I head out south on route 40, thanking Steamboat and Suzi for a great time.Up and over Rabbit Ears Pass at a relatively modest elevation of9,426 feet, Ican see the fertile valley below, stretching for miles. It’s a breathtaking sight. I come upona fork in the road, but fortunately I swerve around it justtime to miss running overit, thereby avoiding a possible blowout (a little highway humor there). I do stop and mull over the map for a few minutes, and decideto stay on Route 40 south to Kremmling, where I pass bya cafe fronting the townsquare. Memories of 26 years hence suddenly surface. I was one of a party offour on our way to Steamboat for a weekend of skiing, and we stopped at that samerestaurant for lunch.
We established a camaraderie with our cute, young waitress,which eventually led her to admonish us with those unforgettable words “Do yourself a favor and don’t ever come back through here again. This town is a realdrag. I wish I’d never been born here.” Well, despite the young lady’s alarming advice, I’ve been through her home-town a number of times, wondering to thisday whatever happened to that innocent andnaive little girl. Did she get sweptoff her feet by some hot-shot Denver lawyer; or marry the highschool fullback,resigning herself to a life in the Kremmling hereafter. To wonder is fascinating.
The highway east parallels both the Colorado River and the Denver & Rio Grande
tracks, and I’m thinking “What a super place for a campsite”. The road twiststhrough a canyon, as I play cat-and-mouse with a freight train, stopping at a pull-off and waving at the engineer, then passing him again,only to stop and repeatthe boyhood gestures farther down the canyon. Again, I wonder what the engineermust be thinking: “That guy in the blue van must be some kind of train-nut. Eitherthat or he’s sure not in any hurry to get where he’s going”. Right on both counts,friend. I pull into Hot Sulfur Springs, a town of about four-hundred inhabitants,which, miraculously, still provides purifying water for the afflicted. Or so they say. I never quite believed that balderdash.
Anyway, by means of another intuitive impulse, I discover my paradise on the outskirts of town: a tariff-free park area sandwiched between the river and the tracks. What an unbelievable find!To add to the euphoria, a woodsupply was readily available from the innards ofa nearby dead cottonwood, and an Amtrak was due any minute. After arranging some rocks in a semi-circular pit, I venture down the gravel road to size up my neighbors, under the guise of checking out the toilet paper supply in the outhouse. Turns out they’re plain folk, people of the earth from the eastern plains of Colorado. They’re reserved, yet friendly, as are most of the natives of this state. From the looks of things, they’ve been encamped here in their mini-house trailerfor at least a week. “Just passin’ the time fishin’. Plan to be here ’till Labor Day” was the old man’s comment. I never cease to be amazed at how people will entrench themselves in one location for two weeks…. guess the fishing, is that good.
Later that night, just as I was crawling under the covers, I notice a couple of carspull into the clearing next to me. By the illumination of the headlights, I watchin awe these people erecta bivouac with such systematic expediency that would makea troop commander feel proud. I estimated ittook them about twenty minutes to finish the job. I laid back down, gazing at the galaxy above, wondering if theyhad possibly performed a dress rehearsal prior to their trip. I doze off to the soothing sound of flanged wheels rolling on steel rails. “This train, keeps on rollin’, this train…” When the last coal car has passed, the rush of the rivercan be faintly heard. There is peace on earth. “Thank You Lord, again for…..”
A waft of smells and smoke are billowing over my skylight the next morning.I can see a young lady handling a huge black skillet over a low fire, cooking upan epicurean delight for the famished troops. My mouth waters as I grab for a banana. Fortunately, I have enough cottonwood bark to start a fire for heating up the coffee pot. Wood and water…the two basics for survival. Later, the cooklady happensto stroll by, and I grab her attention by commenting “You guys must have been tryin’ for the Guinness Book of Records last night puttin’ up that tent”. She smiles, and says, “We do practice at it”. Ah ha, I.was right.
As I was packing it upto leave, I faintly hear the familiar rumming (another conjugate, this time of hum and roar) of a locomotive, grinding its way up the canyon. I run over towards the tracks, and there, to my surprise, is an AmTrak passenger train. But my elation turns to shock at the sight of what I can only describein freakish, analogous terms, as a stainless-steel clad pachyderm (two windows aseyes on each side of steel trunk, or nose).
It was a futuristic monstrosity; nothing resembling any railroad aesthetics. Welcome to the 21st Century! The rest of the train was just as disappointing: top-heavy, bulbous-sided passenger cars with charcoal-tinted windows, which means I’m waving at phantom riders-of-the-rails. At least I was granted an acknowledgment from the lonesome engineer, and, as aconsolation prize, the “caboose” of this train was a classic Pullman car repletewith the presidential, whistle-stop platform and railing on the rear. Well, thatblast from the past was nice to see, but the incongruity of the passenger train setwas a little discombobulating. It’s the neon-nineties. Everything’s contrived.
I’m outta here, but this place is indelibly etched in my memory as a site to be resurrected, somewhere down the line. Fifteen miles farther, I’m in Granby, another crossroad in my odyssey in Colorado. For ten dollars, I buy three days so I cantransverse the highest highway in the U. S. of A., through the Rocky Mountain National Park…that’s one option.
I’m remembering a spectacular trip about ten years ago over the same road – it was literally like being on top of the world. The only problemthis time is that I’ll be restricted to those state-controlled campgrounds through-out the park. I prefer the second option, which is to head north on State 125 overWillow Creek Pass (9,621 feet) through a forested and mountainous Arapaho National Forest, and then emerge into the high plains of more fertile farmland of wheat and hay.
As I crest a rise in the road, my vision is captivated by the imposing skylineof Walden, a northern outpost at one of the highest elevations in the continent.There is no worry about population explosion up here. I head east on State 14 pastfields of hay stacks resembling giant sweet rolls. As I climb up and over CameronPass (10,276 feet), I can see the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountain NationalPark, and again, I fantasize negotiating the hair-pin turns on the Trail RidgeHighway way above the timberline at 12,000 feet plus.
I downgrade along the Cache laPoudre River and start perusing the roadside for prospective campsites. At this high elevation, the Poudre is really running fast andbreaking over boulders rightand left. The late afternoon sun is casting dramatic shadows over the canyon rocks.Any place along here would be ideal. Bingo! There itis, right between the riverand the road, with an abundance of trees and a ready-made rock-pit.
The only thing I’m skeptical about is the steep slope down to the site. “What the heck, let’s go for it. I’ll worry about getting out tomorrow”, I’m thinking. I brake Ol’ Baleaudown the short incline, hoping my cargo doesn’t shift down on top of me. As usual, I juxtapose the cargo-door side with the cook-pit for convenience sake. Along withsome left-over logs, there’s plenty of dead branches, reachable by hand instead ofby rope and weight. After all these years of breaking branches by hand, it all of a sudden occurs to me how handy a hatchet would be (like my ol’ bud Ron had). Well, one more tool for the arsenal. I slip into somnolence with the rhapsodic river as my “Nytol”capsule. It just doesn’t get any better than this…Thank You again…