Colorado and Back, June/July 2003

She was Louise to my Thelma, and though I was in the driver's seat, she was definitely running the show. In the end, it seemed Alex has inherited the road-trip gene. She and I logged 2,800 miles in one week (longest day, 660 miles) as we returned to Fort Collins, Colo., to see the family. The travelogue:

Sunday, June 29, Emerald Hills to Ely, Nev. (609 miles).
  • Departure: 4:30 a.m.
  • First stop: San Mateo, 4:40 a.m., just to see if she's OK back there.
  • Subsequent stops: Rocklin, Auburn, Donner Summit, Truckee, Verdi, Reno, Carson City, Dayton, the Sand Hill recreation area, New Pass Summit, Austin, Eureka, just outside Eureka, 30 miles outside Eureka.
  • Arrival: 6 p.m.
As I expected, the hardest thing to adjust to was having her facing backward in the back seat; usually she's riding shotgun in my airbagless two-seater. I had a cheapo mirror rigged up, but I knelt on it when I was rearranging things in Rocklin, and it broke. We stopped at a Toys R Us in Reno and got a more expensive unbreakable kind (see photo above). Still, we stopped about every hour so I could feed her or change her or just walk her around.

The temperatures were in the 90s from Reno to Ely, and Alex had a knack for wanting to stop in the most desolate, shadeless areas. She slept through Fallon, for instance, and woke up 40 miles later out on the salt flats, where the only sign of life is the collection of travelers' names spelled out in rocks on the side of the road.

One of the best stories of the trip came out of Austin, a mostly abandoned mining town consisting largely of three taverns, five rock shops and a lot of desert dust. As we were walking down the main street there, I saw a newspaper box, so I went over to look. It was a nice-looking paper with the screaming head "A Free Man." Whoever he is, I thought, he's a big story around here. Then I realized it was the paper I work for, the San Jose Mercury News! The Mercury News from Oct. 4, 1995, the OJ verdict! The real question is not what it was doing there almost eight years later, but how it even got there, 450 miles from San Jose. I didnt buy one (50 cents), but I did take a picture.

In Ely we got the Gary Cooper Room (No. 604) at the Hotel Nevada, once the tallest building in the state. It was a nice room, and cheap -- $38 including tax. We ate in the coffee shop, where Alex, sitting on my lap and grabbing for my beer, become the focus of conversation for the non-smoking section.

Monday, June 30, Ely to Salida, Colo. (618 miles)
  • Departure: 4:30 a.m.
  • Stops: Delta (Utah), Holden, Salina, exit 85 rest stop, exit 173, Crescent Junction, Fruita, Grand Junction, Delta (Colo.), Montrose, 50/347 junction, Gunnison, Doyleville, Sargents, Monarch Pass, Poncha Springs.
  • Arrival: 7:30 p.m. (one hour lost to time change)
This was the toughest day for Alex. It was hot and bright, and through most of Utah there weren't any shady places to stop. At one "ranch exit" off I-70, I accidentally hit the panic button on the keyfob and only then realized the car didn't have a manual. The horn blared and lights flashed for about five minutes as I tried various things to disable it. (Luckily, there was no one else around.) It stopped when I popped the hood, though I think that was just coincidence. This was right before I saw the best road sign of the day: Eagles On Highway.

We took a nice long walk through Fruita (home of Mike the Headless Chicken) but it didn't do much to zero her out. By the time we left Delta, Colo., I thought I was going to have to drive the last 150 miles in 15-minute stretches, and I was thinking maybe I should have taken the more direct route, straight over I-70. Heading up Monarch Pass (11,312 feet) I rolled down the back windows, which created kind of a wah-wah effect that seemed to soothe her -- but maybe it also buffetted her a little too much, as I looked in the rear-view mirror a few miles from the summit and saw the car seat topple to the side. She didn't say a peep, just gave me an accusing stare as she lay strapped in sideways.

In Salida, we took the advice of the proprietor of the Colorado Lodge and walked down to the city park to see an outdoor showing of "Fantasia." We didn't stay for the whole thing, but beer and popcorn was a fine dinner.

Tuesday, July 1, Salida to Fort Collins (270 miles)
  • Departure: 4:30 a.m.
  • Stops: Dillon, Fraser, Estes Park.
  • Arrival: 1:30 p.m.
This morning, I was very glad I didn't take the more direct route. Coming up through the Arkansas Valley and over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, I realized how much I miss the Rockies. After a coffee and a doughnut at the Safeway in Fraser -- where people were fly-fishing about 50 yards from the parking lot -- we reached the west end of Trail Ridge at 8:30, and we didnt have anyone else in front of us until way past the summit (12,183 feet). We took an extended stop in Estes Park, walking out along the lake and then back through downtown, and Alex slept all the way down Big Thompson Canyon and into Fort Collins.

Wednesday and Thursday, July 2-3, Fort Collins

Mainly we just hung out as a family -- my folks, my brother and sister and their families. It was the first time the cousins (ages 5 months, 9 months and almost 8 years) had seen each other. The one tourist thing we did, and one I'd really recommend, is the tour of the New Belgium Brewing Co. They let you sample all their beers (the most well-known being Fat Tire Ale), and the employees are very friendly.

Friday, July 4, Fort Collins to Wendover, Utah (590 miles)
  • Departure: 4 a.m.
  • Stops: Rawlins, Green River, Little America, Evanston, Lake Point, Grantsville
  • Arrival: 4:30 p.m.
Good wildlife this day, including a fox as we were leaving Fort C and a pronghorn antelope running down the median of the interstate east of Evanston. And, of course, the weird stuffed penguin at Little America. I must say, Utah doesnt do a great job of cleaning up roadkill deer. I saw eight of them, a couple quite long dead.

Our first long stop was in Evanston, where we walked along the Bear River. The pathway was marked off with yellow hazard tape, but the locals behind me said, "It don't mean anything. This is Evanston." Our other long stop was Grantsville, Utah, which had a rather hostile vibe for a small town on the Fourth of July. Just outside it is Bonneville Seabase, a place in the middle of the desert where you can dive with tropical fish.

In Wendover I figured we'd just go up to the casinos and do the buffet, but it was all seafood on Friday night, so we went over to the holiday carnival by the visitors center and bought some very good carne asada tacos out of a van.

Saturday, July 5, Wendover to Emerald Hills (660 miles)
  • Departure: 3:30 a.m.
  • Stops: Valmy, Winnemucca, Puckerbrush, Lovelock, Sparks, Loomis, Vallejo.
  • Arrival: 3:30 p.m. (one hour gained from time change)
Another fox as we left town this morning. Our big stops were Sparks, where we had breakfast in the Nugget, and Loomis, where we walked the main street and bought some really good peaches from a fruit stand. It was getting hot as we descended into the valley, and we hit a big tie-up in Sacramento, but once we got to Davis, things cleared up and we cruised to the lodge.