Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Pilgrimage To Colorado

On two separate occasions, once when I was in elementary school and once in junior high, we vacationed in Colorado. We visited Colorado Springs and drove up Pikes Peak, visited Cripple Creek and Victor and drove the Phantom Canyon road down to CaƱon City and the Royal Gorge. We stayed in the People's Republic of Boulder and spent a day in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was impressed with the mountains and the mild temperatures in July and August and always wanted to go back again when I was old enough to do it on my on.
In the summer of 1972 Paul Craycraft and I convinced our parents that we were trustworthy and mature enough to take trip to Colorado. While at school in the spring we had talked about going to the mountains. It brought back fond memories of many years past. We had driven to Vicksburg, Mississippi to the Civil War battleground over spring break and had made it back without incident, our parents reluctantly agreed to let us go. Our initial plan was to go to Colorado Springs and spend two or three days, then return home. We assured everyone we would stay in a nice, safe motel each night and not do anything stupid.
Somewhere between the time we gave the parents our assurances and when we left a week later, we decided to camp out each night and drive to Canada. We thought it prudent not to pass on these minor changes to our parents if we still wanted to go. We loaded up my 1971 Ford Pinto with spare clothes, food and camping gear and hit the road early on a Monday morning in August.
Paul and I plan every detail whenever we start to do anything, as people who know us are aware. When we crossed Loop 304 and headed north out of Crockett, we decided we should consult a map and decide the best route to take - of course, we had to stop at a gas station and buy a map. We hadn't thought about needing one until then. We drove north toward Dallas while we plotted which direction to go. As I merged onto Interstate 45 I almost slammed into a dead dog, which had swollen to the size of a large pig. I swerved in the nick of time. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Crockett people are easily amused.
I recalled spending the night in Dodge City, Kansas, on my first trip to Colorado. We had visited the old townsite, which had been turned into a tourist trap for suckers. I was a little kid at the time and thought it was great. I told Paul, "Let's go through Dodge City, Kansas. It is great!"
We spent about an hour in Dodge City. Paul had the decency not to point out that we had wasted many hours driving across vast plains of nothing to reach a tourist trap that wouldn't normally impress anyone with half a brain, even if they were from East Texas. We headed west toward Colorado in the middle of the afternoon. There were seemingly hundreds of feedlots along the highway that stretched for many miles, so we enjoyed the aroma of fresh manure for two or three hours straight.
Eastern Colorado is more or less like Kansas, which is miles of nothing. Most of the land makes West Texas look absolutely tropical. By the time we were close enough to the front range of the Rockies it was too dark to see the mountains. We rolled into Colorado Springs about ten o'clock at night.
I currently live in Colorado Springs. It is a town of 375,000 residents and has as many motels as it does Chinese buffets, which is a hell of a lot. In 1972, however, it was a town of around 70,000 with a limited number of places to stay, especially during the height of the tourist season. Every motel we passed had a "No Vacancy" sign lit up.
This is a totally unrelated side note, but in Colorado they don't put the population of the town on the city limit sign. When entering Colorado Springs you will be informed the elevation is 6,035 feet above sea level, as if anybody gives a damn!
We drove around for an hour and had no luck at all. We were running low on gas, so we stopped at a Sinclair station on the edge of Manitou Springs. Locals today claim it is the devil worshipping capital of the United States (Manitou Springs, not the Sinclair station), but we didn't know it at the time.
After pumping the gas I went inside to pay and asked if there were any motels nearby that might have some rooms available. The attendant looked vaguely familiar. He said there wasn't a chance we would find a room, but they had a little park just behind the station. We were welcome to toss out our sleeping bags and pass the night there. He said there were three or four other people back there already.
At first we said we might take him up on the offer. We parked the car around back and started to unload our sleeping bags. Paul looked around and said, "There isn't anyone else back here." We jumped back in the Pinto and hit the road. Many years later I rented a video tape, and damn if the Sinclair attendant wasn't in it! I'm pretty sure he was the operator of the little gas station and store in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
We pulled into Denver after midnight and were worn out. We found a Travel Lodge and got a room. We slept until mid-morning, then, hit the road refreshed. At least we could finally see the mountains.
In the 1970s Coors beer was only distributed within a 600-mile radius of Golden, Colorado. That meant it was only available in Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and farther north. Perhaps is was the mystique of the John Denver perpetuated hype of the state of Colorado, or the thought of beer being better if it was brewed with "pure Rocky Mountain spring water" as the commercials claimed, but Coors beer was a highly sought-after commodity in any area where it wasn't readily available. Paul and I had made it part of our mission to buy some on our trip.
We had discussed at length the possibility of walking into a store and buying some without getting ID'd. We looked sufficiently scruffy that some minimum wage worker at a convenience store might let us slide. On our way out of Denver we stopped at a little place that sold beer and gas. We didn't need any gas after filling up at the station run by the mass murderer in Manitou Springs, but we needed an excuse to be in the store other than to just buy beer. We sat at the gas pump for several long, agonizing minutes trying to work up the courage to go in for the beer. We tried to determine which of us looked more like a twenty-one-year-old hippie rather than a nineteen-year-old hippie. We finally decided to go inside together.
We exited the car all puckered up with our stomachs churning and our courage beginning to fail. We immediately found ourselves facing a sign that read "Attention, we will not sell alcohol to anyone under 18 years old." Damn! We were legal there and had wasted all that angst over nothing. The purchase was anti-climactic after that. We bought our first legal six-pack, and over the next three days we consumed two beers each. Not enough to impress Otis on "The Andy Griffith Show," but we felt like studs. We were going to take the other two cans back to impress our friends in Texas, but in the end we were scared our parents would find them so we threw them out. But it did mark our first legal alcohol purchase and made us feel more manly.
The early part of the day was spent driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road runs across the top of the park, and the scenery is some of the finest in the world. We ate lunch at a picnic area above timberline as we looked down into the alpine valleys that were dotted with lakes and streams. We talked about how difficult it was going to be to describe such beauty to our friends and family back in Texas, especially since neither of us had remembered to bring a camera. We left the park via the west entrance and headed north to Wyoming.
North of Laramie, Wyoming we connected back up with US Highway 287; the very highway we left Crockett on early Monday morning. It traverses some beautiful and sparsely populated country through the center of Wyoming. The highway runs from Alaska to Florida and is heavily traveled through Texas. We pulled into a roadside park in Wyoming to eat supper and sat and talked for an hour. During the entire hour, not one car passed in either direction.
About dark we drove through Lander, Wyoming. The Pinto had half a tank of gas, and there were several little towns dotting the map from Lander to the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We saw no need to fill the tank. From that point on we noticed that the "towns" we were passing through were intersections of some ranch roads with US 287, and the sign, when there was one, was the only evidence that towns even existed. The gas gauge was dropping and we were getting nervous.
We entered Dubose, Wyoming just after ten o'clock. It is an actual town, albeit a small one. It is a supply center for some of the area ranches as well as a tourist town. It also shuts down completely at nine o’clock.
A deputy sheriff was parked near an intersection, so we asked him if there were any gas stations open. He said there weren't, but if we would follow him he would open one up for us. We followed him to a small station on the edge of town. He couldn't get to the cash to make change, so we had to buy an exact amount. We gave him $10, which in 1972 would completely fill up my Pinto. Just before he turned on the power to the pump a motorcycle went roaring by. The deputy slammed the door to the station and said, "I'll be right back!" He turned on his siren and started chasing the motorcyclist into the mountains. Thirty minutes later he returned. We got our gas, thanked him, and went on our way.
We hadn't had the opportunity to use any of our camping gear before getting to Wyoming. After leaving Dubose, we headed in the general direction of Grand Teton National Park. Almost two hours later we came to a campground. We drove around until we found an empty site. We got out our sleeping bags and put them on the ground. Due to the late hour we didn't want to put up the tent and risk waking anyone up.
One thing I should mention about our camping gear: It was well suited to camping in East Texas when it is ninety degrees at midnight, but not that good in northern Wyoming when it is in the forties. We were both freezing our asses off! About twenty minutes was all Paul could take. He said, "Screw this, I'm freezing," and we packed up and hit the road. (By the way Paul, Joe Brannen says you borrowed his sleeping bag for the trip and he still hasn't gotten it back.)
At daybreak on Wednesday morning, we drove through the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We had been awake for twenty hours and were pretty tired. It was cold and foggy when a moose appeared in the middle of the road through the mist. I stopped a couple of feet short of him and put skidmarks in my shorts as well as on the road. He slowly walked into the trees and we continued on. I hadn't driven more than a mile when a huge porcupine crossed in front of the car and was nearly flattened. I was wide awake after that.
We continued north and drove along the shore of Yellowstone Lake and past Yellowstone Lake Lodge. It is a place of incredible beauty with wildlife around every corner. We arrived at the campground at Tower Falls around the middle of the morning. Normally it is hard to get a campsite inside the park, but people were packing up and leaving for the day, so we found one easily. We put up the tent for the first time since we left and unpacked some of our gear. Even though we had been up for just over twenty-four hours we were getting our second wind. It was time to see the park.
We drove the loop through the park and took in the scenery. There is too much to see at Yellowstone to even begin to describe. The park headquarters is located at the site of Old Faithful Geyser, which erupts every ninety minutes. We got there ten minutes after an eruption, so we had some time to kill before the next one. We went to the store near the lodge and looked around. We knew there was a fair chance we might freeze to death that night given the temperature rating of our equipment, so we pooled our money and bought a tent heater. It was actually a single burner Coleman stove mounted on a lantern base with a little detachable shield to cover the flames. People with good sense might realize there was a good possibility they would die from the fumes if it were left burning all night in a tent. We didn't believe in that kind of nonsense, and besides, it would be an easier way to go out than freezing. (Paul, I have the heater in my garage if you ever need to use it.)
Old Faithful is much more impressive on a post card than it is in real life. After seeing the eruption we continued our tour of the park. Late in the afternoon we got to our campsite at Tower Falls. We had very little food left in our ice chest, so we drove over to the lodge, gas station and grocery store nearby.
I was wearing a t-shirt with the logo "SFA" over the pocket. In Yellowstone National Park I didn't figure there were many people who would know what it stood for. As soon as we walked into the store a girl behind the counter asked, "Do you go to Stephen F. Austin?"
We told her we did and she asked where we were from? We told her we were from Crockett, and she asked if we knew Smitty Dean and Debbie Porth, both of whom are from Crockett. It turned out she attended Austin College in Sherman, Texas and knew both of them. It is indeed a small world.
We returned to the campsite with some sandwich meat, chips and cokes. Our plans to build a fire and cook changed when the girl at the store told us how the smell of cooking might attract bears to our tent. We ate our sandwiches, then locked all the food in the car. We wanted to at least build a campfire, but those forest rangers are a bunch of selfish liberal bastards. They have signs posted that prohibit the gathering of firewood, but you are invited to buy some at the store. Buy wood! They could just kiss our asses! We fired up the tent heater and went to bed. Luckily my tent was a piece of crap and allowed the carbon monoxide to escape quite easily and we survived the night.
At daybreak Thursday morning we packed up and decided it was time to head for Canada. We were in Montana in less than an hour, and after looking at the map we figured to be in Canada by early afternoon. Wrong!
I can't speak for their condition today, but the Montana highways in 1972 were bad. They were rough, windy and narrow. By late afternoon we had made it to Great Falls and were worn out. There was a pretty good highway that went north from Great Falls and into Canada, but we decided to take a smaller road into the southern entrance of Glacier National Park. We arrived at the Canadian border about seven o’clock.
There was a border checkpoint where the park road crossed into Canada. The officer stopped us and asked if he could search the car. I said "sure," and opened the doors and the trunk. We had so much crap packed into the Pinto he just looked through the door, then back at us and said, "Looks fine to me." We visited with him for about an hour. His outpost was a lonely one and he was happy to have someone to talk to. We had never talked to a real live Canadian before, so we were excited as well.
We located a campground that had plenty of empty sites, dropped off our gear, then went to a nearby grocery store. We bought a package of wieners, some buns and a can of chili. It was getting cold by the time we got the tent set up, so we took the shield off the tent heater and used the burner to cook the wieners and the chili. After a good warm meal it occurred to us that all the local bears must by now be on their way to our tent for some supper. The ranger had specifically warned us about bears in the campground. In about ten minutes we had the tent down and packed into the car. We had been in Canada for two hours, so it was time to head back to the USA.
We knew the road we came in on closed at nine p.m., so we would have to find another way across the border. After looking at the map we found it was only thirty miles to Cardston, and there was a major highway going south into Montana from there. It took longer than expected to reach Cardston because of the dark mountain roads, so we pulled through town about eleven thirty p.m. We made it to the border crossing at midnight.
It was strange to see a line of cars sitting at the closed gate at midnight. Then we noticed a large sign saying the border closed at ten p.m. and would open at six a.m. We had no choice but to sit in the Pinto and wait for six hours. When you sit in a Pinto all night you don't get any sleep no matter how tired you are. About three o’clock a VW van came screeching to a halt beside us. The doors flew open and several wasted hippies appeared through a haze of smoke. They were laughing and having a great time. They all fell over onto the wet and cold grass beside the road and passed out. When the border opened up at six o'clock we had been up for twenty-four hours and were feeling terrible. The officers at the American checkpoint took one look at us and just waived us through. I guess they thought if we were smugglers we must not be very successful ones.
The better part of the day Friday was spent driving across Montana. We headed for the southeastern corner so we could get back on Interstate 25 in Wyoming and have a faster route back to Colorado and then on to Texas. We did take a few minutes to visit the Little Big Horn Battleground, the site of Custer's Last Stand. Late in the afternoon finally made it to Sheridan, Wyoming and the interstate.
Paul was driving and we had both been awake for thirty-six hours. We needed to get something to eat, so we found a restaurant just south of Sheridan. One of my most vivid memories of the entire trip was when I got out if the car and noticed a horrible stench. I looked at Paul and said, "Something smells like crap!" He agreed, and we sniffed the inside of the car, then we looked at each other and realized it was us! We hadn't changed clothes or cleaned up in any manner at all since Tuesday morning. It was no surprise when the waitress sat us at a table on the other side of the restaurant from the rest of the customers.
We took Interstate 25 south across Wyoming and entered Colorado after midnight. To this day I don't know how we made the trip home alive. We would take turns driving and were both too tired to think straight. As we passed through Denver a car full of drunks tried to run us off the road. At least it scared us enough to wake us up for a few more hours.
After daylight we finally crossed into Texas at the little town of Texline. My first thought was, "Thank God, we are nearly home." I looked at the map and started adding up the miles from Texline to Crockett. We were still nearly 700 miles from home. I was depressed!
We pulled into Crockett at six p.m. on Saturday. We had been awake since six a.m. Thursday and had driven from Canada to Crockett stopping only for gas and meals. When I walked into the house, the first thing I heard was "What is that smell?"

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