2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 4

I got back on the road after my stroll through Salida. Within 15 minutes I had to floor it to simply maintain my speed as I climbed up to MonarchPass and the Continental Divide. Monarch pass sits at 11,500 feet – the highest I’ve ever been outside of an airplane – and was covered with snow even in mid April. I was feeling pretty good by the time I reached the top, though I wasn’t sure if it was due to the stunning views or the lack of oxygen. Not having a proper traveling companion, I took a picture of my car next to a snow bank.

From Monarch it was straight down for miles, bottoming out at 5,500 feet in the town of Gunnison. I stopped for gas there and assessed my options. I had originally planned to continue along US-50 until I hit Grand Junction and I-70, but Route 92 – the West Elk Scenic Bypass – looked much more promising, both in name and shape. For one thing, it would bring me much closer to the BlackCanyon of the Gunnison which, though I didn’t want to go to the national park itself, I wanted to see. More importantly, the road looked like fun. The little red line on my map promised switchbacks and steep climbs and all manner of wonderfulness. It was a pretty easy decision.

My detour didn’t disappoint. A Honda Accord is no sports car, but it handled well enough to whip around curves and provided enough power to barrel down the rare straightaways. I stopped several times to catch awe-inspiring views of the GunnisonRiver and throw rocks over the sides of cliffs. After an hour or so, the land started to flatten out a bit, the vertigo-inducing drop-offs giving way to ranches and farms. I had gone about 75 miles by the time the road finally connected back into US-50 at Delta. By the end of that 75 miles I was prepared to swear off main roads forever.

I caught up with I-70 again in Grand Junction. There I spotted a billboard that read “Stop Terrorism: Get the U.S. out of the U.N.,” paid for by the surprisingly still-existing John Birch Society. I wondered if they were still after the Communists or if they’d found someone else to worry about.

I crossed into Utah headed for Moab, and was presented with another decision about what route to take. MapQuest would have you take I-70 to US-191, which tracks back to the southeast and down to Moab. State route 128, on the other hand, extends southwest from the interstate several miles before the US-191 turnoff, eventually meets up with the Colorado river and leads down into the canyon country surrounding Moab and beyond. I hadn’t really done much research on the area prior to leaving home, and for a minute I wondered if there wasn’t a good reason to avoid 128. Unable to think of one, I took the smaller, more winding road.

It was a good decision, as 128 is a gem. It starts out less than promising, passing through the “town” of Cisco which is nothing but a rusting, long-since-closed Texaco station and a couple of abandoned mobile homes. Things soon improved dramatically. After ten miles of flat, open range land, the road met up with the Colorado, which has turned this country into a mini-GrandCanyon. Unlike the real McCoy, however, you can pull your car over here, walk to the river bank, and cool your feet in the water while standing in the shadows of the canyon walls. The day had grown hot – wasn’t I just in the snow a few hours before? – so I stopped and swam for a few minutes. Not the smartest thing I’d ever done – the water was freezing – but it was certainly refreshing.

As I approached Moab, I noticed several trucks pulling tricked-out Jeeps on trailers. Once in town, a sign informed me that I had arrived on the eve of a United Rockcrawling & Off-Road Challenge event, or UROC, which is all about Jeep enthusiasts taking 4x4s over rock trails with names such as Hell’s Revenge and Poison Spider Mesa, all while doing their best to keep it upright. It wouldn’t begin in earnest until Friday, and when I got to town most of the drivers were cruising around, admiring each other’s Jeeps in parking lots, and drinking beer.

My thoughts immediately went to Raoul Duke arriving in Las Vegas to cover the Fabulous Mint 400 when, by cosmic coincidence, I passed by a hotel called the Gonzo Inn, complete with Ralph Steadman-inspired design flourishes and sign fonts. Well, I thought, if the Jeepers were gathering in Moab, I felt the Honda culture should be represented as well. Me and a thousand off-roaders from all over America. Why not? Move confidently into their midst.

After checking into the Gonzo Inn – a single, unfortunately; they wanted too much for the Gonzo Suite – I looked for somewhere I could eat, drink, and maybe talk to someone. The Moab Brewery (actual, inspiring motto: “Moab’s Only Microbrewery!”) looked to be as good a place as any. I sat at the bar and gulped down two pints of Scorpion Ale which, while no great shakes, was better than a kick in the balls. It made me nice and happy and chatty, though, and I was soon engaged in conversation with a woman named Susan, who was also drinking and dining alone.

Susan was in her mid 40s, though I only figured that out after talking to her for a while and picking up clues. She had that healthy and relaxed look that everyone seems to have out west, and if I didn’t know that she had been in college in the 70s, I would have guessed that she was ten years younger than she really was. I also learned that Susan was once a lawyer like me, but got out of the business five years before when she concluded that she could never be happy in a job where she couldn’t trust her clients, the lawyers across the table from her and, sometimes, even the ones down the hall. After bagging the legal career she opened a restaurant. The restaurant flopped after a year, so she moved to Moab and now she just “enjoys the sun.” Not bad work if you can get it.

When I told her I was a lawyer on the lam she pressed me: did I hate it? If not, why did I quit? If so, why was I going back to another law firm when my trip was over? Since I liked what I had seen of the west so far, why didn’t I just come out here and stay for a while? It was a pretty good cross examination coming from a woman who claimed to have given up the legal business. When she saw that I was going to play it close to the vest rather than pour my heart out about my career misgivings, she offered that I should quit the law now before it burned me out completely. Easy for somebody who makes ends meet by “enjoying the sun” to say. Not that she was wrong.

Dispensing with the shop talk, Susan and I agreed that we hated the Jeepers in town for the UROC thing. They were loud. They were dangerous. They were dirty. And that was just the guys in the restaurant. We couldn’t imagine what they’d be like once they hit the trails that weekend.

Noticing my little guidebook was open to the section on ArchesNational Park, she offered to take me out for a guided hike on Saturday if I was still going to be in town (she had plans the next couple of days). I told her I’d be gone by then, but thanked her for the offer. By the time we got to the subject of the painfully low alcohol content of Utah beer, we had been talking and drinking for close to two hours. If we had been in a different state we may have even been buzzed by then.

Her boyfriend (do people in their mid-40s have “boyfriends?”) showed up a few minutes later. He paused for a second, processed the scene of his, um, girlfriend chatting up a strange young man at a bar, quickly ascertained that I was no threat, and sat down. The three of us talked for a few more minutes, during which I gathered that the sun-enjoying business must pay pretty well, because boyfriend spent his days riding his mountain bike or reading books while living with girlfriend. Again, nice work if you can get it. Feeling like a third wheel after a while, I paid my check, said my goodbyes, and headed back to the car.

I decided to take a short driving tour of Moab’s main drag. While stopped at a red light, a woman dressed like a Hooters waitress gave me a UROC flag to fly from my car, and told me that if I was spotted by UROC officials the next day, I could win a prize. At least I think that’s what she told me, as it was hard to hear over the Jeep engines. I made it back to my hotel room and got to sleep before 11. It had been an enjoyable day, but I was tired from the road and the fresh air. Besides, I wanted to wake up early the next morning so I could see sunrise in ArchesNational Park.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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