David has always been a dreamer, and those dreams oftentimes included sweeping mountain ranges…or at least what he imagined them to look like. He had never seen them in real life. As our determination to see more of the world grew, he took the initiative and decided to book a week-long trip, the first trip planned by himself. I, as his best friend at the time, was the first invited. I had seen mountains before, but they were a distant memory. One that I would love to relive. So, I agreed, and, on a whim, we booked a flight that would take place around David’s birthday in April.
Then Covid-19 hit and grounded all flights indefinitely. For a while, our plans were forgotten as we sought adventure closer to home. Months later, when Frontier Airlines resumed their domestic flights, our hopes and dreams were slowly restored. We snagged a week on the flight schedule that ended up fitting quite well with our work schedule. Our trip was rebooked! (About $260 per person.)
We were now scheduled to be gone September 7th-11th and realized that wasn’t a whole lot of time to prepare for our first ever long road trip away from home! We had to pick a good turn-around point. David’s dad suggested Telluride, while his mother was a fan of Pike’s Peak. However, David wanted to go somewhere his parents had never been, so the trip would really feel like ours. We picked a cute town on the other side of the mountain from Telluride called Ouray. Then we scrambled to book hotels and a rental car, while trying to set some money aside for other emergency purchases. We wanted our first trip to go as flawlessly as possible and were trying to eliminate any surprises! Of course, there was no way to account for every surprise this trip had in store for us, but it all worked our surprisingly well!
September 7th – My First Flight!
I had never flown before this trip. In fact, the highest off the ground that I’ve ever been was 20 minutes of parasailing on Table Rock Lake. I was a shaky mix of scared and excited. Thankfully, David’s dad worked as a security guard in the airport we would be leaving from, so he was able to verbally walk me through the process of what all would happen. He also served as our chauffeur to the airport so we wouldn’t have to leave our car in the parking lot all week.
We were there way early, but I was too nervous to sit still for long, so we ran back into town for some lunch. Even when we returned, we were still early for our two-hour ahead of time check-in! I was anxious about my first bag screening, but the Branson airport is very small, so it wasn’t too bad. It also helped that we packed very lightly in an effort to avoid the stress of baggage claims when we landed. We both had a whole week’s worth of supplies packed into one small suitcase, in addition to a backpack a piece, so everything could ride with us. (I did encounter some new challenges during the packing process, in an attempt to meet airplane requirements, such as having no more than 3oz of liquid per bottle and no food or beverage. Thank GOD David already knew how to do all this and warned me ahead of time!)
Then we were back to waiting for our plane. Funny enough, I noticed most of the other passengers arriving for the flight were all going home to Colorado after a vacation here in Branson!
Our flight arrived right on time! I let David lead the way, as he had more flight experience. Stepping out onto the tarmac and loading into the plane was a very surreal experience and the inside of the plane instantly made me claustrophobic. But David made sure I had the window seat, so once I was settled, I was able to breathe again.
Then we started rolling. The roar of the turbines became deafening as we sped down the runway! The plane shook when we lifted off…and then all went smooth and quiet. It was exhilarating, terrifying and I probably broke David’s arm from squeezing it so hard. But then, my nose was against the window for the rest of the trip, watching the land fall away very quickly until my familiar Ozarks looked like a topography map of rolling hills, distant lakes, and teeny tiny highways. I had spent so long on the ground, always wondering what it was like up here in the sky…it was nice to finally know.
Before long, the clouds moved in and became a solid sheet of white beneath us. It was a completely alien world up here, but so peaceful. An hour and a half later (and one time zone) our plane began to dip below the clouds once more and the world below was incredibly different from the one we had left.
When thinking of Colorado, we pictured snow-capped mountain peaks everywhere you looked. That was not the case. As it turns out, the eastern half of the state is very flat and barren. On top of that, Colorado had been suffering from several severe wildfires at this time and, although the fires were far from us, the thick screen of smoke reached us even here. It was one thing to see it on the news, but an entirely different feel to witness it in real life. Although we never saw flames, the heavy haze had reduced the sunset to a dim, red ball hanging in the sky. It reminded me of dark pictures I had seen of Mars or fantasy images of apocalypses.
I was so mesmerized by the world-ending scene outside, I didn’t notice our plane was curving around to make a landing. Until the whole freaking thing tips on its side. Apparently, we were “banking” as David explained, but to me “banking” felt a whole lot like crashing, and I was quickly nauseous. Thankfully, this was the only part of the flight that I didn’t enjoy, and it was over quickly. The landing was smooth, and David and I stepped out into a state that neither of us had ever visited before!
After that, the following sequence of events was a fast-paced and stressful flicker of images. I was quickly overwhelmed by the size and noise of the Denver airport, so I kept my head down and clung to David’s hand, letting him lead. After a few wrong turns, a ride on a dark, sketchy little Subway, and a trip down a flat escalator (it was literally a moving path from one end of the lobby to the other and I was flabbergasted…why not just walk?) we finally found our way to the outside and got to the terminal for Enterprise rental cars.
We had reserved a compact SUV, however, they were out of the compact size, so they upgraded us to a full-size at no extra charge. We had a few options and quickly chose a bright red Jeep Compass, Trailhawk edition. (By the time we added all the insurance packages and whatnot, we were pushing $850…sheesh!) We knew that Enterprise regulations state that you must be 25 to drive. As I was just 24, David was in charge of the paperwork and actually driving, which he said he was happy to do. I still felt a little bad though. (Funny enough, we later noticed that the license plate on our rental…was from Missouri!)
Once our bags were loaded, we wasted no time getting out of Denver. We do not care for cities or traffic. Especially at night, and darkness had fallen on us fast. So, we hit the highway and admired the Denver skyline from a distance. Then, we entered the quiet hills and the darkness closed in even thicker. Because it was so dark and foggy, we could not make out much detail around us, but we could sense that we were no longer in flatlands. Although we wanted to see the mountains really badly, by this time of day were tired and a little stressed, so our only focus was making it to Idaho Springs. We had booked a small hotel here already, as it was just an hour outside of Denver, making it an easy drive while still getting us out of the city. (Only around $90 a night.)
We were sleepy and cranky, helped only a little by a quick stop for snacks at a gas station. Thankfully, Idaho Springs was a small town and wasn’t difficult to navigate. We got checked in to Argo Inn and Suites, a clean, humble little place tucked into the hills that held all the comfort we needed for the night. A nice, hot shower, and a few more munchies before bed, and then we were out for the night.
September 8th – The Snowstorm
With the stress of airports and car rentals behind us, and a good night’s sleep, stepping outside of our motel the next morning was a whole new feeling. We were in a new town in a new state and had several days of pure adventure ahead of us. We also got our first real look at the landscape around us when it wasn’t obscured by smoke and darkness.
The hills of either side of us rose quite sharply, much taller than our Ozark “Mountains” at home (which are basically glorified hills). They were thickly covered in pines and there was a layer of heavy frost on everything, so it looked like a light snow had come through. There was a heavy blanket of fog in the air above us, giving a cold, melancholic feel to the day. And honestly, that just made me even happier, as that is my favorite kind of weather! It spurred the feeling of adventure and mystery! (Little did we know at the time, but the fog would be a constant companion—and hinderance—for the remainder of our trip).
Although the cold dreariness filled my soul with peace, it also made me realize…I was woefully unprepared! Usually, I embrace the cold, so I wasn’t too concerned about packing layers. Our research into the weather patterns for that week had suggested it would be an average of 50-60 degrees. I figured a long-sleeved shirt would be fine. And David, who is cold in 60-degree weather, brought an extra-heavy parka. When we had left Branson, MO we had been in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures of 91 degrees and a heat index of 105. A day later, in Idaho Springs, CO, it was 30 degrees and spitting snow.
But it never once dampened my mood! We eagerly packed up, grabbed some Starbucks for breakfast, and explored town for a short time. We found a cute little creek at the foot of the Argo Gold Mine and Mill (closed due to Covid) and got some cute pictures on the bridge to send back to family and friends who were still struggling with the heat wave back home. (Yes, we were gloating a bit because we are jerks.) The wind and snow were starting to blow a little harder, so we didn’t stay outside long.
Mount Evans, with a summit of 14,130 feet, is known for having the highest paved road in North America. The entrance to this road is very close to where we were at that moment. We had done some back and forth about if we wanted to go or not. This definitely seemed like a huge attraction the belonged on our list…but it was almost a day of travel to get to the top and back that we hadn’t planned for. We were torn, but the decision was made for us. When I looked into it a little deeper, we discovered the road was closed due to the winter weather anyway! We were bummed, but also relieved that we wouldn’t feel guilty about missing out. Added to the list of future visits…check.
Very shortly, we were back on the highway, heading deeper into the Rockies. After spending so much time dreaming of mountains, David was excited to finally chase those dreams down, so we made frequent stops for pictures at any rise that looked mountain-like. However, that fog blanket completely hid any peaks or distant views. We saw only a few layers of forested slopes, fading quickly into the mist. It was gorgeous. For any of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit fans out there, perhaps you will find it fitting that we played King Thorin’s “Misty Mountains Cold” as we drove, as the vibes were on point!
We followed I-70 as the rain started to pick up and the air took on a blue tint, like a scene straight out of a Twilight movie. We stopped briefly at Georgetown, as it had been recommended by a friend. However, due to Covid, a lot was closed so, although we were able to enjoy the quaint cuteness of the town, we unfortunately did not have the time or ability to explore it further. We intend to go back though!
As we piddled along, we were really enjoying the feel of being on a road trip together! We had the music playing softly, I was snapping silly pictures, and we found entertainment in everything! We oohed and awed at every fog-hidden peak, we laughed at the ice chunks insistently clinging to the wipers, no matter how hard we wiped them, and we stopped for pictures at every small town or highway pull-off.
We went through a few mountain tunnels, the longest of which kept us underground for about 2 miles, so that was thrilling for us both! We started to get a few breaks in the fog and were able to get some small mountain peaks and distant lakes to peek through all along the path between Silverthorne and Frisco. When passing through Vail, we actually got turned around at a confusing intersection and ended up going the wrong direction for about 15 minutes. After looping back through the town, we found our way again and enjoyed the quiet views of the sleepy town as we went!
The sun was trying to peak through now and again, adding patches of hazy blue to the sky above. The forests were becoming more diverse than just pines and we started seeing our first stands of aspen trees! The white bark was absolutely gorgeous! The interstate was beginning to give way to winding country roads that were slowly gaining in elevation. We LOVE switchback roads and would pull off at every single opportunity going up them, as every shot is from a different angle. (The yellow signs that warn of curvy roads always excite me…I call them “squiggles”!)
We got some beautiful shots of the valley and got even more excited when the road began to narrow, becoming a scenic drive carved into the cliffside. We discovered a beautiful little bridge just outside of a tiny town called Red Cliff. We made a few loops of the area to catch some shots from the road below the bridge as well. The town itself was nothing more than a few houses tucked into precarious places along the canyon walls. It was very unique and lovely in its own way.
The sun was shining very briefly for the first (and only) time as we started to descend a little, the road flattening back out. We came to some lovely mountain meadows, interspersed with train tracks or lakes. Out here, where there was nothing but the wind and the wilds, it was easy to forget about modern times, our minds wandering constantly back to what life was like for the Natives and the early pioneers that first discovered this wonderous place. The pictures we got here really lived up to the “colorful Colorado” label as the greens, yellows, and blues were brighter and more contrasting here than I have ever seen in another state!
Eventually, the flatlands led us into a quiet little town called Leadville. Here, the buildings along Main Street were still very reminiscent of the bygone era of the cowboys. By now, we were starving, so we stopped at a little café called the Golden Burrow that specialized in good ole’ downhome cooking. Chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits made up a majority of the menu and was so good, the southern Missourians would be proud! (The antique shop beside it was called the Brass Ass, and we loved it so much we often think of this name before ‘Golden Burro”.)
After we left, we noticed the air was starting to get hazy again. The wind and snow flurries were picking up. Here in the flatlands, it was beautiful and eerie as the mist began to swallow the distant views again. Eventually, we turned west at Poncha Springs, onto Highway 50 and the road started to climb in elevation again. And the snowstorm began to get worse.
The road got narrow again. The mountain peaks loomed very close and were closing us in. The snow began to blow thicker, becoming a white curtain around us. For the first time that day, I was getting scared.
Everyone has heard horror stories about freak blizzards in Colorado, and being on a narrow mountain road with no railings is not exactly the place to be during one. We pulled off momentarily to decide what to do next, but I also knew that if you sat in one place, you had the potential of becoming trapped. It would be dangerous if we moved and dangerous if we didn’t.
The snow did not appear to be letting up anytime soon, but the other travelers on the road were trudging on ahead. Boldened by the idea of safety in numbers, we decided to tuck in close behind them. Immensely grateful now for the 4-wheel drive, we kicked it into snow mode and began a very tense and terrifying journey, steadily climbing higher into the storm with only the taillights of the car in front of us to guide us. Despite the storm having only started half an hour ago, the road was completely covered. Even in 4-wheel drive, I felt our Jeep slide on the curves. Thankfully, it slid towards the rock wall on our right, which was far less damaging than the whited-out cliffside drop-off on our left. (It was also about this time we were thankful we had paid so much extra in rental insurance!)
Looking back on our trek, we know that there were some beautiful mountain shots along that road and that we reached an elevation of 11,000 feet and were sitting right in the middle of the Continental Divide. However, circumstances being what they were…we knew none of that at the time. We saw only snow and mist. We were continually reaching out the window to knock ice off the wipers, as they continually clogged up every few minutes. I was very tense the whole time, but able to maintain my cool. And David…well, David had to pee so bad the entire time, he says he couldn’t focus on anything else long enough to be nervous. And we didn’t dare pull off in fear of getting stuck.
It was a slow crawl down the mountain for a couple of hours. Several cars pulled off as we went, no longer able to brave the storm. The only reason we were able to keep going was we got behind a semi that was determined to plunge through. The semi was easy to follow and helped keep the worst of the storm off our windshield, so that semi became our guide. Finally, we came to a place lower down in elevation where the snowplows were at work, and they were able to help guide us the rest of the way down. It felt like many hours, but we finally were on level ground and could see a little further into the storm than before. As we passed the semi, we gave a grateful wave to the brave young woman who was driving (yeah, girl power!) and hoped she knew she had been our savior.
After that, we were desperate to put some distance between us and the storm. The map told us there was a large lake to our left, but the mist was still too thick to see it. However, we finally reached the Sapinero Bridge and took advantage of the pull-off there to relax our tense muscles (and so David could find a tree to pee on). The wind was still blowing fiercely, and it was a muddy mess where we had pulled off, but we still took a moment to take one of my favorite photos…a shot of the bridge crossing the lake and disappearing into the storm.
We were shaky, cold, wet, windblown, and muddy, but still, our confidence was renewed as we loaded up and started across the bridge. We were coming out of the storm now, dipping down in elevation to places where the road was completely clear and dry. And the canyons of pine forest were the most beautiful example of a winter wonderland I had ever seen. Having come from the height of a summer drought in Missouri, this quiet, towering forest with a gentle coating of snow was a completely different world.
The rolling, tree-covered slopes began to flatten out again and became very tundra-like, with scarce, low-growing vegetation and scrubland grasses. Back in the flatlands once more, you couldn’t tell there had ever been a winter storm here at all. We made a gas station stop and rolled through a few more small towns whose names we have forgotten.
I went ahead and called our hotel in Ouray to let them know we would be late to our 6pm check-in time due to the storm. Because this is common in Colorado, they were totally understanding. So, we made a straight shot for Ouray, determined to make up for lost time and wanting to arrive before dark. (Although, we could not resist one final quick stop for a picture at the Cimmaron Cemetery, as it was very spooky looking. Definitely an old cowboy cemetery we would like to explore further one day!)
We rolled through Montrose, the most modern-looking city we had encountered since Denver. Then, another half hour or so south of that, the flat lands ended abruptly with sharp, towering peaks. The road we were on curved neatly into a hidden valley in the middle of these peaks and nestled there, like a mountain town straight from a storybook, was Ouray.
It was a small, adorable town where only Main Street is paved well and a walk from one edge of town to the other was probably only 15 minutes. The town was walled in on all sides by steep cliffs, although the mountain peaks were still shielded from us by the thick fog. But it made this little valley feel safe and peaceful, knowing we were sheltered.
Hotel Ouray is one of the oldest hotels in town, built in 1893, and sits on the corner of the only official junction. It was a straight shot there and we quickly got parked and checked in. It definitely had an old-time western house feel. It was very grand and magnificent! What was even better, was the way our rooming had worked out.
There was one room that was a 2-bedroom suite with the best views of the town and surrounding mountains. We definitely wanted to stay in this room, but it was too expensive to stay there the two nights we had planned, ($300 a night). So, when we booked, we booked the suite for our second night and a normal room for the first ($150 a night). When I spoke with the reservationist, she said they could just move our luggage for us while we were out. However, when we checked in, she handed us the key (an old timey brass key set!) for the suite. She explained that since the suite was not booked for that weekend, they just upgraded us to it for both nights, so we didn’t have to move; no extra charge. So, that was freaking cool and, after the tense day we had had, it felt well-deserved! (Pro tip: exploring tourist towns during their down season has its advantages!)
Anyway, we got settled and explored our beautiful room. Two bedrooms, even though we only used the main one, massive king bed, a huge bathroom with a beautiful walk-in shower, and a sitting area surrounded by tall windows that really lived up to the beautiful view promised. Because we were starving, we went walking down the street to see what we could find. The town was starting to come alive, and the colorful lights reflected beautifully of the rain-soaked street. It also bounced off the fog that surrounded us, making it seem quite bright and festive there.
The most popular dinner joint was The Outlaw, a little hole-in-the-wall steakhouse on Main Street. It was about an hour wait in the cold, but the atmosphere was worth it. It was the picturesque lively saloon with a full bar and a piano player dancing away at the keys. We got a table amidst the crowd and dined on some huge (and expensive) steaks! Fully fed, we trudged back to our wonderful room where I excitedly made use of the walk-in shower (it was a lovely experience except the lack of a curtain or door turned out to make for a rather cold shower). Fully exhausted from a long day of travel, and two hours in a mountain snowstorm, sleep sounded very, very nice.
September 9th – Million Dollar Views
The third day of our trip was our midway point. We had decided ahead of time that this would be the one day we gave ourselves time to rest and relax, without having to hop into the car and drive for hours on end. So, we slept in (which for us, means 8am) and then went out to fulfill our travel rule of finding coffee from a local shop. Conveniently enough, the building next door to us was a cute little coffee joint called Mojo’s! Because of Covid regulations, we couldn’t go in, but they were still serving from the door, so we joined the line and got our first cup of local Colorado coffee! And some tasty muffins! (As well as a Mojo’s sticker to add to the Colorado sticker collection we were putting on our suitcase!)
Fun fact: We looked up Mojo’s on Instagram after we had returned home from our trip in an attempt to keep up with Ouray. The coffee shop has a camera on their doorstep and they love posting videos of the wildlife that comes through at night and in the early morning. The very spot we were standing is also frequented by deer, foxes, bears, and even a cougar! All strolling calmly through the streets, knowing they belong there. It is a perfect example of man and nature coming together seamlessly!
None of the shops opened until 11, so we took our coffee and muffins and went back to our room. There we sat in squishy chairs and enjoyed the view from the windows. The fog bank was still present, teasing us with the views of the peaks it hid. Lone pines and ridges of snow covered every shelf of the cliffsides. The town below was sleepy and dreary from the storm.
It was the most peace I had felt in a very long time. When I think back to my most memorable moment in Colorado, it was this moment, sipping coffee in silence and watching the fog roll through this quiet mountain town, that I think of first. Every time, I feel wistful and am filled with a longing to answer that call to return to the mountains…
Afterwards, we were itchy for adventure, but still had some time to kill before we could explore town. So, we decided to go for a drive up the road on the other end of town. That road was U.S. Highway 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway. It started at the base of the mountain right there in Ouray, then climbed very quickly into the San Juan Mountain range with a series of switchbacks and tight curves carved into the cliffside of the mountains. The road is narrow and has no railings. In later research, I discovered that it is one of the most dangerous highways in the United States and is named as such because it was so expensive to build. (There’s also a rumor it is called that because the locals “wouldn’t drive that road for a million dollars”.)
However, at the time, we only knew its name and that it was supposed to a be a very pretty drive with lots of mountain views, stretching 25 miles from here to Silverton. Once we had gone up a few curves, we pulled off to get some good shots of the town below. However, a few more curves up the mountain, and we were high enough to be engulfed in the fog blanket that hung so heavily over the town. The valley below was hidden, and we suddenly felt very alone. We pushed on another mile or two, not wanting to wander too far from town. Plus, those “spectacular views” we were promised were all blocked by the wall of gray mist. There was nothing but the highway itself and the nerve-wracking drop-off on the right, made all the scarier because we could see nothing at all of what might be below.
Once we had found a cute little tunnel worthy of some pictures, we turned around made our way back down. We decided we would explore this later on, hoping the fog would lift. We piddled our way back into town, watching civilization slowly emerge from the fog as we got lower and lower. We drove along Main Street, observing the businesses, and drove all the way to the other end of town, where we had come in from. It had been a bit dark before, so now we could get those pictures of the town sign and really appreciate the grand reveal of Ouray upon entry. I also noticed that the local “pool” was natural hot springs! Sadly, we didn’t have time this trip to partake, but we definitely intend to do so next time! (Our list of things that we want to do in Colorado has grown so long, it will take multiple trips!)
By now, we were ready to get out of the car and do some exploring by foot. So, we went to see the first attraction, Cascade Falls! This thin waterfall is ridiculously tall and spills over the edge of the mountain right at the edge of town. It can be seen from various points throughout Ouray and is a very short drive to the parking lot, followed by a very short hike to the actual falls. It was a bit icy in places, so we hiked slow and carefully picked our way over the large rocks so we could get as close to the waterfall as possible! You really had to crane your neck to see it all, and even then, the very top of it was just barely visible in the fog. There were also some VERY big pine trees along this trail, which made David very happy. He loves hugging trees of all kinds, but the bigger, the better. And pines are his absolute favorite!
Cascade Falls is also along the Perimeter Trail, which is a narrow trail that circumnavigates the whole town. It’s about 6 or so miles and it offers beautiful views from every angle from about halfway up the mountain face. We hiked along this for just a short distance to get a feel for it. I’m just a little nervous around heights that have no railings or other safety features, but moving slow, I think I could have done this whole trail. And I LOVED the pictures we got. A lone pine clinging to the cliff face all by itself, the misty, snow-covered town nestled among white-dusted trees, and David, getting to pose like the mountain man that he is! The Perimeter Trail is another addition to the list of things we will come back and do! (We’re going to have to take another whole week to Ouray alone to finish it all!)
We also discovered that our tolerances for weather had taken a shocking shift. I was still regretting my poor packing decisions, shivering in a thin long-sleeved shirt. And David was actually getting hot! He took off his parka and was perfectly comfortable in his flannel! (So, I happily stole his parka.) Something to do with the difference in altitude, maybe? No idea.
By the time we made our way back down to the town, Open signs had begun flipping in the windows at last! We did our stroll along Main Street, exploring lots of cute little souvenir shops with clothes, jewelry, mugs, books, postcards, and a slew of other trinkets. Quite a bit of it was hand-crafted! We each bought a few small things that caught our eye (including a pair of pine tree earrings for myself which are now among my favorite to wear!) and we could not resist the temptation of some locally made jerky! I also was desperate to buy a hoodie since I was so drastically underprepared for our 40-degree high for the day. After much searching, I finally found the perfect one!
We also learned a couple things from the locals. One of which was that literally every single vehicle we saw in that town was a Jeep of some kind or another. We were thankful that the rental vehicle we chose fit in so nicely and, after the storm we drove through to get here, we knew why Jeeps were the number one choice! We were also informed that the winter we had arrived in had come early this year. The storm we had driven through had been the very first snow and usually did not appear until October. We weren’t sure if that meant we were lucky or cursed, but we have to admit, the snow that lingered on the trees made for the most beautiful traditional Colorado pictures that we would not have otherwise gotten.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the Full Tilt Saloon (a cute place, but not real noteworthy) and decided to try our luck again with the Million Dollar Highway. The fog had lifted a lot higher, so we started the beautiful climb once more. Those switchbacks are very exciting for those of us from the relatively flat Midwest, and even more exciting when I could actually see what was off the side! We stopped at some of the overlooks of town now that we could get some clear shots of it below. Then we kept winding our way around until Ouray disappeared, hidden behind the mountain. We passed through the small tunnel that had been our turning point the first time and climbed higher.
We pulled over at the next stop up the road, the Bear Creek Falls Overlook. The falls for which the overlook was named roared to our left, spilling mist into the steep, tree-lined canyon that rose around us. We had almost caught up to the fog once more. It hung just above us, and we figured we might be at the end of our sight-seeing again. But then, lo and behold, there was a gap. Just a small triangle that opened up perfectly. The mountains teased us with a glimpse of what we later learned was Abrams Mountain. It was the traditional, snow-capped mountain peak we had been searching for ever since we arrived. After much excited screeching, David took a ton of photos, one of which ending up being one of his most prized shots of all time and the one he is most famous for locally. (The featured image of this article!) The opportunity given to us could not have been better timed!
The thick fog decided it had treated us enough and rolled back in, erasing the peak from view. But now, we were even more determined. We knew that view was all around us…if we could just escape the fog! So we made the brave decision to keep going up the road and see what more we could find. However, we were just barely around the next corner…when we ran into the most ill-placed road construction I have ever seen in my life! (And coming from the Midwest, that’s saying something!)
My courage was instantly shaken, but, as there was nowhere to turn around on a narrow barely-two-lane path with no railings, it was safer to sit and wait for the pilot car to lead us through. Almost twenty minutes later, we finally were allowed to move and climbed slowly through increasing fog. On top of that…it was starting to spit ice on us the higher up we went. When the pilot car turned back, leaving us on our own, we didn’t make it far.
The fog and the ice combined made for terrible conditions and there was absolutely no view to be seen. Only the steep cliff on one side and the ocean of fog on the other, shielding a very, very deep and quick descent if we were to slide off. Mother Nature had given us our one treat and we were not allowed to see more until she said so. At this point, we knew we were dangerously pushing our luck, so we turned around at the first turn-around point and came back, waiting yet another several minutes in the road work. (The driver of the pilot car was probably shaking his head. We were clearly tourists…)
We made our way back down out of the fog and spent some time exploring some side roads instead. We discovered a campground on a bluff overlooking Ouray and got some more cool photos from this angle. We also saw a mama mule deer and her two babies as they crossed the road in front of us! After a bit more piddling around up here, we finally made our way to the next attraction on our list, Box Cañon!
Just like Cascade Falls, Box Cañon could be seen from our hotel room. It was right on the edge of town, directly diagonal to Cascade Falls. They have a sign on the ridge displaying its name, spelt C-A-N-O-N, and every time I saw it, I wondered if it was a misspelling. It took far too long for me to realize that, due to the Spanish influence of the discoverers who found it, it was named with the Spanish “ñ” rather than the English “y”.
There was a small fee for entry here (only $5 if I remember correctly) and it was well worth it! There were a couple of small loop trails that took you to see the vegetation in the area, and then the main trail that took you to the canyon. We explored the trails a bit, but it was getting cold and starting to rain again, so we kept the hiking part short. We followed the trail around large bluffs of Precambrian rock which, as someone with a minor interest in ancient geology, I found exciting! At the end of this path, the trail split. You could go up or down.
We went down first, using grated stairs to get to the bottom of the canyon. (The grating was strong because it was a metal framework, but it was also see-through so it was a bit disorienting and I tried not to look down too much.) The canyon is so named because the stream fed into a fissure in the land which became a large waterfall spilling into this tall, narrow canyon (a box-shape) before flowing into the open and feeding into the creek below.
So, the waterfall itself was difficult to see because it was tucked back into the rocks. But it was LOUD! The sound of the roaring water and the rushing creek echoed off the rock walls, making it so loud you had to shout to hear one another. Because David and I are who we are, we both hate loud voices so we communicated with hand signals as best we could. Being inside the canyon was exhilarating, the water was very fast and cold, and we got some beautiful photos of the dim daylight streaming in, adding a soft glow to the canyon entrance. Then we started back up those grated stairs and headed for the topmost trail.
The trail along the bluff wall offered some lovely views, although the climb further up was exhausting. We made it to the top and hiked to where there was a narrow bridge that spanned the width of the gorge far below (again, made of grating). I was shaky, but I wanted to experience it, so we both walked out into the middle of the bridge. The view of Ouray was stunning. We could see all the way across to Cascade Falls!
We could also see the entirety of the stream, from where it flowed into Box Cañon behind us, to where it emptied out into the creek that flowed down the hillside towards town. From up here, we were able to catch glimpses of the roaring waterfall somewhere beneath our feet!
The trail on the other side of the bridge continued into a long cave, about 4 feet tall, so we went to investigate and discovered this was the other side of the same Perimeter Trail we had hiked a bit of earlier in the morning. So, we came back down the way we had went up, held up only briefly when I went chasing after some brilliant blue birds that I have never seen before. (I learned later they were Steller’s Jays!) And when we got back to the bottom of the trail, we found a birdfeeder that was alive with all kinds of small songbirds that did not care how close we were. As birdwatching is a passion of mine, I was very happy in this spot and could have stayed much longer! But our feet were sore, and it was threatening to rain again, so we decided to head back to town for a bit.
We stopped by the only grocery store we saw in town to grab some snacks for supper. We thought we were saving money by eating in for the night, as opposed to a restaurant, but groceries in the mountains are 2-3 times more what they are back home, so I’m not sure we saved too much. But we were too tired and hungry to care. We went back to our room and had a quick supper from these snack brands we have never heard of, then packed everything away and prepared for our final venture.
Daylight was running out and we were dead-set on seeing some mountain peaks. So, with our courage renewed, we tackled the exploration we had started that morning. For the third time that day, we started up the Million Dollar Highway. We drove past our previous stops, we did our time at the road construction…and then we kept going. There was no precipitation, so the road was dry at least. But the fog pressed in all around us, like it was trying to scare us into retreating. We ignored it. We drove very, very carefully up the narrow, twisting road, climbing higher and higher.
For several minutes, there was still nothing. The road was surprisingly starting to level out. I was disappointed, thinking the fog had thwarted us yet again. I have truly never seen fog as thick and persistent as what we saw in those mountains. But suddenly, just as I was on the verge of giving up, David screeched like a banshee and we went careening off the road. This is usual behavior when he is excited, and the area he had pulled off at was a gravel parking lot beside what looked like an abandoned mine. The Idarado Mine, according to the sign. And I saw what he was so excited about.
There on our left, looming tall and proud in the dying sunlight, well above the fog bank, was a beautiful snow-capped peak that was incredibly close! Our map told us we were looking at Red Mountain. David was out of the car and running across the road before I could even get my seat belt undone. We were there for several minutes, taking lots of photos, before I made a startling observation…the fog was coming.
We had broken above the cloud bank, finally reaching open air and leaving the fog behind as a gray blanket stretching below us…but it was moving. Slowly, it was creeping up in elevation, tendrils of it reaching for us like a scene from a horror movie. If we didn’t move fast, we would lose our chance.
We drove quickly uphill, following the warm promise of evening light. It was clear at last, and as we crested the hilltop, the mountain range stretched out before us, snow-capped peaks gleaming gold in the light of the sunset, the sky above painted blue and pink. It was one of the most beautiful moments I can recall from that trip.
We drove along, stopping every few hundred feet for pictures of new angles. The sunset backlit the mountains perfectly and David found several high points from which his mountain man pose looked like a movie poster. He was so giddy and running back and forth like an excited child, he actually almost passed out, realizing (too late) that the air is much thinner than we are used to! After catching his breath and calming down slightly, we continued onward.
And the fog kept its pace. I kept a nervous eye on it the whole time, with the horrifying, unsettling sensation that it was hunting us. Perhaps, I am dramatic, but it was difficult to not feel my heart leap when I would look to the side while taking a mountain picture and see those fog tendrils eerily creeping through the trees, no matter how far ahead of it we thought we were. It was a race, and we were consistently fighting to stay ahead.
Finally, we reached the highest elevation of the highway, just over 11,000 feet. The sun was almost gone now and the twilight that was left offered just enough light to get a few more shots of the rolling mountains. The road began to dip back down into the valley from here. But we weren’t ready to go that direction. Not this trip anyway.
So, as darkness fell, we succumbed to the relentless fog. We turned around, took a deep breath, and drove towards it. Within seconds, there was nothing beyond our windows but soupy mist, as if there had been no mountains there at all. We moved very, very slowly, knowing there was literally nothing between us and death but a yellow painted line and we would never see it coming. We took our time on the tight curves and were thankful there were no other vehicles to worry about.
Even though the world was dark and quiet now, our minds and conversation were bright and alive with the dreams we wove as we spoke. We were driving into the fog, but for David, it was as if he had just stepped out of it. He told me he had wondered what he wanted to do with his life for a long time and had never quite known. He was interested in travel, but it had always seemed harder to do than it really was. Seeing those mountains had given him a confidence he never had before, and the realization that he could do these things. And now he knew that this is all he wanted to do!
We began making our plans that night, dreaming of all the places we would go and things we would see. We planned big ideas for camper life and what it would be like to live on the road. We knew we were getting too excited too fast, but in that moment, we didn’t care. The future suddenly seemed brighter and more obtainable for us than ever before.
About a thousand feet down in elevation, we came to the bottom of the fog bank. It cleared swiftly and Ouray glowed beneath us, the tiny town standing out like a little jewel in the midst of the dark valley. Exhausted, but with dreams filled of mountains and adventure, we made our way back to our hotel to enjoy our final night there.
September 10th – Worlds Within Elevation
There was a long day of travel ahead of us, so we got an early start. We checked out and bid our farewell to Ouray, wishing we could stay longer…wishing we could take the Million Dollar all the way to its end and just keep going…but not yet. Maybe one day.
It was a bittersweet parting as we left. Something had changed for us in that little town, and we knew we were leaving a small piece of ourselves behind with it, hidden in that little valley that quickly disappeared from view as we rounded the mountain. We would come back to find that part of ourselves one day, but for now, we were eager to return to our journey.
We made a straight shot for Montrose, about half an hour away. Here, we fueled up both the car and ourselves. There had not been any gas stations in Ouray, so that was a priority. Then we stopped at a cute little coffee shop called the Coffee Trader, followed by McDonalds for breakfast. (This McDonalds only had a single arch on its sign…it was weird…) By this point, the steep prices of gas, food, and other items in the Rockies were starting to drain us. We had never been so thankful for our cheap, convenient Midwest prices!
Then, we started north. Shortly after leaving town, the fog that had plagued us the entire trip…vanished entirely. (Naturally, it waited until we were leaving to do so.) It was bluish-gray skies and sunshine for the road home. We did not do much stopping this time and just enjoyed our journey from the car as we traveled through a handful of small towns and several shocking biome changes. It really is amazing how much diversity of habitat there is within the state of Colorado!
We drove through some open scrubland with scattered farms, then turned on a more scenic route that would keep us off the interstate a bit longer. Following the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, we ended up climbing in elevation until we were surrounded by snow and pine trees again. Here, we found some beautiful lakes that made for pictures so perfect, they belong on postcards! (One of my favorite pictures came from this area, a black lake reflecting snowy trees. I loved it so much, David had a blanket made of this picture for my Christmas present!)
We entered a narrow passage of the tallest pine trees I have ever seen, each one coated with snow. There was a hushed beauty to this quiet stretch of road that made me think of enchanted winter forests from storybooks. Then we started to descend again, rather rapidly. We came through a thin band of fog and found ourselves in a completely different place.
In the flatlands once more, the sun was shining on bright yellow grass and red rocks. We curved through sand and canyon formations that made me wonder if we had slipped into Utah without noticing. We took this marvelous little jaunt for a ways longer until it reconnected to the interstate again. We were still doing our best to avoid the interstate (we just love scenic drives!) So, after a few wrong turns on some country roads (with extraordinary valley views of creeks and train tracks) we ended up on Old Highway 6, which runs alongside the interstate. Unfortunately, this would be short-lived as the road quickly got rough and veered the wrong direction. So, with heavy sighs, we pulled back onto I-70 and found ourselves following right alongside the Colorado River.
In the Midwest, our rivers and creeks are very different. They have steep, muddy banks, muddier water, and are surrounded by thorny plants. But streams and rivers in the mountains are so clean and inviting! The banks are usually almost level with the water itself, making it look so quaint and accessible. So, following the river was a special treat for me because I just found it to be so beautiful!
Our path eventually led us into a large gorge. Rock walls rose up very steeply on either side. We felt very, very small as we crept along the canyon floor beside the river. It was really awesome to behold. We also noticed that one half of the canyon was burnt, while the other was not. Recalling those wildfires we had heard about, I realized this might have been where they managed to stop one of them, using the canyon and the river to corral the flames. It was really something to imagine what that might have looked like.
We continued down the road in this fashion. One marvel after another as we turned east. We watched a storm move in over the grassland and saw the distant mountain peaks that we hadn’t seen the first time through. A quick fast-food lunch sustained us as the afternoon turned sleepy and mellow. When we reached Vail, we knew we were back on familiar roads and took a quiet stretch along the outskirts of town. As we drove along a quiet creek, I caught a glimpse of something small and furry in the trees, purely by chance. I was certain of what I saw so I made David turn back so we could both squeal and coo over the tiny black bear cub that stared back at us from his place on a log. So cute!
Once we hit the Copper Mountain junction, we had finished the full loop of the road we had set out on. From there, we were able to take our time, stopping at familiar towns to get the pictures that had been covered by fog and snowstorm on the way out. There were some wonderful valley shots at Frisco with pristine mountain peak views on the horizon. It was crazy to think we were so close to these opportunities all along without ever knowing it!
After another long day of travel, I called up the good, ole familiar Argo Inn in Idaho Springs for a room. We were thankful to reach it with a little daylight left (almost had trouble checking in because they had so horrendously misspelled my name, lol) and decided we deserved a nice, relaxing evening, complete with early bedtime.
September 11th – Goodbye, Colorado
To say that we weren’t ready to go back to Missouri was an understatement. I was actually a bit depressed that morning when I woke up, knowing I would have to return to my monotonous life soon…but I quickly forced myself to shake those thoughts away. For now, we were still on vacation. And I had to remind myself that when we got home, we could start planning for our next trip! And all the trips that would follow!
We packed up and bid our goodbyes to the mountains. We drove slow, taking in all the little things we hadn’t seen in the dark upon our arrival. Just outside of Denver, we decided we had plenty of time to make a pit stop at Windy Saddle Park. It was a small, cute hilltop that offered some hiking trails and gorgeous panoramas! We saw some more mule deer, and the trails here, we quickly discovered, could easily be an all-day serious hiking venture (there were warning signs telling you how not to get lost here, as that is quite common, apparently) but we didn’t have that much time. So we did a little bit here and there, just to breathe in the cold, clean mountain air a little longer. I think coming back here to explore a little more would be fun!
Making our way down the backside of the hill was fun, as the road had very sharp switchbacks all the way down with lots of pull offs for photo opportunities. The views were stunning and, in the valley far below, we could see Denver and the plateaus that surrounded it. Beyond that, the flat grassland extended into the east until it blurred with the horizon. This setting reminded me a lot of the Southwest from past trips I had taken out there and I mentioned the idea to David. It was probably this moment that a real picture of our next vacation destination began to form…
Eventually, we made it back down to the foot of the Rocky Mountains and made our way to the city. We stayed on the backroads, skimming along the outskirts as we made a straight shot for the airport. We returned the car in a quick and neat process and, after some more confusing twists and turns, made our way back into the baggage check. It was even more terrifying than before because it was much bigger. But we were there early enough there weren’t a lot of people to stress me out, so it still wasn’t bad. Plus, they let me keep my half-full bag of Oreos in my backpack instead of making me throw them out, so that was nice!
In the main lobby, we still had some time to kill, so we went shopping at the little stores they had there. Branson’s airport is so small, we have one little tourist knick-knack shop. But this one was so big it was like a mini mall, complete with fast-food options! When we had come through the first time, it had been late enough everything was closed. So, I spent some time in the bookstore and David bought a Colorado hat to commemorate our trip. (He also bought be a pretty feather hairpiece, which was really nice of him since we were still “just friends” at the time!)
David grabbed some extra-salty McDoubles to tide his hunger for the ride home, and then we were loading and preparing for my second time in the air. Friends and family had asked me if I was any more nervous about flying on 9/11, but to be honest, the date hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I was fairly laid-back the whole ride this time. A few minutes after take off and we were back in the clouds, swallowed up by a fluffy white world that entertained us with funny shapes as we flew along. The mountains vanished from view and the wistfulness we felt at that moment never quite left us, even now…
I don’t remember much of the flight home, I was so lost in my head, but I know I let David nap in my lap as we both dreamed about mountains. Then, all of a sudden, we were home in our tiny little airport in our quiet, drought-stricken state. I did not miss the Missouri heat, that was for sure. I quickly shed my Colorado hoodie and made a quick dinner of some airport buffalo wings (the small, walk-up diner is the only food the Branson airport has to offer, but it was good!) And then we just waited for David’s dad to finish his shift and take us home.
When I was dropped off at my apartment to unpack, I was struck by how different it felt. By how different I felt. David and I both admit it was strange sleeping apart that night, after being side by side for a week. Being home did have its advantages, and I was thankful to be back among the familiar where things were affordable and comfortable. But I knew then…this was only the beginning.
It took both David and I a very long time to readjust to our old work schedules. Our minds were still on that plane, high above the clouds. And our hearts were still buried in a sleepy mountain town, hidden by foggy peaks and snowy trees. However, as hard as it was to come home, we needed this kind of wake-up call. Here was our sign that it was time to make a change.
A one-week vacation would lead to two-week road trips. Eventually, that will lead to month-long excursions until one day, it will be our way of life. And this trip is where it truly started for us. This had been our realization that we could be whoever we wanted to be and that there was always a way to make dreams come true if you worked hard enough for it. This was where the dreams of two people merged into one lifelong goal to achieve together.
If you enjoyed this recounted tale, then join us for Chapter 2 as our adventures continue! In the next article, we skip ahead 5 months to where we make those suggestions of a Southwest trip a reality! We go from snug hotel rooms in the snow to a tent in the desert! From mountain peaks to vast canyons! Witness David’s first visit to a National Park! Experience my terror of icy trails in the Grand Canyon! And grab an emergency heater, because camping in the desert is much colder than you might think! Until next time, just remember…
We only have one life to live. So, get out there and live it!