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Breakfast in America Camping Trip

I've just completed a low-budget high-value vacation that was conceived, and for which the advance plans were compiled on bar tables or not at all. It began with an escalating discussion between Nicolas, Anna, Karen, and then, peripherally, me. If you wish to delve fully into the origins of the trip, I was informed some years ago by Nicolas and Anna that they wanted very much to travel with me, at some point.

In the intervening time, I befriended Karen, through my friend Amanda, through my friend Matthew, through my friend the internet. After some minor growing pains, Karen befriended Nicolas and Anna to an enthusiastic degree, and it was conceived about three weeks ago that the four of us should take a trip together. Without consulting me, Colorado was decided as the destination, and plans were flightily drawn up.

This is fine, because the four of us got along so well that we could have gone to Joplin and it would still have been wonderful. I'm not trying to highlight an imagined negativity about our noble neighbor-city to the south, mind you. I'm just saying that the four of us could enjoy ourselves regardless of the circumstances. And we did.

Karen volunteered her large vehicle as the one we would use for the trip, and on day one she picked up Nick and Anna at their residence at 8am or so. They packed her large vehicle to bursting, and then hastened to my house to collect me. I jammed my effects into the car as best as we could, and we made what speed we could for KCK for some mexi-breakfast at Amigo's on Steele.

We rolled into Denver at around 6pm local time, and met up with Karen's friend Courtney at her place near either Denver University or the University of Denver.(living in the Big-12 world, I have become uncertain as to the actual names of schools because of the apparent resident need to abbreviate the names of local schools in a backwards manner, as if anyone outside the area refers to them as such.) Courtney and her boyfriend Dave showed us around Denver a bit that evening. We went to a bar/restaurant called Steuben's, then to a trendy neighborhood bar called the Thin Man, on the advice of Tobias, a friend that grew up in the Denver area. Both were a lot of fun and had some very good beer.

We relocated back to Courtney's house, and made an appearance at a trashy sports-dive called Smugs, near her house. I remarked once we went inside and got settled that it could easily have been in South KC, if the Broncos material was switched out for Chiefs fanware. We closed the bar and stumbled back to Courtney's house for a light sleep. I awoke at 8am or so, processed my digested goods, and went outside for a breath. I found that Nick was already up, wandering around outside, taking pictures. He captured me in my underpants in the out of doors. Chuckles were exchanged. I walked with him to get coffee, and we sat on the back patio of the house talking idly about history, culture, literature, and boobs until the morning faded into the afternoon.

Anna and Karen soon awoke and assembled themselves, and we thanked Courtney for her hospitality and friendliness. We got breakfast, made a brief stop at REI for fishing licenses and to tie some objects to the roof of Karen's large vehicle, and we were off. As it was still effectively summer, I suggested that we forsake the Eisenhower Tunnel, and instead go over the Loveland Pass. I was driving by this time, and would do so for the rest of the time, until we made the long trip back across the plains to go home on Tuesday.

The others in the car thought that going over the pass was a great idea. I don't think they were aware of how precarious some of the hairpin turns were, and the magnitude of the drops over their edges. Put simply, the pass freaked them out, but it was with good humor that they freaked out. We stood on top of the pass, and climbed a small stair that put us right at about 12,000 feet, and took our first mountain pictures. We were also reminded that there's no such thing as summer at these elevations. We gathered our warm clothes and posed for blustery cold pictures. It was wonderful.

We descended the west slope of the Continental Divide, rolling in neutral past Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, and Keystone before reaching more or less level ground. We circled around Dillon, where we'd planned to make our first stop since Denver, for the Dillon Dam Brewery. After a couple laps we found it, and took our seats. We had a couple of beers, and as we did so two things happened that made us reconsider our plans to drive all the way to Steamboat Springs that day. One, it began raining. Hard. Two, the clock struck 4pm. We had perhaps three or maybe four hours of daylight left in which we could buy provisions, find and set up a campsite, get a fire going, cook and eat our dinner, and sit around the fire wistfully, remarking at our great luck. We paid our tab, and wound up doing all these things in Dillon.

We settled to sleep around 9pm. I awoke about an hour before dawn, drawn awake by cold, hard-grounded discomfort, and tingling excitement to have nothing better to do for six days than spend time with my friends in a grand, beautiful place. I went through my morning motions as my friends snored through a normal night's sleep. I timed things perfectly though, because when I went back to my perch by the side of Dillon Reservoir to watch the line of the mountains on the far eastern side of the lake, I was rewarded with a majestic Colorado sunrise. I watched the sun peak over the mountain-saddle across the lake in a period of about ten seconds. It was humbling and awe-inspiring. It made my own concerns, worries, and problems melt away to insignificance. It was more than my desire.

As if they'd planned to miss the sunrise, the others alighted from the tent within minutes of the sun coming up in earnest. We cooked and ate, had some bloody marys with some fantastic two-years-aged mix that Karen produced from a mason jar hidden among her effects, mixed with crappy Kansas City vodka. It was excellent. We hit the road with a rough idea of where we were going, but no specific plans.

We drove south on state highway 9, crested our second pass, the Fremont, and arrived an hour or so later in Leadville. Anna and Karen saw a thrift store and politely demanded that we stop. I made the best of it, and purchased a lively winter hat, some corduroy pants, and a pair of sunglasses. We wandered around Leadville for a bit, and got some untasty macros at the Silver Dollar Saloon, served by a waitress with a voice just like our friend Terra's. We got back on the road, and headed down US-24 to Colorado state highway 82, where we then crossed the Independence Pass, which is slightly higher than the Loveland Pass, and is too wild and high to keep open in the winter. The summit was well above the treeline, and the approach to it was stark, extremely steep, and very sudden. We wandered around the tundra for a half hour or so before getting back into the car, and enjoying by surprise one of the prettiest descents we'd ever seen.

Within an hour or so we were rolling down the gold-paved streets of Aspen. I once visited Aspen in 2004, to ski over the new year. The contrast between my memory of it covered in snow and its appearance alive and green was startling. I daresay it's even prettier in the summer than in the winter. We gave it a pass in any case, as we're not made of money, and instead drove down 82 to Basalt, where Karen assured us there was excellent fishing in the excellently named Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers. We got a bottle of sauvignon blanc and some fish tacos at a patio next to the Frying Pan river, and decided to go fishing for real, and find a place to stay that night.

We got off the highway in Carbondale, and drove south on state highway 135. The Roaring Fork river valley, through which 84 had come since Aspen, was achingly pretty, but the Crystal River's valley was in another league. I've never seen anything like it. It was completely at odds with the nearby Roaring Fork valley in terms of grandeur. It seems to be almost too beautiful. I took up the habit of following my dumbfounded exasperations with claims of, "that's photoshopped." I'll say it again: I've never seen anything like it. Pictures don't do it justice. The place has to be seen to be experienced, and once you've seen it, your mind won't let you believe that it's real. I could die there.

We made our way down the Crystal River valley, on the lookout for a place to camp, but were rebuked at every campground with what we expected for Labor Day weekend: "Campground Full," signs were draped across the fee areas of every campground we encountered. The sun was sinking behind the mountains, and things were starting to look a little grave when we came across a free campground about a mile south of the summit of the McClure Pass on 135. All the normal sites were taken, but since the campground was unpatrolled and unsupervised, we helped ourselves to an as-yet undeveloped campsite.

There was a bit of concrete pavement in one part, and we carried a steel firegrate over to it from a neighboring under-construction campsite. The site was completely surrounded by groves of Aspen trees, and was marvelously sited for stargazing after the sun went down. We sat talking around the fire well into the dark hours, and played cards in the tent until almost midnight. In short, it was much the way I'd imagined the camping trip would be.

I rose first the next morning, but instead of pestering the others, I brushed my teeth and sat down to read until everyone got up. As before, Nick was the next one awake, and he came to join me. We talked for perhaps forty five minutes before the ladies stirred, and quickly broke camp to head out into the world.

We went back up to Redstone, an unincorporated town just up the road that spooned the Crystal River from the east. We got breakfast under the sky at a patio next to the noisy river, and Anna presented everyone with friendship bracelets that she'd just procured at the crap store that was attached to the restaurant. We ventured south along 135 for a bit until we found what we decided would be a good place to fish. We dropped anchor and scurried to the water's undulating edge. Everyone naturally gravitated in various directions under the pretense of locating a good spot to fish, but I think it was mostly for the sake of the singular quiet and contentment that comes from such an activity. Eventually we all rejoined and shared our experiences. I managed to reel in two very small rainbow trout, and must have hooked the first one by the aorta, because it bled all over me as I worked the hook out. I doubt it survived.

We all agreed that the short time we spent fishing was a definite highlight, as the trip was concerned. We grew closer as the weekend proceeded. I found myself putting my arm around Nick, Anna, and Karen at moments when I felt especially sappy, and those moments happened more and more, the longer the trip lasted. I really couldn't pick three people with whom I'd prefer to travel. Nick and Anna really have an eye for this sort of thing, I guess.

We drove south to an unnamed road, and turned on it, because the sign said it led to Crested Butte. Karen said she'd spent some time in Crested Butte, and had lots of good things to say about it, but first we had to get there, and in the way was the Kebler Pass. At just over 10,000 feet, the Kebler Pass isn't exactly scraping the roof of the world, but it's difficult enough due to its complete lack of pavement. It's a dirt road- a well-maintained dirt road, mind you -but it's still a dirt road. Over perhaps thirty miles it traverses some of the most expansive stretches of Aspen-dominated wilderness in the state, and in the eight point four seconds I had to view and admire our surroundings, a deep impression was made on me as well.

When we arrived in Crested Butte I was a bundle of twitching nerve endings. The others were extremely grateful that I took the helm for the mountain driving, and I was happy to play at least some part in the trip's success. Nick, Anna, and Karen were bubbling with excitement when we arrived in town, in time for a public market on Elk Street, the main drag through downtown. I had a phone signal, so I called my dad and talked with him about Colorado for 30 minutes or so while the others browsed the shops.

We settled into a bar nearby and agreed with hesitation that tonight would be a good hotel night. We walked into the Forest Queen Hotel next door, and booked a cubicle with a bed in it with a private bathroom. It was more than we could have ever wanted. We took turns availing ourselves of the wondrous novelty of hot falling water, and took to the streets of Crested Butte as people reborn. We verily inhaled a delicious dinner of chicken and beef tacos and tamales at a Mexican place called Teocali, then went to get beers down the street at a place called Brick Oven Pizza, where they had Boulevard Wheat on tap.

I know that after that we went to a place called the Eldo, but from there, the evening gets fuzzy, as we all got drunk. I wound up doing laps to and from the bathroom for close calls, throughout the night. In the morning we awoke, feeling rather wretched, and set about the slow, hungover business of getting ready for the day. By the time we'd showered, dressed, packed the car up, eaten, and returned to one of the previous night's bars to retrieve Karen's forgotten wallet, my hangover was gone, though I was sleepy all day.

We did some real driving that day(monday). We took state highway 133 down to Gunnison, where we picked up US-50 and started driving east. We had to make it to within swinging distance of Colorado Springs, so as to ease our drive home the next day. We crested the Monarch Pass at about noon, having enjoyed what was by far the easiest pass of the trip. Then, when we reached US-285, we stopped for an ice cream, we decided to correct our course, and head north a bit to visit Florissant, and the Fossil Beds National Monument by the same name, nearby. This would also put us on US-24, which would take us directly into Colorado Springs the next day.

The fossil beds were a little boring, but the short hike we took around the park was very nice for me, and I thought it was pretty cool looking at gargantuan 35 million-year-old petrified tree-stumps. We saw a sign when we entered the park that reported that only 15 miles or so down the same road was the famous old mining boomtown of Cripple Creek. My family allegedly has a gold mine claim somewhere around there. I was expecting a charming mountain town with lots of goofy old west saloons and gift shops. I would even have consumed whiskey.

What we saw though, was an extremely ugly, heavily commercialized gathering of newly-founded casinos fronted with revolving doors of old people spending their pensions and smoking copiously. The downtown strip was half casinos, half parking decks. Tour buses and motorcycles dominated the streets. We got the hell out of town, though it took us three attempts to find the correct way to state highway 67, going north.

We picked up some groceries, beer, and wine that night in Divide, and settled at Mueller State Park for our last night of camping. As it was the night of Labor Day, almost everyone was gone, and we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. Indeed we had the only occupied campsite in the "Prospector" arm of the camping area. We made sandwiches, talked, and played cards until well after dark, then I pulled out Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, and read aloud to everyone. It was relaxing, fun, and comforting to be among friends for such a moment. We slept through a very pleasant rainfall that night, lulled into comfortable sleep by it all.

I awoke first and went for a hike to the end of the ridge on which we camped, hoping against hope to see a black bear shambling through the woods, or scratching its back against a lodgepole pine. Unfortunately, the biggest animal I saw was a squirrel, though we did spot a large mule deer buck as we drove out of the park later that morning. I returned to the campsite to see that everyone was up and about. We struck camp and loaded up the car one last time. For reasons I cannot understand, we breakfasted at McDonald's in Woodland Park, some miles up the road from Colorado Springs.

From there, the trip home was long, straight, flat, and boring. We busied ourselves with music, reading, and reminiscing about the trip. When we finally rolled into Kansas City, we agreed to have one last drink together before parting. We went to the Peanut on 9th for a pale ale and a BLT. I hugged Nick, Anna, and Karen profusely when they dropped me off, and actually felt a little emotional when I went inside, alone for the first time in almost a week.

I had a wonderful time on our trip, and I can't wait to do it again.

4:14 PM, Sep 9, 2009

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