pass

Pearl Pass Summit

Pearl Pass, Colorado, near Aspen, at a summit of 12,705′ .

Cira 1872, miners from Crested Butte built a make shift road from Crested Butte over Pearl Pass to the mining town of  Ashcroft, and eventually made the road to Aspen.  The road is one of the most difficult we driven. The boulders, the steepness, and the scree fields are abundant.  So is the beauty. Its long and amazing views are surrounded by 13ers and 14ers. It was a beautiful day we drove, and we didn’t see another vehicle until we made it close to Ashcroft.   There are not many mining remains on the trail; not many people lived up there.  It was a thorough-fare between Crested Butte and Ashcroft, but just the thought of it being passable more than 100 years ago is quite an adventure.  It is famous for its hardcore mountain biking, but frankly, everything up there is pretty hardcore.  If you adventure up that way, make sure the road is passable–it was clear for us, but you can certainly see areas where the snow would never melt.  And remember those who came before us, and paved this road for us; they were certainly a beautiful and adventurous sort!

Circa 1910
Circa 1910, Pearl Pass Trip lunch on the road