In September of the year that my daughter Allison turned one year old in October, my good friend and across the street neighbor Chris Carter and I took a backpacking trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Since we had more time than money, we skipped the airplane and rental car and drove Chris’s pickup truck. The trip included many firsts for me - an out of state road trip, seeing the far west and planning a week-long outdoor adventure.
Our cross country route was a big circle. We went west on the southern route, I-40 from North Carolina to north Texas, then swung north through central Colorado to the Park. After a trek through the RMNP backcountry, we drove the northern route east, I-70 through Kansas to Kentucky, then southeast back home, for a total of 5 days driving. Our goal was to be self-contained and not have to stay in hotels, except for the last night. The total cost, including gas, food, campgrounds, maps, everthing, was $197 each.
The first day we stayed on I-40 and traversed all of Tennessee, crossed the Mississippi River (my first time) and drove to the middle of Arkansas. The first night we stayed in a camp ground near Little Rock, AR. All our road trip food was in my Coleman cooler and a cardboard box in the truck bed, and the backpack food was already stowed in our packs. A plastic tarp protected all the gear and supplies from rain, as well as adding a small layer of security by keeping out prying eyes. As further security some of our gear was packed in my canoeing plastic barrels from Bill Booth.
The second day we drove through Oklahoma where we found they have the worst highway rest stops. Each lunch was sandwiches beside the road from the food boxes. We crossed north Texas and turned off I-40 in Amarillo, TX, and went northwest to Raton, NM. The second night we were supposed to stay at a campground in northeast New Mexico, but it was raining hard and we could not find it in the dark. After supper in a greasy hamburger joint we kept going to about midnight. The truck gained a great deal of altitude, went through Raton Pass and crossed into Colorado. We set up our second roadside camp in the wet dark, illegally, at a roadside interstate rest stop in southern CO.
What a glorious awakening! The third morning we arose to cool, crisp, high altitude day in the bright sunshine surrounded by views of the ramparts of the southern Rocky Mountains. After a fast breakfast we drove north on I-25 through Pueblo and Colorado Springs, CO. I remember stopping to get gas and feeling the effects of the altitude – thinner air, brighter sunshine and cooler temperatures. After driving through Denver, Boulder and Estes Park, CO, we entered the Park in late afternoon. We set up camp in the front country near the Moraine Park Visitors Center and readied our packs for the coming backcountry hike. Even though it was still summer time warm back home, we had frost that first night in the Park at 7,000 feet altitude.
The next morning we packed up from the front country campsite and drove outside the park around to the northeast corner. I had found the North Fork Trail on the maps that started in Roosevelt National Forest outside the park, traversed the northeast quadrant of the park and ended at high altitude Lost Lake. That would be our backcountry route. We parked at the end of the dirt road at the North Fork trail head and backpacked for several hours into the park to our first backcountry campsite. I was pleasantly surprised how well graded the trail was. Although we were at about 8,000 feet, we never encountered a rough or steep uphill section.
The next couple days we continued to hike gradually uphill and camp at beautiful designated sites with fire rings and pit toilets. Most of the time we were near the North Fork of the Big Thompson River. We used the creek for drinking water with iodine tablets added, since this was years before the invention of water filters.
Unfortunately, I awoke the last morning of our uphill segment at about 9,000 feet feeling the effects of the altitude. I was mildly nauseous and had no appetite. Concerned that more climbing would exacerbate the problem, I stayed near to camp and explored the environs. I had a good time photographing some wildlife, including a ptarmigan. Chris continued up the trail alone to the end and got some great photos of Lost Lake and its cirque of surrounding mountains.
Then we headed out and retraced our steps. On our planned next-to-last evening in the park we were setting up camp in early afternoon and we both felt homesick. By mutual agreement we re-packed out bags and hiked a long evening back to the truck, covering two days’ hiking in one. Once back in Denver we headed east on I-70 to Goodland, KS, for our next road side camp. We then traversed Kansas and Missouri to St, Louis.
We decided to stay in a hotel our last night as a well earned luxury. For hundreds of miles approaching St. Louise we saw highway billboards advertising The Alamo Hotel. We decided to stay there. Once in town, we had some trouble locating it and eventually ended up in a poor, seedy part of town. When attempting to check in the Alamo, we found the young, black, female clerk shielded from us behind dirty Plexiglas and yelling on the phone at her apparently sorry boyfriend, who she insisted “get his black ass” out of her apartment. She wanted to know if we desired to rent the room by the hour, or for the night? Never having heard of renting a hotel room by the hour, we took it for the night.
We entered our room to find a huge bed broken down and caved in the center, with dirty sheets and bedspread. There were used condoms on the floor. There were free, non-stop, x-rated movies on the TV. We were too young and naïve to be grossed out and simply dragged our sleeping bags in from the truck and slept on top of the bedspread. We were only woken up once during the night by someone banging on our door and threatening to kill us, and twice by gunshots in the parking lot.
During the trip, I had been proud of my level of preparedness. I was quick to let Chris know each time we needed some piece of gear that I had one in my pack. Eventually Chris had enough of my sin of pride and started to press me by asking for more abstract items. As we were crossing Kentucky we discussed the gas mileage and the need to divide the costs back home when we had the totals. Chris asked doubtfully if I could produce a calculator to do the math then and there. [This was back in time when calculators were big and bulky.] A sheepish grin spread across his face when I pulled the next generation, credit card sized device from my pocket.
The next day saw us through southern Ohio, southern Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and all the way back home. What a glorious homecoming with our loving families!