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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Leaving Colorado

We left Great Sand Dunes National Park just after noon and were determined to find a suitable place to stop for lunch. Within twenty miles, the perfect place appeared at the perfect time: The Old West Cafe in Fort Garland was a site for empty stomachs, and we pulled into the dusty lot ready for burgers and fries. Sporting a giant plywood cutout of a frosty cone, the place had just the right amount of worn corners and rough edges, without being so broken down as to be questionable. When we walked in, there was only one other couple in the place, but the waitress was friendly and told us to take any table, she'd be right with us.

Old West Cafe, Fort Garland, CO
Mark ordered the buffalo burger, but Sonia (our waitress) explained their supplier doubled the price of buffalo this year so they didn't have any. She said they liked to buy it locally, but they couldn't charge $16.00 for a burger for chrissakes, so they just weren't going to offer it until the guy came down on price. They could go over the hill and get it, but that wasn't local. (Over the hill referred to a ranch over the pass, about forty miles away. We thought this was funny, since "local" to us means anywhere within the state of California, a range of about 800 miles.) So Mark ordered the regular bacon cheeseburger, and a chocolate shake. "No ice cream, it all melted."

While we were attempting to order things that appeared on the menu but were not in the freezer, a guy pulled up, walked in and sat down at the counter. He was mid-fifties and dressed like a cowboy, complete with a pretty hefty looking belt. He turned slightly and we realized he was packing a holstered revolver. At first we thought, ok, the local sheriff. No, as it turned out, just a guy with a gun.

Colorado is an interesting study in contrasts: open carry is permitted and parts of the state are religiously conservative; they also just legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Some might find this strange, but I found it kind of comforting. I figured if we were ever confronted by a guy with a gun, there was at least a chance he was so stoned he couldn't be bothered to shoot us. Not that we would give him a reason to shoot but sometimes just the very mention of the state of California seems to put people into a lather. We tend not to mention it unless it's brought up in conversation, or if our license plate outs us.

So while Sonia was occupied with Mr. Gun, a mother and daughter came in and sat down across the way from us. Mr. Gun was quite the talker, he seemed to know everyone and everything, but Sonia broke away to help the mother/daughter, who she also seemed to know. She took their order then told them in a low voice that he made her nervous, always carrying that gun around, what was he trying to prove? The mother replied that she had taken the concealed weapons class on Mother's Day and had just gotten her permit in the mail.

Lunch: $21.36
Entertainment: priceless

Finished up our burgers (which were very good by the way) and headed up the pass.

If you look at a map of the US, the western states are a wrinkled mess of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Cutting through the middle of Colorado north to south, the line of mountains descend towards Mexico. Once you get to the other side of that line, the map flattens out into a continuous plain all the way to the Appalachians. Coming down the pass on the eastern side, it took some adjustment to get used to not seeing anything on the horizon.

Map courtesy of:

We were on our way to visit friends in Nebraska so we couldn't dawdle too much if we were to make it by the next day. We weren't sure exactly where we were going to stop that night, but figured something would turn up when we got tired of driving.

The eastern side of Colorado has a different feel from the west (we've found this is true of a lot of states actually; if you've ever driven over the mountains from west to east in Washington state you know exactly what I mean.) It's drier because of the rain shadow effect of the mountain range, the western side milking the moisture out of the clouds, wringing them out before reaching the other side. But beyond that, the people are also different: Colorado Springs is home to the US Air Force Academy which might explain part of the more conservative feel to the area. There was actually an exit marked for the Focus on Family International Headquarters, a religious group that is "nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide." So much for separation of church and state highways. But even beyond that, it just seemed like we had crossed some sort of dividing line and were no longer in the west. It seemed more homogeneous and more straight laced. It made me want to collect a few of the colorful characters we've encountered in Nevada and sprinkle them into Colorado Springs just to see what would happen. On second thought, it is an open carry state, and I'm not sure where the bible stands on bullets...

Anyway, we certainly weren't in Kansas anymore...wait, we were in Kansas (close anyway)...well, you know what I mean. We drove north up the eastern spine of the Rocky's and arrived in Denver just in time for rush hour. Joy.

What we saw of Denver--mostly car butts

I wish we had been able to stop in Denver, it looked really interesting. It also was really big. It took us a good hour to get through to the other side in stop and go traffic, and I got the feeling it would have been much worse if we had gotten there even a tad later that we did.

After squashing our way through Denver we were spit out on the eastern side onto Highway 76, a road that traverses a northeast angle across the top of Colorado, joining up with Highway 80, the main drag across the US.  It was around 6:00pm and we were hungry and tired from our day in the wind, sand and traffic, so I looked ahead for any campgrounds in the area. Jackson Lake State Park looked promising: it had 260 campsites and it was open year round. It was billed as "An Oasis on the Plains" and we had pretty good luck with our last "oasis" so why not?

It was about 20 miles off the highway; we didn't really want to camp right next to traffic roaring by at 75 mph so we took the unnamed exit (save for it's number) and drove across the farm fields, passing old houses, barns and tractors. We passed a dead cow left in a driveway for the renderer, so bloated all four legs were stuck straight out from it's cartoonishly puffed body. The road got narrower, and turned to gravel the last two miles making us wonder if, yet again, Colorado was trying to mess with us.

You'd think being in such flat terrain would enable easier navigation, but I found the opposite to be true. There are no landmarks--no mountain peaks or rock outcroppings--to orient yourself. Every farm had the same tree growing in the yard, and the same color roof on the barn. We had only the compass in the truck to align ourselves, and of course Google Maps on the phone, which had been proving less and less accurate the farther we got from urban areas. Eventually a sign appeared (sort of off-kilter, looking like it had been hit by a passing tractor once or twice) and we were there.

Jackson Lake, Colorado
Jackson Lake is a man-made reservoir serving the surrounding farms on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. It was a big lake--so big we could barely make out the other side from our campsite on the western edge. Nice campground, well laid out, and practically empty. It was the week before Memorial Day, and we noticed all the sites were reserved for the upcoming weekend, so it must get pretty crowded. The wind was blasting, whipping the water up into foot high waves that broke on the shore nearby. There were pelicans hanging out with the ducks on the lake, which surprised me--I hadn't ever seen pelicans anywhere but the coast.

Pelican riding out the whitecaps
Big black clouds were building up that night, which were making me a little nervous. We had been camping for over a week at that point, and hadn't heard until just that morning about the horrible tornadoes that had gone through Oklahoma in the last few days. The weather was so different from home it was hard to figure out what it was up to. Another mystery of the plains for us.

Had a nice dinner and got ready for the second half of our journey. It was a strange trip for us, as the next leg would be spent in "town," and moving from camping to civilization is always a jolt to the system. It was a shame, but at least there would be showers.

Home on the range, Jackson Lake State Park, CO

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