Friday, May 31, 2024

Second honeymoon, Day 9

After our second night in Gunnison, we woke up early and packed our suitcases. It was Sunday morning and we seriously thought about hanging around and attending church, but since we were packed by 7 am and the church service didn't start until 10:30 am, it meant we would lose half a day of travel; so we gave up the idea and hit the road.

And what a road. We traveled east on Hwy 50 – about the only road east out of Gunnison – and soon thereafter hit snow (and saw some elk).

We had hopes to interview a small farming family in the town of Salida (which didn't work out), but first we had to get there. And to get there, we had to cross the Monarch Pass, elevation 11,312 ft.

The snow grew heavier, but it wasn't yet sticking to the road – and the rental car had all-wheel drive – so we took our chances and kept going.

It was indisputably pretty, though.

While the driving conditions look ominous, it actually wasn't that bad.

Soon we found ourselves a couple vehicles behind a truck ... and the truck was going s-l-o-w. Who could blame him?

So we crept up the road at between 11 and 8 mph. Frankly I wasn't arguing. In these conditions, slow is good.

Some vehicles piled up behind us, but I was pleased no one seemed inclined to do anything foolish, like attempt to pass the truck on this curvy a road in these conditions.

Soon enough we crested the summit, there was a passing lane, and everything untangled.

Spring in the Colorado Rockies!

We made it into Salida. Fortunately the interview we hoped to have with a small farm in the area didn't pan out, because it was still snowing heavily. We stopped for brunch at what seemed like the only open restaurant, then continued on toward Cañon City.

Soon enough we dropped below the snow line and made our way through some rocky areas along the Arkansas River.

We flirted with the idea of heading north to Cripple Creek, but I knew that town was tucked high in the mountains and we didn't want to risk it. Instead we took a short detour off Hwy 50 just before Cañon City to view the Royal Gorge.

This is a tremendous pedestrian bridge nearly 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River, the highest suspension bridge on the country. There were a number of exciting ways to view things: by foot (on the bridge), by tram, even by zipline. However it cost $30 apiece to walk the bridge (more for package deals including zipline, tram, etc.), so we contented ourselves with viewing the jaw-dropping beauty of the gorge from the side.

Here's a tram crossing over.

What a dramatic way to cross!

Here are some pedestrians on the bridge. Must be a heckuva view.

Across the canyon was one of those giganto swings that swung people over the lip of the canyon. Um, nope.

We left Royal Gorge and continued toward Cañon City. You can see in the distance things are becoming flatter as we left the mountains.

Our goal at this point was to avoid Denver at all costs. With the mountains to the west off limits due to weather, we opted to skirt the metropolis by going east toward the plains.

Toward this end, a few miles outside Cañon City, we hooked north on Hwy. 115 toward Colorado Springs, again with the idea of skirting around it. The land took on the prairie look of Eastern Colorado. Rain threatened on the horizon.

Just touching on the bottom of Colorado Springs, we took Hwy 24 northeast toward the town of Linon. What little we saw of Colorado Springs was dominated by military bases and housing, but we made no stops except once for gas.

The eastern plains of the state were surprisingly beautiful, with broad rolling vistas. Having lived for so many years on the edge of the Palouse, I liked it.

We passed through Limon, then headed north on Road 71. Lots of windmills...

...and the occasional huge cattle operation.

At one point we did something kinda magical: We stopped by the side of the deserted road, and got out of the car. Why? Because we wanted to ... listen.

We listened and heard wind, frogs, crickets, and meadowlarks. It was lovely.

I did see this bird flutter to the ground. In fact I saw a similar bird in several other locations over the next few days, always fluttering on the ground. It almost looked like a meadowlark, but without the yellow. Anyone know what it is?

We fetched up for the night in Brush, Colorado. The motel we stayed in was run by an (East) Indian family with the cutest toddler you ever saw (I think his name was Elijah).

We had dinner in an almost-deserted Indian restaurant next door – something of a culinary novelty, and very tasty – and retired to our room for the night. The next few days would bring less landscape drama, we knew, but we were curious what we would see.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Second honeymoon, Day 8

So there we were, holed up for two nights in Gunnison. I had to work my online job on Saturday, so Don kinda bounced around, a little bored.

The reason we were in Gunnison, however, is he had a beloved aunt and uncle who spent many years living in that pretty town. They've long since passed away, but he has fond memories of visiting their home. He did some online research, trying to remember where their house might be. He couldn't find the house, but – unexpectedly – he found their graves. More remarkably, the cemetery was located – literally – right next to the motel in which we were staying!

So while I worked, he went to pay his respects to his Uncle Carol and Aunt Jeanne.

His Uncle Carol died in 1978, long before I met Don, but I remember his Aunt Jeanne very well. She was a world traveler and an extraordinarily sweet and kind woman. Later in the afternoon, after I finished work, we both returned to the cemetery so I could see where they rested.

We spent the late afternoon exploring the town. The college graduation had occurred a week or two earlier, so the town had something of an empty feel to it. Still, the parts we saw were tidy and charming – and not without a sense of humor.

We went into an extraordinary thrift store – more of a consignment store, really – and spent a happy hour exploring everything from the classy to the quirky.

Afterward we went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner which was cheerful and with great food. We did notice a family there before us, though, where they didn't do too great a job in keeping their kids under control. Oh well, it takes all kinds.

And this, dear readers, was all we did on Saturday. Our Sunday – Day 10 of our trip – was a bit more exciting. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Second honeymoon, Day 7

Friday morning, we left Blanding and headed north on Hwy. 191 until we came to Monticello, where we turned east on Hwy. 491. We were leaving the canyonlands behind and seeing high snow-peaked mountains in the distance. We crossed into Colorado.

From Hwy. 491, we hooked north on Hwy. 141, just to see what we might see.

For the first 15 miles or so, the road was mostly straight and passed through scattered farms and ranches.

Then abruptly the road started winding and twisting down a steep incline. From the photo below, you can see where the road suddenly drops off.

It was harsh land, dry and scrubby.

At one point, halfway down the grade, I needed to stop and "water a bush." You can see how dry the land is.

I had to be careful which "bush" to use. Some could have been painful.

Continuing on our way, the road got even more windy as we neared the valley floor.

Finally we reached bottom and traveled across a huge flat valley.

The highway ended with a junction at Hwy. 145. We turned left, seeking a place to have brunch, and decided to see what the town of Nucla had to offer.

Nucla only has about 600 people. Its name derived from its intent to be a "nucleus" for the surrounding area, then later became associated with the growth of uranium mining. Regardless, it was a very nice little town, though we were startled to see several marijuana dispensaries, which seemed odd in a town this small. Marijuana is legal in Colorado, so I guess any excuse will do.

We had brunch at Blondie's Drive-In and Cafe. While they couldn't apostrophe the name on the sign, the diner had a cute retro-50s look and the service was wonderful. So was the food.

We backtracked from Nucla and headed southeast on Hwy. 145. We started dodging rain clouds. The land became more agricultural.

The road dropped us into the San Miguel River Canyon. It was steep and damp and rather peaceful as we got out to stretch our legs and change drivers.

This was, a sign informed us, the Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic Byway.

Our destination for the night was Gunnison, where we had made reservations at a motel for two nights (more on that later). But impulsively – remember, the whole purpose of this trip was to be impulsive – we decided to bypass the junction at Placerville to cross the mountains and continue on Hwy. 145 to pay a visit to Telluride, the famously well-heeled ski resort. Placerville itself – with all of about 350 people – had an interesting-looking general store we planned to stop in on the way back.

And so we started climbing into the mountains, occasionally driving through rain. We began glimpsing peaks of the High Rockies, specifically the San Juan Mountains.

We were on something called the San Juan Skyway, a scenic road that hit a number of historic places, including Telluride.

We approached the town under swollen skies through a maze of roadwork. Doubtless the highway crews needed to get road work done while they could, since I imagine they're snowed in much of the year.

Telluride, as you can imagine, was gorgeously beautiful and well-preserved. It's not a large town (about 2600) but exquisite. We found a parking spot in a residential area below the main downtown section and got out to walk.

Because of the slight uphill climb, Don was wheezing in the thin air (Telluride sits at about 8700 feet in elevation). He was also developing a bad headache. Therefore it was with some amusement that we spotted a business called an oxygen lounge.

We decided to poke through a thrift store. Thrift stores in ritzy areas are often a lot of fun. Sequenced high-heel boots, anyone?

It was while we were poking around this store, however, that Don looked outside and saw it was snowing heavily. Coupled with his physical reaction to the high altitude, it was all the incentive we needed to leave, even after so brief a visit. Our rental car was a sturdy beast, but we weren't sure how it would handle snow.

So we left. I turned and snapped a photo of the thrift store through the snowflakes after we crossed the street.

We needn't have panicked. The snow flurry was just that – a flurry – but since Don really wasn't feeling well, we had no problems leaving Telluride behind us. We compensated by driving a bit further into the downtown, then poking around the side streets.

On the side roads, every home was modest-but-gorgeous, and we speculated each one must cost a kazillion dollars. Ironically, we picked up a local newspaper and found businesses were begging for employees, mostly in the service industry. Which begs the question, where do service workers live? Not in Telluride, not with those housing prices.

The scenery coming out of town was almost as stunning.

We saw a herd of elk on the outskirts of town.

As mentioned, we stopped at the Placerville General Store on the way back. We fully anticipated it would be full of tourist tat.

In fact, it wasn't. It was an honest-to-goodness general store. It had a solid selection of groceries, a deli, some clothing, and a variety of household goods. A real general store! We were tickled.

Don asked one of the clerks where the service people who worked in Telluride lived. She said many of them commuted from very long distances, even as far away as Redvale and Norwood on the valley floor (we had passed through these small towns after our brunch in Nucla). It must be an insane drive in winter weather conditions.

From Placerville, we headed east on Hwy. 62 over the Dallas Divide (elevation 8970 ft.) toward Ridgeway. Spring had not yet arrived at these elevations.

Snow and rain still threatened.

Once over the pass, we hooked north on Hwy. 550 into Montrose. I don't know why we thought Montrose would be a modest town, but in fact it was a good-sized city of 20,000 or so. Don was driving and his "poliphobia" immediately kicked in, and he pulled into a parking lot so I could get behind the wheel.

From Montrose, we headed east on Hwy. 50 toward Gunnison. Almost immediately we saw dire warning signs that the road to Gunnison was closed except for some very specific times. Closed? What should we do?

We had made reservations for two nights in Gunnison, and canceling those reservations on such short notice would mean we'd still have to pay for the first night (as was explained on the hotel's website). Forfeiting that amount of money jarred the cheapskates within us. We called ahead to the hotel, and the clerk explained about the specific hours for getting into town. It seemed peculiar and arbitrary, but we decided to forge ahead.

It's a good thing we did, because a few miles down the road we passed a superb enterprise called the Museum of the Mountain West. As with the Once Upon a Time in America Museum, we impulsively pulled into the almost-deserted parking lot.

Well, it was superb. The grounds were scattered with many buildings that had been transported from Montrose and other locations by the museum docents, to prevent them from being torn down. Each building was set up according to its original purpose: schoolhouse, blacksmith, saloon, general store, etc. Visitors were urged to take the self-guided tour and explore the buildings.

The detail with which these old buildings had been moved and preserved was impressive.

Inside the main building, a docent showed us around a re-creation of a town, complete with  a drug store, dry-good store, doctor's office, dentist's office (the latter two of which made us profoundly grateful for modern medicine), saloon, etc.

This museum was the brainchild of a venerable gentleman named Richard Fike, who was on hand to tell some tales.

This museum was well worth the stop. If you ever find yourself near Montrose, soak it in.

Satisfied with the discovery of yet another excellent roadside attraction, we proceeded down Hwy. 50 toward Gunnison, still concerned about the road closure. We came across the tiny hamlet of Cimarron, and stopped in to see if they had any more information.

The man working there did indeed have information. Apparently there was a peculiar set of rules for crossing into Gunnison during the closure, in which travelers would be allowed access at 7 am and 7 pm for a half-hour window.

At the time we heard this, it was only about two o'clock. "What are we going to do for five hours?" I wondered rhetorically.

Surprisingly, the man had an answer. He told us about the Cimarron River Railroad Exhibit, the road of which was just a few hundred yards from the store. Pleased, Don and I made a few purchases and went on our way. We found the road easily.

Following the signage, we wound into an astoundingly steep-sided canyon for less than a mile.

The road opened up and we saw an engine, coal car, box car, and caboose on display along a specially built trestle spanning the Cimarron River.

What an unexpected surprise! We had the place to ourselves. It was as nice a place as any to kill some time, so we broke out the ice chest, had ourselves a frugal meal, and enjoyed the solitude. Periodically a car drove through and went further up the road. We speculated they were employees of a power station, but we learned later there was also a trailhead further up, as well as the Morrow Point Dam.

Apparently this exhibit was the remains of a narrow-gauge railroad built to accommodate both passengers and freight between Gunnison and Montrose.

Portions of the engine had been smashed.

Looking up, it wasn't hard to see why. Rocks must come tumbling down those cliffsides all the time.

We lingered for about an hour here, just enjoying the surroundings, before retreating back down the canyon to Hwy. 50.

We climbed higher into the mountains. The landscape still had the bleak look of early spring.

We crossed a small bridge – remember that – over an arm of the reservoir created by the Blue Mesa Dam, then finally came to Dillon Pinnacles Vista Point, where traffic was stopped.

There were a few vehicles ahead of us – we were seventh in line – and there we sat for three hours. At least the scenery was nice.

Don took a nap. I read a book. And still we had time to kill. Don went over and talked to one of the road workers to find why the road was closed.

The culprit, it turns out, is this span crossing the reservoir. Apparently engineers discovered it was structurally unsound and immediately closed it to traffic, which was being rerouted along a remote county road. It was likely to stay this way for another year or two. It was such a serious situation that the feds took over the project, rather than the state.

It was a staggeringly inconvenient situation not just for Gunnison, but for any through travelers, including endless delivery vehicles. And here's the thing: the earlier bridge we crossed was also structurally suspect, and may have to be closed for repairs as well.

Gunnison depends on tourism as much as it depends on its students (it's the home of Western Colorado University), so a road closure of this magnitude is severe. According to this article, "The closure necessitated highway detours to the north and south that added six to seven hours for trips to and from Montrose. Normally the drive is about 75 minutes." [Emphasis added.]

So the hours ticked by, and the traffic piled up behind us. Idly, Don and I walked along the road at one point and counted nearly a hundred vehicles in line, and of course more and more came in after we walked back to our car. Take note of the pickup truck towing the long white trailer on the left. This rig was about two vehicles behind us.

Finally, promptly at 7 pm, a pilot car took off down County Road 26, and we all swung behind it to follow.

This detour was at least 12 or 15 miles, down a gravel road. While it was very interesting to see the remote farms and ranches along this route – and clearly the highway department had graded and improved the road to accommodate the unexpected traffic – we suspected the locals weren't pleased with the comparatively heavy volumes of vehicles suddenly in their backyards.

A couple miles into this detour, we suddenly realized there were only two other cars behind us. What happened to those 100+ vehicles that had been in line???

We speculated that something happened with the pickup truck hauling that long white trailer. Of course we have no way of knowing whether the issue was too rough of a road, or engine problems, or a flat tire, or anything else; but man, he was holding up a hundred other frazzled drivers. We didn't envy him.

Finally, just before 9 pm, we fetched up to our home for the next two nights: The Inn at Tomichi Village. The check-in clerk was clearly experienced with weary travelers from the detour. She was kind and friendly and helpful.

The room was just lovely.

There was even a rubber duck on the edge of the bathtub, which we thought was a nice touch.

Don and I went out and got pizza from Domino's Pizza in town, which turned out to be one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten (or maybe we were just very hungry).

At any rate, since I had to work (remotely) the next day, this room would be our home until Sunday morning. We retired to bed, reminding ourselves that even inconvenient road closures are part of the adventure of traveling.