After a night of cold but rewarding camping in the Great Sand Dunes of southern Colorado, I left early for Denver, arriving there by noon. I spent the afternoon milling about at a recommended bookstore, writing, catching up on some very appreciated messages from friends back home, and getting Rousseau's oil changed, something that should have been taken care of back in Texas.
Later that evening, I met up with Echo, a lively, life-loving man I had the good fortune of meeting shortly before departing DC. Echo, who lived in Denver, shared my passion for travel, adventure, and intentional living, and it was wonderful passing the hours working our way through beers and good conversation. When our six collective beers were empty, Echo and I refilled by hitting the town, first dining at a local eatery with excellent vegan pizza, then hopping from bar to pub to bar for a touch of live music and taste of the Denver nightlife. Alas, I had to call the night short due to a consecutive few days of short nights, overall fatigue, and a mean case of hiccups, and so by midnight I was back at Echo's, savoring the softness of his plush couch over the hard-packed cold sand of the prior night.
The next morning, we ate brunch at another Denver hotspot and walked through a low-key jazz festival, all the while scheming an adventure for that afternoon. The Flat Irons of Boulder, we decided, would be a great way to spend the day, and so we drove our respective vehicles an hour north to Boulder, then a few minutes further to Chautauqua, for a midday hike.
The steep climb of the Flat Irons, coupled with Boulder's mile-high elevation, left me gasping for air in a matter of moments. By the time we reached the summit some hours later, taking in a glorious view of the town below, I was sweaty and exhausted, but at the same time, felt alive and rejuvenated.
Satisfied with our work for the day, Echo and I descended, past hundreds of pleasant Boulderites taking their dogs or companions for a stroll through the mountains, such a lovely place it was, and then into Boulder for some well-deserved nourishment. We landed at a wonderful restaurant with unimaginably friendly staff and unbelievably delicious food, ate heartily, and then headed back out to our vehicles. Dusk was upon us, and Echo had to return to Denver, and so we said our goodbyes, I thanked him for the fantastic tour of the area, and just like then he was off.
I, meanwhile, had no real plans for lodging that evening, having declined Echo's polite offer of another night on his couch back in Denver, and so I wandered about, aimlessly, giving thought to where I might end up. Camping had been ruled out, for there were no campgrounds within thirty minutes of the town, and a hostel, which had been my safest bet, fell through with the crushing discovery that Boulder's only hostel had shut down in recent months. I asked a passing student what he'd recommend, if he knew of anything practical in the area, and he suggested the city's homeless shelter, which he said was quite nice, so nice that his friends often stayed there while in town.
The idea appealed to me, partially for its diversity of experience and partially for its ability to give me a firsthand account of how our government handles homeless services, my job back home to end homelessness and strengthen America's social safety net, after all, and so I phoned the nearby shelter to ask how many beds they had available, for I did not, of course, want to occupy the very last bed in place of someone who might really need it. Unfortunately, I was informed by the gentleman on the other end of the line that the shelter was not open to drop-ins during non-hypothermic conditions, and thus a night at the shelter was out of the question.
Night darkening and plateau cooling, I grew frustrated, wanting nothing more than a quiet, safe place to curl up for a few hours' rest. Remembering that Boulder was a college town, I thought a university library might be just the place. Hopeful, I drove down to the University of Colorado campus, parked, and began to explore, growing a bit more disheartened each time I came to a locked door.
Then, halfway through the campus, some luck! The university's chemistry building, a towering edifice with lights aglow, was open for access, without so much as a warning against unauthorized visitors. I ducked inside, glad to escape the wind and cold, and then made a quick climb to the second floor, where I imagined I'd find more privacy than the first.
Truthfully, the whole building was empty, it being a Saturday night in late May, weeks after students had returned home for the summer. But still, I walked cautiously, peeking about each corner for a diligent and overworked graduate student or a vigilant security guard. But all was clear, and there, in the middle of the second floor, I found a small conference room, dark and carpeted and unlocked, and I snuck inside and placed my pack on the floor.
It may not have been much, but to me, at that moment, it was just as good as a four-star hotel. In that room I had shelter from the elements, safety from the outdoors, a rug on which to lay my head, and, as though that were not enough, electricity and wireless internet to top it off! Ecstatic, thrilled at my luck, I passed a few hours reading, writing, and researching, then pulled myself underneath the conference room table for a covert night's rest.
I woke early the next morning, as had become the habit, and eager to leave before I got caught, I packed my things and quietly slipped out the door, sneaking along the stairwell and then pushing confidently out from the building's main entrance, as though I were a teaching assistant who belonged there and had just come by before a morning's jog for some papers I had forgotten earlier that week.
Boulder was frigid in that elevated May air, and before departing for Rocky Mountain National Park, I deemed it wise to give the sun some time to warm the skies, passing the time sipping cider in a local Boulder cafe. By 6:30AM, I had joined nearly a half-dozen other loiterers, some early-morning creatives and others casual drifters like myself, all of us standing outside a promising coffee shop waiting for the doors to open. And at seven, they did, and the lot of us rushed in and ordered varying drinks with varying degrees of caffeine, and then out came the laptops and power cords and electronics, and the small shop became a cacophony of clicks and keyboard strokes.
By the time I looked up from my writing, it was nearly noon; I had spent a full five hours merely recounting my experiences and reflections to that point! With a full day ahead of me, I hastily packed away my belongings and took off, slowing only to appreciate a few of the many marvelous acts on Pearl Street before leaving town.
I should probably pause for a moment to mention that Boulder is an absolutely delightful place. Just steps from the Rockies, a young intellectual population, a good-sized town with enough to offer for all, and an overall vibe of proactive community, Boulder was everything I'd hoped it be and then some: climate, scenery, people, infrastructure.
I also simply must call out the Pearl Street of Boulder as a Main Street among Main Streets, a vibrant slice of city I found it difficult to pull away from. On each side of Pearl Street, which stretches a short but superb five or ten blocks, are art shops and galleries, restaurants and pubs, all local, all with their own personality and decor. Then, in the middle of it all, a pedestrian walkway, free of cars throughout the stretch, with benches and fountains and statues to entertain and accommodate the thousands that pass through those streets each day.
And then there are the performers. Oh, the Pearl Street performers are the heart of Boulder, the vanguard of the arts. They are Pearl Street, never fewer than two or three in eyesight, each with his or her own remarkable talent or enthralling ability. The night before, Echo and I had watched a young magician, impressive in both skill and wit, command and amaze a crowd of sixty by pulling a specially-marked dollar bill from a whole, unsliced lemon. We had seen two girls, neither older than fifteen, cover Johnny Cash with a banjo and a full cello, the latter capped with a living, breathing hen. And the next morning the wonder continued: a ten-year-old boy with a guitar and a tune, a clicking android coated in bronze paint, and easily most impressive of all, the man with the harp.
Yes, the man with the harp, that Sunday morning in Boulder, carved out a special place in my memory. From a distance, I thought I heard song from a speaker, a beautiful voice too amplified, too loud, too perfect to be live. But indeed, as I edged closer to 13th Street, I eyed a haggard man, a man who could easily have been mistaken for a bum, tattered overalls and greyed beard, sitting on a bench with a harp. And the sounds his fingers coaxed from this harp were lovely, soft, somber melodies, but they were nothing compared to his voice. Now, I am no connoisseur of opera, and thus cannot say what he sang or how he sang it, but the sweet syllables ringing from the depths of his throat were magnificent, beautiful, glorious. I was awestruck.
I admired for the remainder of his performance, not wanting it to end, wanting to remain there, in that trance, forever, but end it did, and when it did he smiled gently, humbly, and I dumped all spare bills I had in my pockets into his waiting case, and returned his thanks fivefold, and then, with my feelings toward Boulder incapable of being topped beyond the current moment, I left for the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado's Rocky Mountains, massive as they are, can be seen from the southern stretches of New Mexico, the center of Utah, the canyons of Arizona. Their size is incomprehensible. Approaching them, then, driving onto them, is something of a challenge. Rousseau trudged forth stubbornly, slowly, unwilling to gallop up their peaks, instead bucking about in the area's strong winds. To be honest, I wasn't doing much better myself; the sudden altitude climb left me feeling fatigued, grumpy, and nauseated.
The higher we rose, the colder I grew and the worse I felt. Once inside the park, the treeline began to fade, and shortly thereafter, snow began to claim its turf. Feet of frozen moisture curbed the sides of the rode, a telling reminder of just how frigid the air around me had become. The ride seemed to stretch for eons, and when I finally reached my destination of Bear Lake, where I had hoped to hike, I could do little more than shove my flushed fingers in my pockets, slide across ice to the edge of the frozen lake without falling over, and then head back to the bike to leave it, the lake, the cold, the altitude, the park, the Rockies, all behind. Without even thinking, I abandoned the planned climb of the next day, up Mount Elbert, the second highest peak in the contiguous United States, for if this was the way things felt at 12,000 feet, I didn't want to imagine, or near, 14,000. No, I wanted away from it all.
The Rockies, as it turns out, are not as easy to escape as I thought. For hours I fled, south and west, but the Colorado Plateau did not let up, keeping me at elevations of 12,000, 11,000, 10,000 feet until dusk, all the while snow trailing me along the side of the road.
The scenery here, I should say, was absolutely incredible. All around me were fluffy cumulus clouds, not above me, not in the sky, way up there, but to my periphery, at my level, seeming so close that I could drive onto them in mere minutes. And with the peaks of the Rockies higher than those cotton clouds, white seemed to almost blossom from within the range, cauliflower creations of the purest shade of ivory.
Beautiful as it may have been, it wasn't getting any warmer. By 8PM, I couldn't move my fingers, and pulled into a gas station for a cup of hot tea and, if I was lucky, a recommendation for a cheap nearby motel.
Walking into the station's convenience store, helmet still on my head as my fingers lacked the dexterity in their current state to remove it, a friendly attendant remarked on the frigid temperatures outside and reckoned I must be freezing. I nodded, said I most certainly was, and asked him if he knew of any affordable lodging in the area. He thought for a moment, frowned, and informed me that though there was a hotel just next door, it was pricey, and my next options wouldn't be for nearly an hour down the road.
Displeased with this grim news, I frowned as well, thanked him for the help, and sat at an open table to mull over my decision while my steaming tea cooled. In the meantime, he and I chatted about various subjects: motorbikes, my journey, Colorado climate. I found this man, Bill,* his name was, to be affable and sincere and friendly, and I liked him from the outset.
I asked Bill what brought him to that small Colorado town. "Well," he sighed, "the thing is, I'm originally from the midwest, but my dad lives out in Oregon. And so about a year ago I got a bus ticket to go out and see him, and while waiting for the bus all my stuff, bag ticket, all of it, got stolen, and so I was stuck with no money or phone or nothing. And then ...", and here he smiled sheepishly, "... then I walked past a car with its keys in the ignition and I, well, I took it, and started heading west."
"Next thing I know," he continued, "I'm out here, making it over the Rockies, and its late, and I see this accident up ahead of me. This family, they hit an elk, and their car is all banged up, and this elk, it's just lying in the middle of the road, not doing so well. Me, I stop, and I know what I have to do, so I go into the back of this truck I'm driving, which has some tools in the trunk, and I pull out a hammer, 'cause I have to, you know, put this elk out of its pain."
I nod, captivated. He goes on. "And as I'm reaching for the hammer, I hear screams, and a crash, and I turn around and this other family had come around the bend, and they had swerved to avoid the elk and ended up crashing into a ditch, and their car just toppled over and crashed and everybody's yelling. And so I run over and I start pulling them out one by one, and the kids shout that their grandmother is in the back, and she can't get out, and so I take the hammer in my hand and I smash the window and I help her get out to. Then the cops come."
And when the cops came, he said, they called him a hero, but it didn't take long for them to learn that the truck he was driving had been reported stolen, and just hours after he saved that family, he was in jail, locked away in the Colorado Rockies. And when he got released, that's where he stayed.
Business beckoned, and so he returned to his station behind the register, but several minutes later, he looked at me, cocked his head, and called out "Hey, you're not crazy, are you?'
I smiled and shook my head. "I don't think so, why?"
"Well, if you want a place to stay tonight, you're welcome to crash on my couch," he replied.
I was touched by the offer, and told him I sincerely appreciated it, but it was still early, and I had learned he wouldn't be getting off work until nearly 11, and it seemed only practical to use those three hours driving, heading toward Utah, then hanging out in central Colorado.
He shrugged. "Okay. If you change your mind, just let me know."
And change my mind I did. There I was, on a cross-country road trip to discover America and learn from its people, and I had the audacity to decline an open couch from a stranger, a stranger with such a rich history. Unacceptable, I thought. Utah could wait.
"Hey Bill," I called back, several minutes later, "if that offer is still on the table, I would absolutely appreciate that couch."
"Cool," he said. "Jane and I are probably going to eat dinner and hang out for a bit at my place after work, so the three of us can head over together as soon as we close up here," Jane being the other staffer working the shop. She shot over a smile.
As promised, we made it out of there by 11, me doing whatever I could to help clean up, and then we made the short drive back to his place, which he warned me was a trailer, to which I retorted that his house was almost certainly larger than mine, and I felt a pang of yearning for my home back east, and indeed his was larger, nearly four times the size. And the couch, most importantly, was exceptionally comfortable.
Jane insisted I join her in sampling some Colorado herb, which as a polite guest, I did, though Bill appropriately declined to join us on account of his probation, and the three of us talked for hours, interesting, substantive conversation, hazy as it may have been at points. Eventually, Jane left, needing rest before work the next morning, and at this juncture, Bill focused in on his inventory of free things, which he had touched upon in various ways throughout the night.
The thing is, Bill told me, he doesn't buy anything; he gets it all for free by just asking others if he could keep what they planned to throw away. "They should call me the not-so-free free man," he joked of his probation, "almost everything in this house, I got if for free."
And then it began, an item-by-item listing of all Bill had accumulated at no cost. He pointed to a nearby shelf. "See those speakers? Got 'em for free. That poster? Free. Notepad, free, bookcase, free, those signs over there, free. That ashtray? Free too. And look over here. I got that firewood for free from the guy next door, I chop all his firewood in exchange for keeping half of it, so that's free. These books were free, that pillow was free, and this thing right here, whatever it is, that was for free too."
He rose, implying I should follow, and we marched to the kitchen, Bill swinging open cabinet doors. "Plates, all free, mugs were free, this pot right here? Free. Free, free, free," he said, pointing away, "free free free free free. Oh, and the bed over there, for my dog, that was free. The dog food, too. Come, check out over here."
Toward the bedroom we moved, and indeed, nearly everything in there was free as well. Satisfied with his inventory there, Bill passed me en route to the patio door, sliding it open. A wall of cold air rushed in, and Bill rushed out onto the deck. "It's dark, so you probably can't see it that well, but do you see that weight machine down there? That was free. And this, free. And if you peek over that edge, that stuff down there, I got that for free too." I nodded, trembling, subtly sliding back inside where it was warm, where the listing of Bill's free belongings continued for quite some time.
Now, I in no way mean to poke fun at Bill for this winding monologue; if anything, I hope to laud him for such resourcefulness, such thrift, and such enthusiasm for his success. For Bill, when released from prison, had nothing but the t-shirt and shorts on his person to help him face this cold world, and that cold state, and yet within six months, he had used his kindness and craftiness to acquire what really was an impressive amount of basic comforts. And because he had worked for each of those items, he seemed to appreciate them all the more, something so lacking in today's disposable culture.
Yes, Bill was a wonderful being, a person who made a few mistakes in his young life,sure, but was righting his wrongs in the most righteous of ways, through generosity and compassion. I was sorry to leave him so soon after having met him, but the road called, and so I left him my number, lest he ever need me to return the favor if he found himself on the east coast, and I took off for lower ground.
Colorado had not warmed much since the night before, and I faced several miserable hours on the road snaking my way through the Rockies' narrow passes. Toward the west end of the state, I was forced up Monarch Mountain, a formidable peak I'd have to reach 12,000 feet to cross, an arduous and painful climb that hammered away at me for nearly an hour. And then, finally, a small sign reading "Summit" whizzed by, and just like that, I had cleared the Rocky Mountains, and the descent began.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which sits a few dozen miles west of the Rockies and, in my opinion, suffers from far too cumbersome a name, was, at least in my case, the gateway to canyonland. Unlike the red rock gorges of Utah, Black Canyon is, well, black, and though it may not be the grandest canyon in size or width, it is one of the narrowest, some sections just fifty yards across. The effect of such narrowness is dramatic, vertigo-inducing, with each step toward the edge of the overlook telling your mind "surely that must be the bottom," but reality defiantly proving otherwise, the canyon so slim at points that sun only reaches its depths for fifteen minutes each day.
I enjoyed Black Canyon, for both its grandeur and its more agreeable effect on my body, but it was not my last stop for the day. No, that was Arches National Park, Utah, still some distance toward the sun, and so I trekked on, working my way to the border.
From the very first moment I thought up this adventure, I'd always envisioned Utah as a special sort of destination, not just a place for fun and adventure but for zen, peace, awakening, a place whose crimson canyons had spoken to me so strongly in film and photograph but whose terrain I had never had the privilege of glimpsing in person. of grabbing with my own hands. Before setting out on my journey, if I am to speak candidly, I wasn't sure I'd survive it, so many physical dangers crammed into so short a timespan, and I was okay with that, with the substantial risk, for I knew I'd rather live a life short and splendid than slow and stale. I knew it was too much to hope for a safe quest, outset to return, so instead I wished merely, if I were to perish in the course of my adventure, for that cruel fate to come after my time in Utah, after I had walked among those ancient seas, after I had climbed its canyons and taken in its beauty.
Such expectation is a hefty weight to put upon a swath of land, but Utah did not disappoint. Crossing the border, pulling into Arches, I found the landscape to be more than I imagined: grander, redder, infinitely more magnificent than any painting I could compose in the narrow confines of my mind.
I navigated to the park's campsite, spellbound by my surroundings, and coming upon yet another full lot, I relished the opportunity to bend the law and explore the Arches backcountry. I neither bent nor explored far, however, for I wished not to harm the fragile plant life beneath my feet, and so I pitched camp some forty yards from the RVs and full-height tents of a more civilized life, of company and laughter, and didn't mind the solitude, for there, in that little piece of earth, I was not alone. All around me was history, eons of it, literal eons, and above me, uncloaked from the setting sun, the stars! Even more splendid than the skyscape of the Great Sand Dunes, Arches proudly boats the world's darkest recorded sky, and with good reason. It is lovely. It is the universe untouched my humans, unclouded by their dust, the sky as our ancestors had seen it centuries earlier, the sky under which Emerson once remarked:
"But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of [that] which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile. The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence."
I was sad to wake the next morning without those stars shining over me, but I knew that was not the last time we'd see each other, and anyway, I had an eventful day to tend to. My first day in canyon county after years, perhaps a whole life, of longing for it, I simply had to hike, and so I set out for Devil's Garden, the park's flagship trail, a primitive trek along some half-dozen arches. Into the canyons I went.
* Note: Names and locations have been changed out of respect for privacy.