From July 27th through September 3rd, 1994, I embarked on a most eventful 4300 mile excursion through a sizeable portion of the U.S. west. The main event of the trip was meeting my buddy, Blaine Botkin in Reno for the annual “Hot August Nights” Classic Car Convention (August 3rd – 7th). I allowed myself eight days to cover 1600 plus miles, a tedious miles per day average for today’s helter-skelter traveler. With the exception of a short stretch of I-70 in Utah, the entire west-bound trip was via old U.S. routes…through northern New Mexico, southern Colorado, the middle of Utah, and all the way across Nevada, on the “Loneliest Highway in America” (U.S. 50). Residents in Austin, which is midway on the trans-Nevada highway, have to travel more than 200 miles round-trip to buy groceries (either to Ely or Fallon). They may be isolationists, but I found them to be friendly folk. A lady-owner of a cafe directed me to the city park, where I could safely spend the night. I got ahead of myself, so let me backtrack, and start again with some informal excerpts from the trip:
It was “Hot July Afternoons” in Texas on a blistering 287 as heat waves rippled off everything in sight just west of Wichita Falls. It was like a mirage on the hot horizon – that crown-shaped emblem of Best Western Village Inn Motel, a beckoning silhouette against the imposing skyline of Vernon (180 miles west of Dallas). I dive under the shade of the port co-chere of “The Inn”, and thankfully get a room with a view of the pool. It was a God sent respite from the heat.
I was fortunate to catch “uncle” Allen Early for a mid-afternoon coffee break at our usual Holiday Inn rendezvous in Amarillo. He’s actually my dad’s first cousin, and he just turned seventy-five. With the exception of a cane-assisted walk, a slight sway-back, and mineral-stained teeth, he was in good health.
A Burlington Northern engineer pushed the throttle to the corner as we raced head-to-head along a parallel stretch between Hartley and Dalhart. What a rush. The “dead head” (empty) coal train faded into the distance as I pulled into the midway rest area (halfway between Clayton and Raton) for a night’s rest. The northern horizon was resplendent with dark cumulous clouds defined periodically by heat lightning. I sat in my easy chair transfixed by the Almighty’s wondrous theater. Everything was in total harmony, both with nature and listening to a Ranger baseball game on the 50,000 watt blowtorch station WBAP out of Ft. Worth. And to top it off, this Ranger pitcher threw a no-hitter (I believe it was Kenny Rodgers). A plethora of Texas-plated RVs parked in the lot, headed north.
I stopped for gas in Raton at my debit card EXXON, and wouldn’t you know, there was a gaggle of SUVs lined up at the pumps – some sort of caravan. Good thing I wasn’t in any hurry. I just sat there watching the good ol’ boys take their good ol’ time, gassin’ up their good ol’ Texas trucks.
At the summit of Raton Pass, there was again that incredible view of the Colorado Rockies. I headed north on I-25 (oops, I forgot about that little stretch of interstate) to Pueblo, where I hook a left on U.S. 50. I took a peek at the Royal Gorge from a scenic overlook, more than a thousand feet above the Arkansas River and the Denver & Rio Grande tracks below. I turned to a elderly couple nearby and, with a mockery of sincerity, exclaimed, “Wow, it must have taken the Corp of Engineers decades to dig this sucker. They really outdid themselves on this one, didn’t they?” I was acknowledged only by a stare of utter incredulity. Some people just take life too seriously. Too bad. A coal train and white-water rafters were coming downstream, while kayakers were attempting to paddle upstream, with complete futility. It was a laugher watching them. The Arkansas River was alive with activity – it was beautiful.
I stopped at the city park in Del Norte, to run barefoot in the deep, green rye grass while waiting for the glaring west sun to diminish itself. This was to become a leitmotif for the rest of the westbound trek – diving under an arboreal umbrella, preferably at one of a number of bucolic city parks that I encountered along the way (usually between two and five o’clock). They were so peaceful.
Up and over Wolf Creek Pass at 10,850 feet, I can’t help but remember one wild and exhilarating climb through a blizzard in April of 1992. Flatlanders would have called it suicidal, but I just slapped on the chains and followed the snowplow. Into Durango, I made a beeline to another reliable Holiday Inn, in back of which I found my old “reserved” parking space, under the elms and right above the roaring Animas River. Before retiring, I went up the street to get a few groceries at the City Market, one of Colorado’s finest food outlets. Right next to the entrance were two young girls, with a huge box full of six shepherd puppies – free for the taking. I reached down to pet one, but dared not pick one up, to hold and cuddle. My instincts told me it would be an emotional disaster: the compulsion to plop a pup down in the seat next to me to have as a compatible traveling companion would be irresistible. My objective reasoning was reinforced by the fact that it was logistically impossible for me to raise a canine of that breed in a 500 sq. ft. apartment (plus a no-pet clause in my lease). Still, it was such a joy just to admire God’s little critters, and all I could do was hope they all found a caring home.
Cortez, Colorado was my next midday, city park reprieve from the afternoon’s glaring sun. I ran through the deep rye grass, and sat on a picnic bench, wondering what in the wild world of summer did those kids find to do for three months in those isolated burgs. I was hoping they improvised their entertainment, just as I did, before the electronic surge of non-imaginative indulgence. My next night’s stop was at a campground up in a canyon above Oak City, Utah. I got my directions from a kid on a bike, who was as articulate as an English prof. I figured he was of Mormon upbringing, being as they stress the intellectual. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I had asked a young lady in a small grocery mart how hot was it going to get that night. She only reciprocated with a dumb-founded stare, as if she was the last person in the state to ask what meteorological statistics were currently available. It was a rhetorical question anyway, since I knew I had to climb a thousand feet to reach the cool campsite.