The road to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was closed to vehicles. Like so many things in 2020, I don’t know if it was a Covid thing or if the park closed the road for some other reason. But my friend dropped me off to investigate. I walked around a bend and saw the sign, it was 0.65 miles down the road to the lighthouse.
Dense fog had rolled in, as it seems to do on a whim along the Pacific coast in Oregon, but my friend had said the online info about the lighthouse was promising, and after making very sure he didn’t mind the wait, I decided if I was that close I’d go take a look.
Fog settled in everywhere except to the south, where one golden beach reflected sunlight and beckoned. But the path I had to travel led the other way, into gray and gloom and wind.
I ran, or rather I unleashed a lumbering jog, because I wanted to keep my friend’s wait time minimal, both because I am an accommodating middle child and because I’d delayed us enough with my failed foray into Instagram modeling at Haystack Rock, up the coast.
(My friend actually took pretty great photos of a section of beach nearby with sand dunes and light dancing over it as the sun darted in and out of fog, and basically the Oregon coast is one place you don’t really need to worry about asking people to kill time.)
As I jogged, taking note it was downhill and what that meant for the trip back, the fog seemed to cling tighter and denser. Yaquina Head is a peninsula near Newport, a rocky little headland that juts out into the churning Pacific. As I trotted out toward the end of it, the wind howled stronger and stiffer, violently swirling all vegetation on the hillside to my right like clothes in a washing machine.
It was the view to the left, though, that was daunting and amazing at the same time. There were little purple flowers dancing in the wind, then in short order a cliff, and then a few rocks and white waves in the water, then gray. So much gray open space. Nothingness and everythingness across incomprehensible miles all the way to Asia. The ocean is so, so beautiful, but from those high overlooks when I try to gaze out it can almost be a light version of the fear-of-heights feeling. It is brutally big and vast.
The wind briefly dislodged the Royals World Series had perched on my head, and so from then on I ran with the tightest grip of my life on it. If that beloved hat was going in the Pacific Ocean, the wind would have to take me with it.
It felt like I was getting near the end of the headland, and still no lighthouse. The roar of the wind was joined more and more by the shrieking of more seagulls then I knew were in the world. The road was ending and only a little path went on, through tall, thick brown and green grass bouncing madly in the relentless wind. Where was I supposed to go? For how much longer?
Then, right where it was supposed to be, the tallest lighthouse in Oregon pierced through the fog. It was gorgeous and stately, standing perfectly still even as all the world around it seemed to be rippling and hanging on for dear life.
It all seemed right then, this beautiful place was all tied together. It was wild but exactly as it was supposed to be. The ocean, barely visible much off the coast, churned and smashed into rocky cliffs and islands below. The wind raced on, but so did the dance of the grass and flowers on the tip of the headland. A couple of other tourists with kids appeared out of the fog, as did another tourist with two dogs. Seals, or perhaps sea lions, relaxed on a rock whiled others played in the water below and slapped the surface.
I lingered before heading back, soaking in the magic of the place. It was one of many magical spots along a two-week road trip with my friend Nathan Armer, driving out West, down the Pacific Coast Highway, and then back through Arizona and Colorado, states whose very names stir the imagination. The varied, magnificent scenery, the bigger trees, bigger mountains, bigger bodies of water than anything back home gave the trip the feeling of a real adventure.
Here is my love letter to the West.
* * *
When you’re a Missourian, to get to the West via automobile means a voyage across the Great Plains. The Plains lack flash, but they provide a haven for people who love subtlety, love wide open spaces, love agriculture. Interstate 29 sets sail from Kansas City and heads north, lingering in the Missouri River bottom for hours before rising up out of it into South Dakota.
On this route, South Dakota is where the real journey westward begins. Its begins on Interstate 90 leaving Sioux Falls, and is flat and seemingly boring. But all the while, the scenery is building. Cars and the sun gradually cut across South Dakota to the west, finally crossing the Missouri River, past more undulating terrain and gorgeous farmsteads. After hours of nothing changing but also constant change, the Black Hills appear on the distant horizon, dark but beckoning. Now it’s a party.
Mount Rushmore was carved into those Black Hills, and now when people think about South Dakota, they think about Mt. Rushmore. It resides in a beautiful area, and it is easy to feel the sort of spirit-nourishing appeal of the Hills. At sunset, they light up the Mt. Rushmore faces that gaze off to the southeast and have a ceremony where they talk about the Presidents. Teddy Roosevelt can feel like the 4th of 4 when it comes to the luminaries of American history up there, but his connection to the West and the outdoors is immense, from his emphasis on national parks and conservation, to the fact he spent time in the western North Dakota badlands healing after personal tragedy. This was a man who was climbing down from the highest summit in New York when he learned he would soon be President (because what the heck else should a Vice President be doing besides climbing mountains?).
The next morning featured a quick tour of the President statues in Rapid City (Harry Truman is triumphantly holding aloft the paper that erroneously claimed he had lost the election), more Black Hills driving, and then on to the first unquestionably Western state of the trip.
Wyoming is almost comedically unpopulated and wide open, gradually working from one scenic vista to the next, Devils Tower popping up on the horizon, then the snow-capped Bighorn Mountains dominate the horizon for a while, then rare decent-sized towns show up and solicit hungry motorists to stop with their Q’doba signs.
Wyoming deserves thousands of words, but on this trip it was a relatively short stretch, but it is maybe the Western state that is the least interested in showing off, so it plays a good supporting actor. It is wide open, with as much room as you need, capable of charming for three hours or three years.
“Turn me loose, set me free,
somewhere in the middle of Montana…”
- Merle Haggard, “Big City”
The first thing one might notice when entering Montana on I-90 is the mile markers, which count down to the Idaho border, indicate the road runs for 554 miles across the state. That’s a lot of Montana.
But Montana is a mood, and a good one. There’s a reason Merle Haggard sang about being set free there. The road barrels on past the vaguely haunted vibes of the Little Bighorn battlefield, then bends back West, descending into Billings. Beyond the city mountain peaks rise up on the western horizon, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to drive any other direction. At one point the Interstate crests a hill and a vivid view of Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana, appears in the distance. Now comes the part of Montana that feels like one giant park. The interstate zooms along next to the bright blue of the zigzagging Yellowstone River, past barns and fences and cattle. Summer in Montana is short, but makes great use of the time it has.
Shortly after the college town of Bozeman, perhaps you’d like to take a very short side trip to the Missouri Headwaters State Park. The West is a reminder all land is basically an enormous game of chutes and ladders. Ridges and mountains rise higher, and the terrain and vegetation changing with altitude, and creeks and rivers rush or meander lower, eventually and inevitably finding their way to the ocean.
The Missouri River begins in a serene valley in Montana, near the Continental Divide, where three smaller rivers come together. Well, two rivers come together and a third joins them in short order. People floated by on rafts, cruising along the infant river and its chilly water. Others gathering on sand banks and fished. It’s a weighty thing, looking at that water rippling by, thinking about how far it had to go to get to the Gulf of Mexico, but the surety that it would get there.
Soon after came the cresting over the Great Divide, the descent through Butte, and on to the college town of Missoula. Now here you have a choice. You can continue westward toward the still distant Pacific coast, or you can head north, into the mountains, toward that faraway marvel that is Glacier National Park, for a day trip side excursion.
Of course Glacier is the choice. In western Montana, in mid-July, the sun sets late, and the sun sets after 9:00 p.m., lending a golden, then rosy glow to the tall mountains standing sentinel on the eastern side of the valley leading up to Flathead Lake and the Park. After a night at Charro, Montana, the road rolls on.
Flathead Lake is in and of itself a worthy destination, a deep blue lake in the trees and mountains that calls to mind Lake Tahoe. Today it is the beautiful undercard, the opening act ahead of Glacier National Park.
Thankfully, the famous Going-to-the-Sun road has just opened for the summer and is clear of snow. After a winding drive around Lake McDonald, the valley narrows, and tourists may begin to wonder where the road is going to go, with only jagged mountains and walls of rock ahead.
The road simply goes up. To the sun. (Or mostly the clouds on this day.) It twists and turns and cuts back and forth, higher and higher, each pull-off area providing better and better views to the valley that gets farther and farther below. At one point, a weeping rock showers the road with water. Cascading waterfalls race down from high up on slopes.
The sharp edges of mountain peaks cut a stirring relief against the sky, so jagged they almost seem like a drawing or a work of fiction, some of the rockiest of Rockies you’ll ever see. It was blues and greens and whites and grays of a hundred shades stretching out in peaks and valleys and trees and, yes, glaciers.
At the top is Logan Pass. There’s a trail that runs up higher to an appropriately named Hidden Lake. Even in mid-July, much of the early part of the trail is covered in snow, so it’s more following guide markers sticking up through the snow than treading an actual trail. It winds up through trees until, at a rocky outcropping, the big blue lake appears, hidden no more, at the base of a striking pyramid-shaped mountain.
The road to the East of Logan pass provides more views, more glaciers, and then Saint Mary Lake, blue as Hawaiian Punch, framed by those mountains, and gazing upon the views it’s hard to believe there can be a real place that beautiful, and it’s hard to feel anything other than immense gratitude that you’re in that place on that day.
The next day brought a little more Montana, a scenic cut-through past ranches and along a rushing river back to Interstate 90. Soon the interstate crests a pass and a sign welcomes motorists to Idaho.
This route is the highlight version of Idaho, just a brief sampling, but it does feature the scenic Coeur d’Alene lake and town, a cool summer getaway tucked in the mountains.
Soon enough, another state line arrives, the state where the actual coast drive will begin.
Spokane serves as the de facto welcoming committee to Washington, and after some driving through trees the road opens up into the interior of Washington. Agricultural and largely treeless, it’s somewhat a reminder of the Great Plains, filling the expanse between the Rockies and the coastal ranges.
It’s in this fairly humdrum stretch, around Moses Lake, a white blip appears on the horizon. It can’t be… can it? It is. Snow-covered Mount Rainier, preposterously still 150 miles or more away, is visible on the horizon.
It crept closer, until it slipped from view as the Columbia River Gorge approached. The overlook there is spectacular, the giant blue river, the 7th longest in the U.S. and 4th largest by volume, cuts through a gorge below. It’s a pull climbing up from the bridge across the river, past white wind turbines, and then at the crest of the hill there it is again, Mt. Rainier, more massive now, dominating the horizon.
It serves as the marker for the general Seattle metro area, and the starting point for driving down the coast. After navigating some traffic through Tacoma, the sign by the side of the busy highway in Olympia calls:
Pacific Coast Scenic Byway
Follow 101 North
This was it, the escape hatch from the business of the city. The road began here.
* * *
Olympic Peninsula is its own world, a gorgeous and relaxing nature spot. You wouldn’t guess a giant city was relatively close. Across the Sound, it was a separate, distanced world, one of lofty mountains and clear water and trees and ferns and lazy, winding drives.
The 101 starts out on the eastern, Puget Sound side of the peninsula, so there is water stretching out, but not the ocean proper. The coast drive had started, but that first view of the ocean itself was still to come, anticipation building like when you’re a kid and Christmas morning is drawing near.
The road looping counterclockwise around the peninsula rings around the Olympic National Park, and at the north end of the peninsula is Port Angeles, which provides views across the choppy Salish Sea to Canada.
Hit up a food truck on the outskirts of town, and then its off to the far, western side of the peninsula, far from hustle and bustle of any sort, into the evening.
“I’m leaving this place behind, and I’m heading out on the road tonight
I’m off for the hinterlands, way up north where the tall trees stand…”
- Lord Huron, “Fool for Love”
The trees towered above the winding little road. Golden light from the setting sun angled through the tree tops and occasionally splashed on the road. The 101 skirted along the brilliant blue of Lake Crescent, then made the turn south, which would be the dominant direction of travel for the next several days. After weaving through canyons of tall trees, seemingly deep in the hinterlands Lord Huron was singing about, the road wound through the town of Forks, quiet, tucked away, almost like a movie set town built way back in the woods.
The anticipation built as the sun settled and the landscape glowed more and more. Finally, the road went around a curve, the trees on the right opened up, and there it was.
The Pacific Ocean.
The great blue ocean stretched out to an incredibly distant horizon, while the golden sun hung up above the horizon, bathing the water below with light. The low, soothing roar of waves kept rolling in and crashing on the beach, each one spectacular and beautiful and as though there hadn’t been countless waves do the same thing before it. The road pulloff is up above the water, on a bit of a cliff, and the view can sweep from south to north and back, the ocean looking soft and gentle and lovely, but also foreboding and untamed and unknowable. It is beauty and terror. But this evening, with the perfect golden hour lighting and the days of anticipation getting there, it was one of most beautiful sights on Earth.
* * *
The sun set well after 9:00 that far north and west and in mid-July. The last light faded peacefully amidst the tall trees as Nathaniel Rateliff sang “I Need Never Grow Old.” After a night in Aberdeen, Washington, the coast drive was back on. The 101 rejoined the Washington coast, bouncing in and out among bays and coves until there was no more Washington. The road crossed the gaping mouth of the Columbia River right near where it met the ocean.
The Astoria-Megler bridge, over four miles long, was the last stretch of 101 to be completed between Olympia, Washington, and Los Angeles.
The Oregon coast is a national treasure.
The 101 hugs the coast pretty tightly, and it is lined with state parks and overlooks and scenic beaches.
Fairly early on comes Cannon Beach, with its looming Haystock Rock where the water meets the beach, a feature that lends itself to being a majestic backdrop for taking photos.
Like so many things in the West, its bigger than you’d think, and from a distance seeing the tiny specks of humans walking in front of the massive rock drives home its enormity.
Further down the coast, as periodic signs helpfully showed the tsunami evacuation route, one particularly high overlook showed a sweeping view of a particularly blue looking Pacific Ocean, with flowers and classic Oregon evergreen trees in the foreground, all bathed in brilliant sunshine, with only a hint of fog and cloud far off on the coast to the south.
When you basically become a resident of the coastal highway, a savvy move is to look up restaurants in the upcoming town, put in a to-go order, and next thing you know you’re eating takeout Thai food while parked at the beach, watching the waves and periodic fog.
The coast continued with rocky bays and more overlooks, the aforementioned Yaquina Head lighthouse, and an unending array of rock formations off in the water, buffeted by waves and spray. There were formations with frothing water known as the Devil’s Churn and Thor’s Well, which occasionally spouted water in the air.
In that area was one especially high overlook called Cape Perpetua. Taking a photo here, with gloomy fog surrounding and winds ripping across the high, rocky point, and with a name like Cape Perpetua that calls to mind the oblivion and eternity, it felt like a daunting, intimidating place.
But then, just a few miles down the road, at another overlook, the evening sun broke through. Everything took on a shade of gold, the fog was pushed back and out to sea, and the waves crested white and friendly as they gently rolled onto the beach below. It was welcoming, inviting, and provided the distinct sensation that the view was getting more beautiful by the second. It was, simply, breathtaking.
After a night in Coos Bay, Steve Prefontaine’s hometown, and a foggy morning, the trip was on again. Oregon’s Southern coast is especially rocky and scenic, including some natural arches along the coast, a fitting way to bid adieu to one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America.
Ever since James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, people have been flocking to California in search of something new, in search of opportunity, to chase dreams. Heck, “Eureka” is the state motto, meaning “I have found it.” It’s a place to find what you’re looking for, or at least a place to look for it.
Driving through northern California, as suddenly as Marshall coming upon that gold, you round a corner and a regular forest becomes something different and special. Giant trees stand tall beside the 101, going from nonexistent to countless specimens. Even if you know what to expect from a coastal redwood, it still takes you back to see trees stretching up and up and out of view. Seeing the top of a redwood tree takes some effort, as they all seem to extend to some canopy that puts a distant lid on your view. They are not a subtle tree, and their thick trunks stand as black silhouettes when gazing across the forest. People, even cars, seem smaller next to them. The bark surfaces of the trees seem weathered, ancient, almost wise in a way.
Eventually the 101 works inland from the coast a little, and temperatures warm up noticeably, but then the highway eventually becomes winding again and weaves between more giant redwood trees.
At the little town of Leggett, home to an old-timey gas station, the journey takes a turn. The old reliable 101 continues its inland course, and California State Route 1 cuts off through the woods to the coast and take the mantle of the coastal highway.
Now, that’s probably too efficient of a description of what the 1 does. The route from Leggett to the coast is one of the most winding roads imaginable. Picture building a highway through a forest without cutting down a single tree. Picture an Olympic skier bouncing back and forth through a course. Or, in this case, a Ford SUV moving 15 miles an hour.
But eventually that winding little road found its way out of the woods and back along the coast. This stretch provided plenty of beauty, with rocky coasts, occasional cows grazing along the ocean and charming little towns. The towns seemed to have little in the way of on the go food options, and it was still a ways to that night’s destination, San Francisco. But robust gas station snacking can get the job done in such situations. The road weaved on, not good for making time but good for taking time to soak in the views and little details, the little sections of beach amidst the rocks, the flowers and trees, the distant views of the now-familiar Pacific Ocean.
The sunset was late in the evening, although fog rolled in as San Francisco got closer. Suddenly, after hours of driving through mostly lightly populated areas, the beaches began to be full of surfers, and more houses started popping up.
Darkness fell, a gray fox darted across the road in a small town north of San Francisco, and lights from homes glowed on the waters.
That night, the “international orange,” iconic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rose out of the foggy night, welcoming vehicles to the historic old city of San Francisco. Driving around the city to a hotel, it was fairly quiet on the streets, the tightly packed buildings and streets soft and still in the foggy summer night.
San Francisco is a beautiful city, all hills and interesting buildings and endless views of the ocean or the bay. Walking around the city in the morning, in the age of the coronavirus, there seemed to be just a touch of palpable angst, a sort of odd mood. But a nice sunny day can help with some of that.
A restaurant recommended by a friend, Palm House, provided a great lunch in a patio area. Here there was no angst, just nice fun outdoor dining with a great menu and a nice pleasant day. After lunch, San Francisco’s sites were on display, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the undulating Lombard Street with its tight quarters and thorough landscaping, the ridiculously steep streets.
San Francisco is a city where you normally would want to linger, to savor, and the energy of people coming and going and exercising along the marina. But the coastal highway rolled on to the south along the peninsula.
On the way out of town, Bob Dylan came on a San Francisco Spotify playlist (imagine that), singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” If you’re living on the road for two weeks, at a particular stage of life, in a particular place… sometimes you hear exactly the right song at exactly the right time. Bob Dylan sang the mood as the vehicle rolled along the journey southward.
The Salinas Valley provides another fun little side trip, in particular if you’re a fan of John Steinbeck and East of Eden, his masterpiece set in that valley. It’s kind of remarkable how, over 100 years later, Steinbeck’s description of the valley feels to spot on. The mountains off to the side, the little communities in the middle, the fields stretching out across the fertile low-lying area of the valley. Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas provides a fun photo op if you’re a nerd who brings Steinbeck novels on road trips.
The day ended in the Monterrey, with a drive through the scenic Pebble Beach area. Then came a stirring Californian impersonation, getting In-N-Out and eating it on the beach as the sun set into the Pacific Ocean.
The next day brought the drive through the mesmerizing Big Sur area, with soaring cliffs and views, the historic Bixby Bridge and then a beach packed with elephant seals, just chilling on the beach in the sun.
Santa Barbara was the gateway to the Los Angeles region, and the highway zipped along the wide open ocean down at beach level, with mountains flanking on the left. It’s easy to lose track of days on long road trips, but this was a Saturday, and the beaches were full of people enjoying the pleasant day.
Malibu was a scene. It had more spectacularly expensive cars than you might see in a year in Missouri. The traffic was brutal, but there were plenty of gorgeous homes and people having a good time to provide entertainment for the slow crawl toward LA. A Jeep had the top down and girls in bikinis popped out the top and sides, dancing to music.
Eventually the coastal highway reached West Hollywood, that night’s destination. This was the land of show business, of dreams, a place that had almost always existed in the imagination and now had become real, and it was both familiar and utterly foreign.
It was different, but it was everything it was supposed to be. Tall, wispy palm trees lined roads near the Sunset Strip and provided good Instagram material. The lights of the city went on as the sun set below the horizon, leaving only a pink and orange glow, and eventually only the night sky.
The Pink Taco provided that night’s “outdoor” dining, and it was a lively scene. One can easily imagine the waitresses were aspiring actresses. West Hollywood on a Saturday night has great energy and excitement, even in 2020. It is a town for cruising at night, windows down, sights and lit up streets to see, movie studio lots sitting solemn and quiet in the cool of the night. The Hollywood Hills rose above town, a jumble of homes and stories and history.
The next day brought a cruise through the Hills on the famous Mulholland Drive, presumably past several movie stars’ homes. It took a good chunk of the day to work though the entire LA metro area while staying on the 1, along or near the coast, especially with a stop at the lovely Manhattan Beach to get in the water.
Orange County showed it has a distinct vibe from Los Angeles County, and the big beaches there were full of people, like a big football tailgate except on sand. Eventually, the massive metro area faded into the rearview mirror, and the last miles down to San Diego began ticking off more rapidly.
San Diego is gorgeous, it is military, it is perfect weather. It is chill and self-assured in its status as an awesome city. San Diego doesn’t beat its chest about this fact, it simply knows anyone who spends time there won’t argue. The coast highway cut past the iconic Torrey Pines Golf Course, closer and closer to the end. That night, in downtown San Diego, brought a meal with an old friend, catching up, an appreciation for how far San Diego is from Seattle.
The following morning brought the formal end to the Pacific Coast Highway drive, rolling out to Point Loma and the Cabrillo monument overlooking San Diego in one direction and the vast, relentless Pacific out to the west. The road and land ended here. The coast was driven. The ocean kept going.
It was an odd feeling, after nearly a week of driving the U.S. portion of the Pacific Coast, to close that chapter and now drive in another direction, back East, away from the sea, but toward more adventures and open spaces and friends.
Arizona has long conveyed opportunity and freshness to me, ever since first seeing Scottsdale in 2015. It’s a sunny, fun, high-energy place with beautiful people, golf courses and opportunity. It’s Camelback Mountain views and Old Town and spring training.
This was a dry, hot summer in Arizona, but even Arizona in July is fun if you’re going to visit friends, particularly if they have a pool. We stayed with our friends in Scottsdale that day. That afternoon and evening featured a dip in the pool, takeout from a great restaurant, and the kind of fun conversation you have with old friends deep into the evening. Per Arizona tradition, a brilliant sunset lit up the evening sky and landscape, seemingly countless shades of purples and pinks and blues and golds.
The next day we were on the road again, returning home with a trip through Colorado on the mind, seeing a lot of red Arizona rocks, desert landscapes, various named rock structures jutting into the sky.
Highway 160 does indeed run through New Mexico for roughly one minute and it’s the Land of Enchantment and it did feel like an enchanting minute and hey there’s the Four Corners monument and oh look it’s the next state line sign…
No state line sign brings me as much excitement as those “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs. We entered into southwestern Colorado and drove through the spectacular San Juan Mountains, past the Telluride turnoff and along a roaring river and aspen trees shuddering and whispering their welcomes in that mountain breeze. I felt at home.
We drove over the Dallas Divide, stopping to take photos of the rugged beauty of the Sneffels range, and then down into Ridgeway. Then up to Montrose and Delta, where we stayed the night. We were eyeing Georgetown, Colorado, and I had a 14er in mind to climb near there, Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,065-foot peak.
Armer and I drove up Guanella Pass the afternoon before my climb, checking out the trailhad. Mr. Bierstadt rose tall and imposing in the gloom of an afternoon Colorado rain, as familiar as a sunrise in the mountain summer. To the left of the peak the aptly named “Sawtooth” formation cut a profile against the gray sky. Mt. Bierstadt is not one of the most difficult 14ers, but it looked plenty difficult from the trailhead parking lot on that afternoon.
The next morning, at 5:10 a.m., with light gathering off in the eastern sky, I started on the trail. I used a light for the first little bit, and even at that early hour I could see hikers up ahead along the trail. The Mt. Bierstadt trail lets you see the entire distance you have to go, which can be nice, but also daunting to see all the work left to do. At the start, the trail gradually descends through some bushes to a creek. Giving up elevation when you’ve got thousands of feet to gain is… less than ideal. But a good way to warm up the legs.
After carefully walking rock to rock across the shallow creek, the climb begins, zigzagging up through a few trees before getting above timberline. Around 6:00 a.m., getting a little higher up and with light growing, the views back down toward the creek and valley began to get impressive.
After an overlook, the trail swung more directly toward Mt. Bierstadt, and the sky grew shades of gold and blue behind the peak and the Sawtooth. It would be tempting to unleash a cheeky “Colorado is just showing off” at that lovely sight, but Colorado was just being Colorado. Another day had come, and it was another reason to celebrate.
The trail continued gaining elevation, steadily going higher, but it was a manageable climb. I was taking quicker, deeper breaths, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I just kept my legs churning along, kept trying to work in some snacks, kept seeing the same other climbers as we would pause for our respective breaks and pass one another.
It turns out, two weeks of riding in a car and having what we’ll charitably call a permissive attitude toward food is not the best preparation for climbing a Colorado 14er. Who knew.
But I was making good progress, and a sizable portion of the greater Denver area seemed to be hiking the mountain as well, and our momentum built as we got higher.
This was my first time climbing a 14er solo, but I had plenty of company.
The trail got a little steeper and rockier as it neared the side ridge of the mountain, sort of the shoulder of Mt. Bierstadt. Once on that ridge, a fairly wide flat area, on the final rocky push to the left, up to the summit remained. The rocky terrain made for slower going, more thought put into each footfall, but the slower steps made it a little easier to breath, a little easier cardio. And as the summit of a 14er draws closer, the anticipation spurs hikers higher, into the very highest country of our highest state, up rocky slopes, past stubborn banks of snow, through cold winds and thin air. Colorado challenges, but rewards. It urges reflection and appreciation.
Finally, about 7:47 a.m., I made it to the summit. The views inspired awe in every direction, rocky ridges and breathtaking panoramas and distinct peaks impossibly far away but still feeling close and connected, legendary old Pikes Peak to the south and the iconic outline of Longs Peak way off to the north. I saw mountains I’d climbed before, and so many more I want to climb. Close by, I saw Mt. Evans and some of the structures on it and the shining ribbon of the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America. Above it all was that deep blue Colorado sky. It was a clear day. I felt a lot of things, but maybe most of all I felt gratitude. I had so many great memories from that state, and I got to add another.
After some photos and a high-altitude snack, I started down. I felt more fatigue on the way down, my feet got sore and I felt more of a headache, probably altitude-related. But the sun was growing warmer, and there were more views to savor, and eventually I was back at the trailhead parking lot, where Armer helpfully picked me up.
The rest of the day was a celebration, soaking in the hot tub back in historic old Georgetown, eating a fun meal, watching the evening light fade in another summer evening in Colorado. Nearby, the bright colors of a Colorado flag danced in a gentle breeze, a symbol of that great Western state where I’ve experienced so much with family and friends, and even by myself.
Colorado, you’re my favorite.
* * *
The trip home the next day was fairly quiet and routine compared to the theater of the previous two weeks. The mountains bid their farewell for now, always for now when leaving the Rockies, and the familiar beautiful vastness of the plains opened up. Getting out of the car at a gas station in Salina, Kansas, I felt humidity for the first time in weeks. It was odd to go that long without feeling summer humidity, but it was almost comforting. Humidity is a welcome home after summer travel. Another welcome home was the return of baseball on the radio, the abbreviated season starting that evening, and once again the voice of Denny Matthews calling a Royals game filled the air, provided accompaniment for the drive through the Flint Hills and Kansas City and Missouri. I was home.
Once again, gratitude was the dominant feeling. The world is so big and beautiful. Even the mundane areas can be special, and there are places that are wild and varied and rugged like the West. If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed, and I probably want to take a trip West with you. Here’s to adventures.