On the road, from CA to CO (or summer travels: Part Seven)

What follows is a lightly edited and mostly stream-of-consciousness travel log of my journey from Florida to California and back again.

20160610 – Friday

Right now, I’m technically writing this on Saturday, at about 3a. I’m settling in and can’t quite wind down yet, still very jacked up on mountain dew from the sprint/marathon to Colorado, from LA and through Utah.

I woke up in the jjimjilbang around 8a, and went for a round of hot tub then cold tub before packing up and heading to Santa Monica. There, I planned on circumventing the morning coffee routine by having the pros do it for me, at the Bulletproof Coffee mothership. After picking up three frothy brews (need fuel for the rest of the day) and dipping my toes in the Pacific Ocean one last time, I left Los Angeles traffic and drove northeast, through Las Vegas.

My goal today: get to Colorado. I have a friend who is working in Leadville, a mountain town deep in the Rockies, and we had planned on hanging out this weekend and catching up. I aimed for Grand Junction, on the western side of the state and before the mountains got tough. I squared away an airbnb, so I locked myself in for the target of about 12hrs of driving. On the way west, CO to CA took two days, with a stopover in Utah. This time, I wanted to hop straight to CO, at the cost of some night driving and missing the UT landscape.

So, I loaded up on caffeine and headed north on 15— if I drove nonstop, I’d arrive at my lodging around 1130p. Of course, that didn’t end up happening.

I stopped at a ghost town in Nevada, a weird little pitstop between LA and Las Vegas. I saw a small funnel of dust sprouting into the sky, and realized that I was seeing my first dust devil, a mini tornado or a large vortex of sand and dust. It caught me all off-guard, and I decided to pull off the highway and stretch my legs.

Now that I’m riding solo, I try to pause the road trip every two hours in order to move a bit, ground, and stay limber. Any more than two straight hours of driving, and I start to get sleepy, crampy, or both.

Didn’t end up exploring the ghost town, just the surrounding area and it was a bit eerie. A desert canyon with high bluffs all around, you know that you can do whatever you want (the whole outdoors is your bathroom!) because no one else is around, but a bit of paranoia seeps in and forces you to wonder if anyone is watching from afar, tucked into the ragged cliff faces. Sure, I could hear a car coming from other half a mile away, and I was under the shade of a weathered tree. That didn’t prevent the thoughts from emerging— I can only guess how the settlers felt, knowing they are on native lands and were not welcome.

I-5 is weird. A major through-way between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, it is like the street between the rowdy bars and the late night pizza places. In the early afternoon, I made it past Vegas and proceeded to Utah.

With my regular stops, and the time zone shift, my estimated arrival in Grand Junction delayed to after midnight. No problem, I thought. Lots of coffee and some podcasts will keep me chugging through the night despite the 5hrs of sleep the night before.

So, I kept cruising and admired the mountains and canyons and buttes along the way. A long stop around sunset to stretch, breathe, and lay down for a bit was well-deserved and much-needed. Met an older fellow driving an equally old stationwagon, struck up a quick conversation on my way out and realized that he really wanted to chat. Ducked out of that with relative social grace, and gladly noticed he was chatting with another older gentleman by the bathrooms. As I started my evening jump out of Utah, I imagined them talking politely about local weather and the fastest way to get to one place or another.

In retrospect, I wish I had driven through UT during the day, or at least during an illuminated night, because I knew I was driving through some crazy stuff, but couldn’t see beyond my headlights. The landscapes felt huge, long descents between high plateaus, and that implied immensity probably awed me more than what was actually there— an overactive imagination alone at night in an unfamiliar place.

As I finished up my drive north, before merging onto 70 for the major artery east into Colorado, my gas light flicked on. Oh bother, I’ll just stop at the next thing, I told myself. But, the interstate junction marked a steep climb and movement away from civilization, not towards it.

It’s amazing what that little light does to a drive— immediate stress. My father had given me a small one gallon gas container to keep in the trunk for such an occasion, but I had left it earlier in the trip for someone else to use. A strong “I told you so” is coming as a result of this writing.

The gas light is on and I’m keenly aware in the dark mountain passes that envelops I-70 that there isn’t a gas station or exit or even lights past the upcoming ridge, or the one beyond that. Luckily, the light came on when the road switched to a downhill, or down-mountain, so I could cruise in neutral down the way.

Each mile driving down the dark and ominous roads felt like walking another block when you already have to pee. During the day, these peaks and this road must be a glorious sight to behold, but with the clouds blocking out most of the stars and the new moon hiding under the horizon, the landscape turned malevolent, hiding the next turn which might show a relieving “gas this exit” sign.

After an immense amount of worrying, an exit to a small town offered a glimpse of hope— I turned off the interstate to a folksy little main street with a cute family-owned gas station littered with hand-made signs. Unfortunately, one of those signs read “CLOSED”. Around midnight, I couldn’t fault the owners, but I did shake my fist at the sky. The hissy-fit out of my system, I looked across the dark street to a figure gardening under a small floodlight. This gave me some hope, and I shouted across the way to make my presence known, and asked for some gasoline.

She responded with a polite, “Sorry, no” and asked me where I was going— I told her east to Colorado and she smiled warmly. She knew that the roads turn against you at night, and if you didn’t know the area (I didn’t since my cell service was quite poor in the mountains) it might seem to last forever. She told me if I keep driving in the direction I was going, I’d hit a 24hr gas station in less than five miles. “And, if you run into any issues along the way, the state road running parallel to the interstate is littered with farm houses and friendly folks,” she added reassuringly. I wished her well, gave many thanks, and happily headed east along that state road, to the 24hr gas station where I filled up on gasoline with great relish.

With that minor emergency behind me, I had another three or four hours of driving to get me to Grand Junction and the already-reserved Airbnb. I figured with a few stretch stops and some food at the end of the tunnel, I’d make it no problem.

20160611 – Saturday

Arriving in Grand Junction at about 4a, I found a 24hr burrito drive-through and then tip-toed into the cozy two floor home near the hospital. Everyone asleep, of course, except for a dog rumbling around upstairs while I brought my things into the tastefully-decorated room.

I slept the sleep of kings.

The next morning, I awoke around 11a. Asked the host for a later check-out due to my very late arrival and she happily agreed, as she had no guest lined up for that night so no need to push me out with a broom. I made my coffee and chatted with Dawn, the host, while she packed a few bags for a bluegrass music festival in the next town over. I drank my coffee in their backyard with one of their cute dog mugs, while I ran a load of laundry and wrote a bit under a tree and on the grass.

My only goal today was to head to Leadville, where my college rowing buddy Ian worked and lived with Colorado Outward Bound School, an organization dedicated to teaching youngsters leadership and grit through adventures in the outdoors. Ian, closer to seven feet tall than six, serves as a photographer for the adventures. Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States with an altitude of about 10,500ft, or almost exactly 2mi above sea-level, is tucked between the highest peaks in the country. Makes sense, right?

The drive up the rockies took about five hours and I landed in the Outward Bound camp around 6p, right in time for group dinner. The drive through winding roads and around gorgeous peaks left me stunned and a little out of breath due to the altitude, but I loved the cool air and strong winds. It reminds me of home in NH, and the exact opposite of that hot and humid Florida summer weather.

Ate some delicious curry and rice, with some green bean salad, for dinner and met some of the other staff members for the outdoor school. After the meal, Ian led me on a tour of the facilities, showing me the racks and racks of rooms and rooms filled with gear, enough to outfit a small army for patrols over any terrain. Everything had a lovely amount of thought and organization, reminding me of my time in Marine Corps boot camp. There were small touches that reminded me the system might be military-tight, but the folks giving the organization its pulse ranged from crunchy hippy to experienced outdoor trekker: climbing rope wound its way around structural pillars to give it a softer texture and adding visual appeal to an otherwise bland but essential component of a warehouse.

We went to bed a bit after sunset in his quonset, a sort of semi-permanent semi-circular tent structure that is like a large yellow canvas barrel cut in half length-wise and laid flat-side down. Ian had nested in the quonset, setting up a small desk, a rug, and some prayer flags to spruce it up a bit. I placed some tapestries against the yellow tarp/canvas material to give it some more personality, and planned to give one to him as a thank you for the lodging.

We talked until fatigue settled in, then slept while the wind whistled above us.

Long Form Sundays

On Death Podcast

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