A Colorado road trip
Special to the Daily
One day last week, Tim came in my office and found me at my computer, meditatively fingering the mouse, ready to click on a bid for a Sam Bush CD collection.
“Don’t blame me, blame it on eBay,” I muttered, as Tim took in the sight of the two vintage mandolins I had just bought online, as well as a third newer one, recently unpacked.
That’s when Tim decided that it was high time he got me away from the computer. I agreed, and we decided on a rambling five-day road trip where we would skim the surface of western Colorado, pausing here and there to make a note of towns and trails we would come back and explore later when we had more time ” or when the snow cleared. After packing the bare minimum of necessities, two bags full of cheap eats, a Colorado atlas and our John Denver CD collection, we were on our way.
Tim knows Colorado better than I do, and he mapped out a winding route that would take us through places both familiar and unfamiliar to us both, going from Leadville up Walden and Steamboat Springs, over to Craig and Rifle, then down to Grand Junction and Cortez. We would see the snowy slopes of Telluride, and drive through the red rocks of Ouray and Silverton, the slopes of the Grand Mesa, and the mountain ranges of the Rio Grande, before heading home.
By the time John Denver had gotten to “The Eagle and the Hawk,” we had arrived in Walden. Walden, in case you didn’t know, is the moose-viewing capital of Colorado; at least, that’s what their welcome sign says. We didn’t see any moose, except for a big bronze one in the center of town. We did, however, see some ducks blissfully riding the choppy waves of Lake John.
From there, we headed west through Colorado’s springtime quilt of sagebrush dotted with snow. By the time we reached Glenwood Springs, we were ready to stretch our legs; and besides, I wanted to see Doc Holliday’s grave.
If you live above 8,000 feet as we do, the half-mile vertical climb to the Pioneer Cemetery, listed as “strenuous” on the map below, is a breeze in lower altitudes of Glenwood Springs.
Our surplus of red blood cells kicked in nicely as we trotted past visitors from Chicago and Minnesota who admitted to us, coming down, that they had to stop and rest along the way. We were passed on the trail by a young man who was jogging all the way up, and laughingly admitted to us that he was from Breckenridge ” another recipient of that low-altitude oxygen boost we were experiencing.
No one knows the exact spot where Doc Holliday was buried; the hot-tempered gunman, who, to his own surprise, ended his life in a clean hotel bed instead of a dust-covered street, was a victim not of gunshot but of galloping consumption, and was buried in the then-privately-owned Pioneer Cemetery. At the summit of the small mountain peak you’ll find the memorial erected to him, saying that Holliday is buried “somewhere in this cemetery.”
The ground is strewn with bullets, poker chips, cigarillos and playing cards ” a charming tribute to his well-known peccadilloes and predilections.
Going south past Grand Junction, the green lushness of Colorado’s wine country comes as a complete surprise. In the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss, set along the foot of the West Elks Mountain Range, sagebrush is replaced by green grass, and pines are supplanted with willow and blossoming cherry trees; you could almost imagine yourself in a mountain town on the East Coast.
If you have a yen for emerald green meadows during the dry brown days of a Colorado summer, then it’s the perfect place to visit.
On our third afternoon, we reached Telluride, where we discovered what has now become my favorite freebie attraction in Colorado: the Telluride Gondola.
You can spend forty minutes soaring over the peaks of Telluride’s slopes, then ride over the entire village and back, all for free.
The gondola closes a few weeks before and after ski season, but otherwise is up and running all year-round, from early morning until midnight. We came back and rode it again the next day, before heading out toward Wolf Creek Pass and the Rio Grande.
As we tooled along the San Juan Mountains on Highway 149 going toward Lake City, a sign caught my attention while I was half asleep: “Site of Alferd Packer Massacre.”
“Stop right here!” I yelled, and Tim slid the car into a tiny gravel lot. We got out and followed the sign to a memorial stone set a few feet away, overlooking the valley below. A plaque set in the stone listed the names of the dead men, killed by God knows what machinations wrought by the Colorado wilderness winter, greed, and man’s inhumanity to man. The stone was surrounded by five small crosses, one for each murdered victim found on that very spot in 1874.
The saga of Alferd Packer and his alleged cannibalism of those men has, in recent years, provided a wealth of puns and morbid jokes, and has faded into something of a humorous footnote in Colorado history.
But the sight of those small crosses marking the bodies found in an actual site of horrific murder is unbearably moving. It serves as a reminder that any episode in history, however remote, was once real ” with all of the suffering that reality entails.
It also serves as a reminder that, when you’re traveling in Colorado, there’s always something unexpected waiting for you, just around the next bend in the road.
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