I began a week-long drive through Colorado on a Thursday in Denver. In that week, I’d travel to every corner of the state, stopping only to hike or sleep.
After months of nothing but Chicago, I wanted to see something besides concrete. So I mapped out a plan, rented a car, and headed into the mountains.
I’d never been to Colorado before and I wasn’t prepared for its savage beauty or wide-open vastness. Mountain roads nearly 14,000 feet high stunned me. The overall untouched but preserved savageness of the land felt like being in another time.
Here are a few places that opened my eyes.
I drove the scenic 63-mile Mesa Scenic Byway into the forest. Little did I know they were not exaggerating when they decided to put “scenic” in the name.
The highway climbs from I-70 up and across an 11,000-foot plateau to Cedaredge. As I drove, I had to stop at the many pull-offs to get a grip on myself and avoid crashing.
The mountain passes and geologic vistas were beyond reasonable in their beauty. With the winding roads, sandstone formations of various colors, and mountains in the distance, it didn’t seem real.
Houses dotting the edges of mountains, seemingly alone in the isolated wilderness, left me perplexed. How or why did people choose to live in such total isolation? Wasn’t it scary? Difficult to get material goods? What if you needed to go to the hospital? I hadn’t seen anything close to looking like a hospital.
I wondered about those people. Were they antisocial? Maybe a little crazy? They must be, right? I surely could never live so alone, or at least, that’s what I thought then.
Panic at the Mesa
Despite the beauty, I had to convince myself not to have a panic attack repeatedly. What can I say? I’m a city girl.
Some people get panicky in crowds and tight places, but for me, it’s the opposite. Wide-open spaces feel like desolation. The absence of civilization, surrounded by land nearly untouched for thousands of years, left me breathless in more ways than one.
As glorious as they were, there’s an otherness in the mountains you can’t shake. Combined with the narrow mountain passes and 10,000-foot drops that don’t include guardrails, well, you can understand my nerves. I feared running out of gas, or breaking down, or falling off the edge of the mountain itself.
So, I did what I always do when I get scared or nervous – I forced myself through it. I talked myself down off the ledge one breath at a time, one minute at a time, and kept driving.
At the top of the mountain
The Grand Mesa in Colorado is the largest flattop mountain in the world and covers about 500 miles of wilderness.
It’s interesting because it’s an entire world unto itself up there. Imagine driving for nearly an hour to the top. Once there, you’re in an entirely new place 10,000 feet above the rest of the world. In the clouds. How can the top of a mountain be flat? I found myself asking many such questions but receiving no answers.
Standing at Land’s End and looking across the vast expanse of sand and rock, it does seem like an entirely new world. Or maybe the end of this one.
I heard there was a deep, black hole in the middle of the state in the Gunnison National Park. I pointed my car southwest and headed for it.
Dusty roads led me through a small town peppered with sand dunes and not much else. The road ended, depositing me at the park entrance. There the drive became steeper and the earth blacker with every mile.
At the visitor’s center, I chatted with one of the rangers. I was looking to find the best hiking trail I could complete in about three hours. He gave me a rundown of every trail in the canyon, of which there are many. We’d still be there talking today if I didn’t slowly back away.
He decided I should take the trail that leads down into the canyon but away from the river.
“Why not to the river?”
“What’da mean?” I asked as my eyes narrowed.
He pointed to the whiteboard behind him on which each day he wrote the animal sightings. On this day, by 10 am, he’d already written: mule deer, elk, and golden eagle.
He said the morning before, right on the very trail I was about to take, there was a black bear. Of course, there was, I thought.
“Don’t worry, he’s long gone by now.”
“Let’s hope,” I laughed, not thinking it funny at all.
Into the Canyon
I filled my water bottle and headed down the trail. The incline, as he’d warned me, was steep. “It’s the way up that gits ya,” he said. After five minutes on a decline as steep as stairs, I could see that he’d be right.
Black Canyon is nearly 3,000 feet deep and has many plunging cliffs and one long, thundering river. You are exposed to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America in the valley.
I walked alone down the steep trail, listening intently for any rustling in the bushes, alerting me to elk and bears. My heart got a good workout, staying on edge the entire time, but I didn’t meet anything other than birds, squirrels, and one nomad.
About halfway down, I met Paul. He was sitting on a huge boulder that looked like a great place to take a break, so I climbed up and joined him.
Paul was a fellow hiker who’d been on the road for the last year and a half. He was traveling state by state and living out of his van. As a web developer, he worked his regular 9 to 5 from the comfort of a small desk in the van or any public space with the internet that would have him.
We sat in the sun listening for bears and I wondered aloud what it would be like to live like a turtle with your home on your back.
He said he traveled on the weekends and spent his days in the small towns outside of national parks. The internet inside the parks was bad to nonexistent. After work hours and on weekends, he’d hike and explore.
“How long are you going for?” I asked.
“Well, I was only planning to do it for a year, but there are a lot of places to see,” he said. “I haven’t even made it all the way west yet.”
There are over 400 National Parks in the United States.
Reclining in the sun on the rock, I could see the appeal in being a nomad whose only goal was to find beautiful places to ramble around in.
After a steep hike out of Black Canyon that really did “git me,” I meandered my way south-ish toward Telluride.
This isolated Victorian-era mining town sits in a box canyon with mountains on all four sides. It isn’t easy to get to and isn’t exactly on the way to anything else. Because of this, it has a well-deserved spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was my birthday, so history buff that I am, picked Telluride as the place for desert. I ended up with a massive bowl of ice cream. They said that the town looks today much like it did back in the 1870s when the miners first found gold. I believe it.
I had to go off the beaten path to get there, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those first miners. They’d have been riding horses and pulling wagons into this remote wild place in search of silver, gold and a better life. I don’t know if they found “better,” but they sure would have found beautiful.
Miner, miner 49er
They say Butch Cassidy once robbed a bank in Telluride and that’s kind of cool … if you’re into criminals. I walked around eating my ice cream, admiring the historic buildings and reading about wild-west history. As I walked, I hummed a song on repeat. I could not get out of my head since I set foot in the town. You might know it…
I finished my ice cream and headed south toward Durango on the Colorado/New Mexico border.
The heat was nearing 100 and the sun shined down relentlessly as I neared my destination. Driving through miles of dry, open land where little could grow and less could find shelter I wondered who’d choose to live in such places.
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings hidden in the mountainside. I was intensely curious about how these people ended up here and what possessed them to make it their home.
Once I made it to the treeless mesa as I drove up, up, up along Mesa Top Loop Road. There I admired the vista overlooks with panoramic canyon views that again left me gasping for breath. Somewhere miles into the distance were the four corners where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona met.
On top of that mesa, I drove past large sections of blackened land that had been consumed by fire. They say most years lightning strikes cause fires that consume large portions of the land, leaving it charred and deadly. Even if not intentional, this burning, like slash and burn agriculture, leaves the land more nourished in the long run.
For rent: abandoned Colorado cliffside resort
These peaceful hunter-gatherers lived in the cliff dwellings for over 700 years in a massive community that included over 5,000 dwellings and at least three times that many people.
The mountain would have been near impossible to get to and the lightning made it dangerous too. Unpredictable crop fires would limit their food supply.
Still, they went to great pains to build the cliffside dwellings with an architectural skill that is mind-blowing in its complexity and function. The structures, built below overhangs, ranged from one-room shacks to 150 room palaces.
Then, all of a sudden, for reasons we will likely never know, they got up and walked down the mountain, never to return.
Garden of the Gods
I headed east toward Colorado Springs and some of the more traveled spaces and places around Pikes Peak – that famed 14,000-foot mountain of yore.
Colorado Springs is an interesting area where the Great Plains grasslands meet pinon-juniper woodlands that span to the peak. That uniqueness is its blessing and its curse.
Unlike the other places I visited, Colorado Springs felt commercialized. Indeed, even the mountain requires an entry fee. Despite the natural beauty, this place was filled with consumer amenities. It catered to tourists who expect a variety of cheap and easy options in all things.
Suburban Rock Cluster
The rocks at the Garden of the Gods are red sandstone and limestone. The formations have been tilted vertically and faulted into “fins” jutting out of the ground.
As I drove toward them, I was surprised to find suburbs surrounded the National Natural Landmark. There was also a visitor center offering climbing, paved hiking trails, biking, and jeep tours.
I was a little disappointed to be back in “normal” Colorado suburban life. After all of the wildnesses and wide-open spaces, it lost some luster with easily attainable alternatives for everything.
There was something special about those hard to reach and difficult to endure types of places. Pride of accomplishment for having found and survived them.
Garden of the Gods, while lovely, didn’t offer many challenges, which makes it a good alternative for family and the less physically abled. After a brief tour around the outskirts of the rocks, I headed toward Boulder and then home.
The mountains are calling
Later, back in my Chicago highrise, I thought how instead of caves, I have concrete, not wildlife but a wildness for sure. Busy chaos, car exhaust, and the smell of restaurants and bakeries replace the quiet and scent of pine.
As I listened to blaring sirens and people in the street below, I thought of those isolated houses on the Pueblo people’s mountainsides and hidden cliffs. I imagined the miners’ lives and thought about what it would be like to get my own van and become a nomad.
There are a lot of different ways to live. My soul feels different in the woods than in the concrete jungle. Thoughts roll slower through my mind.
Some nights, when I’m sitting out on my balcony listening to the sounds of the city, I swear, I hear those mountains calling. Someday I might answer.