May 7, 2005

Route 50 Road Trip: Day 7, Colorado Part I

Last night's storm passed through with some ferocious winds and not much rain. Started out today with a bright blue sky and rolls of cumulous clouds here and there along the horizon. Fifty miles west of Lamar, the road headed up a rise and around a curve, and all of a sudden, off in the distance, there were snow-covered mountains.

Flat behind, mountains ahead, bug residue on the glass.

Stopped in La Juinta for a quick break and noticed on the main street: an Elk's lodge with a life-sized fake elk on the balcony above the entrance, a store named "Smoker Friendly" (Don't have to guess what they sell. This ain't the politically correct East.), and Muzzy's Mexican Cafe. It's also apparently home of the Koshare Indian Museum, but I didn't see that.

Stopped in Pueblo for lunch. When I was a kid, I recall seeing ads on tv for public service pamphlets that you could send away for. The address for them was always in Pueblo, CO. Come to find, Pueblo's got a semi-bustling, artsy, hippy/yuppie-fied downtown district complete with a Riverwalk along the concrete enclosed Arkansas River. Reminds me a bit of the historic section of Frederick, MD, with its "linear park" along a similarly enclosed Carroll Creek, though Pueblo's got more landscaping and sculpture along its tamed waterway.

Lunch at the Rio Cafe in Pueblo. Joy, the waitress, asked what I was reading. After I explained the premise of Blue Highways, she mentioned that she'd always wanted to take a road trip like that. She then got really excited when I said that I was in the middle of one. She even brought out the proprietress/chef of the cafe and told her about it. Turns out the proprietress is from Delaware & has a boat on the Chesapeake Bay in MD, so we ended up talking MD crabcakes. Joy then began telling me about Pueblo. Apparently, if you're into Italian food, Pueblo's the place to go. In addition to a (non-surprisingly) Mexican population, there's a large Italian community. I wasn't sure whether to believe it, but she told me that an entire Sicilian village had emigrated to Pueblo way back when. Mexican's and Italian Mafioso, what a combination. The Rio Cafe, by the way, is of German influence. From the sound of that day's specials, I was sorry I wasn't there for dinner time.

Heading back to 50 through the north section of town, I cruised through a strip that I swear contained every single motel, big box store, chain eatery, and car dealership ever invented-- except for Wal-Mart!

Immediately after Pueblo came the Royal Gorge and Monarch Pass. Seventy-five miles that left me pop-eyed and slack-jawed (and white-knuckled a couple of times). Like the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas, I'm afraid of describing it for fear of sounding trite, so I'm going to stick to detail and hope my photos communicate the grandeur of it. At the edge of the Pueblo suburbs, the surrounding landscape was tan-colored rock and scrubby shrubs, with immense jags of snow-covered mountain in the background. As the road entered the Royal Gorge area, the Pony and I found ourselves back into the sort of climbing 'S' curves we enjoyed so much back in WV, except that these went on and on and on through rocky red hills scattered with pines.

To the right of the road twisted the apparently very popular Arkansas River (there were almost as many rafting/camping/climbing outfitters along the road as there were pine trees). White-knuckle moments #1 & 2 came through this stretch, when I had drivers coming towards me decide to pass slower cars as they were coming around curves. Once it was a big ol' white pick-up truck, then it was a motorcycle, which really freaked me out. Heading up out of the gorge area, though, the traffic thinned as the road climbed. I caught myself literally gasping over the view around just about every curve and I had to fight the urge to take one hand off the wheel and try to get some windshield photos. (I admit it, I gave in to the urge a few times. One of the few benefits of automatic transmission.) We then began to seriously climb and the snow got closer. At 11,312 feet, the road crested Monarch Pass and started back down.

The Pony handled the curves like water flowing down a stone, but that didn't prevent white-knuckle moment #3: Coming around a blind curve to find that there was no longer a guardrail on the opposite, downhill side of the road. If I had to drive back up Monarch on that side of the road, I think I'd do it at about 2 mph and hug the dividing line all the way. Below snow-line, it was back to slightly looser curves and rocky, scrubby slopes. Added to the scene now were stands of Aspen trees, for which Colorado is so well known. And then... coming over a small rise, I saw it: A downhill slope and a loooong straightaway, with three cars in front and no one coming towards me. I couldn't resist. I moved over the divided yellow line and... Let's just say I let the Pony stretch its legs. Nothing like awesome landscape and a good adrenaline rush to put a grin on your face (well, my face, at least).

And now, eating dinner in Gunnison after checking in at the Quality Inn, I feel lucky to have gotten a room, considering this is apparently graduation weekend for Western State College, which is smack in the middle of town. This is a cool little place, though. A college town with such a bevy of outdoor adventure opportunities is my kind of place. I drove through the side streets drooling over all the charming little bungalows and Craftsman homes. Is that a sign of age, that I cruised town checking out cute houses instead of cute college boys? I will admit, though, that the obvious yuppie-fication of Main St. is an unfortunate drawback of just the elements that I find appealing in places like Gunnison. After 2,000 miles of gas prices ranging from $2.03 to $2.19 - Hell, gas was $1.90 in Hutchinson, KS! - it's up to $2.38 here in Gunnison. I also saw my first damned, gas-guzzling, oversized-hunk-of-metal Hummer of the trip, parked in a driveway near the college. So much for paradise in CO.

(For more images, click here.)

Observations: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois & Missouri were fun and interesting because I had no pre-conceived impressions of them, no real idea of what the landscape would be like. Kansas was close to what I expected (though I didn't anticipate the wind). Colorado, though, so far is exactly what I'd pictured, though no less interesting and appealing.

Wal-Mart count as of Gunnison, CO= 15, plus 2 distro centers.

Today's distance= 393 miles.

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