As we tick off the days of Lockdown 2020, I thought I’d share some thoughts about and pictures from my trip last year to Vail, Colorado for the wedding of a family member. I’m sure many of us are aching to hit the road as we look through old photographs and think about the places we’ve been and the places we plan on going. I hope you and your families are healthy and making the most of a terrible situation.
Last fall on a drive west, I queued up Desert Solitaire on Bookmobile and journeyed with Ed Abbey through late 1960s southern Utah, specifically Arches National Park, during one of his seasons as ranger there. At that time, it was a mere (and undoubtedly more enchanting) shadow of its now heavily-trafficked self. In 2018 1.7 million people tramped its red dirt paths and, I’m guessing, took copious amounts of selfies in front of its rock fins, natural bridges, hoodoos, and spires. That’s versus the 136,000 hardy souls who made the pilgrimage in 1968 when Desert Solitaire was first published.
It wasn’t red rock I was literally driving through that September day, but prairie. Flinty, fossil-rich hills covered with thin layers of dirt; the grass burned to gold in the late summer sun. Ed and I steered the car east, then north and then east again; our destination 623 miles away and 4,570 feet higher than my home in Oklahoma.
My destination was Colorado, but I had to get through Kansas first. For most travelers, Kansas is a top contender for Most Boring Drive in the U.S. because of its flat and grassed over monotony. But I like it. The vertically-challenged sameness has grown on me. I like its lack of pretension, its low population density, the cleanness. It appeals to the part of me that likes uncluttered, sparse and spare places. Kansas feels freshly scrubbed and looks like a sturdy, nubby cloth that has become butter-soft from repeated washings.
Somewhere between Wichita and Hays with towering white windmills dotting the hills, a flickering memory of my deceased brother hit me like a punch to the stomach. Before that moment I had no conscious association of him and the plains of Kansas, but there must have been something in the landscape that called him to mind. In the next instant, however, I saw a group of brown cows standing in a very small and shallow pond. It was an exceptionally hot day and they’d all crowded in together, each trying to stake out a small bit of cool. Their placid stoicism made me smile and the sad memory evaporated.
Wrong Town, Wrong Museum
In Oakley I stopped at the Fick Fossil Museum. I had a memory from the early 1990s of visiting this place and staring in wonder at the fish-in-a-fish fossil. But the building, when I pulled up, sparked not a glimmer of recognition and when I walked in the door, I knew that I’d “returned” to the wrong place. Nevertheless, feeling guilty for my error, I soldiered on. I signed the guest book and pushed a dollar into the clear fingerprint-smeared plexiglass donation box. Inside were only a few dimes and nickels.
There was no fish-in-a-fish fossil at the museum, of course, but there was a large fossil of a spiny, finny creature curved into a slight U-shape. I dutifully toured the whole place, peering into glass cabinets filled with the detritus of a different age, and studying old photographs of long-gone rail stations. After I returned to my truck, I remembered that there was another fossil museum, closer to Hays, that was the home of the famous fossil. It would have to wait for another Kansas crossing.
Back: Monument Rocks, Kansas
On my way back from Colorado, I turned the car south at Oakley, passing by a giant Buffalo Bill sculpture. Bill and the buffalo are frozen in action with Bill perpetually about to shoot the giant beast, the buffalo forever running just ahead of the long gun pointing at its head. My destination: Monument Rocks. A few twists and turns led me to seven dusty miles on a dirt road that was lined with deep red sorghum and browning corn. Some fields were nothing but cornstalk rubble. Suddenly, I saw the pale yellow formations rising incongruously from the sage-colored plains. Stopping about a half mile off, I took a photo of the whole grouping. I could see a herd of cows grazing near the rocks and the glint of a car window. A few minutes later, I pulled up and parked, happy to see the only other visitors get in their car and leave. I prefer not to share my National Monuments.
About 66 million years ago, what we call Kansas (as well as surrounding areas) was deep under water. Called the Western Interior Seaway or Cretaceous Seaway, this body of water stretched from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. It was warm, brackish and filled with varied marine life such as giant clams and mosasaurs. At its pinnacle it was 600 miles wide, 2,000 miles long with a depth of 2,500 feet. Over time, soft chalk and limestone sediment settled at the bottom of this sea, rising to several hundred feet in height. (The rocks are about 70 feet high.) Exposed now to the elements, the soft rocks are spared from total destruction by a hardier, crusty layer at the top of the formations. Monument Rocks is on private property, but the owner graciously allows J. Q. Public to poke around without supervision.
The bare dirt around the formations was heavily marked with tire tracks, cow droppings and human footprints that looked like fleeting fossils pressed into the gray dust. It was hot, but not unbearably so and I climbed around taking an inordinate number of photographs. As I moved among the rocks, flocks of grasshoppers pinged around me, the snap-snap of their wings sounding like breaking twigs. Up close the rock is textured with seams and bumps and crusty blobs – no doubt the remains of those long dead sea creatures.
There are two distinct formations with a road separating them. There are small “windows” and chimney-shaped rocks, an arch. It’s as if a very small piece of southern Utah had been dropped onto a farmer’s field and left to bake in the sun until bleached the color of saltine crackers.
After walking around for about an hour and a quick lunch, I took a slightly different route back to the highway. It was like riding over ribs. A rust-colored plume of dust marked my passage down the empty road. As I made my way back through the wide fields, killdeer flew low and dangerously close to the grill of my truck.
Back: I-70, Heading East; Hays & Victoria, Kansas
About 10 miles outside of my stop for the night, I saw a police officer standing on the side of the road, staring into the shattered wreck of a car. It was nearly unidentifiable it was in such tatters. There was no ambulance yet, only patrol cars and a fire engine. I can’t imagine anyone coming out of that car alive.
As I continued eastward, the sunflowers disappeared from the roadsides. Sorghum gave way to soybeans as I turned south and neared the Oklahoma border.
Kansas melted seamlessly into Colorado, at least until the road began its subtle shift upwards. As I breezed past windswept Limon, I saw two bikers in my rearview mirror. One of them slid over to the passing lane, accelerated and then slowed down to peer into my window. We shared a moment there on the road, making brief eye contact. Both of us were wearing patterned head scarves, scarves that were covering very bad hair days, though I shouldn’t speak for him and the state of his hair. The biker accelerated, moved beyond me and then in front of me. The second rider repeated those actions exactly before slipping back into place next to his buddy. Before long, they were out of sight. I wondered where they were headed.
The drive through the Colorado plains is interminable until out of nowhere it seems the traffic of half the world surrounds you, annihilating the speed limit with impunity, drivers switching lanes like NASCAR veterans. I quickly shook off the prairie-induced road stupor so that I didn’t miss the turnoff to my destination, Boulder. If you haven’t come into Boulder via 25 and hit that high spot where suddenly the whole of the burnt umber Flatirons and the deep greens of the valley spreads out before you, you should. The view never fails to surprise and delight me. I would have stopped at the turnout, but it was crowded so I carried on and down, down into the swirl of traffic pouring onto the off ramps and into town.
The previous night’s full moon was sliding behind the Rocky Mountains as I left Boulder on a bright, cool morning, the sky a delicate blue. I made one last stop at the coffee shop down the road that converted me to oat milk lattes and I brushed off the twinge of sadness I always feel when leaving The People’s Republic. Though Boulder has changed irreparably (and for the worse, IMHO) from when I lived there in the ‘90s, it still holds an important place in my heart.
As I always do when I drive away from Boulder, I kept glancing back at the mountains as they shrunk and receded. By mile marker 330 on I-70, I could no longer see even a blue ripple of them. I was truly back on the prairie. It was time to forget Colorado and focus my mind on getting home; back to Kel, back to my dogs. I turned up the tunes and relaxed back into the seat for the long ride. Just then a doppelgänger Toyota Tacoma passed me, same year and color. It felt like watching myself drive away.
This year I said a sad and reluctant farewell to the Tacoma that carried me safely “there and back” many times over the past 9 years. A lot of memories are associated with that truck. It was my brother’s – so there is all of that bittersweetness – but there are also all of the memories of countless road trips with Kel and the pups. I hope the person who buys the Tacoma loves it, coddles it, and goes “there and back” for thousands of more miles.
COMING UP IN MAY:
RECIPE THROWBACK, JULY 2013: