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Road Trip to Colorado in June 2004

In June 2004, after years of constant overwork, I finally had a little free time. Ah, the joys of being laid off! At the same time,  Tom was on vacation with nothing to do but sit in front of the TV. There was only one thing for it: Road Trip!!

Map of our road trip, with the numbers denoting the nights (1 = first night, 2 = second, etc.) and showing where we stayed. These were the typical long day’s drives of the American West, across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and back to California across Utah and Nevada. The reason that we drove so far the fifth day, all the way to Tonopah, Nevada, was because the towns on the map in western Utah and eastern Nevada weren’t really towns, and had no motels.

In seven years in Santa Cruz, this road trip was the first. There had been a couple of weekend drives to and from tourist attractions in California (such as Yosemite and Disneyland), but no real driving for the sake of it, no driving even to another State, not even when we had Edgar, my much-maligned RV.

The old mill in Crystal. We reached this extraordinary sight courtesy of a four-wheel drive service in nearby Marble. The last five miles of the trip took over an hour, over a narrow and rocky mountain path! Was it worth it?!

Somewhat arbitrarily, which is the essence of a good road trip, Tom and I drove to Colorado and back, a 2500 mile round trip which we covered in 6 days, including one day for recreation (i.e. one day when we actually stayed still, spending two consecutive nights in the same place).

The longest day’s drive was from west of Grand Junction in Colorado all the way across Utah and over half the way across Nevada to Tonopah. We didn’t plan it that way, but there was nothing at all in the way of accommodation between Ely and Tonopah, notwithstanding the several towns named on the map. In fact, in each case there was no town there!

The first cabin on Crystal’s Main (and only remaining) Street, with Pat Gray. Her mother, Fogle Neal, first showed me her beloved Crystal in around 1972, shortly after losing her husband.

It being a true road trip, we screwed up at least some of the photos (by double exposing them), and so cannot show the pictures that we took of these sad and almost non-existent towns, with their abandoned gas stations and cafes. The frontier is still there, just back inland nowadays.

The trip had two destinations. One was Crystal, a ghost town in the Rocky Mountains that thrived a hundred years ago when silver mining made economic sense in Colorado, and then all but died, and the other was Durango, another mountain town also built on mining, this time in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, but one which has survived by being in the valley on major trunk routes and knowing how to attract tourists.

A high spot of the Durango part of the trip was a short afternoon’s rafting on the Animas River. I am front left, and Tom front right. That’s his hand above the spray, temporarily separated from his trusty oar. Casey, the owner/guide, the relaxed fellow in the stern, offered Tom a job when he comes of age because he was paddling with such vigor all the way.

My first visit to Crystal was a total fluke during the years drifting around North America (1970-73),  a wandering hippy complete with backpack, pony tail and (sometimes) a pink ’59 Chevy Impala Coupe. The car wasn’t available for that trip to Colorado. No idea why. I just kept moving back then, whatever happened and however I moved.

I had followed a friend from Banff, Lauri Clegg, to Aspen, spent a few days with her and her roommates in an apartment there, and then left town. Fogle Neal picked me up hitch-hiking outside Aspen, it must have been around October 1972, and brought me all the way up the four-wheel drive road to Crystal. She was obliged to use the winch mounted on the front of her Jeep repeatedly to dislodge big rocks that had fallen on to the narrow road from the mountainside above.

Tom took this one of an abandoned mine between Silverton and Ouray, just off one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the US, the part of the San Juan Skyway called the Million Dollar Highway. Those mountains peak at 13-14,000 feet, which is why there was still snow on them.

I should have stayed longer than one night, but the next morning right after I woke up another four-wheel drive vehicle came through, this one with two students in it. Fogle had estimated that less than a car a day came through. The students were driving up the pass to Crested Butte, and in I jumped. Could have stayed longer, should have stayed longer. . . Didn’t. Just kept going.

Pat, Fogle’s daughter, told me during this visit that her mom had just lost her husband when I passed through, and so probably had picked me up hitch-hiking so that she could have some company. That would have explained why a middle-aged woman picked up a bedraggled hippy and drove him to her home and put him up overnight. I felt bad when Pat told me about her mom. I should have spent a few days with her,  and maybe helped through her bereavement. But no, that was how it was for me as a drifter, moving too fast, never knowing when to stop.

By the side of the road on the Arizona – New Mexico border. The road is Interstate 40, which tracks US Route 66, America’s Main Street, throughout the Southwest. The trucks never stop coming in this part of the world.

Maybe we moved too fast on this trip too. It is somehow easier to keep driving when you have no room reserved for the night, no destination for the end of the day. But there was nothing to measure that against, at least not in the world outside. Tom was doing fine. I had been worried about going on this trip with him because he was not at the time the easiest of the children at home.

On this trip, he was a perfect travel buddy. As soon as we got going, he was cool, adaptable, easy-going, a dream fourteen year-old. One of the reasons why I hadn’t made a road trip since arriving in California was that our children don’t care too much for being locked up for many hours in a car. Remembering my own endless childhood car journeys, I understood. It was just as true for Tom as for the rest of the children. But not on this trip: normal tendencies were suspended.

Here is Tom next to a BNSF freight east of Bakersfield. Burlington Northern Santa Fe: it sounds like a history lesson. The line follows the Interstate, the old Route 66, more or less, and the freights never seem to stop.

I brought along videos and video games, so that he could retreat into his normal world and not claim to be bored the entire trip. He used them, but only now and then. Each time I pointed out the scenery, and driving through the West gives you nothing but scenery, he would watch it with me.

I’m a train freak, and the trip brought a lot of opportunities to feed that obsession. Tom joined in all of them. He put up with me stopping here and there to watch one of the freights up close. His hobby on this trip was placing pennies on the line before the train came, and then trying to recover them after it had flattened them.

Behind Tom here is the locomotive that pulled our tourist train up the Animas River canyon from Durango to Silverton.

The key train moment was one of the goals of the trip. Back in 1973, I had heard about the Durango to Silverton steam train, and even found my way to the Durango station to take a peek. I couldn’t afford to take it at the time, but it remains one of the few working steam trains in the Western US. Now I could afford it, and now that I could afford it, I was going to take that train.

We did. Originally built to serve the miners of Colorado, formerly a piece of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, the line climbs a river valley which is all but inaccessible to cars. Insightful business people saw the attraction of a beautiful railway line in the mountains where the road can’t go. Only rafters on the river and train passengers can tour that beautiful valley.

This was taken from one of the rear carriages. Imagine yourself back in time a hundred years!

We shared a couple of other special moments on the trip that have stuck with me. Somewhere in the middle of Nevada, on a straight flat road, I showed Tom what 100 mph felt like. A bird, one of a flock that somehow appeared in the air in front of our speeding car, hit the windshield. Not much hope for its future. Both of us felt bad. I tried a high speed interlude again a little further down the road, and out of the blue cows appeared on the side of the road, a couple of them half on the road, very dangerous. I couldn’t believe it. Here we were in the middle of Nevada, miles from any visible signs of human life, and even there excess speed was dangerous. That was it. No more demonstrations for Tom of what you can do in a sporty car.

Here we are, with Tom looking a little uncomfortable with his dad’s arm around him, on the highway between Durango and Silverton. I was wearing an England football (soccer) shirt because Euro 2004 was happening during the trip.

East of Yosemite, and still in Nevada, the dead bird and the cows were in my mind when we hit a piece of highway with rolling bump after rolling bump. They went on for miles, a giant natural skate park on which the highway builders had obligingly laid a ribbon of tarmac. At close to the speed limit, which I was now trying to stick to, one or even two wheels left the tarmac on more than one occasion as the car continued up and the road rolled down, and our stomachs followed suit. It was a scream. We bounced up and down, giggling with each other, looking at each other as we hit the top of each bump. taking this surprise roller coaster as fast as we dared, and complicity was ours.

Recipe for a wonderful road trip: (1) mountains; (2) small Mercedes with a six-cylinder engine that powers much larger cars.

A road trip is for the spaces in life where the reasons are not entirely rational and you can just let yourself go. One of my reasons for this one was the pink 1959 Chevy that I had left in 1973 with some people in Durango and never found the time to go back and check on. Planning the trip, I was hoping to find one of the people I left the car with. Of course, I forgot their address! So I made it to Durango, but couldn’t check on the Chevy, and you know what, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was Tom’s and my road trip together.