Monday, June 24, 2013

Denver 2012: Day 4

July 6th 2012

Our destination was the Rocky Mountain National Park, which contained a large amount to experience and required a fairly long drive to reach. We planned a very early exit to insure we’d have time there before the late afternoon, when the summer thunderstorms tend to hit. After our regular ritual of morning discombobulations, we started the trip around a quarter past nine.

We still would have been on track for a lunchtime arrival, except for one small problem:

It was us.

Roughly ten miles after leaving, Rosa and I realized neither of us had put Anabelle’s hiking boots in the trunk, and her tennis shoes were ill designed for Rocky Mountain trails. Eventually we got back on the highway and made it down Interstate 70 on to Route 40 with minimal issues.

At the base of Route 40 we pulled over in a town for a pit stop. I use the word town only because there were miles of nothing before or after it. It was really a collection of shops and eateries along a few blocks worth of the road, mostly either closed or abandoned. We found a rest room in “The Hard Rock CafĂ©.” (No relation, I’m guessing its tiny size and being hidden in mountain wilderness protects it from an onslaught of music industry lawyers.)

The next part of Route 40 made us very thankful we remembered Anabelle’s Dramamine, and had Rosa popping one as well. The road was an extremely windy climb up one side of a mountain and down the other. The multiple bicyclists we passed were the second most insane individuals we saw on the trip.

Important Note to Other East Coast Drivers: Colorado is not screwing around when they put up a “Falling Rock Zone” sign.

Once the road that makes the Storm King Highway look like a drag strip ended, it was definitely a good time to break for lunch. At the barbeque, Titi LuzMa’s friends told us there were many good and quick places to stop in the town of Winter Village. If we had stayed on Route 40 for another minute that is indeed what we would have found once we drove over a small hill past where we followed the “Winter Village” signs and turned off the highway.

Instead we ended up in a ski resort of the same name that catered to mountain bikers in the summer months. Resort workers tend to shy away from creating a rushed atmosphere. These folks were in Colorado to begin with, and were used to dealing with skiers and mountain bikers; not the most schedule conscious of individuals. Therefore we had a very slow (and very wet thanks to a combination of a sudden storm and a spilled water glass) lunch. The place was sweet and homey, and the food was quite yummy. We got some nice pictures of our little group there, mostly with the Smartphone. This is because Rosa was using her Ginormo Telephoto Lens on the Super Deluxe Magic Camera. I did get one good shot of the three ladies at the lunch table with it, but I had to walk backwards to somewhere around Wyoming to focus.

We slowed briefly to wave at all the really cool places to eat in the actual town of Winter Village before continuing on. The remainder of our drive we made really good time, if one ignores the fact that a misunderstanding of the directions we received sent us ten miles out of our way again before we realized we should have turned at that Shell station waaaaay back there.

Contrary to the previous year at the entrance on the other side of the park, the gate ranger was truly helpful; quickly and efficiently letting us know where all the points we asked about were. We enjoyed a brief but scenic drive over to the Onahu Trail head and parked to begin our hike. A disturbingly friendly chipmunk came out to greet us.
Considering that was the only animal we saw the face of on our previous visit, maybe he remembered us. That’s the only explanation I could think of. He stared at us, climbed up on a little rock, stood up and waved. Basically, he did everything short of breaking into a song and dance to welcome us to his home.

We hiked along the trail, seeing many beetle and fire damaged trees and not much else in the thick forest. Another helpful ranger gave us some distances and warnings about incoming storms. When we reached a cute little bridge over a stream at the half way point it seemed to be time to head back. Actually, it was time to run back as the thunder was getting louder and more frequent. We made it to the Impala to gain cover from the oncoming squall.

We continued up Trail Ridge Road, literally. That’s the road that goes ever deeper into the park and higher into the mountains. Shortly after beginning to drive, we pulled over in a crowd of cars and people to try to figure out what they were all staring at. It was a brown smudge in the distant trees, which other rain soaked bystanders claimed to be a female moose. I reported back to the car, and Rosa was able to confirm the smudge’s mooseness with the Ginormo Telephoto Lens on the Super Deluxe Magic Camera. After we’d all seen enough of the smudge we continued upward.

There were two further stops before we reached the steepest and windy-est part of the climb, on our way to the Alpine Visitor center at the top of the park. The first was to view a far less smudge like female elk. The second stop was a group of four large male elk strolling impressively through the rain on the far side of a verdant valley, while an unnamed Impala driver from New Jersey hummed “Gallop of the Stags” off of the Bambi soundtrack.

We continued upward, past the Continental Divide, hoping to reach the sure to be impressive highest point in the park that we had missed the previous year due to it being closed for bad weather. The higher we climbed the thicker the fog got. By driving carefully and slowly, I still believed we could make it to the apex, until three realizations hit in sequence.

The second realization was that the windshield was icing, reducing visibility even past the impenetrable fog.

The third realization was that the GPS showed the Alpine Visitor Center was, “Just around that bend…
And through the fog another mile or so.”

Those two would not have stopped our progress if not for the primary realization that the fog was not getting thicker.
We were, in fact, driving inside of a thunder cloud.

Between the ice, rain and cloud, all that could really be seen was the occasional lightning bolt, spookily close to the cliff like edge of Trail Ridge Road. There was no hope of my considering any path other than reversing course.

Driving back down the mountain turned out to be the correct idea. The air around us cleared and dried considerably, but we could still see a cloud atop the mountain like it was impaled there.

We stopped to look over several majestic valley scenes, one of them the Continental Divide.

 On returning to the valley of the Elk Bucks, we were happy to see they had moved much closer to the road, and a fifth male had joined them, larger than the rest. Heck, he was even larger than the two we saw in the park near Titi LuzMa’s house, which made us feel the long drives of the day were definitely worth it.

This was especially true when we stopped to observe the smudge’s mooseness again and also confirmed the smaller smudge next to its baby mooseness.

A quick restroom stop on the way gave us another wildlife view, when, behind the facilities, we spotted a small doe, a deer, a female deer.
I’m not singing, I’m differentiating between deer and elk.

Near a campsite closer to the base of the park, we finally got to stop the car for wildlife crossing in Colorado! A massively large herd of female and baby elk were everywhere. We saw wildlife crossing, wildlife climbing, wildlife eating, wildlife hanging around in the bushes, and eventually wildlife infiltrating and taking over the campground. Considering the sheer numbers of grass eaters wandering around their tents, I hoped the campers put on hip waders to navigate the probable poop minefield when they staggered out in the middle of the night to water the plants.

Normally the motto of Colorado climate is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” We were there for what the natives called “Monsoons” and those of us from New Jersey considered “July.” The extended rain storms were good for the wildfires, but not as much for travel arrangements. We were lucky that the constant, widespread rain on that particular day waited until we were ready to leave the park.

Tired and starving, we pulled right into the visitor center at the end of the park, and pulled right out again, as it:
A) Had no restaurant.
B) Had no store.
C) Was closed.

Then we pulled right into the small but warm and fuzzy looking town of Grand Lake. There were multiple restaurants on the main drag but we picked the Bear’s Den, because I thought the woodsy construction made it look local and authentic, Anabelle though the bear decorations made it look cute, and we all thought the fact that it was the first one in town made it look like the fastest place to get fed.

Anabelle was very excited. Not just because she was the only one to get colored highlights on her menu, plate and glass, but also because she learned -at the buffet- that she had developed a taste for ribs, and devoured a stack of them. We enjoyed the local and authentic buffalo burgers. Mine came just as rare as I asked for it, with a weird side effect that I was forced to “sign for it.” I had no idea this would be foreshadowing for other meals.

We left feeling warm, fuzzy and full, and then filled the Impala as well at the Shell station marking our unnecessary excursion point from earlier in the day. The rain continued full tilt for the entire ride home, with occasional bursts of lightning to add to the festive mood.

Passing both the town and resort of Winter Village, we entered the unlit, steeply angled, fallen rock strewn, tortuously twisty, minimally guard railed, nightmare of a drive that is Route 40, under cover of darkness and a driving rainstorm.

In fact, the only time the rain let up was when the road climbed high enough up the mountain to put us, yet again, inside a cloud. This did not help visibility.

Anabelle fortunately was fast asleep for this white knuckled ride; the rest of us each had a death grip on something:

Titi LuzMa on a bag of pretzels, which didn’t survive the ride down,
Rosa on the “Oh Crap” handle, which almost needed to be surgically removed afterwards,
And I on ten and two of the steering wheel, which was only broken to sneak an occasional sip of Mountain Dew to assure my reflexes stayed at maximum response.

The bicyclists we saw on that drive down were the most insane individuals we saw on the trip…
Or anywhere…
Under any circumstances…
By far…

I felt very proud when, a few days later, we described our adventure to the woman who had us over for the barbecue, and she looked stunned that we drove down Route 40 “At Night?! IN THE RAIN?!” and that they usually stay over instead. However, I was considerably humbled when talking to a friend from high school that moved out there who regularly skis at Winter Village and has often done that drive in the snow.

There was some initial anxiety once we reached Interstate 70, but only because after the full body clench drive down Route 40 I knew I’d need the first rest stop available, and its location wasn’t immediately obvious on the return route.

After locating and using the rest stop, even though the rain continued, I anticipated a much more relaxed remainder of the trip home on the nice, flat, straight interstate highway.

Unfortunately, I forgot that people who live in Colorado are not used to sustained rain of any sort. Apparently, they feel the best way to deal with this unusual weather phenomenon is to slam both feet all the way down on the gas pedal and swerve continuously in order to get off the road as fast as possible.

The rest of the drive through the Hydroplane Demolition Derby had more visibility and speed, but only slightly less tension than the previous leg of the trip. In the occasional moments of safety Rosa would attempt to take pictures of near constant, sky spanning wondrous lighting. At which point the sky would go completely blank until she put the camera away.

When we reached home and unloaded the car, we learned that I had driven my juggling clubs all the way up into the mountain park, and left them in the trunk the whole time.

Oh, the reason we made it through all that treacherous driving...guess who was still watching us?

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