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Physical State of Matt #6: COLORADO

Continuing my tour of national parks, I planned a roundabout route to Boulder so I could hit two out of the three in Colorado. 


BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK


The first stop was at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Gunnison River cuts a deep, nearly vertical, canyon through the Colorado stone. Although I thought at first the canyon got its name from the dark rock, it’s actually named Black Canyon because it is so deep, narrow, and steep that most of the bottom of it almost never sees direct sunlight. 



With the clouds and the cold, it was a spectacular but dreary sight. I stopped at a couple of windy viewpoints, but the main scenic drive was closed for the season. The Visitors Center was similarly closed. 


GUNNISON


From Black Canyon I pointed myself toward the Great Sand Dunes National Park. There was hardly any light left, but I wanted to make a dent in the drive. 


I wound my way up into the mountains, driving along the Gunnison River. The Blue Mesa Reservoir appeared at my left, but it was barely light enough to see by that time. So that I didn’t miss any beautiful sights by driving at night, I stopped in Gunnison (In Gunnison County) for the evening. 



So who the hell was this Gunnison guy that got everything in this part of Colorado named after him? John W. Gunnison was an Army officer who was commissioned in 1853 to survey a path for a Pacific railroad. He was the first non-native to see the Black Canyon and much of this mountainous area. He was killed by Indians in Utah 5 months after his commission. That seems to me like a pretty low bar to get a bunch of stuff named after you. 



Gunnison was a cute little ski town. I had a delicious birthday breakfast at the Back Country Cafe and got back on the road. I had another Winter Storm Advisory along my route, but I’d seen so many of them by this point that amounted to nothing that I ignored it.



GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK


Once out of the mountains, the route to Great Sand Dunes National Park took me across a large flat plain. The wind whipped tiny pockets of storm clouds across the landscape. It would be cloudy for 20 minutes, then hail for 3 minutes, then the sun would peek out. It was bizarre. 



I arrived at the park with the dunes shrouded in clouds. The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado are the tallest in North America at 700’ tall. Over ten thousand years, the plain I’d been driving through had flooded, then dried up, and the remaining sand blew east, building up in an elbow of the surrounding mountain range. 



When the clouds finally cleared, the dunes emerged, towering above me. One of the favorite activities at the park is hiking to the top, then sand surfing down, which is allowed. Some people were crawling around the gigantic dunes, looking like ants. It was in the 30’s and windy, so I decided to skip the climb. 



I looked for a less crowded spot to walk to the base of the dunes and stumbled upon a large family of deer. They didn’t seem remotely fussed by me, and allowed me to get really close to them. 



As I walked to the base of the dunes, a fresh batch of clouds rolled in, dropping a light dusting of snow on them.



Just outside the park as I was leaving, I impulsively turned off the road following a sign that said Zapata Falls, and I was so glad I did. The road took me up along the side of the mountain, which provided a glorious view of the plain, the dunes, and the storm that was hitting them. 



Zapata Falls was a short uphill hike. A family hiked ahead of me, the dad clearly worn down by his rambunctious 10-year old boy who ran everywhere and shouted everything. 


The trail led to a frozen stream. 20 feet ahead of me, the boy was scrambling up the ice toward a canyon, then stopped. I CAN HEAR IT! He yelled. I CAN HEAR THE WATER!!. Sure enough, as I approached the spot where had just been, I could hear the stream running under the thick layer of ice. 



Following the stream up and into the canyon, I discovered Zapata Falls were frozen over, the ice a sparkling translucent blue. 



DRIVE TO BOULDER


After leaving the park, I drove for a couple more hours before I had to stop for dinner. I discovered, just off the highway, the High Octane Bar & Grill / Dispensary. What a racket - get people high, give them the munchies, then feed them BBQ. As I left, the sun was going down and the rain had started coming down in heavy sheets. 



About an hour outside of Denver, the rain suddenly changed to snow. Within the span of a few minutes, there were three inches of slush on the road and visibility was poor. I guess this time the weather advisory hadn’t been messing around. 



The roads were getting slicker by the minute, but there was nowhere for me to stop for about 20 miles. I was able to follow a semi, letting it clear the worst off the road ahead of me, but it was getting really hairy. Gratefully, the plows came by and I was able to tuck in behind them long enough to get to Castle Rock, where I grabbed the first hotel I could find. It was a good thing I did because within an hour of stopping, the temperature dropped into the low 20s, turning all that slush into ice.



BOULDER


I completed the route to Boulder the next morning after the roads had been cleared and checked into my cute Airbnb across from the university. 


Boulder is a small city under the shadow of a large mountain - a college town of about 100,000 surrounding UC Boulder. It turned out to be Spring Break the week I was there, so the whole city was low-key. Boulder’s main downtown is the Pearl Street Mall where a few blocks with shops, restaurants, and bars have been limited to pedestrians. 



I visited Pearl St on a sunny afternoon. I popped into Rocket Fizz candy and soda shop, and rode the giant beaver outside. Then I stopped by the Beat Book Shop, Sundown Saloon, and had incredible tapas at Gemini.



One night my coworker drove up from Denver and we met for dinner at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. Dushanbe and Boulder became sister cities in 1982 to foster communication and cultural exchange between the US and a member of the Soviet Union. The Mayor of Dushanbe gifted the teahouse to Boulder in 1990. Tajik artists worked on the decorative elements of the building for 4 years. It was like eating dinner in a work of art. 


(not my picture)


As a cinephile and rabid consumer of of film & TV, it’s been strange for me to barely watch anything on this trip. I have been so busy exploring the places I have been visiting, working, and writing I just haven’t had time. In Boulder I treated myself to the first movie I’d seen in theaters since Barbie - Dune: Part 2. I am so glad I caught it on the big screen. It is epic filmmaking at its best. 



For my last night in Colorado, I drove 30 minutes into Denver to catch The Empire Strips Back, a burlesque Star Wars parody. Created by an Australian (of course) in 2011, it has been touring the world to rave reviews ever since. I had missed it in Portland, so I took advantage of it being in Denver. 



It was bawdy, irreverent, and an absolute blast - complete with dancing sexy stormtroopers and Imperial Guards. My favorite performance though was the one with Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor was played by a dancer clad in a head-to-toe shriveled rubber suit complete with a tiny willie and balls dangling to her knees. At the crescendo of the number, she swings across the stage on a giant disco ball shaped like the Death Star to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. Good times, good times. 



ROCKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK


Although Kansas, my next stop, was due east, I left Boulder headed north. I started at Estes Park, which is actually a city not a park, known as the base camp for the Rocky Mountains National Park



In what was becoming a trend, the main drive over the peaks and through the park was closed for the season, but there were other roads and hiking trails that skirted the edge of the park which were accessible. 



I drove around for a couple of hours taking pictures of the snow capped peaks. The road I was on ended at Bear Lake. The snow had been packed by so many feet that the paths leading into the woods were super icy. Many walked around with spikes strapped to their shoes. 



The lake was covered with two feet of snow. I couldn’t tell where it began and where it ended, but it seemed safe to walk on based on how many people were doing it. Someone had built a single-person-sized igloo, and someone else had built a snowman. I saw plenty of deer and a few elk in the park, but unfortunately no bears. 



After a quick lunch, I doubled back past Boulder and headed east. After passing the Denver Airport, the elevation dropped slowly, leaving me on a flat, flat plain interspersed with flat, flat farmland. 



I was heading into the Midwest.


Yes, and…

Matt

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