Running from the Sun; and Straight into the Mountains

In Travels With Myself on July 1, 2013 at 1:28 am

The changes were so slow and steady that I didn’t notice them at first. The road from Kansas into Colorado is straight and smooth. The fields and towns look a lot the same. The first noticeable difference was the horses. Kansas was herds of cattle, but Colorado breeds horses. But then I could feel Taliesin struggling a bit in odd places; and I realized that I was almost continuously going uphill, for miles on end; a long gradual rise in altitude. Garden City, Kansas, has an elevation of 2950 ft. By the time I got to La Junta, Colorado, the elevation had reached 4066 ft. And every town in the state shows its elevation on the sign at the edge of town, so I could measure the change as I passed.
It was around La Junta that the landscape began to change more noticeably. The long flat roads gave way to more hills and valleys, more winding curves; and I began to see small hills and mesas at the far edges of the fields. This was the first hint that the Rockies were ahead, and I checked the map and began to think about reaching Pueblo, where I would have to make a decision about my route.
Basically, I had two choices. I could continue to follow US 50 west through the mountains; or I could turn north on I 25 to Denver, passing the mountains on my left, then turn west again onto I 70 and stay on the nice fast, wide interstate all the way to Utah. The second choice would be longer, but not necessarily any slower, and I could probably avoid any encounters with narrow, winding mountain roads along yawning precipices. But US 50 was more direct; and I knew that I would see some spectacular sights.
But I get ahead of my story. One other change in scenery was a change in the fields. In Kansas, things were growing. The first cutting of hay had been baled, and the corn was already getting tall. But Southern Colorado was bone dry. Fields were brown and dusty, yards and town greens were burning up. Signs everywhere proclaimed in big read letters that open fires and fireworks were strictly forbidden. The hills, only sparsely populated with trees, were uniformly beige and barren. Rain fall was predicted on the radio with a sort of skepticism, even by the meteorologists, who would only say that there was a possibility of scattered showers, but they might just dry up before anything fell.
I had gotten an early start and had crossed another time zone, so it seemed even earlier. It’s a funny thing about time. I sometimes feel, heading so directly west, that I am running away from the sun. And crossing a time zone encourages this idea, because our sense of time is subjective. 6:00 o’clock is an hour earlier than 7:00 o’clock even if it was 7:00 o’clock just five minutes ago. Our perceptions adjust when we realize the change in time. When I looked ahead of me toward the horizon in Colorado, hoping to see my first glimpse of the mountains as they rose into view, the edge of the sky was hazy; it seemed that a curtain of fog had drawn down, and I heard myself saying, “Oh, that’s right. It’s still only 6:00 o’clock in Colorado, so the morning mist won’t have lifted yet.”
But it wasn’t the morning mist, it was the clouds. As the sky met the earth, the clouds seemed to touch down, but it was just everything meeting at the vanishing point. And I was almost to Pueblo before I saw the Rockies starting to come into view, partially encased in the veil of the clouds. They were already well above the horizon and seemed to be manifesting out of a sea-fog, like ghost ships. By the time I got to Pueblo, they stood in full view, tantalizingly close, though the nearest passage between them was still a hundred miles away.
I needed to choose. So I asked. I needed some supplies, so I stopped at a Home Depot in Pueblo, got what I needed, and went to the service counter. I asked the nice person behind the counter what Route 50 was like from Pueblo west to Utah. She was very enthusiastic. She said the road was wide, even where it was only two lanes, and it tended to stay down in the low passes, running along the edge of the Arkansas River. It was a good road, she said, and very scenic. I’d love it.
She was right about loving it.
There is nothing that can adequately prepare a New Englander for the Rockies. I’ve seen mountains. I love mountains. I could easily live in Vermont or New Hampshire, even in winter, just for the sheer pleasure of being among the mountains. But as the road began to roll and turn between the ever-larger peaks on either side, I was breathless. At first, it seemed like the peaks weren’t rising anymore spectacularly than any I had seen in the Green Mountains; but then I remembered that the road I was on was already a thousand feet further above sea level than the top of Mount Mansfield. And when I got past Salidas, a lovely, bustling town on the edge of the Arkansas, and the great naked peaks of the Southern Rockies hove into sight, I had to pull to the side of the road to take it all in.
She was just a little wrong about the road. Shortly after Salidas, the road began to climb in earnest. I could feel Taliesin straining on some of the inclines. Then, there was the sign, “next 6 miles, trucks use lower gear,” and I started up. For the next six miles the road rose at about a 6% grade, curving and winding around the edge of the mountain. I had to stop several times to let the transmission rest; but at least I was on the mountain side of the road, not the precipice side. The road stopped rising at the crest of Monarch Pass, elevation , according to my map, 11,312 ft. with peaks rising on either side of it another two or three thousand. This was the Great Divide: to the East, the Atlantic side of the country; to the West, the Pacific. And all I could think about was that I had to come back down the other side.
Again, I was glad to be on the mountain side of the road. I had to pull off after a couple of miles, and then every half mile, of the seven mile descent, to let the brakes cool down. There are turnouts carved into the side of the mountain literally every tenth to a quarter of a mile, just to allow trucks and buses and RVs a place to get off the road and let the smaller vehicles pass. And it’s not even just about brakes and transmissions. Speed limits along some sections of this 6% grade, winding, two-, sometimes three-lane road down the mountain were 45, 55, even 65 miles-per-hour. You can, however, believe that I never got anywhere near those speeds, which was another incentive for using the turnouts.
One closing thought for the night. I have laughed with so many nice people already on this trip. Maybe it’s because I am having such a good time myself, that it’s contagious; but just about everyone I have met has engaged me in a brief conversation about nothing in particular, except that we are glad to see each other, strangers along the road; and laugh.

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