Still the Best Way to See America

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When my dad was a kid, cars were more comfortable, the economy was bulling along, and gas was cheaper than milk.  With the help of Ike’s new interstate system, the Greatest Generation shoveled their families into their big sedans and wagons and forged the great American road trip.  America was experienced through the skylights of an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.

These days, cars are cramped and dark, the economy has taken a turn for the down, and gas is so expensive people actually buy Priuses.  Flying can actually be cheaper, and though train travel is getting rare, it’s just as fast, much more comfortable, and can also be cheaper.  But getting in your own car and striking out into the tarmac-belted distance is still the best way to see America.  I got a reminder this weekend as my friend Dan and I loaded up the wagon and shot off to Breckenridge, Colorado. 

I watch this show called Revolution on NBC.  It can be cheesy, but there’s some decent sci-fi and action.  But recently we saw two characters walking east into Colorado on the doorstep of the Rockies.  It was one of those great establishing shots with the “Welcome to” sign beside the road and the jagged peaks breaking up the sky in the near distance.

That’s not what it’s like when you hit Colorado from the east.  It’s flatter than West Kansas, and the road is rifle-bolt straight all the way out to Denver.  It can be maddening, and we were tempted to stop at every run down gas station and fruit stand along the way, just to bust the monotony.

But that made Denver’s view of the distant mountains all the more refreshing, and before long we had climbed out of the pleasantly-named suburbs and into the heights.  I let Dan drive at this point, because as a native of the corn-checked, northern Indiana flatlands I tend to have mental fits of excitement around mountains, and I was genuinely worried about crashing into a cliff face while I strained my neck to get a look at the snowcaps.

Turning south, we passed Dillon, Frisco, and Breckenridge, and climbed further until we reached the slopes of Quandary Peak, where we found our campsite up a path likely not carved out for compact station wagons.  By now the Subaru’s 2.0 was struggling a bit in the thin alpine air.  Nor could the turbo help at the low speeds required to crawl over the big rocks jutting like molars out of the trail.  We could smell the poor clutch by the time we’d reached the campsite, but I backed right in, and (God bless the hatch) we set up our tent and started a fire in the rain.  I have some extra man cards here, if anyone’s lost his.

As this is a car blog, I won’t go into detail about our mountain biking experience at Breckenridge, the reason for the trip.  I won’t talk about how the rental bikes there, though capable, are so poorly maintained that I went through three of them in four runs (or what would have been four, if the front suspension wouldn’t have locked up shortly after getting off the lift on the fourth).  I won’t jaw on about how I crashed three times, once while I was going fast enough to have really messed myself up had I landed differently.  Nor will I avow how much fun it was despite the difficulties.

But I will say that by the end of the day, I was so tired, battered, and sore that we drove into Frisco so I could, to my everlasting shame, buy an air mattress.  Wait, where did all those man cards go?  I think I was a little delirious with altitude when I decided we should trek up to a reservoir before going back to the campsite.  It was “near” the campsite, after all, or so Google Maps had shown me.

There’s no “near” in Colorado, though.  The dirt road just kept going, further up and back into the range.  As we rounded a bend, we saw the dam in the distance, built like the Helm’s Deep rampart straight across the valley.  Blue Lakes 1 and 2 rolled past as we nudged above the treeline.

The view from the dam restored my broken self more effectively than any hot meal or soft bed.  The valley stretched on westward, across the pacific sheen of the reservoir and into greater mysteries.  To the north, the great bulk of Quandary dared us, and to the south, a mine, built onto a nearly vertical stone face, gave me pause.  How had those timbers even been hauled up there?  But to the east, the mountain shoulders relaxed into a soft, green quiet, broken only by the rush of Monte Cristo Creek as it crashed to connect the stepped lakes.  I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in all of America, aside from the Grand Canyon, and the camera was helpless against it.

The next day we were to climb a fourteener.  I’d climbed a twelve or two as a Boy Scout, but never a 14,000 ft mountain.  We settled on Mt. Lincoln, not far south of Quandary, (as Dan had already climbed Quandary) and took off over the Hoosier Pass on Highway 9.  The WRX was better on the pavement, and in low-traffic areas, once I got the turbo spooled, the switchbacks and swooping curves were asphalt happiness.

After failing to find Lincoln in another breathless valley housing another breathless reservoir, we drove into Alma Colorado, advertised as North America’s highest incorporated town, and made a right on Kite Lake Road.  A brown sign politely informed me that it was a mere six miles up to Kite Lake, where we’d find the Lincoln trailhead.  There was nothing mere about that road, at least not in a WRX, stiffened with an STi suspension.  The rattles and bumps were enough to shake my confidence into a pile of broken plastic.  God bless sideskirts.

We almost made it up to the trailhead, but a few hundred yards from the top of the road, the wagon, like its owner, was entirely out of breath.  The area was well-peopled with fellow hikers, and I didn’t want to be uncouth in filling the air with raucous exhaust and noisome clutch stank, so I parked it on the road and we headed up on foot.

Then a storm rolled in, and my heels rubbed raw on my definitely-not hiking boots, and we nearly froze before we’d really started climbing at all.  So, undesirous of finding out what it’s like to be struck by lightning, we had lunch and coasted slowly back down to Alma.  It was on this return that I noticed I’d probably ruined my left CV axle.

Sunday we rose before dawn, rolled up Dan’s wet tent, and set out for Kansas City.  Interstate 70 is fast, convenient, and even quite scenic, but I didn’t want to trek through the early, empty roads of Colorado on familiar ground, so we took highway 6 all the way back to Denver.  And I believe it was the highlight of my trip.

The road was truly barren.  We encountered a single car all the way up to the pass, a recent Mercedes, and passed it with ease on one of the generous passing lanes provided by the Colorado DOT.  Plenty of room for turbo spool.  By the time we’d reached the peak of Loveland Pass, we’d carved around some of the most exciting roads I’ve ever driven.  Despite the peppering rain, Loveland printed us a stunning view, and the trip down the other side was even more fun.

Six hooks up with 70 for a while, then splits off again north before reconnecting in Denver.  Take this road, folks.  Where Loveland conquered grand and distant heights, this new branch was intimate and echoing, delving into the canyons and narrow valleys, ducking under embracing tunnels, so happy to thunder back my eager exhaust notes.

Denver proved a gateway to boredom, and the fog fell thick all the way to Kansas, but driving the trip was far better than flying.  Highway 6, Kite Lake Trailhead, and the Blue Lakes road were more than enough to justify staying on the ground.  Yes, I could have rented something, but I would have been scared to risk it on the stones, and rental cars are too automatic to really wring the excitement out of routes like Loveland.
Drive America.  It’s still the best way to see it.


Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.

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