Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Over The Mountains

On I-70 through Colorado, all that is good and evil about driving.

By Paul Gerald

JANUARY 31, 2000:  I was four hours west of Denver, in the eastern Utah desert, when the skies starting clouding up. The elevation was 4,000 feet where I was and 5,280 feet where I was headed, but I knew perfectly well what lay in between: a couple of 11,000-foot passes, about 50 million SUVs and trucks, and one storm.

But I was headed home for Christmas, so there was no time to stop and watch the snow pile up on the Rockies. I figured if I could make Kansas before dark, I could make Memphis the next day. The storm hadn't been predicted, so I added my name to the long list of suckers who believed the weather report in Colorado, and started climbing to the east.

Just past Grand Junction the road makes a big turn to the north and seems to disappear behind a mountain. This is about 250 miles from Denver, which at interstate speeds should be three-and-a-half hours. There was a light mist, but it was a pleasant drive up the Colorado River, which starts in the mountains ahead of you, is only a couple hundred feet wide next to you, and goes a few hundred miles behind you to form the Grand Canyon.

The hills rose dry and rocky on either side as I passed Rifle and caught my first glimpse of the big peaks. That I could see them was a good sign; that they were covered in snow and half-wrapped in clouds was not.

By the time I made Glenwood Springs, the mist had become rain and then turned to snow. I stopped there for coffee, and I almost didn't leave. But it wasn't because of the snow; it was because of the town. Glenwood Springs is one of those places that make a traveler think about getting off the road for good. It's historic, beautiful, an hour from Vail and Aspen, three hours from Denver, surrounded by mountains and recreational opportunities, on the Colorado River, and comes complete with mineral hot springs and vapor caves.

I found a coffee shop where a hippie snowboarder kid sold me a "Quad" -- a 20-ounce, four-shot mocha -- and 15 minutes later I was back on the road, so wired I could have personally jump-started a tank.

The real wonder of driving through the Rockies lies just east of Glenwood Springs: the stretch of I-70 that winds through Glenwood Canyon. It's 16 miles of twists and turns along the Colorado, with 4,000 feet of tunnels and four rest areas that are also trailheads and whitewater rafting put-in sites. There's even a paved trail that leads 18 miles from Glenwood Springs, right along the river.

I can't say that much of this was on my mind, though, as I drove through the snow and ever farther up. Amtrak's California Zephyr passed going west, but it was just a light in the snow and a whistle between the canyon walls. I made Vail, that haven of well-moneyed skiers where "budget" accommodations are $115 for two people. Then I started up Vail Pass, with the light fading and the road filling with day-skiers headed back to Denver.

Vail Pass is 10,662 feet high, and without question it would be covered with snow. That's bad enough: Having SUVs pass you while you're trying to pass 18-wheelers makes it that much more entertaining. But the snow was only a couple inches thick up top, and I cruised on down the other side and into Frisco.

Oh, to have time and money and to be in Summit County! Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, and Keystone are within 20 minutes of each other, and if you throw in Vail and Beaver Creek, just over the pass, they add up to more than 100 lifts.

Just don't drive east from there in a storm, unless you have to. You start up yet another hill, this one toward the Eisenhower Tunnel. Again, I got suckered: The tunnel is just over 11,000 feet, and Denver is "A Mile High" at 5,280. "That means it's all downhill from the tunnel," I said to myself. And the odometer said just 74 miles to go. Cake.

So up I go. Up onto the snow. Up into the snow, which started getting heavy. Just before the tunnel it was real sketchy, with lanes created by general agreement among the drivers and speeds averaging 20 mph. And yet, I told myself, "It's all downhill from the tunnel."

The tunnel is almost 2 miles long, and I popped out into the same madness I had left behind: darkness, swirling snow, trucks everywhere, no lanes, total chaos. I slowed to 15 mph and said a quick prayer to the Travel Gods.

About this time my windshield wipers got covered with ice, reducing my visibility to about the bottom third of my windshield.I didn't want to stop because to the left was nothing but a snowbank, occasionally lit by taillights sticking out of it. To the right were a railless shoulder and the tops of tall trees. Stopping over there was certain death; I'd either slide off the edge or get hit by somebody else and we'd both go off the edge.

I was doing about 15, which was fine as long as it was straight. The problems occurred when I came upon somebody doing 10. Then I would have to "change lanes," which actually meant looking for a space on either side not currently occupied by a car. And turning the wheel meant probable death.

Then there were the trucks. Let's say I'm doing 15, passing a Datsun B-210 doing 8, and there's an 18-wheeler behind me doing 20. Here he comes on top of me, and if that guy hits his brakes, everybody dies. This nearly occurred just as the road turned uphill, which wasn't part of the plan as far as I knew. I'm beside the B-210 and what looks like a pair of freight trains is in my back seat, riding his horn and flashing his lights. I looked through the sliver of windshield, found a dark and supposedly carless spot in the road, and ducked into it, just as snow-spraying Certain Death passed me by.

This happy show went on for three hours. That's how long it took me to cover the 35 miles from the tunnel to the town of Wheat Ridge, a Denver suburb which was created by flattening the ridge and removing the wheat. By the time I slid to a stop at the Comfort Inn there, I was so tense that my neck muscles seized up and I had to turn my whole body to look for B-210s in my blind spot.

I went straight to the bar and ordered Irish whiskey. The bartender, a frizzy-headed, big-breasted, tight-leather-panted woman who was being relentlessly hit on by truckers and cowboys, told me, "My boyfriend likes Irish whiskey." I didn't care about her or her boyfriend, but when I whined about the road she said, "My boyfriend is up there skiing, so I hope he's okay."

The second Irish whiskey made me feel a little better, not so for the handful of trucker pick-up lines, five more boyfriend references, and a drunken cowboy couple doing karaoke to Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." I was missing I-70.

I stumbled to my bed and cursed the Travel Gods for letting me believe the weather forecast. The news said a truck had wiped out and closed I-70 right after I got through, and a busload of Texas schoolkids had gone off the shoulder, killing a dozen of them in a triple-roll down 150 feet.

I felt lucky, and I had to thank the Travel Gods for getting me through it ... and for showing me Colorado again. Even if you have to go through hell to get there, there are few better places to be. n

For more information on the more positive aspect of travel in Colorado, visit www.colorado.com or call 1-800-265-6723.

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