Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Thunderstorms, Kansas, and Colorado Springs

The rain came down so heavily I have yet to see an adjective to properly describe it — “sheets” is not hard enough, and “Niagara Falls” is far too much. Somewhere in between will have to suffice until a proper word can be agreed upon. Needless to say though, Rebecca was none too thrilled with having to drive through it.

I personally believe that any person, regardless of sex or race, is capable of anything when dead set on doing something … except for a few cases. This happened to be one of them. Rebecca was visibly nervous about driving the van, even more so when visibility dropped to less than 100 feet. I know that when I get stuck with something potentially dangerous, and someone more capable than I is nearby, I ask for help. I also know that it’s the strong people who seldom ask for help. Intelligence be damned — pride is a hard thing to overcome. (I’ll dispense with the Pulp Fiction quotes.)

Rebecca pulled off I-70 and into a closed gas station, amidst a flurry of road reconstruction. (The construction theme was one we would see many times throughout our trip, this was the first major encounter for us.) Unlike others that would follow, this didn’t greatly affect our travel.

Under the canopy of the gas bar, Rebecca relinquished her seat to Dhar. He promptly set about getting the mirrors exactly where he wanted them. This gave us all a chance to get up for a moment and stretch out before getting back onto the Interstate. A moment later, Dhar pulled out from under the canopy, drove out into the chewed-up road, up the on-ramp and back onto the highway. And into a storm the likes of which I had never seen before.

The rain we encountered briefly with Rebecca had been hard and steady … but short. Almost as soon as we had pulled off the highway, the rain had slowed to a trickle. None of us chose to see this as a sign, or at least if anyone did they kept quiet. When Dhar took over driving, we entered a four hour maelstrom of water, lightning, and wind.

(Author’s note: About a week after we returned home, the mid-west, including a good portion of the states we drove through, experienced serious flooding as a result of heavier-than-usual rainfall.)

Less than a half hour after leaving the gas station, the wind began to pick up again. This disappointed us because we firmly believed that the head-wind we had coming from Oakville had given us our less-than-excellent gas mileage. It also made driving more difficult. But the wind wasn’t the result of the heating of the Earth’s surface, as had the wind some twelve hours earlier — this wind was the result of a cold front. A cold front that brought us the worst storm I have ever seen.

The rain started coming down shortly after the wind started. Every ten minutes the rain’s volume doubled, likening the downpour more to Niagara Falls than a sheet. Even with the windshield wipers on full we could hardly see. For a short period, Dhar reduced speed to keep us from hitting something or sliding off the road.

Flashes in the distance continued to come closer and closer, until we were surrounded by lightening. The sight was nothing short of awe-inspiring. I have loved lightning storms for many years now (despite that when I was a kid, I was scared to death of them), and although we saw only a few truly spectacular bolts, those that we did see ranked among the most spectacular of my life. Not long after we entered the lightning portion of the storm, Stefan decided to make me feel like a little kid again.

“Is this van shielded?” he asked. Being a non-engineer, and being rather uneducated in vehicular safety outside of seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and drink holders big enough to hold a jumbo Slurpee®, I had no idea what Stefan was referring to. He explained that most cars (and by most, I am referring to any car you can buy from a dealer) are electrically shielded. If struck by lightning on the roof, the charge is carried down the walls and out through the bottom simply by the way the car is constructed.

As Stefan was quick to point out, the roof of the van wasn’t metal — it was fibreglass and plastic. The last time I checked, the only thing you could conduct with fibreglass or plastic was an orchestra. I knew there was a wrap-around antenna for the television, but I didn’t know if Home & Park had installed a grounding strip to draw any outside electrical current into the metal body of the van. I had a vision of a bolt suddenly bursting through the ceiling and vapourizing us where we sat. I tried to think of any recorded lightning strikes on a moving motorhome … and drew a blank. Nevertheless, I quickly found myself wondering when we would be exiting the storm.

Stefan, now having successfully frightened me into staying awake watching for lightning strikes, wandered to the rear bed where Rebecca was already asleep. Rebecca got more sleep during the trip than Stefan, Dhar and I combined. I’m not complaining, I think she deserved it — mothers with small children get so little sleep. I know my parents took every opportunity to get away from my sister and I to relax, so I could hold nothing against Stefan and Rebecca.

Dhar continued to drive through the night, wrestling the wind and the rain. The two of us talked, played music, and stared out into the lonely stormy night. Every so often we were passed by a semi-trailer driving about ten miles an hour faster than us, which naturally made Dhar and I a little leery of sliding off the road into a fiery death. Appealing as it may be to some, we had intentions of making it at least as far as Vegas before committing ritual suicide

Over the course of several hours, the storm lessened in strength until at last all that was left was an overcast sky. At around 05:30, we entered Kansas City Limits. I should also point out at this time that we had already crossed into the Central Time Zone, and our clock was dutifully adjusted whenever we crossed any time zone.

The amount of traffic in Kansas City was negligible, rush hour wasn’t for at least another hour. And this time we would hit rush hour — it was now Monday morning. Soon we were skirting in and around the overpasses and underpasses that made up the downtown core of Kansas City. Several times the wind blew us around, and scared the hell out of Dhar because he wasn’t ready. In a little more than a half hour, the city limits were again approaching, as was a minor change in our roadway status.

We entered onto the Kansas Turnpike. Unfortunately for us, this was a toll road. Doubly unfortunate, there was no way to avoid it (if we had tried to stay on I-70, we would’ve ended up in Wichita). For me, this was the first time I had ever been on a toll road where you paid to get off, not on. At the first booth, we took a ticket from the gate attendant, and proceeded on our way. Almost immediately, Dhar noted that we couldn’t exceed the speed limit here, since the attendant at the other end would know if we tried to go too fast by the amount of time it took us to get there.

By this time the sun had begun to rise, and the two in the back slowly began to wake up. Stefan had mentioned shortly before joining Rebecca that he wanted to see the sun rise that morning, and left orders with us to wake him at that time. As it turned out, he awoke before the sun could really be seen (the clouds remained for quite some time that morning, and didn’t burn off until after noon.)

Stefan, becoming more aware of where he was, suddenly realized that he’d been there before several years previous. He remembered rest stops in the middle of the Turnpike. As he explained it, somewhere along the turnpike was a restaurant and a gas station … in the middle of the road. Odd, perhaps, but it didn’t change the fact that while Stefan remembered that they existed, he couldn’t remember exactly where.

As the ambient daylight increased, our fuel supply decreased, both automobile and human alike. Then the blue and white sign appeared before us: Rest Stop, 1 Mile. Another sign soon indicated that we would exit not on the right side of the road, but the left. Stefan’s memory seemed quite accurate, if incomplete.

Once again I will state for the record that while Americans can build the best highways in the world, they have no concept of merging. Putting on-ramps and off-ramps along the faster lanes is just poor planning, regardless of efficiency. Unless you happen to drive a vehicle with a turbo-charged V12, or happen to have solid-rocket boosters strapped to the side of your minivan, you’re potential roadkill. The length of American on-ramps and off-ramps is also horrible, quite often being less than 20 feet. I know of few vehicles that can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in less than 20 feet. The Behemoth isn’t one of them.

We pulled off the road shortly after 06:30, and pulled up to a Hardee’s, the American equivalent to Harvey’s. We were hungry, but the foremost thing on my mind was using the toilet. I opened my door, and my skin immediately started crawling, desperately trying to get away from the cold. We had started our travel south, but the warm weather we so desperately wanted was not yet to be felt. I quickly jogged around the side of the beige brick building, and found the entrance.

I quickly realized that this was a truck stop. I define a truck stop as any restaurant that wouldn’t accommodate most families. This one wouldn’t accommodate most families of roaches, let alone me. I quickly entered the Men’s Room and even more swiftly, emptied my bladder into the first available urinal. Several large, mostly overweight men were milling about, in various states of relieving themselves. I opted not to start a conversation.

A moment later, I was back at the van, warning the rest not to eat there, adding that the restrooms should be considered “last resorts”. I expected more opposition, but I guess there’s always a good solid line between food and sanitation. Hey, we might have been university students, but even we had our limits.

But the gas was cheap, so we took the opportunity to fill our tank. The wind was chilly, maybe 10 degrees Celsius, my hands nearly froze to the pump handle. Wearing shorts probably didn’t help matters much.

I took over driving again, feeling fairly awake considering my lack of sleep. I assumed that my excitement to be someplace new was enough to keep me going. (That, and the rude awakening from running around in the cold while wearing shorts.) I honestly wondered how long I could keep it up. Pulling out into the turnpike turned out not to be too severe a problem — there was no-one else driving that early on a Monday morning.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the end of our jaunt along the Kansas Turnpike, as it began to arc towards Wichita, which was away from our planned route (kind of like Syndey, Australia is out of the way of Paris, France). We paid our $1.75 toll and returned to the I-70. We drove for only a couple hours before hunger got the better of Dhar, Rebecca, and myself. Despite his proclaimed starvation at the Hardee’s earlier, sleep overcame the walking stomach (Stefan), and he crawled back into bed. The rest of us kept watch for a restaurant.

Finding restaurants along Interstates turned out to be a relatively easy prospect. Whenever an exit sign appeared, it was usually followed by three more signs. Each of these signs indicated which gas stations, hotels, and restaurants were available at each exit. This, for us, was a big benefit because it kept us from having to get off the Interstate and wander around needlessly wasting gas. So whenever we got mildly esurient, we kept watch for restaurant signs and bickered about which places we weren’t going.

With Stefan mostly asleep, we took the first exit the three of us agreed on — Perkins. It wasn’t Rebecca’s first choice for fine eating — nor anyone else with a heartbeat — several times she had mentioned that Perkins was prone to bad food and horrible service. This was her experience. I, on the other hand, had never been to a Perkins before and had no qualms about giving it a try.

Rebecca, Dhar, and I got ready to go for breakfast while Stefan steadfastly stuck to staying in bed. It was ironic that the human garborator, who only an hour or two earlier had professed his undying need for nourishment, was in fact “too tired” to eat. Having formerly held a similar title in eating, I knew that there was no such thing as “too tired”. But I wasn’t about to try and move him. I figured we’d just leave him to his stomach.

The Perkins was nearly empty. This I found somewhat surprising considering that it was now past seven o’clock and most people would be ready to eat. Then again, it was a Monday morning in a small town whose only link to the outside world seemed to be through the Interstate. What appeared to be the main road ran under the Interstate, and every building of significance seemed to be within a mile of the Interstate, including the Perkins.

The waitress appeared almost as soon as we had sat down. We ordered up two coffees and one orange juice (I didn’t, and still don’t, drink coffee … I can’t imagine what I’d be like wired on that much caffeine). Rebecca chided me for not having coffee, proclaiming that I should “colour outside the lines” and be a little more adventurous (I got that a lot during the trip — I’m a conservative in rebel clothing). I didn’t want to get addicted to coffee, I have found dependence to something during long journeys can be distracting. As it stands, I actually considered having coffee after a taste of my orange juice … rather, my glass of Tang.

Almost as soon as the waitress disappeared with our drink order, Stefan stumbled in through the entrance. We knew that he’d be along sooner or later, you simply can’t sleep when your stomach wants to be satisfied. He sat down across from Rebecca and announced wearily that he was hungry. We restrained the urge to snicker. When the waitress returned a moment later with our beverages, she was visibly confused, wondering if she had accidentally missed a person the first time. Stefan smiled sheepishly and ordered a coffee.

As for the food, I chose a decidedly large breakfast of a three-egg omelette, pancakes, hash browns, and sausages. By the time I finished eating, I was quite satisfied. I felt ready to tackle another large chunk of America. Stefan’s and Dhar’s means were variants on each other, and of equivalent size to mine. Only Rebecca ate less … and even then, not by much. Stefan woke up the more he ate, by the end of breakfast he looked completely alert. However, that might have been due to the coffee…

Stefan picked up the tab for breakfast that morning, but we added it to the log of expenses so we could figure out how much we owed him at a later date. This was a pattern that would continue for the rest of the trip. It make figuring out bills a lot easier.

Outside the wind was still blowing hard and cold, I made a quick return to the van to get it started. Rebecca made mention of stopping somewhere for food and drinks, but I was more intent on getting back on the road. I figured that we’d find what we wanted at the next gas stop.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960422.075
Day 2
Despite a storm of biblical proportions, we’ve made it into Kansas. I’m surviving on about 2 hours sleep … does it ever hurt.We’ve run into our first major argument – namely where the hell this damn trip is going. I personally want to hit all the places in our itinerary, but Stefan seems to want to keep us in the Colorado Springs area. I was planning only on about 2 days, but now that’s up to 4 … we’ll figure this out somewhere.
Becka survived her initial stint of about 10 miles at the helm, but she caught the very front of that storm, and we moved Dhar in instead. 9 hours to our last stop.

And thus we truly began our nine hour odyssey across Kansas. Of all the states we visited, Kansas would be the last state I would ever settle in. It’s too flat. The Interstates go on for hundreds of miles in straight lines. There’s nothing to see for hours on end. The distance markers never seem to change. (If you haven’t already gotten the picture, it’s unbelievably boring.)

Somewhere in the galactic schemes of things, Kansas has become the place where time and space have no meaning. You can exist there for hours and get nowhere. True believers think that all the strangeness exists in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. No-one has even considered Kansas. No-one knows that its original settlers still live there, not having ever grown old. It’s a little known fact, and Kansasites want to keep it that way — waiting for the day their people come from Borotron to capture the Earth. Mark my words: when aliens take over the Earth, their capital will be in Kansas!

Boredom, thy name is Kansas. I was so strung out from crossing the Sunflower State, when I saw a bumpiness just on the horizon, I swore they were mountains. Everyone else was telling me they were just clouds, but I didn’t want to believe it. By this time Stefan had assumed the driver’s position, and I became obsessed with leaving the wide open spaces for something a little more feature-ridden. To my despair, the bumpiness turned out to be only clouds forming into strange shapes, that I wrongly assumed could have only been formed near large formations in the Earth. I never did find out how those clouds formed, but we didn’t see any real mountains until a few hours later.

Don’t get me wrong — Kansas wasn’t the first mostly flat place I’d been. My mother was born in Saskatchewan, which is almost in the middle of the great Canadian plains. The plains I knew best were the ones from Saskatoon to Prince Albert, a distance of about 200 kilometres. There the land is reasonably flat, but with a fair number of rolling hills and the odd valley or two. My mother testifies that the southern portion of Saskatchewan, out by Regina, is flatter than the proverbial pancake. Having never been further south than Saskatoon, I didn’t know. Kansas is awfully like the southern portion of Saskatchewan, only flatter.

It was while we drove endlessly through Kansas that I first heard of “highway hypnosis”. I learned that during long trips, especially in places with nothing to look at except straight lines with few curves (I won’t mention any six-letter mid-American agricultural states), you tend to start not noticing things. At first you miss the odd road sign. Then it’s how fast you’re going. Pretty soon you don’t notice the semi-trailers carrying large red farm equipment heading directly for you because you drifted over into a lane you didn’t know existed. None of us seemed to succumb to the potentially fatal problem, but then again we tended to talk too much while we were driving.

After what seemed like an eternity, our first sign of progress appeared: the Kansas / Colorado border. We felt like celebrating, like we had accomplished some great feat of endurance that no human had ever before had done. But even from that point, we still had another hour and a half before we would leave the I-70 and take State Highway 24 to Colorado Springs. So we settled for a rousing rendition of: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

Somewhere between Kansas and Colorado, 22 April 1996

As we rounded a large rain storm just to the south of us, I caught a glimpse of my first mountain. Until then the largest mountain I had ever seen were in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Much older than the Rocky Mountains, the Laurentians are also much shorter. Stefan was quick to note that although spectacular, even the mountains in the Colorado section of the Rocky Mountains were small when compared to the ones in British Columbia and Alberta.

Before we knew it the land was bubbling with mountains, most of them capped with high snowy peaks. Some a leftover of a strong winter, the rest due to their height. Never before had I imagined such a sight. Sure, I had read literally hundreds of books and articles on mountains and mountain ranges, and seen countless feet of footage in movies and documentaries, but nothing in the world could have prepared me for the sight I beheld.

And nothing could have prepared us for what still lay on the ground. Snow. Winter in most of Canada that year had been particularly long and harsh. Part of the trip, for me at least, was to escape the winter for at least two weeks. The snow had melted in Canada some two to three weeks earlier. But in Colorado, patches of snow still clung to the ground like a frightened child to its mother. I suddenly felt a little depressed. Long winters tend to do that to a person.

The van was beginning to act rather strangely, even for a vehicle that hadn’t been fully broken in yet. I assumed the problems stemmed from our altitude. Just from entering Colorado alone, we had climbed to an altitude of some 4,000 feet above sea level. Oakville, by comparison, is only about 300 to 400 feet above sea level. The higher we climbed, the less air there was for the van to use. Even I started feeling a little light-headed after a while.

When we reached the junction of the I-70 and Highway 24, we quickly found ourselves traveling through the quaint little town of Limon, elevation 5,360 feet. I wondered how strange we looked to the locals, seeing a large white van-cum-motorhome speeding through small 4×4’s, pickups and cars. The roads weren’t as nice as the Interstate, but as Stefan had been waiting to see, the roads were pink.

Yes, pink.

In most places around America, the roads are made with black sand. Don’t ask me why, this is just the way of things. But believe it or not, black sand is expensive, at least to carry to places like Colorado. There they made use of local materials instead. And in Colorado, not to forget Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, some of the readily available materials, namely the sand, is red. The result is pink roads.

And you thought Highway Hypnosis on black roads was troublesome.

The question of residence was raised not long after we entered Colorado. We still hadn’t decided where we were going to be spending the night. A partial decision had been made some time earlier that we stay at a campsite, but which one was still up in the air. Thus we dove into the RV Campsite book that my father had received from the Mobilife, who had sold us the Behemoth.

The Campsite book is concise and complete, listing every single campsite across North America. Suffice to say, it’s also several inches thick. After several debates on the services we wanted to have available, we decided on the Garden of the Gods campground, which was on the opposite side of Colorado Springs to the side we were entering. I wasn’t too thrilled with having to cross an unknown city, but for a pool and hot-tub, it seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t long before the Colorado Springs city limits came into view.

Under most situations, the navigator doesn’t do very much. When passing through a city, the navigator makes sure the driver doesn’t accidentally take an off-ramp into the downtown core, or get onto a different highway that takes us to Timbuktu. And that’s in the worst of conditions, they last usually no more than a half hour. (At night, the navigator is also helpful at keeping the driver awake.) When we actually get off into a city, that’s a whole other issue.

I was pulling navigator duty when we arrived in Colorado Springs, somewhere around 17:30 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, this meant rush hour. So far, we had managed to avoid any major form of vehicular traffic, something we liked. It kept our travel time lower, not to mention our stress levels. But it had become time to face the music and get stuck in the thick of things.

We got off Highway 24 onto Power Boulevard and headed south to Fountain Street. The idea was to get us to the other side of the city as easily as possible so we could find Colorado Avenue. This, according to the Campsite book, was where we would find the Garden of the Gods campground. What the Campsite book didn’t tell us was how hard it would be to get across the city with our asses still attached to our rear ends.

We barely missed going the wrong way at an intersection and almost landed on I-25. As it turns out, that in itself wouldn’t have been so bad, but I would’ve had to figure out which exit to then get off. (No, I’m not that bad a navigator, but it was first proverbial kick at the cat, so I wasn’t entirely confident in my abilities at that point.) Eventually we made it over to Cascade Avenue, which we would then take up to Colorado.

We noticed something about Colorado Springs almost immediately — it was clean. Not just a general lack of garbage in the streets, but an overall appearance of cleanliness. There was no dirt on the roads, the grass was cut, there seemed to be no pollution … even the trees seemed to be polished. It was like driving through a Disney-created city. Disturbing is too soft a term to describe what I felt, and frightened is too harsh.

Many Americans, when they come to Canada, marvel at how clean our cities are. After many years, many Canadians would probably beg to differ with those Americans. Many of these Canadians, however, haven’t been to the United States. For a Canadian, then, to call an American city “clean” is nothing short of high praise. Colorado Springs was nearly spotless. To this date, I still proclaim that there are two cities in the United States I would move to. My first choice is Colorado Springs. (My second choice is New Orleans, which has got to be Colorado Springs’ antithesis. Go figure that one, eh?)

We debated on the reason for the cleanliness. One of our conclusions was that Colorado Springs is a military city, containing both Fort Carson and the Peterson Air Force Base. All the military spending might spill into the city, either allowing or forcing the city to keep itself clean. Another reason that we either initially ignored or forgot was that Colorado Springs is also a large tourist attraction in that part of Colorado. The tourist dollars (a few of which we contributed) simply allow a solid cleanup effort.

But even clean cities still have rush hour traffic. (Though I’d forgotten about that?) I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it then, and I’m still not sure what to make of it now. The veteran of some of the worst traffic jams Toronto has to offer, I’ve seen (and experienced) some of the worst rush hours in North America. Colorado Springs, population 247,700, is the only major point of population in its area — rush hour probably only lasts an hour, if that. This I determined from sitting at the corner of Cascade and Colorado.

It looked like the intersection of any non-descript small city. No buildings nearby over three stories, lots of trees, lampposts that were at least 15 years old (not that it’s a bad thing, they added a lot of character), meridians down the middle complete with trees and grass … it was very picturesque. It was also full of cars.

We were in the left turning lane, the sole vehicle trying to turn from Cascade onto Colorado. We waited patiently for all the traffic in the on-coming lane to disperse so we could continue on our way. But one of the vehicles in the on-coming lane was a semi-trailer with a flatbed. He was way too close to the edge of the road. And apparently not too experienced with going around corners.

Trucks like that normally take very wide right hand turns, mostly to compensate for the length and inflexibility of the trailers. Remember I said “normally”. This guy either got stuck in the rightmost lane, or was a beginner and no idea what he was doing. He started turning left and quickly found that he was going to take out the traffic light control box if he continued forward. He was blocking our exit, and the lights were about to change. Rebecca, Dhar, and I quickly urged Stefan to back up before we started blocking traffic. The urge was particularly strong because we hadn’t anyone else behind us at the time, and I didn’t know how long that would last.

We had backed up just as the lights changed. The truck however, was still stuck in the intersection, waiting for the traffic to disperse in the lanes in front of him so he could pull forward more before turning. This caused the traffic wanting to cross the intersection to have to wait until the truck was gone before they could go. I began to wonder how many lights we were going to have to sit through to see this problem resolved. By the end of the light cycle, the truck was driving off, and the cars on Colorado were crossing Cascade. But with no advanced green or an arrow to let us go, we had to wait for traffic on Cascade to filter out.

But soon we were on Colorado heading east, towards what we hoped would be our campground. It was then I found out an interesting thing about Colorado — the roads like to move around. It turned out that somewhere along the line, Colorado shifted to the next road north. We were back on Highway 24. And surrounded by morons, like the woman in a teeny tiny little car who decided she would pass us on our right as Stefan began to make a lane change. She even had the gall to honk at us like it was our fault. Some drivers should just be run off the road and be taken out of everyone’s misery. But I will say one thing about American drivers: on a whole, they have far more common sense than most of the drivers in Southern Ontario.

We passed under the overpass for the I-25 and quickly came to another lighted intersection, just changing red in our direction. Dhar immediately noticed a series of cooling towers to our left. Our initial impulse was a nuclear power station, prompting Dhar to sing (to the tune of The Flintstones theme): “Simpson … Homer Simpson … he’s the greatest man in history! From the … town of Springfield … he’s about to hit a chestnut tree!” Like I already said, Dhar and I drove Rebecca crazy with our Simpson’s references.

I dismissed the notion of a nuclear power plant being so deep inside a city, and so far away from a major source of water. I guessed it was a power plant fired by natural resources (like coal), or even perhaps a geothermal station (about which I was somewhat doubtful, as I didn’t know of any geothermal activity in that area). Either way, we didn’t get too long a look as the light soon changed and we drove on through.

In Colorado Springs, there is at least one intelligent city road planner. This was the person who saw it necessary to install small junctions from Highway 24 across a small valley to Colorado Avenue. A good thing, otherwise we’d have driven into the mountains, which was where we didn’t want to go. This got us closer to where we wanted to be, but even then we weren’t certain. Tensions grew and tempers shortened as each person tried to give directions to the campground we couldn’t find.

One thing I should also note about navigators — only one navigator should be allowed to navigate, otherwise confusion seems to reign supreme. The Campsite book was in the possession of Dhar and Rebecca, neither of whom were the current navigator, both of whom read out differing accounts of the same directions to take us to Garden of the Gods, and both became more irritated when Stefan was unable to comply with their instructions. Stefan, in a vain attempt to figure out what both of them were trying to say, drove up Colorado until we entered Manitou, a suburb of Colorado Springs. At this point, we all agreed that we’d gone too far.

Frustrated, we turned around and came back, still not sure of where we were going. Stefan decided to take things into his own hands and darted up Garden of the Gods Road, thinking that maybe the campground might be located on that street. At the time, the idea couldn’t have hurt — eight eyes all missed the entrance twice.

But up Garden of the Gods Road, we found the road’s namesake — Garden of the Gods Park. I had briefly read something about the park in the AAA TourBook ® for Colorado / Utah, and it seemed like an interesting place to visit. I hadn’t expected to see it on our arrival, but the break was more than welcome … especially since we were probably only minutes from starting to scream and yell at each other.

Stefan drove up the winding road, walls of trees and rock sprouted on either side of a the road for a moment, then gave way to a large reddish ochre rock wall as the road turned. In the wall was a large V-shaped crack running vertically, and at the top of the crack was a large boulder of the same colour as the wall upon which it sat. That alone wasn’t as impressive as what lay around another turn.

Immediately I understood the reason why someone had named the park “Garden of the Gods”. The portion we could see was a shallow bowl-shaped valley, surrounded by large mountains of the same reddish-ochre rock. The mountains were inconsequential when compared to the neighbouring Rockies, but the Rockies lacked the bold colour.

The rocks were likely a sandstone, formed many millions of years ago when the Colorado Springs area sat under 50 feet of ocean. Over the years, the water level dropped and the land level rose, exposing the layer of stone to the elements. The wind and the rain carved the rock into a softly flowing, sweeping landscape. The valley that was left eventually filled with deep green foliage in the forms of shrubs and small trees. It could have been the playground for Zeus’ children, for Venus’ lovers, for Diana’s prey. It was now the plaything of the more outgoing members of the human race.

Stefan pulled to the side of the road, mostly on our urging, Dhar and I immediately sprinted outside and started to take pictures. I took both my large 35 mm camera, and a small disposable Kodak panoramic camera I had bought just before we left. Alas, the pictures I took just didn’t bring out the vibrant hues that seemed to spill from every point in my view (even though I was using Kodak film, which tends more towards reds and oranges.)

Dhar took a few pictures as did Stefan or Rebecca, depending on which one was using the camera at the time. We spend only a few minutes basking in the splendour before climbing back in the van, and proceeding down the road to try and find the campground.

We drove slowly, partly so we could see all the scenery, partly because there were many pedestrians, bicyclists, and much smaller vehicles driving about, and Stefan probably wasn’t in the mood to crush anyone at the time. After rounding several corners, we stumbled across the General Store and Gift Shop, which seemed like an interesting place to stop temporarily and get directions to figure out where we were going. I also wanted to get more film.

The store looked like a reconstruction of a stereotypical store one would expect in a stereotypical Western movie, with the exception of the stereotypical town drunk, and that the store was only a single-level establishment. Out front was a robotic cowboy, complete with poorly moving jaw and a computer-synthesized voice straight out of the Commodore 64 version of Impossible Mission by Epyx. I couldn’t help but laugh not only at the antiquated technology as I walked by, but also at the other tourists who were taking pictures of it.

This was one of few trips I have ever been on, in fact it may be the only trip, that I completely acknowledged the fact that I was a tourist. Many times I have gone out of my way to blend in, as not to look “dorky” or end up “sticking out like a sore thumb”. This usually occurs when I walk around with my camera slung around my neck. But this trip was different — I felt like acting like a tourist. Why? Just in case I was asked where I was from. That way I could tell people how much snow there was in Canada, that I have to take a dog sled team to work everyday, and that during certain times of the year we pay for things with ice because it’s too cold to carry money with you.

And so we entered our first tourist trap of the trip. Inside was every single tacky souvenir you could possibly image … and a few you couldn’t. We spent a few minutes wandering around, seeing what annoying little gifts we would have to avoid buying over the next few days we were in Colorado. I bought another roll of film, and Stefan obtained directions to the campground.

Unluckily for us, the directions we received were even more cryptic than the ones we had tried to follow about a half hour earlier. But part of the instructions we understood — go to the Visitor’s Center. This sounded at least partially feasible. So we all climbed back in the van again, and continued to follow the one-way road out towards what I believe to be 30th Street, which had the east entrance to the park. Just across the road was the Visitor’s Center.

After a quick bought of indecision by yours truly on which entrance to use (there were two), Stefan drove south about 100 feet and turned into the driveway. He continued through the almost completely empty parking lot, and pulled up front the sliding glass doors. Two people walked in front of us as we pulled up, a man and a cigarette-smoking woman. Both of us seemed to cast a stare that said: “What the hell are you doing here?”

The glance was in a way justified, the Center had closed, though when it had closed was indeterminable without getting out of the van, which none of us were really too keep about. We sighed, Stefan backed up and turned around, and then headed down 30th Street towards Colorado Avenue again.

Part way down, he turned at a side street and headed west to another side road. Stefan barely slowed at the stop sign and turned south again. This road was interesting, as it was divided by a creek running down the centre of the road. The road was divided by about 20 to 30 feet, where it formed a concrete and stone ‘V’. Every so often, a small concrete bridge linked one side of the road with the other. The creek emptied into the valley that separated Highway 24 and Colorado Avenue.

When we reached Colorado Avenue again, Stefan turned right and headed west one more time. Almost immediately the confusion we had tried to lose in the Garden of the Gods caught up, and we started arguing again. At a slight bend in the road a small road jutted to one side, which for us was going perfectly straight. I suggested to Stefan that he pull onto it for a moment until we figure out where we were. It didn’t seem to help much. But just as we were about to turn back to Colorado, a well-hidden sign right in front of us read: Garden of the Gods Campground. We let out a quiet cheer as Stefan pulled into the lot.

The only campgrounds I had ever been to before were for tents. I hadn’t seen an RV park before, and wasn’t immediately impressed with Garden of the Gods. In hindsight, it was actually quite a nice looking place. Except for one small detail — it wasn’t quite open yet. As it turned out, we were the pre-season tourists.

The main office was closed, but we were met by whom I assumed to be the caretaker. He explained the water and electrical hook-ups were available, but none of the facilities were really open yet, and only the toilets were usable — the showers wouldn’t be ready for a couple weeks. I was past the point of giving a shit, and was interested in getting hooked up for the night, eating, and getting some sleep. Both Stefan and Rebecca wanted a hot tub to relax in for a while.

The caretaker suggested that we check out another campground just down the road which was listed as a “Good Sam Park” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). So we thanked the caretaker, suggested that we might be back (which I took to mean that only if the world came to an end and we felt the need to end our lives in a rush), climbed back into the van and left the campground.

The Good Sam park wasn’t any better. It was much smaller, and it’s facilities weren’t open either … what few it had. We didn’t have to get out of the van before we decided that we weren’t staying there either. Stefan drove across a small bridge from Colorado Avenue, stopped briefly in front of the main office, drove around back, round to the front, across the bridge and back onto Colorado.

Dhar started whining. He wanted a hotel room. Dhar was housebroken — he had never been camping before, in any form. An RV is a luxury for a camper, and for Dhar this was roughing it. Before the trip, he hadn’t had Kraft Dinner (or facsimiles), or anything else that seemed to go hand-in-hand with camping. I was surprised that he even had a sleeping bag.

Everywhere along Colorado were hotels and motels advertising rooms for $30 or less. Stefan, Rebecca, and I flatly refused to give in so easily, opting to try and find the KOA that Stefan knew was in the area and settle in for the night. The only problem we seemed to have was finding the KOA. None of the maps we had seemed to indicate the exit we had to take to find the KOA, and while the instructions in the RV Campsite book were fairly good, Stefan’s last memory of trying to find the campsite was rough.

Apparently, when Stefan had been in Colorado Springs the first time, he had stayed at the Kampgrounds Of America (KOA) in the south side of the city. But as he had tried to find it, the driver took a wrong turn, and landed in Fort Carson’s Tank Proving Grounds. Normally, you can’t miss this area, as the roads are lined with tank crossing signs.

The first idea was to find the AAA office. Stefan knew that there we could get a KOA book, which would have much better directions to our destination. I guided Stefan onto the I-25 south, which would take us back to Highway 24 east. That in turn to Academy Boulevard, somewhere on which was supposed to be the AAA office.

The route back to Academy Rd. was a little on the nerve-wracking side, having more cut-offs and merging streets than we could really handle after driving so long without a break, and arguing over where we were going. This culminated with me jumping the gun and leading Stefan up the wrong road. We still got to Academy, but we lost the advantage of a light to turn easily onto Academy. But Stefan was undaunted, and executed a perfect left turn, crossing two lanes of traffic and merging with a large flow of cars from the south.

For five minutes we traveled north until we were where one of the maps said the AAA should be. However the map we were using was incorrect. The office was in reality in the north end of the city. This didn’t stop us from going through several of the strip malls, searching for the illusive AAA sign. After keeping this up for about ten minutes, and several “let’s try the next mall, just in case”, we gave up. Academy Road, alas, wasn’t there any longer — the road had split into one-way roads, with another strip mall in the middle.

Stefan continued to mutter under his breath as he negotiated his way into the southbound lanes. While Stefan muttered, I looked through several maps and tried to piece together enough information to figure out where we were going. It took a few minutes, but I eventually determined where we needed to be. No-one said a word of hope or encouragement, partially due to lack of energy, partially in case I was wrong.

As per my instructions, Stefan headed south towards I-25. Rebecca and Dhar pointed out all the liquor stores that seemed to line Academy. This started a long running joke about liquor: “But you don’t even know her!” (Liquor … “Lick Her” … get it?) When I first heard this, I had to think about it a minute. I was tempted to respond with such answers as: “Nothing wrong with strange bedfellows”, or “How you know she won’t like it?” But what little decency I had at the time kept my big mouth shut.

About fifteen minutes after Stefan had turned around, he got back onto I-25, and started south. We didn’t have to go far, only about four miles until we got to the exit we needed. On the west side of I-25 was the Tank Proving Grounds. I assumed it also to be an active wargames venue, as in several of the valleys we could see, the Army had erected camouflaged tents and command centres. But there were no tanks or people in sight. Stefan was actually hoping to hear cannon shots all night.

When we exited the highway, Stefan pointed out the wrong way to get to the KOA. The last time he had been there, he had turned right instead of left and drove right into an active wargame. I found this rather interesting considering the roads were lined with Tank Crossing signs. They look just like people crossing signs (yellow diamond-shaped signs with black silhouettes), but have little black tanks on them instead of people. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a picture of one of them.

I started following all the instructions I could read verbatim. We turned left, and drove only about 150 feet, then turned right onto a small road that ran along the northbound lanes of I-25. We drove down that about a half mile, until the logo of the KOA sprang into view. Four quiet sighs hissed through the van as we saw the end of our 30 hour trek in view.

Stefan sounded as happy as Marcel Marceau as he pulled in and prepared to get us signed in for the night. He pulled in our front of the KOA office, grabbed his wallet and darted inside. After a few minutes, Rebecca and I also got out and wandered inside to see what was taking so long.

The office was combination administration depot and convenience store. The room was about 40 feet wide by 20 feet long, with a small jutting to the right of the door where souvenir t-shirts and hats were displayed. In the middle of the room was a small selection of foodstuffs, toiletries, and other necessities that are associated with camping and RV life. At the back of the room were three sets of glass doors, which at the time were papered up so you couldn’t see through them. (We found out the next morning that they were for a refrigeration cabinet, either just being installed or being upgraded.) To the left of the door was the administrative desk, which was where we found Stefan.

The clerk was a young woman, probably somewhere in her 20’s. I doubted that she was the owner of the establishment, partly due to her apparent age, partly due to her countenance (which wasn’t exactly welcoming – we never saw her smile or heard her laugh). I assumed that it was partly due to the fact that it was less than half an hour until closing (which was at 20:00 in the evenings). She was an unremarkable woman, neither immediately attractive, nor offensive in appearance. She was about five foot, eight inches in height, about 180 pounds, with fairly long dirty blonde hair. She wore no visible makeup except for her cherry nail polish.

Stefan was trying to figure out exactly what we needed. He had already signed up for a membership, a requirement for a stay at a KOA, and was being instructed on a special deal we had managed to stumble across that would potentially save us a lot of money. I wandered about the store as Stefan and Rebecca hovered on every word the clerk had to say. Rebecca paid particular attention to the hot tub and pool information. Unfortunately, the pool was still closed. But we still had about 20 minutes to get into the hot tub.

Stefan took the camp map, which had our camping slot clearly marked, and we headed back to the van where Dhar was patiently waiting for us to return. Stefan drove carefully down the gravel roads, looking for the right slot for us to drive into. When we found it, we realized that we had come around the wrong way, and had to drive further down the path and return down the next path over. (This was because the water and electrical hook-ups were on the driver’s side of the van.)

The camp itself was nothing spectacular — in fact it was the looking of the three we had seen. By “plainest”, I mean there were no trees next to the campsites, the grass still was slightly yellow from the winter snow, and what few trees there were had not yet started to grow leaves in any abundance. There were about five small gravel roads parallel to the road we drove on from I-25. Between the gravel roads were RV camping “pull-throughs”, designed to ease the process of parking and leaving. Just down from the main entrance were the bathrooms, pool and hot tubs which were all contained in the same building. Further down (east in direction) were half a dozen Kamping Kabins, a small log house that contained bunkbeds for those who want the camping experience without actually camping. (Not unlike a full-frontal lobotomy … for that feeling of death, without really dying.)

Once we had parked, I took the keys from Stefan and went around to the storage compartment to hook the van up to the water and electricity. The running boards of the van behind the driver were converted into a storage compartment large enough to hold two golf bags. In the compartment we kept a small propane barbeque, a garden hose for the city water hook-up, a heavy duty 110 volt extension cable, an adapter to handle the standard 110 volt three prong outlets, and the van’s built-in 110 volt connection cable.

At the bottom of the compartment is a round access hatch with a screw-in cover, used for running electrical and water supplies without having the compartment door open all the time. I ran the electrical cord out and plugged it in, then ran the water hose from the tap into the screw fitting. The tap leaked slightly, but the screw fitting on the van was watertight. I then closed the compartment and locked the door.

Stefan and Rebecca were about to leave when I got back in. Dhar was refusing to go into the hot tub with the rest of us, but was all for a much needed shower. I grabbed my swim trunks, towel, soap and shampoo, then hopped out of the van and went around the back. I opened the back door and removed my hiking backpack from the trunk space under the rear bench. The four of us then headed towards the showers.

The air in Colorado was not as cold as Kansas had been that morning, and there was more sun to keep us warm. However, the sun was setting, and the air was cooling off with every minute. But it wasn’t uncomfortably cool. The four of us wearily trudged across the gravel roads, glancing at some of the technical marvels we were sharing the campground with. Many were enormous, some even had DirecTV dishes set up so the occupants wouldn’t miss a minute of Y & R. We had chosen not to bring a TV with us (even though it was a possibility). We felt there was too much else to watch. (Though a TV and VCP would have been nice across Kansas … and Arizona … and New Mexico … Texas wasn’t so hot either …)

The building was fairly simple — we entered about a third of the way along the side of the building. To our right was the pool and two hot tubs, though only one tub was open. To our left were the women’s and men’s washrooms. The washrooms were nothing special, having the necessary toilets, showers, and sinks. The three of us (men) immediately set down to getting ready. I jumped in a shower stall, put on my swim trunks, and quickly jumped into the shower to rinse myself off (common courtesy before climbing into a public water-based entertainment facility).

The showers were strange, to the point of becoming annoying — they had only one knob, which unlike other single-knob showers I knew of, only turned off and on. The water temperature appeared to be fixed to slightly above what I considered to be comfortable. Yippee.

Stefan was already outside by the time I was ready. I grabbed my clothes, stuffed them in my knapsack, and hauled it out to the hot tub, fenced away from the washrooms. I commented mentally that the fence looked rather odd indoors. Stefan and Rebecca were accompanied by a man, perhaps in his late 50’s or early 60’s.

I had used a hot tub only a couple times before. Former neighbours of mine in Oakville had put in a hot tub in the early 1980’s, and as a child had used it a few times with the neighbour’s children, who were friends of mine. That family had kept the hot tub at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which I found very uncomfortable and hard to get into. The hot tub at the KOA was thankfully different, its temperature was around body temperature. I climbed in with relative ease, and almost immediately, the 3,000 kilometres and 30 hours of driving vanished in the bubbles.

It’s amazing what a simple device a hot tub is. Essentially a square (or round, depending on configuration) bathtub riddled with air hoses and nozzles, the hot tub is the only known device known to humanity that can suck out all the stress you have and provide sexual gratification at the same time. Though I’ve often heard those go hand-in-hand, if you’ll pardon the pun. Nevertheless, I was relieved to be bobbing in it.

I was wearing a pair of swim trunks I had found left at my home almost ten years previous. They still fit me, though only barely. I hated them. I preferred to wear my bikini-style swim suit I had from my days in the swim team in high school. But as I had found out on a previous trip to Florida, most of my friends didn’t approve of me wearing them. As they put it, the swim suit didn’t “leave much to the imagination”. Not knowing how Rebecca, Dhar, or Stefan would respond, I chose not to bring it.

Stefan was wearing a bikini-style swim suit, and Rebecca had her swim team swim suit, both in a matching black. I suddenly felt like an idiot for thinking I could offend either of them with my swim suit. I then reminded myself that I had also lost my physique from high school, and retracted my previous thought. Wearing such a swim suit, considering that I purposely bought it a size too small for racing purposes, it would have caused my thighs to pinch and bulge, which as you can undoubtedly imagine, is not particularly attractive.

The stranger appeared to be your typical retired well-to-do office worker. He wore glasses, probably of a light to medium prescription, had white hair with a few flecks of original colour, and a wedding ring. We soon learned that his wife was to be joining him.

Stefan and Rebecca had been talking with him quickly before I arrived, and I soon learned that he and his wife were on a trip much like ours, only in reverse. And not as fast. The man hailed from Detroit, and had been driving for the last few weeks through New Orleans, Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas and had just reached Colorado, at about the same time we had arrived. I guessed that the man knew where he was going, while we aimlessly bounced around the city figuring out what to do.

Next thing I knew, I was shifting to the right to avoid being stepped on by the man’s wife as she climbed into the tub. I was not the only one who had been stung before by hot tubs that were too hot. It took her a moment to get in, but she too found it very relaxing. I suddenly felt very alone, the only single person in hot water. An interesting symbol, if you think about it a while.

I quickly found out that the walls and floor of the tub were sculpted, with certain shapes installed containing jets to calm those aching muscles. A chair now rested under me, as did an air jet which ever so conveniently caused my trunks to fill with air. That annoying little trait made wish all the more that I had brought my Speedos with me.

The five of us floated in the now-cramped tub for about another five minutes before I decided I was going to get have a shower before going back to the van. The tub, for all its relaxing power, reeked of chlorine. As a former member of the swim team, the smell of chlorine became a bit of an aphrodisiac — its prickly scent would make we swoon, almost pant in desire to swim. But after several years of abstinence, the smell was making me nauseous.

I hauled myself out of the enveloping warmth, grabbed my knapsack, and headed back to the washroom. Dhar was stepping out having completed his shower. He smiled for a moment, about to ask me a question, when I asked if he could take my bag back with him while I showered. He was to ask the same question I proposed.

The shower was hot, but after the hot tub, not as severely uncomfortable. I bathed in its heated glory, washing off the remaining grime collected after traversing almost three-quarters the distance across the continent. My hair felt free of the oil and dirt, my skin free of the suffocating dinginess. After ten minutes of scrubbing, I felt good enough to go to bed.

I dried, changed into clean clothes, combed my hair, and jogged back to the van in the cooling air of dusk. Dhar was there reading one of the TourBooks. I stowed my toiletries on the shelf in the toilet closet, hung my towel to dry, and put my dirty clothes in a plastic bag. I then sat down and sighed in satisfaction of having arrived.

Stefan and Rebecca showed up about five minutes later, and announced they were hungry. We all were. The last thing we had eaten were blue corn tortilla chips as we crossed Kansas some six hours earlier. It was decided that the hot dogs were the food of choice. I asked Stefan to grab one of the propane tanks from the trunk space (accessible through a hatch under the rear bench seat cushions) while I retrieved the barbeque from the running board compartment.

Rebecca dug out the hot dogs, actually turkey dogs (Dhar refused to eat red meat, or drink milk … at least in most cases, he hadn’t quite kicked using milk in his coffee), and the buns. I set up the barbeque, got the butane lighter from the kitchen and started heating the burner. Despite its size, the barbeque heated very quickly and delivered a staggering amount of heat. It made quick work of the hot dogs. Not to mention toasting Rebecca’s buns. (Insert rude comments here.)

Inside we set up the forward table, turning the driver’s and navigator’s seats to face the rear seats. In less than ten minutes, the hot dogs were ready and we all sat down to eat our first meal on the road. Rebecca, Stefan and I raised our milk in toast, Dhar his glass of Coke. Then we downed a package of twelve hot dogs. Like I said, we were hungry. By this time, it was barely 22:00.

We had to close the side doors at one point, the air outside was becoming cool and Rebecca was getting cold. The van proved to be a very good protector against the cold, and also the heat. I suppose that all the insulation that Home & Park cram into the van’s body tends to help.

We made quick work of cleanup. Rebecca and Dhar washed the dishes, I put away the barbeque. The propane tank, however, seemed not to properly close. The tank was a simple design: the top was screwed into a regulator which had a small needle that opened the seal of the tank. But the seal wasn’t closing properly, and gas continued to leak out. I put the white cap back on and left it on the passenger side running board, in hopes it would seal overnight.

The table was disassembled and the beds made. It was the first time I had truly had to set up both driver’s and navigator’s beds, and I was curious to see what it would look like. The chair were turned 90 degrees until they were back-to-back, and the rear seats unfolded. The beds turned out to be designed for people slightly shorted than Dhar and myself, but would suit our needs for the trip.

We drew the blinds and locked the doors. I made an effort to brush my teeth in the sink, removing the last of the scum two days had brought on my mouth. Then I crawled into my brown sleeping bag, prepared to catch up on a day’s worth of sleep. I quickly noticed two things: there was a hole in my sleeping bag liner, and Dhar snored.

I’ve always been jealous of people who can fall asleep quickly. I normally take between 15 and 30 minutes to fall asleep, and as much as two hours if I’m anxious about something. Dhar fell asleep in under five minutes, at least that was how long it took him to start snoring. Not that snoring bothered me too much — both my parents snored and ground their teeth. Even my first cat snored, and that was louder than both my parents! I just shook my head and prepared to pass out.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary
Alive and well, we’re now about to settle in for the night. It took us too long to find the stupid KOA, but we’re all set now. Probably lost a propane tank. Met some folks taking a similar trip as us, but only in reverse.Kansas was hideously boring.