Footnotes From All Over Part I

One of my addictions while traveling is people-watching. For example: it was the morning after behind the Holiday Inn in Salt Lake City. As I was mowing my face with my cordless Norelco, I zeroed in on an Asian family of four as they were dutifully packing their belongings in their mid-sized, Japanese import (what else?). But this wasn’t your ordinary throw-the-bags-in-the-trunk and roar off kind of departure. I mean, this foursome was going through the mechanics of re-stashing their stuff in the same reverse order that they had unpacked the car. It was reminiscent of watching someone try to re-assemble one of those multi-colored, multi-piece, plastic cubes (I can’t recall the trade name) that one might find in a psychiatrist’s office. Finally, everyone and everything was compacted into the car, but with one glaring flaw – the trunk was still open. What a laugher. It really made my day.

Here’s one for the books. I had stopped at a rest area on I-80, halfway between San Francisco and Reno. As I was getting back into Ol’ Baleau, up pulls a California-plated, gold-trimmed Cadillac with a fifty-something couple inside, along with their pussy-cat poodle. The old man, dressed in outlandish plaid pants and a pink shirt, gets out, goes to the restroom, comes back, and gets in the car.

The old lady, with her airline stewardess, coiffured hair-do, started making all these pointed gestures. First, it was towards the restrooms, then directed to the dog track rest area. With that, he gets out and obediently “walks the dog”. It was as if I was lip-reading her overtures: “I’m not about to get out and use that filthy public outhouse. I can hold it until we get to Bally’s. Now, get out and make sure Pootsie-Pie does her thing.” I estimated it was about 150 miles to Reno, so I wondered if Mrs. Big Bladder would make it to her gilded throne in time. I figured she had to fall into that category of women who think that “roughing it” means being without room service for a day.

And then there was the compliant husband who was trash-compacting his obese wife, two rug-rats, and a week’s supply of groceries through the cargo door of his Travel-Lodge van. It was tantamount to a Max Stennet silent movie… heads, arms, and legs flailing everywhere. I swear, that guy had to have the patience of Job. By the way, that memorable scene occurred in Heber, Utah, in front of the City Market.

In Duchesne (pronounced doo-sha), Utah, a sign on the countertop in a convenience store read: “Max of 2 students in store. Rest must wait outside.” I figured it was a safeguard against shoplifting. The proprietor confirmed that notion.

On one visit with my architect/buddy, Jim Toohey, who lives in Boulder, I was relating to him how a good friend of mine back in Dallas had become so cautionary in his life style. He religiously locked “The Club” on his steering wheel, and never drove anywhere without his “legally concealed” handgun. Being a born-again Christian, Jim’s anticipated reaction was, “Sounds to me like he’s living in a culture of fear.” I had to halfway agree with him, but noted that his Jeep Cherokee was one of the most prized possessions of auto thieves. His faith-filled reply was, “If it gets stolen, then it’s just an act of God. I can deal with that.” The Lord giveth, and taketh.

The Tooheys invited me to have lunch with them, so we drove over to this magnificent wooden structure situated at the base of the Flatirons, with a commanding view of the city below. Unfortunately, the popularity of the place had resigned us to wait for a table. As we were lounging around on the spacious veranda, I asked Jim, “What was the name of this restaurant?” He replied, “The Champamangua, a Native American derivation.” “Ah-ha”, I said, “that’s Indian for ‘you should have made reservations.” Everyone had a good laugh. We had a most enjoyable lunch on the veranda.

One summer in Colorado, I drove up Big Thompson Canyon, the site of that horrendous flash flood that occurred in 1976. As I was wending my way up the serpentine road, flanked on both sides by sheer, rock walls, I was trying to fantasize that unimaginable surge of water cascading down through the narrow canyon. I spotted a home owner manicuring his miniscule front yard with an antique push mower.

I couldn’t resist stopping to ask a few questions about that incredible afternoon. He was very obliging when I started right in by asking, “Were you here the day of the big flood?” His reply was, “Sure as hell was. Me and the missus first heard it, the roaring sound of water. We looked out and saw a bunch of campers and their trailers and cars being washed down the creek right there in front of our house. We just ran out the back and climbed up the side of the canyon till we felt safe. We sat down and just held each other, and thanked God we had made it out in time.” Then, he added, “It was them flatlander tourists that got the worst of it. They were camped out right on th’ edge of th’ creek, and didn’t know what hit ’em. It was a terrible sight, believe you me.”

I graciously thanked him for his vivid, first-hand account of that disastrous day, and bid him a “Glad you guys survived it” farewell, Wow, what a story.

A little farther up the road (U.S. Route 34 from Loveland), I noticed a young lad in obvious distress. He was just standing on the shoulder, hands on his hips, gazing in disgust at his neon-red belchfire, which was hanging precipitously at a forty-five degree angle on the edge of the creek, some twenty feet below. Well, me always being a sucker for trying to be a good Samaritan, I stop to see if I can be of any assistance. It turns out he’s used his yuppie cellular phone to call the nearest Triple A wrecker service. I could tell by his sheepish expression that he was hoping I wouldn’t ask, “What happened?” Instead, he bent over and asked, “Forgive me, but would you mind giving me a swift kick in the ass? I deserve it.”

When I reached Estes Park, my first stop was at the Tourist Information Center. My curiosity about what had happened that fateful day had been somewhat abated with my interview with the very fortunate witness down the canyon. But, my unquenchable question still remained: “What geological abnormality had caused such a tragedy?”

One hint as to the catastrophe was the good-sized lake sitting on the edge of Estes Park, held back by a simple concrete spillway. I sought out a Park Service employee, who gave me the answer in no uncertain terns: “It was one of those once in a hundred years phenomena. It was absolutely crazy. The meteorologists still can’t explain exactly what happened that day. Our annual rainfall amounts to about 15 inches. That afternoon, that much rain fell in one hour, right on

top of the lake. The rest you can figure out for yourself.” I thanked him, and left just shaking my head.

Many times I’ve either driven through or spent the night in Glenwood Springs, one of my favorite towns in the whole U.S. of A. It straddles the mighty Colorado River and the adjacent Denver & Rio Grande main line tracks. The AmTrak station is an example of, not a contrived restoration, but a honest-to-gosh working railway depot that has been operating for more than a century. On one particular “Last Blast of Winter” trip in early April, I had come up through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River (a spectacular white knuckle drive) through a winter wonderland of snow-capped summits. The beauty of it was that I had it all to myself – none of that encumbering tourista traffic. I perched Ol’ Baleau in a perfect parking spot near to and slightly above the railway station, where I had a great vantage point from which to spot on-coming trains from both directions.

A west-bound had pulled in for a stop, and the chef disembarked from the belly of a passenger car (they are now two-tiered anomalies that are disgrace to railroad aesthetics) to take a respite on the platform bench. I seized the opportunity, scrambled down the steps, and greeted the old man with, “How’s the trip going so far?” That was one weak opening, because he retorted, “Are you kidding? This train is dead. There ain’t no customers in the dining car, never was, nearer will be. Gee, I wish I could turn back the clock to the ’40s and `50s. We could run a diner car like you wouldn’t believe – the best china, the best service, the best meals, and fresh flowers on every table. This government train has no respect for its passengers.”

Well, a good traveler is a good listener. All I could say was, “I miss the passenger trains as much as you do.” As the train pulled out, he gave a short salute from the service door, and it felt reassuring that he had someone to wave good-bye to. That was one resounding testimony as to the deterioration of passenger rail service in this country. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the ol’ guy.