West of Junction City, Kansas was blank. Ahead, there was a thin greenish-brown strip of prairie, and occasionally a low hill, but everywhere else there was sky.
Fox had said she expected the plains to be boring. The plains are boring, but it's not the endless green and brown grasses that make the high prairie beautiful; it's the sky. Growing up in the Southeast, surrounded by glass and steel in the cities, and a sea of tall, dense trees in the country, I never saw this kind of sky. I remember I'd see descriptions of places like Montana and West Texas as "big sky country," and I don't think I really got what that meant. The sky encompasses everything in the western plains -- there's no trees or tall buildings to shrink it, and as you drive west, the horizon recedes farther and farther away, until you think you can see forever, across the dwindling barren line in front of you...
"Well," I said, as the Suzuki barreled up and to the west, "it's a hell of a lot better than Big Loins, Arkansas."
Fox rolled her eyes. "Osceola."
"The hotel we stayed at was in Osceola, Arkansas."
"Oh, right," I agreed amiably, staring at the sky. "I mean, it doesn't get much worse than Areola, Arkansas -- tiny, noisy room with obnoxious neighbors staying 10-to-a-room, broken wireless, floods, tornados, the only restaurant in town is a McDonald's..."
She smirked. "Pretty upset about that, hm?"
I-70 in west Kansas is flat, and completly, utterly straight. It reminded me of an old Bill Cosby joke that he figured it was ok to go to sleep while driving if the road was going straight, the car was going straight, so what could possibly go wrong? I-70 west makes you believe it. But it does climb -- Denver is a mile up, and by the time we'd passed through the city and started ascending into the Rockies, we checked on her GPS and noticed that we were well over 8,000 feet. On the map, there were three promising campsites on highway 40, past the tiny town of Empire. As we drove, the mountains we passed were wilder and taller, and draped with snow. It slowly dawned on us that, since the ground right next to the road had snow on it, we were going to be in for one cold night. The thermometer on the Suzuki read 39 degrees Fahrenheit, and falling rapidly. This alarmed me somewhat, as I have a 40 degrees minimum sleeping bag; anything below freezing would have been a long, painful night, even before factoring in the icy winds blasting through the passes.
I wasn't quite sure how to mention this. I mean...it should be simple, but Fox is a tough-as-nails forester, with a remarkable ability to fall asleep in 10 seconds flat, and remain blissfully asleep through anything short of getting hit by a bolt of lightning. I'm not usually prone to stupid displays of machismo, but who wants to think he's a bigger wimp than his girlfriend, right?
Fortunately, she provided a neat exit from my self-imposed doom. "Don't you have a 40 degrees minimum sleeping bag?" she asked, gingerly.
"It's 39 out," she pointed out, "and dropping quickly."
"Yeah," I agreed, grinning. "This promises to be a fun night!"
"Why don't we go back and camp at lower altitude? It would be better if you didn't freeze to death."
I congratulated her on having such a wonderful idea, and wholeheartedly agreed. We wheeled the car around, and drove back to Denver. We downloaded directions to a campsite in south Denver over the internet, and, as is our custom, promptly got completely lost.
I frowned, my head swimming from the hundreds of miles we'd driven over the day. "Wait...were we supposed to get on highway 6, or 6th avenue?"
Fox stared unhappily at my chicken-scratch directions. "I don't know," she grumbled. "My stomach hurts. This campsite is all the way across town. I'm incredibly out of it. Maybe we should just stay at a hotel tonight...?"
I wasn't too hard to convince, so we checked into a Days Inn, conveniently located next to a prison, which evidently has lousy enough security that all the highways are decorated with signs reading "DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS, STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY LOCATED NEARBY." In fact, I had a hunch that the scary-looking motel next door might actually be the state correctional facility...
I mentioned this to the desk workers at the Days Inn, who both responded with hearty agreements and slightly-too-amused laughs. Undeterred, we stumbled to our room, exhausted.
Fox and I were in Denver to get married.
We grew up three doors down from each other. Although we didn't start dating until I was 27 and she was 25, to make up for the fact that it had taken us two decades to figure out that we should be a couple, we decided to get married on our second date. Of course, we took quite a bit longer than that to let everyone else know our plans, and when they did, the big question became about The Wedding. We dutifully started to plan a big wedding, with all our friends and both our families and an open bar and...
"If we have a wedding, you'll have to wear a dress," I pointed out to her, smiling slyly. "I bet you'll want to get something really pretty. Maybe really frilly. Doesn't that sound awesome?"
Shortly afterward, the fancy plans were torn to pieces. We ultimately decided to climb a mountain in Colorado and exchange rings there. I think our families felt a bit let down by this, with the notable exception of my brother -- I'd already asked him to be my best man, and he was immensely relieved that he wouldn't be required to give a speech.
The official, legal marriage was extremely un-romantic: we went to the Denver courthouse, filled out some forms, they pronounced us married, and we high-fived. Then we headed out to Grays Peak.
We parked at the trail head and made great time at first. As we continued to ascend, the snow got thicker and thicker on the trail, and a large grey cloud had completely enveloped the nearby Torreys Peak. Probably not even headed this way, we reassured ourselves...as it started to snow. At about the time we reached this bridge:
it started snowing hard, so we did a hurried exchange-of-rings-and-vows, then scrambled back down the mountain as fast as we could with a blizzard bearing down on us.
Soon, we were back in Denver again, looking for the elusive goals of all roadtrippers -- free showers and laundry. It is a legend long told in the world of travel that there are places with free showers and laundry facilities, but it is truly a myth, just like Man-Bear-Pig and the Sasquatch and getting an accurate prediction from weather.com. We did manage to find relatively cheap showers and wash in a great State Park (the oldest in the state, actually) in Denver called Cherry Creek Park. The park was expansive and glorious, with lots of roads for running and many laundry machines, and a place to remember that having an afternoon of sun and yoga is sometimes just as good as an epic adventure.
It is a fact that most interstates are terribly boring at some point or another and I-70 may not be a great exception, but the Rocky Mountain Pass is outstandingly interesting. Surreal, in fact. It goes up and up to over 11000 feet high, and you actually lose your sense of "flat". Were it not for the tachometer, I would have presumed that the pass had many up and downs, but in fact, it appears to be mostly "one big up" with "one big down" at the end. And it is mostly an "up".
When the sun was down the pass got more treacherous, and it was time to stop for the night. We looked on the map and found the Sylvan Lakes State Park. It appeared to be right next to the town of Evil...I mean, Eagle.
Eagle is also known as Traffic Circle Capital of the World. Sometimes they were even interconnected Traffic Circles! Finally, we came to a sign for Sylvan Lakes State Park, and drove down a nice "flat" road past farms. After 10 miles, the flat road dead ended into a gravel/dirt FS road. A sign indicated a campsite up ahead, so we continued to drive. Every so often, we passed a fairly ominous looking "viewpoint" with a name like "BEAR EATS YOUR FACE GULLY" or "BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS MEADOW OF PLEASANTRY". Along the side of the road were white birches. They had no leaves, and they appeared to be bones growing right out of the ground. This was infinitely creepier than it sounds, and I would have taken pictures of it, but I didn't, because seriously, who wants a bunch of pictures of a creepy bone forest? (Also, it was dark.)
Deep in the woods, we encounted no campsites, only a large number of SUVs high-tailing it out of the woods as fast as possible. It was almost like they were desperately trying to escape from some nameless horror in the forest. We bravely pressed on for several miles, then we not-so-bravely turned around and headed back to an open area near the front of the park.
"Well, there has to be camping here somewhere," I grumbled, parking the car and getting ready to clamber out for a look around.
"I think we..." Fox began, her voice trailing off as she looked up above her feet on the dash. She let out a raw, primal scream, followed by a long series of very un-ladylike curses.
In front of us was a house...but it was not just any house. It was a house of EVIL. It was a brick house with a half-way collapsed tin roof. The windows were boarded up and the house was fenced off. "NO TRESPASSING" signs were tacked on its walls. To its side was a smaller, yellow-green shack. It was also fenced off and boarded up in the same way. White birch, China-berry, and sawoat grass grew all around it. This was the scariest house known to all of mankind. We quickly hauled out of there, trying (with zero success) to laugh off the terror that was the HOUSE OF EVIL.
(Later on, we had a much-less-terrifying encounter with its only-mildly-threatening sidekick, the House of Minor Evil.)
We're safe in Utah now, at a coffee shop, with sore joints and happy stomaches. Yesterday, we had steaks. They were epic.
Yes, matching jackets are cool.
I am tired. I am not usually tired, but I also don't usually drive all the way across the country and get married. So, it's really the best kind of tired, the kind that you feel on an overcast day at four in the afternoon, when you put on some quiet music and think about how heavy the sky feels.
It's raining in the desert. How cool is that?
(Co-authored by Jack and Fox Peterson.)