Friends in Fort Collins
We left Rawlins at our usual starting time of 9:15 or thereabout. I-80 took us quickly to Laramie, where we turned south on US-287 and found the road nearly empty in our direction until we were almost to Fort Collins. The country changed as we approached and entered Colorado, losing the dry bareness that characterized most of Wyoming. We began to see more of the Rockies’ signature pines, aspens, and boulders. The hills were no longer distant from the road, although high mountains — some of them in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we were headed — were on the horizon, still a good distance away.
We had chosen to stay in Fort Collins for the two nights surrounding our visit to the park, rather than someplace closer, because my friends Dina and Hill, whom Dorothea hadn’t met, live there. Two years previously I had visited them in Fort Collins and did some exploring of the local scenery, but Dorothea hadn't been there before. Fort Collins is a pleasant college town, home to Colorado State University.
We got to Fort Collins, shortly after noon, much too early to check in, so we undertook a couple of errands. Wild Oats is a natural-foods supermarket where (at Dina’s suggestion) I had bought picnic food for my previous expedition to Rocky Mountain National Park. I thought Dorothea and I might do the same, and I also thought we might be able to get lunch there, though I couldn’t recall whether the layout included a place to eat. It did, so we had turkey salad sandwiches made for us — chipotle salad for me and curried salad for Dorothea. I ate both dill pickles, and we drank cranberry-ginger soda. Dorothea noted that it felt as though we had arrived back in civilization.
She meant no disrespect to the other states we’d been in, but in fact we had often been unable to find lunch that wasn't based mainly on grease in one form or another. (I was reminded of an alleged West Texas rule of thumb: “If it ain’t brown or it ain’t gray, it ain’t food.”) Grease has its good points, and attentive readers of this chronicle will note that we generally enjoyed it — but it was nice to have an alternative.
Our next stop was the Belvedere Belgian Chocolate Shop to select a house gift. Although Dina is an eloquent champion of Belgian chocolate, which she considers superior to all others, she wasn’t yet aware that this store had recently opened in her home town. Thanks to the Internet, however, I found out about it before we left home.
The day was warm and our car was very hot inside. (We didn’t figure this out until later, but we had inadvertently turned off the air conditioning.) All the way from Belvedere to the motel, Dorothea held up the bag of chocolates between her face and the open window to keep the contents from melting. From in front, she must have looked like someone plugging the product on a TV screen.
We began the evening with iced tea and snacks at Dina and Hill’s house, where we sat and talked for an hour or so. Then our hosts took us to Braddy’s, an elegant local restaurant where we had what was probably the most distinguished food we ate on the whole trip. We started with potato soup, then I had a breast of muscovy duck flavored with star anise, plus a large “potsticker” full of good oriental-tasting stuff. Dorothea’s entrée was loin slices of roast Colorado lamb, asparagus, and a cake made of wild rice, pecans, and spinach. Everything was superb.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Our motel didn’t do breakfasts but was next door to a Waffle House restaurant. The food there was good and the demeanor of the all-female wait staff almost unnaturally cheery. We each had one big pecan waffle to start the day on a luxurious note.
Returning to Wild Oats, we assembled our picnic: a ham sandwich on multigrain bread for Dorothea, ham and cheese on wheat for me, plus a liter of Italian lemon soda and a bag of double chocolate chunk cookies. Needing gas, we ignored the interstate and followed US-287 south to Loveland, stopping to fill the tank on the way. At Loveland we turned west toward the park. The drive through Big Thompson Canyon was as beautiful as I remembered it, though we didn’t stop to take pictures.
In Estes Park, I misread an ambiguous sign and missed the Beaver Pond entrance that I remembered. The wrong turn took us to the Fall River entrance instead, near where the old Fall River Road — once the only road into the park, but now an unpaved adventure reserved for good weather and stalwart souls — begins. This map shows, in red, where we went inside the park.
At this entrance we were much closer to Trail Ridge Road than to Bear Lake and environs, so we decided to begin with the drive up to the Alpine Visitor Center, high above the timberline at 12,000 feet. We had planned to go to Bear Lake first, but it was now relatively distant, and we learned that, because the road to it was being rebuilt, the lake was accessible only by shuttle bus. A ranger at the Fall River Visitor Center also pointed out that clouds were predicted for the afternoon, and indeed we could already see them coming on.
The mountains were lofty and grand, and their tops were all still in sight, but as the car climbed up the steep road the light from the increasingly cloudy sky made the scene starker and less colorful than on my previous visit. However, when we faced a slope that the sun was still hitting directly, the trees became much greener to the eye, and the sun was still shining on the grassy valley below us.
Much of the sky was still clear when we reached the timberline. Where the trees stopped growing depended on exposure as well as altitude. In a hollow sheltered from the wind, they could grow at higher altitudes than they could endure on the open mountainsides.
We stopped at most of the viewpoints on the way up. At the last of these, we had to climb a hundred yards or so and cross a snowy patch to get to the spectacular looking-off point. We both felt the effects of the altitude pretty severely, though we did manage a smile when we exchanged the favor of snapping each other’s pictures with a couple we met there.
We reached the Alpine center, but I felt too tired to accompany Dorothea inside, and rested in the car while she checked out the exhibits. The 19-mile drive up and the return journey took us 2½ or 3 hours — a definite strain on both the driver and his white-knuckled passenger. Dorothea’s vertigo makes travel on narrow, winding mountain roads a challenge. In spite of the tension, however, the excursion was rewarding.
We turned next toward Bear Lake, which (although not on top of a lofty peak) is high above the valley that lies in the center of the park. The road up there was closed to auto traffic, but it was OK to drive as far as the Sprague Lake picnic area, so that’s what we did, catching a glimpse of a few elk on the way. We were the beneficiaries of another minor weather blessing: although some rain fell while we were on our way, it stopped as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, and the sun came out. We chose a relatively dry table, wiped the top and the seats, and had a pleasant picnic in the sun — which lasted just until we finished our lunch. We were joined by several hopeful ducks, optimistically but vainly begging to share the feast.
After lunch we thought about taking the park-and-ride shuttle up to Bear Lake, and decided that it wasn’t the best idea. It would take longer than driving there in the car, and the weather was looking increasingly sullen. Both of us were also still a bit tired from our Trail Ridge Road adventure, and it was after three. So we decided to return to Fort Collins.
We got there in time to visit the indispensible Wild Oats and pick up a bouquet and some San Pellegrino water, which we took with us to dinner at Dina and Hill’s house. The four of us sat down to a dinner that featured Dina’s frittata with potatoes and artichokes, Hill’s potato and sausage skillet, asparagus sauteed with garlic, and numerous kinds of olives and pickles. Dessert was strawberry ice cream that Hill had made, followed by a few of the chocolates we had brought the previous night.
Dorothea and Dina got on as well as I had thought they would. Both she and Hill practice meditation in a different tradition from Dorothea, and there was much discussion of the similarities (many) and the differences (relatively few). We also learned about Hill’s activities during the many years he lived in Newton, Mass., which overlapped with our long residence there although our paths never crossed during that time.
We went back to a relatively early night at the motel, in spite of which we both slept on when Dorothea’s alarm failed to go off the next morning.
This section last updated 12-13-2004