Friday, July 6, 2012

Pilgrimage to Black Canyon

The Dragon
My mother had one sibling, a reprobate and ne'er-do-well named Bob.  I never met the man.   There was always a bit of tension in my family about Bob's situation.  I can't ever recall my parents fighting with one another, but I do remember a tense scene for a few summer days when I was young when my mother proposed allowing Bob to move in with our family until he got his life straightened out.  Our tiny suburban house was already tight with my parents and three siblings, and I foresaw a catastrophe if we stuffed in another person--and a stranger as well.  My father must have felt the same way, because Bob never showed up at the door, and after a while the whole affair receded into history.

My parents, despite both working, were of very modest means.  We took two family vacations during the entire time I was growing up, one to see Niagara Falls, and the other to swim in the ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Because they couldn't afford it, my parents never allowed themselves to be bitten by the travel bug.

I was out of the house and in college when my uncle Bob died.  At the time, he had been living in Pueblo, Colorado.  So, it came as a bit of a surprise to me when my mother called to inform me that she and my dad were going to drive from Cleveland, Ohio to Pueblo to take care of Bob's funeral and affairs.  A few days following the funeral, I received a postcard from my parents; after they had taken care of Bob's affairs, they had driven further west to Delta, Colorado to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (since re-designated a national park).  I was left with two questions upon receiving their card:  (1) Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (huh?) and (2) of all the places to visit in the West, why there?

I never really talked to my parents in detail about their trip, and my mother has since died, but I've always had this little feeling in the back of my mind that I ought to visit the one spectacular natural feature in the West that had piqued my mother's interest enough to give her the incentive to drive a half-day further west to see.  Since Kali and I were in Grand Junction in June (a two-hour drive from the Black Canyon), I definitely wasn't going to pass up the opportunity.
A typical view of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  The Gunnison River is visible in the lower left of the image.
Kali at the Gunnison Point Overlook.  The day we visited was hot, humid and hazy.
Pink and grey
The Gunnison River has been carving the canyon for about two million years.  The canyon walls are formed of metamorphic granite and gneiss.  But the area has had a tortured geologic history, and magma has flowed into and filled cracks in the base rock, cooling to form a harder rock called pegmatite.  The pegmatite is lighter-colored than the rocks in the cliffs, is more dense, and is less easily eroded.  As a result, many of the numerous overlooks in the park are located on pegmatite dikes, sills and fins that extend out and into the canyon and stand apart from the general canyon walls.
The Gunnison River has been dammed and diverted upstream of the canyon for agricultural irrigation, which has significantly diminished its flow through the gorge.  Imagine the sight when the river ran at 12,000 cubic feet per second during heavy spring runoff...
The Painted Wall
At its deepest, the canyon is 2,772 feet (856 m) from rim to floor.  The Painted Cliff in the image above, at 2,300 feet (702 m), is the highest cliff in the state of Colorado. If the Empire State Building stood on the canyon floor here, it would reach slightly more than half way to the top of the cliff.
A pink pegmatite alvar, with the partially snowy Mummy Mountains in the far distance across the canyon.
An iridescent green, pollen dusted native bee in a rose-pink cactus flower.
A woodpecker fancied this dead juniper
Broad and dark-leaved Arrowleaf Balsamroot plants (Balsamorhiza saggitata) were abundant in the park, but few retained their flowers this late in the season.
A rock garden; the lupines were especially numerous and beautiful.
A lichen-encrusted pinyon pine limb.
Juniper on a pink pegmatite alvar
My favorite image from the visit


packrat said...

Very interesting family story, Scott. I have to agree about the last image here. It should be a painting.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Intersting trip and story though I still wonder how it was that your parents came to know about the canyon and realise that they were within reach of it at a time when they had other things to deal with.

Scott said...

I made a LOT of images of the butterfly, Packrat; it was very cooperative. I shared the best with you. Thanks for the compliment.

Scott said...

John: As I mentioned, my Mom passed away in 1995, and my Dad, though still living, probably wouldn't remember this story. If I press him even a little bit for details about a story he can't recall well, he gets surly, so it's not worth irritating him. But, I sure wonder how they knew about the Black Canyon, too.