Loveland Pass, Colorado April 5, 2021, 11:12 AM

Loveland Pass is a legendary place to look for a sought after Colorado bird: white-tailed ptarmigan.

Logopus leucura is an all white bird that lives above treeline in an all white landscape. This twelve ounce bird is notoriously hard to find because it’s snow white camouflage hides it from possible predators and birders with equal aplomb.

At close to 12,000 feet above sea level, Loveland Pass is exposed, cold, and very windy. Most of the visitors we see quickly get out of their cars, take a few selfies in front of the elevation sign, and then hurry back to their cars and return down to milder climes.

To find this ptarmigan take patience, lots of patience. It also helps to have a scope. What we are looking for is the image profile of the bird. In other words we are looking for a twelve ounce patch of snow with a black beak and eye.

My guide and I scan the bright white slopes for that all white bird in an all white landscape. Is it any wonder that birders don’t suffer from snow blindness while trying to add this game bird to their lifelists?

My guide, Carl, scanning the landscape at Loveland Pass.

I sought shelter from the cold wind in the passengers seat of Carl’s truck, I also wanted to sketch the scene. I laid out the contours of the mountain in sepia brush pen and then added the twined contour of the dirty snow in the forground. I then added bits of exposed ground on the mountainside with expressive strokes. I then sketched in the sign in the foreground that said” PARKING PERMITTED” In the sketch I left the sign blank, little realizing the words I would be adding a few days later.

I placed my sketchbook on the dashboard and headed back out to continue the search. But before I that, I though a selfie was in order. . .

I took a shelfie showing me in all my layers and as I was lowering my phone to put it back into my pocket, I received a phone call. It was 11:12 AM Mountain Time, 10:12 Am Pacific Time.

The call was from my mother. This was a odd time for her to call.

I answered and she was sobbing uncontrollably.

She told me my younger brother, Greg, had died.

Loveland Pass is a beautiful place to lose a ptarmigan but is also a beautiful place to learn such horrible news of the loss of your only brother.


California Zephyr Train #5: Denver to Colfax

My return journey was a beautiful but a somber one.

I spent much of my time in my roomette with short trips to the dining and observation car.

Taking the train back gave me the chance to reflect on the almost 47 years of my brother’s life. I lost myself in the landscapes and continued to sketch during our brief “Sketch Breaks”. Sketching provided the focus and “in the moment” experience my soul needed. Sketcher therapy I suppose.

One other activity that kept my mind busy was train birding. I created a list of all the birds seen from the train, without binoculars. I tallied 43 species as well as six mammals including elk and bighorn sheep. A highlight was having an adult bald eagle keeping pace with the Zephyr while we followed the Colorado River in Utah.

In Reno, the Zephyr pauses for a little longer than most stops because there is a crew change. This is when the engineer is replaced by a fresh one. During this time I sketched the profile of the locomotive on point, a General Electric P42DC, built in April of 1997. In an uncanny instance of coincidence, the locomotive number is 74, my brother was born in 1974. This seems to be the perfect locomotive to lead me back home to my mother.

1974 was the year of my brother’s birth. It was also the number of the locomotive on point that would take me back to my mother.
A quick sketch of my Sleeping Car entrance during a sketch break at Glenwood Springs. My sleeping car was just behind the locomotives. I added watercolor once I was back in my roomette.
I had spent time during the last year sketching the existing Southern Pacific water towers. So I knew the form well. I was surprised to see from my Superlunar perch, an existing water tower as we pulled out of Truckee to climb Donner Pass. I have been to Truckee many times but I had never seen this tower. I returned later to capture the water tower. There are 15 surviving examples in California. I have seen about five.

In Truckee, I called my mom to let her know that California Zephyr Number 5 was running on time. This was going to be the first time I had seen my mom since learning if my brother’s passing. I suppose that I could have booked a last minute fight from the Mile High City to be there much sooner but the pace, the landscape, and the rocking lullaby of the Zephyr seemed to be the right choice for taking me back to California.

At this point I was on the route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. And I would need the strength of those who built it to face the reality, once I stepped off the Zephyr at one of the Central Pacific’s rail camps that was later renamed Colfax.

The anticipation mounted as we ascended down the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, each mile bringing me closer to my mother.

In past train journeys, one of my favorites scenes is when a train pulls into a station and looking out the window, I see someone alight from the train, search the platform for that familiar face, and then the embrace. I don’t always know the relationship contained in that embrace but it is a story on that reunion of love, in the the stage of the train depot.

What would the observer on the second story of the Superlunar have thought of the man departing the train and embracing someone, clearly his mother, in the middle of the street in Colfax?

I know what I would have though, and I did.


Sketches From the Zephyr

Sketching from a moving train takes practice. I figured I had sketched from a moving boat racing up the Cristalino River in Brazil, how hard could this be?

It always helps to have an expansive view, perhaps of a mountain range in the distance that moves slowly, while the foreground blurs by. In any case you have to work fast and create a quick image from different snap shots from the journey.

It helps to have a few tricks in your sketcher’s toolbox. You have to capture things quickly, using a bit of short hand when trying to get the “essence” of the scene. This means leaving a whole lot of information out. You have to only include what is the most important. Good thing the average speed of the California Zephyr is only 55 miles an hour, the maximum speed limit when I got my driver’s permit. The reason for the slow speed is because the Zephyr is on a freight route. These rails are not built for high speed. The trade off is that sketching from the second story of a Superliner car is a bit easier.

Below are a few Zephyr sketches from Colfax to Denver.

A observation car quick sketch from Yuba Pass.
Donner Lake, formerly Truckee Lake. The east shore was the sight of the lake camps of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47.
Okay I will have to admit that this one is a bit tongue and cheek. Moffat Tunnel crosses under the Continental Divide and is six miles long. It takes the Zephyr ten minutes to pass through the tunnel.

Moffat Tunnel was first opened in 1928 at an altitude of 9,200 feet. At 6.2 miles long, it is the fourth longest railroad tunnel in North America. About 15 trains a day pass through Moffat Tunnel which is about 50 miles west of Denver.


Yuba Pass, M. P. 177

Ever since I had read about the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952, I have wanted to visit the location and do a sketch.

In January of 2021, I did a sketch of the stranded super liner that was based on a historical photo. Since that time I had wondered if the stranding site was accessible or if it was on a part of the line that was far from roads or trails. In January 1952, the whole landscape was snowbound, paralyzing all transportation routes. After some research, I found out that the site was ridiculously accessible because Milepost 177 was a ten minute walk from where Highway 20 joins Highway 80.

As I pulled off Highway 20, I donned my snowboots, an east bound Union Pacific freight passed by with a consist mainly featuring tanker cars. Freight has the right of way over passage service, it is the bread and butter of the contemporary railroad business.

A UP freight climbing towards Tunnel numbers 35 and 36 and off toward Donner Summit.

I wanted to find the exact location that the City of San Francisco became stranded: milepost 177, between Tunnels 35 and 36. But I also wanted to time my visit so I could see and photograph some trains at Yuba Pass. Well I just missed a freight train but my real prize was now running two minutes late and would depart Truckee at 9:39 AM.

This was the passenger service that replaced the City of San Francisco. It is one of the longest, and some would argue, most beautiful, routes on the Amtrak system. This is the California Zephyr. The hike up to Yuba Pass was extra special because on the following day, I would be boarding the eastbound California Zephyr, Train #6, to Denver, Colorado. Nine days later I would be returning on the westbound, Train #5. This was the train I was waiting for.

I hiked along the former grade of Track #1, the route is currently single tracked. The hike was relatively easy because it was along a railroad grade and the snow wasn’t too deep. It took me about ten minutes to reach Tunnel # 35. The current track goes through the tunnel but the former track goes around Smart Ridge. It was in this area that the City of San Francisco became stranded in 1952.

I looked at a few arial reference photos and picked my spot, in the shadow of the rocky ridge. I sketched in the ridge on the right and the trees in the background and far off the spine of a mountain range. For this I used Micron dark sepia pens.

The west entrance of the 738 foot long Tunnel # 35.

I sketched for about 20 minutes and then I walked toward Tunnel #36 to find a good vantage point to photograph the Zephyr and I decided on standing near the eastern entrance of Tunnel #35 so I could photograph the train coming out of Tunnel #36. And then turn westward to capture the Zephyr as it disappeared into Tunnel # 35.

I had no idea when the train would be emerging from the tunnel but I filled my time being serenaded by the beautiful whistle of a mountain chickadee. This is the song of the western mountains. Spring was slowly arriving in the Sierras.

A mountain chickadee singing from the top of a pine. Bird and trains in the Sierra Nevada, I’m in heaven!!

At 10:40, I saw the headlights of the westbound Zephyr.

A first sighting of the California Zephyr coming out of the east portal of the 326 foot long Tunnel #36. In the foreground is the rail bed of the former track #1.
California Zephyr train #5. This train started in Chicago.
The Zephyr heading into Tunnel #35 as it climbs down the valley toward it’s next stop, Colfax. My footsteps are in the foreground.


April 20, 2021

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

With the recent shootings in Boulder, Colorado, I headed to the memorial to one of the most tragic school shootings in United States history.

Indeed the word “Columbine” is code for a school shooting and unfortunately there have been many Columbine copycat crimes. This tragedy took place on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

When I knew I was going to be in the Denver area and looking at a map, I realized that Littleton was a short drive from the Denver metro area. I knew as a American and as an educator I had to visit the memorial to the victims and those wounded in this tradegy, in a park behind Columbine High.

So on the morning of April 2, 2021, almost 22 years after the shootings, I headed down to Littleton to the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park. Littleton is a town without a downtown or really a main street. It is full of tract homes of various sizes, strip malls, big box stores, big box churches, parks, and schools.

When I arrived at Clement Park, two workmen where shoveling dirt at the entrance and a woman was jogging around the memorial. It was the quintessential picture of “life goes on”. I had the memorial to myself, except for a brief visit from a Say’s phoebe and a western meadowlark.

From the top of the memorial looking out to Columbine High School. The baseball field is named after “Mr. D” the much-loved principal at Columbine at the time of the shootings.

The memorial consists of two concentric circles. The inner circle, called the Ring of Remembrance, honors the lives of the 13 victims of the gunfire. Much of the memorial is made out of local red sandstone. For me the most touching and emotional rock slab honors the teacher that was killed on April 20, Coach Dave Sanders.

Each panel of the Ring of Remembrance is dedicated to each victim with statement written by family members, some including quotes from scripture, and one included a poem written by a victim shortly before her passing.

The outer circle is called the Wall of Healing and contains statements from the Littleton community. This is the part of the memorial that I chose to sketch. Across from the redbrick sandstone wall was a low bench for reflection. It was here that I chose my spot, looking across to the wall with a line of snow underneath.

Sketching is capturing the outward but also turning inward. Sketching, in other words, is a mediation. And I though about this tragedy and how it altered the Littleton Community and the wider world. It was startling to think that two students could turn death and destruction on their own peers. As an educator, could I seen signs of this in the eyes of my own students? At what point does innocence end?

“Why?” is a frequently asked question about the events that unfolded 22 years ago. And there is much misinformation and speculation in an attempt to answer this seemingly simple question. I have no answers to this question and at times we have to come to terms with not really knowing the full truth, or settling with an incomplete answer.

But this memorial is also a testament to hope and is a statement to one community’s response to violence. Some of the statements on the Wall of Healing reflects this hope. One panel reads, “Rather than a loss of innocence, I’ve got to hope that something like this encourages us to be better people.”

The above photo was taken from Leawood Park, the park across the street from the high school. Many of the students evacuated to the park on April 20, 1999. One student noted that a line of teachers spanned the street in front of the park to protect the students. This is a strong metaphor for the love and compassion all teachers have for their students.

Another panel on the Wall of Healing, written by a faculty member, simply states: “The children and Dave are what we need to remember.”


Red Rocks Amphitheatre

One Colorado location on my sketch list is Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colorado.

While I have never seen a concert at Red Rocks, the stunning amphitheatre first came to my attention from a live music video played on MTV (back when MTV played music videos). It featured a little known Irish band named after a spy plane. This was U2 and the song was the anthem about the Troubles, Sunday Blood Sunday.

The band was framed in tall, red rock with fire blazing on the top of three of the mesas. The singer, Bono, with this breath steaming into the 6,400 foot, cold, rainy air, yells, “No more, No more war!”

This was in 1983 but Red Rocks has been a music venue since June 15, 1941 and has hosted such notable artists as the Beatles, Hendrix, Jethro Tull (part of the Red Rocks Riots that banned rock music at the venue for five years), John Denver (Duh!), U2, the Grateful Dead (they have played the venue 25 times, more than any other band), the Moody Blues, Steve Martin, a ton of jam bands, Neil Young, and many others who will never be mentioned in this blog! (Think John Tesh).

A statue of John Denver with a Golden Eagle at the Trading Post.

The venue is not only used for musical performances. On May 2, 1999 a student memorial for the Columbine High School shootings was held at Red Rocks. At the time, Columbine was the most deadly school shooting in history. Columbine High School is in Littleton, 22 miles from the amphitheater. Sadly the death toll has now been eclipsed.

Looking toward the stage from the top of the amphitheater. In the distance is the Denver metropolitan area.

Red Rocks is open to the public, even when there is not a concert. When I visited in the afternoon, there where quite a few visitors, just to see the beautiful location. Music was provided by a high school girl playing the flute. Her rendition of “Rolling in the Deep” was sublime. I picked a row (42) and a seat (8) to start my sketch. I sat in the shade because Colorado was unseasonably warm and under my feet was unmelted snow.

A different angle of Creation Rock. On the opposite rock formation, Ship Rock, where two peregrines and I couldn’t leave Red Rocks without hearing the best music ever performed here. The call of the canyon wren. The wren did not disappoint.

As I was sketching a young girl, a third grader I would guess, walked by. She doubled back and looked at my work in progress. “Nice drawling” she proclaimed.

That’s all the encouragement I need to just keep on sketch’in!


California Zephyr #6: Colfax to Denver

“Trains seems to rattle out stories, as though the motion of the track acts to shake up thoughts and loosen tongues. There’s a world outside the window and a whole separate world within.” ~Ticket the Ride, Tom Chessyre (My California Zephyr book)

For a while now I have wanted to ride the California Zephyr, one of AMTRAK’s most scenic routes.

Last Spring, I had to cancel my train journey but this Spring Break I booked an abbreviated trip, not departing from Emeryville but Colfax and detraining in Denver instead of Chicago.

I chose Colfax because it is a 35 minute drive from my mother’s house in Penn Valley. The train was running two minutes late. When I would finish the journey to Denver, the number 6 was running two hours late. Freight trains are given priory over passage service like the California Zephyr.

Four other people boarded at Colfax, two middle aged women looked like they were headed to Reno. The two other travelers were a bit older and appeared to be heading further down the line. They are all traveling in coach. I never saw them again.

Colfax is not one of the “Fresh Air- Smoke Break” stops (oxymoron I know), so the Zephyr stops only long enough to pick up or drop off passengers.

The California Zephyr train # 6 pulling into Colfax running two minutes late. On point is a General Electric P42DC, built September of 2001. Number 194 and 153 are now 20 years old.

Number six pulls into Colfax. The platform is too short for the two locomotives with the eight car consist. I am on the first car behind the locomotives, sleeper car 32048 and roomette number 003. This will be my address for the next 30 hours or so. Once I have boarded, the train slowly pulls forward so the Reno travelers can board the coach car, at the end of the train.

There is something wonderful about stepping off the platform and into another moving world. The California Zephyr is a self-contained world with everything you could possibly need: food, drink, a bathroom, and a bed (not to mention the amazing views).

The locomotive throttled up and headed east out of Colfax and my car attendant showed me to my roomette (featured sketch). I set my bag down and I headed to the opposite side of the train to see the first of many views: Cape Horn. If there is one problem with the Zephyr is that there are great views on both sides of the train and unless your sitting in the observation car, your roomette faces only one side of the train.

I book a late lunch in the dining car with the dining car attendant, John. I head to the observation car and wait for my name to be called. Here I do my first sketch abroad the Zephyr. Over the course of the journey I do many more.

John, also known as Big John, seems to have worked for Amtrak for a while. He reminds everyone that they are short staffed for this leg of the journey. This is because many of the Amtrak workers have been furloughed because of Corvid-19. At one point, one of the engineers helps out with lunch service. Don’t worry. Some engineers are on board and there was someone at the controls as we headed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I enjoyed talking train talk with the engineer, now promoted to dining car assistant. He tells me a little about the locomotive and we discuss the recently restore Big Boy 4014, that largest steam locomotive in operation.

After lunch I head back to my roomette and do some more scenic sketches.