Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Colorado to West Virginia


Rocky Mountain National Park turned out to be a slight bust. I had ambitions to climb Longs Peak and set up some nice early fall foliage shots up near Sky Pond but the late season weather shut me down pretty hard.

Up at 14,000ft, Park Rangers were reporting high winds, snow accumulation, and the formation of "verglas" - an icy glazing on rocks that's too thin for traction with crampons and too slick with boots alone. I had done plenty of climbing this summer and didn't want my final attempt to turn into a wintery epic. I contented myself with my previous accomplishments and therefore wasn't too disappointed that I wouldn't get my "14er." Wyoming's Fremont Peak (13,745ft) will likely be my personal altitude record for quite some time, maybe forever.

I did drive up to the high country on park roads to check out the alpine scenery and crested the Continental Divide at over 12,000ft. The winds buffeted my truck and made steering difficult. I watched clouds race overhead at warp speed. And I was glad I wasn't on top of Longs Peak.

The following day I got up early to hike to popular Sky Pond. I needn't have rushed; once I arrived in the parking lot it started pouring. I curled up on my bench seat and snoozed for another hour, waiting for a break in the rain. Which I technically got only because it stopped raining and instead started to snow. I hiked anyway. On the way to Sky Pond I passed a smaller body of water known as The Loch. The ferocious wind that blew in with the snow whipped up a steady barrage of whitecaps. The Loch was 100 yards long, only twice the length of an Olympic swimming pool and there were whitecaps! I was pretty cold and miserable, so I turned around without getting my pictures.

I finished my time around Rocky Mountain National Park down in the lower valleys where the weather was better. Elk bugling signaled the start of the mating season. I holed up in a coffee shop, reading for a down day in the small town of Estes Park, biding my time to drive to Denver to pick up Phil.

Phil is an yet another Coast Guard friend of mine and he offered to help me make the drive across the Great Plains back east. We spent the day of his arrival sampling Denver's beer scene and enjoyed a fine meal of bison and elk steaks at the Buckhorn Exchange, one of Colorado's oldest saloons and restaurants. They have the state's first liquor license on display!

A toast to Liquor License #1!  
Driving the Flyover

Leaving Denver I had a roundabout cross country trip in mind, designed to finish off my 50 States, of which I was missing Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Armed with Phil as a backup driver, endless music on my satellite radio, and copious coffee to keep us awake, I prepared for a long, boring drive. Turns out it was anything but! I realized that the Heartland is just as important to the American experience as any other place in the country and our stops along the way proved to be some of the most unexpectedly enjoyable sights of the entire trip.

In Nebraska we drove east along part of the historic Oregon Trail, passing the distinctive form of Chimney Rock. It was cool to see the famous landmark that features so prominently into the game I played often in my elementary school days. Thankfully this time nobody caught cholera and I didn't lose an axle while crossing the Platte River.

The remainder of the long drive thru Nebraska was fairly uneventful (lots of corn) but we did stumble upon some of those super tacky cliched tourist traps.


Entering Kansas, we were only a short detour away from the Geographical Center of the 48 States. The Heart of the Heartland. We had to stop.

Kansas impressed me with its subtle aesthetics. A local author aptly described it thus: "mountains and oceans shout an easy beauty, the prairie only whispers." Phil and I took a seven mile hike thru Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the few places left in the Great Plains that never felt the plow of farm or development, to listen to the whispers.

Bison are an integral part of a healthy prairie ecosystem
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas
An old one room schoolhouse at the edge of the Preserve
The pleasant surprises in Kansas kept coming. A local space-nerd philanthropist turned a museum in Hutchinson into the best aeronautical exhibit outside the Smithsonian Air and Space, and the largest collection of Russian space capsules in the Western Hemisphere. With such a good display of Soviet technology it was easier to understand the back and forth of the Cold War space race, from its Nazi V-2 origins to the early Russian success and the final American lunar triumphs.

A full SR71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built. If they even tried to put machine guns on this thing, it would fly into its own bullets!!!

We spent so long on our day in Kansas that we didn't make it all the way to our planned overnight in Oklahoma City. Phil did find a great little town to spend the night, Guthrie, OK. Guthrie was Oklahoma's first state capitol, before it was "stolen" by Oklahoma City (they still don't seem over it). As such, Guthrie caught a wave of early development in the late 1800s and then everything just stopped, leaving a downtown full of well preserved Victorian style buildings and architecture. In the morning we grabbed coffee and just strolled around before finishing the drive to OK City.

Holding a grudge after all these years? 
Our time in Oklahoma City was spent exploring the rich cowboy history of the area. The city boasts an excellent Museum of the American Cowboy and Western Heritage with terrific exhibits on ranching, rodeo, western clothing & style, weapons, frontier life, and Hollywood's love affair with cowboys and Indians. Downtown in "Stockyard City" they still auction off live cattle in the streets, which you can then eat as a delicious steak at places like Cattleman's Restaurant. After lunch, I did some shopping in the western stores.

General Custer actually had two Gatling Guns at his disposal. He left them back at his fort for the Battle at Little Bighorn. I wonder if he regretted that? 
The moving sculpture "End of Trail." Sympathetic to the plight of the Native American or lauding the supremacy of white dudes? You decide. 
Cattleman's Restaurant uses the brand "33" on all their stock. Back in the 40s, Cattleman's changed hands in a high stakes game of dice when a "hard six," two threes, was rolled. 
We left Oklahoma and headed east toward my final state, Arkansas. We chose to get off the interstate and take a more scenic backroad that would have a good place to pull over on the border. As luck and fortune would have it, we couldn't have picked a better spot - a "state line" bar straddled the border between OK and AR. I entered the establishment thru the door of my 49th state, drank a beer somewhere in the middle to celebrate my travels with Phil, and came out on the Arkansas side of things, having finished my quest to see all of America.

America is awesome! 
And so is this state line bar on US 270! 
The celebrations continued the following morning in Hot Springs National Park. I treated myself to a vintage spa treatment, the same as the visitors to the park enjoyed in 1912. "Taking the waters" includes a hot mineral bath, steam room, towel wrap, cold shower, and plenty of drinking the "restorative" water. Squeaky clean and relaxed, Phil and I grabbed some of Arkansas' best BBQ at McClards. Best ribs of my life.

Legend has it that President Clinton (born in Hot Springs, AR) would have McClards ribs brought out to Air Force One whenever he was passing thru.
Tennessee & Home

Tennessee wasn't new ground for me, but it sure made a nice finale to my 2015 travels. Phil and I checked out the blues scene in Memphis before continuing across the state to Nashville, spending my final night on the road in one of my favorite places for a night out on the town.

Good, cheap(ish) digs right downtown.
Watch out ladies! Cowboy boots and pearl snap I picked up in Oklahoma. 
Just over three months, 14,000 miles, and a lifetime a memories later I returned to my favorite of the 50 States. I'm exactly where I hoped I'd be when I left the Coast Guard in May 2014. I took control of my life, crossed dozens of the biggest items from my bucket list, took the time to figure out the next steps, saw the entirety of this great country we call home, snapped some great photos, earned some good stories, learned and experienced more than I could have ever imagined, and have no "what if" regrets.

I may be done with the adventure of the open road for the time being, but I'm excited for the adventure of grad school, a new career, family, new friends, and embracing fun a little closer to home. Thanks so much to everyone along the way for such a great year and helping me thru my travels and transitions. Keep in touch.

Country Roads Takin' me Home (ok, it's I-64, but still) 

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