Summer ’86: Part XVIII

The next morning, I said goodbye to “Singletree” campground and continued north to Torrey where UT 24 took me east through Capitol Reef National Park that was ablaze with hues of red, orange, and vermillion splashing off incredible rock formations.  Only in Utah!  On down the road, I was surprised to find gas in the tiny town of Hanksville out in the middle of nowhere.  I asked the attendant, “How do you guys make it out here?”  He replied, “There’s a little farming, so we hang on to what we have.”  As I drove away, I thought, “What a meager subsistence those people had to endure.”

I drove south on UT 95 and crossed the Mighty Colorado at the upriver tip of the 100-mile long Glen Canyon National Recreational Area.  It had always amazed me that such a powerful river started out as a trickle from melting snow packs in Rocky Mountain National Park at the Continental Divide. Just down the road I came to yet another Utah wonder, the Natural Bridges National Monument with pretty much the same colors and formations as in Capitol Reef.  With three other National Parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches – southern Utah had without a doubt the highest concentration and variety of wondrous geological formations anywhere in the country, possibly in the world.

Shortly thereafter, I came to a junction with U.S. 191 where I headed north to Monticello and turned east on U.S. 666 crossing the state line where a posted sign read: “Welcome to Colorful Colorado”.  In a curious way, I kind of felt like I was returning home.  I had mentioned earlier in the trip about the obvious geological disparities between western states, and it was no more evident than the transition from the arid rock structuring in Utah to the verdant evergreens of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.  About 40 miles into the state, I stopped in Delores for gas (at a dollar a gallon) and groceries.  I drove north on CO 145 through a canyon along the Delores River looking for that ideal spot to camp out for the night.

About 35 miles up the road my keen eye spotted a wooden bridge spanning the river with a gravel road leading up into the mountainside.  My intuition told me that was the place to turn off.  I scrambled up about a 100 feet and found a small level space to park next to a babbling Brook.  You probably knew her as the town gossip in the soap opera As The Stomach Turns.  Just having fun.

There was no trouble finding wood for a fire as I hunkered over red-hot coals warming up a can of chili on the grille.  It was the perfect setting for my first stop in my favorite state.  Again, it was another one of those spontaneous turns that was making the trip so memorable.  According to my altimeter, I was sitting on an elevation of about 7,500 feet and the thermometer read a pleasant 66 degrees.   I sat for awhile in the easy chair, mesmerized by the flickering flames.  I glanced up through the skylight where a brilliant moon filtered its way through the skyscraping pine trees.  I thought, “Oh Lord, what a heavenly light.” After I was sure the fire had extinguished itself, I crawled under the covers for a wonderful night’s sleep.

It was a nippy morning as I got a fire going to heat up some instant coffee.  And oh, did the flames feel great with the temperature in the mid 50s.  I doused the fire with shovels of dirt, packed in the cooking gear, and continued north over Lizard Head Pass at 10,222 feet and into Telluride, a pristine picture postcard Colorado community with the majestic San Juan Mountains as a backdrop.  I coasted down more than four thousand feet to Montrose (pop. 24352, elev. 5806) that was surrounded by bountiful farms and well-stocked ranches.  I toured the downtown area that was vibrant with activity and noticed not one abandoned retail store.  The town really had the right stuff.

I drove east on U.S. 50 through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument where I could see huge deposits of ancient black lava layered below the highway along the Gunnison River. Just as before at the Grand Canyon, I had to wonder how that geological phenomena had occurred probably millions of years ago.  I was guessing it was a result of a violent volcanic eruption (duh, do you really think so?).  About 60 miles later I rolled into Gunnison (pop. 10685, elev. 7703) and called Gene Paterson, another high school classmate who along with yours truly shared the Most Athletic Award of the senior class.  Fortunately, she was home and I got directions to her house in Almont that was about halfway up CO 135 to the ski resort town of Crested Butte.

Her pseudo-log cabin abode was right off the highway next to stream and had a corral for her beloved horses.  Gene had been an equestrienne all her life and over the years had become specialized in developing cutting horses.  She moved to Colorado’s High Country in 1969, and as she explained, “By local standards, I had to survive at least 15 brutal winters up here before I could claim to be a Coloradoan.”  I had to say, “You are one headstrong lady.” Her daughter and nine-year old grandson were visiting and we had a delightful dinner served up by my gracious host.

I was itching to tell her of my so-called “continuation of the reunion” trip, so when I mentioned seeing Billy Rodgers, she was all ears.  They had been close friends in high school, and after telling her of how well Billy was doing in Wisconsin, she said, “I’m so glad you got to spend several days with him.  I regret not having enough time to talk with Billy at the reunion.”  I said, “You just proved my point.  We can’t capture everything about everyone at one reunion. That’s part of my mission on this journey.”  She understood completely.  I spent a most comfortable night parked in the front driveway, so grateful I was able to spend one day with a special friend.

Gene scrambled up an egg breakfast for everyone the next morning. Before leaving, I gave her a big hug and left with such a warm feeling inside.  In Gunnison I filled up the frig and headed east on U.S. 50 up one long and grueling climb to the summit of Monarch Pass (11,312 ft.) where couldn’t resist stopping to get out and survey the dramatic view to the north and east where distant mountain ranges  could be seen.  It was absolutely breathtaking.  I coasted the next 20 miles down to Poncha Springs where I hooked a left on northbound U.S. 285 to Johnson Village. That was one spectacular stretch of highway with the Collegiate Range to my left (Mts. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale all over 14,000 feet) and the Sangre de Christo Range to my right.  That was Colorado at its best, believe me.

After negotiating another summit at Trout Creek Pass (a modest 9,346 ft.), I descended only a couple of hundred feet into South Park where I truly felt like a high plains drifter.  I stopped for gas in Fairplay (pop. 421, elev. 9216) and went on through Jefferson that had an original train depot still standing.  It had always boggled my mind how many miles of railroad tracks had been laid throughout the  Colorado Rockies and even over several summits, one in particular was the Denver  and Rio Grande’s improbable feat of surmounting the 10,424 ft. Tennessee Pass! I ascended only 500 feet to Kenosha Pass at 10,001 feet where I pulled over to pan the spectacular panorama of South Park stretching for miles below my perch.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as the sun was setting behind the Continental Divide and I was ready to bed down for the night at one of my favorite spots in all Colorado.  I was very familiar with the area since I had spent many a weekend camping out there when I lived in Denver, the most memorable time being in mid-October when the aspens were in their full fall foliage. I had never seen such a unique arboreal color display – predominantly a sea of brilliant yellows with a smattering of subtle oranges.  I found a comfortable niche in the dense woods where I got a good fire going to roast some more wieners on a wire.  Thank goodness for the extra coat hangers.  As I watched the embers slowly fade away, the stage was set for another splendiferous night’s sleep under the covers (the temp was in the 50s) in absolute darkness and solitude.  Heaven couldn’t wait.