Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Rocky Mountain road trips

My daughter and her boyfriend and his sister are leaving for an excursion to Colorado in the morning. They don't know exactly where they are going. We used to do that when Eve was younger. And in the summers we would rent a cabin under Mt. Princeton, and then drive around the state, getting out to take pictures of patches of dirty snow and throw snowballs, look at incredible views, and try to figure out where the hell we were on the a map.

Various recollections of it:

Once we drove up to Leadville, gray snow clouds lay on the mountains, abandoned black coal tips by the highways. On the outskirts the only place that seemed to be open was the bar El Perdido, whose name in the context could be construed as "The Done For," with the cars of a few daytime drinkers nestled around it. In the center of town the tourists, panting in the thin air, walked a restored boardwalk past Disneyed goldrush storefronts. Beyond them the skyline revealed a sharktooth grin, plumbago clouds above them, orebody hills ruined in the foreground. Lowgrade tourism was the only vein left for this town to work.

We ate lunch in a small crowded cafe frequented by hearty locals and a few tourists who like ourselves appeared disoriented, as if wondering why did I fly on this airline and when will the oxygen masks drop down, and then we drove back toward Buena Vista, into the sunlight of the valley of the Arkansas. A few miles south of Leadville a nonchalant boy sauntered along the roadside with two shoulder-slung military-looking rifles, at ten thousand feet under the nosebleed sky.

We took the road up Clear Creek to Winfield, which was a refurbished but still uninhabited ghost town, board buildings dark as pitch which have withstood the chilly winds upwards of a century. Plexiglass windows on the one-room school built 1880-something revealed old desks with a mannequin schoolmarm posed near the blackboard, paralyzed in front of the empty inkwell chairs. You couldn't go in on account of the padlock on the door, so you pushed your face against the Plexiglass to see the dim interior, where momentarily you froze and died. Across the road was a "Typical miner cabin," also with plastic look-in view-portals, dirt floored, cheery compared with the school. A typed weathered card on the school said that the town prospered briefly in the 1880's when a church was built which never had a worship service.

As we were walking around, a man in a red car drove up who stopped to ask directions, an Italian, very friendly. "No, I'm not lost. Does this road go anywhere?" He pointed to a map where a road dwindles into dotted line. He had escaped from a conference; after 2 days of reinforced concrete symposia in Denver he was now out seeing the West, on the loose in a sporty car on a dirt road in the Rockies. He looked in some way excessively European--I don't know if it was his mannerisms or his clothes--I found myself imagining him running a machine gun in the Balkans.

Then back down to the whitewaters of the Arkansas, crossed on an old bridge and took a dirt road that ran parallel to the plunging kettledrum river. We drove through the meadows that lay between the rockribbed torrent of the river and the precambrian rust-granite hills. Ponderosa pines grew by the stream, pinyon pine trees stood, stochastic, across the plain, one point seven billion year old boulders bestrewing the meadows.

In the evening, as the rain gathered in the west, we ended up in Chalk Creek canyon at the trail head for the Agnes Vaille falls, whence we hiked the short trail to the cascade. Poor Agnes died in a mountain climbing accident many years ago, according to the forest service sign. She fell, then froze before her companion could get back and bring help. Another sign told us to look for frolicking mountain sheep and goats. We followed the trail along a crippling-cold snowmelt creek below the waterfall which crashes over a granodiorite cliff and showers down about 75 feet I would guess. On the way back I saw a mountain goat; it was not frolicking but walked deliberately down his hardglare rainslick rockfall on the cliffs high above the matchstick firs, lord of rocks, under the splints of lightning veining the nimbus.

One day Kay, Eve and I drove to find the ghost town of Turret. It was up a steep dirt road east of Salida. First few miles were dry hills and pinyons. Then we got up into Ponderosa country and high granite hills that would be called mountains back home in Texas. I had just driven our rented Chrysler New Yorker (the promised small car had been unavailable, so they gave us a big car for the same price) up a steep rocky switchback and was stopped while we debated whether to turn back in our gigantic retired-banker auto when a man and a woman, about 60 years old, came along in a old crate of a car with Colorado plates. They had a dog named Luv with them, spelled that way on the collar, and the car was full of water jugs and food and junk. They asked directions. It turned out they had no idea where they were, but did not seem in the least concerned. I knew exactly where we were, and showed them on the map. They decided to go on to the town of Turret, and then continue into the maze of dirt roads to the north. We followed them for a while, but they disappeared in a cloud of dust.

We got to Turret, which consisted of several abandoned shacks and one house which looked like someone lived in it. But no one was at home, or in any case there was no car there. A crude hand-lettered sign on the well warned against drinking the water. We ate a simple sack lunch of cheese and bread, and were sorry we couldn't drink the wellwater, having only warm sodas in the car.

Occasional high places in the road gave us a view down into the Arkansas valley, blue and bright in the distance, and the shining Sawatch peaks remoter beyond the valley, and great mountainous cumulus clouds lowering over the mountains with gray sheets of rain veiling the peaks below the clouds.

Out of nowhere, from above us, a thin, sleet-like hail suddenly rattled on the car, covering the road with a white grit like road salt, as reverbs of thunder rolled over us like an invisible landslide filling the canyon. Like all mountain storms we encountered, it blew over quickly.
In the afternoon above our cabin the violet-green swallows would knit the strands of mountain rain even as the sun would break through the crack in the mountain to the west like the pour of a distant blast furnace. The low flashing arc of magpies lasts in my mind with the floating mockery of their cries.
We drove over Monarch pass near Gunnison, a clean Mormon-looking town full of freckled white children. Mothers sat on park benches and watched their children play and tended their baby carriages.
At the black canyon of the Gunnison I went for a walk on the "High Point Trail", which should have been called the Trail of the Flowers, or the Trail With a Hell of a View. The path was lined with serviceberries, mountain mahogany, bluebells, penstemons, larkspurs, arrowleaf balsamroots, mountain lupines, sagebrush, purple flowered onions, and snowberries. I ate some of the wild onions. A view of the San Juan Mountains unfolded to the left, dark black-green with sunlit emerald patches in the foreground under the afternoon stormclouds billowing blindingly into the ionized blue of the stratosphere, and the Elk Mountains on the right, both visible at once from the razorback ridge trail.

Below the trail a view of the canyon dropped like a chill into a chasm of dark greenish injection gneiss, banded with red and pink. Western tanagers and mountain chickadees blittered in the sparse branchery of the Douglas firs and the Utah Junipers and Pinyon pine; the red red tailed hawks and turkey vultures floated five hundred feet below the rim, tightly choreographed to their shadows racing along the canyon wall.

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