Category Archives: LA Freeway

Posts about a trip I made out west. Maybe posts about other travels too.

Just down the road from Leadville

This is another post in the exciting adventures of Sanuk D as he traveled across the country in late July and early August of 1998.  Older posts in this series can be found under the “LA Freeway” category.  In our last episode, Sanuk D had narrowly escaped alien abduction in the wilderness of Utah only to have close encounters with the Saab wielding peace officers of Aspen.  He finally found refuge in a rain soaked tent on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.


I emerged less than full conscious to find a high ridge above me and a deep gorge filled with rushing water directly to my front.  36 plus straight hours of driving will put a man into a state that takes a little while to get out of.  Fortunately, I had a chair.  It was one of those lounge chairs with little plastic tubing for webbing and ratchets that allow you to adjust either end.  I often slept on the chair in the tent, and since it was dry outside, I pulled it into the sun.


I had been reading Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain,” which I found in a California book store while I was looking for Walker Percy books.  I do not know how that particular transition was made at that time, and I did not know then that the two men shared correspondence which was immensely important to each of them.  What I did know is that I had seriously considered the possibility of becoming a monk, particularly with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  Reading a book about a person’s decision to become a monk seemed like a good preliminary step.

It’s a good book, especially for someone like me who maybe hasn’t always been a paragon of virtue.  As I finished it there, sitting in the sun, I had two complementary thoughts:

  1. Good read
  2. I’m not supposed to be a monk

I can’t tell you why I knew this, and it was not a blinding flash of revelation.  But I did feel a sort of release, a freedom from “having” to do something. It was a freedom to just be in the moment and experience the incredible place in which I had landed.


Even seated in my chair, I could tell it was incredible.  I took a picture right from the seat, picnic grill and all included.  I had not really taken up running yet, but I was hiking quite a bit by now.  I decided to go down to the closer of the eponymous twin lakes to see what there was to see.  Along the way, of course, were any number of interesting things.


Not the least of which was the grove of Aspen trees.  Not knowing much about forests, I don’t know why forests are so different at 9,200 feet as opposed to 2,500, but the airy chamber beneath these trees was significantly more cathedral-like than the thatch of hemlock and oak back home.  They drew both my head and my heart outward and upward.  They were a curiosity surpassed only by the beaver pond beside the path back to the tent.


And then there was the nutjob in the kayak who was running the gorge.  I know less about kayaking than I do about silviculture, so I don’t know if what he was doing was dangerous or just looked dangerous.  Either way, I was no more about to become a kayaker than I was to become a monk.  I was, however, going to stay here another day.  There was no reason to drive half-way across Kansas just to stay in a Motel 6.  The new plan was to pack in as much Colorado as possible before making a big push east.


The aliens can’t abduct you if you don’t stay still

001In Nevada, they call Highway 50 “America’s Loneliest Road.”  The first time I saw that sign it made sense.  The next 40 times felt like they were rubbing it in.  There is something to be said for seeing the country, including the desert in Nevada, but once seen it is ok to move on.  The only problem is that, when you are driving a car, moving on means moving through.  Highway 50 is a long, straight, lonely road.  I pushed on to Utah, only to wind up in a campground next to the highway.  With the prospect of being up all night before me, I figured it was better to greet the sun in Colorado.


I-70 lead through Grand Junction, which was lit up like Kurtz’s village in Apocalypse Now, and on to Glenwood Springs where I ordered the “Moons Over My Hammy” in a Denny’s just off the Interstate.  Just the thought of them makes me reconsider vegetarianism.  Leaving the highway, the road dipped down to Aspen where they still have Aspens and where the cops drive SAABs.  From what I understand, the cops used to drive Beetles, which tells you what has happened to Aspen lately.


I took a nap in the parking lot of the Aspen International Airport.  I bet you $12 that you couldn’t do that today.  But this was 1998, a more innocent time.  Even more innocent was the time some poor schmucks decided to settle up in Independence Pass at over 12,000 feet.  It was way cold in August, and all the coffee I had been drinking made me need to pee.  Unfortunately, nobody left an outhouse in the ghost town.  I remember that it was hard to sneak off the peak.


Somehow the mission was accomplished and I proceeded down the pass following water that was now a part of the same great drainage as my home waters (that would be the Mississippi.)  The nap and the coffee and the Moons Over My Hammy had done an admirable job, but having driven across Nevada, Utah, and half of Colorado, I needed to sleep for real.  Winding through the pines, I sought the first camp ground available.  Pulling in amid a light rain, I paid for my spot and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

The spoon incident at Spooner Lake

003Somewhere south of Sacramento, I got off of the Interstate.  After the Fort Stockton debacle I had learned my lesson: highways are better.  Interstates get you there quickly, but highways let you see where you are.  Since I was there to see and not to get through, I took Highway 50 toward Lake Tahoe.  Everybody has heard of Lake Tahoe, but I had no idea until I got there just how unbelievably beautiful it is.  Maybe some people’s idea of the most beautiful landscape is the beach or the desert or a night time skyline.  Give me a mountain lake any day.


The nice thing about traveling with a tent is that you can stop pretty much wherever you want.  I wanted to stop at Spooner Lake, just east of Lake Tahoe.  This was all in the days before Google and Google Maps and GPS enabled Android Handsets.  I had no idea what other things were around.  There were plenty.  Yellowstone for one.  Maybe that is a trip for another time.  I did not really care at the moment, because I was in a place where there was snow on the ground in August.  I walked on snow in August.


My campsite was back down closer to the lake itself.  Yes, in fact, that water is cold.  I had a notion to go skinny dipping in the morning, but the ambient temperature and the presence of children squashed that idea.  Before I went to bed, I cooked up some noodles on the single propane burner.  All I needed was right there.  My spoon, however, was covered with crusted meals from days before.  I spit on it and rubbed it clear.  It delighted me to no end to think of my sweet, maternally inclined friend Mary Jane.  She would not judge this spoon as clean.  I was filled with the joy of being a man in the wilderness.

Down the road in a cloud of smoke


002If you drove across the country in 1998, you would have looked at a road atlas a lot.  I’m not sure if the rise of in-car GPS systems is a particularly bad thing in this respect.  It’s kind of hard to negotiate the 405 with an 11 x 17 folio open on your lap.  Suffice it to say that I have a greater appreciation for the music of Guy Clark after actually driving on a freeway in LA.  The other thing about the road atlas is that it has this picture on the front of a place so idyllic that it could not possibly exist.  So you can imagine my surprise as I came around a bend on the Pacific Coast Highway to find the scene on my atlas displayed in my windshield.


Now there is a place that makes you just want to put on a fleece and settle in with a cup of coffee, doesn’t it?  The PCH is sort of California’s answer to the Blue Ridge Parkway (guess what non-existent place is on the 2011 atlas, by the way.)  It did not take long driving along this road to feel the tension of city driving drain out of my shoulders.  They don’t call it the Pacific Ocean for nothing.  With the peaceful sea to my left, mountains climbed to my right in an illustration of the moment the seas were separated from the dry land.  North of Santa Barbara, the California coast is a testament to the presence of a divine influence on creation.


Such observations might have been made by this dude in his car as he watched the gulls turning circles over the ocean.  If you can’t tell, he’s done this car right, roof rack and everything.  It seemed like it was there at the creation of this whole scene.  I understood, on a cellular level, the whole thing.  California, the Beetle, Big Sur, John Scofield.  I had that album that Scofield put out with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, “A Go Go.”  I liked it, but I didn’t really get it.  I didn’t really get it because I thought it was somehow lazy or too cool.  Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, I got it’s subtlety.  It’s in the shine of a hub cap, or not knowing what it around the bend.  The things that make the trip interesting are the little things you see on the drive.