If I had a GPS, it would not be pleased. It would be screaming at me by now, attempting different languages to tell me that I was off the trail, on the wrong route, that I was, as my dad would say, “Going around me elbow to get to my ass.”
My road atlas says nothing of the sort, however, and according to my road atlas, I am rolling up on Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s out of the way, it costs 20 dollars to enter, and it is unquestionably one of the most spectacular drives in America.
After five days of rock climbing, beer sampling (don’t judge my intake), and general roaming of Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins, I’m on my way into the mountains. Specifically, I’m heading to Steamboat Springs, a former trappers’ camp that is now one of the premier ski resorts in America. In fact, it is one of only three sites in the States with fully operational ski jumping facilities (the others, Salt Lake City and Lake Placid, both hosted the Winter Olympics).
View from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s been almost a century since Woodrow Wilson officially created the National Park Service, though National Parks were being established well before that. Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915. In the late 1920’s, construction began on a road to traverse the park, following an old trail used by the Ute Indians, a Native American tribe that would later be forcibly moved out of the area to a reservation to make room for a community in what is now—wait for it—Steamboat Springs.
It takes about 45 minutes or so to cross the park if you’re driving straight through. Of course, you don’t drive a road this spectacular (the high point is over 12,000 feet) to set a land speed record. Ideally, you show up here with a backpack, a map of the terrain, and all you need for a few days of hiking. But this wasn’t ideally, so stopping for a few breathtaking views was the best I could do.
On the far side of the park, just outside of Granby, I hit U.S. 40 and immediately spotted a hitchhiker. I was hoping for that. Five years ago, I did a cross country trip that included a decent amount of hitching in New England and California. I’ve been wanting to pay that back on this trip, and a traveling carpenter and his dog gave me the first opportunity.
Will and his dog Chubb. My passengers.
Hitchhiking is, sadly, a rarity in America these days. It’s illegal on the Interstate Highway System, which is where most long distance traffic in this country goes. But on the backroads, you can still find a few holdouts. Will was clearly an experienced hitcher, as I picked him up in a highly visible location on the edge of town (ensuring that all cars are going farther than the corner store) with plenty of shoulder room to pull the truck over. Chubb sprang into the bed of the truck and Will sat next to me for a condensed conversation about life, the universe, and everything.
I like running into people like Will on the road. He has no phone, no email address. If you want to get a hold of him at this point in life, you probably have to know him. He works as a carpenter when he’s in one place, which isn’t often, but often enough to keep himself stable. This kind of life can surely have its disadvantages, but one advantage is that it’s recession-proof. There’s always a demand for the kind of labor he does, and he manages to travel more than most people who make the kind of money neither of us have seen before. It’s easy to romanticize that kind of life and overlook the struggle of it (which is, I’m sure, substantial). Still, if the modern world caved in tomorrow (technological crashes, loss of power and so on), I don’t know what kind of skills I’d have to make a new life. Will, I’m pretty sure, would be fine.
I dropped Will on the outskirts of Kremmling. We wished each other luck and I headed north, catching a last look at him in the rearview mirror with his hat and walking stick and dog. A friend of mine once picked up the same hitchhiker 1,000 miles away from where he dropped her off. That’s something. I hope my passengers had a safe journey, and I wonder if our paths will cross again.
A different kind of journey.
Just outside of Steamboat, I started to notice the runners. A thin trickle of them in fluorescent vests, laboring up a huge pass. I pulled over beside the van pictured above, where an enthusiastic group of Uruguayans told me I’d happened upon the Wild West Relay Race (“Get Your Ass Over the Pass!”), a 150 mile run from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs that they’d started the previous morning.
As runners came up the hill, the vans lined up. Support teams, shouting encouragement, ringing cowbells, and generally bursting with excitement over being just 15 miles from the finish line. I passed runners the rest of the way into Steamboat, then boomed straight for my cousin Judi’s place.
Steamboat Springs gets its name from the hot springs that surround the area, which locals seemed to think sounded like a steamboat coming down the river. I heard no such steamboats, but I did take advantage of the springs. Specifically, I did what a lot of people in northern Colorado do and went to Strawberry Park, a private hot springs outside of town. There might be public hot springs accessible if you know where to look for them. In fact, I’m sure there are. But for a first time visitor to the area, these well tended pools are a nice way to go (just watch out for the chipmunks: they steal everything). And it’s hard to complain about much of anything when you’re floating in a natural jacuzzi surrounded by mountains.
I do this every day.
When I was a kid, there used to be signs everywhere on the highway advertising natural hot springs (“Next Exit!”). I don’t really see them anymore. Maybe they aren’t all public these days. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. But extensive driving can do a number on the body, and if you can find something to take the edge off, this is pretty tough to beat.
It’s also why, much like Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, you should always travel with a towel.
Just don’t let this guy steal it.
More information on Rocky Mountain National Park can be found through the National Park Service’s page here.