Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

What I did on my summer vacation.

Until August, my summer is pretty much massively busy, so as soon as I'd finished grading final papers and did what work I needed to in order safely go away for a few days, off I went on my first road-trip in years! If you haven't taken a road-trip recently, I urge you to get out there and see your country. It's amazing how much the world and people change in just a few hundred miles. Without further ado, here's my report:


I had planned to take my pretty forest-green 1994 Saab convertible, because how lovely would it be to tour the Rocky Mountains top-down? Sweet, thought I. But gremlins thought otherwise: Just a few weeks ago, I blew a head gasket, necessitating a top-end overhaul, and though it seems to run fine now, whatever caused the overheating likely still lurks somewhere under the hood. Plus, it seems that the A/C needs a recharge, and the weather on Thursday was 90°F or thereabouts - and sunny. Some 9+ hours boiling with the top up or burning with the top down seemed un-fun. So my buddy Matt and I took off across Kansas a little after 9:00am in my little red Crossfire.

Who knew that a two-seat sports car could be such a comfortable road-trip machine? Next shot is I-70 westbound across Kansas. This is what the majority of the drive looks like from central Kansas through eastern Colorado, some six hours of flatness. Eastern Colorado is even worse than Western Kansas:

But the prairie and old farms have a charm all their own. Here's a fence built with local fieldstone, which has probably stood for more than 100 years:

Here's a small portion of a massive Kansas wind farm. On the way home, we saw three semis hauling incredibly huge windmill blades on double-length trailers, plus trucks hauling generators the size of a house, tubing big enough to build cabins inside, and so forth. We tried to get a photo of one of the blades to show the scale of these installations, but couldn't manage to catch one in time. To get an idea of just how big these windmills are, imagine a semi-truck trailer; now double its length, twist it 360° along its length, add bolts the size of small trees to one end, and you get the idea. Seriously, those windmills stand hundreds of feet high and rotate at just a few hundred RPM. It's gorgous and eerie and futuristic, strangely out of place in the middle of the Great Plains. Yet in the coming age past Peak Oil, I suspect we'll see a lot more of these in the windy areas of the world:

Now for another Kansas original, something you only find along the highways. Here's Matt and me at a Kansas roadside attraction, "5 LEGGED LIVE COW! 6 LEGGED LIVE GOAT! "'ROSCOE' THE MICRO MONKEY":

Had to get the photo, but didn't need to go inside. As China Mieville shows us, some things are better left unseen. We discussed how these sorts of places will probably slowly disappear with cheap gas and the subsequent decline of the road trip. On the other hand, perhaps cars using alternative energy will keep Americans on the road, crisscrossing this vast nation.

Some time later, we stopped in Hays, KS, to fuel up the Crossfire and ourselves. I like to try locally owned joynts, so we ate at Napoli's Italian Restaurant. They offer much tasty Midwestern-Italian at fair prices. When our waiter stopped by to refill my iced tea, we chatted about where we were headed, and he informed us that we should stop there on the way home and get the pizza, which is apparently a bargain and tasty to boot, as the chefs are from Italy. Would've been nice to know that in advance.

After eight or nine hours of humming along I-70 - including speeds in excess of 75mph once we entered Colorado - we reached Denver. Interesting thing on highway 470: It's a toll road where you are informed: "DON'T STOP. WE WILL SEND YOU A BILL" and "LICENSE PLATE CAMERAS IN SERVICE," presumably so they know to whom they should send the bill. Anyone know how this works? My hypothesis is that the state sends out a monthly bill, as that's the only efficient way I can imagine to collect for a $2.50 charge, what with the cost of postage.

We went south and then west on 470 to 105 to 85, then exited onto Colorado 67 into a town called Sedalia, a charming burg of about 200 folks in the foothills of the Rockies (elevation: 5860 feet). En route, we discovered that Alex - who was driving up from New Mexico - was about an hour out, so we took a quick spin through town to find a place to eat dinner. Sedalia offers very few choices: Sedalia Bar & Grill (the sit-down half of the place, furnished in heavy-timbered chairs and wood-slab tables), Sprucewood Inn Restaurant & Lounge (what looks like a converted stone house; where to go in town for dressy dining, as evidenced by the patrons exiting in their finest); Comardes (combo Mexican and ice cream and coffee shop); and O'Brien's Cafe (good old-fashioned cafe with formica-and-chrome tables and waitresses who call you "Honey" in cigarette-husky voices). We ate at the Sedalia Bar & Grill, where I also tried my first Colorado stout; our waitress doesn't drink, so she had to ask the bartender - your typical biker-bar barback in too-tight sleeveless shirt and leathery skin - for a recommendation. The barback checked us out for a second, then decided we were okay and poured a pint of tasty stout. We chowed down, relaxed a bit, then decided to scout out the roads around town.

Colorado Highway 67 (aka Jarre Canyon Rd) weaves through gorgous hills where millionaires build castles (we saw two) and other mansions, both Baptists and Catholics build retreats, and horses graze the pastures - and deer, as we discovered with some alarm, who hang out right beside the road. Alex called us, so we swung back to town and then led him out to Pike National Forest, about 16 miles from town. The "campground" out there consists of a gravel road that wanders off into infinity and is paved with Hell's washboard; thankfully, we found a little pull-off parking spot a few hundred yards into the forest. By the way, I just looked on Google Maps, and the road where we turned off 67 isn't visible for more than a few yards off the highway. That's how forested this area is. We parked in a cloud of road-dust, then wandered down the hillside until we found a suitable spot to set up camp.

In the Colorado Rockies, one doesn't pay to camp, nor are there any real marked camping areas, nor can one find any modern conveniences. We just picked a relatively level hilltop at the top of a little wooded valley out of sight from the road and set up our tents.

Night was fast approaching, as twilight in the mountains lasts only a few seconds, so in our haste we missed things like branches beneath the spot where I slept and other details I'll mention in a moment. We dumped sleeping bags, clothes, and such into the tents and returned to the parking turnoff, where previous campers had left excellent charcoalled branches. After a few minutes, we had enough dry branches and twigs; with a few pine-cones and pine-needles, we soon built a roaring fire as the cloak of night opened overhead.

When was the last time you spent a night beneath utterly dark skies? It's been many years for me, and I'd forgotten the wonder of a sky so filled with stars that it's difficult to make out the constellations. Also, many more satellites wander the stars than back then, and the ISS is so very bright. We saw a number of meteors, including an incredible fireball that lit up the trees to the north and another fireball that disintegrated almost overhead; must have been the tail-end of the Eta Aquariids. Venus blazed through the treetops in the west, and Mars and Saturn shone colorful overhead.

Oh, and we drank much bourbon (Knob Creek), Matt too much so. Apparently, my little flask - customized with a variety of stickers over the years - was not enough for the three of us:

So Alex contributed a pint, as well. Good times. We hit the bedrolls around midnight. I did not sleep soundly, what with the snoring of nearby guys, the tramping of bipedal beasts through the forest, the chirps of night and early morning birds, and the angry snarl of a mountain lion right nearby. Among other, unidentifiable noises.


Even so, I woke before the guys. Sunlight in the mountains is sharper and brighter than on the Great Plains. There's a harsh quality to the light, sort of bluish almost, and when not under trees, one finds one's self squinting a lot. So I squinted my way up the hill to the car, where we left our food. (NOTE: Signs everywhere proclaimed the danger of feeding the bears; "DON'T FEED THE BEARS. WE HAVE ENOUGH TROUBLE WITH THE BEARS." Thus we kept the food far from our campsite.) I grabbed a bag of Chex Mix and a bottle of water, then sat down on the campfire log for breakfast. I wasn't alone....

No, it wasn't a bear. This curious fox appeared from behind some brush near the parking turnoff. Closeup of our first encounter:

Handily, in addition to food and water, my camera was in my pocket, so I took a photo as quickly as I could, assuming my wild visitor would soon run off. Then I realized that foxes probably like Chex Mix as much as we do, so I slowly pulled out a walnut and tossed it near my friend. She startled for a moment and jumped back, then rushed forward to the precise location where the nut fell and promptly chomped it down.

Closeup of the chowing fox:

She really enjoyed the Chex, too, and approched closer:

Now I had a friend. She trotted to within six feet of me, hungry for more. Looks like she was just shedding her winter coat, or perhaps she's an adolescent losing her fox-pup fur.

Look at those big ears! Here she is on the hillside leading down toward our campsite.

She was very polite, looking away and gently half-closing her eyes when mine met hers. Very dog-like, with similar facial expressions and body postures, and at one point she seemed to relax and trotted around with her tongue out.

What a pretty face! I gave her about a handful of nuts and Chex, not sure how much might upset her stomach. Processed food and all. She seemed to love it, though.

At about this time, I heard the boys waking, so I called as quietly as I could while still getting their attention. "Matt, Alex, there's a fox up here!" After some confused back-and-forth, Alex asked, "Seriously? A live fox?" They soon wandered up to where we were, my fox and I. She was startled by the number of humans and grew very shy, staying barely within the distance I could throw a Chex. After another minute or so, she trotted off across the gravel road to the privacy of the deep woods.

After some guzzling of water (and Emergen-C for Matt, whose mass is much less than mine or Alex's, yet who had imbibed an equal volume of bourbon), we packed our gear into the Crossfire and piled into Alex's Honda (which has a back seat), then headed to Sedalia for breakfast at O'Brien's. Its hours are 6:00am - 1:00pm only, while the Sedalia Bar & Grill - less than a block away, right off Colorado 85 - doesn't open until 11:00am. I guess they don't want to compete much. Alex and I got proper corned beef hash with eggs and toast, the perfect hearty breakfast for the day to follow. Matt managed to down his French toast and coffee. We washed up in the bathroom, where there is running water. And off we went, back into Pike National Forest, deep along the washboard roads in search of Devil's Head.

Devil's Head is a massive rock topped with a lookout tower that's been in service since 1912, manned by a ranger who looks to have lived there since the beginning. As grizzled a mountain man as you will meet, yet his Park Service uniform was clean and crisp. His little cottage stands at the bottom of the rock peak for which the spot is named. I'll get to that in a moment. First, though, let me tell the saga of our trip to this site.

Let it be understood that back-country sites in the Colorado mountains are not accessible by the faint of heart. One must rattle one's teeth for many miles along hairpin-curving dirt roads, mere inches from precipices that drop sometimes hundreds of feet down stony inclines into forested ravines where, surely, crumpled cars rust around their long-dead inhabitants. The "roads," such as they are, barely accomodate two vehicles passing one another, most of which are driven by folks far smarter than we, who pilot raised SUVs, Jeeps, and dual-sport motorcycles along these deathly paths into the wilderness. And one can drive many miles without seeing so much as a single sign indicating where you are in the buckled geology that lifts the surface of this wide Earth. Oh, and passing vehicles raise clouds of fine, orange dust that blankets everything, including one's lungs.

After an incalculable interval, during which time we grew certain we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, we encountered a Y in the road that bore the lettering we sought: DEVILS HEAD, among several other locales, each with arrows pointing in various directions - some only accessible by taking the deep and narrow motorcycle-ruts that crisscross the hills. We had found it! Not long later, we dead-ended into a parking lot made of dust and stone and walled in massive conifers that indicated we had arrived. After much stretching and water-drinking, we set off on our climb. The trail to the tower is 1.7 miles according to the signs and winds up some 1000 feet of elevation through tall forest and past mighty stone outcrops. Here's an example:

One is inspired to attempt to look as stately as the geology we pass:

Remember in Jurassic Park, when Dr. Malcolm says, "Life will find a way"? Here's an example of that, a tree growing right out the top of a massive granite boulder:

After what felt like a year of breathless climbing - we're at 9,000 feet here, folks, and hail from Lawrence, KS (elevation 850) - we reached the mountain summit. Barely. The rock in this part of the mountains is dirty with gold flecks (probably pyrite rather than true gold), and the air is clear and the sunlight has that quality I mentioned earlier... all these factors combine to really whack lowlanders like us, causing hallucinations and whittling down one's wits. I saw sparkles that weren't just pyrite, and when expounding on the wonders surrounding us, Alex said, "How... can... you... talk... so... much... way... up... here?" Even Matt, who bicycles regularly, was panting and sweating (which dries immediately in the thin, parched air), and we drank pints of water on the way up. Some young locals jogged past us at one point. Ha ha, aren't they clever.

At the summit, we were faced with this daunting task, another couple-hundred-foot climb up iron steps set into granite:

Click the image to see the Devil's Head page.

At the base of the steps stands the ranger's cabin, bristling with lightning-rods. We took a few deep breaths, crossed the little meadow from trail to staricase, and entered the final phase of our ascent. Oddly, though this was more arduous than the miles-long but gentler hike, it seemed easier to climb. Perhaps it was oxygen deprivation addling my brain. Matt - apparently nervous about heights - didn't find this as pleasant. At last we stood atop the world, overlooking Platte Canyon to the west and the Colorado Rockies foothills to the east.

Wow, was the climb worth it. Looking east:

I get a kick out of the positioning of the sign in this photo of the lookout tower. It reads, "DEVILS HEAD LOOKOUT / 143 STEPS ABOVE CABIN / ELEVATION 9,748 / PIKE NATIONAL FOREST."

More amazing views from atop the cliffs:

I mean, look at this view. Those little green things that look like weeds among garden stones? Those are huge conifer trees nestled among granite outcrops. A person standing on those rocks would be invisible from this distance. The scale of things in the Rockies is unlike anything in our mundane world.

And another shot, this time looking south toward Pike's Peak (the snow-capped mountain in the distance):

Geez, but the clouds look close. After a while, I walked up the last few stairs into the lookout tower, where the ranger had a sign-in book. The two folks who had registered right before me listed their ages as 72 and 73, which made me feel like a slouch, all out of breath. After I put down the pencil, the ranger gave me this certificate, which pleased me greatly. As if to reinforce my new Order membership, a stumpy, skinny-tailed, stripey ground squirrel greeted us at the base of the staircase. I kid you not.

Also at the base of the cliffs, eternally in shadow, stood a vein of snow. In June, with temps hovering around 80°F. How can a guy resist making a snowball after climbing all day?

...which, of course, I had to throw at Alex, my photographer:

Our hike back down the trail was infinitely less strenuous, yet we were still out of breath. Sadly, this is when we encountered our first tragedy of the trip:

That's Matt, hamming it up. This truly is the wilderness, folks, and it seems that trail maintenance is slacker than in big-city parks.

When we reached the car, I noticed that one tire was dangerously low. Closer inspection revealed a nail driven through the tread. This prompted a roadside change to the spare and then a trip back to Sedalia for repair (immediate and cheap) at the shop nestled below the Sedalia Bar & Grill.

Back inside the car, we headed for Topaz Point - which reportedly bristles with topaz crystals! - about twice as far into the forest as Devil's Head. Along the way, we grew certain we had taken a wrong turn as we attempted to follow cryptic directions akin to a pirate's map: "Follow the gravel road four miles past the turnoff until you reach a campground marked with a brown sign. Then back up 100 yards until you see a tree with three branches and spin in place four times. Arrrh, matey!" Something along those lines. Anyhow, along the way we found a lovely lookout over Cabin Ridge. You can't take a boring photo out here:

Here's another incredible view from Cabin Ridge:

At one point, I noticed a distinct gasoline smell. What with all the tooth-jarring vibration, I feared the worst, but upon inspection, all fuel lines remained connected. On a hunch, I unscrewed the gas cap to a violent hissing; the culprit, I quickly hypothesized, was a blocked gas-tank vent. After this pressure release, the car operated as normal.

Eventually, we found a secreted campground (some fire-pits and a parking turnaround), and figured it was the spot. Sure enough, once we entered the tree-enshrouded parking area, we found a sign: "TOPAZ POINT CAMPGROUND." If you look closely, you can identify little circles of rock with iron grates over them; I understand this to be the campground proper.

We exited the car in a cloud of dust, then hiked along a winding path that best matched the pirate's directions. "At the end of the S-curve [presumably the parking area] go 100 yards into the valley until you see the two-wheel path." Which we interpreted to mean "motorcycle trail," which - of course - did not exist except for a relatively flattened path through the forest. At that point, we were to backtrack 18 paces and head toward the stone outcrops. Or something. We found a number of little digs in the hillside here, so figured we must have reached the X on the map. Not much to be found, especially when our digging implements consisted of sticks and other rocks, but we did find some lovely quartz and such. I headed farther uphill and discovered a true mining site, tons of rock spilled across the ground, so called to the others. We unearthed a bunch of pretty rocks, and I ended up taking home some quartz in an array of colors and one stone encrusted with multiple types of quartz and pyrite and something pink all together. Sweet.

At the top of the ridge one encounters this view:

And here's what the Point, itself, looks like. Once again I mention that life will find a way; this little pool in the rock supports a complete ecosystem.

Here's part of the ecosystem:

Set atop the Point is a column of stone supporting this cool device. You turn the pointer, sight along it, and can identify what you see in the distance. Awesome.

Pike's Peak is a little farther away from Topaz Point. More gorgeous mountains.

I bouldered over the cliffs and found real gemstones. Of course, they were deeply embedded in little fist-sized caves in the granite, and no one brought a pick or suitable tool to remove them. The ground, incidentally, swarms with ants. Their colonies span hundreds of yards in some places, giant black ants busily gobbling up detritus of life. I was careful to avoid crushing them, as this is their terrain. Thankfully, we encountered no mosquitoes the entire time we spent in Colorado.

Eventually, nightfall approached, so we headed out. We drove back along the paved road toward town, as we were obscenely out of alcohol and real food, and stopped at the Food Store. Here we purchased spicy brats and buns, but they didn't yet have a liquor license... so it was back to Sedalia to fetch a six-pack at Beeman's Gas & Grocery. This establishment is run by a charming Indian woman who runs back and forth between gas station and liquor store: A swinging door marked, "EMPLOYEES ONLY. ENTER FROM OTHER DOOR" indicated how we should get our beer after Alex purchased his cigarettes in the convenience-store half. As soon as we entered the other half of the building, the same woman wore another metaphorical hat, ready to sell us our beer.

Supplies acquired, with no more car gremlins rearing their spiny heads, we hurried back to camp and raised a roaring fire. Tales were told, brats and beer were consumed, stars were watched, silence was enjoyed. When you're quiet in these woods, you hear all manner of crunches and grunts among the trees. It's about all you can do to head back into the darkness and sleep within thin canvas walls, surrounded by wild beasts in their domain.


It's not just the sounds of the night that wake a fellow every half-hour. Saturday morning I roused to a "rrrr-TICK" in the dead tree nearby, which was riddled with woodpecker holes (whose makers had been jack-hammering the trees a little earlier). Apparently, the trees are consumed from the inside-out by beetles, which attract birds, which attract big cats, and so forth. Golly, but do the birds get loud at 0'dark-early in the morning. Of course, it's their forest.

I stepped away from the tents for my morning constitutional, only to find evidence of our nightly visitors:

Another angle. Can anyone identify these tracks?

Perhaps most interesting was what I discovered in the trees, mere feet from our tents:

Yes, those trees mark bear territory, scratched to show, "This is MINE." I was pleased to point out these discoveries to the boys when they woke. This did not give them much ease, and Alex pointed out that the woods are much less terrifying in the daylight. "Nothing can harm us when the sun is out, right?" is his theory.

We then broke down our tents, packed the cars, and breakfasted on Chex Mix, raisins, and beef jerky (a more-pleasant combo than it might seem at first blush, especially when one is starving), and discussed where today would take us. Too addle-brained from the previous day's exertions and the morning's alarming discoveries - and short on nutrition - to make a decision, we headed to town for real breakfast and coffee at O'Brien's. Here we set about planning our day in earnest. A coin flip decided whether we would go south to Manitou Springs (and trilobite hunting), Pike's Peak, and Florissant Fossil Beds; or north to Dinosaur Ridge (as it sounds) and rock-hunting in the mining district, points west: heads declared we would head north. Our waitress said that we absolutely had to visit Red Rocks if we were going to Dino Ridge, so we had a plan.

En route, we stopped by the Englewood Drury "where the extras don't cost extra" Inn, to drop off my Crossfire, so we could all three ride together in the Honda. (We had planned ahead to stay Saturday night in a hotel, assuming we'd want to clean up and sleep in a real bed by that time.) On a whim, we checked to see if we could check in so early, and they let us do so. This gave us the opportunity to wash up, dump our stuff, and head out with full containers of water.

First stop: Red Rocks Park, right outside the charming town of Morrison, some 20 miles west of Denver, elevation 6500 feet. We were all grateful to our waitress for encouraging us to visit. Beautiful. Slam-bang amid gray hills and scrub brush rise vivid red boulders and layered slabs of stone.

Click the image to see the Red Rocks photos from David Dennis.

Nestled among two 400-foot monoliths of red rock (Ship Rock on the left, Creation Rock on the right) is our first stop: Red Rocks Amphitheater, a natural amphitheater that seats 9,500 people in 70 stone rows and provides perfect acoustics for bands on the stage at the base. It was completed in 1941. I've never seen a more perfect outdoor theater. This photo shows the view from the top:

And this one shows the top platform from behind:

Click the image to see the Red Rocks photos from the band Steppenwolf.

Even though it's incredibly steep, the climb was less strenuous for us lowlanders. Locals use the place during off-times as a venue for exercise, running up and down and across the rows of seats and so forth. There's a heartbeat monitor at the top platform, presumably for the fitness fanatics, and we checked ourselves. My resting heartrate up there was 118, though I was able to use breathing techniques to drop it into the 90s. Wow, altitude affects one's pulminory system. Alex also had a stratospheric pulse, though Matt was able to calm himself down into the 80s.

Some young fools were playing catch with a football near the top, and as you could imagine, the guy who was supposed to catch the ball missed, and over the next several seconds, everyone watched with the same attention as to a train wreck as the ball bounced, bounced, bounced down the stepped seats toward a child sitting on one of the bottom rows. Some tried to warn the father, but too late: Wham! The ball bounced off the kid's head. It was terrible that we laughed our heads off, right?

As we descended, sound-checks for the night's show began in earnest. A man jammed on a guitar. At the bottom, a security guard told us, "Tonight's show is Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and that's Big Head Todd, himself, on the guitar. I hear they still have tickets..." We considered it, but decided against the show. Almost worth it just for the venue.

By the way, you might notice that I'm not using my own photos here. That's because I left my camera in the Crossfire, back in Englewood. *sigh* If you'd like to see larger versions of my photos, click here to see my trip gallery.

Next up, the Dinosaur Highway! So-called because it contains the most dinosaur tracks of any site in the world. Even though it was right across the park from Red Rocks, we had to detour all the way around the ridge, because only foot traffic and bicycles are allowed along the West Alameda Parkway.

Click the image to see more Dinosaur Ridge photos.

We parked at the base of the Ridge and headed uphill. First we encountered a series of amazing fossilized ripples from the shallow seabed of a 100-million-year-old inland sea:

Click the image to see more of Andrew Alden's photos from

As you walk up the sloping road, you encounter many geologic periods and a variety of fossils. Next up were several outcrops of fossilized plant and algal life, then a wall of prehistoric worm trails, then the fossilized branches from a mangrove swamp, and then this astounding wall of fossilized dinosaur tracks. What you see here are actual dino footprints, left in the Jurassic by actual dino feet!

Click the image to see more photos from The Scragg Home Page.

The tracks are stained black for clarity. Here's another shot. Note the large tracks left by a mother and baby Iguanadon walking side-by-side along the muddy shorline, followed by the predator, Ornithomimus (whose prints are thin and birdlike):

Click the image to see more of Andrew Alden's photos from

The Ridge is a small mountain in the form of a "hogback," a lifted and tilted series of strata that allow you to walk through time as you climb up and over the hillside. I should mention that a little tour bus golf-cart thingy that serves the site sat abandoned alongside the road as tourists hiked up the trails. Alex and Matt tried to convince me to hotwire it; a previous visitor also conspired to turn me to sin, having painted "DO IT NOW" on the pavement. Alas, I resisted.

At the summit are yet more micro-fossils, and as you descend the far side (facing Red Rocks), you encounter more tracks and even exposed fossil dinosaur bones, like this one:

Click the image to see more photos from The Scragg Home Page.

Some of the dinosaur bones embedded in the rock have been touched so many times by human hands that they've become smooth, gleaming like polished wood in the sunshine. It's a site every dino-lover should visit. Then we climbed back up and over and down again. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, we visited the tourist shop, which displays life-size models of a Stegasaurus and an Iguanadon in the front yard. And near the Visitor's Center stand this pair of flashy critters:

Click the image to see more photos from The Scragg Home Page.

Also outside the Center is a huge chunk of stone full of Allosaurus spine:

Click the image to see the photos from Dinosaur Ridge.

We ducked inside the shack for a while to check out the goods. Alex studied a gem-hunting guide while I examined the fossils on offer. I bought myself a lovely Colorado clam fossil (and a couple trinkets), and we planned our next stop that Alex had identified from his book: abandoned gold mines not far from our site, where a diversity of semi-precious stones can be extracted from the tailings. Off we went! Next stop: Golden.

In Golden, Colorado, we lunched on a patio beside Washington Avenue. It seems that this is not a cheap place to live, as evidenced by $360k condos in converted motel rooms. It's gorgeous, though. We spent much longer at lunch than planned, because an impromptu parade cruised past. Dozens of vintage automobiles, customs, muscle cars, and hot rods rumbled up the steep hill, as if we'd happened across a state-wide cruise-in. Never have I seen so many gorgeous cars driving past in so short a time. And in a bicycle rack sat one of the coolest bikes I've seen in a long time, a Surly Pugsley with Large Marge wheels and 4" tires. Whatta ride! A hundred more times in this town, I regretted leaving my camera behind.

Eventually, we motivated ourselves to hit the trail west and north in search of the long-abandoned gold mines. This led us out to Golden Gate Canyon Road, a tightly twisting mountain passage not for the faint of heart. After 6.3 miles of heading up to above 9000 feet, we were to reach the site. At that place, only sheer walls of crumbling shale greeted us - oh, and a herd of scruffy mule deer, grazing mere inches from the road along a gully. A while farther into the wilderness led us to a vast wall of crumbled shale and granite, and Alex decided to stop here, as it was clear he'd misread the directions (or written them down incorrectly; it turns out he didn't buy the book, instead writing the directions on his sweating palm. That didn't work out as well as the book might have, he decided.) We spent some time digging through the stone alongside the road, and I enjoyed climbing up the 40°+ angle and then rock-surfing down, creating avalanches as I descended. Good times, especially witnessing the scurrying of the guys as I rode a wave of rock toward them. As you can imagine, the digging here was pretty pointless. After some time, we decided to drive back down the steep and winding road, looking for mines as we did.

About halfway back to the main road, we spotted first one and then another mine, looking as if they've been out of service since the locals' only transportation ate grass. Alex pulled over, and he and I headed enthusiastically toward what was likely a pair of death-traps, shafts carved deep into the stone. Matt soon nixed the adventure, saying he was ready to head back to civilization. With some deep sighs, we re-boarded the Honda and headed to the hotel.

Have you ever spent three days in the dusty, sweaty wilderness, hiking and climbing many thousands of vertical feet over many miles? Turns out that it's pleasant, to say the least, to cleanse one's self of the accumulated encrustations. As we had only one shower, I headed to the Drury Inn's promised free dinner and drinks while Alex washed up and Matt unpacked. Turns out I got there just in time, as the woman behind the counter asked, "Do you want all three drinks now? I'm supposed to have closed two minutes ago." Sure! So I carried off three glasses of merlot to wash down my bowl of chili. Matt arrived moments later and collected a glass of white wine; Alex arrived too late, so I gave him one of mine, then headed to the shower, myself.

Shiny-clean and in fresh clothes, I went back downstairs to find my partners in crime and suggested we hit the big city, as we were only a couple of miles from downtown Denver. Matt begged off so he could go to sleep, but Alex was up for it. Zoom, off we went to explore what we assumed would be a quiet city center, closed for business. We couldn't have been more wrong! Downtown Denver on a Saturday night is a hopping place, and we happened to have stumbled upon the Denver Chalk Art Festival. One of the magical elements of this event is the ceiling of lights strung across La Piazza, one of the several streets closed to traffic during the two-day Festival.

Click the image to see more Facebook photos from the Festival.

Remember how I had left my camera in the Crossfire earlier, so I wasn't able to take photos? Well, I was happy to realize we had driven the Crossfire downtown and quickly returned a block to where I'd parked the car. You can guess what I discovered, right? Yes, I'd moved all my bags - including that which held my camera - into the hotel room before heading downtown. *sigh*

Alex and I soon realized that we were woefully underdressed for a Saturday night in downtown Denver. Have you visited there on such a night? Is it just me, or is almost every Denverite thin and fit and dressed to the nines? I'm serious here. Except for the artists, it seemed that everyone we saw wore the kinds of fashions you see on runways - "Or on street-walkers," sez Alex - and stood six-feet-plus and displayed muscle tone like you see nowhere in the Midwest. The chalk-art was lovely, but we found people-watching even more interesting. Even the college-aged guys wore crisp shirts and sharp suits. It's as if Denver maintains the old-fashioned trend toward dressing up for dates that has faded everywhere else. And the club scene! I can't tell you how many bars and clubs we passed whose bouncers out front dressed in even finer garb, selecting who would pass inside... they studiously unsaw us as we passed. Velvet ropes designated where to await entry into these dens of high fashion, which seemed 90% populated by women. Does Denver simply outlaw scruffy males?

Oh, and the cars! Those enjoying valet parking along the streets with the best clubs included Bentleys, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Mercedes, Maseratis... it was another type of car show. Even the TV ads (shown in the hotel's dining area) included quarter-million-dollar automobiles. Wealth must concentrate in the city center.

After some time, we returned to the Crossfire and headed back to the hotel. I will not go into the hilarity that was my TomTom trying to navigate us out of downtown; suffice to say that it had difficulty locating GPS signals, and on several occasions positioned us inside rivers and open fields. The Stephen-Hawking voice cracked us up with its increasingly panicked cries to "Turn left now on 8th Street" and such when we were miles from such spots. Despite this "help," we made it back to the hotel. To bed, and almost instantly to sleep.


The Drury Inn's promised breakfast was filling and hearty, and after some coffee and conversation, Matt and I said goodbye to Alex and headed back to Kansas. We lunched again in Hays, but decided to try a new spot instead of following the Napoli's Italian Restaurant waiter's advice; this time we ate at the Lucky Buffet, a Chinese joynt. It offers a few items I've never had before, but the food was just okay and the ambiance radiated decrepit vinyl. We should have listened and had the pizza.

A few hours later, and we were home. Despite wearing a broad-brimmed, straw hat for most of the hiking, I bear thoroughly burned arms and neck. Matt, who wore no hat at all, looks lobsterlike. Alex, sporting a proper cowboy hat - and whose skin is naturally darker than either of ours - simply tanned. Yes, I left my sunscreen at home.

It was a lovely adventure, almost entirely not what we had planned but wonderful despite - or perhaps because - of making up our itinerary on the fly. Coin-flips and waiters' advice turn out to be optimal decision-making tools.

Whew, that was longer than I'd expected! I've spent way too many hours writing and researching and illustrating and editing this report. I hope you enjoyed this little trip to Colorado!

Tags: life, trips

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  • AnLab Award finalist!

    WOOHOO! I'm a finalist for the AnLab Award for my novelette, " Ashes of Exploding Suns, Monuments to Dust"! Analog Science Fiction &…

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    Analog just published my essay, “ Literal Metaphors, Science Fiction, and How to Save the Human Species” on their Astounding…

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