Oh yes…it was incredibly striking how the landscape changes immediately…literally immediately once you cross the border from Utah into Colorado. The golden red sand and tan desert hues that were the prominent feature for the past 5 days begin to melt away within mere miles of crossing over that invisible line, and they're replaced with a green, lush, and seemingly more oxygen friendly palate. It was striking how quick and abrupt the transition was. After about an hour of climbing up a mild grade along increasingly green roadside fields and streams and rolling hills filled with meadows and rivers that could compete with the Palouse, it started to get steeper and steeper. After shaking off the plains of the desert behind us, it was hard not to embrace the fact that we were headed into arguably the most magnificent mountain range in the country…the Colorado Rockies. Not a bad introduction to the second half of this trip.
Being a huge mountain and running water and tree and forest guy, this is the point when my intuition coerced me sit back and just marinated in the environment that we were floating through. I immediately felt at home.
Our first proper stop in Colorado was about 3 hours in. My friend that joined me on this trip was itching to go fishing from the moment we left Los Angeles, and as we rode alongside a grand rushing river, it was killing him not to stop. Granted, I had no complaints, so we found a small town called Hot Sulphur Springs that ran right along the Colorado River. While he pulled out the tackle box and the rods and set up shop along the banks, and I decided to wander the town a bit - get a feel for this seemingly mythical landscape.
What I found in Hot Sulphur Springs was the kind of place where the local children tube down the river that connects their backyards, where the remains of an old 'mercantile' store sit beside the ancient whitewashed brick building that still serves as a post office, where children's bikes are left strewn about in front of the 'Town Hall,' where the trout run rampant and the sheriff stops in just to say hello. The sort of place where a stranger sees you walking in the streets, asks where you're headed, and then offers you a ride (yes…that happened…not once, but twice. Coming from L.A., I had no idea what to do with that).
This sort of place. Is Colorado.
After a little more than an hour of hanging out in this charming town, it was time to get back on the road. We still had to make it through Rocky Mountain National Park, over the 'hills' that divide the East and West of our great country, down through Estes Park, and finally into Loveland, Colorado, along the front range of the Rockies, where a mutual friend that was putting us up for a few days lives and was waiting for us with a fresh home cooked 'supper.'
Now, if the day ended at this moment, it would have been a perfect day, but it didn't, and what it still had in store for us blew my hot damn mind into stratospheres I have only thus far read about and admired from calendars and picture books and vague recollections of out of print geography class text books. The next leg of our trip was taking us directly through Rocky Mountain National Park, and as soon as we entered that gate, it was like Mama Nature's magic wand went ballistic.
We rode into the official park entrance along the 34 highway, otherwise known as Trail Ridge Road, just as the sun began it's decent over the western range of the valley, and we couldn't have been in a more perfect position. The centerpiece of this part of the park is an insanely stunning elk and deer-laden meadow that stretches a solid couple of miles through the center of a valley flanked by aspens and Douglas firs and purple ponderosa pines. When the sun is setting in a flawless meadow, and everything starts to glow pink and purple and gold, there's only one thing you're required to do - hit the bloody brakes and get out of the car.
We parked alongside the road, I grabbed my camera, and ran directly out into the middle of the meadow. By now, my buddy knew the drill…I was gonna be a while. So he gave in and gladly grabbed his fishing pole, and jumped into the stream. He did his thing and I did mine. I felt like a frickin' child running around and ducking and hiding and frolicking in the 3-foot tall blades of grass, grabbing every angle and light beam and cloud formation I can in my viewfinder before the sun disappeared behind the range. This went on for a good 45 minutes where nothing. Else. Mattered. And this was the sight where I made some of my favorite images of the trip.
However, there was still a good drive ahead of us to get through the park and over onto the front range and we knew that. What we didn't know was the surprise that awaited us just a few miles up the road…I don't know why it didn't even occur to us until we were in the midst of it, but all of a sudden, we're driving, the trees begin to disappear, we realize we're way above the tree-line and that's when we saw it…the sign: Continental Divide - 11,000 feet. We were literally at the top of the Rocky Mountains, the dividing line where the East meets the West, the top of the fence from which the waters flow east into the Atlantic and west into the Pacific. We were driving along a ridge line where we were simultaneously watching the sun set on one side and the moon rising on the other. The timing was psychotically impeccable. And in this situation, when you're literally on top of the world, there's only one thing you're required to do - yup…you guessed it, hit the bloody brakes and get out of the car!
This is where I'll let the pictures in the gallery at the end of this post try to do the talking/typing…they won't nearly do it justice, but, well, it might just be one of those things you have to experience for yourself. It's like that.
Now the sun was down, the moon was up, and we hunkered back down in the car for the 2 hours that lie ahead of us through Estes Park and into Loveland, Colorado. We rolled in to our friend's casa, exchanged hugs and pleasantries, and did what any group of long-separated friends do when they get together…ate and drank. We popped open a bottle of wine, settled down on the table outside with our plates of fresh salmon, asparagus, and grilled vegetables and laughed and drank and merried til' we passed out, one by one, in the warm summer air - the sounds of Coloradoan crickets and distant rush of the Big Thompson river lulling us to sleep.
Til next time...