Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Touring Colorado Springs and Traveling the Rockies

Dawn arrives early at high altitudes, but we didn’t notice until around 09:00 that morning. Dawn also arrives very cold. When we went to bed, the temperature was something in the neighbourhood of 10 degrees Celsius. Not terribly warm, but when you’ve been having cold temperatures for six months, 10 degrees is not too bad. When we woke up the next morning, the temperature was somewhere close to zero.

I woke after Dhar. I don’t know how long he had been up, but no sooner than I had opened my eyes that he was looking back. Both Stefan and Rebecca were asleep, showing no signs of immediate arousal. I raised the window curtain next to me and peered out into the early Colorado morning. The clouds that had shrouded Pikes Peak the previous day were gone, the sky was a perfection of blue. The sun cast long shadows but shone directly on the front of the van, lighting the interior.

Immediately I noticed the cold. I hadn’t felt this since I had last gone camping. It was a damp cold too, mostly from the condensation inside the van. Most of the ceiling and windows were covered with large beads of water. I wondered if it was from humid air that we had somehow brought with us (not too likely considering how often the windows were open), or from our breathing. Either way, there was about a litre of moisture on the walls.

A rustling of the sheets behind me and a few mumbled words indicated that at least one of our two remaining sleepers was beginning the agonizing stages of waking up. As it turned out we placed the two worst morning people together — a marriage of convenience, if you will. Both Stefan and Rebecca take forever to get up in the morning, though Rebecca is about a hundred times worse than her other half. The irony was Rebecca continually complained of Stefan’s lack of motion in the morning, yet he was always up before her.

Dhar and I took this sign as an opportunity to draw all the curtains and go outside and see what morning in the Rockies felt like. I could hear mumbled protests from in and under sleeping bags and pillows about not only the noise, but the sudden increase in the light level.

Colorado Springs is the only place I have ever been that had crisp air that wasn’t in the middle of winter. Normally, that crisp feeling only comes at some God-awful point in the winter when it’s so cold your nostril hairs freeze when you breathe through your nose. Except for the temperature and the frozen nostril hairs, Colorado Springs had that same feeling when you breathed.

I smiled to myself, a remnant of a much earlier trip. When I had gone to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1989, Keith Black, the tour group leader, had continually said: “Smile, you’re in a different country.” (See [[Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Introduction|My Trip to the Soviet Union]]) The United States is old news for a Canadian living so near to the border and has visited a few states. But nothing I had seen or experienced before prepared me for the sights of the Midwest. I smiled because for the first time, I really knew what Keith Black had meant.

I had noticed Fountain Creek when we had arrived the night before, but hadn’t really bothered to take a look at it. The creek bed lay about 100 feet directly in front of the van, just to the east of where we were. The creek was low, and might even run dry during the summer months. The winter run-off had already come and gone, as the washed back grasses and debris testified to. The creek couldn’t have been more than a foot deep, but was probably only a couple degrees above freezing.

Suddenly to my left, I saw something move. Looking over, I saw a medium-sized cat. At first I thought it was a wild cat, considering how it had lurched when I arrived. But when I got a good look at it, I realized that it had been a tourist’s cat that had gone feral.

I was reminded of a book I had read, Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers. It’s a story of Navajo Tribal Policemen trying to solve a bizarre string of murders … a fairly typical plot idea. One of the main characters keeps a sort of watch over a feral cat that moves into a shelter near his trailer. Hillerman described the cat in a very specific way: under-nourished; looking like it had been well-bred; and very wild looking, like it was relying on its wits for survival.

The cat before me was a domestic breed, but not a pure bred. It was definitely not a wild cat. Not yet. How long it had been in the wild I couldn’t tell — it was either a quick learner or a very good hunter. Either way, the cat seemed much better off than its literary cousin. It shared the same wild look in its eyes, which shone brighter than the sun. I know house cats, this cat was now closer to being a puma than a pussy.

When I got back Stefan had finally pulled himself out of the bed, and was finding all the stuff he needed to have a shower. I decided to follow suit. I quickly realized however that my towel was still very damp from the night before (it really hadn’t dried during the night, which may also explain all the condensation on the walls and ceiling). Having a shower would obviously make me feel better, but I would have no way of drying myself off. Rebecca mumbled a nearly coherent idea about the hand dryers in the washrooms.

I collected my toiletries and followed Dhar over to the washrooms. Alas, a hand dryer was nowhere to be found. I sighed and returned to the van, accidentally forgetting my shampoo on the counter. Stefan was entering the bathroom just as I left. When I got back, the doors were locked. My initial thought was that Stefan and Rebecca had locked themselves in. As it happened, Stefan had locked the door leaving Rebecca behind while he showered.

Rebecca was still in bed when I knocked on a side window and announced that whatever it was that Stefan and Rebecca were doing would have to wait. When Rebecca opened the door, she gave me a bit of an odd look. I attributed it to her not quite hearing what I had said, and her general lack of alertness (Rebecca was not a morning person, especially without a large cup of coffee within arm’s reach). Rebecca promptly turned around, walked back to the rear of the van and buried herself in the sleeping bags, mumbling something about never waking up again.

When Stefan returned, he looked much like a drowned rat who had tried to dry off by shaking the water from its fur. I don’t know how Stefan always managed to look like that, but I’ll give him one thing: he was consistent. He immediately apologized for forgetting that he had locked the van when he left. Rebecca grabbed her things and the infamous “purple bag” of toiletries from Stefan, and left to do her thing in the washroom. Dhar arrived a moment later and handed me a large beige bottle of Pantene shampoo. I mentally kicked myself in the rear for forgetting it.

Having some of the Behemoth’s members back gave me the opportunity to give a quick call home. I hadn’t wanted to do so during the day, considering how much it would cost, but I knew full well that it would be rather difficult to coordinate my times with my parents. They didn’t like anyone calling after 22:00, so I chose the lesser of two evils and would call at 09:00 … 11:00 their time.

I wandered over to the pay phone at the back of the KOA office, carrying my daily planner (which, as you’ll remember from two chapters ago, was doubling as our expenses log during the trip … not that this particular detail is of any use on this particular occasion) so I could jot down my medical insurance number in case my mother had managed to find it. Taking a suggestion from Stefan, I used the 1-800-Collect(r) service to get through to home. I found it not only a lot easier to use than the system I had used the day before (all I had to do was key in my home number), but also a lot faster to connect.

This time my mother wasn’t panicky when she picked up the phone. This was probably because I told her I would call when I got to Colorado. It wasn’t entirely true, I had to call her sometime later, but I was keeping with my word. She hadn’t found my insurance number. This wasn’t surprising considering the condition of my room when I left (which, as my mother would often comment, befitting of the local waste disposal site). She asked me the typical questions: “How are you?”, “What are you eating?”, “Did you sleep well?”, “Are you wearing clean underwear?”

I kept the conversation short for two reasons: 1) It was expensive calling long distance from the States during the day, even if 1-800-Collect(r) said you could save up to 40% on the call (shameless plug); and 2) My mother’s questions always annoyed the hell out of me. Hanging up, I walked around to the front of the office to buy postcards.

KOAs make life very simple: everything you need is at arm’s reach … though not quite so literally. All of them carried postcards and stamps, although the staff wasn’t always on the ball with how much postage cost. Normally 40 cents (American), I was first quoted 20 cents in Colorado Springs, and 50 cents when we hit Albuquerque.

The clerk at the desk was the same one we had dealt with the night before. I bid her a good morning as I set about the task of selecting appropriate postcards. At first I was going to buy five cards every place we stayed, one for my parents and one for my close friends at home: Scott, Tara, Chris and Kathryn. But as I quickly learned, many of the places we stayed (including the KOA) had the ol’ four-for-a-buck deal. Now I don’t want to sound cheap, but saving money on postcards was a blessing, since I sent over $20 (American) of postcards and stamps home. Scott and Tara (who were seeing each other … and still are) were lumped together.

I chose pictures of Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, miscellaneous mountains, and the tackiest postcard I could find. Scott had challenged me to send him all the tacky (or as he had said, “cheesy”) postcards to him that I could find. This proved to be a huge challenge, since for some reason good-looking postcards had become more popular than the bad ones.

Having chosen my cards, I asked the clerk for postage. At the time I had no idea of how much postage to get. Unfortunately, neither did the clerk. But she said that 20 cents would get me just about anywhere, so I bought four 20 cents stamps. I filed the stamps and postcards in my organizer so I wouldn’t lose them and promptly started to head back to the van. Just as I was leaving, I thought to see if a postbox was nearby. The clerk indicated a small stand-up box just outside the door.

Rebecca, Stefan and Dhar were sitting at the picnic table next to the van, poring over the maps we had, and arguing about where we would be going next. Stefan’s desire to stay in Colorado and travel about the different canyons and natural sights was being shot down by both Rebecca and Dhar. (No, Stefan hadn’t relented from the argument we all engaged in two days earlier.) I decided it wasn’t necessary for me to put a word in since my goals were being met through the dual attack. After only a minute or two, Stefan finally gave up and capitulated to figuring out where we were to go next.

The TripTik provided by CAA was promptly pitched on a shelf — we were going to do the route the way we wanted to do it. Actually, the way they wanted to do it. I personally wanted to follow the TripTik because it would save us time in getting to our destination, which I assumed to be Las Vegas. I hadn’t yet shaken my habit of efficiency and punctuality.

This was a problem for me, I loved efficiency. If there’s one thing I really couldn’t stand, it was wasting time driving the long way to a place. When I planned road trips, it was using a modified MST, a computer term for Minimum Spanning Tree. In plain English, this is the shortest combined distance (or measure) along a given series of points. In our case, the overall shortest distance meant we would first go to Las Vegas, then hit the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. That was by my methods.

I will be the first to point out that my methods aren’t always the best ones. And this was just such an example. The route according to the TripTik was to go south on Highway 115 to Highway 50, where we would travel almost due west until we reached Grand Junction, where we would pick up I-70. This would take us to I-15, which would take us directly to Las Vegas. But in doing so, we would have missed some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. At some point in your life, you need to stop and smell the roses, or you miss living. The roses were especially sweet that day.

So Stefan got at least part of his wish, which was to take a scenic route through the Rockies to Cortez, Colorado. There we would spend the night before heading to the Grand Canyon. But more on that when I get to it.

Before we would leave, we decided that we should see something of Colorado Springs. The two principle things on our list were the Cave of the Winds and Pikes Peak. According to the AAA Colorado TourBook, Pikes Peak ran a Cog Railway to the top, but only in good weather. The Cave of the Winds was supposedly open all year long, but in any case I wanted to check. While the others continued to bicker over what roads we were going to take, I headed over to the phone.

Interesting Fact: American phones don’t take Canadian quarters. Americans in general tend to dislike Canadian change. We found this out a few times when we accidentally (honestly!) mixed a couple Canadian pennies in with our American change. This (luckily) never happened to me, but Dhar and Rebecca both were scolded for “attempting to cheat” a retailer. I, purely out of curiousity, wanted to see if a Canadian quarter would work.

According to the receptionist at Pikes Peak, the cog railway had not run the 09:00 run due to snow on the tracks. The receptionist didn’t know if the 13:00 train would run for the same reason, but suggested I call back at 12:00 to find out. This unfortunately ruled a trip to the top of Pikes Peak out because we simply didn’t have the time, at least in my humble opinion. Cave of the Winds was open, and all tours were running normally at regular intervals.

I relayed this information to my comrades, who were still in disagreement about the routes. (For the record, this was the only time we had a real debate about which way we would go. For some reason, the rest of the United States was not a point of contention.) Stefan was dead set on the scenic route. I was more for the more direct approach, but agreed that the scenic route was a possibility provided we had the time to drive it. Then Dhar and Rebecca gave in and agreed to the deal. The majority won. I lost. Stefan smiled broadly — he finally got something to go his way for a change.

We began the procedure of packing up. I went around to the driver’s side of the van to disconnect the hose and electrical cord. I quickly realized that someone had turned the water off in the night, assumedly to prevent hoses from bursting — a wise precaution. Following my father’s instructions, I blew any extra water out of the hoses, coiled the hose and connected the ends together to prevent any dirt or bugs from collecting inside. I also put away the propane tank, having found that it resealed itself during the night. At first I thought it might have been due to the cold, but I had let it sit in the sun for about an hour, and no further leakage appeared.

Following another of my father’s instructions, I checked the van’s oil and engine coolant. My father is a stickler for things like that, particularly when cars are involved. My father does most of the maintenance on our vehicles, and in a way he expects me to be like him. But I’m not — I work on computers, not cars. I actually prefer biking whenever possible.

The van roared to life minutes later. My father drilled into our family to always let a car engine warm up before going anywhere, just to make sure there’s no strain on the engine’s parts. While the engine warmed, we filled several left over two litre plastic Coke bottles so we would have an ample water supply. Stefan warned us that we would dehydrate quickly at the altitudes we would be traveling at. I, for one, was not willing to take risks like that.

I took first shift driving, and our first stop was the pump station. Although we never used our toilet, the washing of the dishes, my brushing my teeth, and the general use of the sink faucet had collected a lot of water in the gray water tank, which I wanted to dump before gallivanting around the Rockies. Rebecca and Stefan headed to the KOA office to get postcards and whatnot, Dhar stuck around to watch.

Pumping stations are usually fairly simple things: a hole in the ground (into a holding tank) with a water hose to wash any spillage. The smell is absolutely atrocious. If you’ve ever used an outhouse, imagine a smell 100 times worse. I never want to know about the things that end up in a holding tank.

Under the driver door is a running board step. This step is hinged and flips up to reveal the van’s propane tank with its valve, and the sewage hose with the tank valve handles. Unscrewing a small cap and pulling back a metal plate releases the hose from its tube, pulling out to a distance of about ten feet. But since I parked right next to the holding tank cover, I needed only a couple feet. I pulled back on the handles and dumped our dirty water.

Stefan and Rebecca were still milling around inside the office when we got there. Dhar and I went in to see what they were doing. I took the opportunity to purchase another four twenty cent stamps to correct the oversight on my postcards.

I dropped the postcards in the drop box on our way out, boarded the van, and prepared to head back up I-25 to Cave of the Winds. The trip back was a little on the convoluted side, with all the off-ramps and road construction, but soon we found Highway 24 and started heading west. Unlike the day before, we didn’t cross over to Colorado Avenue, since we would have had to remerge onto Highway 24 further down.

After a little while we found the exit for Cave of the Winds. It was in fact, a set of stoplights. We turned right and started heading up a road up the side of a mountain. A sign at the entrance told us to ask for assistance if we were driving a large vehicle. However the booths at the base of the mountain, where the help was supposed to be, were vacant. I sighed to myself, shifted into a lower gear, and prepared to see if I could keep ourselves from sliding off the road into a fiery death.

The incline of the road varied but was at least a 6% grade, probably extending into the double digits in a few places. The road was narrow too, so I had to be extra specially careful when going around corners to make sure I didn’t fall off the edge. To top it all off, the road zig-zagged its way up the side of the mountain. It made Lombard Street in San Francisco look like a straight-away.

The others oohed and aahed as I slowly guided our way up. I kept my eyes glued firmly to the road, not wanting to be distracted by a damn thing. Only once did I have to pass a car coming down, and for that I was thankful. I once caught a glimpse of the edge of the road, and frankly, it scared the hell out of me.

When we reached the top, we drove around to a pull-through parking spot and climbed out. We weren’t too sure what we should wear inside, but I took the precaution and wore my shoes. Caves tend to keep a constant temperature, and it’s usually cooler than on the surface. Rebecca and Stefan wore sandals. Dhar would wear shoes until Las Vegas, and would hardly ever take off his jeans.

The view from up there was amazing, but a neighbouring ridge blocked our view of Colorado Springs. I snapped off a few shots of the camera before we headed towards the Cave’s entrance. Along the way we found the grandstands used for the laser light show, something we were two weeks too early to see, and a miniature replica of an old-West saloon for kids to crawl through.

The Cave entrance was a building built on the side of the mountain. On its main level was a lounge, containing flyers for other attractions, a love tester, and a black hole simulator for coins. Any good tourist trap needs to have a black hole simulator. Below the lounge was an arcade which according to Stefan had an old Zaxxon video game machine. Across from the building’s entrance was the gift shop, were we would get our tickets for the trip.

We would be a part of tour 13. Lucky us. The shop was heavily unpopulated, containing a small handful of tourists, almost as many clerks, and a couple repairmen getting the store ready for tourist season. I guesses that tourist season had not opened yet. (Be vewy, vewy quiet. We’re hunting tourists. Hehehehehehe.)

We opted for the Discovery Tour, a 40 minute quickie of the Caves. Also available was the Lantern Tour, which was slightly longer than our tour and performed completely with dimly lit lanterns; and the Wild Tour, a 6 hour trek through the mud and muck that makes up the harder to access parts of the cave. Ours was the cheapest, the quickest, and probably the cleanest (the brochures recommended that you wear coveralls and bring a change of clothes if you take the Wild Tour).

We had to wait about 15 minutes before our tour left. This gave us time (perhaps too much) to wander about the store and see what there was. We found all sorts of tacky tourist souvenirs, including a series of cedar hand paddles with cute comments such as “Attitude Adjuster” and “Grandma’s Little Helper”. I found an interesting law framed on one of the walls. Desecrating the cave (that is, breaking any of the natural formations or writing on the walls) resulted in a $500 fine and a potential 30 days in jail. I read the particulars, but nearly choked when I read that the law had been written in the mid-1800’s. That law was still in effect.

Slightly below the legal notice was something I had considered a relic of times past: a sign indicating a fallout shelter. I had to point this out to (I believe it was) Stefan, remarking that the idea seemed a bit absurd. I was referring to the use of the sign at all, not the fact that the cave was a designated shelter. Stefan seemed to misinterpret my meaning, and replied that a cave would be an ideal shelter. This I never doubted, but the fact that the sign still existed was both curious and worrisome.

Dhar and Rebecca both bought lollipops. Nothing in that action was overly interesting, only that the lollipops were all-natural and hand-made. Rebecca’s was a chocolate and peanut butter flavour, one that I must admit is unusual. Rebecca, originally enthralled with the idea, quickly found that the flavour was none too inviting.

When the boarding call came we proceeded to a door on the north side of the gift shop, next to the frame that held the law. We handed over the little plastic tour tickets to the attendant then walked out to a small porch. There we waited until the tour guide appeared. He looked young, probably in his mid-20’s or so, and strongly built — this guide either worked out a lot, or did far too much spelunking for his own good.

He gave us a quick run down of the rules, mostly involving desecration of the cave. A couple words about chewing gum, and then he noticed Dhar and Rebecca sucking on their lollipops. They too were a no-no (the lollipops, not my compatriots), and were quickly tucked away in bags wrapped in waxed paper.

The entrance to the cave was through a short tunnel apparently dug out of the side of the mountain to allow for easier access to tourists. The original cave entrance, used by the two boys who discovered it, was further down the side of the mountain and much harder to use.

The cave was not at all what I expected. Most of my knowledge of caves came from the pages of National Geographic, television documentaries, and whatever books I happened to read. (And people wonder when I describe myself as a nerd … go figure!) All of them depicted rock or dirt floors, lots of running water, stalactites and stalagmites, crystal formations, and little unnatural lighting. In other words, caves that had seen little of mankind. Cave of the Winds was a commercial cave, not run by the U.S. Park Service. It was “improved” to make it more accessible to tourists.

The first stop was less than 20 feet into the cave, where the tour operators had a camera set up to take pictures of the tour members. Almost everyone on the tour were couples, except for a single elderly man (whose wife didn’t want to go into the cave), a couple with their toddler, and our group of four. In all there were about fifteen people in the tour group. The picture was nothing special, we were officially known as Group 13D, and would see our picture when we got out. This I found rather interesting since I knew that it would take nearly 30 minutes just to develop the film. The 8.5 x 11 pictures would take almost as long (under normal circumstances), and the tour was only about 45 minutes. (One of the advantages of having worked at a Black’s Camera shop is you pick up these things — the absolute fastest we could develop film was 45 minutes.)

The first point of the actual tour was a large room about 100 feet long, about 40 wide and sloping from about 10 to 40 feet high. Here we were shown the original entrance, since barred over to prevent people getting stuck or lost. Also here was a time capsule, to be opened around the year 2080. The tour guide invited one and all to come back to witness its contents. We happily laughed at an otherwise lame joke.

And so we walked down the concrete pathways with their aluminum, brass, and iron railings; up the concrete steps; marveled at the coloured lights that shone on the broken cave formations. I actually felt sorry for the cave, having to put up with humans continually wandering through, leaving behind their mark. I’m not a rabid environmentalist, but I’m not for destroying the world. As a camper, I strongly believe in leaving things as they were found, leaving nothing behind. I would have been much happier seeing the cave with lanterns, knowing how little of it had been changed.

The Cave of the Winds holds the record for America’s highest commercial cave. I assumed that means that there are other caves higher than Cave of the Winds that are protected by the U.S. Park Service, but chose not to clarify the tour guide’s statements.

Some parts of the cave were interesting. On one of the ceilings were a series of cave flowers, which are crystal formations that grow out like flowers. To prevent people from trying to pick them, the tour operators covered the flowers with wire mesh. Albeit ugly, the mesh kept the flowers for all to see, at least what was left of them. Many of the flowers were visibly broken or altogether missing.

Fat Man’s Misery / Tall Man’s Agony was a rather interesting place to visit. It was so named due to its low ceiling (requiring tall people to almost have to walk through on all fours) and its narrow width. Only children could enter the passage without having to bend or crouch. I couldn’t help but call out “Everybody limbo!” like a boisterous Ricardo Montalban as I entered the passage.

The Cave of the Winds, despite its name, was formed mostly through water pressure. Many caves (such as Mammoth Cave) are formed through water erosion, which although similar in nature, is still different. Natural erosion takes place over hundreds of thousands of years; water dripping and seeping through cracks eventually opens chambers. Under water pressure, the sheer force of water eroded the cave, most likely in a shorter span of time. When Cave of the Winds was formed, it was much closer to sea level than it is now. Many parts of the cave showed this erosion through pressure, the swirls and indentations of the currents were plain to see.

We exited the cave nearly an hour after entering, leaving the cool 58 degrees Fahrenheit behind and returning to a much warmer 75 degrees. Upon exiting, our pictures were ready. The picture was nothing special, a simple 8.5 x 11 inch photo in a stiff paper frame. I was tempted to ask if we could buy the negative rather than the picture. That notwithstanding, Dhar bought the picture.

We wandered about the gift shop for a few minutes while Dhar got his change from the store. Rebecca took the opportunity to buy some homemade fudge that the store sold. She was a bit confused about the flavour she was buying, since she had never heard of a Heath Bar. In Canada, we know the Heath Bar better as a Skor candy bar. I find the name “Heath” a rather interesting one for a candy bar, since the word “heath” means “wasteland”. (Part of the joys of being an English major.) Incidentally, the fudge was magnificent.

The drive back down the mountain was not quite as nerve-wracking as the trip up, although I’m not too sure why. This time, I could see down the mountain, and it should have frightened me half to death. Maybe it was that I could see where I was going (the way up was mostly obscured by the cliffs). But the van remained in second gear the whole time to keep it from moving too fast, my foot firmly on the brake.

The next issue was food. Not necessarily lunch, but food from which we could make meals. We opted not to return to Colorado Springs, but continue west on Highway 24 until we found a more appropriate place to buy our nourishment. When we reached Woodland Park about twenty minutes later, Dhar was too hungry to wait any longer.

McDonald’s is not exactly known for their fine cuisine. In fact, a Big Mac is almost at the bottom of things I would eat when given a choice. But Dhar was in the mood for a McChicken … or a Filet O’ Fish, one of those dumbly named sandwiches. I wasn’t too hungry and decided that a couple cheeseburgers would fill the void that was forming in my stomach.

School was out for lunch. Everywhere I looked were high school students, and most of them looked rather undeveloped — I figured the hamburgers they were eating had higher IQs. As I looked around the establishment, I followed Stefan’s gaze to a family eating lunch. That in itself wasn’t so interesting as it was to realize that the family was wearing what appeared to be their Sunday best, and had dragged Grandma along for the ride. I shook my head silently, not understanding how someone could classify Raunchy Ron’s as good eating.

Mind you, this particular McDonald’s seemed to be caught in a bit of a time warp (though none quite so severe as the Kansas Interspatial Distortion). On the wall next to the door next to the door we had entered through was a Mac Tonight sign. I suddenly had a flashback to the failed ad campaign McDonald’s launched in the mid-80’s to get people to eat at McDonald’s for dinner. The waning moon-head of the character was oddly disturbing, even more so when I was surrounded by people that some anthropologists might consider throwbacks to the Stone Age.

We didn’t leave for quite some time, Dhar’s order took a while. Even when we did leave, we had to come back to retrieve the sandwiches he forgot. What a silly bunt! We continued along Highway 24, now looking for two things: a grocery store and a liquor store. (But you don’t even know her!) We didn’t even need to leave Woodland Park to fill that need. Stefan and I waited while Rebecca and Dhar shopped for sustenance. This gave me a chance to finish my lunch.

I can eat a Canadian McDonald’s cheeseburger regardless of what its temperature is, or when it was made. The cheeseburgers I had just bought were freshly made (I had seen them made), but tasted horrible. American beef has a lot of fat and hormones in it, that is fact. Beyond that, I don’t know what else it could have been. The meat was like gray mush, there was only one lousy pickle, and the onions had no flavour. It was the worst hamburger … sorry, cheeseburger that I had ever eaten. It was the last American hamburger I ate during the entire trip.

I don’t know what Dhar and Rebecca were doing, but they took nearly a half hour to buy a few bags of food. That included cans of corn and green beans, pancake mix, popcorn, tortillas, chicken, hot dog buns, green peppers, orange juice, and my personal favourite: fruit loops. Not the Kellogg version, but some knock-off that was cheaper, but just as high in sugar content.

While Rebecca and I saw to the storing of the food, Dhar and Stefan saw to the purchasing of alcoholic substances: Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, and a large bottle of cheap wine. Neither exactly my flavour.

Stefan guided me out of the parking spot (which had me on an angle pointing down a hill), and out into the driving lane. A few moments later and we were once again heading west on Highway 24. The day was bright, the air was warm, and we had almost seven hours and over 6,000 feet of elevation to traverse before arriving in Cortez later that night. By this time I had accepted the scenic route as the decided course, and on such a day it was not to be a course to be forgotten.

The lack of clouds in the sky, the snowy caps of the mountains, the immense conifer forests became absolutely breathtaking. The roads wound in, around and through the hills and valleys that made up the Rocky mountains and the plains that exist between the ranges. Several times we stopped for pictures and to look at the beauty without the obstruction of the van. It wasn’t long before we left Highway 24 and started on Highway 50.

Our highest point was Monarch Pass, which we arrived at about two hours after leaving Woodland Park. At 11,312 feet above sea level, both the Behemoth and I were having problems getting a good breath of oxygen. I felt a little light headed. We stopped as we crept up the pass, pulling over to the side for a while to have a brief snowball fight. The last time I had run around in the snow in my shorts had been about three years earlier when I was visiting a friend in Montreal. And this time I wasn’t even wearing my shoes — they were tucked away somewhere in the closet, I was wearing my sandals sans socks.

Stefan took over driving from that point. I concentrated on seeing things I had never seen before. Rebecca and Dhar retreated to the back of the van to play cards, as they were very prone to doing. Stefan seemed to get really annoyed at this, he was very enthusiastic about all the nature we were seeing, and all Rebecca and Dhar could do was play cards. I stayed out of the argument, preferring to watch the world pass us by.

Driving down the pass was almost as much fun as driving up. Stefan kept the van in second gear pretty much the whole way down, not wanting to burn out the brakes as we descended. Fortunately, the pass isn’t widely traveled and traffic was fairly low. The odd semi-trailer would drive it, and we usually passed them going in the opposite direction. Though just as we were exiting, we ran into one.

It didn’t take Stefan long to get around it, the van having found new life at 9,000 feet, and we quickly found ourselves in the middle of cattle country. Everywhere we looked were cows, steers, and the odd bison. It seemed that it was breeding time too, as one bull on our right quickly told us. Outside of nature documentaries, I had never actually seen animals on the verge of mating. To be honest, I was envious — animals make it look so easy, they don’t have to deal with all the bullshit surrounding human relationships.

One bull suddenly started gushing fluids from its groin, and it started to mount one of the cows. Rebecca sounded almost like a giddy schoolgirl witnessing sex for the first time. She shrieked about “how large it is”. I had to feel sorry for Stefan, that somewhere he felt he was being compared to an animal whose phallus resembled a metre-long heat seeking moisture missile. (Metaphor intended.)

About halfway along Highway 50, just outside Gunnison, we stopped for pictures at a kind of picnic area. The road into the small park had an interesting feature that I hadn’t seen before, and that we saw almost continually until we reached Louisiana: a large steel grating made of parallel bars. It ran between the fence posts at either side of the road. I was justifiably curious, not knowing what it was. Stefan was quick to explain that animals, particularly cloven ones, are unable to cross the grating. It saves money as you don’t have to build or maintain a gate.

The roadway inside the tiny reserve was poor, not likely having been repaired in some time. But the park did have one thing that I found useful — a Johnny-On-The-Spot. Not exactly the Ritz as far as the smell is concerned, but a welcome relief nonetheless.

The view from the lookout was breathtaking. The lookout was perched right on the edge of a hill, which quickly dropped just below us. Just a few miles ahead was Gunnison, laying part way into a vast plain. Across it were more mountains. I took out the panoramic for another picture, pausing just before taking it when I had a much better idea.

I had Rebecca, Dhar and Stefan position themselves in the middle and at the edges of the viewfinder so that they effectively split the picture in three. As it turned out, the picture looked pretty good (for a disposable camera with a cheap plastic lens), although I found that the viewfinder is a little smaller than the lens’ view when I saw the picture two weeks later.

Just outside Gunnison, on the other side of town, we came across the Blue Mesa reservoir. Somewhere down river, one of the Governments (either State or Federal) had built a dam, creating the reservoir. But this reservoir was strangely depleted. We had arrived at the reservoir just following the spring run-off, during which a reservoir should be filled almost to the limit. Yet the water level was at least 30 feet below what appeared to be the normal water line.

Huge strips of land connected what would normally be islands with the shore. Exposed lake bed glowed a yellowish-brown, marked with a few large rocks every so often. Stefan and I commented to each other repeatedly about the water level, several times trying to get Rebecca and Dhar to express any interest in the phenomenon. But they were too engrossed in their card game to really care too much.

After cross a bridge to the south side of the reservoir, we stopped a little ways down at an interesting mesa hillside visible on the north side of the reservoir. Erosion had cut tall fingers out of the hill, creating a sort of effect of someone having dragged a huge comb through the soil.

About an hour later we reached Montrose, where Highway 50 ended. The sun was beginning to set on us, and I was beginning to have serious doubts of getting to Cortez before 20:00 that evening. A quick calculation proved that the earliest we could get there was at 21:30, well past the KOA’s office hours. We turned onto Highway 550 for our half-hour trip to Ridgway where we would pick up Route 62, continuing the Scenic Route.

The shadows grew long, hiding all the trees and cliffs. Soon all around us was darkness, and a desperate need to go to the bathroom. Montrose looked deserted when we passed it, so we had to continue in our quest for relief. I suggested we get familiar with the on-board toilet. However, a certain member of our regiment steadfastly insisted she could last.

Soon we reached Route 145, which would take us indirectly to Cortez. I refuse to say “directly” because the road weaved in and out of hills and valleys in a huge zig-zag. The first major bend was just outside of Telluride, where we found an open gas station. Although we didn’t need any fuel, we all needed to relieve ourselves and stock up on liquids and chocolate, the latter being a not-so-good idea.

The moon was out that night, and was very bright. Unfortunately, it was hard to see it amongst all the trees. Dhar took over from Stefan, who took over navigating from me. I perched myself behind Stefan and peered out the windows to try and see anything in the dark. Through rare breaks in the trees I could see valleys, small mountain peaks, and the odd house. Otherwise, it was a series of black blobs.

About 30 miles out of Cortez, we finally hit some excitement. As we came around a corner, we saw the flashing lights of a police car, in this case a Bronco. A cop had set up flares and positioned his car to prevent people from hitting a small landslide that had blocked part of the lane we were driving in. Dhar passed the cop slowly, allowing us to peer out at what we might have hit had the cop not been there to warn us. It was then that I realized just how dangerous that part of the trip had been. A heaving run-off could have dislodged a large rock, taking out the van with a single blow.

The excitement didn’t end there however. About ten miles later, we caught a glimpse of the clean-up crew racing to the landslide. The first vehicle in line was a dumptruck with a plow on the front. I don’t know how fast he was going, but he came within a foot of hitting us, enough to make the four of us hold our breaths for a moment, then swear in unison that we weren’t all killed. Almost right behind the truck was a front-end loader that kept his distance.

Almost as quickly as we entered the mountains, we exited them. Before us were the lights of Cortez, a city of only 7,300, but with enough lights to block out some of the stars in the sky. We pulled over just outside of the forests and gazed up for a few moments. Stefan remarked that Rainy River was much better, having no lights brighter than a 100 watt bulb. We piled back in and kept on driving.

Route 145 ended at Highway 160, which coincidentally enough was where the KOA was located. We turned left, drove about 100 feet, and headed in for a late check-in. Stefan gathered up his wallet, bounded out the door, and went over to be frustrated by the late check-in booth. This was the first time we had ever checked in late, so this was a whole new experience for Stefan.

He stared at the instructions for a few minutes, then came back for a pen he could write with. I never asked Stefan if he knew what on Earth he was doing, I figured he’d always answer “yes” regardless if he did or not. But it always took quite a while to get checked in every night we came in late. I don’t know if it was a result of him trying to figure out the cost when the discount was figured in or not, but nonetheless it took a while. Eventually, he returned with a map of the camp, indicating where we were to park.

We drove almost all the way around the park before we finally found the right slot. Then we drove around to the other side so we could properly pull through. Once Dhar had us in place, I hopped out with the keys and proceeded to get us hooked up.

Dinner had us in a heated discussion for about ten minutes before deciding on peanut butter and honey sandwiches. None of us were in the mood for cooking, and were all pretty tapped out from all the driving we had done that day. I figured in part the lack of will was due to us not being comfortable at the high altitude. During the day, we had traveled over 10,000 feet vertically (over 5,000 up and another 5,000 down) and all the pressure change had my ears nearly ringing.

To go along with our light meal was the wine Stefan and Dhar had purchased in Woodland Park. Three large plastic cups were partially filled with the cheap spirits, whilst I drank of Coke. I normally don’t mind wine (at least not since I started drinking at New Year’s that year), but the kind I prefer starts at $20 a litre. The gallon they bought was around $4.

The sandwiches filled a nutritional void that needed to be filled, we were quite satisfied that we could now go to sleep without a serious argument from our stomachs. Stefan and I were undoubtedly a different situation, but the both of us would agree that even a little food is much better than no food at all. One other advantage with making sandwiches was a minimalist clean up.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960423.227

Day 3

This can be easily defined as perhaps one of the most beautiful days in my life.We didn’t get a chance to get to go up Pikes Peak, the result of finally figuring out what the hell we were doing. We went to the Cave of the Winds, an uphill drive (and downhill) I’ll not soon forget.

We spent almost as much time on the road as in Kansas, but the sights were much better.

Finally arriving in Cortez, we scarfed down peanut butter sandwiches for “dinner” and everyone (sans moi) is getting drunk on cheap wine.

I don’t know if it was the alcoholic content of the wine, the change in altitude, or the phase of the moon but Rebecca got loony very quickly. By loony, I mean more or less drunk. Being the Observer, I know what drunk people are like … I’ve known hundreds, and this year became one of them. So I know drunk. Rebecca was not “hammered” or “blitzed”, but she was, to take a line from Pink Floyd, comfortably numb.

The wine didn’t seem to affect Stefan or Dhar much, except the slight redness in Dhar’s nose, so we concentrated on Rebecca’s antics. When that got boring (right about when the bottle was emptied), we began talking about whatever came to mind.

Take a set of young adults, give them alcohol, put them in a confined space and 99 times out of 100, they’ll end up on sex. Not necessarily participate in the act of sex (although that is a possibility), but discussion almost invariably leads to sex. I really have to wonder why psychologists have never studied this. Is it a preoccupation? I know it is with men (being one, I feel I can speak confidently for the whole), but is it with women? I can’t say Rebecca speaks for the whole of women, since she’s preoccupied with it for different reasons — she already has had kids, and is a sex expert in her line of employment.

Nevertheless, we ended up talking about sex. Specifics I cannot recall, since I was not only fairly tired, but the number of such discussions I have had prior and since that night have irreversibly garbled what memory of particulars I had of that evening.

What I do remember of that evening was Dhar’s silence. Rebecca did most of the talking, Stefan and I accounting for about only half the discussion. It was then that I realized that Dhar was insecure about the subject. At first I thought he was just a kindred spirit to myself — too shy to ask, too desperate to get it. But his general lack of contribution, even when prompted, told a totally different story. Sex was not quite taboo, but it was something very private to him and not open for discussion at any time. I sympathized with him, having to listen to the three of us babble away while he patiently sat there and waited for us to finish.

Somewhere close to 01:00, we decided that sleep was not a bad idea. The plans for the following day were to visit the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon, getting into Las Vegas sometime around 20:00 that night.

I pulled my bed out as usual, but Dhar decided that he was going to try a different way of sleeping, and simply tilted his chair back. Dhar spent the night sleeping in a reclined seated position, facing the rear of the van. It didn’t stop him snoring through, he began than less than five minutes after the lights went out…

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