I knew it was a mistake as soon as he announced the plan: from Cortez, CO to Denver via Silverton, Carbondale, etc., in time to meet his brother's family for supper. Oh, and no lodging reservations, just because. As in, just because maybe we both secertly realized that we might not actually make it that far in the time allotted.
This was, after all, by far the best part of the trip. And we both packed fully charged cameras. And we were packing two dogs who needed rest stops at least as frequently and even longer lasting than we did. Let's not forget that food was packed on board and needed its own time for perparation, whether that meant peeling one of the season's last Arizona oranges, spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread, fighting with the wrapping on a few sticks of string cheese, or what have you.
So Denver by supper? When we barely made Silverton by lunch? Of course, by the time it was really apparent to Steve (heaven help that I sound like I was discouraging meeting with his family! I've only met them once, though I liked them just fine.) we were in about a two hour stretch of no cell coverage. Bad enough not to make it. Worse not to be able to let them know.
We'd made unexpectedly good time from Phoenix to Cortez. That's a stretch of country I can spend days in, rather than driving through at reasonable speeds to surrounding drivers. I did pull over a couple times for shots of the San Francisco Peaks, still covered in some remaining snow. Most times I've been by in recent years the snow is gone. May this year provided unusual amounts of moisture, from Flagstaff up through the Rockies, and at those heights, that means white stuff. Pretty pictures. We had to wait until we passed the mountain though, as the southern side was lost in the clouds.
One of my perennial AZ stops is Sunset Crater and Wupatki. I could happily spend the whole day there, though my ability to hike the ruins has been severely curtailed. It is remotely possible that I have taken "enough" pictures of that location, anyway.
OK, it'll never be enough, but we decided that Colorado held more importance for visiting on this trip. So keep chugging. That was the operational plan. But we were packing cameras, and before we hit Tuba City, we found an optical phenomenon that we just had to capture if we could. This country is pink, maybe not technically the Painted Desert, but still pink. And that color was bouncing back at us from the bottoms of the clouds sliding over the pinkest areas in the distance. So, stop and shoot. Look at the pictures. No pink there. Try again. And again. Still no pink. We realized that we both were wearing polarized lenses, and maybe that was causing the colored clouds, so we tried putting the sunglasses in front of the lens and shooting. It changed colors slightly, but still not to the pink the eyes registered.
Sigh..... OK, move on. Tuba City has a sweet municipal park next to the McDonalds, off the highway, with skateboarding, grassy spots for dog walking, and shaded picnic tables for our first lunch stop. With the few stops we made on the way up, it was about 5 hours from home and we were ready to eat. Both of us made a note to remember this for future traveling, despite no close restrooms. We'd just gassed up and used the facilities at the station, also noting how much better prices were than Flagstaff, reenforcing our intent to stop here on future travels.
We continued on through Four Corners, deciding it was worth our while to pay the Navahos the $5 apiece to enter the area for the privilege to pay another $5 for a slice of fresh hot fry bread, lightly seasoned with cinnamon, not coated with sugar. We'd do it again! Had we not been needing to travel faster where we could make time, not just visited the site a couple years before, and not had knees loudly complaining about the abuse of the past few days of packing and cleaning, we might also have bothered to head in to the actual 4 Corners marker and visited some of the vendors set up around it.
Our route was mostly north by northeast until we actually hit Cortez, where our highway turned east and we saw in the near distance the snow-capped peaks of La Plata. Our first in Colorado! Bright, fresh snow, blinding in the soon-to-set sun. We picked up a map at the tourist center in town, wanting something bigger, freer, and more detailed than from the map book kept in the glove box. They also had a lovely park for dog walking and facilities for folks who didn't want to have to wait until after motel check-in was accomplished for a bit of relief. (You note this is a common theme. So be it.) We stayed at the Travelodge, a lovely room, great price with online deal shopping, and comfy bed. Their handicap accessible room was truly that, something other chains seem to find a challenge.
Note for next time, however: if the mountains to the east of you are spectacular in the late afternoon, don't wait till the next morning to snap that shot. What is blindingly white now will be dim shadow with the sun in your eyes, if it is even visible with clouds moving in. (Duh!) Sure, it's obvious, but when you're road weary, it's easy to muddle up your thinking with your need for speedy comfort. Just because the mountains will still be there in the morning, and you'll be closer to them since you're heading that direction, does not mean your shot will be there.
It wasn't for us. On top of lighting and weather changes, there just were no decent places to pull over safely where there was any kind of a clear shot. Once on the back side, near/in Durango, we were down so low they may as well have not even existed.
The scenery was lovely, nonetheless. Again, however, few pullouts existed where photo ops did, and I opted for safety. Where we were able to stop, the views were breathtaking heading up to Silverton. Aspen trees were just leafing out, the tiny leaves a bright yellow green contrasting with the multicolored rocks and deep green pines, and small enough to leave pale trunks exposed. Sun lit distant snowy slopes on the first part of this trek, and sky blue chunks of sky added yet more color to this mountain pallette. My two favorite stops were one wide shoulder along a meadow giving a great view of the different layers of majesty rising behind, and an old weathered corral in the foreground with mountains rising behind. This last we accessed by turning off to go past a riding stable. Somebody had thoughtfully paved a turnaround at the bend in the road by the weathered posts.
The later in the day we drove, the more our distant views were occluded by clouds and rain. Still, there were colorful rocks, waterfalls (mostly with no stopping/shooting spots), deep gullies and steep cliffs. Signs were posted all along the route warning us to watch for wildlife. We did. The wildlife, however, didn't oblige. Oh sure, ravens, turkey vultures, one bluebird. We were hoping for elk. Mountain goats. Of course, had there been any, it would have been in a place we couldn't stop anyway.
One discovery we made was that bicyclists coasting downhill can go nearly 25 mph. It's not so much that we stopped to time them. It's that the shoulders were so narrow and bumpy that the cyclists were forced to use the same lane we were in, and I do mean the middle of the lane. 25 mph was pretty much our top speed limit too, legally and practically, through this section, so it wasn't really an annoyance to us. Other morons, however, passed both them and us in places where curves were plentiful and double yellow lines stretched beyond our sight lines. Perhaps they were psychic and knew no vehicles approached from three curves ahead?
The major reason, however, that 25 mph top speed was not that much of an inconvenience was that nearly all the hairpin curves marking this stretch were posted for 15 mph. And that seemed just about perfect. As soon as you got back up to 25, another sign and set of hairpins knocked you back down to 15. Why rush?
The plan from Cortez had been Durango, Silverton, Montrose, Glenwood Springs, and I-70 into Denver. Montrose was managed by mid-afternoon, and it was the one absolute must-stop on the trip. Steve needed to stop at his Mom's grave, a place he hadn't been able to get to since '95, a full 20 years before. On the way up out of Silverton, we passed the spot where the truck she had been a passenger in had gone over the cliff, near Red Mountain Pass. This was the worst bit of of the switchback road we had traveled all day, in fact all trip. It was spectacular. Plus spectacularly deadly.
Once in Montrose, we passed the cemetery on the way in to town. As much as the town had grown, modernized, and sprawled, it seemed a miracle that this was still countryside. Every modern chain store in every other part of the US was also here. He hoped to find the florist shop he knew from years ago, but we settled for WalMart. At least they had some baskets of flowers. Back at the cemetery, the next issue was actually finding her headstone. All were laid flat in the ground, meaning slightly below the level of the grass. You could look at it from the car and see only lawn, except this soon after Memorial Day it was liberally sprinkled with bouquets. There was nothing more than faded memory to aid in the location of her marker, but Steve managed to hike enough to pull it off, laying the flowers there and saying what he needed to say to whatever essence of her might be there waiting to hear it.
My ear picked up on one thing, I thought, and I asked Steve about it on our way out of town. Here in Minnesota the town with the same spelling is pronounced mon-trose. What I heard, and Steve confirmed, was his pronunciation of Colorado's town is mont-rose, like a contraction of Mount Rose. Subtle, yet meaningful.
By now we were exhausted, me physically, and Steve emotionally. We had managed to text Steve's brother in Denver that we'd greatly underestimated our travel time and would likely not make dinner that evening, possibly not even get to Denver at all. He'd given us a chance to check in later with our progress in case the outlook improved. It hadn't. Steve then mentioned that alternatively we had received the offer to stop in Glenwood for coffee and conversation with his cousin Mike, another lovely idea that just needed more time in the schedule to implement.
Let's plan on both visits on the trip back down in the fall, and be sensible about our timing this time. We can add Salt Lake City to the route too and visit Max, Alta and the kids. Only one or two extra days, eh?
We decided to aim for Glenwood Springs, hoping for some last minute lodging, inexpensively.
Uh, sure. No Motel 6, no Econolodge or Travelodge. Too tired to even spread peanut butter in order to eat, we hit a Wendy's for late supper and quizzed our server to find out what might fit our criteria. He wasn't hopeful. Steve kept the Motel 6 and Super 8 national phone numbers in our cell. We ate while he listened to a Motel 6 recording try to encourage us to stay on the line with them for half an hour. We could, the voice reminded us, easily make reservations on line.
Right. From a fast food chain parking lot in a strange town?
We called Super 8 and had the wonderful opportunity of fighting to understand English through a very thick Asian accent of indeterminate origin long enough to gain some actual information. Once we finally found that there was (allegedly) a Super 8 in Glenwood, we exchanged enough information for a reservation. We hoped. We decided to call the phone number we'd wrangled out of him because we didn't trust it was right, and I got so fed up with his attempt to sell me something else that I hung upon him without getting a confirmation number. (Yeah. Bad mood for that crap.) We also had driven past the alleged address and not seen any sign - literally - of a Super 8 within a mile.
It turns out that the Super 8 is a Ramada. (Huh?) And only twice the price of our other two night's reservations. But they took dogs. They had an accessible room for us, first floor with an outside entry. What she didn't mention, either via phone or in person checking in, was that the outside entry had its own set of stairs up from the parking lot.
Hey, Ramada Inn: TRAIN YOUR STAFF!!!!
At least the bed was comfy, and breakfast actually included a couple things I could eat, like eggs and sausage links. Of course the eating area was down a long hall and up another flight of stairs, so my gem of a partner called down to where I was staying in the room keeping an eye on the dogs to see what he could put on a plate and bring down to me. That way only one of us had to tackle the stairs. Bless him!
Glenwood Canyon was gorgeous. I would have 50 more pictures in the camera had I been the passenger and not the driver through that stretch. Another point of the checklist for next trip. Same for Vail. We agreed that it was inordinately overbuilt, over expensive. But then, neither of us has ever been a skier. Perhaps they have a different mindset. Hey, look around: of course they do!
Coming down out of the mountains, picking up I-76 off I-70 was way easier than the map of the area indicated, and after that, it was straight and 70-75 mph freeway all the way.
Flat. Home. Mountain-deprived.
Quick! Dig out the maps for the return trip!