(Excerpted from Chapter 19: Cruising Babylon: The Grateful Unrich…)
The road crests as we cross into northeastern Colorado on Hwy 287. We pull into a small rest area to let the dogs run and fill our water jugs. Images of a pristine Colorado quickly fade as we gradually become aware that this water is making us ill. This first experience serves as a fine metaphor for Colorado, the most naturally beautiful state in the union, now sick from decades of mining and development. As we near Fort Collins, the latter ailment comes into full view.
The entire front range of the Colorado Rockies has been subdivided into oblivion by a rising tide of coastal imports and nirvana-seeking money bags of obnoxious attitude. The state’s drivers quickly get my vote as the worst in the nation. Road rage and tailgating are the norm. I hold the blue van at 50 mph – my usual speed – projecting facial disdain in my rear view mirror as I slow down even more to piss off would be aggressors.
The formerly free campground at Watson Lake State Wildlife Refuge has been transformed into a Fort Collins suburbanite escape where attempts at fishing quickly turn laughable. The now day use only area is trashed. I can see why the state finally disallowed these barbarians from overnighting here. We steam onward into the traffic snarl that is downtown Fort Collins – home of Colorado State University. The sprawl begins here and doesn’t let up until well south of Denver, over 100 miles of look alike cul-de-sac hell mixed with generous portions of the old any town USA formula of Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and Burger King.
Seeing, as usual, opportunity in this garbage heap, we peddle our remaining tools at a high-dollar pawn shop, trade in a book for two Americanos and some fancy biscuit-type things at Barnes & Noble and sell $50 worth of Peruvian beads to a flaky New Age precursor to Armageddon. Then we head for the hills.
At Loveland we steer west and begin a dramatic ascent of Hwy 34, which winds its way up a narrow canyon paralleling the Big Thompson River. The traffic wanes and the scenery becomes more inviting. We drive into Estes Park. I instantly think it the most beautiful town I have seen on this planet. By the looks of the town folk we could never afford to live here, but the snow-capped backdrop of Rocky Mountain National Park makes me very glad to visit. We wedge our way between a couple of BMWs at Safeway and marvel at the sunset as we call it a night.
This morning we locate a good coffee shop then set about peddling wool sweaters, which still take up most of the space in the van. No owners are present to talk with. I suppose they don’t need to work much in a place like this. We sell one cardigan to an employee for $55, then head west towards the park entrance. We flash our Golden Eagle Pass and start through a meadow filled with bighorn sheep. The road heads skyward until we are driving through what looks to be Arctic tundra. The mid-August air takes on an amazing chill as we drive slowly past waterfalls cascading from snowy peaks. Milner Pass, at 10,758’, feels like the roof of the world. The view in all directions is breathtaking. We stop at a turnout to fully absorb the wonder. As we cross the Continental Divide for the first time since Butte and begin our descent, the slopes grow more lush and green, with large stands of aspen and birch clustered around moss-covered rocks. The temperature quickly regains its footing as we reach Grand Lake, then Lake Granby.
We pull off for the night in the Roosevelt National Forest just outside Winter Park on the banks of the Fraser River. There is no campground, but one can remain anywhere on National Forest land for fourteen days without hassle. We have covered lots of slow precarious miles in a few short days. Sleep comes easy tonight.
This morning we find a good coffee joint in Winter Park and sell $26 worth of necklaces to a shop just north of town. We had expected Winter Park to be bigger and more commercialized and are pleasantly surprised. Leaving town on Hwy 40 headed south, we switchback our way up to 11,315’ Berthoud Pass. Near the top is Berthoud Ski Area. Even now there is deep snow alongside the road. The drop down to I-70 is steep. At the bottom of the precipice is the town of Empire – a notorious speed trap for Denver action heroes who blaze through after weekends roughing it at some $200/night Winter Park condo.
We head west on I-70 and pass through the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel – a testament to man’s inability to find a way over the immensity that is the Gore Range. Emerging from the darkness we are greeted with an 8% grade down into the town of Dillon. A cop seems to follow us. I try to ignore him and focus on this surprisingly dangerous stretch of Interstate. He can’t possibly know I haven’t had insurance in ten years. I am relieved to pull off at the Dillon exit. We score a free Sunday Denver Post at a Hardees and drive out to Snake River Inlet on the Arapahoe National Forest, where we plan to camp for the night. Much to our chagrin, this formerly free campground has also become a day use-only area, this time no doubt owing to the nouveau riche condo dwellers that have overrun this fast-growing town. I am sure the thought of anyone sleeping here for free must be troublesome to these heavily-mortgaged climbers.
The ruin of Dillon, it appears, is a foregone conclusion, owing to its proximity to both Keystone and Breckenridge ski resorts. Pissed off, we hop back onto I-70 for a brief jaunt to Hwy 91, which we take south towards Leadville. Tubs II is behaving like a real trooper. He chugs up yet another pass, crossing back east of the divide at the appropriately-named town of Climax on 11,318’ Fremont Pass. We pull off on the downside run and call it a night in the White River National Forest.
Downtown Leadville is trying to become trendy, but it’s a difficult task since the town resides next to over 100 years of toxic lead mine tailings. In the old days ASARCO ran this town. It has since given way to other various tentacles of Rockefeller Inc., which still mine here, though now more for gold than lead. The city council of Leadville has found ASARCO guilty of several crimes against nature, but neither the company nor the Guggenheim family that made its fortune running it along with the Rockefellers are anywhere to be heard in responding to the town’s claims. The state of Colorado, historically a whipping boy for Big Mining, has been equally silent. Naturally the PAC-money fed pigs at the Washington trough will do nothing to spoil their dinner party plans.
For all its problems, Leadville has an understated Butte-like charm to it, along with a history as interesting as any town in America. In a runoff, I’d still take Butte due to its comedian Bill Murray-owned Copper Kings minor league baseball club, comic relief being especially important in a town whose biggest tourist attraction is the toxic Berkeley Pit. Despite its charm, we do not wish to linger or to even touch anything here in Leadville. We opt to head south.
Clouds begin to form over the Sawatch Range. The terrain becomes more arid as we travel along Hwy 24 toward Twin Lakes. Here we turn west onto Hwy 82 and find ourselves once again surrounded by greenery as we attack the Continental Divide once more. The precarious switchbacks end at Independence Pass. At 12,095’ this is to my knowledge the highest drivable point in America. We park it and head out on the section of the Continental Divide Trail, which crosses here. We trudge breathlessly through wildflower-laced tundra, amazed at the alpine ecosystem we encounter. Huge overhangs of dirty snow lie just beneath the trail, waiting to crash into the valley below. The dogs love it. We return to the van and make a couple of deluxe tuna sandwiches. We decide to sleep here at the top of America and plot our assault on Aspen, where big money offers high hopes of losing a bunch of sweaters.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com