First Colorado Trip
But definitely not the last
Travel | October 13, 2014
I really need to get out more. Action-filled days spent outdoors as a child, mud-footed and dirt-covered have ill-prepared me for the sedentary nine-to-five of adulthood. There was a time in college, somewhere between being a rather undecided biology major and taking art classes on the side, that I had aspirations of traveling the world as a research scientist. I dreamed of hiking, climbing mountains, and discovering new species unseen by humans- all of these are still thrilling to me, of course. However in the end my creative side won out, and I don’t regret it- I love what I do. I just wish I could step away from my iMac whenever I felt like it and stroll through a forest of white-barked aspen, peering through my binoculars at a species of bird that I could check off my life-list. Perhaps everyone faces such a dilemma at some point in their early adulthood: which passions do I pursue professionally, and which do I keep as hobbies? I’ve always found that my passion for nature and my creativity have always worked in lockstep- each fueling the other. Maybe if I lived in a location whose primary habitat wasn’t urban sprawl, then I might be a better designer. Who knows.
Somewhere along Hwy 7, South of Estes Park
Elk, Hwy 36, Rocky Mountain Natl Park
View from southwest Estes Park
Anyways, the primary reason for the journey north was my friend’s wedding, in which I was to be a groomsman. He’s a good friend I’ve known since high school, so of course I accepted. (Generally speaking, I need much less of an impetus to agree to go on a trip.) So the girlfriend and I packed our bags and flew to Denver.
View from our Cabin in Estes Park
Being a native to the Houston area my whole life, this was literally the first time I had seen snow-capped mountains in person. Cool crisp air had replaced the humid smog-fest that I was used to. We drove the rental car (a Jeep Cherokee Sport- pretty nice) up through the mountains, stopping at a few towns along the way, and eventually arriving in Estes Park where we stayed the night in a cabin.
Day 2 was spent on the road- longitudinally traversing the state on I-25, going south with the mountains tagging along through the passenger-side window. It’s amazing to me how they are still visible, indeed visually imposing, from so many miles away. Clearly, significant rises in elevation are still something this Texan is unable to wrap his mind around. Hwy 7 south from Estes is an amazingly scenic drive- I definitely recommend it if you are in the area. Had I not seen it personally, I would not have thought it possible to construct a roadway in such treacherous terrain.
The drive south revealed a different side of Colorado- one more indicative of southwest landscapes than alpine vistas. Broad stretches of golden grass and… well you can just view the pics. Apparently we had arrived at just the right time. The weather was perfect- sunny and cool, and the storms of the previous days had left fresh snow on the mountain tops. We finally came upon our destination- La Veta, a small town in the southeast near the Spanish Peaks.
Hwy 160, Northeast of La Veta
Octoberfest in La Veta
I should say at this point that I really loved the atmosphere of La Veta. Maybe part of it was the sleepy southwest feel, or the fact that we had arrived during the Octoberfest celebration, but it was an amazingly refreshing change from the high-population pressure-cooker of the city. I could definitely see myself retiring to a place like this. Assuming the winter wouldn’t kill me… hell, assuming I’ll retire at all (which seems like a distant fantasy realm right now.)
The wedding itself was really nice- set in the golden-leaved valley with a strong cool breeze and mountain backdrop. The young couple were radiantly happy, in the prime of their lives and completely blissful. I was very much at peace as well. Eventually I would have to return to the city, to my job, to life as usual, but without the quiet times, life loses its meaning. It’s the price we pay for productivity and advancement, I suppose.
I mean, the harder we work, the more productive we are, and the more we can add to our portfolios, advance our careers, get paid more, etc… The trade-off, of course, is time. Many years later, I won’t remember the countless hours spent at my desk building project ‘A’ for ‘Client B’ or whatever, but I’ll always remember trips like these, even though they represent a fraction of the time. I wanted to freeze the mountains, the forest, the lake, and make it last longer- relativity be damned.
After two days in the Spanish Peaks area, we headed back up north, viewing the same route in reverse. This time we stopped at The Garden of the Gods, near Colorado Springs. The scenery was beautiful, and we hiked about halfway up the side of a small escarpment, before a sheer vertical face prevented our continued ascent. Oh, and the altitude. I mean seriously- we had to stop every few vertical feet to catch our breath. I’m sure my regular workout of desk-sitting wasn’t helping. It was a Sunday, and apparently it was also Colorado’s ‘Get Outside Day’ because that place was ridiculously crowded. No matter, as we had only stopped en route to higher places.
Nice rock, but it's covered in primates.
Somewhere along Hwy 40 going north
People can actually go up there?
I don’t understand mountains. Impossibly high amalgams of rock, cloaked in biota and topped with frozen water, their stoic faces gazing out over thousands of generations of humans without so much as a blink. We are the mice, skittering about in our break-neck lives oblivious to the silent, slow forces of a grandiose universe. Furthermore, I don’t understand how people live in their presence. Vertical rise and hairpin turns aside, I wonder how many drivers veer off-road while lost in starry-eyed gaze at these majestic sentinels. I crossed plenty of white center lines myself, before the warning tones of a very concerned girlfriend brought me back to a focused coherence. The ever-present postcard quality visuals don’t seem like something I would just get used to.
And finally it happened- we got to view the Rockies in all their glory. After staying at another cabin- this one in Grand Lake (another nice little town I'd like to spend more time in) we took Hwy 34 north into Rocky Mountain National Park. We just kept driving up and up. At one point I looked over and said "Surely, we aren't going above the treeline- that's too high." But we did. This was a truly unique experience for someone who grew up among the swamps and lowland forests of southeast Texas. I had no idea you could build a highway over a mountain. And there was SNOW! That's a rarity for a native Houstonian, especially in such quantity that would necessitate it being piled up on the side of the road. Quiet, northerners- I know I need to get out more.
There is a stopping point on top of one of the mountains- and you can get out and visit the gift shop/restaurant up above 11,000 feet. And then there is a small snow-covered trail that goes a few hundred feet higher to the very summit. And of course we took it all the way up. The wind was incredible- it could easily upend the unprepared hiker, and the temperature was below freezing even on this sunny day. This was truly the tundra, an environment I had never visited before, and I was thrilled to be here.
View from the summit
The descent from the mountains marked the beginning of the end of our journey. We took a leisurely route back to Denver and the airport. Our first venture into Colorado left a great impression on us. We met wonderful, friendly people, and the landscape and wilderness deserve lifetimes of exploring. It felt like walking around inside a complex, three-dimensional oil painting. Before we had even stepped on board the plane for the flight home, the seeds of our return trip had already been planted.
A herd of elk as we were leaving the park