A five-thousand-mile motor tour through several states in the great American Southwest, visiting sites both historic and prehistoric: Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Parks, and more.
What’s so great about the Great Plains?
Desolate. Flat. Dark, and lonely.
All these fail to truly capture the topographical and emotional essence of a long night drive across the heartland.
Seventy million years ago, when the vast North American inland sea drained away, the landscape which emerged here was the extensive, nearly flat seabed of the former ocean, with nary a hill nor a dale rising above the smooth horizon.
So today the road has nothing to climb, nothing to skirt. The interstate highway engineers must simply have chosen a compass point and begun pouring concrete. Even within the narrow corridor of highway reflectors reaching into the black distance, I think I can see the curvature of the earth …
Day 1: 2:00 a.m., Somewhere in Central Nebraska
If you’ve seen one mile of highway in the heartland, you’ve seen them all, and I don’t want to have to look at every one of them. Hence the long night drive. But I derive a certain satisfaction from making good headway across these immeasurable distances, in light traffic and under the cover of darkness. Out here on the black highway, sailing along under the stars, it’s just me and the truckers. Even Lorie, my partner and faithful traveling companion, has folded the back seat down into a bunk and now sleeps to the rhythm of concrete expansion cracks passing beneath our wheels. So begins our great Southwest adventure.
Leaving our home in southern Wisconsin about 3:00pm on a Friday afternoon, we have driven our 1983 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper south into Illinois and then swung west onto I-80, bound for Denver. Far ahead, I watch the setting sun fall behind the horizon, but I continue driving all through the night.
By 5:30am Saturday morning, my growing fatigue has developed a resistance to the repeated dosages of convenience store coffee. Even the AM talk-radio crackpots fail to keep my interest. While I’ve been driving the dark side of the planet, the sun has been traversing the light side, and now reappears in my rear-view mirror to begin a new day.
After 13 solid hours on the road, it is time to rest. I swing into a truck stop, scuttle in between the Peterbilts, turn off the engine, and join Lorie for a few hours of peaceful slumber …
Day 2: Elm Creek, Nebraska
At 8:30am we are awakened by the call of the open road, and by the sound of traffic already on it. After taking on fuel, food, and coffee we resume our journey. By mid-afternoon we arrive in the mile-high city of Denver. Being the gateway to the Southwest for those of us who live in the upper Midwest, we stay here only long enough to enjoy a walk on the 16th Street pedestrian mall, visit the lovely old Union Station, and share a chicken wrap at a sidewalk bench.
We head south out of Denver, fighting evening rush-hour traffic on I-25, and finally arrive in Castle Rock, CO, about 7:00pm. Twenty-nine hours and 1033 miles after leaving home, we find a place to pull off for the night, pop the top on the camper van, and settle in for a luxurious full eight hours of sleep.
Day 3: Castle Rock, Colorado
We make little progress today. I suppose for every adventure there is an equal and opposite misadventure, and our first comes today, just west of Walsenburg, CO. Upon beginning our ascent over the first range of the Rockies, the engine temperature gauge rises dangerously and the warning light flashes. Pulling over to let it simmer down and replace some lost coolant, we resume our climb only to have the same thing repeated. It seems our 20-year-old coolant-system cap can no longer hold back the pressure against the thin mountain air, and begins leaking anti-freeze.
We reluctantly but wisely retreat back down the hill and by the time we pull into a Pueblo auto parts store and install the four-dollar replacement, it is late afternoon. We decide to camp at a nearby state park.