The road from the west leading into Steamboat Springs surprised me for being so bereft of trees or any great sense of beauty. It’s almost as if the road sneaks up on this mountain oasis. The town lay at the bottom of a basin surrounded by tall peaks. We could not resist getting out of the truck and running around downtown, in and out of the T-shirt and cowboy hat shops. Now a ski resort when snow season arrives, the town has been on the map for years as a tourist destination. Hot springs in town along the river make a paddling sound that resembles a steamboat going down the Yampa River, or so the tale was told me. The springs that I saw were located along the side of the busy highway, and sort of boxed in behind walls and gates. I had envisioned something different, so while my sister checked it out on the inside, I stayed in the truck and studied my road map.
A town called Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, of far lesser renown than Steamboat, sounded to me like it promised the more authentic mineral bathing experience, so we talked it over during lunch, on the edge of a Safeway grocery store parking lot, where a small trout stream came floating merrily down from the steep mountains. We continued east over higher mountains and narrowing passes, including Rabbit Ears Pass at over 9,000 foot elevation, in the Routt Mountains.
The road narrowed and followed the contour of a lumpy earth for many miles, until we passed a large, sprawled-out reservoir named Wolford, and dropped down into Kremmling, Colorado. An eye blink or two and we were onward to Hot Sulphur Springs! The highway followed a nice, geologically carved-out gorge of rock and river, just wide enough for this windy piece of road and a set of train tracks. I noticed some people fishing along the river that appeared to be native American. This part of the world is pretty rough and remote, but one that I would love to return to and stay longer; far enough from the city sprawl that the people and the countryside have that sense of authenticity about them that many of us Californians miss about our state, now that we are considered part of the “Pacific Rim”, rather than on the edge of a vast and gorgeous continent. I think that my own allegiance pledges with America tend to align more with a Kremmling than, say, a Long Beach. But we had a mission, to go soak our skins for hours, so had to keep moving. When we popped out of this massive wall of rocky, narrow canyon, we instantly found ourselves in downtown Hot Sulphur Springs and could actually see hot steam rising from the hillside to our left.
Along the bank of the Colorado River we spotted a free campground, so made our plans to soak in the mineral baths and camp there on the edge of town. I suppose my gypsy blood will carry through the rest of my life, this thing I have about camping, especially when in a pretty place and free. I get the sense that my life has not been completely caged in, that there lies ahead some freedom from civilization’s planned destiny. We paid the $17.50 and bathed for several hours among the twenty or more different pools. Some were large, but cooler, but my favorite pool was hot and indoors. The afternoon sun was intense that day, such that laying out in it while in a small pool of hot water made me slightly nauseous.
The pools were strewn along a steep hillside, with wooden walk ways adjoining them. We moved freely among most all of them, just to try out the different temperatures and to access the different combinations of minerals that each produced. These baths are supposedly the richest in the Rockies for minerals, although I am still not convinced, or rather do not understand the science behind why it is that a mineral bath is good for you. The heat and the relaxation factor felt so good, a break in our heavy driving routine, that I nearly fell asleep in one of the pools. In the outdoor pools we watched lightning strike mountain tops in the distance–too far away to be a threat to us–and a train come rambling down through the rocky gorge just to the west of us, where we had first entered this picturesque little town. We were glad to have come here rather than Steamboat, although I am sure there were more lovely bathing places in Steamboat that we had overlooked because of lack of time to explore.
We crawled out of the baths in the late afternoon. All my road aches and pains had melted away. We drove Rosey over the train tracks and down to the campground, where we cooked dinner and ate, and had a campfire that evening while listening to the trains go by. I carry a propane camp fire inside the camper–a camp fire in a can. We would just set it out at night and turn on the propane, and have an instant fire without the fuss and bother of collecting wood and watching for live sparks to spread a fire. Too many trains thundered by that night, however, for me to sleep very well. And then the temperature dropped in the middle of the night to about 28 degrees and I got a chill that made me shake until my rib cage ached. Rosey has a wonderful little forced-air furnace, so I don’t know why I didn’t turn it on in the middle of the night, rather than lay there and freeze. At dawn we saw our first summer time Rocky Mountain frosted dew on the ground. We scrambled around in the near dark to break camp, make coffee, and move on. We knew that this coming day might be one of the more epic drives of our entire trip.
Highway I-40 finally turned loose of us in the little town of Granby, Colorado, where we picked up Highway 34. We made a long steady climb upward to Lake Granby, and stopped to view the lake from a high viewpoint. The air was cold, the sun not yet arisen, and we slurped large cups of coffee that we’d purchased from a gas station along the highway. I could sense that once we got to Granby we were getting closer to where many of the Denver population might go on weekends to have fun in their mountain chalets and speed boats on the great, scenic lake. The town around the lake smelled of affluence, something we had not seen much of for several days. I prefer the open and free country, but the tall mountains we passed through on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, just ahead, overwhelmed me with their vastness and their majestic summits. We stopped and looked over the Grand Lake Lodge, an older structure that might have been built in the era of the Conservation Corps, that time when America was struggling to get back on its feet, economically, from the Great Depression.
Concerning greatness, however, my mind soared with an unaccustomed delight when we entered the Rocky Mountain National Park. I managed to misplace my senior pass that would gain me free entrance into the park. The ranger at the pay gate waited patiently while we fumbled through the cab of the truck, overturning cameras and binoculars, shaking out the road maps, to locate this tiny plastic card. The ranger asked for my ID, to verify that I had achieved the gracefulness of age that allows one to purchase this shiny little pass, then waved us through without having to show the pass.
We had heard that this park was fantastic for viewing wildlife, particularly in the early mornings, so we crept slowly through several miles of a long valley floor with meadows and meandering streams, a heavy morning mist and frost on the ground. The sun made its daily appearance and illuminated all life below these twelve and thirteen thousand foot mountains, as we gazed carefully across the flat lands that surrounded the river. Surely elk and moose would be out to display their raw and pure natural grace! We stopped and looked with binoculars at places that seemed that they would be a haunt for these big critters, but still saw nothing. Then, as we reached the far eastern end of this long valley that framed the lazy Fall River, we began a long incline to the famed Ridge Trail. Just as we got off the valley floor an elk ran across the road in front of us. My first elk viewing of the whole trip! We had seen a few deer back in Utah, but nothing else as big. Now I felt as if some tiny part of this trip had reached a high point, though we saw the elk for only a few seconds. Silly me, thinking that by now I would see a prairie full of galloping antelope, a pond full of moose chewing on lily pads, and a grove of elk grazing in tall, natural pastures of green grass. I suppose I have watched too many nature programs on television over the years to truly appreciate how thin the population of large animals has become.
Carefully we headed up the windy mountain pass, inching our way to the summit, which has an elevation of 12,183 feet, and is the highest paved road in America. I could tell we were getting pretty deep into the sky because I had an onset of altitude sickness. My symptoms were headache, dizziness, difficulty breathing, stomach ache, with a touch of fatigue heaped on top of this because of the non-stop roar of the trains thumping by and shaking the fragile earth and rock canyon in the middle of the night where we had last camped. All this made me sort of stagger around in the cold morning as we sat, literally, on the heights of America. We had passed over the Continental Divide that morning, and continued seeing signs that we had passed it again. The thought of passing over the divide more than once probably contributed to my uneasiness and out-of-bounds disposition. I guess the divide runs crazy quilt throughout the backbone of the Rockies. Others in the visitor’s center on top, where we stopped to cook breakfast, seemed unmoved by the altitude, but this morning I found myself at a point of weakness that I could not easily shake. Soon we’d be dropping down the eastern slope and, I hoped, I’d find some relief from my condition. I made a mental note of what we had driven over this early morning, thinking I might not ever be so lucky to arrive at such a lofty peak again. From here, our final destiny of Independence, Missouri, would be one long downhill cruise, so I did my best to appreciate our current position on the map.