Flying machine, iron horse, jitney or jalopy.
These were the transport options facing The Starfish,travelling from Aspen to San Francisco. All had their pros and cons.
But given we had nine days open at the end of our Colorado summer idyll, we opted to go by car, arcing north through six scenic states on a rubber necking ramble to Fog City.
We’d see a bit of the northwest before the summer school vacation hordes gridlocked the roads from Canada to the Rio Grande, and in June wouldn’t have to encounter blizzards and icy roads.
So it came to pass we were loitering at the Aspen Airport rental car desk.
“Dude, have I got a hot deal for you!” gushed the smooth plaid-clad lad at the desk, a twinkle flashing in his peepers. “I’ve scored a brand new pickup truck for ya road trip. How cool’s that!?”
“No thanks,” I rejoined, well aware today’s US pickup truck (‘ute’ in Terra Australis) is about the length of three city blocks, built like a Mack truck and sucks more juice than an M-1 tank.
“We’ll stick with our feeble little Nissan Selecta,” I said. “We love the low-slung cockroach body, it’s more practical and a breeze to drive on the wrong side of the road.”
The young lion stood astonished at our rebuff of US automotive gigantism; the big donk counters little dick neurosis – not to mention a secret arrangement to have a pickup delivered to the Bay Area by a couple of suckers motoring west anyway.
We loaded six pieces of luggage – a la Ferdinand and Imelda – in our automated slater bug, swung onto State Highway 82 and cruised down the picturesque valley, tracing the Roaring Fork River the 65 kms to Glenwood Springs.
Glenwood, the Albury-Wodonga of the Centennial State, is a popular central Rockies tourist town and is where the Roaring Fork merges with the mighty Colorado, and melt waters are swept west, as were we, along the I-70.
At this juncture I must declare, there were few times on the entire trip when a massive, marauding pickup truck wasn’t looming like a juggernaut in the rear view mirror. (Incontestably the curse of the rent-a-car huckster.) Most had a wild-eyed sodbuster at the helm, often frantically tooting or flashing, urging us on to greater velocity and inevitable traffic violations.
We shook off one such frenzied hayseed at Rifle, a fairly nondescript municipality, only to pick up another pickup turning onto the SH 13, which took us north through Rio Blanco County to Meeker.
Refusing to be cowed by the tailgater (our miserable credo for the whole adventure), we did notice a traffic cop in his cruiser lurking behind a barn, bringing to mind the old Roadrunner cartoons. You won’t find too many speed cameras in the western states; they prefer to bust leadpeds the old fashioned way.
The high country at Rio Blanco makes for easy summer touring, and while there aren’t many spectacular snow capped peaks in this part of the Rockies, it is a lovely drive through sparsely populated ranch, scrub and forest terrain.
Arriving at historic Meeker (an early settler town), we went directly to Red Rooster for lunch. Not the middling chicken chomp franchise of the Perth ‘burbs infamy, but a smart little café on 6thStreet – highly recommended for huge sangas and turning the tum instantly spheroid.
The friendly ladies fixed us a couple of lip-smackin’ veggie wraps – both looked like small Polynesian islands – as we shook off highway hypnosis and took in the streetscape.
A copy of the local rag, the Rio Blanco Herald Times, proclaimed the old town was already gearing up for 4thJuly celebrations with rodeos, hoedowns, hootenannies, barnyard jigs, parades and country music gigs aplenty.
Still, while there was doubtless a saturnalia ahead, there wasn’t a lot shaking ‘round midday that Thursday in downtown Meeker, apart from a few locals loafing in the hushed streets, and ranchers going about their town errands in, yes, pickup trucks. Slow and easy, pardner.
Nevertheless, Meeker is a pretty place and the centre of many outdoor recreation activities in surrounding country.
Before hitting the road we headed over to the town square for a squiz at the clock and statuary.
Certainly not wishing to mock the US military and its accomplishments (a court marital offence), it’s fair to say you’re never allowed to forget ‘em in modern America. This is particularly true in the small towns where, rumour has it, the recruitment officers scoop up new personnel; mostly callow youngsters at a loose end on the work front.
If you aren’t being flapped into submission by 100 Old Glories, you’re stumbling over another triumphal tablet spouting military brilliance, or gawping at agonizingly innocent uniformed swabbies and grunts on banner-festooned lamp posts.
We came across the same nationalistic humbug in just about every town we entered and, frankly, it got to be a bit much. I suppose when your nation has been at war for 226 years of the 243 years since 1776, one gets the gist – though of course most of these glorious crusades have proven to be gratuitous.
Rather tragic, really. Strange how you never see civic plaques proclaiming, “We honour and salute the brave peaceniks who fought so hard to stop the absurdity that is war.”
We wheeled out of town on the SH 64, bound for Rangely, following the lovely meandering White River through high pasture land and ranches. The sun was sparkling, the air warm, the sky azure and all seemed right in the Rockies.
We passed the Rio Blanco Lake State Wildlife Reserve, spotted deer in the green fields, and at one point almost clipped a mangy coyote chasing a bird over the road.
We went through White River City very quickly indeed, primarily because there was no White River City, even though the map said there was. Doubtless a case of early pioneer wishful thinking.
Then rolled into Rangely like General Patton liberating Paris, the highway draped in fluttering Stars and Stripes all the way from East Main to West. There was no special occasion, but this doesn’t seem to matter over yonder.
(An odd thought struck me several times on this Stateside jaunt: the worse things get for people in the US, the more flags they fly.)
Patriotic drapery aside, Rangely was weirdly evocative of Pinjarra on a Bank Holiday afternoon – so we drove on with great enthusiasm.
The terrain changed dramatically to barren, harsh semi-desert as we climbed onto the dusty plains west of town, and ominous thunderheads suddenly forming in the heavy afternoon air over the mountains.
If we’d been in those parts 85 million years ago, there’s a pretty good chance the slater bug would’ve fallen prey to a T-Rex or been chased by a herd of galloping Velociraptors (the pursuing pickups made for a good 21stcentury substitute).
The sediment in this ancient land, pushed up by titanic geological forces to become part of the Rockies, is rich in dinosaur bones. Some of the world’s best-preserved dino remains have been unearthed in dem dar deposits – hence the nearby Dinosaur National Monument.
Coming out of the badlands like Bonnie and Clyde, we pulled into the spartan, rather ramshackle hamlet of, you guessed it, Dinosaur. By now purple-black clouds were overhead and the wind was howling, looking every bit like a tornado was soon to twirl us off to Kansas.
Even so, we took a brief tour around town, traipsing along Triceratops Terrace, detouring down Diplodocus Drive, backtracking Brachiosaurus Bypass, circumnavigating Ceratosaurus Circle, sauntering the Stegosaurus Freeway and bowling along Brontosaurus Boulevard.
On the last of these we popped into the Colorado Welcome Centre (the Utah border is just up the road) and chatted to the obliging ladies on duty.
We also grabbed a gratis coffee and perused a few brochures and magazines, a number of them devoted to the ineffable thrill of hunting everything that moves, or never gets a chance to.
Sadly, a rather unhinged collective craving to fire powerful guns at helpless, mostly harmless wildlife, is deep-rooted in the majority of folk in these parts – not to mention the rest of the Union.
Driving across the Utah state line, we discussed the likelihood that this relentless bloodlust and fusillade of flying lead could ultimately send what’s left of the beleaguered fauna the way of the dinos.
Not surprisingly, we saw little large game on the trip – not counting, of course, the abundant moth-eaten, glass-eyed taxidermied heads protruding from hotel lobbies, diner walls and saloon bars.
We paused in downtown Vernal. Back in Meeker I’d mentioned to one of the local women that we were headed through Vernal, and she’d smirked and cackled acerbically.
I’d put this down to the customary, yet often puzzling, rivalry between small towns, but admittedly half expected something infernal in Vernal. It turned out to be a passable place, as regional commercial centres and country seats go.
Dino lovers will find the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum here, with its collection of life-size extinct reptiles, always a welcome diversion for saurian fixated nippers.
With the afternoon advancing fast we shot up US Highway 191 on the final motoring leg for the day, bound for Flaming Gorge.
In the next edition of The Starfish we forge on to the glorious Flaming Gorge, then up through Wyoming to Jackson and the Grand Tetons.