Zephyr Sketching (Westbound) Part 1

The California Zephyr Train # 5 was early coming into Denver’s Union Station. And we departed from the Mile High City, right on schedule.

The stunning Union Station in Denver.

We climbing up into the Tunnel District, so named because the Zephyr passes through 28 tunnels. The king of all tunnels in this stretch, if not any stretch in North America, has to be the Moffat Tunnel. The tunnel is 6.2 miles long and crosses under the Continental Divide meaning that once we come out of the west portal of the tunnel, the waters will be flowing to the west coast and behind us, the water flows east. At 9,239 ft, the tunnel is the highest point anywhere on the AMTRAK system.

On the western side of the Moffat Tunnel is the stop of Fraser-Winter Park. The next stop on the western route is the small Colorado mountain town of Granby. The conductor told us the little story of Marin Heemeyer and his Killdozer.

Heeymeyer was from South Dakota but moved to Colorado where he became a popular member of the community and one of the best welders in the area. He opened a successful muffler business in Granby. Over the following years Heemeyer feuded with the city and others over zoning, building permits, sewage lines, and entry roads to his business. Over that time many in the community crossed Heeymeyer, which was a big mistake because Marv can really hold a grunge.

He bought a Komatsu D355A bulldozer and he sold his business and property and then rented a building on his former property from the new owners where he secretly modified the bulldozer. For over a year he worked on his bulldozer by fortifying it with steel and concrete creating an indestructible machine of destruction. On June 4, 2004 at about 3:00 PM Heemeyer put his plan into action.

During the two hours and seven minute bulldozer rampage, Heeymeyer destroyed 13 buildings (including the city hall, police station, the former mayor’s house, and newspaper offices). The killdozer caused seven million dollars of damage. The police where helpless to stop the bulldozer and the rampage only ended when the killdozer got stuck while destroying Gambles hardware store and Heeymeyer ended his own life.

In Utah, the two Zephyrs meet as the westbound Train 6 passes us on it’s way to Chicago.
The poor souls of Salt Lake City have to wake up at an ungodly hour to catch the train. The California Zephyr pulls into the City of Saints at either 11:30 PM (Train 5) or 3:30 Am (Train 6). Here we get a stretch break and the locomotives are refueled. I took a stretch break because I rarely sleep on trains.

23 Years Later: What Have We Learned? (My 500th Post)

While I would have liked my 500th post (an amazing milestone that I can scarcely believe) to be about a positive subject I have learned never to turn away from the difficult, the complex, and the sorrowful. While school shootings still happen, we as educators and citizens must not turn our collective backs on the causes and reasons these shooting continue happening. What is it about our county and our values and the way we fund and support mental health and the ease of availability of high powered weaponry that lets these killings happen at an astounding rate?

What have we learned in the 23 years since Columbine? I will let you answer that question for yourselves but I do want to share a few statistics: according to the Washington Post, since Columbine, there has been at least 554 victims in school shootings. It is estimated that 311, 000 children have been exposed to gun violence in a school setting.

I returned to the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado this time with my mother, a former educator , Steve and Sharon. Since my first visit I am convinced that every educator in the land (if not every resident) should come to this shine of death, destruction, and renewal.

I had visited the memorial in April of 2021, when there was still snow in the deep shadow areas that will not see sun for another few months.

We visited Clement Park, the park behind Columbine High School, and we could not find any parking near the memorial because, and I’m not making this up, of a Unicorn Festival.

Sharon dropped us off and we walked up towards the memorial to the 13 killed and the many injured and changed forever by the acts of two Columbine High seniors on April 20, 1999.

My mother at the memorial.

To me, this should have been a clarion call for major reforms in gun controls, mental health, and school protocols. Sadly the killing in schools just keeps happening. What have we really learned from Columbine?


Rocky Mountain N. P.

On Friday morning I made my third visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in almost a year. This time I was with mom and Steve and their friend Sharon.

At this time of year, in the summer, visitors have to reserve an entry time (this is a very popular National Park). Our time was between nine and ten AM.

Our first stop, just west of the Fall River Entrance, was Sheep Lakes. Here we scanned the meadows and lakes for bighorn sheep, moose, and elk. We saw none. So after a sketch (featured sketch), we moved on.

Sheep Lakes sans sheep, but amazing geology!

We then climbed up Trail Ridge Road towards the Alpine Visitor Center. A few miles up we encountered many cars pulled off the road and people looking off to our left. This meant only one thing: large mammals. In this case a moose cow and calf!

Some of our party got fair to no looks at the moose, as the world’s largest deer disappeared into the trees. We continued climbing up towards the highest point of the road at 12, 183 feet. But before we got there we pulled over at Rock Cut to see my favorite mammal of the Rocky Mountains.

This is not a black bear, elk, moose, bighorn sheep or even the yellow-bellied marmot. This is the endearingly cute if not edging toward extinction pika (Ochotona princeps). The pull out at Rock Cut did not disappoint, we saw marmot and pika.


The Lifer That Looks Like a Rock

We had missed the all-white-bird-in-an-all-whire-landscape on April 5 and I was back in July at 11,600 feet to find the master of camouflage, the white-tailed ptarmigan.

This bird encounter in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was to be one of my most memorable and perhaps my most personal.

We headed out on the Medicine Bow Bend trail under clear skies. The air was a bit thin for a sea leveler of the Coast Range like me but the air was not as thin as birding in the Andes at 13,000 feet looking for Andean condor.

We were in the Alpine Tundra of the high Rocky Mountains, above tree level where all flora had a stunted necessity because of the extreme conditions of high elevations coupled with a very short growing season.

We were ten minutes into our search along the trail when we heard the “ku-kurii” call somewhere upslope.

“Ptarmigan!” Carl said with joy mixed with relief.

All eyes scanned the slope, where a ptarmigan can very much resemble a small rock in an environment strewn with small rocks!

Near the top of the ridge, Carl spotted a male ptarmigan, that looked very much like a rock. We trekked upslope to get a closer look. As it turns out, white-tailed ptarmigan are not so wary of humans, despite the fact that they are hunted as a game bird, but not here in Rocky Mountain N. P.

The ptarmigan flew downslope, revealing it’s all white wings. We all got eyes on it and then it promptly disappeared. Carl headed upslope in a round about manner but he couldn’t find the master of disguises. I scampered up to Carl’s position and scanned downslope only to find that Carl had walked right past him. The ptarmigan was sitting right next to a rock, looking very much like a rock.

This male ptarmigan was banded on both of it’s feathered feet that bore the number 47.

The male white-tailed ptarmigan (on the left) and a rock on the right.

I pulled out my sketchbook and we where close enough for me to get a quick sketch in.

We laid low and got amazing looks at the male, #47 by it’s leg bands. He was not focused on us, although we were very much focused on him, but his attention was drawn downslope. Soon the call of another male just down slope told us that we where at the border of a bird dispute where two territories come together.

A male from downslope flew up to where our bird was perched. What followed was a short flighted chase. The male ptarmigans land and both birds faced each other and boxed with their white wings. After the short conflict, the invading male turned tail, and flew back downslope to his territory.

Here is a picture of Corvidsketcher sketching the featured sketch.
A male is his territory. Note the feathered feet, represented in the genius of the species Lagopus (feathered feet) and he’s sporting jewelry, two leg bands that identifies this male as “47”.


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.



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!


A Sketcher’s Prep

Before any great journey, I do some sketcher’s prep.

In this case, the featured sketch, is a spread about my Colorado birding wishlist featuring such birds as scaled quail, sharp-tailed grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, and white-tailed ptarmigan. I did quick thumbnail sketches of each species, in other words, you would never use this spread as an identification guide.

While these sketches are no where near David Allen Sibley standards, they help me to see each bird better. To sketch from a photo requires close attention, once when the sketch is penciled in, then when it’s inked and finally a third time when the image in painted.

I also wanted to use a new travel palette for Colorado and I documented it’s creation in another spread.

I first sketched out the layout of my new palette in my landscape Delta Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook. As I added each color to the wells of the palette I painted it in and added a swath on the opposite page. This will provide a good reference of what the colors look like on the heavy weight Delta paper.

I love using Stillman & Birn sketchbooks and I love the feel of a panoramic, landscape format but I dislike the fact that this book is not made in hard cover but softcover only. It does not provide a solid sketching surface to paint on. I will see how this book holds up on this trip.

I also carry a small notebook that help me prep before a trip. I writing down my itinerary, addresses, lodging information, any travel notes, random poems, target life birds, and a targeted sketch list.


Post 400: A Zephyr Deferred

Zephyr: (n) a gentle wind from the west.

Last spring break I booked a roomette on the California Zephyr, a 2,438 mile journey from Emeryville, Ca to Chicago, Il. This route passes through such cities as Sacramento, Truckee, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. It is one of the most scenic routes on the AMTRAK network.

Last spring I was going to travel the entire route but then Covid 19 happened and I had to cancel the trip. I knew that this rail dream was deferred and at first chance I would rebook this trip because I have always wanted to travel by rail through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.

The opportunity came in spring break of 2021. Instead of traveling the whole route, I booked a round trip with a roomette from Colfax, Ca (near my mom’s house) to Denver, Co. This stretch includes the most scenic parts of the route and Denver provides it’s own destinations.

On this trip, I plan to do many quick sketches of train views along the route. At California Arts Supply in San Mateo, I got a custom Ronquad which is a 4 by 6 piece of card stock that would be a template for framing each sketch. I used my Ronquad on the featured sketch.

But why Denver and not Chicago? Both cities provide great sketching opportunities but Denver has an edge over Chicago: life birds! I had a few ABA lifers on my list: scaled quail, dusky grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, brown-capped and black rosy-finch, sharp-tail grouse, and the much sought after white-tailed ptarmigan. And while Chicago offers lots of architecture sketching opportunities, Denver has that too but also beautiful landscapes.

The Zephyr stops at the historic Union Station in downtown Denver and I booked a “Pullman” room in the hotel at the station, the Crawford Hotel. I admit this is a bit a splurge but I love the idea of stepping off the train in the evening, after a two day trip, and walking a short distance to my room in Union Station. It seems a throwback to a different era. An era when more people travelled by rail, when the airline industry was in it’s infancy.

As I do before any trip, I do a few sketches to build knowledge and excitement. The featured sketch is from the AMTRAK website for the California Zephyr. This location looks to be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I also like to do a map of my future journey. In this case, Train 6, from Colfax to Denver with all the stops in between.

California Zephyr map showing all the stops from Colfax, Ca to Denver, Co.