Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taking to the road

In September, my friend and collaborator, photographer Jim Steinberg, came to see me with a proposition. He had spent the last two years photographing all 25 of Colorado's scenic byways, routes designated for their outstanding scenic or historic values. Jim wanted me to write the text to accompany his dozens of show-stopping images for a coffee table book on the byways - by January. Lyrical, informative essays on 25 routes giving the sense of the landscapes and their history, human and natural, in three and a half months. Sure. (How many hours are there in each day? Weeks in a month?) I said yes, of course. (Did I mention that it's a two-book set and the details of each route are due in February for the atlas & road guide?) I probably am certifiable. But who could resist an assignment to follow so many open roads?

Fortunately for my sanity and Jim's deadlines, I know many of Colorado's scenic byways already. Some, like the Collegiate Peaks and Top of the Rockies byways, which trace the Upper Arkansas Valley where I live, I know so well it's hard to write about them - there's too much to say. Others, like the North Platte River Road in northeastern Colorado, I don't know at all.

So for the past four weeks, Richard and I have been exploring far-flung parts of Colorado. We barreled down dusty gravel roads leading to the crumbling ruins of ancient pueblos - silent, but oddly still very much alive - in the southwestern corner of the state. We drove with my parents up into the glacier-nibbled and lava-capped high peaks of the Flat Tops in northwestern Colorado on a week when the aspens poured rivers of gold over the mountainsides. (That's Trapper's Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness in the photo. The drive up a gravel road and short walk over a glacial moraine to the lake shore was my favorite side trip on that particular byway.)
I drove out onto the southeastern Plains to see the pale ruts of the Santa Fe trail still scoring the shortgrass prairie; we wound up and over the Wet Mountains two days later on another byway. Tomorrow, we're off to pick up my parents for a trip downstream on the North Platte River to explore the wide spaces where Colorado meets Wyoming and Nebraska.

What have I learned from these byway excursions? That the state of Colorado is even more diverse than I knew. That within a day's drive of the valley I call home are slickrock deserts, soaring palisades of sunset-colored rock layers, the ghosts of ancient ones who farmed where today's tractors plow modern fields, silver and gold mines that yielded instant, fabulous wealth and equally sudden bankruptcy, peaks sculpted by glaciers and dotted with snow even in summer, lakes hidden atop cool mountain "sky islands" rising out of sere desert, winding canyons holding log cabins and the rock spires of eccentric castles, wide plains stretching to the far horizon, ruled by fleet pronghorn. And that's just the beginning. The landscapes I thought I knew hold far more stories than I'd imagined, and I'm just beginning to discover them. No wonder we Americans love the open road!

Now I need to get ready for tomorrow, when we'll load up the car (our wonderfully efficient and clean-burning Subaru Forester) and hit the road again. Until the road brings us home!

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