Saturday, July 11, 2020

Let Love Drive - A Road Trip with my Dad: Salida to Dinosaur CO

Itinerary: Salida to Dinosaur CO
Miles: 298

In June despite pandemic and civil unrest, my Dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, starting in Texas and ending in Iowa where he lives. 

This day was going to be a day of reckoning. Either the car was going to go up and over Monarch Pass and we'd continue the journey or it wasn't and we were going to have to figure out plan B. (See previous post).

We were now in mountain time and getting up early was a synch, as my body clock was on eastern time. That morning Dad was up 'n at 'em when I called his room at 7am. For the rest of the trip, he wouldn't sleep in like he did in Kansas. But I'm pretty sure that was due to restless sleep at his sister's place. I made coffee for him after he tried brewing it himself using the coffee maker in his room without a filter. I had brought with me some instant Starbucks to-go packs which actually taste pretty good and are great substitutes for premium coffee stops. I prefer to support local coffee shops whenever possible, but a lot of small towns don't have them so I came prepared. For him, I just would add extra water to mimic something close to Foldgers. Dad is a hardcore coffee consumer, drinking it all day and into the night. But I suppose that's possible when it's as weak as he likes it. :)

Driving west out of Salida, the Sawatch mountain range was in plain view and hung heavy on my mind. I got a text from Ryan to make sure to ask Dad if he needed to "use the throne" before heading up to altitude. I did just that when we stopped at the last gas station to fuel up. Dad laughed and smiled and said no as he gulped down his coffee. I have no idea how he can drink so much coffee and not have to pee every hour. I did not get the camel bladder gene from Dad. My bladder is a force not to reckon with and when it's time to go, it's time to go. 

Speaking of going, it was time to test out the Buick and our new information on how to drive it up a mountain. We didn't need the a.c. that morning as it was in the 50s when we started out. Dad, being the king temperature checker back home, was all over the outside temp gauge as we climbed higher and higher. I kept the car at a conservative speed of around 50 mph until I could feel the pull on the engine. I shifted into low and used the +, - buttons to control the shifting. Per Ryan's suggestions, I drove as if we were an RV pulling a yacht. Slow and steady would win this race. 

We passed the spot where we stalled the day before and we let out a cautious yahoo. I rubbed the dashboard and gave the car some words of encouragement. I watched the temp gauge like a hawk and backed it off at the slightest indication it wanted to move up. We were alone on the road. We came up on a tanker and after thinking I'd just sit behind him the whole way, I actually took a chance to go ahead on a passing lane. The engine temp gauge didn't budge what so ever. The outside temp gauge was a different story and Dad was fixated. By probably 10K feet, the temps were in the high thirties and I could almost feel dad shivering. He hates being cold, hence the double layered flannel shirt over his other flannel shirt. The morning was glorious. Crystal blue skies and the sun beaming through the lodge poll pines that resided across the mountain sides. Dad worked in a gardening center in Omaha before he and my mom ran their own lawn service and he tries to recall types of trees, plants and shrubs out loud all the time. Most of the time I think he just makes up the name but it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's paying attention. He's making himself be present and notice the landscapes and views around him. It'd been a long time since he'd seen a mountain, let alone be driving up one, so I had a full heart believing he was having fun.

Then, we saw it. Or at least we think we saw it. For 85, my dad has great long-view vision. Comes from years and I mean decades of staring down the river, observing its soul and learning its temperament. Dad lives on the Missouri River and he's been fishing on it for much of his life. Once he returned from his military duties, he was never too far from that river for any length of time. Staring hard and squinting, we think we see a large deer or elk right smack in the middle of the two-lane highway. Not far up from it is a bend in the road so I fix my sights on it because that animal was not getting out of way for me. Its head was bent over as it was eating something off the pavement so I slowed down and swerved to the right. The beast looked up like it was annoyed that I was disturbing his breakfast. "You're going to get nailed, buddy" I said as we passed by. I continued up and sure enough as we went around the curve, a large truck with a trailer was coming down the mountain. I tried to get his attention by waving and then pointing to my eyes, military style, and pointing back over my shoulder. Just before we disappeared around the turn, I could see break lights in the mirror. We both hoped it turned out well for all parties.

We continued our accent. Dad decided it was a good time to tell me the story of when he and mom went hunting and had to be towed up this very same mountain. Oh, really? Gee, did it not have any transmission fluid in it? Not the right time to tell me this story, Dad. He rambled on about some part he tried to fix before getting a tow. But before he could finish his story, we made it to the top of Monarch Pass and the continental divide! We pulled into a lot that I've stopped at numerous times. The visitor center was closed (thankfully Dad didn't have to use the throne) and there was only one other vehicle in the very large lot that is usually packed. We parked by the famed sign marking the altitude and location. Luckily, the couple in the other vehicle offered to take our picture after I offered to take theirs with their dog. The image of Dad and l on that perch is one I'll always cherish, not just because of the adversity we overcame to get there but because it's a place we both have been at different times in our lives and at that moment despite all the craziness in the world, it was just me and Dad doing this thing, together. I told him my stories of being dropped off here only to ride up higher on the trails, while it was actively snowing, to get to the start of enduro race stages. He thought it was pretty neat but also that I was crazy. Yeah, I thought the same thing at the time.

As they say on Everest, getting up is only half way. You still have to get down and so it was on Monarch Mountain. I was pretty nervous since the breaks shuttered so much but we took our sweet time and made it down easily. The huge valley on the other side, I told Dad, is one of my favorite views of all the places we've traveled. It's like the earth sighed and took a break from all the violence and energy it used to create the Sawatch Range. It was beautiful, with a babbling river snaking below the green hills, lush with tall grasses and wild flowers. Puffy clouds, like a herd of buffalo, silently moved along above us, casting shadows on the ground below. I felt my shoulders finally relax and my grip loosen. We might actually make it, I hoped.

I put in one of Dad's CDs. It was time to start having fun again. As Dad belted out one of his favorite tunes, I thought, how was it that he (and I) can recall such old melodies but our recent memory of detail is so crappy? It gave me an idea. Dad was having trouble remembering his pin number on his new debit card. He would sometimes punch in the last couple numbers backwards. Eventually, I just kept the card and would do all the gas pumping and purchasing but even I needed recalling the new pin number. So as we drove in the shadows of the mountains towards Gunnison, I made up a song that had his pin number in it and sang it like one of the old western tunes. It went like this:

Fifty-three fourteen
Is my new pin number
It will help me remember
If I sing this song.

Fifty-three fourteen
Is my new pin number
Singing'll help me remember
So I don't get it wrong.

I sang it many times in a row to hopefully get it stuck in his head. It worked for me. I caught myself singing and even humming it the rest of the trip. I hope I never forget it. Even now as I recall the memory, I can see Dad's face in the passenger seat looking out the window smiling at my singing, unsure if it was at my self-claimed cleverness or its absolute absurdity. 

By late morning we were just outside of Gunnison, Colorado. We enjoyed the solo tour through the rich ranch lands that were home to herds of cattle and goats. When we pulled into town, Dad said it was time for more coffee. Ok, dude, you're speaking my language. But I warned him that he may not like where I get it from. He didn't put up too much of a fight so I took his thermos into the shop we usually hit when in town. It had changed since we were there last with a new name and updated style. Since they didn't have drip I ordered two Americanos, one with extra water. Since COVID didn't allow them to pour directly into our thermoses I had to take them in cups and pour into the thermoses myself, which actually was a great way for me to control the amount of water and temperature. I ended up taking his into the bathroom and turned on the tap to hot. I poured out about a half cup of his Americano and filled it with water. Perfecto! He lapped it down, without complaint, as he dunked his gingersnaps. 

We didn't have a real agenda outside of making it to Dinosaur, Colorado, so we drove to Crested Butte, another destination that is a favorite of mine and Ryan. We've taken our most bold riding friends here as the terrain requires you to be a good rider. As we drove up the only paved road into town, I told him a few stories, one being when we hosted our friend Larry's 50th birthday party up in a lodge that we could see from the road and that it was infested with mice I also pointed out the famous butte of Crested Butte and where Ryan and I camped next to the local school along with others when we were there for a multi-day stage race. The race promoters had not secured a location for campers until we brought it to their attention and that was the spot the city allowed. But to our luck, because the town was physically being taken over by Bud Light for a festival, the event's beer vendor wasn't allowed in the city boundaries, so they had to camp where we were. We had real beer for the entirety of the event, so thank you Budweiser! 

Elk Mountain Range
The town of CB was alive with travelers and locals milling about. Outdoor yoga was happening on a stage. Mountain bike skills were being taught in a common open space (no masks) and the main drag, Elk Ave, was open for business. We drove by Al's Bicycle Heaven and of course it was open, helping customers with rentals and such. I told him it was owned by an Omaha native and how I got to meet her when I was there for a race that she was also competing in. I pointed out that many homes had bikes in the yard and that CB has a long history with mountain biking. I tried to recall as many details as I could about the history and the legendary ride over Vail pass by those that are now considered to be the inventors of the mountain bike. Anyway, it was fun to share this place with Dad that is so special to us.

We went back to Gunnison the way we came and Dad said he was ready for a coffee refill. I was caffeinated to the hilt so I decided to go through a drive through place on the edge of town. They didn't have drip either so I told Dad this was going to probably be stronger than the one he just had and he mumbled something about having to get over it. 

The next few hours were visually stunning. We drove by and over the Blue Reservoir, a large natural body of water that was so vibrant against the red rocks above them. Dad really enjoyed this segment of the drive, commenting on the types of boats that were out. I stopped a few times to read some of the site interpretations so I could give Dad some of the details of what he was seeing. Really fun was telling him how old some of the rock layers were. "They're older than me" he said. Yep, way older.

We weren't decided on if we were going to drive into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the 5th steepest canyon in America, where some sections only get about 30 minutes of sunlight per day. Ryan and I visited there one summer when we were traveling to Telluride. We got a glimpse of one of its canyons as we descended down into the Grand Valley south of Grand Junction. We got stuck in some construction traffic and that kinda took some air out of our balloon until we passed the crewman with the "slow" sign, who was dancing and waving at each car that passed by. Dad thought that was great. But the turn off to the Black Canyon came and went and we decided to keep going. I had to make a potty stop or I was going to pee my pants and it took me a few u-turns to finally find a place and a spot to grab a sandwich. Of course, Subway is everywhere and luckily, that's what Dad prefers because he can watch them put the extra jalepenos and banana peppers on his ham sandwich. We dawned our masks and got in and got out. I made Dad sanitize his hands on the way out! 

Whew, it was hot! High desert and aired confirmed we were definitely in western Colorado. We pulled into Fruita (I pointed out the mountain biker painted on the side of the tall silo and you come into town). We stopped for a quick bathroom break and to book our motel in Dinosaur. Then I drove Dad around the town circle before getting back on the interstate. I missed the exit on the circle so had to do another go 'round. Listening to the phone give me directions and trying to read the signs while traffic was merging in and out of the circle was stressful. Dad thought it was funny that "Molly" was telling us to go the wrong way. But she wasn't. The driver was just confused. 

On our way out of Fruita, I pointed to the Book Cliffs and told stories of riding on trails known as 18 Road and pointing in the general direction of my all time favorite trails in Rabbit Valley, where I've ridden and taken others to ride, along ribbons of trail above the Colorado River. Absolutely stunning. The exit to those trails was the exit we had to take to continue north. From there forward, I would be driving through unfamiliar lands. In fact, after we went through the town of Loma, we saw a sign that read no services for 70 miles. I prayed we wouldn't need them.

The terrain in the north western part of Colorado looks similar to eastern Utah with lots of red rock cliffs towering above green pastures. We saw little sign of life and I couldn't get a radio signal for longer than a couple minutes. Towards the end of the valley we had been driving in, about 50 miles since the exit, the road started to go up. Like we did the first time over Monarch Pass, it was in the hottest part of the day and I had to pull down the sun visor on the side of my face b/c it was so hot (I ended up with a sunburn, actually). We put a flannel shirt on the dash to keep the heat from radiating off of it. I turned off the ac and turned on only the fan. We opened the windows and slowly started to climb the steep switch backs. I noticed the engine needle started to move up. SHIT!!! There was no shoulder and the other side was a sheer drop to the valley below. Come on car!! I told Dad about the gauge but he was not deterred. Shouldn't matter if it gets a little hot. Well, tell that to the car! I was going super slow. A group of motorcycle riders went passed. Chug-a-chug-a-chug. We were the little car the could. I think I can. I think I can. The road continued up and on one section where it was somewhat straight, we saw a cow crossing warning sign. My dad was like, wait, what? How does a cow get up here? I had to admit, I was just as confused about it. Maybe the highway guys installed the wrong sign. Maybe it was supposed to be a mountain goat and they were like, close enough. We went around a couple of pretty tight bends with just a railing between us and certain death. Wouldn't want to be here after dark, Dad said. I couldn't agree more and when we saw the top I was so relieved. We pulled over to get a picture atop Douglas Pass. The moto guys had pulled over as well, and as Dad does, he struck up a conversation about his old Gold Wing, and how he had driven it to Sturgis one year. They were great guys and had been on the road for some time, heading back to Salt Lake. When they asked where we were from, they had heard about the area and the scenic Loess Hills. When we said where we had driven from that day, they were all too familiar with our route. It was fun talking with them. Dad even suggested he take their picture. I was like, good job, Dad. Jumping on the photo wagon. I think he was just excited to be talking to someone else. Haha.

Literally a highway to nowhere.

Looking back on the road we came up.

Dad's got his captain hat on Douglas Pass.

A tad windy up there at 8268'

The long haulers' bikes.
We left our new friends and continued north. We passed through the small town of Rangley and Dad decided, when he saw the words ICE painted on the local mini-mart that he wanted ice cream. So I did a u-turn to get him some ice cream. He came out with two pints, one for each of us. Since I was driving, I put mine in the cooler. Dad got after his and it was hard as cement but he eventually got it soft enough to eat. By the time we pulled into Dinosaur, he had consumed the whole thing.

It didn't take long to find the motel, as it was the only one. The town was on the edge of the Dinosaur National Monument but I have to say, the town in and of itself was a dinosaur. It had two gas stations, two dispensaries and one bar. The motel was actually up for sale and that had me a bit worried. That worry was reinforced when I saw a family of kids hanging out the front door of one of the rooms on the end and another man on the stoop in front of his door. The lobby was once probably a barn-shaped shed and the check in was all virtual, using a phone and the doorbell app. After calling the number on the door, I was let in and then told to answer the land line phone if it rang. After filling out my check in card, the phone rang and I was told what keys to grab. So weird. I walked back to the car and gave Dad his key and then when I tried to get into my room, I couldn't get the door open. I called the number I used to check in and she said she'd ask the motel manager (aka the guy a few doors down who lives there) to come help. He got it open and he was very nice about it. The rooms were dark and run down. But they were cheap and you get what you get. 

It was late afternoon so we did what you're supposed to do when it's hot as a well diggers ass in summer- day drink. We drove across the street to the Highway Bar & Grill to belly up and cool off. The inside didn't match the weather-warn exterior. It had been recently purchased by the owners working the bar and the decor was a mix of old and new, with high ceilings and funny signs. And as luck would have it, a large pool table was the center piece of the space. There are two things that Dad loves more than anything: fishing and playing pool. He's been playing pool since he knew how to hold a cue and "back in the day" was a mild-mannered hustler. Now he says he's never hustled anyone in his life. He always played on the up and up, making sure both he and the other new the rules of the game. Even at his age, and weakening vision, the guy can still call the hole like a pro. My brothers can beat him more these days but Dad's no quitter. He won't make it easy. We played one match and he helped me with some of the shots. The bar owners' kid was waiting tables and asked if he could play. I was like, have at it! I knew Dad would have a blast playing someone who knew what they were doing and even more fun against someone 70+ years younger. We were the only ones in the bar by the second match. I ordered another round of jack n Coke and a beer for Dad (no Busch heavy!) and put some funds into the digital juke box.

"Hey, Dad. Hank senior or junior?"

"Senior. Don't ever make that mistake again". 

So noted.

We were the only ones in the bar. I sent this photo of Dad to my brothers reporting that Dad was in the middle of nowhere and Heaven all at the same time. 

After Dad tired of playing, we ordered some burgers and ate them on the outdoor patio. Some local rowdies pulled in on their bikes and it was a sign that we were to be going. Instead of driving straight back to the motel, we drove to the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument, about 5 minutes away. I didn't plan on driving into the park, but that's exactly what we did. There wasn't anyone at the entrance so we just drove in and stopped at the first viewpoint we could see: Bull Canyon. It was stunning! And because it had a paved foot path, Dad got out and walked to its edge. We had fun reading the sign about the ages of the layers we were looking at. It was a bit breezy and the sun and clouds were dancing, creating some great color for our solo tour. From what we could tell, we were the only ones there. We drove on and stopped in almost every pull out to get a picture of the ancient expanse. Dad stayed in the car while I took full advantage of the scenery with nobody else around. I would hold my breath and listen to the wind try to tell me the story of the land it had help form. We probably drove for an hour before we decided to turn around. 

Plug Hat Butte, Dinosaur National Monument

We went back to the motel. After a few minutes, I went to check on Dad and of course the TV didn't work. I tried the remote a few times and I couldn't even get a signal so Dad went down to the "manager's" room and banged on the door. I could hear him ask in his usual, crabby way, "Can you come down here and help us figure out this damn remote." The guy was very nice and didn't know how to figure it out any better than us. He messed with it and finally I told Dad that we should switch rooms so he could have the TV that worked and I could have the air conditioned room. Deal! The manager kept messing with the remote for a good half our, even calling the land lord. He even offered a different room but I was like, nah. I don't need it work, so can you please get the hell out of my room already! 

After he finally left, I read for a bit and then went to bed. I had a restless sleep and good thing because when a cockroach decided to crawl on me, I was on it like murder hornet, killing it with the closest thing to me, which was my Kindle. Yeah, my e-reader was a bug killing weapon. Sue me. Needless to say, I really didn't sleep worth shit after that. The next morning, Dad told me about his night's adventures that included killing not only a cockroach but a myriad of other insects. Sorry, Dad. I'll try not to book us in a roach motel again! 

I was none to glad to get the hell out of Dinosaur, where even the streets were named after the prehistoric creatures. Imagine having to fill out paperwork with addresses that included Stegosaurus Street or Brontosaurus Way.

photo credit to

photo credit to
I guess not even having fun street names brought many people through town anymore. From what the manager said, the motel was used mostly by those coming to stop at the dispensaries. I thought about that as we drove out of town because I remembered I left the pint of ice cream Dad bought me in the freezer of the mini fridge. I laughed at the thought of the next person to rent that room, who after smoking a bowl, would go to the mini fridge to see if there was something to eat, and then imagining the joy on their face upon discovering a pint of Raspberry/Chocolate swirl ice cream. Good job, Dad.

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