Saturday, November 23, 2013
My First Colorado Weekend
My First Colorado Weekend
In April of 1986 I officially moved from Boston to Denver, but work duties kept me traveling most of the time, usually back on the East Coast. Every thing I owned was in boxes in my Denver apartment, and would stay that way for months. But finally one weekend in late April I was able to stay in Colorado for the weekend, and had to choose between unboxing stuff or heading out into the hills. The call of the mountains was strong, and everything stayed in boxes for another week.
On Friday afternoon I left Denver in a rainstorm, and by the time I got to Georgetown it had turned to snow. This concept was still entirely new to me, that one could drive west from Denver and then be in an entirely different climate in a half-hour’s drive (of course that’s a two-hour drive most Friday nights now). The previous night I had watched the TV weather forecast, and it indicated that it would be raining in Denver but nice in the mountains, west of something called “The Continental Divide”. It seemed improbable, but I stuffed camping gear, fishing tackle, and skis into the back of my Saab 99 and pointed it west. As the road rose and the weather grew wetter, I kept thinking that this was a really stupid thing to do. The driving just got worse as the road climbed, and camping didn’t seem to be too likely. By the time I got to the Eisenhower Tunnel, there was a half foot of snow on the ground and I was glad to be driving something as good in the snow as a Saab.
But then I emerged from the tunnel’s west portal and could see the sky for the first time since I left Denver, and there were the makings of a gorgeous sunset! Scattered clouds, the sun looming high above Buffalo Mountain, and suddenly this had the potential to be a great weekend after all. When I came down the hill into Summit County, I decided to try and find a vantage point to shoot some photos of the beautiful western sky, but I the sun was going to set prematurely behind the big wall of mountains in front of me. I needed to decide whether to keep going west straight into the sunset, or try to go around the mountains. In my haste to leave Denver, I had forgotten my map on the kitchen table. Not knowing any better, I headed north on Highway 9 to try and get around what I would learn later was called the Gore Range.
This was not a smart choice, and the further north I got I began to realize that maybe I should have kept going west on the interstate. But now I was committed, and I kept driving north hoping to see some road that might take me west and over the mountains. Finally after about twenty miles, I saw a dirt road that ran downhill to some river I didn’t know the name of, with some small signage on it that indicated it might go somewhere. It was getting late, so I made the turn to see where this road might lead. It crossed a river, which I learned later was the Blue, and then began to climb up a long, winding grade. I passed a ranch with some sheep, then rounding a corner almost ran into a large herd of cows leisurely walking across the road, in no mood to be rushed by my little car. I thought, “I’m not in Boston anymore!, and waited for them to give me room to go by.
After passing some pretty meadows lined with aspen groves, the road starting going steeply downhill and the canyon walls closed in. I was beginning to wonder just how big of a mistake I had made by taking this road, when I found myself coming around a bend to see one of the most expansive valley views I’d ever seen. To my right was the mouth of an enormous, deep canyon, and to my left a wide green river valley far below. I pulled over to get a better look, and climbed over the guardrail to get out onto some rocks for a better perspective. The sun was already down below the western ridge, and the colors underwhelming, but the sight I gazed upon below for the first time made an indelible image onto the filmstock of my brain. Then I heard a low sound like steady distant thunder, and looking down into the deep dark canyon saw what looked like a toy train a thousand feet below. I watched as the train went down the valley and could see the entire thing from the engines up front to the last rattling cars in the rear. The perspective from so far above was almost god-like.
I decided to sleep in that spot then and there, and unloaded my sleeping bag and cooler. There was on flattish spot on the side of the hill that was level enough to sleep on, and that’s where I planned to spend the night. But looking west, I noticed that the gathering clouds were looking more and more malevolent, and felt the first few splats of rain strike the ground and rocks around me. Since it wasn’t completely dark yet, my curiosity finally got the better of me and I wanted to see where that dirt road I was on ended up. I got back in the 99 and drove the hill and into the valley below. The road curved and dipped for over ten miles, crossing the river once. Finally I came down a steep hill and towards some ramshackle log buildings, and then to a larger building with lights on inside. I was happy to find a watering hole this far out in the sticks. Having gotten to where I was without a map and in unfamiliar territory, I had no idea where I was. So parked my car and checked out the old wooden structure I was approaching. It looked to be at least turn of the century vintage, and maybe older. There was a big deck one had to cross to get in, from which there was a good view of the river below. I went into the old saloon expecting to see a roomful of people, for judging by the number of cars outside the place was going to be packed.
But when I opened the door, there was…no one. I bellied up to the bar and stood and waited, and waited, but still the bar appeared empty. I peered over the behind the bar and saw how easy it would be to pour myself one. Let’s see, the mugs are over there, the tap is there, hmmm I could just…
Just then I heard the murmur of people upstairs, and noticed that there was a staircase leading up to what looked like a darkened room above. I creaked my way up the stairs on the ancient planks and when my head got above the floor level I was greeted by the sight of a roomful of people sitting in folding metal chairs, looking towards a small brightly-lit stage and smiling. On the stage was a cowboy, (I could tell that because he had the hat, and neckerchief, and a perfectly coiled rope). He was in the middle of reciting a poem about working hard on a cattle ranch, through all kinds of bad weather, in the company of trusty fellow-ranchhands, a good dog, a sturdy smart horse. Long nights spent around campfires being serenaded by coyotes, (or the way cowboys say it, kye-yotes). It was kind of cliché but it was way cool, too. I had stumbled onto a Cowboy Poetry gathering, something I had heard of but had never been to. Cowboy Poetry readings don’t exactly dominate the Massachusetts cultural landscape.
A waitressy-looking woman went downstairs and I followed, finally able to get a large mug of draft beer. Back upstairs I found a metal folding chair of my own and stayed for the rest of the show. There were more Real Cowboys like the first, and some also had instruments and sang their poems. One of the singers had a little cattle dog (also in a neckerchief) who would let out mournful, “Oooh! Ooooh! Ah-Oooohh!!s” at critical moments in the song. (I think that he trying to sing like a kye-yote). The highlight for me was the cowboy who recited the entire poem “The Man From Snowy River” verbatim, gesturing dramatically with his arms and making grand flourishes at exciting moments in the narrative. I was thinking, Boy, you definitely ain’t in Boston no more.
That night I drove back up the dirt river road to my spot near the mouth of what I had learned was called Gore Canyon. The river nearby was none other than the mighty Colorado, and, as I was told by the bartender, this saloon had been here for over a hundred years. It was called the State Bridge Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt had stayed here once on the way to slaying large numbers of Colorado fauna.
Finally back at my spot I unrolled the sleeping bag and laid it out under the night sky. Directly above me the stars were blazing, but as I looked west I couldn’t see any stars at all. There were dark clouds everywhere, it was like being in a black hole, or just outside of one. But right overhead the sky was clear, so I decided to stay there until it rained, and if the bivy bag couldn’t keep the rain out then I could always retreat to the Saab. But the sky stayed clear, and I noticed that there was a persistent breeze coming out of Gore Canyon, which seemed to be blowing the clouds away. Before I fell asleep I got to see my first Colorado shooting star, the first of many more to follow in the next two dozen years.
The next day I drove back to the bar to get a better look at where I was and had been. The river canyon was beautiful, and once I had a better look around I was ready to see more. The previous night someone had told me about a long way round back to I-70, and had drawn up a map to it on a bar napkin. At some point while bundled up in my sleeping bag later I must have had runny nose, for I had used the napkin for an alternative purpose. It was still readable though, just a bit gross. I headed west on the first paved road I’d seen in some time to where I was told to turn, and once again was back on a dirt road. This one went down a hill and met up with the river, which it then followed west. It was a scenic river valley, with the railroad tracks running between the river and the dirt road I was on. After a few miles the road crossed the river on a one-lane bridge and climbed up a hill away from it, and up on top I got my first look at some snow-drenched mountains I later learned to be the Flat Tops. It was beautiful open country, with only an occasional ranch to be seen. The road dipped again and went down a steep hill where it crossed the river over another small bridge, and for the next few miles I followed it along the prettiest section of the canyon I’d been on yet. The canyon walls on the right were shades of pink and yellow, and on the left they were bright red. I began thinking of looking for a spot to camp and wet a line, and when I saw some orange, yellow and red rock hoodoos on the opposite hillside and thought that it looked to be a good spot to stay.
There was a little dirt trail that went down towards the river which I thought the Saab could handle, so I followed that down. Unfortunately the railroad tracks were there as well, and they prevented me from getting too close to the water’s edge. I got out and walked around a bit, astounded by how dramatic the cliffs looked. In subsequent years I would spend a lot of time in southern Utah and got to see lots of country like this, but to eyes raised on softer eastern mountain ranges, this all looked like the surface of Mars by comparison. I took some photos of the area and scrambled down to the river, but decided to look for a spot to camp elsewhere since only (but ideal) spot that I could see was across the river.
I got back in the Saab and kept driving, stopping a lot to take more photos along the way. Along the way I saw a couple of dirt roads that went off into the hills, but they all lead away from the river and I wanted to stay near that. A few miles from the area with the colorful cliffs I saw the first few houses I’d seen in awhile, and thought, What a great place to live. Eventually I got back to I-70, and camped out that night near Tennessee Pass on my way back to Denver. But I never forgot the Colorado River Road, and over the next 17 years went back often to camp and fish. For the first fifteen years that I lived in Denver I spent many weekends loaded up with skis and fishing rods and camping gear, and then later mountain bikes and an inflatable kayak, exploring the mountains of Colorado and deserts and canyons of Utah. But over the latter years more and more often I found myself spending the weekends in the area above and below the State Bridge Lodge. There’s lots of public land with free camping all around, some of which is walking distance to the bar.
Ten years ago my wife and I moved to a spot two miles downriver from the heart of that red rock canyon. I run fishing trips right through the most beautiful section, and my shop and takeout is right in my backyard. I've been up and down that road thousands of times now, but it still sometimes knocks my socks off just soaking it all in. Even after several hundred river trips, its still a magical place that I never get tired of experiencing. What's even better is taking others on it for their first time, and reliving my first exposure to it in the process. It’s a place that I was somehow just drawn to, as if by some larger unseen force. I knew it was meant to be not long after we bought our place here, poring over the USGS maps left behind by the previous owner. The name of that spot in the middle of the canyon was "Jack Flats", and I thought, I guess I was meant to be here.