'Rocky Mountain High'
It’s the first time I’ve been back in Colorado since 2017. I was meant to return to celebrate my 60th birthday with Pat Feldmeier in July 2019. Because her birthday was also in July, we were going to paint the town red, or try to. But Pat passed away suddenly in February that year and I filled in that week with a forgettable (or not) tour through the National Parks squished in a bus with 53 other passengers - none of whom spoke English.
As I wake up and open the window blinds, the train is passing through Green River, Utah. Although I don't think I slept very well, I cannot remember the train stopping in Salt Lake City, so I've been in a coma as the train sweeps through the desert state of Utah.
There has been a thunderstorm overnight and the ground is saturated. The train driver has to take extra precautions to ensure that the tracks are still in good order, so we travel very slowly for quite some time. A pattern that is repeated several times during the day. The arid landscape has turned to sludge with the overnight rain and it glistens in the sunlight. This is true desert, so rivulets of liquified silver sand is be a sight not often seen.
The deserts are soon replaced by rocks; cliffs of rocks that have suffered many tectonic changes. The strata are clear; a history of the land in plain sight. As we move across the border into Colorado, I see a large rock balanced precariously on a cliff. From my vantage point, it looks like a frog’s face with a maniacal grin. I’ve left my camera at home, so I have to rely on my phone to take photos, and so far, it’s doing OK. A little further on, tall people-shaped rocks stand like sentinels. They look very much like some of the formations I’ve seen at the Arches National Park in years gone by.
As we move closer to Grand Junction, we travel beside the Colorado River. There must have been some heavy rain in the mountains as the river is flowing quickly and is brown with the soil it’s dragging with it. A while later we stop at Glenwood Springs. I’m very surprised at how many people join the train here, but up until this point, the train has been quite empty. The conductor announces that the train is now at 100 percent capacity.
From Glenwood Springs we wind through the mountains, the river so close I could almost reach out and touch it. On the other side of the river is the road. The highway is built on the side of the rocky part of the canyon. It is really two roads. The top one travels towards Glenwood Springs, whilst the bottom one travels towards Denver. This is not the only place a stacked highway is built – there is another one on the Aspen Road. Here is a way of providing adequate space in both directions without compromising on width. It is the perfect solution for building a freeway in a narrow pass. The route through Glenwood Canyon is spectacular. Much better than I remember on the occasions I drove through here. This ride is worth it just for today's view of Glenwood Pass.
After a time, we seem to move away from the highway and although there are roads beside the train line throughout the journey, it's not the I70. When we pass New Castle, I look out for the lack of vegetation on one of the hills. My lunch buddy today had told me that a mine caught on fire 125 years ago and is still burning, hence the lack of vegetation.
We start climbing higher than the river. It is now a long way below the train. Each time we go through a tunnel, we gain altitude. An announcement over the intercom warns us that we are approaching the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel, which will take approximately ten minutes to clear. We are also asked to remain in our seats and not to move between carriages because the diesel fumes will blow back into the carriages. During the time we are in the tunnel, we cross the Continental Divide and we climb to the train’s highest point of 8,000 feet above sea level. I feel like we are hugging the side of the mountain, but I'm on the side of the train that has the view, so I'm not sure if that is true.
The Continental Divide virtually divides the country in two - East and West. From California to this point, the rivers flow to the west and into the Pacific Ocean. After we emerge from the tunnel, I notice the direction of the water has changed and it is now flowing to the east and towards the Atlantic Ocean. The stark difference in the river from one side of Moffat Tunnel to the other is something unexpected, but really interesting.
As our train skirts towns that are not on the highway, like Granby and Fraser, I can only thank Pat for the extensive travelling we did throughout Colorado as memories of us jaunting through this back end of Colorado checking out marijuana stores in the small towns, watching moose in the marshes near Granby, enjoying the amazing autumn tree colours, and having a local brew in a pub. Colorado really is my favourite part of America.
Due to the slow-downs and a freight train that is right in front of us and that needs some space, we are now running two-and-a-half hours late. It cannot be helped, and I’m not sure that much time can be made up, although judging from the rattling and rolling of the train as I write this, the driver is trying to make a good attempt at getting us to Chicago as quickly as possible.
We leave the mountains tonight and I will wake up to the flat agricultural land of Iowa. It may not be as alluring as the mountains, but I am sure there are good things to see on the last leg of the trip.
Quote: Rocky Mountain High song title - John Denver