Monday, January 29, 2024

Rocks in Balance: A Closer Look at the Geological Marvels of Precariously Balanced Rocks

 By Steven Wade Veatch

Balanced Rock, in Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods Park, is an example of a type of geologic feature called “precariously balanced rocks,” or PBRs. These interesting rocks are common in the American West, where dry climates preserve them. They are also found worldwide in other climates. 

Figure 1. Balanced Rock is a famous PBR in the Garden of the Gods Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The rock appears to defy gravity by balancing on a small base. This rock is an erosional remnant of the Fountain Formation. Photo date 2021 by S. W. Veatch.

PBRs can vary in size from small boulders to massive stone monoliths weighing thousands of pounds—and many are precariously perched on a pedestal. They look like they could topple over in a strong wind. 

People have long been fascinated by PBRs. In the past, certain cultures linked these rocks to spiritual or supernatural realms and used them in religious rituals. Balanced rocks also held spiritual significance in Native American culture as markers for guiding mystical journeys. They were also used by early Anglo settlers as they made their way to new homes in the west. In addition to their spiritual significance, PBRs have become popular tourist attractions, and in many cases are surrounded by parks where tourists come to see these incredible geological wonders and marvel at their implausible balancing acts.

Figure 2. An old postcard view of graffiti-covered Balance Rock, Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A creation of the last glacial era, this 25 x 15 x 10-foot boulder balances on a small rock below it. Postcard circa 1902. From the collection of S. W. Veatch.

Figure 3. Big Balanced Rock Near Douglas, Arizona. Postcard circa 1948.
From the collection of S. W. Veatch.

Figure 4. Balance Rock, Idaho. Postcard circa 1940s. From the collection of S. W. Veatch.

Figure 5. An old postcard view of the mushroom-shaped “Seat of Pluto” rock formation in the Red Rocks Park, Morrison, Colorado. Postcard circa 1912. From the collection of S. W. Veatch.

Figure 6. An old postcard view of Balance Rock, Camden, Maine. This glacial erratic is located on Fernald's Neck peninsula near Lake Megunticook. Postcard circa 1910s.
From the collection of S. W. Veatch.

PBRs are formed in several ways. Some PBRs result from weathering and erosion. When water percolates through fractures in rock, those fractures can grow and ultimately break the larger rocks into several smaller pieces. Over thousands of years, as erosion lowers the ground level, the rocks are exposed at the surface, and are frequently stacked on top of one another. Weathering and erosion of the exposed rock by wind, rain, and relentless cycles of freezing and thawing removes rock material around the balanced rock, leaving the harder rock behind. Over time, a rock pedestal is formed as the softer material erodes away, leaving only a small base of support protected by the more resistant rock. 

Figure 7. A sandstone PBR at Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

Figure 8. A sandstone PBR at Red Rocks Open Space, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

Figure 9. A sandstone PBR at Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

Figure 10. A sandstone PBR at Palmer Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

A glacier can create a PBR when it snatches up a boulder and carries it away in the moving ice. When the glacier melts, it drops the entrained boulder onto its new location (see fig. 2, 6, and 15). Glacial meltwater then removes the softer till and outwash, leaving larger rocks (erratics) perched on smaller rocks. Gravity is another way of creating a PBR when it pulls a larger rock down a slope that comes to rest precariously on another rock or rocks (figure 11). 

Figure 11. A PBR in Mount Manitou Park, Colorado. A large boulder of Pikes Peak Granite has moved downhill and rests on a smaller boulder. Postcard circa 1912 from the collection of S. W. Veatch.

Figure 12. A granite PBR. Devils Head area, part of the Rampart Range
of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

Figure 13. A PBR perched on granite at the Lake George Community Park, Lake George, Colorado. Photo date 2020 by L. Canini.

Figure 14. This PBR is made of an egg-shaped piece of Pikes Peak Granite and is located on Ute Lakes Fishing Club property, about 6 miles north of Divide, Colorado. The 1.08-billion-year-old Pikes Peak Granite often forms rounded and even dome-shaped structures as it erodes. This is due to three main factors: ice, water, and the release of pressure from the overburden. Photo date 2020 by S. W. Veatch.

Figure 15. A balanced rock on Azure Mountain in the Adirondacks. This glacial erratic was set in this precarious position by a continental ice sheet about 19,000 to 14,000 years ago as the ice gradually melted. Photo USGS, Public Domain.

PBRs are not only fascinating sights, but by remaining balanced, reveal a lack of regional seismic activity from the past (Rood, et al., 2020). These balanced rocks also indicate the maximum intensity of past earthquakes (Brune, 1996; Imbler, 2020). By collecting data on PBRs, seismologists examine uniquely valuable data on the rates of rare, large-magnitude earthquakes. 

Over time, erosion, weight changes, or earthquakes will cause PBRs to topple. Tragically, acts of vandalism can destroy PBRs, as seen in 2012 when a scout leader and a friend pushed over a small PBR in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah (Botelho and Watkins, 2014). 

Figure 16. A PBR stands as a lonely sentinel in Arches National Park, Utah.
Photo date 2013 by S. W. Veatch.

PBRs show the power of nature and add to the incredible beauty that is found in the natural world. These rocks are a reminder that the forces of nature can transform even the most stable objects. Whether seen as cultural artifacts, geological curiosities, or sources of seismic information, precariously balanced rocks never fail to fascinate and inspire awe. 


The author greatly appreciates the help of Laura Canini of the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society, who provided interesting discussions and photos of Colorado PBRs. 

References and Further Reading

Botelho, G. and Watkins,T., 2014, Ex-Boy Scout leaders involved in pushing over ancient Utah boulder charged. Retrieved from CNN on January 29, 2023.

Brune, J. N. 1996, Precariously balanced rocks and ground-motion maps for Southern California. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 86 (1A): 43–54. 

Imbler, S, 2020, Why Scientists Fall for Precariously Balanced Rocks, Atlas Obscura, January 9, 2020, Retrieved from on October 1, 2022.

Rood, A.H., Rood, D.H., Stirling, M.W., Madugo, C.M., Abrahamson, N.A., Wilcken, K.M., Gonzalez, T., Kottke, A., Whittaker, A.C., Page, W.D. and Stafford, P.J., 2020, Earthquake Hazard Uncertainties Improved Using Precariously Balanced Rocks. American Geophysical Union Advances, 1: e2020AV000182. Retrieved from: on 10/01/2022.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Discovering Hidden Treasures: A Journey through Leelanau Peninsula’s Lighthouse West Natural Area

 By Steven Wade Veatch

Leelanau’s Ice Age history is on full display in the Lighthouse West Natural Area. This 42-acre conservation area, with 640 feet of cobble strewn shoreline along Lake Michigan, is on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.  It is near Leelanau State Park, which has a lighthouse. This preserve, although it has “lighthouse” in its name, does not have one. The Leelanau Conservancy established the preserve in 2004, and it is known for attracting birds that stop for food and rest during their migration to nesting grounds farther north (DuFresne, 2021; Lighthouse West website). A 1.2-mile trail, built in 2009, crosses various habitats and geological features.

Much of the Lighthouse West Natural Area’s trail goes through dense woodlands.
Photo date August 2023 by Shelly Veatch.

First, the trail enters an old orchard with pear and apple trees. Patches of wild raspberries and blackberries are profuse there. 

Next, the trail enters the woods and then goes along the edge of a steep bluff with views of the hardwood forest below. You can hear the wind stir the tree leaves. The waves of nearby Lake Michigan crash on the shore and echo through the forest. The air is alive with birdsong and filled with the scent of flowers, forest, and earth.

The trail descends the bluff via a steep stairway and levels off on a boulder terrace shaded by maple and beech trees. Lake Michigan, when it was about 20 feet higher than it is today, created the terrace. This area displays these ancient lake levels and wave-cut bluffs. As glaciers receded, they deposited the boulders. The ice was gone by 10,000 years ago (Fagan, 2009). 

Boulders of various sizes, deposited by receding glaciers,
are along the stairs and trail. Photo date 2023 by Shelly Veatch.

Soon the trail goes around a large glacial erratic, the size of a compact car. This boulder is a felsic granite with small phenocrysts of garnet (almandine-spessartine series). Glacial erratics of all sizes are strewn along the trail. 

A large boulder or glacial erratic, carried by Ice Age glaciers,
was dropped here when the ice melted. The boulder is made of granite.
Photo date 2023 by Shelly Veatch.

Closeup of a freshly broken surface of the large granite erratic.
Note garnet phenocryst (approximately 1 cm) circled in red.
Photo date 2023 by Shelly Veatch.

The trail reaches a viewing deck with a bench, and then a final stairway descends from the ancient lake level to the current shoreline of Lake Michigan. Large boulders, also left by Ice Age glaciers, are present near the shore. The boulders are a variety of sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks. Limestone erratics preserve different kinds of Paleozoic fossils.

The Lake Michigan shoreline is a cobble beach.
The boulders and cobbles were released here by melting glaciers.
Photo date 2023 by S. W. Veatch.

A large Paleozoic limestone erratic has impressions
of coiled ammonoid fossils. Photo date 2023 by S. W. Veatch. 

This stretch of Lake Michigan’s shoreline conveys an air of tranquility, untouched by the bustling currents of urban life. This quiet, uncrowded, and remote place unveils a canvas of pristine landscapes. The waters here lap against a cobble beach, and their rhythmic whispers harmonize with the rustling leaves, creating a haven of peace for those fortunate enough to visit this remarkable place. 

References and further reading

DuFresne, J., 2021, The Trails of M-22, Michigan Trail Maps, Clarkston, MI.

Fagan, B., 2009, The Complete Ice Age: How Climate Change Shaped the World, Thames & Hudson, London.

Lighthouse West Natural Area Leelanau Conservancy: Retrieved from on 08/11/2023.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Bolts of Tragedy: A Teen's Fatal Encounter in the Cripple Creek Mining District

 By Steven Wade Veatch


            On a fateful Wednesday, July 15, 1914, 13-year-old John F. Bowen visited his friends at the Kilpatrick Ranch near Gillette, Colorado. It started out like any other day for John—his past behind him, his future ahead, but unlike other days, this would be his last day on Earth.

Young John Bowen had lived an eventful life. He was born in Leadville on January 12, 1901, to Irish parents. John and his family lived in the Big Stray Horse Gulch in Leadville. His father, Thomas, worked in a Leadville silver mine. Certainly, his father had heard about the roaring Cripple Creek Mining District while working in Leadville. Unable to resist the lure of the Cripple Creek goldfields, Thomas gathered up his family and moved to the “World’s Greatest Gold Camp.” By 1905, he was working as a miner at the Free Coinage Mine and lived in Altman, one of the mining camps in the district (Cripple Creek City Directory, 1905).

A silver mine in Leadville.
The author created this AI image
with the assistance of DALL·E and MS Bing.

On that fateful Wednesday, John prepared to visit friends at the Kilpatrick Ranch, near Gillette, Colorado. When it was time to leave for Gillette, he no doubt kissed his mother, Mary, goodbye, waved to his siblings, and shook hands with his father, who was, by now, the town marshal. John quietly stepped through the door, went outside, and stood beside his donkey—ready to ride. He then hoisted himself onto the donkey's back, adjusted his grip on the reins, and gave a gentle kick. The donkey responded to John’s command, and with the donkey’s cautious step forward, they began their descent down a winding mountain road. He passed by several of the big gold producers (the Burns, Pharmacist, and Zenobia mines) in the Cripple Creek District.

Main Street (Baldwin Avenue) in Altman.
Photo date unknown. Courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum. 

Soon the mountain trail stretched out before them, snaking through lush greenery, wildflowers, aspens, and spruce trees. Sometimes long grass brushed against his trousers as he rode. His heart raced with excitement at the rhythmic sound of the donkey's hooves echoing through the crisp mountain air.

John’s hands gripped the reins firmly as the sure-footed donkey worked its way down the mountain with a steady gait. At times, the trail presented challenges—a steep incline, a narrow passage between rocks, and a bend in the road that made John lean into the curves, shifting his weight to aid the donkey's balance. Nature seemed to come alive around him. John noticed deer, hawks, and squirrels in the foliage, and each sight added to the thrill of the ride.

As they rode to Kilpatrick's Ranch, John felt the wind tousling his hair and smelled the scent of pine and earth in the air. Finally, the road brought him to a peaceful clearing—Kilpatrick’s Ranch—below Pikes Peak.

Perhaps his day can be thought of in this way: By the time he arrived at the ranch, the sun was high in the open sky as a group of teenage boys gathered at the corral. John dismounted and patted the donkey affectionately. The boys greeted one another with laughter and handshakes. The ranch, with its pastures, trails, ponds, and pine trees, promised endless possibilities. The boys reveled in the freedom that came with riding horses as they explored the sprawling landscape, galloped through open fields, and maneuvered around trees, rocks, and other obstacles.

As the afternoon ended, it was time for John and the donkey to head for home. John bade farewell to his friends, mounted his donkey, and started riding back home to Altman. He carried with him the memories of a day well spent on the ranch with his friends. The way back was uphill, and after a while, John dismounted and sat on a flat, lichen-encrusted stone to give his donkey a break. A storm seemed to be gathering.

As John and his donkey approached Altman (the camp with the highest elevation in the district) a storm developed. The sky roared with a primal fury as jagged bolts of lightning split the heavens and illuminated the darkness with their dazzling brilliance. Thunder reverberated through the air and a rumbling percussion shook the ground. Gusting winds whipped through the trees. The air crackled with raw energy, charging the atmosphere with electric tension. Nature's power was on full display, revealing unpredictable might.

Just as John and his donkey were nearing Altman, lightning stretched across the sky from hell to breakfast, and struck a nearby tree, causing it to explode. Newspaper accounts record what happened when he was close to home. The Rocky Mountain News published this incredible report on July 16, 1914:

He had visited the Kilpatrick ranch nearer Gillette and was returning to his home when he encountered an electrical storm. He had proceeded within a half mile of his home when a bolt of lightning struck a tree near the road. Rider and animal were felled by the effect of the bolt. Young Bowen was strapped securely in the saddle and when the burro arose later the limp form of the boy clung to the animal. The burro continued until he reached the yard of the Bowen home where the mother of the boy loosened him from the saddle and carried him into the house.

            Members of the Bowen family worked over the boy several minutes before he was revived. He became hysterical and asked strange questions. The family sought to calm him but failed.

            An hour after he had been brought into the house, young Bowen walked to a bureau, pulled out a gun, which was small caliber, and fired into his body above the heart, dying almost instantly.

            The shooting was witnessed by members of the family, but they were unable to reach the boy in time to prevent him from ending his life. The remains were turned over to the coroner (Youth Crazed by Lightning, 1914).

Lightning is a formidable force. It is possible that lightning struck John in this way: When lightning struck the tree, it jumped to John Bowen as well (Auerbach, 1980). John would have felt its impact through multiple systems of his body. Neurologic complications could have been severe, including loss of consciousness, confusion, memory issues, dizziness, headaches, seizures, and changes in sensation or movement. He would have suffered other problems, such as burns (from heat caused by the strike) and associated blunt trauma from explosive shock waves (Fontanarosa, 1993). Objects damaged or thrown by a lightning strike can cause physical injury. The only thing known for sure is that John was not the same after the lightning strike. His eyes finally opened, he gulped in some fresh air, got up, walked to a chest of drawers, opened a drawer, picked up a revolver, and shot himself.

John Bowen, a spirited teen boy, riding his donkey back to his home in Altman.
Rain started as the clouds grew darker. The author created this AI image
with the assistance of DALL·E and MS Bing.

John died at his home at the top of the hill. Time had slipped away from him, a life mostly unlived. The death of a teenage boy is a tragedy that makes us question our existence. It reminds us to appreciate the fragility of our time on Earth and appreciate the people around us.


John Bowen’s tombstone at the Sunnyside Cemetery,
Victor, Colorado.
Photo date 2023 by S. W. Veatch

References and further reading:

1905 Cripple Creek City Directory. Denver, CO: Gazette Publishing Company.

Auerbach, P. S., 1980, October. Lightning Strike. Topics in Emergency Medicine 2(3): p 129-136.

Fontanarosa, P. B., 1993, Electrical shock and lightning strike, Annals of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 22, Issue 2, Part 2.

Youth Crazed by Lightning, Sends Bullet into Body in Presence of Family., 1914, July 16. The Rocky Mountain News (daily), Vol. 55, No. 197.


Thursday, June 29, 2023

Beyond the Lab: A Scientist's Meditation on a Poem

 By Steven Wade Veatch

There are many ways to view and understand our world. Science provides theories, psychology probes human nature, philosophy ponders reality, religion shapes faith, and literature offers insight. Poetry, on the other hand, shines light into our lives, and reveals essential truths.

Poetry inspires me; it is one way I experience and know the world. Poetrys charged words make the speeding bullet of my life slow down so that I can enjoy the best parts of living.

One of my favorite poems is the sonnet “Ozymandias” that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1818, when Egyptian archaeology was in its infancy. Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II, arguably one of the greatest Egyptian Pharaohs. Ramses II erected magnificent statues of himself to ensure his immortality. The text of Shellys sonnet follows:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias, the Greek name for the Pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BC), was a sonnet written by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822).
The Examiner of London first published it in 1818.
Image made through Bing AI Image Creator.

Shelley’s poem contains the message about the decay of empires over time. Ozymandias represents despotism and tyranny. The crumbling, ancient statue of Ozymandias underscores the fact that power and glory are brief—they do not last; even though the “shattered” face of Ozymandias, with his “sneer of cold command,” his “wrinkled lip,” and his “frown” survived through the millennia, the great Egyptian Pharaoh no longer commands anyone.

The poem is also about the fleeting nature of life, fame, and fortune. “Ozymandias” shows the ephemerality of our existence and what survives, what fades, and what vanishes.

Through the poem, I sense the endless desert. Where sand reaches in all directions around “that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” Time has no bounds, every person is its subject. With Ozymandias, the passing of time took its toll on him and his kingdom, leaving a crumbling, lifeless statue drenched in silence, gripped by parching heat, and surrounded by somber swirling sands.

Everything is gone. Gone. The sculptor who made the statue is gone, Ozymandias is gone, and the traveler, seeing the ruins, is gone.

Shelleys poem pushes me to consider what is left and what is not; what is important and what is not. The sobering thought of the fate we all share—death, decay, and ultimately ceasing to exist, looms large.

Like science, poetry delivers discovery and brings understanding. Poetry also crafts beauty despite the chaotic landscape on which life plays out.  And through “Ozymandias” I concede the time-bound nature of humanity—knowing that at one point I will disappear from the Earth and be forgotten—and that poem a stark reminder to live for what matters.

Poetry is a pause in my hurried and hectic life—an oasis to find some measure of truth in my journey, even if only for a brief time in the swirling, shifting sands of life.

Note: the author is an Earth scientist and was a volunteer ranger at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado for many years.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Memories and Milestones: Reflecting on My Time at Bates Elementary School

 By Steven Wade Veatch

My elementary school opened in 1957, three years after I was born, with over 600 students attending. With a magnificent view of Pikes Peak from its front yard, the grade school was named for Katharine Lee Bates, the famous author of America the Beautiful. Bates Elementary School remained open for 56 years, a pillar in the Cragmoor subdivision of Colorado Springs. 

Figure 1. A sandstone sign marks the location of Bates Elementary school.
Photo date 3/2015, by S. W. Veatch.

I recently learned that the aging of the neighborhood, school district boundary changes, and competition from charter schools caused enrollment to fall to 200 students, forcing Bates to close in 2013. I wanted to see my school one last time, so I pulled into the parking lot on a brisk spring day, two years after Bates closed. Austin Bluffs Parkway, roaring with traffic, ran like a ribbon of sound behind the school. The rapidly growing University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) had gobbled up the land next to my little school. 

Figure 2. A view of Rattlesnake Bluff, UCCS student housing,
and, in the foreground, Bates Elementary School.
Photo date 3/2015 by S. W. Veatch. 

As I stood looking at this old building, an easterly wind sent leaves spinning across the broken pavement. I walked around the tired buildings. A silent, rusting school bell clung to a brick wall. Children’s voices had long since faded into time’s dark abyss. Afternoon clouds gathered, casting blue shadows. The day frowned.

Figure 3. The school bell no longer rings to call students to class.
Photo date 3/2015 by S. W. Veatch.

I caught my reflection in a school window. My image looked sad. Sixty years ago, I played outside on these school grounds. I became aware that so many years had evaporated in an instant. 

A notice, taped to the window, stated that the school district had sold the elementary school to UCCS. The university had scheduled the school for demolition to make way for more student housing. An architectural design, taped next to the notice, revealed this proposed development. 

Figure 4. Front view of Bates Elementary School.
Photo date 3/2015 by S. W. Veatch.

The sounds of the university’s expansion broke into my thoughts. I could hear pounding jackhammers and nails, whining electric saws, rumbling cement mixers, and workers smacking down bricks—one on top of the other. Despite this noise of change, a kaleidoscope of flashbacks emerged in my mind: homework, Big Chief tablets, Elmer’s Glue, sharp pencils, playing four-square during recess, playground banter, Christmas programs, carnivals, and Boy Scout meetings. The monkey bars, the same ones I climbed so many years ago, were still standing there. 

Figure 5. UCCS looms large behind the lonely monkey bars
on the Bates school grounds. Photo date 3/2015 by S. W. Veatch. 

I continued around the back of the building to peer into the classrooms. More recollections materialized from mental shadows, including memories of my fourth grade in 1963. Mrs. Paula Hurst taught that class. Mrs. Hurst graduated from Colorado College in 1959, and she came with four years of teaching experience when I started in her class. I remember learning that year about three kinds of rocks: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Little did I know how relevant that would be in the future. We also worked on a unit on Colorado history and practiced cursive writing. Mrs. Hurst carefully taught the basics of our government while we considered President Kennedy and the changes he made. 

Other freeze frame moments from 1963—this time, from my long-ago home—spiraled into my consciousness. I remembered that Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins debuted on NBC, and how my family gathered around the television and watched each episode. The Beatles released I Want to Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There. My parents did not like any of their music and believed the Beatles would corrupt American youth. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Puff (The Magic Dragon) climbed to the number two spot on the music charts. My parents like their music, and the song became one of my favorites. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but in a few years my country would experience much civil unrest. While the cries of Martin Luther King Jr. and others were seldom heard inside the Bates hallways, they permeated our homes and the conversations of classmates when our teachers’ backs were turned. 

I remember some of the political issues from 1963. George C. Wallace, a man my parents talked about after the evening news, became governor of Alabama. As I grew up, I learned about a speech he made when he became governor: “Segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever!” On June 11, Governor Wallace tried to prevent Black students from registering at the University of Alabama. On the same day, President Kennedy declared segregation to be morally wrong, and it is "time to act.” Martin Luther King Jr., on August 28, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. A few weeks later, four Black girls died in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. 

One recollection of my fourth grade at Bates Elementary School stands out the most: President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was home that day with a cold. I heard my mother doing her daily rounds of household chores until the phone rang. Several minutes later: she walked into my room; her face was grim.  She said, “Stevie, your grandfather called. He said someone shot the President Kennedy in Texas. We should watch the news.”  We both went to the living room and turned on the Admiral black and white television console. Walter Cronkite, looking somber, announced that President Kennedy had died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.  

Days of continuous television coverage followed that first news bulletin. I did not understand then this President’s violent death that day robbed our nation of a future we will never know. 

To think about Kennedy’s assassination 52 years later is to see how I reacted to the death of someone I learned about in school, a person my parents talked about. It was the first national crisis I experienced, and it cemented my interest in current events. 

Time has a way of moving on. Mrs. Hurst retired from teaching in 1982, ten years after I graduated from high school. I retired in 2011. I remember, back at Bates school, in the fourth grade, I wished to grow up right then. Looking back now, I see that my wish came true, I grew up fast, quicker than I thought possible. Time had passed in an instant. And, despite the passage of time, our nation’s struggle with civil rights continues to this day and screams for more work to be done. 

When workers bulldoze Bates Elementary, something vital from the past will be lost. But, for the present, the remembrances of countless students will remain with them. As for me, I found lost memories of the school today. When I think about my school days and share them with my friends and family, Bates Elementary will always remain as it was 60 years ago. 

Published first in the Ute Country News, June, 2023.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado: A Place of Change

 By Steven Wade Veatch

In 1965—when I was a boy—I picked up a chunk of petrified wood (about 34 million years old, or Late Eocene age) at the Florissant fossil beds and wondered how it was formed. This simple act changed my life: it started me on my lifelong hobby of collecting rocks, minerals, and fossils, and later influenced my decision to study science at college. Both were big and long-lasting changes in my life.

Steven Veatch (11 years old) and his brother Greg Veatch (4 years old)
sitting at the fossilized Big Stump at the fossil beds in 1965.
This was when the park was a private tourist enterprise. 

Years later, I experienced another transforming moment—meeting legendary scientist Estella Leopold at the fossil beds. On that special day, Estella and I ambled along the trail to the petrified stumps, deep in our thoughts. We plunked down on a park bench and chatted the afternoon away while sharing the excitement of Ice Age pollen discovered in a Pleistocene rock layer at the fossil beds. We shared a singular purpose then—to reveal a part of the Ice Age here at the fossil beds. Because the record of Ice Age pollen in the Rocky Mountains was limited, our work on Florissant’s Ice Age pollen was important. 

The Florissant Fossil Beds is also a place of change. Its landscape is a mosaic of montane forests and rich meadows enfolded in ever-shifting patterns of light, sound, and fragrance. It is a gateway to nature, to the past, and to the present. It is a tale of imagination, of scientific exploration, and of the Ute people. Whenever I visit, I find myself sinking mindlessly into its petrified past while I ponder its present.

The natural beauty at the fossil beds is also an invitation to explore its possibilities, to plunge into the forest and consider the flight of pollen grains, borne on a morning breeze. Or to follow a moss spore’s journey. Water moves slowly through Grape Creek. Moss-covered boulders slow the creek, making small pools. Gnats flutter above the creek, and green grasses, dotted with wild iris and other wildflowers, line its banks. Springs, coming from deep inside the ground, help feed the watercourse. I can feel this stream and its sounds deep within my soul. It is sublime.

Grape Creek in the fall. This creek runs through the monument.
Photo date 2018 by S. W Veatch.

My wife and I walk the forest trails often, and the landscape feels alive. Beard lichen’s wiry hair drops from forked branches. Chickadees and woodpeckers live with owls, deer, and black bears. There is a forest symphony of sounds composed of hums, trills, chatters, and peeps. Frogs call their mates. Wind stirs through the trees, rustles branches, and knocks down yellow mists of ponderosa pollen.

Black Abert squirrels leave a litter of chewed cones and tiny twigs, stripped of their bark, on the ground. In the winter, these cones, seeds, and twigs lie on the snow, showing that these squirrels do not hibernate. In the spring, pasque flowers poke up through the fallen pine needles and bloom in a soft lavender.

A pasque flower, a harbinger of spring, blooms
at the Florissant Fossil Beds.
Photo date 2019 by S. W. Veatch.

I notice the slow changes to a rotting log on the fossil bed’s forest floor. The log shows the passage of time on a different scale: the time it takes for a big, downed tree to be transformed back into soil—two centuries, or about seven human generations. 

Brimming with life, the log—now crumbled bits and pieces of wood covered with leaf litter—is a habitat for many species. Beetles chew the wood, forming serpentine galleries beneath the bark. Colonies of ants live in the cavities, forage for food, and remain subordinate to the mother queen. A mouse lives beneath the log’s rotting roots; fungal strands penetrate the decaying wood. Patches of lichen and moss grow green on its surface. Spiders spin webs on spindly branches. 

The log is now a spongy, mossy mound that once was a living tree. In this thriving microcosm of decay-dwelling species, there is a quiet yet energetic chemical factory recycling nutrients and organic matter. Altogether, this log, and others like it, nurture the forest by adding nutrients that sustain its health. And so it is that this landscape “nurses” my spirit.

There are other beneficial changes at the fossil beds. A combination of lightning strikes, a dry forest, and dry winds can cause a wildfire, which spreads across the landscape, bringing sudden change. Ponderosa pines are resistant to fire due to their thick bark and limbs that extend above the forest floor. Fire maintains the ponderosa pine forest by killing off competing trees. The ash from wildfires revitalizes the forest. 

Change at Florissant comes in many ways with the cycles of day and night. The red dawn splashes the sky with morning possibilities. The midday sun floods the valley with brightness while the spires of green trees poke at the sky. Wavering shafts of afternoon sunlight reach the forest floor. After sundown, the twilight spreads like ether, and the mountains cool like stone while the valley fills with a flood of moonlight. The stars become pinpricks that sizzle in the night sky.

The circling seasons of the sun, snow, and rain bring change on a longer scale. Summer sunlight falls from unbelievably blue skies. There is music in the rain as it slaps aspen leaves, bounces, and splats on the ground before it disappears into the soil. In the fall, the air is crisp, and the aspen leaves are a brush stroke of radiant gold and orange. In the winter, elk weave tracks across snowy slopes. Coyotes send their penetrating calls bouncing across the white meadows when the frosty night comes on.

Raindrops bead up on fallen aspen leaves at the park.
Photo date 2004 by S. W. Veatch.

Physical processes, such as the imperceptible progress of drifting continents, erosion, soil formation, or freeze-thaw cycles, bring change. And there are more rapid agents of disturbance—such as nearby volcanic eruptions that occurred 34 million years ago. These cataclysms sent flows of mud coursing down the river valley, forming a dam and lake that transformed organisms into fossils. The mud also surrounded the bases of trees, and, over time, petrified them. 

Today, petrified stumps stand like sentinels in the forest. Lichens cling to petrified wood like starfish on rocks. Kingdoms of moss stake their claims on fossil tree stumps. Whenever I hold a Florissant fossil or look at a stone stump, I experience the physical vastness of time and space.

A National Park Service archaeologist points out a peeled or
culturally modified tree at the monument. The Utes used
the bark for cradle boards and scraped the cambium layer
for food and medicine. Photo date 2004 by S. W. Veatch. 

Cultural change is a part of the fabric of this land of petrified forests and fossils. This was first the home of the Ute people, where their elders said you could learn a lot from listening to the land. The land was taken from the Utes, and these people were sent to less desirable places to subsist. I find evidence of these people today in the trees they modified or by finding an occasional arrowhead that is washed to the surface by summer rains. Roads brought homesteaders, who worked the land. Nearby goldfields intensified settlement. 

Lastly, the values of people change. After decades of being a commercial tourist attraction, people wanted to preserve the fossil beds. Activists, including Estella Leopold, helped to prevent the destruction of the fossil beds until the National Park Service could preserve the area for future generations. Outside the park, the forest and meadows were plowed under by bulldozers, subdivided, and further broken up by lots, fences, and roads. 

Advertisement for one of two tourist establishments
at the fossil beds circa 1965. Two tourist operations operated
at the fossil beds before it became a national monument.
From the S. W. Veatch collection.

Forests change, species evolve, and life proceeds. Today, the beauty of this place invites overuse, while the effects of climate change threaten the fossil beds with future habitat destruction and species extinction. 

For me, the Florissant landscape is a sacred place: A place of change, a place to meditate and scribble in a journal—a place to gain insight into how to live my life. It positioned me to think about time and change, to peer into the past and imagine the future. And to feel the present while I reflect on life, death, order, disorder, continuity, and change.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Red Elephant Mine, Crystal Peak Area, Colorado

Steven Wade Veatch

For as long as I can recall, I wanted to experience what it would be like to find the legendary crystals and gemstones that Pikes Peak is famous for. In some places Pikes Peak Granite contains an incredible suite of minerals that formed magnificent crystals in cavities at least a billion years ago. Large crystals of white microcline or feldspar are common. Amazonite, a variety of microcline, is present in well-formed crystal groups in varying shades of blue, ranging from a faint pale-blue to a brilliant blue-green color. The distinctive color is thought to be derived from varying levels of lead present in the amazonite when it formed, although this is still debated by mineralogists. 

Microcline feldspar variety Amazonite with smoky quartz
from the Halpern Mineral Collection, Colorado, USA
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Photo Date 2006 by Eric Hunt.

The amazonite from the Lake George area is distinctive because of its large, well-formed crystals, and its large size, and its intense blue color. Amazonite, named after the Amazon River where unusual rounded pebbles of this gemstone were found, was part of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen's ring and was described as the third stone in Moses' breastplate. 

Smoky quartz crystals are associated with the amazonite crystal groups, and most of the smoky quartz crystals are flawless—ranging from pale brown to midnight black, all with a stunning gem clarity. The smoky color is caused by radioactive elements in the granite. Slowly, over the millennia, the quartz darkens in response to the radiation. Purple, greenish, and light blue fluorite crystals also occur in this suite of minerals. These magnificent gemstones eluded me for over four decades.

One summer day, I asked my rock hounding friend, Dave Jackson, to go with me to the Crystal Creek area, which is noted for deposits of these gems, and to look around. The area is reached by following a two-track Pike National Forest road that begins at Lake George, Colorado then branches off at a towering raw granite formation known as Sheep’s Head, fords Crystal Creek, and then follows a steep grade to a ridge. 

On our first trip there, I noticed the hillsides were perforated by numerous holes dug by previous prospectors. I thought that was a good sign that others searched here before us.  After parking Dave’s truck, we manhauled our gear in five-gallon buckets the rest of the way. We each carried two buckets: one in each hand; one bucket was empty; the other bucket had our tools. The empty bucket was for the gems we might find. 

We began our hike up the steep hill. It was a beautiful climb: granite boulders were spotted with various species of lichen; mountain mahogany dotted the landscape; and kinnikinnick grew near the top of the ridge, where a cool mountain breeze passed through the pines. Dave and I decided to go to where the pine trees edged a small opening in the ground and to dig under the dumps of several small abandoned prospects. 

My old friend Rich, a first-rate prospector, ran into us on that sunny summer day and showed us an old gem mine next to where we were: he knew this site would be a good one for us to work. Rich said, “I worked the area next to this spot with good results. I’m telling you this is a good place to dig.” Rich is one of the rare people in life whom you run into who are doing exactly what they were meant to do. Rich is an exemplar in the mineral world, and spends most days outdoors working at his mines. His face and hands are weather-beaten—almost like leather—from a lifetime of mining, both as a profession and a hobby.

Discussions with Rich that day brought back to me a number of pick and shovel moments of chipping crystals out of a cave together six years before in the mining town of Ouray, Colorado and being run out by the property owner. Rich and I did not know it was private property. Four years earlier we had collected blood-red agates on a hill of volcanic ash near CaƱon City, Colorado. Exposure to the weather turned the ash into bentonite clay, and recent rains made it swell up with a surface slippery as ice. While trying to pluck red agates out of the bentonite with Rich, I tripped and slid down the hill on my back, getting covered with wet bentonite clay. It took forever to get the clay out of my clothes and inside of the car. Rich laughed for hours. 

I was glad we ran into Rich that day and got his help finding a good place to dig for gems. Dave and I followed his advice and began the arduous work of digging with picks, shovels, pry bars, old screw drivers, and rock hammers. When the pick struck the granite, it would vibrate in our hands, sometimes sparks would fly, and always the thud of the pick against the granite filled the forest. The granite would break up from the relentless pounding with the pick—leaving piles of crumbled granite. We shoveled the granite gravel into a bucket and then hauled it to the surface and dumped the gravel on the ground, forming a “tailings pile.”

In the Crystal Peak area, the gemstones and crystals occur inside of what is called a “pocket” or ancient bubble in the Pikes Peak Granite. This granite was formed just over a billion years ago as a melting, monstrous blossom of red magma pulled off the Earth’s mantle in a stately phenomenon forming a magma plume in that hostile and hellacious inferno. This molten plume made an unrelenting climb through the beleaguered crust, mixing the mantle and crustal material together and forming the Pikes Peak Granite. 

Amazonite and Smoky quartz diorama,
located in the First-Level Rocks & Minerals Exhibit
at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Representing an unspecified 'Crystal Peak' location in Colorado.
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
4.0 International license.

A view of Crystal Peak near Florissant, Colorado.
The area is known for its gem mining sites. Most are under claim.
Photo date 2006 by S. W. Veatch.

Parts of the Pikes Peak Granite became pegmatite, a coarse granite that sometimes yields precious gems. The granite pegmatite is derived from magma in the Pikes Peak Granite that formed during the last stages of its cooling. At this point volatile components trying to escape the magma, were trapped in the granite as bubbles. As the granite cooled and contracted, the bubbles or open cavities provided a space for crystals to grow to unusually large sizes and line the interiors of the voids. Our prospect hole was in just such a granite pegmatite.

Rich’s directions paid off; after digging a few hours, Dave and I made a-six-foot-deep excavation that we could both fit in. We took turns with the pick and shovel work. The pick would break up the granite. When the disintegrated granite became deep, one of us would shovel it into a plastic bucket and haul it to the surface to dump. It was cool and damp in our excavation pit, and the scent of fresh dirt and moist gravel was strong. 

There is an abrupt change in the pegmatite as one approaches a gem cavity. The feldspar and, quartz that form the pegmatite change in appearance near a pocket. The component minerals become elongated or contorted, revealing what look like small swimming tadpoles or cuneiform writing—a mysterious script with an important, yet coded message declaring gemstones are near for those who are clever enough to follow the clues and find them. This is known as graphic granite.

Suddenly Dave yelled, “Look at the granite, it is changing—it is graphic granite for sure! See that old pine tree-root? It has worked its way through granite cracks and disappears straight into the rock. There must be a pocket behind the root.”

“Let me take a look,” and I yanked out the root, and then took my glove off and carefully put my finger into the hole. I said to Dave, “Holy God, I can feel the crystal faces!” My throat tightened, my heart almost beat out of my chest, and Dave’s eyes were open wider than an owl’s at night. 

The root sought out moisture in a small cavity, leading us to that discovery. We immediately switched to wooden tools: tree branches, wooden skewering sticks, and wooden mallets, to open up the cavity slowly, carefully, and methodically. Metal tools can nick or fracture the valuable crystals and gems. Once we enlarged the hole to the cavity, our flashlight revealed shining smoky quartz crystals; a gemmy, sky-blue amazonite- crystal group; and sparkling deep purple and light blue cubic fluorite crystals. One group of fluorite crystals clustered around the base of a gleaming smoky quartz crystal. 

Our next step was to empty the pocket, about the size of a grapefruit, of its gem hoard. Each crystal and gem had to be carefully wrapped in newspaper for carrying it down to Dave’s old truck. This pocket was the sign we needed to continue working the gem mine. If there is one crystal pocket, there will be others. 

Our digging and removing crystals from the pocket burned up most of that first day. The shadows were shifting in the forest, and the sky was filled with pastel colors. I took one last look to the west and watched the setting sun redden the clouds over the boundless, tree-covered ridges; it was time to leave. Soon the dark blue of evening would spread, and it would be hard to travel the old road in the dark. The moon was beginning its rise over Crystal Creek, and it was time to leave. 


We came back the following weekend working the claim for a few hours and then having lunch near some fallen pine trees blown down by a violent summer storm. But on this day, the logs were our seats for lunch under a thick canopy of towering aspen trees. We each had a can of Red Elephant, an imported beer that has a great flavor and comes in giant cans and has a punch—it even made my lips numb. We decided to name our mining claim after the beer.

While relaxing and finishing my Red Elephant beer, I noticed a nearby decaying stump was full of life and realized that one day the forest would consume it. The stump was actually a dwarfed ecosystem. Many types of insects lived in the stump. A beetle stuck its head out from a hole it had bored in the bark. It left a pile of frass just below on a blanket of pine needles. I spotted a pill bug and a centipede, and noticed the different colors of moss and lichen that covered the stump. During the stump’s decomposition, new niches for life opened and old ones closed as the stump evolved from fresh-cut wood leaking resin to rotting wood dripping nutrients into the soil. The stump will eventually become crumbled fragments and mold, invaded by roots of plants and covered by dead twigs and leaf litter fallen from the canopy of the trees above. It was time to stop thinking about a stump and return to the hard pick and shovel work of the afternoon.

After several hours of moving rock and gravel, we had a hole that was ten feet deep—straight down. I found out just how hard this work is: breaking through granite by dint of force and muscle with a pick is not easy at this depth, the gravel and rocks have to be hauled to the surface in a bucket on the end of a rope. The deeper the excavation, the harder the work is—gravity is constantly working against us. In our deep hole, we opened up a pocket larger than a watermelon. 

        A treasure trove of mineral specimens lined the pocket. Some crystals had detached from the pocket ceiling due to local vibrations from earthquakes and freezing and thawing cycles over many winters and fell flat on the pocket floor. The pocket floor was filled with flawlessly formed amazonite crystal groups—most over nine inches across—on sections of pegmatite granite. There were clusters of 12-inch-long smoky quartz crystals radiating out in various directions. Most of the crystals were as black as midnight. 

        I took my jacket off and covered the crystals on the floor of the pocket so they would be protected as we removed the ceiling crystals and as we broke away more of the granite rocks above. Removing the crystals and gems requires care. Any rush to extract them could make an ugly chip or fracture. All of the crystals were carefully removed by hand and then wrapped in newspaper to protect them. I carefully cleaned the pocket out with a wooden chop stick and whisk broom, and then sprayed the interior with water for a good view. At this point, the world’s problems melted away and we are focused on protecting these gems. We were the first ones on the planet to see these primordial, unique, and quite valuable crystals. 

On the way out, the buckets full of wrapped gems in one hand and the buckets of tools in the other hand balanced us as we walked down the hill. Crystal Creek was flowing with a murmuring joy within its banks. Willows lined the creek until the road crossing where we drove through it. Some little birds were dipping at some of the pools of Crystal Creek. Deer were keeping an eye on our activities. Dave and I glanced at each other, and I said, “We sure hit it big, Dave; we made a big strike today.” Our excitement filled the gem fields.

* * *

On our last trip to the Red Elephant that summer, Dave’s truck was being repaired, and I was willing to risk my brand new Jeep on the forest roads and all of its hazards to get to our mine. I drove my new Jeep Cherokee up the road and got stuck. Dave and I pushed, pulled, swore, and sweated, but remained stuck on the old 2-track road in the middle of Pike National Forest. My biggest concern was what my wife would do to me if I banged up our new Jeep. Cell phones did not exist yet, so I could not call out for help. 

Soon we heard the sound of another car, and it was headed in our direction. I could not believe we would run into anyone on this road on a weekday. It was Ray Berry, a member of the local rock club (Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society) I belonged to. Ray is another mineral exemplar. On his way to work his claim, he pulled us out in seconds with his winch. 

Dave and I began to work the Red Elephant, and soon we were down to 14 feet when our pick shattered the typical granite and revealed graphic granite—a sure sign we were close to a pocket of gemstones. We discovered several more pockets ranging in size from a softball to a basketball. Some of the pockets we found were located by following quartz veins to the crystal-lined pockets. The color of the granite also provides a clue that a pocket is nearby—reddish granite tends to bear more pockets. Other pockets that day were located by pure luck. 

* * *

The entire Crystal Creek area has been yielding amazing gemstones for centuries, providing material for an expanding gem market and yielding specimens that provide clues to help scientists understand the nature of the Pikes Peak Granite. Today there is still gemstone mining activity over the entire Crystal Creek landscape.

This land also has meaning beyond the valuable gems and as a gateway to scientific understanding. I noticed an old cabin and a few outbuildings in the forest. The cabin is deeply weathered. Parts of the buildings are gone or caved in. The chicken coop, always an important homestead structure, is still in good shape, built as strong as Fort Knox. Eggs and skillet fried chicken were important to a family that eked out a living in this remote forest a century ago. 

Before homesteaders, this quiet land once belonged to the Ute people. Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, camped in tepees during the summer, and Ute braves hunted in the area. When they were not hunting, the men climbed hilltops with good views and made arrow and spear heads from stone. The women made clothing from deer and bison hides and attended to other duties. Children played games in the aspen trees.

* * *

Currently, the area is an active gem mining site, and the place where I finally experienced the excitement of making a rich strike. On weekends, countless hobbyists work their claims. Some people work their claims all summer long. 

It was the last day of our mining season. Leaning back on a ponderosa pine on the surface near the Red Elephant, I reflected on the season. After hunting the elusive Pikes Peak amazonite for decades, I finally found it. I learned from this experience to never give up on something you want to accomplish. If you give up, you will never know what could have been. This is an important lesson for many aspects of life. 

Then there is the hard work—the digging; digging deep into the ground that yielded the elusive gems. The digging that put me into direct contact with the nature of the granite gave me a deeper insight to the geology of the site and the architecture of Pikes Peak Granite over wider areas. I realized that I could physically keep up with the hard digging. I learned about people:  that Dave was fair and split the specimens we found evenly, and that Rich was a good friend to direct us to a site that he knew contained valuable gemstones. Rich did not have to provide that information. I also experienced nature on a deeper level. When I took a break from the digging, I saw the cycle of life at the decaying stump. It was truly a season with nature, one without the technology that has invaded every dimension of our lives. I knew there was more to learn out there in the forest, and that means to continue digging, always deeper.


It was getting late on our last day of the mining season. We packed up our gear and headed down the trail, crisscrossed by deer tracks, to my jeep. With darkness fast approaching, we drove down the old forest-service road. As the Jeep forded Crystal Creek, a small herd of deer—waiting to get a drink—watched us from the trees. A hawk silently flew overhead, towards the setting sun.