We arrived in Denver Tuesday night around 11pm. My friend Tish greeted us at her door, put us to bed with a glass of wine, and sent us off in the morning with a bagel and orange juice. Things were definitely improving.
The early morning Denver traffic reminded me of Chicago congestion. As I covered my eyes to filter the sunrise and see what was around me, I was surprised to pass two theme parks with roller coasters rising up right next to the highway. I suppose it makes sense: Denver must draw thrill seekers because of its proximity to skiing and white water rafting. Not a bad place to live, I thought. By 7:45, we were outside of the city and had already seen three herds of elk grazing in the nook between I-70 and the mountains.
When I was 14, my family took a camping trip to Colorado. One of our stops was Leadville, and I had this romanticized memory of the old mining town. Kenny and I headed south to the historic spot. Along the way we stopped at a small lake to just look. A trail descended from the parking area to the lake and along the gorge, but we just wanted to soak in the view. This was what our road trip was all about.
By the time we arrived in Leadville it was only 9am. I’m not sure what I expected. My memories from that family trip are fuzzy – it has been 23 years, after all – but I seem to remember quaint stores and shopkeepers garbed in clothing from the turn of the last century. Like I said, it’s romanticized. Since it was so early, few of the shops were open and the streets were quiet. Over two decades later, the main street has Mexican and Chinese restaurants, and more coffee shops than saloons. We walked around a bit and noted the Victorian architecture of the homes and the Tabor Opera House. I could now check Leadville off my list, and we headed south once again.
Kenny used to be a competitive fisherman, so when we saw a sign for the Arkansas River Headwaters he pulled over like he was an Indy 500 racer in need of a pit stop. With fishing and camera gear in hand, we picked our way along the shallow riverbed. He’d cast his fly rod, give it a tug, reel it back in. Bugs come after me as if I’m soaked in honey so he asked me what I was seeing so he’d know what lure to use. Unfortunately, there were no bugs. I didn’t even see a swarm of gnats or the mosquitoes that follow me around like I’m a four-course meal. (Sometimes I think they call ahead to make reservations.)
If he’d caught something he would have been happy, but we were just enjoying being at the inauspicious cusp of a great river, stepping over the water-worn stones and cutting through the grasses and low brush until a barbed-wire fence forced us to turn around.
Back on the road, the Arkansas gained strength and momentum as it paralleled our journey to the tiny town of Poncha Springs. We left it behind to head west. Our next stop was the Gunnison area, where we planned on setting up for our first night of camping. The map showed several small towns along the way, including Sargents. I’ve seen some tiny towns before, but this one is basically just a truck stop. It’s located at the end of one long, steep, and curving mountain pass and the beginning of another.
Gunnison is the metropolis of that area. There’s an airport, and most importantly for me, lots of wifi. I was even able to sit in the Jeep next to the Visitor’s Center to post the blog!
A few miles north is Crested Butte. As we came upon the rugged, white faced butte partially covered in evergreens, its majesty took my breath away. It soars out of the surrounding ranchland and commands attention. Nearing the mountain, ranches gave way to luxurious homes designed to complement the landscape, and they were dwarfed to architects models’ proportions.
This is a premier ski spot, and we drove through the town at its base, up through the condominiums and lodges, and out the other side. Gunnison National Forest surrounds the resort. A paved offshoot quickly turned to dirt and we took that into the heart of the forest.
Taking this route was harrowing and nerve-wracking. The road had sections where the one and a half-lane path dropped off to the valley below, and the s-curved Slate River, just a few feet wide and black, seemed ready to swallow us up. Other stretches narrowly cut through groves of aspens. Occasionally a construction truck would come towards us and we’d pull over while it passed and I prayed that the gust from the monster barreling through wouldn’t knock us over the edge.
Slowly we made our way down into the valley and kept our eyes out for the campground. Then we came upon the town of Gothic, which nudges into the forest.
Sargents was small. Gothic was creepy. Hairs tingled on the back of my neck and quotes from Deliverance entered my brain even though I didn’t see a single person. There were houses tilted from either poor construction or from age, with boards on the windows. There were cars on blocks and on rusted wheels. There were new SUVs, and new homes that made sense of those construction trucks that had passed by so confidently. There was no street. It was a cluster of maybe 20 buildings with some dirt driveways that connected. At the edge a sign warned of schoolchildren, but no sign of any school.
Entering the forest again I started to relax. Even though it had been raining, I was ready to pitch our tent and I hoped the downpour would stop long enough to fix dinner. Since the valley is prone to flash floods, the camping area was set up a little ways, in the middle of groves of evergreens. The campground consisted of four spots, each with a flat space for a tent, a picnic table, and a metal fire pit. At the far end, maybe 150 feet away, we could see a tent and a car and two guys riding around on mountain bikes. We chose the spot closest to the entrance, not to be antisocial, but because there was a creek running right by the spot.
The creek tumbled from ledge to ledge over rocks and under braches, and curved around the trees as it gradually made its way to the bottom of the mountain. The rushing sound was particularly soothing after the tension-filled drive and the uncomfortable town of Gothic.
I grabbed my camera and we headed down the slight slope. The river I’d seen from the precipitous side of the mountain was directly across from us now, even though we couldn’t see it. A herd of animals was grazing above the stream opposite of us, and we wanted to get closer to get a better look. There was no path. Besides the dirt road and the small campground, this area was as nature dictated. We wound our way through knee-high grasses and stepped over and through the smallest bushes. Now and then a rivulet would surprise us and we’d have to jump over. The stream itself ran through a bank of slate. Atop the black polished stones were scattered small black pinecones. We still weren’t close enough, so we leapt over a strip about three feet wide. Standing on the slate, with water gliding around me, animals grazing above me, mountains encircling me so it seemed I was at the basin of a bowl of grandeur, I was awestruck by the simple and yet complex beauty, the isolation and solitude of this near-pristine spot. Later, those same elements would cause me to break down in near hysterics.
On our way back to the campsite, we noticed another herd to the right of the evergreen stands. We decided to climb up the mountain and come down from above to get a closer look. We had to cross the rushing water in a few different spots. As I stepped on the edges of the creek bed rocks to avoid slipping, and placed my feet on a fallen tree in a controlled scamper, I was reliving one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I would explore the woods near my house.
It was still raining. When we approached the clearing Kenny went on while I tried to capture a picture of the glistening drops on pine needles with a mountain in the background. I then made my way to him quietly so as not to disturb what he had been telling me where elk. He turned to me with an embarrassed and wry look on his face. “They’re cows.”
Yes, they sure were. Two of them looked up at me, chewing slowly, the red rancher’s tags dangling from their left ears. I started laughing, and we headed back to the campsite.
The rain had been coming in fits and starts, but we were on our way to a full-fledged deluge. I was OK, though. I had on hiking boots, a bandanna covering my hair, a hoodie and a fleece. I had a beer and a shot of whisky; since there was standing water in the fire pit, I pulled the stones from the creek bed to make a fire circle in a sheltered stand of high-branched trees. I was not just a City Girl.
That had been a real concern. I’ve taken to Chicago like a fish takes to swimming. Would I be OK with roughing it? Sure, I’d camped as a child, but that was in a pop-up camper with a Coleman stove and all the accoutrements you can pick up at Kmart. This was pitching a tent, cooking over a fire, and washing my hands in the creek. I was proud of myself that I could be both the type of woman who enjoys fine dining and great wine and martinis and theater, and also the type who will haul rocks over to the campsite and pee in an outhouse littered with dead bugs.
If it hadn’t been for the rain. Those same physical features that ensured the beauty and isolation of this valley kept the thunderstorms hovered over us. The basin of grandeur became a bowl of despair.
It might not have been so bad except for two things: while it was still light out we could see patches of blue all around us – outside the valley. Mother Nature was teasing us. The smoke from the fire would go one direction, and we’d see those bits of clear sky coming closer, and closer; and then the wind would change, and we went through the same thing. Over and over. Finally we just gave up and resigned ourselves to the idea that it was going to rain. All. Night. Long. The second was that Kenny only brought one light, and it wasn’t even a lantern; he had one of those lamps worn on the forehead. He was cooking, so he needed it. I couldn’t go in the tent; I couldn’t sit at the table; I couldn’t go to the Jeep; I couldn’t even go to the bathroom. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything because there were large piles of animal dung around the campsite. If I could see them, fine, but away from the fire I couldn’t see my own two feet. The cold was seeping through my wet clothes into my body like it was just another layer to soak. I was standing in the middle of the campsite. I felt trapped and helpless and angry. I was miserable.
We finally ate our ramen noodles and meatballs in the tent and wrapped up in sleeping bags. I shivered and cried. Balled my ever-lovin’ eyes out. I knew coming on this trip was taking me out of my comfort zone – way, way out – and that’s part of why I accepted his invitation, but this sent me over the edge. It wasn’t just the rain. It was the feeling of helplessness. I’m extremely independent and have been doing things on my own for a very long time. On this trip, I’m completely in someone else’s hands. And things haven’t been going that smoothly.
I’m trying to focus on the beauty of this country and the positive experiences. Now we’re in the desert, so rain won’t be an issue tonight. He found another headlamp so I won’t be trapped in the dark. And the car’s running fine. As I’m writing this we’re driving along the Colorado River through the red canyons of Utah. The view is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen.
This is why I’m on this adventure, this rare experience for a woman who promotes the third largest city in the US. That, and I know I will come back with more patience.
After this vacation, I may even learn to relax.