Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Alta Lakes, Telluride CO
Part 1 — June 21 to July 03
The goal and reason for why we wanted to visit Southwest Colorado was simply to beat the heat of summer. By the time we had left northern AZ, even with being at 6000’ elevation, the daily temps in June were soaring into the nineties. We needed to go higher and find better tree line. Colorado had what we were looking for with spending most our days at an average elevation of 8-9000’ and with ample shade.
The unfortunate aspect we did not know or realize until there, was that July is CO’s monsoon season. And not so much monsoons in the way New Mex or AZ gets them, but it’s steady, predictable and frequent rainfall. Enough to saturate the grounds, present risks for flash floods and ultimately teach us how to navigate and consider our limitations during these months. When speaking to any locals, they all corroborated that yes, it is their monsoon season, but it came heavy and it came early.
Aside from that, we had great temperatures with days ranging from as low as 38° to highs in the 90s depending on where we were at geographically.
We spent our time covering the entire Southwestern corner, making stops at each of the national parks and monuments (Mesa Verde, National Monument and Gunnison Canyon) beginning with the Four Corners. We spent most our days living within the national forests, mostly the San Juan’s, The Unc and the San Isabel, but also traversed the entire Million Dollar Highway and visited some interesting and outstanding towns along the way. We scaled sheer canyon walls clipped in with harnesses, came face to face with a mountain lion, walked through endless streams of blooming, alpine floral varieties, evicted chipmunks and watched communities of yellow-bellied marmots play in the rocks. The array of peaks and ranges we encountered as went moved us towards the center of the state before finally turning south to go in between the famous Collegiate Peaks known for having the highest collection of fabled 14’ers of any range and quite possibly the highest average elevation of any in the lower 48.
We also really harnessed the main aspect of our day, and what commenters and readers have all shown the most interest in: eating! We just launched Meal-Time Monday’s on Instagram and our ‘Far Out Foods’ will showcase our often simple, sometimes extravagant meal ideas created on the road, from within a van and achieved through limited means. You’ll see this as a regular occurrence on the days list, so prepare to get a pen and paper, or save the photos if you’re looking to gather any of the ideas for yourselves.
And so, are you ready to travel Southwest Colorado? Here we go!
SHIPROCK & FOUR CORNERS
6/21 Tuesday - Day 0
Camped along FR (Forest Road) 258, San Juan NF (National Forest)
The revered Shiprock located at the heart of Navajo Nation was an expected to see landmark and sure enough, it emerged, displaying its distinct shape seen from many miles away.
An ancient volcano, resembling a bird with wings, rises more than 1500 feet straight up from the harsh desert terrain. It’s a sacred site and there’s no camping, hiking or anything other than viewing from afar and that’s just what we did. It was still a magical landmark and we instantly recognized its uniqueness and cultural significance. So much so, that we even brought kitty out for a celebration of its magnificence.
Continuing on Highway 491, we passed by the signs for the Four Corners landmark, which I figured would be an obvious travel destination for us at some point and here we were, crossing from Arizona into New Mexico on our way towards Colorado. Might as well complete the quadrant and see the spectacle.
It’s a total waste. It’s a dirt lot, with permanent vendor stalls encircling the cemented, central square with a queue of people waiting to take selfies and family group shots atop the intersection. We walked around and ventured off behind the landmark to gaze at the astounding vista, feeling the harsh desert heat.
Being a privatized landmark, controlled by the Navajo Nation, it was eight dollars per person to get in and ultimately lead to nowhere. We could not hike beyond the perimeter as it was part of the reservation lands, the bathrooms were atrocious, they were initially enforcing all kinds of mask mandates for an outdoor venue and then never followed suit. It felt like a complete scam and we would caution anyone to visit unless they had decent time to kill with an hour drive each way, only to be swindled into buying some typical and expected souvenirs.
We made it into Colorado, hoping the elevation would continue to climb and we’d be returned to the seclusion and cover of the forest.
We landed at a very cool, easy to access forest site and spotted an area we liked. After the long day of travel, we settled in easily for the evening. The site had a pond, which different cow and calf pairs would visit throughout the day. It was completely inundated with thick brush and armies of chipmunks, which meant kitty was connected to the leash and anchored to the rear of the van, encumbered by his desires to hunt and chase.
We were in love with the area. Tall, looming Ponderosa Pines cast shadows and the forest was alive and enticing. We were within the San Juan’s, and it’s allure would capture our travels for the coming weeks as we made our way North towards the Million Dollar Highway.
MAGICAL RAIN HIKE
6/22 Wednesday - Day 1
Dolores FR 258, 7700 ft, 76° high
Taking advantage of the captivating terrain, we ventured out from camp, directly through the woods guiding our path with only a compass heading to run into the Sunset Trail, a 7.7 mile trek that used other connecting trails to complete a loop. The terrain was favorable, a soft gentle forest with lots of room to pass along the trodden path, immersed in the 360° views. We climbed, descended, scaled rock bluffs and got introduced to July weather in Colorado. A thundering rain storm advanced onto us and we took shelter beside a tree, smiling from the freshness of it all. We snacked, standing upright, observing the motion of the clouds waiting for our chance to break out and get back before things got any worse.
Pre-hike breakfast was a fried egg over sautéed spinach, garlic and onions. Yum!
For lunch we had a BLT using Light Life’s Smart Bacon alternative, which is a gluten based product, but crisps up nice and tastes fantastic. The ‘meat’ was our favorite Tofurky’s peppered pastrami-style lunch meat alternative, which is also a vital wheat gluten and soy product. It does the job and I usually dress it up similar to Mikes Way from Jersey Mike’s with tomato, spinach, cheese, peperoncinis, salt, pepper, oil & malt vinegar on top of either toasted sourdough or inside a large size tortilla wrap.
Dinner was a feeble, but satisfying sliced veggies with hummus: carrots + radishes.
We also found a new (old) fork at our campsite to replace our melted/lost fork. It’s a little comical, but fun when you get little hints like that that the universe is watching.
WAR OF THE CHIPMUNKS
6/23 Thursday - Day 2
Stoner Mesa, 10.070 ft
Cool morning, with partial sun.
Unsatisfied cat. He needs to hunt. We experimented with off leash and by the first five minutes he snatched up a chipmunk and was trotting off with it in mouth. I released the munk from his grasp unharmed and kitty was returned to the leash.
Breakfast was a repeat of spinach, garlic and onion with a fried egg on top. We like to steam the eggs with a dribble of water and put the lid on the pan and it cooks the top of the egg marvelously without even having to flip. It works especially well if trying to melt cheese. It was served with a crispy slice of bacon and peperoncinis.
We traveled on, in search of more remote territories and ended up winding our way up to the top of Stoner Mesa, a forty-five minute, switch-back, dirt road trail. It was our highest climb in the van yet.
Smartly, we recognized the 2pm rains and put our afternoon hike on hold as voluminous gray clouds rolled in overtop our elevated site. Kitty ran loose in the aspens. Dinner was crispy, Beyond Meat brats sliced into a very spicy tomato sauce.
Beyond Brats are the best! (Also, peep the new old fork!)
INTIMATE WITH NATURE
6/24 Friday - Day 3 10.050 ft
Twin Springs Dispersed Site
Cool morning after a long night of rains. Our day started at around 58° and climbed to mid-sixties. Kitty was back outside and cone free. A genuinely happy cat.
Twin Springs hike, 629 Eagle Peak Trail
From the onset we saw elk, mule deer and then, magic struck for a second time. As we cleared a hill, we spotted on the down slope moving swiftly and directly towards us a full grown mountain lion. It was completely massive. I mistook it for a bear due to its sheer size, but nothing can confuse the sighting once the long, curling tail becomes visible. In a single instant going from locked gazes to elite, woodland ninja, it leapt into the air, redirected itself and disappeared into the trees without a single, further sound.
We stood slack-jawed, unable to process the moment. We just went heads up with a gigantic, elusive predator and somehow collected a second, non-threatening encounter. We sat on a log, trying to actually not be speechless as we wanted to make noise for its sake and our safety. When we finally felt safe to proceed, I whistled and made sure to converse with a little extra gusto to announce our presence.
Big Kitty Tracks!
Wonder what it’s been eating?
We came to a long, loose rock descent and within the soil I found the most massive paw print I’ve ever come across. It was definitely our trail visitor, heading in the opposite direction, right towards where we met. I saw more prints along the way and even found an equally impressive, fresh pile of panther scat. This creature had to be at its peak close to 170 lbs. Once down closer to the stream we got our first taste of Colorado’s magnificent floral displays. Butterflies were scattered amongst the summer flowers of purple, yellow and blue varieties: Iris, Blue Columbines (state flower), Bluebells drooping with dew, upright Indian Paintbrushes, Sunflowers and White False Hellebores marked the entrance and exit to the damp, marshy areas that existed within the Spruces and Aspens. In the stream we saw rainbow trout milling along clear as day.
We were passed by a couple dirt bikers which went into our conversations of how best we’d like to travel these forested trails. They took the short route back up the mountain while we descended down to the creek below. Finally, turning back up, we climbed the 1400 feet in 100ft increments as the trail switch backed it’s way up the mountain. We passed by five, through-hikers that were dispersed around the trail lounging in the mid-summer heat.
Walking the road back to camp, we were surrounded by swarms of horse flies. I look over at the forest we had previously driven past, and suddenly there was a familiarity to it. An image of nature we had grown intimate with. Hike total: four hours, 8.39 miles.
Lunch was buffalo seitan wraps with cucumber, onion, avocado, goat cheese and fresh arugula. It certainly satisfied the cravings we had inside.
The scenery here was astounding. We felt so isolated and immersed in a beautiful natural setting. High above the nearest town, we sat in warm sunshine and watched clouds roll past. It was serene.
Saturday 6/25 - Day 4
FR 316, Mancos (1)
On our way out, a few trail hikers were parked at the trail head and we saw two of the tiniest mule deer twins outside our camp. We visited Loops Coffee in Delores, went to the Market Grocer and checked out an organic shop that was hawking a bunch of over priced diet and supplement goods. What could I expect, it was actually called Flat Belly Organics. We hit the Main Street Brewery in Cortez and began our CO sticker and patch collection. We filled the water tank at the Recycling plant. Colorado will continue to provide great city amenities like water, often free and easily accessible.
Our camp spot was along FR 316, just outside Mancos. A pretty busy spot, but we found a little secluded spot In the trees. Dinner was carrots, cucumber and hummus with Garden Veg pretzel chips. Slices of a newfound favorite cheese that we’re still eating to this day: a locally made portobello leek colby jack.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Sunday 6/26 - Day 5
FR 316, Mancos (2)
Mesa Verde National Park was yet another chapter in the fantastically compelling story of the 1200 year span of Ancestral Puebloans existence in the Southwest. Descendants of the first migrants to enter the continent, their history is one of intrigue. Going from nomadic hunting and gathering tribes that migrated with the great animals to becoming agrarian and constructing many intricate pueblos, existing within the trade markets that circumnavigated the globe. Building upon their predecessors, they evolved and advanced their way six hundred years into great archeological sites such as Chaco Canyon to the UTE mountains where we are at presently.
The turning point for me, is when at the height of their six hundred year run at masonry, basket weaving, pottery, social structures and global trade, a shift occurred where instead of continuing in that development, they retreated high up into cliffs to begin a totally irregular and confusing period of existence. The cliff dwelling period marked the final note in their presence before disappearing from the records all together.
Across the entire Southwest, from the archeological sites of Gila and Bandelier in New Mexico to Crested Buttes and mesas of Utah and Colorado, their entire pathway lead to one final existence: Living high and guarded within a cliff. Many questions arise from this point, and the story that fits best for me is one of carnage. A fractured civilization coming to a head. Guard towers, signal fires and faced with an extreme fifty year drought, the end was surely not bittersweet.
The anthology depicted in Corn of Man investigates the remnants of bones from this period to paint a much more sinister picture of what was once a joyous and collaborative tribal life. Smashed skulls, puncture holes, broken bones tell what most likely became the prevailing threat and what ultimately would force a community to abandon their impeccably constructed villages and retreat up perilously high cliffs with only long ladders to reach their tiny sheltered homes. The story is most certainly still being unearthed!
Mountains, Malts, Mesas
A rainy day left us inside with a live blues band to tear down the clouds and fill the air with their strumming, electric sounds. An eight table bar had the air waves bumping with their cool sounds.
The open mic held an opportunity for anyone to get up and jam with the band and Wesley, the soulful, southern singer serenading into the Rhythm and Blues tracks took it to a whole new level. Gata, his ‘something’ was ushering us onto the six person dance floor to jam with the band. Speaking of jams...
CAUGHT IN A JAM!
Caught in the slick mud on FR 316, we got caught attempting to back through a turnaround on our way home in search of a campsite. A large rock pinned the rear axle.
So, we got out and put on the work gloves to unearth the slick mud around the tires. To ensure a hopeful recovery, we filled in behind the front drive tires with rocks and constructed a four foot long ramp made of different size rocks to get us up and over the primary obstacle and then through the drainage ditch and back onto the packed, gravel road. It would not be easy, but we were determined.
A hard felt, but successful reverse got us to the road and we scooted our way back down to a less consequential site. The teamwork prevailed and we laid in relief having accomplished this in the final waning hours of daylight. What an Adventure!
Rock ramp strategy success! 🙌
MESA VERDE - DAY 2
Monday 6/28 - Day 6
FR 316, Mancos (3)
Breakfast was over easy eggs with fresh chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and vinegar greens. Topped with Huntington CAs: Dexter Holland’s (The Offspring) Gringo Bandito hot sauce and sided with a couple everything seasoned avocado slices. I highly recommended that hot sauce!!
Pictograph Trail: 2.1 mi out and back
A rocky scramble along Mesa ridge, we walked along the ancient corridor. Cool air holding out within the seeps, while fresh sunshine warmed us to a proper sweat in the exposed parts. A large prominent wall held fifty petroglyphs. Hands, spirals, mountains, animals. Its such a joy to see what inspired them!
Finishing with a rock scramble, with natural foot and hand holds, we rested high up on a boulder’s lookout imagining the life of the previous inhabitants. While looking out, we discovered an unlisted dwelling across the canyon, Echo House.
Lunch was a much desired turkey, bacon, cheese wrap with cole slaw, spicy mustard and fresh salad greens. It was a delight and set us back on course to finish the day.
We drove down the Upper Mesa Loop to see the overlooks that were aligned in a 15.000 foot long canyon. It housed close to ten different structures, most notably the 150 room Cliff Palace. Intense hail hit as we sat in front of the final site for the day, the Sun Temple: A D-Shaped, Chaco Canyon inspired, open roofed structure that was architecturally similar to it with an astrologically aligned North to South wall running across its flat side.
We opted for some much needed showers at the park’s campground before returning to our forest hideaway. It was a well received treat, and first one in six days since our usual, hectic and semi-private aquatic center one we left behind in Northern AZ.
More rains. Hopefully we can get back up to our camp safely.
DURANGO, TOWN DAY
Tuesday 6/28 - Day 7
Junction Creek, Durango
The path from Mancos rolled right across the river and on into the bustling city of Durango. We drove around town for awhile, noticing the crowds, but taking delight in the very cool looking Main Street drag. We found shade to park and went out in search of what all the town had to offer. We found an endless supply of cool shops from outdoor retailers boasting the best names in the industry to eclectic boutiques. There were gift shops, Nepalese craft stores, art galleries, museums and plenty of bars, restaurants and snacks to eat. We could have went in them all, but chose a few along each side of the street and, unfortunately for our wallets, found interesting things in all of them. We landed ourselves twice at the Balcony Bar which had a really good fried portobello mushroom taco. It was done up street-style with a slightly crispy tortilla and covered in a creamy sauce with big fresh jalapeños and lettuce.
Each location we were greeted warmly, and could dive into conversations with ease. We were asked where we were from and if we were passing through and what brought us here. It was very friendly for the hosts of this tourist town. And, for someone to have put it as simply as, “It’s rare to meet someone here that’s actually from Colorado,” it seemed they all recognized their own bit of touristy travel that landed them here as well.
Overall, it was a very welcoming and accommodating city, that greeted us fairly and wasn’t too high on its own horse to take in a fellow traveler. I even scored a perfect brown leather cap that should help ease the eyes on attempting to make it into the ranching and roping world.
Rains were held back by the protective mountain range seated just beyond the town. I still figured we ought to get out of town by five in order to make camp in good time or else leave space for a B-option should things not pan out.
Right away, things did not pan out. On our forest road we came to a pretty soggy and rutted bend and we sat evaluating its state. Having just been stuck, chancing yet another attempt was not enticing. I thought maybe we could make a run at it and backed the van up to stare it down. I even walked the path on foot and that was when a Subaru pulled up and held similar concerns. They decided to give it a go and went through it with little to no struggle, but within a few hundred yards, I could see them turning around and came right back to where we were at. They said it was gated and marked private with no way through. They were actually using the same app as us (iOverlander) and were confused by this. I was pretty familiar with what was listed for the area and mentioned there weren’t a lot of options nearby, but suggested they could double back to where we had been camped at in Mancos if they didn’t find anything else. They mentioned the fork in the road and said perhaps we went the wrong way. I said that’s a good thought and when I said goodbye and checked the map for myself, realized this was entirely the wrong road.
We drove up the fork for a bit, but I could see it was no more correct than the one we had bailed on. I got my bearings straight and rechecked the sites location on Gaia. I got the coordinates plugged in and we headed back through town towards the correct forest road.
There weren’t a lot of options as we climbed the wide gravel road, nor were there any availability at the sites that did exist. Luck panned out and we found a great, wooded and level spot just past another occupied site.
The cat throughly enjoyed it, running up and clinging to every tree he could muster. He leapt through the tall brush and poked his nose into the understories, inspecting and scanning for any movement. Every log was crawled on and became a scratching post for his tiny nails. Just before sundown he darted up the road with Bella in pursuit. He found his way over the drainage ditch to use the outdoor bathroom. He was now one content kitty and we were glad for this, having spent the day snoozing in the van.
We tucked him in for the night and checked out our spoils, putting up a few of the newly acquired stickers. Rest came easy for us as we were still fresh off our showers and had a thrilling town day.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Wednesday 6/29 - Day 8
Henderson Lake, Durango (1)
Camp Day, Day 2! Or not. Colorado’s rain filled mountains created a fly epidemic of biblical proportions. Our vehicle and surrounding area was swarmed with a thousand deer, black, horse and midge flies, all well-versed in haunting you with their chewing, painful bites. We couldn’t walk, open a door, nor think about the beautiful forest without seeing these ravenous, straight-from-Hades, fun-suckers pinging off the doors, trees and our bodies.
I managed a bit of exploring with the kitty while Bella made avocado, nectarine and goat cheese toast for us humans. For Kitty, a bug haven is quite a delight and had a gluttons share of grasshoppers.
The scenery around us was sublime. Tall spruces with glittering Aspens blowing in the breeze, shimmering their leaves like tiny coins. Clouds rolled by as we hopped over fallen logs attempting a mini outdoor hike. However, these flies put a halt to our mountainous plans, and we ultimately decided to pull shades and brake our way back down the steep, mountainous slopes. Back in town, we took care of a bit of laundry and then went off in search of another excellent mountainside destination. This time, Henderson Lake, a remote, alpine lake that required gaining four thousand feet from the valley of Durango. We carved nearly a hundred switchbacks to reach our pristine oasis and one hour of driving to cover a total of fourteen miles should explain what it took to get there.
Dinner was going to be a much anticipated Impossible meat gyro wrap night with garlicy, herby potatoes as a side. Bella made up a little onion, carrot, jalapeño jar to pickle and sample later in the week when the vinegar had matured the vegetables. I chopped herbs, potatoes and marinated the package of chuck impossible meat. We had sage, thyme, dill, rosemary and of course tzatziki to set this course off right.
The flavors were off the charts. The marinated, seared, herb infused impossible meat sliced into strips left each gyro packed with flavor. Two, heaping scoops of tzatziki and fresh, soft tomatoes. Thin sliced onions and crumbled feta with chopped spring mix took this wrap was over the top. The herby potatoes were cooked perfectly. If I were to estimate, it was $6 in total food costs and could sell for $18 out the window of a food truck no problem. And satisfy with adequate portions, as well.
NOW, ITS A CAMP DAY!
Thursday 6/30 - Day 9
Henderson Lake (2)
Waking up to off and on sprinkles, we evaluated our camp conditions. The rains were not heavy, but laying down constant moisture causing us some concern for if we’ll be able to make it out or not. Not needing to be anywhere and decent on all our supplies, with exception to coffee, we decided to stay put and see out the weather.
We had been gifted a cup of fresh, whole Kenyan beans and so we experimented with a usb blender to try and get them ground up. With a bit of sifting, sorting and re-blending, we had our coffee stash back intact. Close call!
Kitty with his GPS tracker so he can roam free!
A 1:10hr, 1.1 mile hike with the kitty left him panting and us smiling. We took off across some logs to get over a feeder stream and then walked the forest a ways. We came out along the high, sunny side of the pond and watched as the clouds gathered and moved with the breeze.
As Bella hiked to get service for a check-in phone call with her mom, I penned a letter to my travel mate: Your cheeks radiate a warmth, spilling out sunshine like the happiness of the day. Nature tickles your face, and unless it’s a buzzing fly, you walk with light all around you. The sunshine, the warmth and the cool mountain air filling your lungs with life. It’s an honest pleasure to be at your side!
Lunch was tomato, feta, cucumber and onion vinegar salad with chips and salsa. Dinner was another serving of the fantastic impossible gyro wraps.
CAMP DAY, DAY 2
Friday 7/01 - Day 10
Henderson Lake (3)
A warm wake-up, we quickly got outdoors to enjoy the morning sunshine and take in the scenery before the thunderous clouds would surely roll in.
I wanted to enhance our creek spot, so I dug out some logs and repositioned them to gain better water flow. I pulled back silt and expanded the muddy banks that turned downstream. I pulled from beneath our big crossing log pine bows and put them aside to fill in the areas where the creek came to settle and pool. I wanted maximum flow and hoped for a bit of water noise to add to the ambiance. I carried out our shovel and balanced precariously on submerged logs to dig, move and alter.
Bella came out to watch as I attempted to move a quite large, water-logged stump from one part of the creek to the other. I flipped it up and over along the bank and then heaved it over another tree root to get it at the opposite side of the crossing log. From there, I spun, dragged and twisted it along its various axis points to get it across. When it was finally in place, I tilted it up and dropped it over, plopping it into a corner that had been pooling and not flowing steadily. I filled in with other extra logs I had removed and now the pool had some rotation to keep it in motion and flow more aptly beneath the crossing log. The flow became much stronger, cascading and rippling over the rocky portions.
Kitty moved about diligently, exploring his terrain and becoming more accustomed to the woods. Each time he’d pass over the crossing log, he’d sniff and investigate all the changes I’d made.
Our sitting stumps
At one point, while Bella was sitting next to me admiring the work, a quite large, gray and rust colored mouse darted out from a tree hole and scurried along the bank to hide beneath another tree stump. Kitty was preoccupied with grasshoppers in the wooded Hellebores and we made no mention of its whereabouts.
Lunch was another quick and easy turkey, bacon, cole slaw, salad greens and cheese wrap. While we ate, the sky turned gray and the birds chirped alongside the rolls of thunder. Our sunny sky had been filled in with ominous clouds. But to be honest, I had hoped for rain to see my creek creations come to life.
Dinner was roasted zucchini and brussel sprouts alongside a fantastic mashed potato. Utilizing the collection of thyme, rosemary and dill they were accented with garlic and creamed with butter and sour cream. Pretty nice dish for never having made it in the van yet. We ended the night finishing up a season of Outlander, cuddled together in the warm bed. Concerns or not, camp life was quite enjoyable.
CAMP DAY, DAY 3
Saturday 7/02 - Day 11
Henderson Lake (4)
Evaluating our resources and environmental conditions, we decided the decision to stay could happen once more. We were hoping the daily rains would cease and the grounds could get a chance to dry, giving us a decent shot at getting out.
Sure enough, thunder sounded and another spell of rain came down, sogging the earth even further and we were left with oh wells. We had been doing good on water, conserving with boiling creek water for dishes and used only what we needed for drinking. Kitty played for a bit while I boiled batches of water for washing. By midday the clouds had not left, but there was some intermittent sun. Cars, trucks and SUVs were flocking to the area for the holiday weekend. We held onto our pristine camp spot and watched a few tv shows, avoiding the coolness outside. The van is designed with windows on all sides, so despite being indoors, we get superb views and it was pretty relaxing none the less.
Bella discovered a cantaloupe rolling about next to our dirty clothes we had forgotten existed and so we carved that up for snacking. I later made it into a nice fruit salad, using the remaining blueberries, bits of feta, chopped pecans and the last of the basil. I poured over some of the sweetened almond milk creamer and added a dash of cinnamon to complete the full array of succulent flavors.
It was also high time to try out our pickled medley: carrots, onions and jalapeños in a vinegar brine with dill and thyme. It was pretty darn good and became an ongoing concoction brewing in our cabinet. Sometimes we’re so close to food greatness that we don’t even realize all of the potential and possibilities.
A challenging, impacted and slick gravel hill loomed within the backs of our minds for the entirety of the camp days at Henderson Lake. I thought it was certainly feasible to get back up it, but it would be on the challenging side for us and the 2WD, rear loaded, eight thousand pound van. Thankfully we had lightened some of our load by drinking all of the water, but that only meant a reduction of about 150 lbs or so. Also, our tires had been caked coming to the site along the soft, rutted ground. So, we were literally not getting off on a good footing.
As we watched the days pour out different bits of rain, coming at different times of the day, we started to concoct a plan for what we would want to see and when we would make our escape.
To check the weather, we walked two miles up the road to catch a sturdy enough signal to bring up the radar and the forecast for the next couple of days. Every day in July seemed identical for the most part with a spike of rain appearing at the midday mark and has continued as such for our entire two month time in Colorado. But it does list the percentages, which has subtle variances and essentially means it could rain any, if not all, of those days for the month. In fact, for the month of July, SW Colorado sees an average of 21.5 days and is undoubtedly the rainiest month.
So, with our cellular in hand, I had noticed the forecast for Sunday still showed a dip in temperatures and a higher than normal percentage for rain. This to me spoke volumes that, for three days, the forecast, which has been evolving hourly, has remained fixed. And when you see a fix in weather, you can start to make bets on it.
We decided today held our best chances, with a bit of drying sunshine despite the amount of rainfall we had over the previous two days and morning as well. Today’s rain had come at an early hour, around 11AM, which meant a solid seven hours of uninterrupted sunshine had fallen on all the wet and nasty spots that lay ahead of us.
As we walked back, still in sunshine, but with the rain clouds looming, I said to Bella, “Let’s give it until seven o’clock max, that way we have baked the earth as much as possible, but still have daylight to work with if we get into a jam trying to get out.” I used the coming hours to beat the dried up mud off the tires and asked if Bella would secure items inside for a bumpy ride.
As we waited, the clouds began filling in sooner than expected and our decision was settled. We had to get out now or be faced to stay for an uncertain amount of time, low on food and water.
When I walked back earlier, I had spent time evaluating the ground the entire way, noticing every limb that stuck out, what the ground was like, the dips, the turns, the inclines and the challenges. I determined there were four challenges in total.
First was to get turned around, where there was half soft, soggy vegetation and the other side was half dry and semi-hard. Thankfully, I could keep the front drive wheels to the hard as I backed up and came around to the second challenge: A large, deep, wetted out rut that I would need to straddle. Using the vegetation on the side to drive on, we came around to to the y-section where the trail was good. We cleared that area no problem and were upon our third and fourth challenges.
Third challenge was a winding s-turn that had an off-camber slope from one tread area to the other and soft, sandy soil. I welcomed the sand over the silty mud, as it flings easier and is less likely to hold water and cling. The S’s lead right up to the fourth and final challenge, the massive hill climb. For this part, I would need to pick up momentum in the S’s and carry it forward all the way into the hill.
As I came through the S-turns, all went well and I only hoped a camper was not coming down the hill at this exact moment. I hit the hill with good speed and punched it up the slope. Just as I was about to crest the top, I had come too far right and encountered soft ground that wouldn’t allow me the final push. I was devastated and, regretfully, immediately started to back down hastily. I mis-judged my turn and ended up clipping a young aspen with the mirror. I got hung on it good and furthered the calamity even more by reversing too far, dropping off the backside of the turn, spilling baskets of items inside the van and landing halfway into soft vegetation. The front half was pitched sideways on the gravel slope. I had fouled things up now for sure. I tried a few wiggles of the wheel, a few careful back and forths in attempt to get back onto the trail, none of which landed any success. The front tires were spinning down through the gravel to the soft soil beneath and the rears offered nothing.
I got out anxiously, trying to jam rocks into the fronts of the drive tires, neglecting the rears that were spinning loosely in the wet grass. I got back in and tried it again and could only feel the front wanting to descend further down the hill. I managed to inch my way up a little more to center of the trail, which was good, but there was zero chance of the front drive being able to pull all of that rear weight up and over the edge of the trail unassisted.
I got out again and looked at our situation, perched near sideways in the middle of the slope, poised to cause an accident should someone not see us coming down and potentially blocking the exit for others who would need to use this route to leave the lake. I felt the pangs of fear and stupidity for it all. We got out and gathered more rocks to keep assisting the front tires to hopefully cling, climb and tear it’s way out and to do anything besides digging a flower garden for the middle of the road.
I looked at the physics of the situation and noticed the only direction the van has gone was downhill and there was potential room on the opposite side that we could maybe get the vehicle to do an about face. If I used the pitch of the grade we were opposite to, I could maybe, just maybe, slide our nose around and be facing downhill to get a little advantage from our old friend gravity that got us into this bad situation.
Well, sure enough, it worked! We were facing back towards the lake, poised before the S-turn and simply needed to retrace our steps, successfully get turned around without getting caught there and give this hill another attempt.
While I had been beating the tires clean with a stick earlier, a girl had stopped to ask if we were alright. I explained we were going to try and make it out this evening and had concerns about the big hill. She said if we needed anything, they had a truck and we could ask for help. I thanked her and went back to my tire beating. Sure enough, by the time I had returned to our initial start spot to do a turn around, the girls in the truck had already moved into our spot and were setting up camp. It was a good spot and I’m glad they did, as they were too close to the water and the nightmare of bugs that came with it. We had plenty of bugs of our own there, but it was a pretty spot with the creek running beside it. Not to mention all the creek improvements I had done!!
I hopped out and said the hill gave us some trouble and she said, “Do you need some help, like a tow?” I said, “I think so, maybe for just at the top to get over the edge. Do you have a tow strap?” They looked at me with uncertainty and I sort of figured our other campers wouldn’t be of much assistance besides awkward spectators.
They were about to pitch their tent and set up camp before the rains, but she was willing to take a look. I waited at the vehicle, continuing to go over plans in my head for how to orchestrate a rescue and not long after she came back solemnly saying she did not. Bella suggested we ask the other vehicle parked near us, an Xterra with good tires. They had just gotten in today and we saw them riding their bicycles. I explained the situation and asked them the same question. He did not have one either, but suggested maybe he could give a little push assistance. I raised a curious eyebrow at what exactly he had meant and he said, “us” pointing to him and his womanly counterpart. I said, “Ah, okay, definitely hope you didn’t mean a vehicle push.” I told this to Bella and she was concerned about them getting injured. I said, “Well, let’s just get as far as we can and then see how things look.” They rode behind us on their bikes, but I stopped them just before the S-turn. I got out and said I would start my go at it from here so maybe ride ahead and be waiting at the top out of the way. I would try and pull into the spot that’s directly across from the turn so they were aware where I would try to end up.
I waited as I watched their colored shirts make the turn towards the hill and gave them ample time to get up and over and out of the way before I come gunning it for the top. I grooved into the S-turn nicely and came around to see the mountain that was ahead of me. I stayed on the gas and charged through where we had previously dug up the ground. I came into the steep slope and kept my foot accelerating hard and fast. Just as I about reached the point where we had spun out previously, the guy came scrambling out as if he thought my plan was to have him push as I was bouncing and gassing it towards the top. I made no effort to dodge or thwart this man, he would just have to be a casualty as I remained laser focused on winning the second round.
This time, I managed to hit a new line and could feel our wheels give a little jitter, but it didn’t halt our progress and we crested the top to glory. I let out a exclamatory woooh and then met them in the street. He was as excited as I and must have gotten himself out of the way as I charged through. Good man. I slapped him a high five, gave our weather report for the following days and he wished us a happy Fourth of July.
Happy Fourth of July indeed!
The dreaded hill climb
We need to seriously get our minds around to the fact that we are driving a 2WD vehicle into 4WD territories and that wet grounds, high elevation and steep grades are presenting some serious challenges. Sure, we’ve gotten a bit of a luck lately, but the boneheaded, rushed reversing and slipping past the checkpoints of caution were needing to be eradicated. We have too much riding on these wheels to give ourselves over to disaster and may just need to see the outdoors from the less-adventurous side of things while we’re out here in the rugged and wild parts of Colorado.
However, as dire as it was, we made it out, put back together the tossed about van and managed a yummy dinner. I concocted a random dish of sautéed onions, carrots, zucchini with crisped chickpea tofu. I poured a spicy bbq sauce overtop and garnished with pea micro greens. And just to note, it had rained most the night and morning. So our efforts and intuitions were spot on.
And so, that wraps up Part One of our Colorado summer travels! Stay tuned for part two as we hit the Million Dollar Highway and head into the real, crested, alpine peaks of Colorado’s Western ranges.