My plan all week had been to rise early Saturday morning to take a leisurely drive through the mountains before catching my 6:30 flight out of Denver. This plan was somewhat altered by a pleasant bout of IBS which presented itself to me late Thursday evening and seemed in no hurry to leave in time for my extracurricular activities on Saturday. I didn't wake until a housekeeper knocked on my door at 9, at which point I hit the ground running.
No time for the hotel's signature blueberry pancakes, so I ran through a Circle K to grab some vittles to settle my still unsettled stomach. I had it in my mind that a couple of bananas and some grape juice would do the trick, but found these in short supply. Seventy-two brands of beer were available, but no grape juice. I grabbed a rootbeer (make that seventy-three brands of beer) and some pre-packaged banana bread that looked like it might have been created within at least the last two months and headed out the door.
Though I have a natural ability to get lost in my own driveway, this expedition seemed fairly straightforward. Drive towards the long line of mountains and eventually you would find a road to cross over them. All I had to do was drive a huge oval up and over the mountain range and I would find myself back at the airport where I started. In six hours. As I made my way through the valley at 80-odd miles an hour I passed an enclave called Commerce City which caused a very unpleasant flashback of time spent on Salt lake City. It was the smell that triggered it--a large oil or gas or other foul-smelling refinery puffing away right in the heart of the city. These lined the highway running north out of SLC and I nearly drove off the shoulder trying to shake the memory--and the smell.
This was partly my fault, as I had just been reading an essay by Bill Bryson in which he scolds Americans for driving with their windows up when they are out to enjoy nature. The weather was perfect, so I was giving it a shot. The refinery did not qualify as nature for me, so I decided maybe the windows could come back down once I got a little closer to the mountains. I was sure Bill would understand.
Fresh air or no, something I cannot travel without is music. Since I had decided to be adventurous, I was jumping all over Denver's radio dial. My first station save had been the alternative rock station, of course, which had already played for me the entire library of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in my two-minute commute to and from work that week. Though a change from the constant play of Disturbed on Madison's rock station, it was still tiresome enough to make me switch to a station playing a broad mix of country, pop, and Gregorian chants.
As I alluded to earlier, it was a beautiful day in Denver, and the bicyclists were out in droves. I am not certain as to the exact number implied by the word "droves," but in this case I use it to mean ten to fifteen bikes per car. There were some casual bikers (people in street clothes who looked like they'd rather be driving or riding the bus) but most were the serious sort--the kind with padded shorts and severely-peaked helmets. Most had water bottles or water packs on their backs, and I wondered if I'd see any further up with oxygen tanks.
After driving forty-five minutes I was still surrounded by civilization. Every time I thought I thought I caught a glimpse of a raptor I would discover a haze-obscured traffic helicopter. I finally reached Boulder, known worldwide as the home place of Mork and Mindy, but time constraints did not allow for sightseeing. Next time, I promised myself.
No we were getting into wild country, I thought. Down went the automatic windows. I passed another dozen or so bicyclists--all the serious type--and tried to remember to keep an eye out for roadside humans as I scanned the skies and rolling hillsides for wildlife. I came up on what looked like a scenic turnout but decided it was still to early--and I had too little time-- to pull out so far before the actual park. I caught a glimpse of the road sign just as I passed over my first wildlife sighting: a dead striped skunk. The turnout was Hygiene Road. Up went the windows again.
It was not long after this that I passed my first wild porcupine, lying dead on the side of the road. I was already past him by the time I found my camera under my pile of junk food in the passenger seat. That was when I had to swerve to avoid what may or may not have been a prairie dog. At one time.
But things were looking up: here was a sign advertising Big Elk Meadows. I scanned both sides of the road without luck. Either these elk were not nearly as large as advertised or the simply weren't home. I grazed several angry bicyclists as I strained to catch a glimpse of these invisible elk. I started to yell out an apology when I realized my windows were still up. They purred softly as I rolled them down again.
Ah, nostalgia. Here was the Estes Park Jellystone Park, an unexpected reminder of the Jellystone my parents used to take my family as I was growing up in Wisconsin. My single memory of that was the time that a tornado touched down in the park perimeter as we cowered in our VW bus. Good times.
I hate nostalgia. It feels singularly like heartburn to me. I hear some people actually enjoy the sensation. They are probably the same people who consider biking at elevations of 7,000 feet an enjoyable way to spend a free Saturday.
At last, Estes Park! gateway to the Rocky Mountains! Heeding a a warning I had read about gassing up before entering the park, I pulled into the only gas station I saw, which was situated just feet from several corrals filled with maybe fifty trail horses. The only thing I couldn't see were any trails--just tourist malls and cheesy hotels. The stables were fenced in by a very busy four lane road, so I imagined you simply paid $100 or so to ride around the in the parking lot of the adjacent Safeway. Again, time was my enemy, so I could not stay to investigate.
As I navigated the y-junction into the park, my eye was caught by one of my surest temptations: a petting zoo. Not JUST a petting zoo, but a petting zoo with a horse-drawn carriage! A Percheron in Estes Park! I careened back onto the road just in time to avoid a family of twenty in a biking caravan. Sadly, I left the zoo behind.
The clock in my Dodge Caravan showed 12:05 p.m. as I pulled away from the check-in post at RMNP. My goal was to make it back to the car rental parking lot by four p.m. That meant $5 per hour in the park, as the fee was $20 per car. The ranger had told me that in a voice that indicated I should really drive back down to Estes Park to see if I could find more people to drive with me. She had a point--the minivan they'd given me would have fit probably twenty-five, easily (thirty without their bikes). Still, I had no time to backtracking. Onwards and upwards.
The radio finally started paying attention to where I was driving, playing "Big Country" by Big Country as I regained speed. And then, live wildlife! A mountain bluebird swooped in front of my car. I was beside myself. Mostly about the fact that I had managed not to hit it. This was followed shortly by another important sign. "Bighorn Sheep Crossing--No Stopping."
Now this had me confused. Did this mean I should not expect the sheep to stop for me, or that I was expected NOT to stop should I see one in the road? I found this very troubling and was quite relieved when I saw no one crossing except more bicyclists--none of which appeared to be carrying oxygen.
Here was a turnout. I could see in my rear view mirror that I had climbed significantly from Denver and thought it was worth the time to stop for a photo. The turnout was about fifty yards up from the walkway, so I grabbed my camera and jogged down to the lookout. Very pretty.
Okay, time to jog back to the car. I made it ten steps and collapsed against the weathered timber railing. I could not breathe. Not only could I not breathe, but I felt as though my lungs were filled with tiny shards of glass. At that point another family passed me on bicycles. The mother rode a tandem with their daughter, while the father towed a tot in a bike trailer. I did not have the strength to take their photo. I seem to remember them smiling as they pedaled. I don't know, it was all hazy there for a minute.
Upon regaining consciousness, I crawled back to the car where I had left it at 9,000 feet. I was starting to wish I had hired a sherpa. I got back in and looked for the oxygen button. This was, after all, a Denver rental car. I couldn't find one, so I cranked up the air-conditioning. Freon would have to suffice.
My breath gradually returned just as the realization began to sink in that this park did not spend their revenues on guard-rails. On the radio, Patsy Cline sang "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray." All I could remember was that she died a tragic death crashing into the side of a mountain. Still, I comforted myself, there were worse ways to die than running off the side of a mountain listening to patsy Cline. Probably.
A sign told me I was now at 11,700 feet above sea level and would not be able to take another breath for at least 90 minutes, assuming I did not make any more stops in that time. I was averaging a safe 50 miles per hour at this point, worrying both that I might miss my flight and the next hairpin turn. Tall, naked sticks of pine lined the road every twenty feet or so, either to tell the snow plows where the road was or to give you something to grab for as you drove off the path. Maybe both. The wind was exceptionally strong up here, as one might expect, and I saw a murder of crows hovering about twenty feet above the road, flying nowhere at all. I slowed a little in case one stalled and fell out of the sky onto my rental.
As I progressed, I noticed signs for construction ahead. This would be interesting. The radio had moved on to Eddie Rabbitt's "Driving My Life Away." Feeling guilty again, I rolled down the windows--just enough to blow every map, receipt and miscellaneous piece of paper around in the car like a see-through vacuum cleaner. Up with the windows.
At this point I saw another sign for a roadside stop. Accompanying the traditional sign for a bathroom was a graphic of a human who appeared to be using a hula hoop. I have no idea what this signified, and I saw no one in the parking lot exercising in such a fashion. If someone can explain this to me, please do.
About an hour into the park, I reached 13,000 feet and road construction delays. We were well above the tree line, now, and I was a little concerned that I was winded when I had done nothing but steer and use the gas pedal for the last thirty minutes. Jesus, I thought. Even trees are smart enough not to come up this high. What the hell was I thinking? Several bicyclists passed by as I paused for a caution sign. The sign said "Be Prepared to Stop" but what it really meant was "Be Prepared to Drive Off the Mountain At Any Moment." Luckily I did not have the spare air to worry about impending death. In fact, all I could think of was the fact that the oxygen would only grow more plentiful as I plunged off the side of the mountain. There was something comforting in that.
After rolling through the construction, during which I wondered how fun it must be to drive large dump trucks and lowboys pulling excavators up this mountainside, I came to a stop labeled "Never Summer Mountain--10,120 feet." I stopped out of spite, as it was clearly summer. This spot overlooked Kewaunee Valley, where several lungless Indians once thrived. Kewaunee was explained to mean "coyote" in the local tongue. I probably don't need to point out that I saw no coyotes.
I kept checking the clock nervously. I had reached the peak and somehow translated this in my mind as being halfway. I opened my $20 map to RMNP and confirmed that I am indeed an idiot, and was very far indeed from both the airport and the car rental place. I threw the car into high gear and headed down the mountain. I still had moose country to go through, and I was not going to fly through that part. Moose make very effective road blocks--particularly when you least expect it. I drove at breakneck speed past Medicine Bow Curve and on towards the switchback known as Farview Curve. I would like to note that both of these "curves" were actually 180 degree turns so sharp one could slice paper with them. Still, I made moose country in record time (and in one piece) and looked for a turnout for more pictures. I found an understated pullout and did so, in as understated a fashion as I could muster. I was parked by a row of pine trees beyond which stretched miles and miles of willow-filled valleys. Ah--I could almost smell the moose.
But I couldn't see a damn thing for all these annoying trees. I had to get down into the valley. I saw no trail, but as I was unencumbered by any practical hiking gear, it didn't look too hard to scramble down the steep hillside to the creek and valley below. I put my camera on my wrist and proceeded to fall down the mountain. About halfway down I considered my chances for actually climbing back up. They were not encouraging, so I switched gears and focused on not tumbling head over heels into the lap of a waiting bear or mountain lion. Upon reaching the bottom, shook the dirt from my camera and scanned th horizon for the moose I knew were nowhere in sight. Sure enough, not a creature stirred. They were probably all sitting in the shade somewhere trying to catch their breath as they took in the scenery. And what scenery it was! But the clock was ticking and I had to keep moving, moose or no moose. I found the sapling that I memorized as my starting point to the car far above me. I realized this was the part where I remembered the wrong sapling and became lost in the mountains forever. I had also carried with me a pen and small notebook, and I imagined the movie they would make of the book they would write from the notes I would scribble during my last days on the RMNP. As long as someone got a book deal out of it--that was the important thing.
After about 20 feet of climbing, the shards of glass were back. I wrapped myself around a small, sticky pine tree and waited for the pain to subside. From this juncture, I couldn't really see the bottom, nor could I see the top. I considered how easy it would be for any moderately-sized animal to overtake me and have me for lunch, oxygen-starved as I was. I decided to continue. Upon reaching the top, I collapsed like a dishrag on the nearest stone that had no rattlesnakes sunning on it and gasped for air like a goldfish on the floor.
Three or four hours later I was able to complete the ten feet or so to my car and continue my journey.
Within minutes I had reached the Kewaunee Valley Visitor Center, notable mostly for its being the last gift shop within park limits. I had no choice but to stop. The clock read 2:13 p.m. Just had to grab something for my niece. How long could that take?
That could take twenty minutes. I managed to get out of there with a child's ranger hat, two books about moose (one for children and one for adults) and one stuffed, singing moutain bluebird. It was now 2:32 and I was approximately one million miles from the Denver International Airport.
To be continued... Read more!