Sunday, July 17, 2005

Renting Wonderland

Went up to Rocky Mountain National Park with the family for a quick four day mini-vacation.

Some takes on the trip.

Welcome to the Flood

Andrew and I went up Thursday afternoon to set up the tents and get things ready. As we drove into Estes Park, the small town on the edge of RMNP, a very heavy mountain monsoon rain began to fall. Afternoon summer weather in the Rockies is always unpredictable, but after bone dry conditions and 90 degree temps for almost two weeks we expected nothing but blue skies.

It wasn't to be. A typically intense 3 hour mountain downpour dumped on us just as we arrived. Large hail also pelted the campsite before we got there.

As we drove into the Moraine Park campground we plowed through 8 inch deep puddles. When Andrew and I pulled up to our spot, the rains were washing away a good part of the parking area for our campsite. A 9 inch wide gully like a little Grand Canyon split the steeply pitched parking space in two.

The tent area turned out to be the downhill drainage for the parking spot. A mini-river coursed through the gully in the driveway and dumped two inches of muck and debris on our tent site. The whole thing was a mess.

At that point I was starting to channel Clark Griswold on his hellish trip to 'Wally World' with his family. I half expected some semi-crazed hillbilly cousin would jump out of the woods and announce he was going to stay with us over the weekend even though I don't have any semi-crazed hillbilly cousins.

After sizing up the situation we did the sensible thing and drove back into Estes Park and waited out the rains in a coffee shop. By the time Jan and Rebecca arrived the weather had cleared and we all set up camp together in the mud. Fortunately, we didn't get any more rain and things eventually dried out.


Campgrounds, like airports, are a great place to people watch. It's fun to see what folks do when they're only passing through.

An older couple from Texas camped next to us for the first couple of nights and they barely made a sound.

When they left THE LOUDS moved in.


It's amazing the kinds of things you can hear in your sleeping bag through ear plugs.

The father and son were pleasant and considerate enough, but mom and sis liked the high volume. The very excitable twosome spent most of the time laughing hysterically and talking at what seemed like the top of their lungs.

We all got to know far more about mom and sis's personal lives than we really wanted to know. After a few hours I started to feel true empathy for dad and little brother.

We were annoyed, but we also felt like Scrooge because they were obviously having so much of a certain kind of anxious and obsessive fun.

A graceful group of women in their mid to late 30's camped together across the way. We dubbed them the "Ya Ya Camping Sisterhood" within minutes of their arrival.

One family made the biggest impression. They were Mormons from St. George, Utah who were traveling all over the west camping at national parks. Very sweet people. They set up camp a few days before we arrived.

After a day of running into various members of their family on the way to the bathroom, Andrew decided we should call them "The Ned Flanders Clan" after the sappy-sweet evangelical Flanders family on the Simpsons. Look for a neo-punk band with that name sometime soon.

He wondered if they'd bake us a cake on some kind of special Mormon camp cookware and bring it to us "because we're new in the neighborhood."

Once you've had a little camping experience, it doesn't take long to notice how ritualized the whole thing is. You get the feeling that each individual has played the same role with every other family member, and that each family follows pretty much the same routine as every other family of set up, making fires and food, sitting around talking, breaking down the camp, etc, etc.

It's sort of a middle class, outdoor Kabuki theatre where everyone knows their tightly scripted roles. That's part of what I enjoy about it--the traditions are pretty comforting.

Water and Fire

RMNP is full of water, and everybody in the park seemed to want to get near it, stick there feet in it, swim in it, hang around it. The water in the park is mostly glacial snowmelt very near its source so getting into it can be sort of painful. But that didn't seem to stop anybody from plunging in (pic at the top of the post of Andrew and Rebecca river dipping...).

Fire though, particularly for the men and boys, may be even more fascinating.

Guys love burning things. Men and boys will throw anything combustible that probably won't blow up into a campfire. Andrew particularly got into throwing grass that had gone to seed into the fire every night--the seeds explode in a mini-fireworks display.

Campfires probably awaken some primitive impulses. At night, as the campfires burned all around, you could almost hear the men grunting deeply, "Mmmmmm, fire good, fire very good."

The License Plate Game

I saw an Idaho license plate in the park with the state motto "Famous Potatoes."

Idaho is one of the most beautiful places on the earth. So I think it's safe to say that somebody in state government there suffers from a serious lack of imagination and market savvy. Not to mention the matter of a little false advertising.

Let's face facts. Other than Mr. Potato Head, I can't think of any other famous potatoes. Dan Quayle, our famous ex-Vice President, was once unable to spell the word "potato" correctly in public, but I don't think he qualifies.

20 Mile Roller Coaster Drop

I had a chance to climb up Old Fall River Road on my mountain bike, something I've wanted to do for a long time. It's the original dirt road that was, at one time, the only way to get over the Continental Divide from the east side of the park to the west side. 11 miles and 4,000 ft. of elevation gain through some of the most breathtaking (literally) scenery you can imagine. The pic below shows the scene to the south at the top of the road where it runs into Trailridge Rd, the highest paved through road in the US.

I left very early, so there were very few cars on the one way road. On the way to the top, though, I met a couple of very old guys from Kansas who were driving up in their 4x4. The guy on the shotgun side rolled down his window as they came up next to me and said, "Can we throw ya a rope?! We been comin' here for years and we never seen a bicycle up here before and then we come around the bend and there you wuz!" He seemed truly delighted.

He obviously wanted to talk but after 5 miles of climbing a convo was a no go. I said, "See you up top," which is my standard greeting when passing or being passed. They drove on laughing and shaking their heads.

The real payoff came at the end of the road. To get back to the valley floor I had to ride down Trailridge. A four thousand foot drop along 20 miles of paved road starting on the tundra and screaming down through the forest. I don't think I pedaled more than a few times and my hands cramped up from squeezing the brakes to keep my speed from getting out of control. Very nice.

Renting Wonderland

We stopped at the Moraine Park Museum, an educational center that explains RMNP and its history.

Moraine Park is the heart of the park. It's a huge, miles-long meadow with a river running through it, surrounded by some of the most spectacular peaks in the park, including Long's Peak, one of my favorite mountains. To say Moraine Park is beautiful doesn't do it justice.

As it turns out Moraine Park was once covered by a golf course, hotels, and lots of retail stores. It was a resort for the wealthy that the middle class or the poor could not afford or enjoy. It was only when cultural and political progressives established Rocky Mountain National Park and other national parks that all of that upscale blight was torn down, the meadow was restored to its natural state, and the middle class and poor were encouraged to come and enjoy wonderland along with the wealthy.

Given current cultural and political trends, I wonder if at some point in the next few decades we may see a return to the days when places like Moraine Park are covered with upscale commercial developments built only for those wealthy enough to afford them.

The National Park Service sees itself as a steward of the land which is owned by all the people of the US. Those of us with a more spiritual bent think they work for the artist who's the real owner of the land.

I don't guess many wealthy people were camping with us. But it was great to see so many other people "renting" a piece of wonderland. We paid $60 total for three days of looking out over the meadows and up at Long's Peak, which changed its stunning look every 15 minutes with the shifting light.

There is something very right about that. Fairness and beauty are a tough combo to beat.


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