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October 1, 2015

Final weeks in San Luis Valley – Joseph Fellows ’16 / BFA SC

by Joseph G. Fellows

8/7/15

I think I’ve reached a point where it’s going to be hard to tear myself away from my work here.   I’ve fallen head over heels for this valley, from peak to plover.  Some of my efforts have fallen short of my own expectations.  That’s okay though, I don’t necessarily want to be finished here.  I’ve found that during the busiest season for the park, it’s extremely difficult to network effectively with the workload the Park rangers have been experiencing.  I found myself working on a more independent basis as the Rangers scramble to accommodate the increased traffic.

Access has been a persistent challenge as the road infrastructure is limited. I’ve been trying to reach  Medano Lake which, as I see it is one of the most important features of the park.  The trouble was that about halfway up the road to get there, your chances of reaching the trailhead dwindle as the road becomes less suitable to vehicles with more conventional clearance.  To make matters more difficult, due to all the rain this year,  much of the higher portions of the road had been washed out so even rangers were hesitant to head up there.  The only people who ventured up there this season were folks with jeeps or high riding SUVs.

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In lieu of that, I discovered a handful of other sites to explore.   Some had been hiding in plain sight.  Miner’s cabins and homesteads are not an uncommon sight in the park.  Many have been washed away in years past but there are still a few like the Wellington Homestead, as well as a Cabin perched up near Ptarmigan peak, a false summit just up the mountain from the Visitor’s center.  Rangers, often won’t tell you about these locations as it can be dangerous to enter these structures, and the fewer people that go there, the fewer that will be compelled to have a look inside.  I also discovered a number of mountain lion caches  I felt  would make good sites to scan.

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I’ve found sort of an observation post in my hourly position at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis that I’ve taken in exchange for a free campsite and supplies in a project that I had expected to be largely solitary outside the Park Visitor’s Center.  In the few hours that I work, I meet people visiting, and people who have lived in the Valley their whole life.  Some of the most interesting people I’ve met call the Valley their home.  Firstly, Patti the owner of the Oasis, is quite possibly one of the most welcoming people I’ve met since being here.  In many ways she’s treated me the way a concerned mother might treat a stubborn runaway mutt.  That is–with patience, employee priced un-canned food, and a lovely clearing in the mountain piñons to pee all over.  Though I might find that the actual store mutt Bella,  the half-husky half-coyote pup who has been playing the role of greeter outside the store for almost 15 years now, views Patti’s kindness as just part of her regular rhythms.  As far as I understand it Bella started showing up 15 years ago, and after some conversely purebred suspicion, eventually she let Patti rub her belly and has showed up at 7:00 AM every morning since.  No-one is quite sure what she does at night, but she’s always ready for work in the morning.

My internship supervisor Ranger Chavez, has been welcoming but also honest.  He told me that this year has been as busy as the park has every been, it has been as wet as it has every been and staff has been stretched as thin as it has ever been. Ranger Chavez has a warmth and has a balanced level of confidence that I admire in another person. He’s humble enough to be personable, but confident enough to draw the lines that need to be drawn in his line of work. Ranger Chavez is a law enforcement officer.  One day I said something related to how some designers say that Architects know nothing about everything, and engineers know everything about nothing.  He chuckled, and said,” You know I can relate to that,  Park Rangers do a lot of different things, without getting really good at one thing in particular”  Some mornings, Ranger Chavez would be down at the Dune Access lot directing traffic.  Other days you might find him in the stables tending to the Horses.  One day in particular, as I was meeting with him, he got a call over the radio that someone’s father had fainted back at the Sand Dunes Oasis, but their family had been dropped off at the dunes, and I guess we were a little outside of Uber’s jurisdiction or so to speak.  Ranger Chavez looked over at me and said, “Okay, let’s take this discussion to the truck.”  After locating the family, they hopped in his truck and were there in less than three minutes.  I’d driven that stretch many times and had seen my fair share of mule deer crossings, so I was a bit jittery as the needle of his speedometer started flirting with one hundred miles per hour.  Upon our arrival, Patti was rather surprised to see me stepping out of the truck as the ambulances and Sheriff’s Deputies started to pull up. After dropping off the family, Ranger Chavez and I continued our discussion as he patrolled the camp grounds.  He told me that my work had gotten the attention of the leadership team and that they wanted to hear what I had to say.  In the end unfortunately, it seems that the leadership team was extremely busy, however I have been given the opportunity to write a report regarding my work here, my intensions, and in service of stating the case for 3D scanning in the National Parks.

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In the park if a visitor finds something unusual that they think the park officials should know about, they’re encouraged to report it to the interpretive staff who will then submit the reports to Resource management. These inquiries are then given to the park Biologist who looks through and evaluates them and tries to find cases that might be of interest or concern.  For instance there has been a disease moving through some of the elk herds in the valley and If I had come across elk fresh elk remains, they might be able to sample the remains and determine whether it had been killed by a predator or by the disease.  If I could take an accurate scan of a site that might be of interest or concern and be able to show in more detail what it was that I saw,  it might be easier for the biologist to evaluate whether or not they needed to investigate further.

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Even now, Colorado State has been using LiDar scanners to be able to map the interiors or historical buildings in the valley among other places.  Though these serve as digital maps, for me the interesting part comes when you think of it a machinable model and the implications for sculptural thinking regarding found objects.  How do found objects function when direct historical and cultural references are a click away?  Better yet– what happens when sculptures can be editioned, economically, conceptually, and technically?  What if we got high resolution LiDar rigs in the hands of artists?

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I was able to experiment in the field with my scanners.  One site of interest to me was the Wellington Homestead.  For starters it was accessible so it allowed me to time my visits precisely as weather moved in quickly and unexpectedly to be able to minimize the risk of damaging my most vital equipment. Some sites that I had visited were at a much higher elevation, and posed larger risks to my equipment.  It also allowed me to visit more frequently.  However I had to really avoid entering the structure, as upon my first attempt to scan the interior I found that I could cause damage to the floor of the structure.  Another was an area of the park known as Indian Grove.  This is where Native Americans would peel the bark off of the Ponderosa Pines to use as medicine and food.  I was unsuccessful in most attempts to create complete scans of the trees as lighting and scale proved to be extremely difficult obstacles to overcome using scanners that primarily used light and color to create form.  However,  my preliminary models were really exciting to see, though they require some repairs to be made.

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Recently I was able to produce my first 3D print for the park staff, via Shapeways.  For me this was a big victory.  I was able to hold a series of informal critiques with staff members to criticize the form that I produced from a functional standpoint.  I had created a track swatch, similar to the track casts that the interpretive staff often times will have ordered in.  I was able to scan every track that they had in the park and scan a number of ground surfaces which means it’s easy to create an impression in pretty much any scannable surface in the park and print it out as though it had been casted that way.  The sample I had sent out was a Mountain Lion print placed on a gravel surface.  I was really happy with the detail retention from the file to the print.  Things I didn’t expect, like the flexibility of the plastic in some thin areas, the slightly overpowering bleached color of the plastic, and the subtle appearance of the National Parks badge on the back, were quickly pointed out to me by the Rangers. The swatch was designed to be sturdy, and light weight so that it could be packed away without having to be concerned about damage.

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The next iteration, to be printed in a full series of tracks will be sleeker, and more rigid.  In the mean time, this version demonstrated the ability to print offsite, which one ranger pointed out was very much like the way the National Parks sign makers shops service national park region.  Great Sand Dunes is a part of the Rocky Mountain Region, and their sign shop is near Rocky Mountain National Park.  They can put in requests there for signs to standardize their signage.  My thinking is perhaps to approach the Rocky Mountain Region much the way that RISD has approached the development of the Co-Works lab, in making it a collaborative space for all the parks in the Rocky Mountain Region to be able to experiment with 3D media to be able to more effectively speak to the public.  What if the National Parks could take on the responsibilities of constantly reinventing their visitors center messages to fit the realities faced by their resource managers on a season to season basis?

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The Parks I’ve learned, take great care in crafting their image relative to their visitors expectations and safety.  For instance, I took pictures in the Nature Conservancy land waiting to be absorbed into the park of the large bison herds there.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, the bison there have a small percentage of cattle genes in them, so by the resource management team, technically they are a non-native species, which poses problems in terms of deciding wether or not they would stay in the park once its absorbed.  Consequently, even when the rangers go out into the nature conservancy, any pictures of the bison may not be used to represent the park online until they finalize a conservation plan to keep visitors from expecting the park to hold bison.  As it was explained to me, with any animal reintroductions have to be pursued carefully.  Park officials have to make sure that there is a healthy predator prey relationship.  Introducing too many predators before a certain population of prey is ready to support itself and handle any losses there may be can cause imbalances to delicate park ecosystems that would be hard to recover from. Additionally, visitors may be compelled to visit the Bison on their own terms, which is a risky bit of business to say the least.

When I started staying up in the campgrounds, I quickly learned that I was not the only Oasis employee staying in the campgrounds. I’d started to notice a lifted white Chevy around the grounds.  At first I assumed it was just a regular visitor staying at the campground.  I would come to learn that it was Dan, Patti’s nephew who’s avante garde approach to bear encounters,  guided by his description of Black Bears as ‘sissies’, entailed a swift, emergency punch to the nose.  “Have you ever been punched in the nose?” he asked with wide pale blue eyes, before going on to explain how much it makes you not want to maul somebody.  Dan is in charge of doing any kind of repairs or maintenance, and builds furniture from wood he’ll mill, dry, and plane himself (almost exclusively with a chainsaw).  One morning Im told Dan woke up to some unwelcome visitors in his camp.  He proceeded to get upand fend off three Coy-dogs who persisted until they got bopped on the nose with a shovel wielded by an agitated half-awake leathery man with a ‘punch-first’ approach to black bears.

Dan explained to me that he makes part of his living collecting elk and deer sheds, which he is then able to sell by the pound for hundreds of dollars per pair.  He said sometimes he likes to use them for furniture and when he finds a particularly nice set, he’ll keep them.  What I found particularly interesting about Dan was the way that he approaches making.  To him it’s necessary, and it’s as much about finding as it is about creation.  It seems as likely to him that a piece of wood has already decided what it will be before he can even think about ripping the starter-pulley on his chainsaw.

Just outside of the campgrounds Patti rents out a house to a man named Juan.  Juan is in his sixties, and is extremely friendly.  Juan invited me to go out with him fishing one weekend in some of the reservoirs to the south.  I had chatted with Juan a few times before, he’s a Vietnam War Veteran, and as our discussions started to move towards Vietnam, I told him that my father was drafted in Vietnam, but never spoke too much about his experience.  Juan explained to me how he felt when he and other veterans returned from over-seas.  He said they were called baby-killers, and had excrement thrown at them.  He told me that out here he’s made friends with a few other Vietnam veterans who live in the valley but they’ve become reclusive and withdrawn from society out of the rejection they felt from their own peers. A sentiment I recognized in my father’s story as well.

Juan worked for a solar electric company.  His job keeps him on the road.that keeps him on the road during the week but he tells me that he’s in love with this valley, the empty spaces and the people as much as those things might seem in conflict with one another.  The days he and I fished together, he proudly showed me the two pieces of land he had bought upon his arrival.  One was at the base of One of the more prominent peaks in the valley, he hadn’t lived there for a while, but his RV was still parked there, with a chain-link fence surrounding it.  A pile of rocks he had collected from old gold mine outcroppings that had little bright orange crystals.  He took great satisfaction in the idea that one day he would pass this land on to his Grandchildren.

The second tract, was up on a small plateau near one of his fishing spots.  It seems he has no intensions to build anything on the land.  He said that he was more satisfied by the idea that somewhere in the world there was a place that was all his, a place to belong.  He shared with me his love for collecting rocks, and showed me a petrified log that had been in his family for an undetermined amount of time along with some rocks that contained pockets of orange crystals, and green turquoise.  He is extremely generous– after we returned from fishing, we had both caught one Rainbow Trout each, and he insisted that I take his as he already had dinner planned for himself.  “Fajitas.” he said.  It probably the best dinner I’ve had since being here.  He was also shocked that I had never eaten Elk meat and proceeded to insist that I take a hunk of elk that his close friend had shot this year.  He says it’s better than venison, and I am pleased to report that this is true.

I’ve found that a great way to talk to and get to know some of the local folks is to do what they all seem to do regularly.  That is, search for and find objects hidden in the landscape.  They have their own kind of a material culture that is refreshing to me, it’s not a throw away culture, its a culture of finding, and looking.   The most valuable things that many of these people have couldn’t be bought in a store, the core essence of the value that they apply to their findings are the stories that accompany the discovery.  Without the story, they may as well be mere tourist trinkets.

Dan said something to me that came to mind the more I thought about these ideas.  We were jawing back and fourth about our cars.  He had offered to let me use his welding equipment so I could fix my exhaust pipe as it had broken into two separate pieces while I was out galavanting on a primitive road with my Subaru.  He said, ”The good thing about fixing your exhaust is that next time something breaks you’ll know that ain’t it.”.   He then chuckled a bit to himself and then pointed over at his chevy and said,”They say it takes about six err-seven years for your bodies cells to completely replace themselves, and I had that truck darn near 15 years, so you do the math.”

There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to ride that truck until there was nothing left to fix.  He wasn’t concerned about what it was going to be worth upon resale, only if it would survive it’s next trip up to Blanca Peak.  Value to him is relative to whether or not he can get to where he wants to go, rather than some abstract concept of material worth.

Patti often times had a very motherly quality to her.  During lunch breaks often times she would see me with my gigantic water bottle, and a plate of fish from the kitchen and would smile warmly and remark, “you’re eating fish, that’s good for you AND you’re drinking water.  Good boy.”  Which at first threw me through a loop a little because I hadn’t been referred to as a ‘boy’ since the sixth grade, as I my head poked up above six feet, but I found some humor in it.  Patti seemed to think of her staff as a family in the most literal terms imaginable.

The last week of my project, I was eating breakfast in the restaurant and she sat down and asked if I had heard the ‘frog story’.  I said no. She explained that the Native Americans that lived in the Valley for centuries had legends passed on from their ancestors who lived through a period in the Valley where the Valley floor was wet.  As they saw it dry up, they said that it left behind thousands of frog spirits.  The spirits would sometimes follow visitors from the valley and compel them to come back.  She would later  give me a small frog figure carved from stone.  It’s a frog carved from Green Turquoise.  She said it would follow me around until I came back.

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