Getting out on the open road
Vail CO, Colorado
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch …” ” John Steinbeck
I love that quote.
It speaks of a hunger the author never did outgrow. A few years before he died, he packed himself and his poodle into a home-built camper and traveled across the country for three months. He wanted to be reminded, he said, of what America was.
Now, that’s fairly grand and not everyone’s cup of tea. But still, whatever form it takes, we all need to get out of town sometimes. Here I share some of my favorite road trip destinations. These spots are fairly quick drives, yet they feel worlds away. This isn’t a comprehensive guide, but more of a Colorado newbie’s personal travelogue, filled with my own snapshots and experiences. You’ve probably already been to these places, and I’m no expert on any of them. But I do know what they’ve meant to me ” which is to say, quite a lot.
Known as: The highest town in North America and once the planned capital of Colorado
Miles from Vail: 43
In a local’s words: “Yes, it definitely is God’s country … I just wish it wasn’t so cold.”
” A young woman, manning the desk at a downtown motel
My introduction to Leadville was nothing short of cinematic. My expectations were high. After all, I’d driven 40 miles on a slow, twisting road. As I entered the old section of town, I looked at the antique brick buildings, the quiet streets, the white mountains in the distance ” and I seriously started to bite my lip with desire. It was strange and instant. I was in love.
Upon later inspection, there is no way I could live here. It’s too frosty, too remote. But it has this off-kilter culture and intense beauty that I can’t deny. When I first arrived in Colorado, I found myself slipping away to Leadville three or four times within a few months. There’s something exciting about being on the edge of the earth like that. While it might not make a practical home, what a great place to spend an afternoon.
My favorite thing to do here: Just walk around. Leadville feels like a cross between a model train town and an Eastern European village. Needless to say, it’s like nothing else around. I’ve heard its museums are nice, but I usually spend my time wandering through the streets and chatting up the hearty folks who call this place home.
My best meal here: I’ve taken most of my dinners at Rosie’s Brew Pub (115 E. 7th St.). It has comfort food and nice ales, but more importantly, it feels like the place to be. Every time I eat here, I either get into some bizarre conversation with a local or I overhear an even more colorful speech behind me. Leadville has its young folks and its old folks, and it feels like you can meet a majority of them on Rosie’s bar stools.
Known as: The home of “The High Country News” and Chacco shoes
Miles from Vail: 132
In a local’s words: “It’s independent from formalities, kind of a wild west atmosphere but also kind of laid back, of course.” ” Ryan Todd, local cook, born and raised in Paonia
When I first rolled into this town six months ago, I didn’t really get it. It felt sleepy, a little rough, with no cell phone reception to speak of. Maybe that’s just the veneer that keeps us pesky Californians out.
The more I settled in Glenwood, the more I started visiting Paonia. At first that felt a little random, but then it started to make sense. To me, this town is a low-key antidote to our sometimes bustling valley. It’s not a flashy locale, but a place to calm down.
The streets are wide and empty, the traffic sparse. It’s almost like a throwback to the 1960s, with hippies and ranchers and general counter-culture types all thrown together. As much as I’m trying to put words to the off-beat, organic vibe, I don’t think I can really do it justice. All I know is that is whenever I stop by, I want to sit in a cafe and soak up all that energy. It also kind of makes me yearn to live in a yurt ” but that’s a longer story.
My favorite thing to do here: Nothing warms my heart like good, home-grown improv, and Paonia’s Ship of Fools troupe is one great example. So far, I’ve seen a show by them and attended a few workshops, and I’ve always been impressed. One of their more “out there” members, Amy Michelle, once told me she decided to quit working because it kept her from playing. That’s what I like to hear. For more information or to see about their next show, visit http://www.grownbypeople.com/paoniafools/.
My best meals here: At Louie’s (202 Grand Ave.) I felt entranced by the crowded, communal feeling of the place. It’s also supposed to have the best pizza in town. I can’t forget the friendly, free lunch at Old River Road Trading Post (15495 Black Bridge Road), either. Every Sunday afternoon, the farm, market and cafe hosts a big buffet, with admission by donation only. So Paonia!
Known as: The home of Colorado National Monument and the place to do all your Western Slope shopping
Miles from Vail: 148 miles
In a local’s words: Speaking of the draws of GJ: “Oh, the spectacular nightlife (sarcastically). (More seriously) Biking the National Monument and biking to Palisade. Because the weather’s nice … basically, if you like to bike, it’s a biker’s paradise.” ” Amy Hamilton, writer at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and two-year resident
What’s so special about Grand Junction, you might ask? Maybe the coolness lies in its lack of coolness. Sure, it’s got plenty going on, but the city’s general air isn’t uppity or self-realized. There’s also something to be said about space. Living in a narrow canyon, surrounded by mountains, it’s not hard for claustrophobia to set in. Junction, on the other hand, is all about the wide streets, the flat terrain, the empty parking lots. Every time I come here now I feel like a German tourist. I’m anonymous, and my buck goes so much farther in GJ than my home. Hey, sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name.
Known as: The cycling capital of America and the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Miles from Vail: 259
In a local’s words: “Moab is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think. When I lived in Kansas City, I spent all my summers and vacations camping at Canyon Lands … like many people, I was drawn to Moab, and I think that’s a kind of common story, actually.” ” Lisa Church, editor of the Moab Times-Independent and 12-year resident.
One last, trippy thought
I think road trips aren’t always about running away or rejecting where you live. They’re more about gaining perspective, getting out of your bubble, seeing how other folks get by. I could go on and on with my words, I suppose, and not make any headway. At their best, I guess trips are whatever they mean to you.
Wherever you go, there you are, people say. So why not travel?
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Are we seeing more bears because there are more bears on the valley floor, or because we’re all spending more time at home? It could be a bit of both.