Utah and Colorado

Thursday, 05 September 2013 15:30
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Top of the Rockies Up one side of the Rockies and down the other.

My first task in getting to Colorado was to pick Chris Wessels up at the Salt Lake City airport and then figure out how to get him into the car. The Datsun actually has a surprising amount of leg room, so the only real difficulty for him was getting in and out, and even that wasn’t too bad. We re-distributed some of his luggage to the area under behind the seats, and he kept the rest under his knees, and he claimed he was actually pretty comfortable…at least more comfortable than a coach class airline seat. I don’t think he would be able to drive the car in anything resembling comfort, as fitting his legs in is one thing, but working the brake and clutch is another. However, that wasn’t really part of the plan anyway, so off we went.

On a side note: There’s likely to be considerably more photos of me in this post than in past posts, since Chris was there taking pictures too. It probably goes without saying, but any pictures here of me are by Chris.

Chris had worked out a rough plan of attack based on travel times, and a few scheduled stops we had along the way to see his parents and do a couple of other things. I worked out the lodging situation based around that, and we headed off to our first stop—Moab, Utah. (I know I said we were going to Colorado, but we’ll get to that.)

Artsy in-the-mirror shot by Chris Wessels En route to Moab

Over the years, Moab has become mountain biking and off-roading mecca for all kinds of people, mostly due to its beautiful and challenging terrain and relatively lax OHV trail regulations. The town was packed with bikers and jacked up Jeeps, but oddly didn’t really feel overly tourist-centric. I was kind of hoarse from talking over the wind noise in the car on the way down; I hadn’t spoken much to anybody in general recently, and even then in normal conversational tones, so I was a little out of practice at being loud. Nonetheless, we had a nice talk catching up on all kinds of things over a tasty Mexican dinner (I figured my opportunities for good Mexican food would be dwindling as I headed northeast), then went back to the hotel and turned in for the evening.

The plan the next day was to see Arches National Park, which was right next to Moab, then continue into Colorado through Grand Junction and Aspen and end up at Chris’s parents condo in Keystone at the end of the day. Chris said he had a surprise planned for dinner as well, so our route was intended to hit all of those things.

The weather for us was overcast, but it only drizzled intermittently and the temperature was nice, so we kept the top down and headed into Arches. My National Parks Annual Pass came in handy again (that thing has definitely paid for itself on this trip), and we drove up toward some of the more prominent features. We didn’t have all day to spend there if we were going to make it to our other destinations, but we were able to get in several hours. It’s a pretty amazing place—the sedimentary sandstone formations formed layers of mostly red and orange rock (similar to the geography around Las Vegas), but these were laid over a huge and ancient salt bed left from the evaporation of a large sea millions of years ago. That underlying salt is what cause the strange formations in the area—as the weight of the deposits over the salt increased, the salt would liquefy, causing linear ‘fins’ of rock uplift to form, which eventually became the towers, walls, and arches that the park is known for.

The is either "The Organ" or "The Courthouse", I forget which Aptly named "Balance Rock" The weather eventually cleared up
One of the "Window" arches North "Window" arch Both "Windows"

We checked out the Balancing Rock, several of the larger arches, and a few towers, but that was all we had time for. Moab and Arches are definitely on my “return visit” list, as it’s not a bad trip up from Las Vegas. We headed out to Grand Junction via one of the longer stretches of freeway miles I’ve done on the trip thus far.

South "Window" arch More arching Hiking up to the inside of the arch
Chris, being made to look short for a change I'm in this picture at the far left Delicate Arch, off in the distance

After a quick stop for lunch in Grand Junction, we were done with the freeway for a while, and got into the Rockies proper. We went through Aspen and several smaller towns, and made our way over Independence Pass, the highest point I’d reached on the trip (and probably the highest I’ll get to; I don’t think I’ve got anything taller between me and home now.) As usual, the car wasn’t particularly happy with the low oxygen situation, but it made the climb just fine anyway, and we headed down the other side to our dinner destination. 

Me, secretly hoping the car starts when I get back in

Chris had made arrangements for us to dine at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, just northwest of Leadville, CO. We got the now-daily afternoon rainstorm just outside Leadville, which produced the now-common daily rainbow as well. I don’t know if it’s a seasonal thing around here or what, but pretty much ever since I left Idaho, it’s been sunny for most of the day, then either scattered rain storms or a big shower late in the afternoon, then right back to sunny again. The top on the car is getting a lot of exercise lately.

Old mining equipment up in the mountains One of the many overlooks Rainbow outside of Leadville

We got to the small lodge near the restaurant a little bit late for our reservation, but it wasn’t a big deal. This was to be a pretty unique dining experience, as the ‘restaurant’ is a ski-in place in the winter and a hike-in place in the summer—in other words, our dinner was at the end of a mile long hike into the woods, and once we got there, there’d be no electricity, running water, or other ‘luxuries’.  The guy at the lodge gave me some quick directions (“Head up this path until it looks like you should turn, make that turn, and the place is about another 20 minutes up that road”), and after grabbing my light and some rain gear, we were on our way.

At the lodge, pre-hike to dinner There is food at the end of this trail

 The restaurant was located in a large yurt, with lighting via candlelight and gaslight. The other guests had already arrived and been seated by the time we got there, and everybody looked to be having a good time. The routine was that it was one prix fixe menu with a couple of choices each night, served to the whole restaurant at the same time, kind of like a big dinner party. Before we got started with our meal, our waitress came out and asked “Are you the guys with the cool sports car in the parking lot at the lodge?” We said yes, and she asked “1600 or 2000?” I asked her if somebody there knew about those cars, and she grinned and said she was trying to look smart, but it was one of the guys in the back who’d told her to come and ask us. He came out to say hi, and it was the same guy who’d given me directions back at the lodge; he was also one of the cooks. He and his brother had fixed up a few of the Roadsters over the years, as well as a couple of 510s and other assorted vehicles, and he was happy to see one pull up to his restaurant out in the woods. I had pointed out earlier to Chris that he was driving the non-hikers out to the place in a 1970s Toyota Land Cruiser, so it was pretty obvious he was a car guy. It still amazes me how many Roadster guys there are out there, and the weird places they turn up in. 

The view from the yurt's porch Inside the yurt, with gaslight Wider shot of the inside

Chris had to pre-order the meal when he made the reservation, and he had chosen the elk filet and the lamb chops. I had the elk and he had the lamb, but we did both try a bit of each. The elk was great, much better than the venison I’ve had in the past…sort of a cross between beef and bison. The lamb was also excellent. They made warm strawberry rhubarb pie for desert as well, and it was all really tasty.

By the time we finished stuffing ourselves, it was dark outside, so the hike back through the woods would be via starlight. Luckily, I had brought my light along, and the hosts helpfully had a box of lights for the guests as well, so Chris got one of those, and we hiked on back to the lodge. We met up with the same guy again when we got back and chatted about cars and road trips and whatnot for a little while, then got on our way to Chris’s parents place to crash for the evening.

We arrived at the condo community around 10:30pm and met up with his parents and some friends of theirs who were also staying there. I had met his parents before in Las Vegas when they visited the office, and it was good to see everybody again. After a brief snack and some more chit-chat, we hit the sack.

Morning brought a big table full of Chris’s favorite breakfast (German pancakes), so we spent a bit of time stuffing ourselves before getting organized for a bike ride around the lake. They had quite a few bicycles there from accommodating previous guests, so I had my choice of rides and helmets, and we took off for Dillon.

It was a great day for a ride, and this ride had a special treat at the end—a ferry ride back across the lake to the other side. I didn’t think I’d end up having one more ferry ride than my car did, but there you go. We got in just at the end, too; this was the last day of the season for the ferry.

The Wessels clan, movin' down the road Water taxi stop
The view from the ferry Chris's Mom and Dad

Chris and I needed to get going pretty soon to make our next stop, but we had time to bike over to a nearby restaurant  for a little lunch first (green pork chili and a salad…mmm), and then we were on our way. We had a scenic route planned, taking through Rocky Mountain National Park and up along Trail Ridge Road, which was just slightly higher than Independence Pass (12,183 vs 12,095). It was a great drive, and included the afternoon rain showers (sans rainbow this time), a bunch of elk, and a quick hike at the summit. It was all alpine tundra up top, with plenty of critters to watch. We saw yellow-bellied marmot getting ready for winter by gathering vegetation for their “haystacks” that they feed off of after it snows, and a bunch of pika running around doing whatever pika do.

Trail Ridge Road, from the top Not a great pic, but you can see a bunch of elk down there One of the weirder rock formations
You can tell which way the wind blows here Your alpine friend, the marmot Stocking his haystack for the winter

Jumping back in the car, we coasted most of the way down the other side of the mountains, then made our way to Estes Park and the historic Stanley Hotel. For some reason, “The Shining” has been a recurring thing on this trip, first with the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, and now here at The Stanley (is ‘two things’ considered recurring?). This hotel was built back in the early 1900s, and it was here that Stephen King stayed and got the inspiration to first write the novel “The Shining”. They also filmed the mini-series here at the hotel. 

The Stanley

Chris and I tossed our stuff into our rooms, then went into town for a nice Italian meal for dinner. There’s a great little shopping/dining/etc. walking mall along a small running creek in town, and we ate outside right next to that. After returning to the hotel, we continued with the “Shining” theme, and went and had a couple of bourbon drinks (for authenticity, of course) at the bar where Stephen King met the guy who’d become the creepy bartender in the book/movie. That pretty much wrapped up a full day, and we turned in afterward.

Neither of us were haunted during the night (at least not that we know of), and the next morning we got up and took the Stanley Hotel tour, which was pretty interesting. It wasn’t all ghosts and horror movies though; there was some interesting stuff about the twin brothers F.O. and F.E. Stanley, the Stanley Steamer motorcar, and the construction and history of the hotel.

Not "the" typewriter, but they're not shy on marketing A little "Shining" souvenir Front end of a Stanley Steamer
The ballroom, formerly the dining area Lots of cool original details around The grand staircase

Our plans for the rest of the day included heading to Boulder to meet Chris’s brother for lunch and to visit his alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder. Specifically, we were going to visit the planetarium and see the cool new system they were just getting fired up there.

Lunch was very tasty (“Half Fast Subs”), and it was great to meet his brother. Like Chris, he’s an engineer, although he works in aerospace and not show business. The conversation waffled back and forth between family, life, and geeky engineering topics, and we finished up in time for the non-roadtrip members of the lunch party to get back to work.

The planetarium was only about five minutes from the lunch stop, so it was an easy drive over. Several years ago, we had installed a small winch and control system there for a display called “Science on a Sphere”, where real-time NOAA data (among other things) could be projected on 360 degrees of a sphere to represent the earth. Chris had also spent a large amount of time and energy there during his student years, so we were sort of ‘friends of the planetarium’. Chris’s friend Tito was still running the place, and after exchanging greetings, he gave us the grand tour. They had swapped their older (but still awesome) Carl Zeiss projector (fondly referred to as “Fritz”) for a new ultra-bright LED-based “Megastar” projector that could show over 20 million stars and deep space objects on the dome.  The projector was synchronized with a series of big JVC 4k digital projectors and a digital content system which could overlay text, images, effects, or anything else on the starfield produced by the projector and synchronize the motion of both together. It was a really amazing system, and way, way ahead of any planetarium I’ve ever been in. The system didn’t just show canned slides or images—it would generate content on the fly and show it on the dome correctly, in real time, and in up to 8k resolution. 

"Fritz", the old Zeiss projector The new (much smaller) Megastar

This was the first day that Tito was receiving training on it, so they fired it up for us and ran it through some paces. They popped up the entire visible universe (which didn’t cover the whole dome, as the entire sky has not yet been photographed by Hubbell or other telescopes to that depth), then showed the Milky Way and zoomed in and out of that and panned around it in 3D, then popped up Jupiter and showed the orbital paths of all of its moons, then the solar system with the planetary orbits. After that, they turned on the Megastar, and we sat there dumbstruck at the accuracy and detail with which it reproduced the stars. I will definitely be coming back here to catch one of the shows. 

Orbits of Jupiter's moons, animated on the fly And with Jupiter, of course Our solar system, with animated planetary orbits Star output. Orion sort of center-right

For our last evening of tandem roadtripping, we were staying with Chris’s parents again, but this time in their house in Littleton, just outside of Denver. While we were busy getting haunted and looking at stars, they’d returned home from Keystone, so his mom would be there to greet us. We took the scenic route back from Boulder, stopping to watch some rock climbers and cutting through some really scenic canyon drives, and arrived at the house around 9:30pm. His mom was kind enough to let me use their laundry, so I cleaned clothes while Chris hit the hay, as we’d be getting up a little after 5am to get him to the airport on time. 

Chris, contemplating his options Climbers on the right Some lovely scenery

Morning rolled around, and we got up at the crack and got ready. Naturally, his mom got up as well and made us breakfast, so after some tasty turnovers, we said our goodbyes and took an easy drive to the airport under a lovely sunset. Chris unfolded himself from the car for the last time, gathered up his stuff, and headed back to Las Vegas, while I headed back out on the road.

Since we got out so early, I had the better part of the day to do some exploring, but I also had some ground to cover. I had sort of arbitrarily picked Laramie, WY as a place to stop for the evening, which was a bit north of Denver. It started raining almost as soon as I dropped Chris off, so up went the top, and I went off and wandered around Golden, CO for a bit and ran a few errands while I was there (new toiletries, hosed the car off, paid some bills, etc.) I had hoped to get together with another friend that day in Denver (or Colorado Springs), but we weren’t able to get it coordinated, so I started the drive north to Laramie.

Of course, I ran into the afternoon rainstorm/rainbow again, but at least this one made for a good sunset and some nice photos. I had tried to get another airbnb stop for Laramie (or Cheyenne), but they’re getting fewer and farther between as I get farther out in to the wild west prairies (especially on short notice), so I settled for a Best Western to get some rest before heading out farther north into the Black Hills.

Schizophrenic weather in Wyoming Another day, another rainbow The road less traveled, Laramie-style

Next stop: The Black Hills and Devils Tower


#1 Monkeygym 2013-09-09 10:11
Hey Scott! Have you noticed the ongoing enthusiastic food references you seem to keep us apprised of? You have been hiking and biking a bit, but I'm wondering if you are putting on the pounds with all the good food!
We'll be missing you in our attempts to destroy the cars at Thunderhill this weekend; I'm counting on you for Sears Point 7-8 December, OK?
Drive safe--have fun!
#2 Mom 2013-09-10 18:41
Such a great post
#3 admin 2013-09-10 21:15
I'm wondering if you are putting on the pounds with all the good food!
Sampling the local food is part of the fun, but I think all the hiking is keeping me from feeling the downside of that...I've lost maybe 5lbs during the trip so far, which isn't too bad for mostly sitting on my butt behind the wheel.

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