The e-book we’d been listening to on-and-off for the last two weeks on the road had finished. After reading through the same downloaded Spotify album list at least thrice daily, I needed a break from going “Tell me when: alt-J, Anne Clark, Arab Strap, Beastie Boys, Beirut… tell me when… Black Mountain, Bruce Springsteen, Buffalo Springfield…”
Spotify tired. Then, sifting through the cassette collection stashed in the console, I found the most fitting of tapes wedged between Styx and Jackson Browne. Soon, crooning through our windows, were John Denver’s immortal “The shadows from the starlight are softer than a lullaby. Rocky Mountain high, Colorado….Rocky Mountain high…”
Lately Colorado has been experiencing a severe population influx, having gained half a million residents within five years. Between 2010 to 2015 Denver alone went from 600,000 to 680,000: that’s a gain of 220 people per day in the city, on par with Austin and Seattle as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and after being in the state for a few hours it’s not hard to see why.
From the passenger side window there’s almost always a stream twisting along with the road, a fly fisherman usually in it, boots to the thigh and everything. When there’s no water to be seen you’re likely to be going up, up, up in elevation, with a stunning view of mountains below. It’s like watching a Coors commercial come to life before your eyes. Cold waters, crisp air, icy mountain peaks, and green green trees. At any point I expected a bikini clad babe and a beloved college mascot to dash onto the roadside blasting Eye of the Tiger to complete the stereotypical ad.
Trees aren’t the only green in the region though. In 2012 Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana — the first states in the country to do so. It’s since become a billion dollar industry for Colorado. Annually. John Denver, your lyrics are alive and well near your beloved rockies. You have my word.
We passed signs for “No Hope Goat Ranch” and “The Second Best Coffee in the Southwest” on the way to Pagosa Springs, a small town recommended to us for its natural hot springs. Check-in at the B&B was bumpy. The proprietors were a pair of early-thirties gentlemen who I’d say had a shtick, but shticks involve planning. This was more like watching the chaos theory come to life, in the form of two bumbling stoners.
Carl waited in the car while I went to check in. One couple stood ahead of me, but it was clear they weren’t having an easy time getting their keys. Half the duo fumbled for keys while the other half asked a series of questions: “Where you from”, “What’re you doing here?”, “Do you like burgers?” Answers were provided by the confused patrons, and the host’s response ranged from “Right on, right on, right on” to “Oh man, you must be stoked”. From the backroom Tweedledee would pop his head out every few minutes asking “What room?” and Tweedledum would seemingly pull a number out of nowhere. “Seven” he’d say, then when the act repeated itself moments later, “Nine”. I firmly believe that years ago Matthew McConaughey spent some time here and was an immediate favorite. At night, I’m sure the wind blowing through the trees cries his name to many-a-woman in town.
After ten minutes of standing in line sans keys, I looked towards Carl in the car — he raised his shoulders and hands, motioning a “What the??” at me, at which point I vehemently motioned towards the door, beckoning him in. The reasoning was simple: if he stayed outside he’d never believe me when I explained what held me up. I needed a witness. He obliged and entered the scene.
When it was my turn I was given the same marijuana-infused-interrogation starting with “Where are you coming from” which was immediately interrupted by “Oh shit…Russ, here’s the ID of the last dudes, can you find them and give it back to them? Room….eight.” Once he turned his attention back on us he started from the beginning, as-if running from a WestWorld script, each day a repeat of the prior. “Where you guys coming from?”
Once we announced we were headed to the Springs in town he gave us a pro tip: “If you go under the bridge you don’t have to pay a thing”. Then he immediately displaced the paperwork I just signed, forgot to give me back my ID (I had to ask for it), and let us know that if we woke up early enough there may be bears in the front yard, so like, be sure to keep an eye out. Last week he saw a bear standing on his hind legs here, it was “so cool”. Thanks bro.
Pagosa Springs is a small town, but it’s not a “cute” town, where rose gardens are cultivated in front of white cottages and you imagine that at any hour there’s multiple pies baking. No no. Here the air reeks of sulfur, and right along main street there’s a mound of salt that’s accrued over time, forming a volcano that’s constantly trickling out water from the springs beneath.
The town radio station played, live, the band who were currently jamming away at our brewery destination, on our drive to the brewery. We turned off the car, walked in and didn’t even miss the chorus. Riff Raff Brewing is stationed on the first floor of a turquoise victorian home, and all throughout the living area and courtyard we could see residents and tourists alike, nodding their heads to the bluegrass-reggae set, clutching green chile ales and honey kolsches. A hangout for both the young and dreaded as well as the retired and Birkenstocked.
Post a dinner of burgers dubbed “The Trippin’ Hippie” and “The Big Lambowski” and a few drinks, we did the reasonable thing and took our beer-and-burger-bloated-bellies to the big show in town, the Springs themselves, to strap into swimsuits and bathe in communal pools.
You can go mild in a 90 degree bath or stew on the wild side in the 112 degree “Lobster Pot”, or go anywhere in between. The town gem is “The Springs” spa, with two dozen bath options to choose from. Mostly we selected baths due to the company, eavesdropping on fellow bathers, or saying “hard pass” to pools filled with seven year olds.
From a group of gossipping twenty-something girls spilling the dirt on the DUI’s of everyone in town we learned not to trust rural highways after dark “He’s lucky that tree was there for him to wrap around, otherwise he would’ve gone straight off the cliff!”, and in the Lobster Pot we heard a surgeon speak in-depth about how bad for the body such high temperatures are: “Heat stroke, severe dehydration, especially when consuming alcohol. I like it hot though”, said surgeon said, while downing whiskey.
During all of this I felt like there were two Gracie’s: one who wanted to Hulk-out in 110 degree water and was dissatisfied in the Gracie who couldn’t handle it, and the more-mild-me who would get insanely cold at 98 and convinced herself she’d simply die if she didn’t seek warmer waters.
Directly in front of the tubs are the town’s river, which springs visitors were welcome to go into, so long as they know that upon stepping into the waters for one second could mean death, and that the spa would not be accountable for such incidents. I went into the waters for roughly 90 seconds and felt like I’d freeze to death on the 80 degree night. Within sight was the bridge our stoned host tipped us in on, with a small crowd huddled below it, basking in the free sulfuric waters.
Sleep came easy that night. My heat exhausted body was happy to get out of boiling waters and underneath some more manageable bedsheets. Leaving town in the morning we drove past a Sunday farmers market and while Carl shopped for fruit I found a snow-cone stand and downed a banana/coconut icee at 9:00am. I feel no shame. I won’t apologize. A perfect frozen ending to a boiling adventure. Heat was just beginning to be a Colorado factor for us though. Where we were headed next was pure sand.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a place that’s so simple, yet can still surprise you. The land surrounding the park is incredibly flat and primarily fields, but as you drive up a mirage slowly comes into view: dozens of sand dunes lying beneath snowcapped mountains covered in evergreens. The improbability is astounding, but this is no mirage. And get this, surrounding the dunes is a streambed. Sand sandwiched between water and snow. Who woulda thunk it.
The straightforwardness of the park is what’s so effective though. Mounds of sand where there shouldn’t be sand. Once you pull open the park pamphlet and skim over the hikes the most popular one is incredibly basic: Walk to the top of the dunes. Two Miles. No trail. You’ll find the way. (The highest dune within eyesight of the start of the “trail” aka, visitors center, is lovingly titled “high dune” which is the ultimate destination of most).
Simplicity can be deceptive though. Starting the hike we figured this would take us about an hour. Afterward maybe we’d find another hike, or pack a picnic lunch and eat by the streambed. In the last week we’d hiked up mountains and across red rocks in the desert heat for miles. The highest dunes in the park were only 700 feet high. This should be nuthin’.
Wrong we were. Even experienced hikers will soon learn that lifting your foot out of the sand and taking one step upwards takes soooo looong. Comparable to running in water; even marathoners will find that the sea is a cruel and unruly maiden, whose tides will push against you till you’re exhausted within seconds — Just as the dunes will try to pull your feet into them like quicksand.
Not only are you weighed down like cement, you’re also burned in the process: it is hot. Many try to climb to the dunes in flip flops. Don’t do this. In afternoon hours sands commonly reach temperatures of 150 degrees during the summer months. Unsurprisingly, few make it to the high dune. Look around at any time as you’re climbing upwards and you’ll see dozens camped out on surrounding dunes about your level. Make it to the tippy-top though, and there’s a proud few huddled in small groups together.
I almost didn’t make it myself. After 90 minutes of hiking the high dune still looked as far away from me as it ever did. The whiteness of the sands absorbs August heat and reflects it right back at you, and everything around you looks like everything else. If I weren’t on an incline with the privilege of looking downwards I’d surely die up there. I told Carl to walk on. I needed a water break and a chance to shake the sand out of my sneakers. Unsurprisingly water breaks are pretty unrefreshing, as the surroundings will bring your water to a delicious 70 degrees, so it’s like chugging lukewarm tea in the desert.
Alone and unsure if I could continue, I did what anyone else would do, and made sand angels. I embraced the heat, sunk in, and angel-ed out, waiting for the sands to shift and take my imprint with them. This never took long. The beauty of the dunes is they don’t remember anyone. During my sitting I was passed by a sixty-year-old who was the embodiment of the tortoise from Aesop’s fabled race against the hare. I’d seen her coming from afar, but she never stopped, and soon she had said her hellos, then passed on by. Fueled with the inspiration I needed I got up, shook the sand off, then kept on going.
On my walk towards Carl (who was always within eyesight, it’s pretty hard to lose a companion here), I passed a group of young hipsters, one of whom was trying to rally the gang up to the top. They really wanted to talk about inner-circle-drama and why the rebranding of Taylor Swift was relevant, so they were uninterested.
High dune is thin on top — there’s about two feet to walk across before you start careening downhill. Finally making it, I could see Carl sitting at the tip. I had to say my excuse me’s and pardons as I passed by many a couple, legs dangling off the edges, selfies abounding. And rarely do I say this, but selfie away. The view is glorious. As I was convincing Carl to sand angel (he was hesitant and took some talking into, as well as stating flatly “I was more starfishing”) who came and sat down next to us but a newly formed couple: The sixty year old hiker and the wanderlust-y hipster. They had found each other and were exchanging life stories. He currently lived in Denver but was saving up to move to Taos, New Mexico. She had money, but also a divorce under her belt, and lived in San Francisco. She too intended to uproot, to Vermont. Together they looked upon the scenery, pondering their voyage up the dunes, and the paths that brought them here.
Thus far on our trip Carl and I had hit up tons of National Parks, got claustrophobic in slot canyons and trekked across long stretches of desert rock. What we hadn’t done though, was visit a ski town. One of those places you imagine is always covered with a dusting of snow and a layer of Christmas lights, and whose fountains gush hot cocoa.
Colorado has a plethora of ski towns, destinations for upper middle class families hoping to make their holidays less “pedestrian” (presumably their words), and college kids skipping the winter break plane ride home, heading to the mountains instead, hoping to go the winter without having to say “shut up, dad” (presumably their thoughts).
Breckenridge formed a nice triangle with Sand Dunes and Denver (our next stop), so this ski town won out as a destination for the evening. All along the way to Breckenridge as you pass up and down twisty and turny roads, you’ll drive along small town Main Streets, each proudly advertising the amount of weed they have in town. Fingers-crossed that tourists on their way into expensive Breckenridge will pull off and stock up for their vacation ahead.
The most stand-out sign award goes to Alma, with the slogan “America’s Highest Incorporated Town”. Alma has an elevation of 10,578 feet, as well as three weed facilities on their half mile long drag. Get it, highest.
Breckenridge itself wants to have a small-town feel, but the convention-center-esque hotels bring to light the illusion. While parked in a gas station I used my cell to book the cheapest room in town, in what turned out to be a six building, 800+ room mega-hotel. We were provided with maps to find our room, with the approximate location circled. One confusing drive into the parking lot later (lots are labeled A-E and stretch across multiple buildings) and many an elevator trip to find the room, getting back to street level proved daunting.
We intended to spend the evening in town relaxing rather than stacking activities. The itinerary was simple, catch Dunkirk at the local independent theatre, then grab drinks. After seventeen minutes of elevator/stair combos, swearing we had already passed the arcade room, and confusing the Base Nine bar with the Coppertop bar, we found daylight once more and had ten minutes to walk the twenty minutes to the theatre. There’s no way to see a new place quite like running through it. Speed-sightseeing, you get to take everything in at double the rate.
There’s a distinct look to Breckenridge, like gingerbread village + wild west saloon + money. Shops and restaurants are shades of turquoise, terra cotta and mustard, with perfectly painted trim precisely three hues darker than the primary edifice color. Luckily for me there were Christmas lights hanging just so, which does produce a cozying feeling, but the place is made of money. If you wanted to curl up in a new blanket to really add onto this snug feeling, you’d probably be set back $150.00 to do so.
Come morning we jolted out of bed and onto the trails just minutes from town. Mohawk Lake was the destination. Roughly seven miles roundtrip and 1,700 feet of elevation, this would be considered a moderate venture, but the starting elevation of 10,400 feet made the climb to the top difficult. It was the highest elevation I’d ever hiked at, and many a water break were needed for me to catch my breath, but at the tippity top my-oh-my, what a sky.
And Denver, that magnificent bastard was in my head up there..”He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below. He saw everything as far as you can see…And the Colorado rocky mountain high…“