Thursday, November 24, 2011

Anatomy of a Roadtrip

Late morning, and we pass through the same intersection we passed a few days before, along Highway 64, that gorgeous stretch of highway through some of New Mexico's most beautiful features. Heading north this time, toward the half buried marble dome of Mt. San Antonio, glazed this season in blue and white. A single structure is dwarfed against its massive face. What is it like to have this mountain as your backyard? (This scene will be repeated north of Crestone, with a lone ranch set against an impressive stretch of range, the earth rolling like the tideline to rise in a syncline toward peaks snow covered above 10,000 feet.)

Over the Colorado border, and it's usual dramatic change of scenery. The land looks livelier than in New Mexico, but how could it not, considering the amount of water than moves through this, the San Luis Valley. We pass the train cars of the Cumbres and Toltec railway, resting until next spring. Into Alamosa finally, eponymous Keens on my feet, worn for the irony. Stop at San Luis Valley Brewing Company for a fat burger and a sampling of nine of their brews. Sora plays with her mom on the leather sofa, thick and aged and of the kind more often seen in some wood-panelled room in 1890's London.

Miki takes the wheel as my head swims with beer. After a pair of U-turns, (I had left my phone plugged into the brewery's wall), we take a long thin straight road that doglegs left just before ramming into the Sangres, passing in front of the Great Dunes that look ready to break across our road, repeating the water metaphor once again. Shadows are thrown by the wrinkles carved out by the wind across their faces. These dark spots contrast dramatically with the snow sitting a thousand feet higher atop their granite progenitors. Against the perfect blue sky, the range looks like it is a paper cutout done by a child, albeit one who has poor scissoring skills. I myself was a child when I first saw this scenery in a book on National Parks, read in my New Jersey home where what I saw out the window looked nothing like this. Now to finally arrive many decades later, fighting a strong wind that keeps us down on the flat of a dried riverbed. The baby cries due to the wind, so our visit will have to remain brief. From inside the car, I console myself with the sight of a lone figure standing atop the highest dune, a mere flea against its mass.

North again along the Cosmic Highway (man). The Sangres finally rise to meet us after shadowing us all day. Wriggling through a narrow canyon to land in Salida along the Arkansas River. Miki and the baby stay at our rented cabin, but I make a five minute drive into town to investigate more beers at Amica's. There's an IPA there that is one of the best brews I've ever had, a seasonal that the staff knows nothing about. But I appreciate the mystery. It's like the smile of a passing beauty, a smile that launches the fantasy of an entire love affair, a lifetime lived out in mere seconds. This beer piggy-backs those I drank at lunch a few hours earlier, maybe the cumulative total of what I normally drink in a month. I'm far too drunk to drive. So I walk the town awhile, and finding a Chinese place, I grab some take-out for Miki. While I await its preparation, I stand in the doorway, catching up with an old Denver friend on my phone. I must appear suspicious to the waiter at the restaurant, who, when handing me my food, says a curt," Thank You. Goodbye." The cold and clear mountain air has helped clear the alcohol from my brain, and I make my way back to my car, driving slowly and cautiously back to the cabin...

...a quick stop in town in the morning for a coffee. The owner is a ramblin' man ready to ramble again. After a few years in town, he sold his cafe a few days before. Our own road takes us along the Arkansas heading east, in and out of canyons and through dozens of small towns. I've recently been reading about this river and its history, it having once served as the boundary between the US and Mexico until 1847. Now the river is a popular place for rafting, operators strung along the banks for many miles. The roads eventually lifts high above the waters, and we weave through the lessor Rockies toward Denver. We drive up to the Royal Gorge Bridge, but balk at paying 30 bucks to cross. The road north takes us through broad valleys many with ranches at their navel. As we drop into the trough of one hill, we scare up a murder of raven and magpie, startled temporarily off some carrion. Amidst them is a wolf, that eyes us warily as we speed past. Miki and I are of course thrilled, having never seen one in the wild.

We make a stop now at Florrisant National Monument. There isn't much here, but it is a pleasant walk out on the valley floor, slaloming between fossilized tree stumps. This had been a major tourist stop a hundred years ago, but today it belongs only to the three of us.

Heading northeast, the home stretch. A ranger had told us of a beautiful drive along some backroads into the Denver suburbs. We follow her directions, the road narrowing more and more the deeper into the canyons we go. We're only a few feet above the Platte River, which roars past at a speed far greater than our own. The ranger had told us that the road was paved, but the asphalt ends eventually. It stays well groomed, but would be a brutal trip in the snow. We pass the odd house, the occasional settlement. Most welcome are the signs saying that this is indeed the direction of Denver, up ahead somewhere. We need to get to the Japanese Consulate by four, and have plenty of time, but it seems we're somewhat conspired against, especially when we're forced to drive behind a road grader at 5 mph for awhile. Where the road widens slightly, I pull the car around it, and before long we reach the highway again, with the glass towers of Denver glittering on the plains below us...

...we pass a few days in Boulder at my brother's place. My niece is sick, so we rarely leave the house, our time consumed with books and food. On the last day, my brother flies off to NYC for a wedding, and we watch his daughter. Better now, she takes us out into the open space below the foothills, where prairie dogs have built a massive colony. The residents are active in the warmth of the final hour before the sun drops below the hills and the shadows bring the chill. The call of the prairie dog is wonderful to hear, as they stand on their hind legs and raise a banzai to one another. Our presence is what causes this, of course, as they signal across the grass about the approach of the two legs, who laugh at their earnestness. For me, this will be the highlight of the trip, along with the Gary Snyder reading later that night. (I wrote something on that here.)

...southbound, and a quick stop at the consulate again. Despite their promise, they've forgotten to make Sora's visa. Apologetic, they do it in 20 minutes. We are happy of course, but puzzled. Their policy is that this process takes 10 days, and usually requires two trips. Yet they've just proven that it can be done on the spot. Very Japanese, this. Rules over reality.

We move along through wealthy Denver suburbs and out into the prairie, a drive uneventful but for the tall cottonwoods that occasionally rise above the road. We make La Junta by lunch, eaten out before the massive Bent's Fort, standing proudly beside the Arkansas. We spend the next hour wandering in and out of the fort's many rooms, the thick adobe walls holding the chill. I imagine that this would be a fantastic posting for a ranger, living on the spot that was the center of so much western history, and hosted some of its biggest names. It is peaceful here, standing by the fire and looking through at the trees bare for winter. This whole region intrigues. I hope to come back and explore more.

Hills roll us toward Trinidad. It is near dark when we arrive, so we skip the looked-forward-to stroll. We compromise on a meal at an old hotel, but it is a pricey, meat-heavy menu, so I reward myself with a single pint and peanuts and get back on the road quickly. Over Raton Pass into New Mexico again, moving toward home, under the crisp and star-filled sky...

On the turntable: Tedeschi Trucks Band, "Revelator"
On the nighttable: S.C. Gwynn, "Empire of the Summer Moon"

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