Leaving the Denver and Boulder area brought about a familiar comfort at the sight of our first endless open highway and secluded scenery. I remember this feeling so clearly from our first trip, how free I felt each and every time we were on that open road with nothing in sight and nothing to restrict us. We blazed along toward Rocky Mountain National Park, where we planned to take a 40-mile drive (approx 2 hours) straight through the park that wound up and around the mountains and boasted the best views you could get without hiking (we aren’t the world’s biggest hikers, unfortunately…). Plus, it was time to see what this Chevy could do as we were surrounded by pickup truck after jacked up pickup truck. We purchased a national park pass for $80 that is good for a year, considering that we plan to see about five national parks on this trip and they cost about $20-$25 apiece. You get to sign the back of the card and everything…super official and awesomely dorky.
We began our drive through the park after a quick stop at a visitors center for a magnet (we collect these from each and every city we’ve ever traveled to…our fridge is getting crowded) and we made our first stop at a cute little lake with a mountain view and crisp air. Climbing further to around 8,000 feet and we began to feel the altitude a tad more than we had on the ground, and made sure to chug some water. One wants to always remain alert when one is drive around curvy mountain bends with minimal guardrails. Just a little further up and suddenly the scenery changed dramatically and we were greeted with snow. A little at first and then masses of it all of a sudden. We stopped at several overlooks and gawked at how completely and utterly surreal it was to be standing ankle deep in fluffy powder in shorts and tank tops. The air was warm and the wind was intense, but not enough to make it feel plausible for that much snow. We made a snowball and chucked it over a guardrail and the continued toward a stretch of road with an 8 ft wall of ice that made us understand why this road is closed through the end of May. It would be nearly impossible to clear when it was still the least bit cold, and you could see exactly how high the snow would be if it had been left alone. It was break-taking, and it felt like we’d driven up into the sky and perched on top of Everest with just a few other people sharing the trip. It was more beautiful than I could have ever expected…mystical and surreal. Bright sunlight reflected off of the crisp white landscape and wind whirled through and created a whooshing sound off the sides of the mountain peaks.
At the highest point, around 12,000 feet, we made it to another visitor’s center and stopped for a snack and some more water. At this point I began to understand the term “rocky mountain high” as the lack of oxygen was making me lightheaded and a little loopy, and I actually felt kind of “high” as I sauntered through the gift shop in a randomly giddy mood and purchased unnecessary knick knacks and souvenirs despite my normally frugal nature. I knew that we wouldn’t last long at that height and so we began the second half of the drive back towards lower land. The snow slowly faded and the green grass and tall trees emerged once more, beautiful still as they hugged the narrow curves of the mountain road, a road which was almost invisible from a distant view and barely disrupted the scenery. We made it to the end of the park road after several hours and headed off to Steamboat Springs.
Passing several clusters of abandoned houses (this is common on our kind of road trips) and a girl riding a horse in the road and we rolled into town as the evening hit. Since it was already on the late side (8:30) and we were in a small town, we hurried off to find a dinner spot as many had already closed for the evening. We picked Sweet Pea Restaurant just before they stopped seating for the night, and got a tiny metal table in the backyard patio which sat directly up against a skinny, fast moving, rocky river. The water actually lapped the edges of the restaurant patio and splashed under our feet at several points in the meal, which was definitely a unique experience. I chose the fish special of the night which was halibut filet with Cantrell mushrooms, broccoli cooked on a smoky grill and all surrounded by a huckleberry vinaigrette reduction (huckleberries are very popular in Montana, Wyoming and surrounding areas and taste amazing). It was one of the best meals that I’ve had in a long time, despite it unknowingly costing me $38 which would have given me an aneurysm if I wasn’t in total vacation mode. During vacation mode, as Katie puts it:
“It’s monopoly money”
The fish was light, perfectly seasoned and nicely seared. I normally don’t care for mushrooms but they were flavorful and roasted until slightly caramelized. The huckleberry reduction popped with tart flavor that resembled a combination of raspberries and blackberries. I scraped my plate clean and melted into my glass of Pinot Grigio with the river soaring by.
Despite being pretty exhausted from our long day, we felt that it was entirely necessary to have one or two post-dinner drinks at the only open bar we passed on our walk to dinner because it was blasting country music and people were dancing inside with cowboy hats. We got some strangely sweet draft beer “specials” and attracted the attention of a legitimate cowboy with a super thick country accent that was difficult to decipher. He tipped his hat and talked to us about his work on a ranch nearby in Rabbit Ear which was a super remote area we had passed on our drive into town. After a short talk he wished us a nice evening and went back to his dancing, an unexpectedly cordial and gentlemanly gesture that we are not used to back in good ‘ol NYC, but which we remember well as custom from our trips down south.
The night concluded with a few locals climbing onto the bar and celebrating Sunday loudly and with enthusiasm, followed by more country tunes and chilled-out, relaxed and carefree people. It’s just about now that we began to let go of our city-infused distrusting mindset, as the small town friendliness is definitely something unique and it’s a way of being that we can all really learn from. The happiness and welcoming nature is genuine and not forced, and it makes you realize how closed off you can be when you try to be “independent” and assume that distrust in others is healthy and will keep you safe. Maybe in some cases, it will, but it certainly makes it easier to feel lonely in this hectic, crowded world. It’s perhaps why I sometimes feel more at home in sleepy, secluded towns that I’ve never seen before than I do surrounded by 8 million people every day. As much as I’ve loved it for my entire life, it’s times like this when I wonder if I’ll really be in New York for good.