It was another one of those “Can’t Stand the Heat, Let’s Get Outta Dallas” escapes in August of 1995. How hot was it? It was so hot, the creek was all but dry, and the turtles were left to fry. I made my usual “relief” stops in Vernon (Village Inn Motel), Amarillo (visit with Uncle Allen), and Dumas (fill up ice chest). At my favorite Midway Rest Area, halfway between Clayton and Raton in the northeastern sector of New Mexico, I had a surplus of time to watch the Burlington/Northern coal trains roll by, and the Colorado-bound Texas RVs roll in to scramble for parking spaces. And then there was that hypnotic heat lightning in the darkening northern horizon that kept me spellbound for an hour.
I also had time to reflect on the close encounters of the earthy kind…. those spontaneous brushes with complete strangers over the last two days. A forty-something gentleman sitting at poolside at the Vernon motel asked me: “Where can I get a beer around here?”. I had to ashamedly reply, “Amarillo, about 180 miles north of here”. He was from Independence, Missouri, and obviously had no idea how desiccated the area was. He graciously accepted my offer of a cool glass of wine. Turned out he was visiting his mother there.
Then there was the “Grapes of Wrath” family I met at a rest area outside of Estelline (right next to the Red River). With their shack-on-the-back pickup and a trailer in-tow, they were moving to La Veta, Colorado. His explanation in an unmistakable southern drawl was, “They’re too many gald-durn rednecks down there to suit me”. All I could guess that he was tired of his own kind. Then I intoned, “Caveat, Colorado, here comes another one of these oblivious Texans. And finally, on the outskirts of Amarillo at the Pilot Gas for Less station, I exchanged words with a man pumping drums of petrol into his Indiana-plated RV. I had inquired where he was headed, and he replied in almost apologetic terms, “We’re moving to Arizona. We’ve been without sunshine for sixty days”. Wow, what a misfortune. No wonder the demographic center of America was irreversibly inching its way towards Phoenix.
The next morning, I found myself panhandling for coffee, since my butane burner went non-flammable on me. I used the old time-honored intro, “Ya’ll headed to Colorado?”. “Yep, South Fork and Fun Valley to square dance”, was one reply. No coffee. “Yeah, we’re headed to Leadville to get cool”, was another comeback. No coffee again. Finally, I saw an old codger with a thermos, so I just walked up to him with cup in hand, and dispensing formalities, simply asked, “Can you spare a cup?”. Wow, that java was so jagged, it had teeth. I thanked him, and went back to Ol’ Baleau to drown the caffeine in cream and sugar.
Up and over Raton Pass (what a splendid first view of the Rockies), I headed north on I-25 until I branched off on state highway 165 towards San Isabel. I turn off onto state 78, and after climbing about nine miles on a dirt road, I found my former idyllic campsite (elev. 8800 ft.) which overlooked the eastern plains of Colorado. At night, the twinkling lights of Pueblo, forty miles away, were clearly visible. There was plenty of dead wood around for a good fire. I had always found that little clearing unoccupied, which never ceased to astound me. It must have been the luck of the Irish. I thanked God that night for getting me there safely, as I gazed up at the stars through the silhouetted pines.
Thankfully, my GAZ burner decided to “flame up” the next morning, so my feeling of self-preservation was restored. I trundled back down to the paved highway, and within a few miles, I was revisiting my friend, Jim Bishop, as he was teetering around on some scaffolding, laying a few more stones on his incredible castle. Jim was a civil engineer, whose home was in Pueblo. For thirty years, he had been obsessed with constructing an eighty-foot high medieval rampart on the mountainside, topped off with a sheet-metal cynosure in the form of a fire-breathing dragon head. It was Mr. Bishop’s life-long commitment to finish that edifice before he died. He was one of a kind, with the wherewithal of a human construction crane.
It was a short trip along the front range to Colorado Springs, where I had planned to meet up with my neighbors from Dallas. TexMex Joe Rodriguez and his Afro-American wife, Elvira, were taking a well-deserved two-week vacation, the first week of which was spent gallivanting around the northern part of the state. It’s my treat at the Holiday Inn for breakfast (see, there’s a trade-off for the complimentary ice and overnight parking). It was most entertaining listening to their accounts of traversing the Rockies, especially since it was the first time either one of them had been anywhere close to a geological phenomena known as a mountain (Joe grew up in San Antonio; Elvira in New Orleans).
I had to hand it to them – those native flatlanders didn’t waste any time getting initiated to the ardors of 6% grades and hairpin turns. They went straight for the jugular by negotiating the High Ridge Highway through the Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest road in the country (around 11,000 feet). Having a minimal geographical awareness of where they had been, I astounded (and congratulated) them for having literally been on top of the continent. With that, they got wide-eyed describing the “panoramic views and unlimited vistas”, and I just sat there, regaling on their experiences of virtually discovering a “new world” in their own country. Joe cracked me up when he said, “We didn’t know when we would ever see any flat land again”. I laughed with them, vicariously knowing what they had been through.
They went on to describe their descent to Grand Lake, then west to Kremmling and south through the Arapaho National Forest to Dillon. Then their escapades really got entertaining, as Joe described his excruciating encounter with the twisting road over Berthoud Pass (11,315 feet), and then getting ensnarled in an unbelievable traffic jam at the Eisenhower Tunnel as he was headed east towards Denver. To his woebegone timing, the Rodriguez itinerary had hit an unscheduled snag. I sympathetically japed, “You couldn’t have hit the “The Eisey” at a worst time, just when half of Denver was coming back from a weekend of escape to the mountains. It was Sunday afternoon, and you were new to the territory”. From then on, he was careening down I-70 towards the Mile High City, and I had to ask him if he noticed any peculiar warning signs, such as the one I remembered as being rather unique: “Truckers – Don’t Even Think This Is The End Of Steep Grades And Sharp Curves”. “Yeah”, Joe said, “it was hard not to see ’em”. Only in Colorado.
We spent most of that day driving around The Springs, with yours truly as the tour guide. We toured the incomparable Broadmoor Hotel, where Joe and Elvira were gaga over all the opulence of that venerable palace. I japed to Joe, “You two could have fantasized a second honeymoon here for only a hundred and fifty a night”. “Yeah, only in my dreams”, he replied. We drove around Manitou Springs where I pointed out the approximate location of Grandmother Brown’s (my Mom’s mother) rental cottage, where I spent several summer vacations back in the 1940s. I had always thought of Grandma as one of the first Texans to realize the beautiful accommodations that Colorado had to offer.
To complete the “Early” historical tour, I directed Joe to Nevada Avenue (the original main highway U.S. 85 through town), where I accurately pointed out the Early residence of 1941. “How could you have possibly remembered that house after more than fifty years?”, Joe asked in amazement. “Hey, Mom and Dad were in line with modern technology back then”, I retorted. “It was called an 8mm camera, and we would feed the film off the 8 inch reel through the upright, table-top projector onto a free-standing, roll-down screen”. In this age of VCRs and TV playbacks, my explanation seemed like a description of an ancient art form. I continued, “I recognized the front porch and the chain-link fence in front. Those were indelible images from a reel of Billy’s third (or fourth) birthday party with all the neighborhood kids”. My thirty-something friends were astounded at my total recall. “Just flashbacks in time”, I replied.
They chauffeured me back to my rest area behind the Holiday Inn, where I settled back in Ol’ Baleau and reminisced over a fun day with my tourista amigos.
The next day, we decided to take a respite from each other. Besides, their schedule started to read like a travel brochure: “It’s Wednesday, so it must be Cave of the Winds, Seven Falls, and the Royal Gorge”. I eschewed their itinerary in favor of just lollygagging in a one of the beautiful city parks in the Springs’ area. What better way to spend a summer afternoon than to listen to a ballgame from downtown Denver – the Rockies versus San Fran’s Giants on KOA’s 50,000 watt, blowtorch station (I’ve picked up games as far away as Elko, Nevada).
Between innings, I would do wind sprints barefooted through the deep, rye grass, sling the boomerang until it virtually came to rest at my feet, and slam line drives into the backstop with my venerable 34 inch, 34 ounce Louisville Slugger. After all that, I still found time to do a wax job on accentuated parts of Ol’ Baleau, i.e., front and rear panel corners and all chrome parts and glass (that way, the whole unit looked showroom shiny)…a little trick of the trade. I retreated to the Holiday Inn, where I called Joe to see what the plans were for the next day.