Lenten Roadtrip Part 5: Rocky Mountain My Oh My
A Winter Window Opens The Way To Wonder
On the seventh day, we rested, however briefly.
And on the eighth day, the weather stayed sweet, so we went for it.
After a couple days blazing across the Midwest and Great Plains of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and eastern Colorado, we finally caught sight of them as we reached the I-70 crossroads of Limon: A hulking, soaring jag of mountains, tinted blue in the distance. I was pretty sure it was the silhouette of a portion of the Front Range containing famed Pike’s Peak, towering over our destination for the day – my son Alex’s home in Colorado Springs.
As we turned off the Interstate and made our way down Highway 24, the mountains got bigger, more defined, more recognizable. Yep, it was the Pike’s Peak I’d summited a few years ago, by car, with a couple New York bankers who, to their credit, didn’t seem to huff and puff at 14,115 feet. By the time we got to town, the mountain named for explorer Zebulon Pike glowed under a mantle of recent snow, leaving us a bit breathless with appreciation for making it back to our beloved mountain west with some 3,000 miles in the rear-view mirror – not one of them touched by a drop of rain or flake of snow. Plenty on the ground, but nothing from the sky, and the forecast for our final 1,200 miles looked promising, too.
“We’re supposed to get a foot of snow next weekend, so you timed it perfectly,” Alex said before we knocked some putts around on his backyard synthetic green. “I’m ready for courses to open.”
He’ll have to wait a little longer. As I write this, five days later and two days after we rolled into Reno, what the weather gurus are calling the biggest storm on the Front Range in over 100 years – maybe two feet of snow in Denver, perhaps half that in the Springs – will make its way over the middle third of the country.
No doubt we threaded the needle when it came to crossing the Rockies in winter, on a stretch of road that even Coloradoans fear. No interstate goes as high above sea level as does I-70 – a tick over 11,000 feet at the East Portal of the incredible, mile-and-a-half-long Eisenhower Tunnel, which takes drivers over the Continental Divide, between the ski resort towns of Breckenridge and Vail. Only the tunnel’s westbound “bore,” which opened in 1973 after five deadly years of construction, is actually named for Eisenhower; the eastbound bore, which opened in 1979, is named for Edwin C. Thompson, the gregarious Colorado governor who actually twisted enough federal arms to have the twin tunnels built at all.
Our original plan didn’t take us this route. Instead I was going to steer the car southwest from Colorado Springs, catching fabled Highway 50 near Pueblo and taking it over the Rockies via Monarch Pass, which carries drivers even higher over the Divide, 11,312 feet, and down through Gunnison and Montrose before uniting with I-70 in Grand Junction. I just thought it would be cool route to take, adding just a few miles and perhaps 40 minutes to our Sunday afternoon trek. And I definitely want to tackle it one day. But when we decided to grab brunch and do some shopping in Castle Rock, which would take us closer to Denver, we switched it up.
Good call. The drive was nothing less than spectacular.
As we approached the heart of the Rockies somewhere beyond Idaho Springs–with a handful of the range’s 58 “fourteeners” in view–we also saw a sign announcing the tunnel less than 20 miles up the road. Even with the telltale steep climb leading into it, even with the geared-down semis sliding by to our right, it came up on us quick. Emelie had just enough time grab the iPhone and put it in video mode so we could chronicle our quick but unforgettable two minutes through some of America’s most impressive infrastructure handiwork. We emerged on the other side of the Divide with a smile – and a whole lot more eye candy, and engineering marvels, awaiting us.
How about the leisurely drop into the Vail Valley, a postcard interlude if there ever was one?
How about when I-70 grows concrete legs just beyond Dotsero, where the Eagle River gives way to the mighty Colorado, tumbling through narrow canyons toward Glenwood Springs?
How about the road rolling through a gradual and beautiful transformation from alpine country, to the northern reaches of the Grand Plateau, and into the red-tinted desertscape of Grand Junction and the surrounding Grand Valley?
How about just appreciating the modern marriage of transportation technology and natural splendor, which brings the vast wilderness so close to your windshield, and into your wandering heart?
That I was able to finally witness all this magnificence in person, after six decades on the planet, with the love of my life there to savor it with me–and do so during a season that can bring the meanest mountain weather imaginable–well, let’s just say that I’m thankful, and that we’ll remember those high-flying few hours forever.
And we still had two more delicious days to go.