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October 22, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 2

Today marks our second day of marathon driving, made more difficult by our late departure from Holdrege. We had a pleasant if brief visit with my mother -- but not quite brief enough, considering the distance we planned to cover today: more than 700 miles across Nebraska and Colorado to Moab, Utah, which will serve as our base of operations for the next couple of days. We didn't manage to leave Holdrege until after 11:00 this morning, which in light of the 11-12 hour drive we were facing wasn't the best way to begin our day's journey. At any rate, we finally got on the road and headed west.

I-80 across western Nebraska and I-76 across northeastern Colorado cover a huge swath of dusty, increasingly dry prairie, dotted with ranches and a few small towns. The landscape is pretty in a desolate, almost eerie, sort of way, but we are more than ready to be past the high plains when Denver and the Rocky Mountains finally appear on the horizon. Because it is Sunday, negotiating Denver traffic is not a problem, and we merge smoothly onto I-70, which will take us across central and western Colorado and into Utah. Doc Dregs is familiar with the Denver area, having been an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming (which is just a couple of hours up the road in Laramie), but to my surprise, this particular route is mostly new to him. As for me, I traveled this route once before, many years ago: when I was 9 years old, we took a family road trip to southern California. My memories of this drive are vague, since as a 9-year-old, I was far more interested in reading my books and fighting with my brother than in appreciating the dramatic alpine scenery. And oh, is it ever dramatic. Doc Dregs and I both grew up in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are friendly little pine-forested mountains (mostly 5,000-7,000 feet in elevation). The terrain of the Colorado Rockies is both familiar in the ways that it resembles the Black Hills, and jarringly unfamiliar in the sheer size and scale of the peaks.

Our little car struggles to climb the Rockies, even on the relatively tame interstate. Still, between Denver and the Eisenhower Tunnel -- a distance of only 60 miles -- we must climb nearly 6,000 feet. Slowly but surely, though, we ascend to 11,158 feet, and cross the Continental Divide. The air is thin at 11,000 feet, and we find ourselves feeling a bit breathless and oxygen-deprived until we've descended a bit. As we approach the tunnel, we appreciate the results of last week's snowstorm, which has left the slopes and trees with a pristine white coat. Apparently, the mountain goats also appreciate the view from I-70, since we pass three or four of them simply standing on the shoulder of the road. The late afternoon sun blazes, and there is not a cloud in the sky: this is a picture-postcard day on I-70 and we feel lucky to be passing through today.

We are in a hurry, so we don't stop as much to take pictures as we would like. But there is a scenic viewpoint a few miles past the Eisenhower Tunnel where we simply must stop. With a view of Dillon Reservoir surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, the scenery is too lovely to bypass without a picture or two:

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We can't linger long, since the daylight is fading, and we know the drive will be much harder once darkness falls. Unfortunately, our late start deprives us of daylight to appreciate the views of Glenwood Canyon, supposedly one of the loveliest stretches of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. We are still able, however, to marvel at the engineering achievements involved in road-and-tunnel building through the Rocky Mountains, and to look foward to a return visit to explore Colorado more thoroughly.

Of course, the view from I-70 is only the tiniest taste of the Rockies, and it's a pretty compromised one at that. Along much of the road, tourist and resort towns flank the mountainsides; it all seems just a little too civilized and comfortable considering the (insert string of trite adjectives here) majestic and terrible grandeur of the Rockies. We are both amused and troubled (though grateful, considering how far we have yet to drive) at the seemingly endless strip of highway through which there is a Starbucks at every exit. I'm not opposed to development, and I certainly appreciate the opportunities afforded by the modern world for the enjoyment of wilderness without too much privation. But it seems a little too easy to take this amazing landscape for granted when it's all so settled and overdeveloped. This is the first time of many that the conflict between wilderness and civilization will be presented to us in such an obvious way. It's a well-known theme of the contemporary American West that is emphasized by the simple act of passing through: the miraculous event of being able to traverse the Rockies in a few hours in the comfort of a climate-controlled vehicle reminds us of how far we are from a fundamental experience of nature.

We stop for a quick dinner in Grand Junction, Colorado, before forging onward the last 100 miles or so to Moab, which lies 30 miles south of I-70 not far from the Colorado border. The darkness west of Grand Junction and into Utah is so deep that it's oppressive and almost threatening. There are very few other cars on this stretch of road, and we feel very alone as we enter the high desert. We are exhausted and relieved when we finally reach our hotel in Moab, and very glad to have long days of driving behind us for now.

Ready to get out of the car? Day 3

Posted by at October 22, 2006 10:37 PM