I’m from the Southeast, born in the mountains of North Carolina, and my childhood years were split between East Texas and the North Carolina Piedmont region. I love it there. When I go home nowadays, I usually head down I77 out of Virginia and there’s this one place right before you cross the state line where you can see clear to Pilot Mountain. That’s the point where I always feel like I’m home.
However, the Mountain West has grown in my mind ever since Bronco Super Celebration (West). Buena Vista, Colorado is aptly named, and I loved being out there. There’s something about big mountains, big skies, and realizing that you haven’t passed another car in the last 20 miles. It isn’t home, but it quickly became one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. So I was excited to get back there and my opportunity came quickly with our coverage of the Moab 4×4 Expo.
I touched down in Grand Junction, Colorado and then drove to Moab. I took I70 to US 191 and was struck by two things. First, the speed limit was 80mph. No, I won’t tell you what I topped out at, but it suffices to say that I hadn’t driven that fast since my days on the Autobahn, when I was stationed in Germany. It certainly made the trip go quickly. The second thing that struck me was the lack of cars on the road. Back east, highways are crowded and traffic is often an issue. Not so out there. I know the place isn’t technically empty and there are plenty of folks that live there, but the difference between a stretch of highway in the Mountain West and the more densely populated parts of the US was stark.
We had a good week in Moab. It was a great time to be talking to people about Bronco and Bronco Nation while seeing their reactions to the trucks. But due to a scheduling error on my part, I had an extra day between the end of the Expo and my flight back to Michigan. My plans for the day started small and grew larger and more ambitious for two reasons: my lack of appreciation for how far apart things are in the Mountain West and my obsession with collecting things.
I started Saturday morning innocently enough, starting small with a drive up to Arches National Park for what looked on the map like a short hike. Delicate Arch is a short trail but, unbeknownst to me at the time, is categorized as strenuous by the park service. Now I’m not in awesome shape, but I’ve got a background in walking long distances under load and was well equipped with an appropriate amount of water, layered clothing, a well-marked trail, and a good pair of hiking boots. Going up I got a bit winded, but it was manageable and worth every bit of effort. The view was gorgeous going up and going down, and the payoff at the top was great. However, after finishing the trail I decided not to do any other trails that day and headed down to the visitors’ center to get something for my boys, before returning to Grand Junction for my flight the next morning.
This is when my propensity to collect things bit me. You see, national parks have any number of things you can buy, but several of the items are sets, one for each park. Having spent as much as I was comfortable with on the boys, I was looking for something cheap and small as a collectable. I settled on a magnet. This magnet was the reason I ended up driving for 9 hours that day. You see, when I got back to the car, I looked at that magnet and my inner dialogue kicked into overdrive.
“Yeah, David, what’s up? Have you seen this magnet?”
“Yeah, brother, that’s what I want to talk to you about.”
“It’s pretty sweet, right? I’ll bet they have one for each national park.”
“Exactly! And you know where we are, right?”
“Yes, obviously, but where are we in America?”
“Eastern Utah, the heart of the Mountain West.”
“Yes, and when you think of the West, what do you think of?”
“I see where you’re going with this, and yes, we should get a Stetson at that shop in town.”
“Nope, stay with me, we think of national parks when we think of the West, right?”
“Oh yes, we certainly do.”
“This place has got to be teeming with them, right?”
“Oh yeah! Canyonlands is like, right around the corner, I think.”
“You know what they probably have there?”
“Oooo, a set of national park magnets would look stupendous on the fridge back home.”
“Stupendous, yeah. Good word.”
You get the idea. Suddenly I was on an all-consuming quest for refrigerator magnets with stylized depictions of national landmarks on them. It’s crazy, I know, but it made for an awesome trip.
I put Canyonlands into my phone for directions, and the app said that it would be a 3 hour drive. I knew that wasn’t correct because it also said the trip was only around 30 miles, so I headed out. Sure enough, it wasn’t 3 hours, it was about 30 minutes. I pulled up to the little guard house where you pay to go into the park, and the very friendly attendant asked for $30. I had already paid $30 to get into Arches, so I asked if that could count towards admission. Mr. Friendly Attendant explained that if I intend to go to more than three national parks in a year then I should probably get a National Park Pass, and that what I had paid at Arches could be credited to that.
I’m a guy with aspirations. A vision of hopscotching the family across the West, gathering refrigerator magnets as we merrily sing those stupid songs that people used to sing in the car before we had smart phones flashed before my eyes. Yes, Mr. Friendly Attendant, give me that pass.
I strolled up to the visitor center, grabbed me some magnet goodness, drove to an overlook and took some pictures of the incredible views of Canyonlands, and I was good to go. Where to go next was the question. I knew I needed to end up in Grand Junction so, looking at the map on my phone, I started there and zoomed out. I zoomed out more than I realized.
My eye caught on Mesa Verde National Park, and I did a quick Wikipedia search to see what that was all about. Turns out, it’s the largest archeological preserve in the US. Who knew? I should have known, because I was a history major. Regardless, I was on my way. Sure, the phone navigation said it would be a three-and-a-half-hour drive, but it had said that about going to Canyonlands, so I figured it would be an hour, two at most.
My phone wasn’t going to lose two rounds in a row, and it was definitely every minute of three and a half hours to drive from Canyonlands to Mesa Verde. The drive was awesome though. There were incredible views of the La Sal range on the way out of Moab, plenty of political yard signs, and even a pretty well-restored early Bronco in Monticello, that I didn’t get a picture of but still appreciated.
I pulled into Mesa Verde around 4PM. Sadly, the visitor’s center was closed, so (spoiler) my magnet collection is stalled at a grand total of two. Making the best of that disappointment, I drove up into the park, and it was amazing. First, the views are incredible. Second, the cliff dwellings are super cool. The trail down to Cliff Palace was closed (my understanding is that this is usually a guided tour anyways), but you could still walk down to an overlook and see these comparatively well-preserved pre-Columbian ruins. It was a great drive up into the park and back down.
By the time I was done in Mesa Verde, it was early evening and I was losing light, so I decided to head to Grand Junction. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive. I had to fly out the next day at 6:45AM. But this is the Mountain West, there don’t seem to be boring drives here. The drive sounded long, but I figured I would enjoy it. And I was right, the drive certainly wasn’t boring.
I took CO-145 through the San Juan National Forest, and even with the light that I had left I was in total awe of the mountain views. One of these days, I’m going to go back there with a Bronco and camp in those mountains. The road winds up into the mountains through a number of quaint-looking little mountain towns with steadily rising elevations marked on their welcome signs.
I started worrying about two issues. My fuel level was falling, and I wasn’t sure how common gas stations would be along this route. Also, I kept passing signs that talked about avalanches, rockslides, and turning around if there was any snow. Those stories of hapless travelers with insufficient mountain experience being trapped on a snowy pass until their frozen remains are discovered in the following spring thaw started to run through my mind. But my worrying was for naught, I made it into Telluride, fueled up and got back on the road. The rest of the drive I was in the dark, so there wasn’t much to see, and I was pretty focused on not careening off a mountain while I tore down the steep grades into the valley. I grabbed a bite in Montrose and finally arrived in Grand Junction around 10PM.
That was my day in the Mountain West. I’m sure I didn’t even scratch the surface of what’s available out there with the right vehicle and the right sense of adventure. I’ll be returning soon though, family in tow and hunting for National Park magnets.