Driving the scenic highway, US 36/Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, restrain yourself from stopping at the first few scenic overlooks. Do one or two of them, but don’t dawdle going up the mountain. The reason is that the damn mountains just keep getting more spectacular the farther up you go. The stop at Forest Canyon is kind of a baseline.
Get out of your car and let your eyes take in the whole panorama, with the valley about two miles below your feet. You’ll think,”This is really beautiful! I’ve never seen anything like it.” But drive a little farther and you realize this is going higher. Look down about 12,000 feet; you suddenly realize you’ve never been so high before and still been on the ground. And even now you’re going higher!
You’re on your way to 13,000 feet and the tops of the mountains from where you look are just about at treetop level. There are fields of ice you’ve seen before from fifty miles away at ground level that now look like you can touch them if you stretch out your arm, ice that hasn’t melted for maybe thousands of years.
It’s not technically the top of the world, an honor which goes to the Himalayas; but it’s close enough for most people. You’re probably never going to get to any mountaintops in the Himalayas anyway, since they don’t have a scenic highway running through them. This is as about as way up as you’ll ever be in your lifetime. You might as well be astonished here.
At this height, the thinness of the air does things to you. For one thing, it’s really hard to breathe. Instead of taking that robust little hike on the trail you planned, you nearly pass out walking across the road. Your brain fogs up and you feel dizzy. It takes several days for your cardiovascular system to catch up to the demand.
The air does things to your vision. Everything is in such sharp focus that the thickly laden atmosphere down below will never look as satisfying. Down there is all obscurity; all you see is a blur.
The colors here are so vivid; they assault the part of your brain that deals with vision. You can feel your head vibrating from the effort of assimilating it all. Even the browns and grays of the dirt and rocks gleam as though someone polished them.
Not to mention the greens of the trees. There are only two trees native to this area, the lodge pole pine, a scraggly giant stabbing its way into the air, and the more delicate aspen with its round little leaves. The sun reflecting off those leaves shines and sparkles like millions of pailette sequins on a giant gown stretched across a hillside.
The light plays tricks with your eyes. The scenery is like a museum diorama. The mountains are two dimensional like a backdrop with pictures of tree plastered against them, while the bushes and streams and greenery in the foreground have all the dimension.
If you keep going, you reach the top of the mountain at 13,000 feet and change. You leave the trees behind. Up here, the surface is yellow and barren because of the wind. Only small misshapen bushes grow here a few inches tall. You’ve gone all this way and ended up in a desert.
This is what we’ve been looking at all this time sitting on our balcony in Denver. When we get back, it will all be different. Now we know what’s on those mountains. They’ll no longer be just shapes in the distance. Our brains will fill in the details.
Colorado is known for its ski country, Vail and Aspen. There, you’re too distracted to actually see the mountains. You see only the manmade slopes and the figures sliding down them and the palatial lodges that have turned them into rich peoples’ playgrounds. Here, your attention is on the world the way it was originally constructed.
The valleys between the mountains were carved out over millions of years. Imagine anything being millions of years old. You’ve heard about that before, but here you see it in real life.
Driving along the edge of a mountain, the shoulder is a drop-off a few hundred feet down. You push out of your mind the thought that something might happen to make you need to pull over.
Coming down the mountain, it doesn’t seem to matter that you just had the brakes relined a few hundred miles ago. You’re sliding down like a roller coaster and afraid to put any more pressure on the brakes for fear they’ll give way. When you have to slow down a little more, you feel them going right to the floor and pray your reality hasn’t thinned out with the air.
This is the West you’ve heard about in the mythology of the building of the country. Thousands of people came over these mountains in rickety wagons towed by animals at a mile or so per hour, following narrow trails if any and certainly without any kind of paved scenic highway. They were terrified and miserable, they gave up and went back or died of the cold or hunger or disease. If they were lucky, they made it to the other slope before being trapped by the winter. It was probably all pretty random.
We’ve been stuck in Denver for some time, concentrating on starting our lives over, taking advantage of new healthcare plans to get some much needed bodily repairs (Barbara’s hip, my back and heart). It would be a shame to leave here without having seen any of the West. We’ve got a longer driving trip scheduled pretty soon, but this little weekend excursion served as a way to get moving.
We came back with some of the cobwebs cleared out of our brains. We’re ready to go somewhere new and not to know exactly what’s going to happen when we get there. We came back to Denver talking about traveling and how to do it and what we’ll find. We’re starting our lists of preparations and talking about timetables. There’s excitement in the air as we realize something’s really going to happen. It was a useful excursion.
A few details: The drive on Trail Ridge Road begins just outside of Estes Park, Colorado, a scenic little town with lots of accommodations and restaurants. From Denver, take I-25 North to Exit 243/Highway 66. Drive West to Lyons and get on Highway 36 to Estes Park. To get to the National Park, stay on 36 through Estes Park about two miles west to the Beaver Meadows entrance. The trip from Denver takes about an hour and a half.
The entire drive takes about two hours plus or minus depending on how often you stop to see the sights. There are restrooms and picnic areas at intervals along the drive, but make sure you fill the car up with gas for the trip. If you decide to drive the entire length of the park, you’ll come out heading south to Granby. At Granby, switch to Hwy 40 and take it to I-70 to get back to Denver. Be warned, though; the drive on Hwy 40 takes at least an hour and winds through several mountains. It looks like a little squiggly line on the map but that’s deceptive.
Estes Park is known for the Stanley Hotel, an early 20th century place built by the owner of the Stanley Steamer automobile company. It’s the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining and where the TV miniseries version was filmed. If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of chain motels and little lodges. We stayed at the Ponderosa Lodge in a “European style room,” which means it was small and possibly the cheapest place in town. However, it’s charming and located on the Fall River (We were told not to call it a creek). With the mountain air and the sound of the water, we slept great!
The Sundeck Restaurant has been in operation since 1948 and probably still serves the original recipes. The main attraction here is the best fresh trout in town, grilled or poached whole and filleted at the table.