Yesterday started and ended beautifully. My morning began in Fort Collins, the lovely college town on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains where my son Rob has been working on his PhD in plant physiology for the past four years. He studies the impact of drought and changes in precipitation patterns on different species of grasses. In between publishing articles with titles like, “Trait selection and community weighting are key to understanding ecosystem responses to changing precipitation regimes”, in the journal “Functional Ecology,” Rob finds time to hike and camp and rock climb, and has a number of very cool friends. He also lives in a home with a monkey. Very cool kid. I am a very proud dad.
It was so great to have a few days together. Rob scoped out the most interesting route to get me over the Rockies, heading in the general direction of Salt Lake City and, eventually, San Francisco. The plan was to travel through the Poudre River Gorge, along the fast moving river that comes down the mountain and bisects Fort Collins.
He took me to a perfect spot, and after 15 minutes waiting under heavy clouds in perfect 80 degree temperature, Rick stopped. Rick is a master plumber on his way to a job up in the mountains about 30 miles in. Originally from California, he moved here looking for land where he could keep his horses. He’s 60 now, finds plenty of work here (since the crash of 2008 the Front Range has been a booming area for construction), and like a number of contractors whose pickup trucks I’ve ridden shotgun in, complains about how hard it is to find decent help. Now he prefers to work by himself.
Rick let me out near Mishawaka, a very cool music venue right on the edge of the river.
Rob had told me about this place, and Rick suggested that I go inside and check it out, which I was about to do when a Subaru Forrester stopped. It was Danica, a 24-year-old Forest Service employee working near Walden for the season. She was on her way back from her grandfather’s funeral in Cincinnati, and was greatly relieved to be back in the mountains. Cities are not her thing. She’s a Montana native, and loves the forest. She also loves dogs, growing up with a St. Bernard. It was her first time on this stretch of road, and we stopped two or tree times to walk around and take pictures while she filled me in on the varieties of pine and aspen that were all around us as we climbed through the Roosevelt National Forest (named for TR, not Franklin) toward the Continental Divide.
Danica was going to Walden, a town, she tells me, with two gas stations, one three lane bowling alley, one good pizza place and one bad pizza place. She dropped me off between the gas stations and the bowling alley, and after half an hour standing in a howling wind, Ron picked me up.
The word at the gas station was that the road out of town, Rt. 14, was shut down due to an accident. Multiple vehicles involved, at least one tractor trailer, an animal in the road, one report of a wildfire. No one could tell me where the accident was, and Ron hadn’t heard of it. He was trying to get back to Breckenridge from Wyoming, to help his daughter, studying in New York City, with some school-related financial issues. A three hour drive to help his kid out with paperwork she had left at home – that is a dedicated parent. I liked Ron already.
As we traveled west he grumbled about politics, noted how much the weather had changed in recent years, and pointed out a herd of elk grazing just to the north. I hope to write more about him in a later post.
There comes a point where 14 and 40 split, and I was looking to go north and west across Rabbit Ears toward Steamboat Springs.
Ron was looking to go south, and offered to take me with him, but that would have left me back on the Interstate. I was liking these mountain roads. When we reached the junction we found a police car blocking the road south.
Trooper Stevens-Mejia of the Colorado State Patrol was staffing the roadblock. He informed Ron that the road was closed due to a serious accident. A man named Long Tai Lam was driving an SUV when he wandered into the wrong lane and was killed by a semi truck coming down the mountain. The truck rolled over and burned, starting a brush fire. Miraculously the truck driver was unharmed, but Long Tai Lam (pictured below) did not survive. His obituary only said that he lived in Aurora, Colorado, but we don’t know if he has any family.
It looked for a minute that Mr. Long’s tragic passing and Ron’s relatively minor misfortune was going to be my deliverance. Ron was prepared to detour through Steamboat Springs, but as we turned in that direction the trooper’s radio crackled. He waved us over with news that the road had just opened. Ron and I parted ways, and I found myself staring at a steep climb up toward Rabbit Ears Pass, straight up on a mountain highway. The trooper, a man I judged to be in his late twenties, then surprised me by offering me a ride. I understood him to say that he could take me to Steamboat, but I was mistaken.
Then he asked for my license, and ran a check for warrants. I think this is the third such check in my two weeks plus, and so far all traces of my nefarious past appear to have been scrubbed from the official record, because Officer Stevens-Mejias, who has spent time in New York State and has fond memories of Catskill summers, politely returned my license pronouncing it clean.
“Now in order to put you in the car I have to search you and cuff you.”
I looked around at the fast moving clouds, and the aptly named Rabbit Ears Pass towering above me, and after calculating my chances of getting a ride before the sun set in a vehicle that did not have protective glass in front of the back seat, I took the deal. The officer put my backpack in the car.
What followed was a ritual that you may have seen on the TV. I know some of you have experienced it yourself. I removed a lot of objects from a lot of pockets, promised that I had no weapons, then remembered the pocket knife in my pack and fessed up. I then raised my arms, spread my legs and submitted to a thorough search from head to toe. When that was concluded, out came the cuffs (he did cuff me in front, which was a relief). Once cuffed, I climbed into the car, Officer Stevens-Mejia buckled me in, and away we went. He asked me what type of music I liked and if the AC was comfortable. (The temp was fine and he had no Springsteen).
He drove me a good ten miles up the road, and along the way I noticed that we were crossing the Continental Divide. Every rain drop that falls east of here rolls toward the Platte River, those landing from here on west they make their way to the Colorado. At a wide spot in the road, near the line separating Grand County from Routt County, he let me out. He indicated that there was a truck stop about three miles up the road (there was not).
There was nothing here but elk and moose, clouds, about an hour of daylight, and me.
I thanked the officer, and he gave me a card with a number to call if I got in any trouble. He uncuffed me, and then asked me to call the number on the card to give him a review. I did not know that they had Yelp for law enforcement, but I took the card. We parted ways and I hoisted my pack and started walking west. It was an absolutely gorgeous setting. Beneath the trees a good foot or two of snowpack remained in places where the spring sunshine had yet to penetrate. Peaks covered in snow, some of them as high as 10,000 feet, were all around.
At this point I was grateful to know what it is to train for a marathon, because I was still 15 miles from Steamboat, and there was no sign of a truck stop, an intersection, or any other signs of human habitation. I felt awe at this desolate scene of beauty beyond description, but it was a bit of work to keep anxiety from rising. I walked at a good clip, better than four miles an hour I would guess, and as I did, I scouted the woods for places that would make a good spot to hang my (yet unused) hammock.
I walked three miles through those mountains before Naz, a 69-year-old retired teacher, picked me up and took me to Steamboat Springs. Tomorrow I will write more about her and the other fascinating folks who helped me today. For now I will leave you with the two questions that kept running through my head as I walked.
The first was practical – I wonder if I can walk all the way to Steamboat, even in the dark?
The second has probably occurred to you already, as it must to any sentient being living in the US in 2018 – how would this have played out if I were a black man?