A Day In the West

A Day In the West

Longest day of the year. Starting in Gateway, Colorado at 5:00am. Just how far can I go?

When I was 17, we drove across the country. All summer long. We had just graduated from high school. The future was upon us. Gas was 29 cents a gallon and we had “no particular place to go.” We ended up burning 25,000 miles in a used Volkswagon bus, pretty much obliterating that goofy book by Jack Kerouac where his ‘beat generation’ friends got into a car and went out On The Road for a simple transcontinental drive. Hah. We did the circumference of the earth.

I fear the days of the road trip may soon be over.

Road trips are cathartic. They are part of Americana. At least once a year I get in a car and just drive, sometimes for days, just to clear my head and re-find my spirit. At least, I used to. Recently, each time I get in a car for a road trip, I wonder if it will be my last. And not because I’m getting old, but because it just seems to be a bit selfish with all of the climate change going on. Still, I had a family reunion to attend, a bit of time, and there were two of us so our carbon footprint would be lower than if we were on an airplane.

Great Salt Desert, Utah

I worked inside this mountain. For an entire year.

High Alpine

On June 21 I dropped my sister off at Montrose Airport after a family reunion in Estes Park and a day at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Telluride means a lot to me; I moved there in 1974 as a ski bum when the only job available was inside the Idarado Mine. On this day I was headed back to Seattle, Washington - alone, just the Mini and me. I pointed the GPS west and started driving.

4:30am - Across the Escalante

From Delta, state route 141 cuts across the Dominguez - Escalante National Conservation area, a high plateau that divides the Gunnison and Dolores watersheds on the Western edge of Colorado. The road winds through a shallow slot canyon then opens up into an enchanting park called Thimble Rock, which was a sacred area to the Uncompaghre nation who lived in the region.

Thimble Rock Park

7:00am - Getaway From Gateway

The town of Gateway is forlorn. It consists of a rickety gasoline station with a creaky sign that swings in the wind, a curious little car museum straight out of a Jim Jarmusch movie and, behind walls and an imposing sign, a dude ranch. Well, they call them resorts these days. My GPS pointed right through the resort and I followed it along an unmarked road. Two unmarked SUV’s with dark windows scrambled to intercept me and followed me along the gravel road until it left the resort and pointed upwards through a defile of rocks and a roaring stream. I wasn’t sure if the Mini was meant for this kind of terrain but figured I could always turn back.

Mini and me, climbing out of Gateway

A view from the top

8:00am - The Dolores Triangle

My digital map said I was on ‘road 4.a’ but the only signs I saw were painted onto tattered wood placards stuck in the ground saying “Dolores Triangle Safari.” A full moon rose over the 13,000ft peaks of the LaSalle range. The road meandered higher towards timberline and I was wondering if this was such a good idea. Then a couple of 4x4 ATV’s sped past. I suspect they were as surprised to see me in my Mini Cooper, as I was to see them. An eagle cried out.

9:00am - Descent into Castle Valley

Now in Utah, now almost out of gas, the road dropped down into the red rock canyon lands of Castle Valley and the Colorado River. The first time I discovered this area I had been driving around at night, lost, looking for a place to stay en route to the Telluride Film Festival. I finally found a place called the Red Cliffs Lodge and it wasn’t until I woke up the next morning that I understood the reason for the name.

This time I was not alone; as I drove downstream the little Mini was buffeted by the press of big busses full of excited rafters-to-be, their rubber dinghies in tow. I was glad to be headed away from all that. But after some reflection, I decided it was probably a lot better for these families to be out enjoying the natural wonders of our country, than sitting at home. Yes, definitely better.

Fisher Towers

11:30am - Crossing the Badlands

From Moab, it’s a crawl out across the watershed of the Colorado River then up through Utah’s coal country. Traffic picked up on this route which connects I-70 with Salt Lake City. At the top of the pass I pulled over and passed out. It’s amazing what a half-hour nap can do. I try to get one in every afternoon, especially at the office.

US 6. Ranchers’ fences keep the wind from blowing away the topsoil.

Climbing into coal country

3:00pm - God’s Country

Skirting the great ugly city and its billboards advertising divorce lawyers and accident claims lawyers, Mini and I entered Brigham Young’s paradise found. The Great Salt Lake spread before us and, beyond, the great Salt Desert.


Not sure why, but there was a picture here. Still trying to figure out what it was saying to me.

5:00pm - Across the Salt Desert

There is nothing, nowhere, quite as stark as the Great Salt Desert. Yet people flock to it to build strange sculptures, erect memorials in the salty brine, and take selfies out on the flats. I have to admit, it’s an interesting kind of Purgatory en route to the promised land. Which, for me, still lay a day’s drive further West.

Tree of Utah. I-80.

7:00pm - Nevada and the Great Basin

The big neon sign with a smiling cowboy read “West Wendell Welcomes You”. Apparently I had arrived - to Nevada, casinos, and the great expanse that follows the sun across the sky. By this point I had been driving for 15 hours. Time was slipping in and out of focus, just like the road in front of me as the day drew very very slowly to an end. I decided to continue north to Jackpot, where I knew I could get a cheap room. I had stopped there before and had been stopped there once as well, for speeding.

9:30pm - I Don’t Know, Idaho

Why I didn’t stop in Jackpot, is beyond me. Or behind me. The border with Idaho beckoned, as did Twin Falls. But then as Mini and me creeped through the still streets peering into the parking lots of the Motel 6’s and Super 8’s and Best Westerns, it all just seemed so unappetizing. So I kept going into the sunset, into the sunset.

11:00pm, Boise

Taking pictures from a moving car while driving is a dumb thing to do. I opened the moon roof, flipped up the LCD screen on my camera so I could see and stuck it out the top. At 80 mph, the camera almost shot backwards out of my hands. Time to stop.

Good night, Idaho