Almost as soon as I started working in my Senate office, I have wanted to travel to Colorado. I have used a plethora of maps to do my work on natural resources such as water and forestry, but although I can picture the geographic locations of the cities, major rivers, mountains, and forests, there is nothing that can substitute for the firsthand experience. Years ago on my very first hiking vacation, I drove across Colorado with my BFF (Best Friend Forever, for those of you who don’t speak the lingo), and we did some hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, so I am not completely lacking on Colorado experience, but I wanted more.
As I started to build an itinerary for the trip, I found that it was strongly shaped by constituents who had told me their stories. OK, and National Park Passport stamps also played a role. I finally accepted that with just a week, I wasn’t going to make it to the Western Slope, as natives refer to the “far” side of the Rockies, but I tried to balance a moderate amount of driving with breadth of experience.
The flight in was smooth as silk, and since I had a direct flight from DC and flew in the morning, I didn’t have to deal with any delays from air traffic controller furloughs. I picked up my rental car, which was fully equipped with a snow brush; I do appreciate people who think ahead! I took a few minutes to get organized, and fished out the GPS that I had brought along rather than renting one for a week. I was a bit taken aback that my GPS was communicating in Greek. Yes, literally using the Greek alphabet. I’m perfectly happy to use Greek characters in solving an equation, but that’s about the extent of my comfort level. I did a quick search on my iPhone to figure out how to reset the GPS, but the process stalled out partway through. Fortunately, I had printed out directions for the whole week as a back-up system, so I put the GPS aside and set off.
Denver may be the mile high city, but it sits on the plains that rise to meet the mountains. The Rockies seemed very misty in the distance, and although it was exciting to see them, they were a bit disappointing since I couldn’t see them clearly. I drove the ring road around Denver through brown scrubland, and I had the thought that obviously it was just waiting for spring to come to green up. Then I realized that spring probably isn’t coming this year, at least in terms of green.
Colorado and much of the Midwest have been in drought conditions for over a year. It came on so suddenly, developing in the two months between May 2012 and July 2012, that the weather service people have created the term “flash drought” to describe the situation. Due to some snow in the northeastern part of the state, there has been a slight easing to only the second highest drought category for much of the state, but the southeast remains stubbornly dark brown on the map, suffering from exceptional drought. When I talk to constituents, one of the first chit-chat questions we usually discuss is whether or not there has been any precipitation lately, and I check the national drought monitor at least weekly. Snow pack in much of the state has recently reached 95% of average, which has been a relief, but that’s still below average. Water is one of my major policy areas, and it will be a theme of my trip.
My first stop was in Colorado Springs to see the Garden of the Gods. My parents, my niece, and my nephew have all visited here before, and I wanted to see these red rocks that seem out of place between the plains and the mountains. Garden of the Gods is a free park that is close enough to the city that it gets a considerable number of visitors. In addition to being a convenient place to walk dogs, it is also a popular spot for rock climbers to learn their craft. As I was on one short loop to see a structure called the Siamese Twins, I learned that it can also be a popular spot for a birthday party. There was nothing formal about the gathering, but the kids had camped out in the window of the rock structure and I didn’t even bother to suggest that I might want to take a picture that didn’t include them. Given my previously demonstrated propensity toward organizing other people for photographs in Arches National Park, my BFF will be surprised at my restraint. Then again, my BFF has her own almost undeniable urge to mistake dry stream washes for the trail, so every time I specifically chose the trail instead of what appeared to be an equally navigable sand channel, I thought of her and smiled.
Leaving Colorado Springs, the road veers away from the Rockies for a while and Pueblo is set in rolling scrublands. I admire the sturdy and courageous people who make their living off the land here because even in April, the sun seemed to beat down unrelentingly. Or possibly that was because I hadn’t quite mastered the temperature controls on the car.
In the northern part of the state, the Continental Divide runs a reasonably direct north-south line, but in the south, the mountains swing west before coming east again. As I drove, the mountains seemed to flirt with me, revealing themselves a little at a time as I would go around a curve. As I got closer to the snowcapped peaks, which had far too little snow to my biased eyes, the air seemed to cool, and the drive got prettier. Yes, I had figured out how to turn on the air conditioning, which certainly helped.
I stayed overnight in Alamosa, which is a charming little town that has a traditional main street still populated by local businesses. Alamosa sits in the middle of the San Luis valley, which seems almost entirely ringed by mountains. It is still flat in the middle, but it is indeed a rather lovely spot.
Early to bed, both for the time change and to allow my body to acclimatize to the altitude. I’m remembering to drink lots of water, which is supposed to help. More about Alamosa in the next post.