Rockies and Plains: Michael and Dan Explore the West
Daniel Emberley, July & September 2014
After three years as a manager for the IRS, Michael’s bosses decided maybe they should send him to the required training for IRS managers. The sessions took place in Denver, two weeks with a two month break between. We decided to take advantage of him being there to explore some of the High Plains and the Rockies.
Michael had a final morning of class in Aurora, so I crossed a series of freeways to Nine Mile Station at the end of Denver’s H line light rail. Denver’s spent a lot of money on their light rail system, but they’ve made some fatal errors. Much of it runs in the middle of freeways, so to get from a station to where you want to be is a ten minute trek on a highway overpass. Must be horrible in winter. Downtown it’s in the street competing with traffic. It does not reach the airport, or the middle of college campuses, or get anywhere close to the Capitol or museum district. Nice that they’re trying, but based on the number of people who were asking me (in town all of 12 hours – I must have a transit look about me) for directions on how to use it, they need to go a long way to make it useful.
Got off downtown, rode the free 16th Street bus to City Hall, and crossed Civic Center to the Museum District. We hadn’t been in Denver in over a decade; since then, they’ve added two major museums I wanted to see.
The Clyfford Still Museum was up first. You haven’t seen a lot of Clyfford Still, no matter where you live. He was an early Abstract Expressionist who, while still a growing star at Betty Parson’s gallery in New York, decided the American art world was unworthy of him. There is usually a room of his work installed in the Phillips Collection, big slabs of black and brown paint with some bright color for accent, but he yanked the majority of his work from sale/display in the 1960’s. He’s known more by reputation than his actual work. Denver agreed ten years ago to open a museum dedicated only to his work, and received almost every painting he’d ever made. Lots of it is forgetable, and Still did not help by storing his paintings rolled up with waxed paper and newspaper that stuck to the paint. They had a great exhibit up on the challenges of restoring and displaying these canvases. The building is a jewel, by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. Lots of appropriately sized galleries, bridges and passages that integrate the long term storage and story of the artist’s life with the art. Best of all are small terraces Cloepfil designed where you can step out into a zen-like patch of grass between galleries. Art, eh, but the building is totally worth going for.
Next door, and sort of wrapping around the Still, the Denver Art Museum’s major addition was my other must-see sight. DAM’s original building, by Gio Ponti, is one of my favorite museums: it’s like a funky 1950’s art castle. The addition, by Daniel Liebeskind, is another thing entirely. A mass of metal-wrapped spikey shapes, they look like one of Superman’s crystals landed in DAM’s parking lot. Tons of unnecessarily odd gallery spaces - I’m not convinced that Liebeskind is someone I would commission for an art museum. However, it’s given DAM tons of room to show their excellent collection, which they wisely show with hands-on rooms and studies in the styles of the adjacent art (cowboy, Native American, Louis-something). These give people breathing spaces and help fend off the coma that can come from having too many galleries in a row. The curators are re-installing the collection to use the new spaces to advantage, and the hanging they’ve done so far is great. A fun Sandy Skoglund piece, foxes invading a dining room in magenta, is set up so you can walk right through the sculpture. The contemporary collection shows well, and has grown in the past decade. Also good temporary shows up, of Japanese prints and lacquer, Tom Wesselman, and installations by area artists.
DAM is big enough that I took a break halfway through. On Tuesdays and Thursdays Denver opens its cool Beaux Arts Civic Center Plaza to food trucks; I was able to get a delicious lunch of pork sliders with jicama salad. The public space is great, and it is clearly enjoyed by tons of locals at lunch hour. An excellent way to enliven what can be a too-grand and empty plaza.
Michael buzzed me when I was almost through the Ponti building. He had finished class, checked out, and was driving the rental car up to meet me. We rendezvoused around the corner, and headed a few blocks into Capitol Hill for the Vance Kirkland Museum. Kirkland created giant canvases of blobby dots and bright colors in explosive designs. I had very low expectations, but the tourist lit said that in addition to preserving Kirkland’s studio and showing his art, it had a collection of decorative arts. We were blown away. Hated Kirkland’s work (although discussions of the artist’s synesthesia and the straps where he suspended himself above his canvases to paint were good). The decorative arts collection is brilliant. Mainly 20th Century, tons of Arts and Crafts, Deco, Moderne. Light fixtures, clocks, furniture, dishes, small sculptures, ash trays; all crammed into display cases, on the furniture, in every nook and cranny. The elevator is hung with large canvases to transform it into a gallery. It’s like the museums Isabella Stewart Gardner, Charles Hosmer Morse, and Millicent Rogers developed, but for contemporary America. Wicked cool.
The Tattered Cover Bookstore in LoDo is one of the country’s best book stores. My sugars were low, so we got brownies and tea while leafing through funky magazines we’d never seen before. I got “Atomic Ranch”, a “This Old House” for modern houses, and Michael a magazine dedicated to raising chickens.
Since we were in LoDo, we walked over to the Museum of Contemporary Art. They did not charge us, as they were between installs and had almost no art on display. The space is pretty cool, designed by David Adjaye (architect of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History going up on our Mall).
We’d wiped out my list of must-do’s in Denver, and still had a couple hours. We could have walked the parks along the Platte, but decided to see the Colorado History Center. This is in a completely new building since our last visit, with mainly new installations. Lots of innovative technology to help tell the story of the state (here’s hoping it keeps working, and stays fresh). They do an excellent job telling social history, including the issues of Colorado’s place as a border land between Spaniards, Native tribes, and Americans, the importance of water, even how to jump off a ski lift. I especially liked the immersive display on the Dust Bowl.
We drove into rush hour traffic north to Thornton. I reprogrammed our GPS out of Japanese (huh?) into the British English voice for the fun of it (“In ninety feet, take the slip road to Interstate 25”). We stayed in Holiday Inn Expresses almost exclusively on this trip: they were convenient, easy, and in the right places for where we wanted to go. Also predictable, in boring suburban locations with tons of parking. Dinner at a Longhorn Steakhouse across the parking lot. It was hard to find anything worth eating on this trip, but it was never bad, just boring.
People in Denver seem to live mainly to get out of it. We weren’t going skiing, or hiking, or kayaking, but headed north on I-25 and were in Wyoming in an hour. An excellent state visitor’s center just across the border, with lots of interactive exhibits in addition to the usual racks of brochures.
Ideally we would have spent a day in Cheyenne, the state capital, but this was the one week a year when Cheyenne is busy hosting Frontier Days. Sort of a state fair-rodeo combo. We decided to forego seeing John Cougar-Mellencamp and Lady Antebellum, paying double the hotel rates. We kept going another two hours up to the Oregon Trail. Stopped for lunch at Taco John’s, pseudo-Mexican fast food with stellar potato tots nachos. There are few of the major fast food chains: McDonald’s and Burger King seem to have decided the market is not big enough in these areas, and their place has been taken by Dairy Queen, Arby’s, and Taco John’s.
First stop, in Guernsey, Wyoming, was Oregon Trail Ruts National Historic Landmark. Here on the tops of hills pioneer wagons wore three feet or so into the limestone. A fragile ecology that helped us realize the discomfort of the settlers and of the natives they were displacing.
A few miles away is Register Cliff State Historic Site, where explorers, pioneers on the Trail, and 20th Century visitors have carved their names in the stone. Limestone is pretty soft. It’s largely unprotected and vulnerable, the majority of people there were players from local Little League teams practicing.
We were surprised by the countryside. Our previous experience with the Great Plains was in New Mexico. There they were dry, flat, and boring – even the Roswell visitor’s center told us to drive west into the mountains. Here in Wyoming, and further on in South Dakota and Nebraska, it was dry, but the plains were more rolling, and usually covered with grasses in shades from yellow through the greens and browns. Lovely. Lots of cattle, but usually just open prairie.
The attraction in this area is Fort Laramie National Historic Site. Not the town of Laramie (west of Cheyenne, former home of Matthew Sheppard) or Laramie County (where Cheyenne sits). Fort Laramie was the military base where we took the plains from the Sioux/Lakota and other tribes. Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and Red Cloud all tried to negotiate with Army representatives who either never understood, couldn’t get Washington to understand, or didn’t care, about the importance of the buffalo, plains, and Black Hills to their existence. The Forts is an archaeological ruin partially reconstructed with costumed interpreters. The Park Service does a great job explaining the lives of the troops, the settlers they protected, and the natives. In its heyday, before transcontinental rail service made the Trail obsolete, Fort Laramie was one of the only outposts of urban civilization. It must have been horrible: months of tedium and bugs accented by moments of slaughter. Today, with the ability to flee by car or stop into the officer’s mess for a root beer, the Laramie River and the parade ground are beautiful. Haunting.
We pulled into Torrington for that night’s Holiday Inn Express. Torrington’s former Union Pacific depot has been turned into a Homesteaders Museum. The exhibits are old and tired, but there is a cool school house and caboose that you can walk through. The caboose was surprising in how they squeezed beds and living quarters around the mechanisms of the car. The town’s other attractions are the silos for Great Western Sugar (beets) and Purina (grain).
Driving north the Wyoming prairies impressed us with their beauty. Sometimes they were so green they were like giant versions of the moss gardens we’d seen in Japan. Like the moss gardens they’re accented, sometimes with limestone outcroppings, sometimes with giant purple thistles, or herds of cattle. It was unpopulated, but not unsettled. The approach into the Black Hills was not stark, but a gradual change into forest, and then pine forest.
Our first impression of Mount Rushmore was that it was a giant parking deck and visitor’s center. It’s well organized to herd you onto the central flag-bedecked walkway, with the presidents at the end like an altar. We rushed to beat the crowd in the cafeteria (run by Xanterra, okay, good fudge), then took the mandatory photos. Walked the easy Presidential Trail at the base of the mountain, and saw the Gutzon Borglum studios at the east end. To be honest, the Black Hills would be just as beautiful without any carving in them at all, like the Smokies or Ozarks. But would we be here if there was no monument?
How to see the Black Hills? 1920’s South Dakota Governor and Senator Peter Norbeck helped create a set of auto roads that twist through them. The turns and grades are complex; frequently the road twists back over itself in a bridge called a pigtail, or runs through a short tunnel framing Rushmore. Not a lot of pullouts, but breathtaking climbs, vistas, and descents. The experience was like a luxury car commercial. Michael loves that kind of driving. We followed Iron Mountain Road on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway south to the CCC-built Peter Norbeck Visitor’s Center. That leads directly to Custer State Park, whose Wildlife Loop Road is designed to give optimal chances of seeing the bison herd. No sightings, but probably because we were reluctant to take our rental Nissan onto the dirt roads where they were rumored to be. We did get to stop in a herd of burros who have been begging from tourists for decades. Also an extensive and cool prairie dog village. Lots of driving for few wildlife sightings, but afternoon is probably the wrong time of day to do this.
We continued up the Scenic Byway to the Crazy Horse Memorial. From the Lakota perspective, Norbeck’s encouragement of Black Hills tourism with Mt. Rushmore and the Byway was the final insult. In 1948 the tribes commissioned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a tribute to their leader Crazy Horse. Unlike Rushmore, which was declared finished when money ran out and just the heads (instead of the full bodies planned) had been carved, Crazy Horse is still in progress, proceeding as a fully rounded statue of the subject and his horse. Right now the face and part of the arm are complete, and work continues. Ziolkowski has passed on, but his children continue the project with Lakota funding. Museum exhibits on tribes, Crazy Horse, the sculptor and the carving give a more rounded look at the project. We enjoyed a demonstration of native dance and feasted on buffalo steak and stew in the café.
Back on the Peter Norbeck Byway we saw wild turkeys, mule deer, and more prairie dogs on our way south to Wind Cave National Park. This is a two-fer: the cave itself is one of the world’s most extensive, and the landscape above is a wildlife sanctuary. We took the guided Natural Entrance tour, highly recommended. The original entrance was less than a foot across, and the difference in air pressure between the outside and the cave led to a continuous breeze that gave the cave its name. A short walk from the Visitor’s Center takes you there, and then a bit further on to an air lock door designed to keep wildlife out. Most of the path and stairs are concrete, humped in by CCC workers using inner tubes draped on their shoulders. The cave system is not currently being created; it resulted from changes in the water table as the mountains rose centuries ago. So, unlike most caves you can tour, it is a dry cave: no stalactites or stalagmites. Not dramatically colored, but unique for its extensive boxwork. What happened was that the land would rise, streams carved out tunnels, and then the water table shifted again so the tunnels flooded. That allowed the sitting water to dissolve the limestone in the ceiling. When it drained it left box-like structures of harder stones that had formed in cracks of the limestone. Makes you believe in a patient God. The Natural Entrance Tour has lots of steps, but most of them downhill, ending at an elevator that takes you right back to the Visitor’s Center. My kind of nature!
We got lunch at a Taco John’s in Hot Springs, then bypassed the Black Hills on the east via the highway to Rapid City. Their Dahl Fine Arts Center is one of the few art museums in this part of the country, but we didn’t see it, as they close on Sunday. Really? Instead we walked the streets of this small regional center, lines with life-sized bronzes of all of our presidents. Prairie Edge Trading Company has a great selection of Pendleton blankets, books, and Western clothes. Also extensive Native American crafts and the supplies to make them, including the entire inventory of a closed Venetian company that made glass beads. Beautifully displayed.
The Journey Museum shows astronomy, geology, dinosaurs, Native American anthropology, and American history. It’s a fairly new facility, attempting to combine the science, nature, and cultures that come together in South Dakota. It depends a lot on live interpreters to make it flow, and sadly we got off to a bad start with an intern in the planetarium who didn’t know his script. I suspect it would be a great experience, though, with the right staff and audience. The people were nice; Michael was thrilled to get four homemade cookies for a dollar in the shop.
Driving back to Hill City on Route 16 we realized why the Byway routes were protected. A continuous stream of motels and tourist traps lined the road, from Splash Plaza to Bear Country, Reptile World to (my personal favorite) an odd recreation of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as a ten-story spire housing a wax model of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, as painted by John Trumbull. It’s easier to see the original in the Capitol down Pennsylvania from our apartment. We were cruising by, but pulled into Prairie Berry Winery: a trap for tourists like us <smile>? They had a nice tasting of five of their wines. Mainly fruit-based, and too sweet, but we picked up a bottle of red that was uniquely local and not bad.
We had dinner at the diner-like Hill City Café, chicken and chicken-fried steak, then drove back to Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony. In this as in most things, Crazy Horse and Rushmore compete. Crazy Horse’s lighting ceremony involves lasers, color, and the history of the Lakota. We passed this up for Rushmore’s, mainly because our parking permit from the previous day was still good so we got in for free. This gave us a chance to explore some of the education galleries we’d skipped, and a pleasant sit in the amphitheater before the Memorial as the sun went down. The show is very low key, a reading of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” by a Park Ranger, recognition of active military and veterans in the audience, then the lighting of the faces. Simple, but dignified.
Driving east to Wall, South Dakota, on Interstate 90 we saw a white-tailed deer and plenty of cattle and horses. We descended from the forests of the hills onto rolling green plains. The National Grasslands Visitor’s Center does a good job interpreting the prairies we’d been driving through. A block away is the main attraction, Wall Drug. This started as a drug store luring tourists in by advertising Free Ice Water. Like South of the Border in South Carolina and Sea Shell World in Florida, it is one of America’s great road trip stops. Tschotchkes, Western wear, restaurants, bookstore, audio-animatronic statues like an evil Disney World. Surprisingly, most of the staff were from other countries. We bought Sioux Pottery from a woman originally from Macedonia and toys from a gentleman who was from Barcelona.
Driving south from Wall on 240 you cross grasslands to the west entrance of Badlands National Park. Breathtaking, like a pale Grand Canyon that opens directly out of bright green grasses. The Badlands are part of “the wall”, a geological formation that runs across South Dakota separating higher plains from lower at the White River. We ended where most tourists begin, at the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center.
Then we had a mini-food crisis: where were we going to get lunch? We could have eaten at Wall Drug, but that would have been way too early and was now two hours away. We realized we were far from any settlements that had food service. Fortunately, and probably not coincidentally, just outside the Park is Cedar Pass Lodge. We got a Sioux taco, buffalo chili dogs, and peach kuchen (State Dessert of South Dakota!)
Driving back up to Interstate 90 we got gas and realized we were at the U.S. Missile Command National Historic Site. It looked like a grey military shed to us, we kept driving east to Kadoka and south to US 20. The yellow-green of South Dakota changed almost at the state border to the shallow green Sand Hills of Nebraska. These sand dunes have been stabilized over millennia into outstanding grazing. The roads were so straight and empty that we cut half an hour off our GPS’s predicted 4 hour drive to Alliance.
Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge made of vintage American cars, painted grey to evoke the Pictish spirit. Also on site are other sculptures made of cars. Not an artistic triumph, but a fun place to stop halfway between Mt. Rushmore and Denver. The town of Alliance has recently purchased Carhenge from the creators, so it will live on to greet future tourists.
Due south on Nebraska’s straight country roads is Chimney Rock National Historic Site in Bayard. Run by the Nebraska State Historical Society, this is a cone of red sandstone topped by a tower of the same. Sitting just south of the Oregon Trail, it was the landmark that told pioneers the easy part was over, and they were approaching the mountains. Not a lot to do once you photograph the monolith in the distance, but a nice interpretive center and shop.
South and west of Chimney Rock are Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Bridgeport. We drove past. Also passed on the Cabela’s World Headquarters in Sidney – no hunting equipment for us! What does it say about Nebraska’s self-image that there are no welcome centers at either the northern or southern borders of the panhandle? An hour later we picked up Interstate 76 in Colorado and headed back into Denver.
Denver’s Capitol Hill had intrigued us, so we did a walk-around. Lots of pseudo biker bars and places that thought taking design tips from Duck Dynasty made them cool. We were disappointed that the retail has been replaced by nightlife. Sort of a Western version of Adams Morgan’s bar stretch. The housing is amazing, 1910 bungalows interspersed with Deco and Moderne apartment complexes. If you go, avoid the retail stretches in favor of the residential streets.
Overall we were impressed with the courtesy and friendliness of the people we met. The prairie is amazingly varied: golden, green, hilly, sandy, broken by limestone and broken by the plow. Lots of pasture and corn, and when you saw a pump it was more likely to be bringing up water from the aquifer than oil from a reserve. It’s dry; we were sneezing blood pretty early on and throughout the trip. The sun was amazing, the altitude makes a difference, and the only precipitation we saw was across the plains miles away. Food is not the point of this trip, but the land is something you should see.
So, two months went by. The IRS sent Michael back to Denver to complete his training. Same hotel in dismal exurban Aurora. The last day of class I flew out, and buzzed him from the shuttle to find out which room I should be sneaking into. On the phone he croaked “I failed. I failed.” He’s a mess, depressed, but also bruised and scraped up, like he’s been in a fight. At an IRS training? He’s failed, and has to do the damn thing over again? Oh, God, no. “Failed” is Michael-ese for “fell”, in a team-building kickball session. They foolishly gave him access to the training center’s medical supply cabinet, which he emptied: call if you need bandages and painkillers! He hurt, especially his rib cage, and it was difficult for him to turn his head, rise from a sitting position, or get out of bed, but over the course of the week he recovered. Why anyone has Feds in an athletic activity is beyond me. Best of all, instead of rallying around a fallen comrade, the group kept playing their game. THAT’s a successful team-building exercise!
We talked about heading to a hospital for x-rays, but Michael decided against it, and we headed up to Boulder. The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is in a renovated warehouse, but was between shows, a bust. Except, across the park was this cool structure in a rose garden covered in Central Asian tiles. It is a tea house given by their city sister in Tajikistan, run as a restaurant by the Three Leaves tea cooperative. Excellent curry soup, peanut noodles, pork-shoulder poblano, and tea-infused tres leches cake. All served with exotic, refreshing and delicious iced teas. Boulder grew on us from that positive start: we walked around Pearl Street Mall, maybe the only successful downtown where the main street was closed off for pedestrians. Funky retail serves both college and affluent shoppers, head shops, craft galleries, poster stores, leavened but not overwhelmed by restaurants with outside seating.
We drove down to the University of Colorado campus. The CU Art Museum is a small space that shows art well. The permanent collection is small, supplemented by contemporary exhibits. Not good ones, but they’re at least showing current art. We walked past PETA people attempting to make vegetarian converts of the students. Their van is covered with murals of factory chicken coops; we loved that for reasons I’m sure they would not have appreciated. The Henderson Natural History Museum is one of the great university science museums in the country. Two floors of fossils, contemporary art with a natural history bent, and the geological history of Colorado (a great intro to the next week’s travels).
Michael had no desire to go, but the Celestial Seasonings Tour is a major attraction of Boulder, so I dragged him up. We were shocked by how well it is done, an intro video, then tour of the factory floor and stock rooms. Herbs and aromatics from around the world put us in olfactory overdrive, especially the mint room where menthol is so powerful it brought us to tears. Most Celestial Seasonings product isn’t tea at all, but tissanes; it was set up in Boulder by 1970’s hippies hunting down and marketing herbal infusions from the Rockies. Who knew? Loved the use of packets of Sleepy Time as our entrance tickets, and the shop at the end with bottomless samples of tea. Leaving the factory we walked past a colony of groundhogs. Then, checking into the Holiday Inn Express of Loveland, were passed by a jackrabbit.
Loveland by daylight impressed us as an exurban Bethesda. In the center, though, beautifully sited in a park twisting through 1980’s mansions, is the Benson Sculpture Garden. This is jam-packed with the best pieces of twenty years of sculpture shows. It’s sort of the Thomas Kinkade school of sculpture, lots of bronze children playing and noble Native Americans looking at the sunset. Pretty, and well installed amongst ponds and marshes.
Our “E” ticket for the day was Rocky Mountain National Park. We picked up food at the Estes Park Safeway, then ascended into the Park proper. Beaver Meadows Visitors Center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Associates, and it shows, a great tribute. One could spend a week at Rocky Mountain, hiking, photographing, riding all-terrain vehicles. The same for most of the Parks we were about to explore. We did the geriatric route, driving through on paved paths and stopping where signed for photos. This method seemed wisest for Michael’s recovery and my heart disease. Trail Ridge Road is the highest-altitude paved stretch in the U.S. It goes west across and then south down through the Park, climbing to 12,000 feet. Pretty amazing, with brilliant vistas of aspen color, snow pack, and the different layers of geology and uplift that have made the Rockies. The colors of green firs, yellow aspens, and (presumably dead) grey-lavender trees were brilliant. We parked at a picnic area for our Safeway repast, founding the Corrupters of Wildlife. Did you know that jays, mockingbirds, and chipmunks love fried chicken? We are so not supposed to feed the wildlife, but they were clearly haunting the picnic area for same. At the Alpine Visitor’s Center, the highest part of the Road, we admired the low plants that survive above the timber line. Crossed the Continental Divide, and were glad to be descending closer to sea level. We never experienced bad altitude sickness, but were definitely a little light headed and having trouble breathing. Good thing we weren’t trying to do any real hiking. Later we discovered that the altitude would make it hard for us to sleep this week, and did crazy things to my blood sugars, but such is the challenge of the mountains.
Coming out of the Park we considered driving to Adams Falls near Grand Lake, but between altitude queasiness and late afternoon timing decided to wind the state roads to the Interstate and Glenwood Springs. The mountain drives, even outside of the Park, are incredible, frequently paralleling the Colorado River and the Union Pacific Railroad. The views are otherworldly, but most of the settlements, sadly, ugly, pre-fab buildings plopped without consideration of the natural beauty. Vail looks great even whipping through on I-70 and then through Vail Pass. The pass through Glenwood Canyon was even better; I’d not realized that we’d be on the Glenwood Canyon Viaduct, one of the last pieces of interstate highway built, on fantastic shelves cantilevered out from the canyon walls over the river. Wicked.
The only problem we experienced was the Colorado Department of Transportation. They have limited time to repair roads before the snow falls, and many of the passes are so narrow that there is no possibility for a detour. Still, we were exasperated by frequent traffic jams that arose out of nowhere and ended up being caused by a construction site, frequently one with no employees making progress. At least in Glenwood Canyon we had a view while we waited.
Glenwood Springs was a great place to stop. The springs were turned into a Victorian resort, now a giant swimming pool one can see from the many pedestrian bridges connecting parts of downtown above the Colorado River. We declined to pay the $16 admission, heading instead for Polanka, a Polish restaurant in the heart of the city. The best Polish food I’ve had since I left Chicago, kielbasa, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, pierogies, chicken schnitzel and broccoli, wrapping up with plum lekvar blintzes. Cooked by a grandmother and grandson in an unassuming enameled space that looks like a sub shop. Friendly and heart-stoppingly good.
The mountains mean that often the fastest (only?) way to drive somewhere is by seemingly backtracking. Getting to Aspen was like that, we turned southeast on Colorado 82 from Glenwood Springs, another of those approaches that made getting somewhere as beautiful as the destination itself. Aspen’s Saturday Market is right downtown, a combination of farmers and craft markets, with better quality craft than we are used to. One food vendor had a cool pepper roaster, where we saw the peppers tumbling in a cage over fire jets. A woman selling porcelain talked shop once we realized that porcelain and glass firing processes are similar; she gave us a lead on technology that may let us incorporate color photography in our glass.
Aspen is where we realized that not all ski towns are alike. Each one we visited was unique, with different configurations of lifts and trails heading into town, and a different population they appealed to. We started relating them to D.C. ‘burbs and neighborhoods. Aspen reminded us of Bethesda, or maybe even the Hamptons, with a similarly educated and affluent but significantly friendlier population. Their art museum just moved to a new Shigeru Ban-designed building. Ban is an architect whose work we’d wanted to see in Japan, but were unable to, having had to settle for a bamboo installation he did a few years ago at Kennedy Center. He specializes in structures, often temporary, based on inexpensive materials like paper tubes and engineered paper veneers. His Aspen Art Museum is a giant screen of woven wood-veneer-over-paper, covering more functional concrete and glass buildings. A glass staircase is both inside and outside, allowing public access to the views on the roof while providing the security and climate controls required of an art museum. It will be interesting to see how the cardboard tube benches withstand years of fat and dirty American tourists: maybe they’re designed so the paper tubes are switched out on a schedule? The shows were the best we were to see this week, work by Yves Klein, David Hammons, and Rosemarie Troekel, but the building was the premier attraction.
We got lunch at a mediocre meatball themed restaurant (like Bethesda, you have to pay a lot for unmemorable food). The downtown was incredibly vibrant, even in the off-season. Commenting on an aspen tree-lined stream running down the sidewalk, we were engaged by a woman gardening who was a former city councilor. Friendly, indeed. Vice-President Biden was rumored to be in town for a conference, but Aspen is big enough that we were able to co-exist without running into him, or even his security detail.
Back on I-70 to Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument. This is like a smaller Grand Canyon, more elevated than sunken into the ground. Rim Rock Drive is spectacular, with our favorite “stop here and take pictures” pullouts well marked and maintained, and without significant traffic competition. Lots of mountain bikers and hikers, including, as we drove out, a woman who looked like she belonged on Aspen’s sidewalks, not in the wilderness, with her hair done, a teacup poodle, and a tennis racket. Honestly? Not sure how she got where she was, but she made us credit the endurance of Coloradans. Or question their sanity.
Michael had greeted me with birthday gifts that morning in Glenwood Springs, and treated me to dinner this evening at the best restaurant in Grand Junction, “626 on Rood”. That is not damning with faint praise, it was incredible, able to compete with our good restaurants. Colorado viognier and tempranillo washed down Palisades peach caprese, roast vegetable salad, lamb chops, tenderloin with a porter reduction, and a chocolate “Marquis de Sade” for dessert. Over the bar, instead of sports, the TV’s showed slides from NY’s Museum of Modern Art. Lovely.
Our hotel, a Candlewood Suites, was across the street from the Museum of the West, a collection of trains and original frontier buildings. After Torrington, we skipped, but was cool to walk by.
The only downside of a Candlewood over a Holiday Inn Express is that you don’t get free breakfast. We treated ourselves to Del Taco before we headed west into Utah. The landscape gets drier and more Colorado Plateau-ish as you head west into Canyon Country. We drove into Moab around 11AM, stopped at Sweet Cravings for sandwiches, then continued west into Canyonlands National Park.
Moab sits between Arches and Canyonlands; Canyonlands itself is essentially three different Parks at the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Maze, to the southwest of the junction, is so remote that it is the domain of intrepid hikers and dirt bikes. Needles, to the southeast, is a little easier to get to, but still a two hour drive from Islands in the Sky, the closest to Moab.
We headed into Islands, which blew us away. The layers of plateau are similar to those downriver at the Grand Canyon, but less red and more yellow and grey. We had our picnic at Orange Cliffs Overlook. Just as we arrived, a thunderstorm swept in, so we abandoned our picnic shelter to finish eating in the car. We were able to watch, on a miniature scale, the rain form rivulets and streams that caused the same erosion that transformed the earth into the formations around us. We took a nap, and when we woke, the desert around us was trimmed with small ponds and greenery soaking up the rain. Very cool and beautiful. We continued our program of corrupting wildlife, sharing our cookie with an antelope squirrel as we watched rainbows form over the mesas and pinnacles. We drove south to Grandview Point, where the Green meets the Colorado, and then north to Upheaval Dome. The “moderate” hike to the crater’s edge was too long and difficult for us, we gave it a half hour then turned back. At Mesa Arch we had an incredible vista through the arch of the canyon rim. This walk was rated “easy”; we’d say it was “moderate”. Maybe these hikes were designed for people who are not nursing bruised ribs and heart conditions?
Had considered driving into Deadhorse Point, a Utah State Park next to Islands that is supposed to have the best views of where the rivers merge, but decided we’d done our outdoor activity for the day. Retreated to Moab, a charming supply town that was setting up for Gay Adventure Week the following weekend. Dinner at Fiesta Mexicana came on enormous platters, well prepared and inexpensive. Checking in at the Holiday Inn Express we were surprised to discover that they were fully booked. Good thing we’d reserved; unlike the ski resorts to the east, this was peak season for Moab, cool enough to see the Parks, but warm enough that snow would have been unusual. These were our hottest days, in the high 80’s, but daytime temps rarely got lower than the mid-70’s the entire trip. Like an extended summer – thanks, Karen, for the warning!
Arches National Park was immortalized by Edward Abbey, an author and environmental activist who commemorated his seasons working there as a ranger in “Desert Solitaire”. He would so hate the way we experienced the Park: from our car, stopping at viewing areas, on the well-mapped route. It is, even seen in our geriatric fashion, one of the most beautiful Parks in the system. Monoliths and balancing rocks and mesas and pinnacles. Oh, yeah, and natural arches, although to really see these you need to do some serious hiking. All of this in red limestone, often topped with white or grey caps. Walking to the vistas you pass over fields of “sliprock” accented with sparse vegetation and outcrops of Fool’s Gold. Gorgeous. We took our longest hike, up to Double Arch, a collapsed natural dome of red. Yesterday’s rains had washed out the access road to the most famous site, Delicate Arch, the one you usually see as logo of the Park. We turned around and tried the Devil’s Garden hike instead, bagging it before getting to the Landscape Arch viewpoint, but happy to have made it as far as we did. Balancing Rock, Petrified Sand Dunes, Three Gossips, Parade of Elephants: people have imposed their visions on the land, but it is inspiring even without their input to guide you.
We stopped off in town for lunch at a Szechuan buffet. Tons of international tourists were our companions in Moab, lots of Germans and English, and here, a bus group of mainland Chinese.
We’d been warned by our friends Brett and Ira that the drive to Needles seemed endless. We appreciated their warning, and also the fact that we’d saved Needles for last. The GPS took us only as far as the end of road maintained by Utah. There was at least another half hour of driving before we saw the Park entrance, and more until we got to the trails the Park Service recommends. The approach road, along Indian Creek, was stunning, a sampling of Colorado Plateau offerings. Trees line the river like an avenue through the desert. Mushroom-shaped formations, buttes, and vertical red-rock mesas sloping into millennia of eroded rip rap below. We never got to an overlook of the Needles themselves; the road the park ranger had recommended was too rough for our little Nissan Versa. Just outside the Park is Newspaper Rock, a wall of petroglyphs carved into desert varnish by ancient peoples – an easy walk, you can even see it from the car if you’re not overly curious, but worth parking and checking out.
Dinner back in Moab at Peace Tree Café, an excellent restaurant: burger, grilled cheese, quinoa salad.
This morning we started back to Denver. The mountains, again, forced us to backtrack to Grand Junction, but from there we headed southeast on U.S. 50. The land became less dry, and the foliage again stunning in autumn color as it turned into forest. Just east of Montrose is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This is among the tallest and narrowest canyons in the country, with the Gunnison River at the bottom. The rock strata carved out are dark grey with stripes of rose. There is a major discontinuity in the geologic record here, millions of years of rock were exposed and eroded away, so that these grey and rose layers are the oldest we were to see. To compare again to the Grand Canyon, it’s significantly narrower, and monochrome, but brilliant, especially where you can see the river below. We saw funky hissing beetles, more antelope squirrel, jays and ravens. East of the Park is Curecanti National Recreation Area, a series of reservoirs formed by damming the Gunnison River. Lots of boating and water sports, in the almost-desert. Highway 50 winds around the water beautifully.
We arrived in the town of Gunnison around 5PM. We were unimpressed, and took the road north to Crested Butte. Crested Butte is on the south slope of the same mountains from Aspen, but it would take you hours to connect them by road. A former mining settlement, C.B.’s claim to fame is the preservation it has taken of its historic architecture. When ski resorts wanted to develop here, the town forced them a half hour up the road so they didn’t have to look at the ski runs. This was our favorite town in Colorado, great art galleries, independent retail, restaurants, and people, all scenically settled into a hollow of the mountains. If this were D.C., it would be Adams Morgan/Dupont. Dinner was at Marchitelli’s, fried cheese Italian-style, roasted tomato salad, local sausage and steak pizzaiola. They must be making their own sausage, it was as good as my Dad’s. The couple at the next table, when they heard us chatting with the waiter, politely introduced themselves and shared their own experiences as long time retiree residents of the town. Very kind, knowledgeable, and proud of their home, pleased that we liked it, and neither nosy nor judgmental of our own possible retirement ideas.
We drove east through the Rockies, using several beautiful passes. Monarch Pass was the best and highest, at 11,312 feet, but Trout Creek, Wilkerson, and Ute Passes all stunning. Having learned to drive in flat Houston, Michael enjoys the switchback roads that get you up and down the mountains, but by Wilkerson even he was eager to return to level.
We stopped for a few hours in Colorado Springs. Garden of the Gods is a free city park on the outskirts of town. The land here jumbled a bunch of geological layers together, so you get almost a synopsis of the great Colorado Plateau National Parks: red pinnacles, grey mesas, buttes, mini-canyons. Is too big to walk, but almost too small to drive. Ideally, one would park and do a couple of the well mapped hikes or bike rides. We knew we had met our quota of natural attractions when we drove the loop, did the trading post, and hit the gas for our next destination. If you start here instead of end you would have an excellent introduction to the Plateau.
The Air Force Academy is just north of the city. Heading north on Interstate 25, use the exit for the North Entrance, not the South (although the nice guard at the South Entrance let us turn around and assured us it was a common mistake). This is the most sprawling university campus we have ever seen – hopefully the cadets are given jet packs, or at least roller skates, to get around. Designed in the late 1950’s by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, it lacks the character and color of Chicago’s IIT. Yes, we’ve seen IIT. The design clearly influenced corporate campuses in the 1960’s. Not a lot for visitors to see other than the Cadet Chapel, which has to be one of the best Modern religious interiors ever built. The exterior, eh, a lot of accordion-folded aluminum. The light through the stained glass, however, is brilliant bouncing off that same aluminum. Prots upstairs, Catholics in a cramped crypt below that, Jews, Moslems, and Buddhists somewhere that we could not find. It’s like the origin story of every modern church you have ever been in, the green aluminum Legg Egg of my childhood’s Sacred Heart of Waltham included.
Back on I-25, it was an easy hour’s drive back to Denver, where we pulled into the Aurora Radisson and returned the car. Next morning their shuttle took us to DIA for an uneventful flight to National.
Good and Bad of Colorado:
The sunshine is relentless. We’re not normally affected by too much good weather, but even we welcomed the clouds and rain the one day of storms gave us.
The altitude definitely made it hard for us to sleep, even at just the 5,000 feet of the foothills. Maybe even a little mentally loopy.
We got to see lots of cattle and horses, but most wildlife was small or airborne: chipmunks, squirrels, mockingbirds, ravens, jays. We’ll have to hit Woodley Park to catch bison, elk, big-horn sheep, and mountain goats.
The food in Colorado is generically American, but infinitely better than what we experienced on the Plains in the first part of this trip. Look out for steak, game, Palisades peaches, craft beers and local wines.
An incredibly beautiful area, everyone should try to see it at least once.