The cool, dry May, desert air carries a slight nip as it pours over the Victory Cross Country's short windshield and proves an excellent adjunct to the pick-me-up qualities of our breakfast caffeine. The early morning traffic is light, the road lonely, and in the distance, the fabled snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains dominate the landscape.
After yesterday’s crimson sunset spectacle, it’s difficult not to double back into Utah and search for more of the blazing mesas and hoodoos that had us so spellbound. Yet while the desire is there, our limited time and the multitude of miles yet to come dictate that we continue eastward on Route 50. The Rocky Mountains stand tall in the distance and make pushing onward not such a hard sell. The Weather Channel, though, has delivered foreboding news for our impending high altitude trek. Promises of dreary skies and a cold rain have us concerned until Kathy, in a fit of sarcastic optimism, points out that our experiences with TV meteorologists include far more misses than hits. On that note, we leave the rain gear stowed and head east.
Though slate-colored clouds heavily flank both sides of the highway, and we can see intermittent squalls in the distance, our little asphalt corridor remains rain-free. The Colorado Welcome sign flashes past and the terrain maintains all the hallmarks of Utah’s lonely desert, without the impressive sandstone formations. Rolling into Grand Junction, we note that Route 50 plunges straight through the industrial and neo-commercial side of town. Never-ending lines of rail cars and big trucks compete with box stores for our attention. This sure isn’t the Colorado that John Denver sang about.
Thankfully, suburbia hasn’t sprawled too far in Grand Junction and we’re soon back to quieter travels. As the mighty mountains draw nearer, it becomes obvious that we’re in for one heck of a ride. The steep, craggy peaks offer no signs of an easy passage. Any road through these parts will have to cooperate with the geography and that can only mean another dose of the twists and turns that corner-carvers crave.
In the blink of an eye, the gently rolling desert surrenders to steep hills east of Montrose. Wide sweepers hug the mountainsides and the mercury begins a slow descent. The blanket of clouds alleged to be covering the western facing Rockies are falling prey to clearing skies. As the altitude increases, all semblance of haziness disappears revealing a cerulean canvas dotted with occasional dark billows of the once-threatening precipitation. The contrast is absolutely surreal to flatlanders like us.
At 7,519 feet, the grandeur of the sheer promontories plunging into the crystalline surface of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest body of water, almost makes us forget the rumbling in our stomachs – almost. As soon as we roll into Gunnison, an abundance of eateries tug at our sleeves. We yield to temptation at the Gunnisack Cowboy Bistro, where fresh bread bowls filled with beer-cheese soup and chili prove excellent motivators.
Around Gunnison, the western culture is far more than a façade. A wide open, rolling terrain is perfect for herds of cattle, and on several occasions we see real cowboys tending their stock. These guys are on horseback, have lassos hanging from the saddles, and sport ten-gallon hats and chaps. It’s really cool to know that scenes like this still occur in places other than Hollywood movie sets.
Our present surroundings of bounding hills and wide sweepers don’t last long. The road ahead begins to steepen, curves tighten, temperatures plummet, and somehow the sky gets even bluer. We climb toward Monarch Pass atop the Continental Divide. As the twists wind skyward, the view becomes nothing short of spectacular. Rugged, pine-covered valleys still blanketed by winter snow stretch as far as the eye can see. A near absence of traffic and ample places to pull over make stopping to smell the winter roses an all-too-regular occurrence.
At 11, 312-feet, we stop at our nation’s Atlantic / Pacific dividing point for a welcome warm-up in the Monarch Pass gift shop. Despite the Victory’s heated grips and seats, temps in the 30s are still a bit overwhelming for a couple of southerners. Our descent of the eastern slope is an expeditious affair and we’re happy to see the signs for Canon City – our stop for the evening.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
After a sampling of local doughnuts and a visit to the Colorado Museum of Prisons in Canon City, we again point the Victory eastward. With one or two curves outside of town, the Rocky Mountains are little more than a vision in the rear views and the Great Plains take over. Soon-to-be-amber waves of grain appear a light spring-green, and an unfettered breeze darts past the wide fairing. The previous day’s shivers are supplanted with a welcome thaw, compliments of the sun’s warm, golden rays. Long, straight stretches disappearing into a billiard-table flat horizon indicate that our floorboard’s undersides won’t be getting a pounding any time soon.
As our journey continues, a menacing wall of clouds building east of Lamar causes us concern. We cross into Kansas just as the warm breezes escalate into chilly gusts. The Cross Country’s weather-band radio informs us that severe thunderstorms lie dead ahead. The automated vocals crackling from the United States Weather Service’s transmitters exude a far more urgent tone than the starch-suited anchors on morning television did. Warnings of heavy rains, hail, damaging winds, and potential tornadic activity get our attention in a big way.
“What now?” asks Kathy, to which I suggest we put the rain gear at the top of the saddlebags. We quickly abandon our plan to visit Holcomb and the infamous settings of Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. Instead, we stop in Lakin and dig out the waterproofs. The rain we’ve so long eluded catches up with a vengeance. Riding through a grey wall of water during rush-hour traffic in completely unfamiliar surroundings is a truly frazzling experience that demands a good stiff snort of the hard stuff.
Apparently, these gully washers aren’t uncommon at this time of year, as nobody in the Garden City Holiday Inn Express gave a second look to the puddles forming at the desk when we check in. Double blessings: the rain passes by quickly and a liquor store is just down the street.