Day 7 – Peaceful Valley – Glacier Basin CO

When we woke up this morning, the inside of our tent was full of condensation. Maybe that means it holds heat well? We’ve been fairly comfortable in our little cocoon.

Today’s goal was to get situated within the borders of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were close to the southeastern corner of the park, but still many miles from an official entrance. To do that, we had to drive north thru Estes Park, then west into the park.

The entry fee was $20, but we had invested $50 on a National Parks Pass, good at any national park for the entire year. We only need to use it two more times before it pays for itself, which could happen before we leave Colorado.

This was a leisurely day before we take our first overnight backpacking trip tomorrow. There is a process to taking such a hike that involves getting a permit from the wilderness office. We arrived at the park after that office had closed for the day, so we settled into the nearest campground we could find, which was the Glacier Basin Campground.

After we had our camp set up, we still had a few hours of daylight for another training hike. Bierstadt Lake Trail wasn’t a wall, but it wasn’t flat either. Let’s call it a “vigorous climb.” The map said we’d find a lake if we went far enough, but there wasn’t enough daylight for that.

Day 6 – Caribou – Peaceful Valley CO

In 1991, Obbie was traveling through Nederland and looking for a free place to camp in his step van. A local resident said, “I know of a place, and I’ll show it to you if you bring my bike and me up there.” This person wanted to ride his bike back down the mountain, but Obbie’s drive up was worth the discovery.

Ten years later we came back to that place. Caribou was a silver mining town in the 1870s that once had 3,000 people living there. It went bust pretty quickly, and after fires and decay all that remains are traces of old foundations.

On one side of the road from our campsite are the stone shells of two. They were not part of the original town, which occupied the low lands across the road.

After having our morning coffee, we packed up our camp and hiked around a bit. In a shady spot was a surviving snow drift, so we threw ceremonial June snowballs at each other. It was a beautiful sunny day, and not too hot where we were at ten thousand feet.

Our hiking area was also popular with “off-road enthusiasts.” We saw lots of big dusty pick-up trucks carrying ATVs and dirt bikes. When the dust and noise got to a certain level, it convinced us to move on.

We got to Nederland early enough to take in a lunch buffet at a Nepalese place called Katmandu. The food was fantastic and it was nice to have something different than the usual road food.

We drove north in search of another camp site. We wanted to wake up within easy reach of Rocky Mountain National Park, but not close enough to encounter crowds. We found a national forest camp site north of Ward in an area called Peaceful Valley. Since the weekend crowd had cleared out, we had most of the campsite to ourselves, so we settled into a spot within earshot of the babbling stream.

With plenty of daylight to work with, we explored the hiking trail leading up the mountain from our camp. We encountered a group of hikers coming down, loaded up with fuel canisters and clanking pots and pans. We had heard tales of trails from this area that crossed the mountains and came out in Granby. It was easy to imagine this team coming from there.

Day 5 – Sundance -> Boulder -> Caribou CO

On Saturday morning we woke up at the Sundance Lodge, about eight miles up the mountain from Nederland. We opened the door, and for the first time we had a close-up view of snow-covered peaks bathed in sunlight.

We shared orders of excellent omelettes from the cafe attached to the lodge, which got us fortified and caffeinated for the day ahead.

Unfortunately, we weren’t ready for our mountain adventures yet. There were a few things we still needed from Boulder, so off we went on a daytime drive down Boulder Canyon.

Obbie takes notes on our Palm Pilot at a cafe in Boulder.

Boulder has put a lot of thought and action into designing and building routes for bicycles, and we took advantage of that. We parked the Big Red Dog in the parking lot of a strip mall, and used our bikes to explore Boulder.

We found the camera mount we were looking for: a clamp on one end, an adjustable camera mount on the other. Carry it in your pocket. Clamp your camera to a post, a rail, the dashboard….

Obbie didn’t have decent hiking boots. Rozie didn’t have decent mountain sandals. Now we do.

And we found the “right” rain ponchos at a “surplus” store… something that will fit over our packs, and also work as tarps, ground cover, etc. Light weight, quick drying, and tight packing.

With our errands out of the way, it was time to explore the bike trail along Boulder Creek. We’d heard a legend that one could follow the bike trail all the way to Nederland, but we found it to terminate not far outside of Boulder. But it did go far enough that we could train ourselves for the increasing elevation ahead.

Another popular activity on Boulder Creek is tubing. People were riding inner tubes down the creek while we watched from our bikes. The water was a bit cold for our tastes, but it looked like a lot of fun.

Our last stop before leaving Boulder was the Crystal Market, a thriving health food store close to downtown. We stocked up for time in the mountains and desert, since we had no idea when our next chance would come.

Rozie “pets” a “kitty” on the Pearl Street mall in Boulder.

We had both been to Boulder before and remembered it as a funky college town. But its colorful reputation made it a magnet for upscale developers and gentrifiers, who then priced out the people that made the town desirable in the first place. It’s a tale that repeats itself in too many places. This was most evident when we visited the Pearl Street Mall. It’s a nice place, but it no longer had the magic it once did.

Our plan for Saturday night was to camp in Caribou, a kind of a ghost town up a mountain (a *different* mountain) from Nederland. Being in a national forest, we can pitch our tent without dealing with loud neighbors or exorbitant fees.

Once again, we arrived in darkness. We’ll explore in the morning.

Day 4 – Briggsdale CO to Sundance CO

Friday morning started with a little walk around the perimeter of the campground to check out the birds, trees and grass that came naturally to the prairies in that area of the high plains. As we left, we drove past an outdoor mini-museum of old farm machinery and  doo-dads such as a mower, rake and windmill. We set off on our last twenty miles of this marathon crossing of the plains, looking forward to breakfast and a tank of gas when we got to the other side in Greeley.

Greeley feels like one of those towns that was born of the Old West, but has since seen better days. The Union Pacific had built a line between Denver and Cheyenne, far enough from the wall of Rocky Mountains to avoid any construction challenges, but close enough to benefit from the water supply and scenic vistas. Greeley sprung up at the approximate halfway point on this line, seemingly to serve the farms and ranches for which Cheyenne or Denver were too far to go. It developed as a minor railroad hub, and later as a highway milestone, but when the Interstate steered away from Greeley it began to suffer. Today it is just another of the many old “cow towns” that pepper the heartland, suffering from the deterioration of family farms while offering little to encourage “new blood” to move in or for “old blood” to stay.

We arrived in Greeley hungry, and we thought a tatoo parlor would be a good place to ask for directions to a good place to eat. We ended up spending and enjoying a lot of time with Sandy, the owner, and her husband Floyd.

Eventually, we ate at a regional chain called Armadillos, where the food and service were both good. It was late in the day by the time we got to Boulder, which was where we’d planned to find the gear we couldn’t get in La Crosse… a chore we’d thought was best put off until the following day. Since it was Friday, all of the campgrounds and motels near Boulder were full.

We climbed the hill to Nederland where we hoped to stay at the hostel, but no one would answer the door. We found ourselves in a phone booth with a copy of the yellow pages, looking for a place to spend the night. There was a place called the Sundance Lodge that  had a room for $80. It was another eight miles up the mountain and expensive, but we’d run out of choices.

Day 3 – Sargent NE to Briggsdale CO

At breakfast the next morning, we experienced another facet of avoiding the touristed routes: people in Sargent don’t see strangers very often, and Obbie’s purple cut-off bib overalls attracted a lot of strange looks. We were deep into cattle country, but the redneck-looking people were actually quite friendly once you got to meet them. After a small-town cafe breakfast in the Great Plains, it was time to move on.

The overnight storms were brought on by a wave of cool air that made this a much more pleasant day for driving. It was also a good day for romping around on the grass chasing frisbees, which is what we did in the first park we found. But our third day was mostly spent driving. Along the way we spent a few hours visiting an acquaintance in North Platte. This is a town that most people see as a gas stop along I-80, but long before that it was a gas/food/lodging stop on US-30, and long before that it was (and still is) a major service stop on the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad remains this city’s central focus, with grain elevators and warehouses strung out along it, and idling locomotives and coupling rail cars providing the ambient noise around the clock.

Our plan was to follow US-30 from North Platte, but road construction forced us to do something we’d promised ourselves not to do: drive on the interstate. The detour took us onto I-80 for only one exit (about 10 miles), but it was enough to convince us that we had done the right thing by avoiding it. It was two lanes in each direction packed with big trucks, rolling condos, and loaded four-wheelers all driving at hysterical speeds, trying to get across the plains as quickly as possible. It’s no wonder that most people try to race through this area. From this vantage point, there’s nothing to see but truck stops, billboards, and an occasional sign informing us how many hundred miles are left between here and Denver. No farmhouses, no Burma Shave signs, no passing trains, no open road, nothing interesting whatsoever. It was great to get back off the freeway.

It was late afternoon when we crossed the Colorado state line at Julesburg, and we pressed on to Sterling before making a hard right turn and charging due west toward the still unseen mountains. The towns were getting to be further apart, and they all seemed to be heralded by tall grain elevators next to the railroad tracks. As we turned away from the railroad, we drove for a couple of hours into the setting sun with little harassment from civilization. With about an hour of daylight left, we knew for certain that we were looking at the outlines of distant mountains on the horizon. We passed a sign announcing that we had just entered Pawnee National Grassland… sort of like a national forest on the prairie. A little while later we saw another sign… for a campground! Not only would we finally get to break in our camping gear, but we actually had a little bit of daylight left in which to do it.

Day 2 – Algona IA to Sargent NE

It was already past noon by the time we woke up, ate breakfast, and hit the road. Before starting to drive in earnest, we stopped at a park near Algona to make snacks for the day and listen to the birds. Our goal was to get to North Platte by the end of the second day, but a review of our maps made that look fairly out-of-reach.

It was late afternoon when we made it to Sioux City, which was our goal for the first day. We found a “slacker haven” coffee shop downtown, and struck up a conversation with the nice young woman at the counter. It turns out that she will be moving to La Crosse in the fall to start studying at Viterbo University. It’s a remarkably small world after all.

The rest of the day’s driving was punctuated by storms … big, dark, ugly storms … real wrath-of-God kind of stuff. The wind slapped the truck around the road as we drove through waterfalls of rain; and nature’s pyrotechnics zapped, crackled, and boomed all around us. We monitored the local public radio stations for the evening news and storm warnings. Every few minutes a new alert would inform us of the latest tornado sightings. Obbie drove on while Rosie consulted the maps, trying to figure out how close we were to the funnel clouds. The closest one of the evening was in the same county, but still a safe distance away.

Eventually we emerged onto the other side of the line of storms. As we made our way across Nebraska on US 20, we noticed how much more interesting and less stressful this route was compared with the Interstate. Our decision to forgo the frantic, crowded and boring Interstate system for the back roads was paying off. Crossing the plains on the back roads gave us the chance to get a close look at the old homes and farmsteads where people still live and work.

As the sun went down and night descended upon the plains, we could still see distant flashes of lightning. The ground was also wet and it was getting late, so breaking in our camping gear was going to have to wait for another night. It took a bit more driving than we wanted to do before we finally found a place to stay… a little old roadside place in Sargent that only wanted $32. Credit cards were not acceptable, but at that price, that was OK. As the wrath of God pounded through the night, we were glad not to be in our tent.

Day 1 – La Crosse WI to Algona IA

Our first day of travel was mostly spent packing and catching up on last-minute details. By early evening the minutes and the details had run out, and at 7:20 pm the Big Red Dog was finally crossing the Cass Street Bridge, leaving La Crosse and entering Minnesota. Thru the twilight, we traversed some territory that was new and unfamiliar, yet still in our back yard. For the first few hours of our trip, we got a last look at the rugged countryside, hardwood forests, and rustic dairy farms of the Driftless Region.

Somewhere between Hokah and Spring Grove, we found an old church that was intriguing not for its grandeur, but for its simplicity. It was a small wood-frame building wrapped in the kind of asphalt siding designed to look like blonde brick, even though it never fools anyone. The century-old markers in the adjacent graveyard were made in the shape of tree trunks, which indicates involvement in wood-related trades, perhaps lumberjacks or furniture builders or carvers ….

Not much further down the road we encountered a line of cabooses. There were over half-a-dozen of them parked off the side of the highway, miles from the nearest railroad. Most of them still had their wheels, and they all still had their Burlington Northern paint jobs. The area seemed to be a staging area for cabooses that the railroad had just unloaded, but we’re suckers for train stuff, so we had to stop and climb on them and take pictures while we scratched our heads about where they came from.

Obbie checks the map for our route into Iowa as Gorf looks on.

After dinner in Decorah, we decided to press on and try to make back the ten hours or so we lost trying to get out of town. US 20 was not too heavily trafficked, and even at night it was interesting to look at. The wind started blowing into our face as the drive progressed, and we finally landed at the Super 8 in Algona (about 40 miles north of Fort Dodge, and an hour or so west of Mason City) at about 2 am.