Road America Blitz – There and Back

It has been my habit for these road trips to give some details of my route and the sights and points of interest along the way in a more or less chronological fashion. We’ll go about it a slightly different way this time.

I spent two days driving, each way, for my day of driving in circles in rural Wisconsin. The terrain between Denver and Elkhart Lake is not the least interesting that can be crossed in these United States (the caprock of west Texas is both boring and desolate, while Nebraska and Iowa are just boring), but it’s close. So we won’t go into excruciating detail of the trip.

I laid out my route a few weeks in advance, keeping in mind my two rules: no Interstates and no night driving. I’m splitting the trip almost exactly in half by staying with Frank in the suburbs of Omaha, so avoiding night driving is trivial. But I did do some pondering as to whether I should break Rule #1. In the end, I stuck to it, and I’m happy I did.

I’m not always able to entirely eliminate Interstate travel, but I do try to minimize it. On this trip, I began with about an hour on I-76 and had another hour or so navigating around Des Moines. But that was it. That first hour was not a problem; it was a holiday and traffic was light. However, both passes through the Des Moines area were no fun.

On Thursday I found myself two cars behind a truck. The truck was periodically dropping clods of dirt which broke up when bouncing down the road. These clods could have rocks in them for all I know, and even if they’re just hard dirt I didn’t want to run into any of it. I managed to avoid him, for a while at least. I’d almost forgotten about him until about thirty miles later. I was in the left lane and in heavy traffic. People started moving out of the left lane, which became increasingly covered by tire debris. My clod dropping friend was half off the left side of the road with a blown left front tire.

In contrast to the traffic and peril of the Interstate, on the first two hundred miles of US 34 starting in Ft. Morgan, I was passed by a motorcycle and passed one truck. I encountered no other traffic going my direction. And passing through those first few small towns I got to see men in pickup trucks putting up flags along the main streets in preparation for the celebration of Independence Day. I may not go quite as fast on the back roads, but there’s a lot less tension and traffic and I see a lot more real life.

Both Nebraska and Iowa are wall-to-wall corn. People call it “America’s bread basket”, but that connotes wheat to me and I saw none. Two sections of road in Iowa stand out, though. First is the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway which goes through Madison county. I didn’t make any of the side trips as I was feeling short of time and besides, all these bridges were three or four miles down dirt roads.

The other interesting stretch of Iowa is the Iowa River Bluffs Scenic Byway. For the most part, everything east and north of Des Moines is flat. I always remember Iowa as rolling hills, but not this part. It’s the tyranny of straight, flat roads. Except for the Bluffs, where grids of corn farms are replaced by forested bluffs with rolling, curvy roads. A nice interlude.

I entered Wisconsin at Prairie du Chien. This looks like a place that deserves more exploration. Effigy Mounds National Monument sounds interesting. I also noticed a sign for Pikes Peak State Park. I can’t help but be curious about that, given that it’s along the banks of the Mississippi River at an elevation of roughly 650′ above sea level.

On these trips I prefer to do a loop rather than retrace my steps. On this one, though, Saturday was the reverse of Thursday with only a few miles variance. Part of that variance was through Amish country where I passed a few horse-drawn buggies on the roads and even saw one tied to a hitching post in front of a general store.

On Sunday, though, I managed to improvise a variation in route. Rather than returning the way I came (along US 34 and US 6), I decided to head south into Kansas and follow US 36. It provided a bit more variety than I was expecting. As I said, Nebraska is unbroken cornfields. Kansas at least has a variety of crops. The road was straight as an arrow for the most part, but it offered something other than corn to look at.

My only real excitement on my four days travel was once I got back to Colorado. US 36 passes through a number of small towns. It turns out that none of them has a gas station. And the highway department didn’t see fit to warn travelers that they would be unable to refuel until they reached Byers. I was about forty miles east of HPR when the low fuel indicator illuminated. I was thinking it was touch-and-go making it to the track. Being a weekend, I figured it was near certainty that the track would be open and I could grab a half gallon of race fuel to get me to Byers. I made it without incident, but I was pretty tense and nervous for half an hour.

So I put seven tenths of a gallon in the tank (for seven dollars) and when I filled up in Byers I was able to pump only 8.9 gallons of gas. I have a ten gallon tank, so that means I had plenty of sufficient fuel to get me there without the splash of 98 octane. But it was probably worth the seven bucks saving my nerves.

Frank and Mary kindly put me up both Wednesday night and Saturday night. Frank is an old family friend who is also passionate about cars. He has quite the collection of old English cars and used to do quite a bit of SCCA club racing. He doesn’t have any Lotus, but does have a variety of Triumphs, Minis, MGs, and Jaguars. He has an interesting TVR, a couple of Alfas, and the occasional American car thrown in for good measure. It was a pleasure visiting with them.

Now, on to the reason for all this driving across America’s heartland…

Colorado Good 2018 – Day 3

Monday May 21

Today will be our last day of the tour. We will separate from the group at Great Sand Dunes National Park, heading home. The rest will proceed on to Trinidad for another day of scenic byways.

Many times we’ve made the trip from Durango to Alamosa, so I’ll keep the notes short. In keeping with the motif of misinformation about bathrooms, we noted that where there used to be facilities at both the western and eastern feet of Wolf Creek Pass, there is now nothing. Also, we were expecting we’d stop at the scenic overlook on the west side, but that is temporarily closed, being used as a staging area for construction equipment.

Our route bypassed Alamosa, saving some miles. Just east of South Fork we abandoned US 285 in favor of County Road 5, a direct shot toward the park. Well, not exactly direct. At CO 17 we head north a few yards to County Road 6. These roads are no doubt sufficient for their usual purpose: low speed farm traffic. They’re a bit less than ideal for stiffly sprung sports cars. The ride wasn’t exactly quiet and comfortable. Last time I went to the Sand Dunes I was with Michael in the Chrysler. We went between CO 17 and the Dunes at well over 100mph, slowing only for the cattle guards. In the Elise, 65 was plenty fast.

The last few miles into Great Sand Dunes National Park are on CO 150. On that previous trip with Michael both sides of the road were lined with sunflowers. I’m guessing those weren’t there naturally, as they’re no longer there. It was a nice touch, adding a bit of color.

After a short stop in the visitor center, we headed to a picnic area close to the dunes. Mike found us a place with two large sets of tables and plenty of parking. We were the third car there, and right behind us a minivan arrived and started setting up at the other tables. We warned them that we’d have a big group here which seemed to scare them away. As our crew trickled in, they kept coming to the first table and just when it was about full a large family walked in and snagged the other table. No worries, as we early arrivals finished, we gave our seats to the latecomers.

Atop the first dune

The stream that usually flows off the mountain isn’t running right now. I’m not sure when it typically dries up, but I was expecting to have to wade across it to get onto the dunes. Some kids were playing with their toy construction equipment, digging holes, and we could see the sand was wet under the surface. But definitely no stream in sight.

Intrepid explorers Terry and Peter

We walked to the top of the first small dune and people watched for a while. Gordon struck off for the top of the largest dunes. I was thinking it would take a couple of hours, but he made really good progress to the point where I could no longer spot him. I learned later that he was successful. I suspect that made him the last to leave by a large margin.

Storm and sand panorama; south on the left side, northeast on the right.

While we were standing around on the sand, a rather nasty looking thunder storm was working its way toward us across the valley. We said our goodbyes and started our trek home. It looked like the group would miss the rain as there was a gap in the clouds above CO 150. But to the west it looked like we’d be running the gauntlet. Almost immediately after turning onto the country road we started getting rained on. But our timing was pretty good. A few miles down the road, the tarmac was covered with the remnants of a significant hail storm. Judging by the few tracks through the hail, it must have just finished a couple of minutes before we got there.

These thunder showers are typically pretty localized. Hailstones lined the road for less than a half mile. And we were out of the rain well before we regained CO 17. Showers were spread out across the valley, their drafts kicking up the dust before them as they scooted toward the Sangre de Cristos. We missed most of them, but it looked like we had another chance to get wet as we crossed Poncha Pass.

We missed the heaviest of the rain until just after the junction with US 50. We were in a little knot of traffic when the clouds burst. I had the wipers going as fast as they’d go, but it wasn’t much help. The windows started fogging up almost immediately. Genae worked the defrost controls, and we had the windows cracked. My left arm was getting soaked. The car in front of us gave up and pulled off the road. We continued at about 20mph. Genae got some napkins out and worked on wiping the inside of the windshield. Then it ended, almost as quickly as it began. Driving the straight lines of San Luis Valley I was complaining that I was falling asleep. This sure woke me up!

From there on home the trip was uneventful. We got back to town just in time for evening rush hour and exchanged the wide-open roads and mountain vistas for bumper-to-bumper traffic and suburban Denver.

Another great Colorado Good! A hearty “thanks” to all who participated, particularly to Mike who put it all together.

Colorado Good 2018 – Day 2

Sunday May 20

Today’s drive was from Montrose to Durango with an extended visit to Mesa Verde. The route was over Lizard Head pass and through Dolores and Cortez. As with most of the rest of this trip, it was a route we’ve taken before. It’s a beautiful route. Our only concern was the timing of potty stops. John has people in Ridgway and told us that there are bathrooms at the park there, so as we passed through town we dropped out of line and into the park. Sadly, John’s info was bad and there were no bathrooms to be found. So we were tail-end Charlie again.

We caught the group before long at a wide spot on the road just before Telluride. We weren’t going to Telluride, but making a right turn near there. This wide spot was an opportunity for a group photo. John’s next piece of info was that there were no bathrooms at the summit of Lizard Head pass, so we figured we needed to stop before then.

Obligatory group photo

At the right turn there’s a gas station, so we again dropped out of the queue. Just as we approached the summit of Lizard Head we caught up to a motor home. I was looking for a way around it when I caught a glimpse of orange in the parking lot. We weren’t expecting a stop here. It was the original target for the group photo, but as that was already taken care of we thought we’d be skipping it. Turns out John’s second piece of intel was incorrect, too. There are, in fact, bathrooms at the summit of Lizard Head pass. It was our error to doubt Mike.

The drive from Montrose to here at the summit of Lizard Head Pass is gorgeous. Mile after mile of fantastic views – snow-capped peaks and aspen groves – connected by roads that curve and swoop, rise and fall. There are many scenic drives in Colorado but this one certainly goes near the top of the list.

The Galloping Goose

Our next pit stop was in Dolores. Our chosen gas station here was next door to the an old train station that now houses the Galloping Goose Historical Society. In the 1930’s the Rio Grande Southern Railroad was facing financial difficulties. They came up with an interesting solution: the Galloping Goose. It’s a railcar operated by motor rather than steam, much lighter (and therefore reduced impact on the railroad), and has a front-end that looks like a bus. Seven of these were produced, and the one here in Dolores operates as a tourist attraction.

From Dolores we headed to Mesa Verde National Park. We weren’t sure if the restaurant in Mesa Verde was open yet, being early in the season. So we made a detour in Cortez to stop at the Subway for sandwiches. We left Dolores before the rest of the pack but still ended up at the visitor center after everyone else.

Genae, having lived a while in Durango, has visited Mesa Verde many times. I have been here a few times, last being in 2013 when I hiked to Petroglyph Point. I never really explored much of the park, having each time had a specific goal in mind. A few days prior to this trip, Genae had intended to go online and book some tour tickets. That never happened, and when we went to the ticket counter in the visitor center we found that (surprise, surprise), the day’s tours were already sold out.

Cliff House

So we were free to explore at will and see what there was to see. First task was to stop at the restaurant at the Far View area (which was, indeed, open) for beverages to go with our Subway sandwiches. We ran into Peter and Rebecca there. They said they’d never been to Wetherill Mesa before so that’s where they were headed. I’d never been there, either, so that sounded like a good place to go. Unfortunately, I immediately made a navigational error and we ended up on Chapin Mesa, which is where most people find themselves.

So we worked our way to the loop that takes us to Cliff House and Balcony House. Cliff House is closed for the season for reclamation work. There’s an overlook that gives a nice view of it, but we couldn’t visit it. And Balcony House is reachable by guided tour only, and sits in an alcove pretty much underneath the parking lot, so it’s invisible as well as unreachable. So that whole loop was disappointing.

Spruce Tree House

Next we headed to Spruce Tree House. This one is a self-guided tour, but the path to it is having some structural issues, so it’s closed as well. At least it’s visible. I was thinking the trail to Petroglyph Point takes hikers right in front of the ruins, but signs indicated we wouldn’t get a better view than where we stood, so we didn’t go any farther.

Yucca in bloom

So we got back in the car and headed to Wetherill Mesa. This turned out to be a nice little Lotus road. We encountered very little traffic, which added to the pleasure. The road is a bit on the rough side, but not terribly bad. It’s quite a drive to the end of the road where the ruins are. For future reference, count on the Long House tour taking half a day. The tour itself takes two hours, and if you drive the speed limit you can count on another forty minutes or so driving each way.

Not having tickets for the tour, our only activity was the self-guided tour of Step House. So, after spending a few hours wandering the park, we finally got to tour one of the ruins. In a way, this one is more like two ruins. One side of the alcove features the pit houses of the “Basketmakers” who occupied the place circa A.D. 600. The other side is a small multi-story pueblo built about six centuries later. It is estimated that about thirty people lived in each settlement.

Step House

Driving between the sites one can’t help but notice the frequency with which the area is subject to wildfires. The dead trees still standing in the 2002 burn area are still black. Signs along the roadside indicate other fires. Between 1989 and 2003, five fires burned over half the acreage in the park. Thunderstorms range over the area all summer long, and about 95% of fires here are started by lightning.

Overall, Mesa Verde was a bit disappointing due to our lack of proper planning (no reflection on Mike, of course, I’m talking of our own preparation) and that so many of the ruins are closed this year. That means, on the flip side, that there are still plenty of sights to see the next time we visit the place.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Back in Durango, the group went out to dinner. We elected to go our own way and instead dined with Grace. We requested a brew pub and she recommended we go to Brew Pub and Kitchen. (Break the usual cadence when you say it, though: it’s not “Brew Pub” and “Kitchen”, it’s “Brew” “Pub and Kitchen”.) It’s right next to the narrow gauge line. While waiting for our meals a train pulled into the station. It’s quite the conversation stopper.

They have an unusual naming convention for their beers. They have “Darlene”, a Belgian ale; “Kelley”, a stout; and “Jesus”, their “righteous yarrow double IPA”. I passed on those and instead had a couple pints of “Greg”, which their menu says is “an easy drinking Kolsch to inhibit your social graces”. Naturally, Grace had to call Greg to pass on this little tidbit.

Colorado Good 2018 – Day 1

The Colorado Grand is an annual charity tour over the highways and byways of Colorado. The Colorado Good is a Lotus Colorado tour that has almost nothing in common with it. They drive 1960 and older sports cars and cars of distinction. Our cars are almost never that old, but are often distinctly colored. They attract entrants from around the world, ours come mostly from the Front Range. They get help from the State Patrol, we generally try to avoid the State Patrol. They have a storied history of charitable giving, we tell a lot of uncharitable stories.

As has been the case for the last several years, Mike was again the organizer. He did another great job, with this edition taking us through some of Colorado’s finest scenery with overnight stays in Montrose, Durango, and Trinidad, and visits to three outstanding National Parks. I think this is the club’s twelfth Colorado Good, but I may have lost count. It is the seventh that Genae and I have taken part of. This one was a big trip – a bit too big for us so we cut it short, skipping the final day. But I jump ahead. Please allow me to begin at the beginning.

Saturday May 19

As I said, most of the participants come from the Front Range. We can break the Front Range folks into two groups: those from Denver or thereabouts and those from Colorado Springs and environs. But that’s not particularly important. The drive officially begins at a Shell gas station in Johnson Village, a wide spot in the road a few miles south of Buena Vista. Typically, those of us from Denver make a token effort to gather together for the drive down US 285. Mike left us to our own devices to arrange a caravan, and those devices weren’t working. That is, we all made our own ways to the assembly point.

Had the group met at our usual jump-off spot, the parking lot at The Fort restaurant, we’d have done little more than wave hello as we passed. Our intention was to stop at the Wendy’s in Conifer for breakfast and bathroom. Genae checked their website and learned they open at 7am. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case and would prove to be a foreshadowing of a minor motif of the trip for us: misinformation regarding potty stops.

We were thinking we were likely ahead of many of the Denver folks and thus under the delusion that we’d be one of the first cars at the rally point. We’re typically one of the last cars to arrive. We remained true to form and found ourselves to be one of the last cars there.

Two of the cars on this trip started on the Western Slope: an Elise from Gunnison and a Europa from Dolores. John made the drive here from Gunnison but we wouldn’t be meeting Barry and Anne and their Europa until later. Nevertheless, I’ll provide the full census of cars here: we were six Elises, three Europas, an Evora, an Elan +2, an M100 Elan, a Westfield 7, a Mini, a Jaguar XKR, a Porsche Boxster, and a BMW.

In the final moments before we departed, Gordon asked me for a little mechanical assistance. I told him a little was about all I was qualified to give. All he needed to do was reattach the panel under his engine, the one you remove to change the oil. It wasn’t on quite right and it needed to be adjusted. We made the adjustment and tightened down the large bolts. All he needed to do was attach the thirteen or so small bolts and he’d be ready to go. I’m not sure how long it takes to do this, but I am sure we were all out of the gas station before he had any chance of completing the task. So we essentially pulled a “Top Gear” on Gordon, leaving him to deal with his stricken car all by himself.

I felt pretty bad about this so I assumed the position of “tail-end Charlie”. I lagged a little, checking the mirrors and hoping to see him catching up. But I knew he was quite a bit behind us. I asked Genae if we should wait at the navigation point in Saguache for him to catch up, but she said he’d be okay. I’m guessing that the Top Gear guys have plenty of time to catch up to their associates, as everybody is probably spending as much time making a film as they are actually going anywhere. We, on the other hand, don’t lollygag around, and are lucky if we can keep to within single digits above the posted speed limit. We may not see Gordon for some time.

In my reports of these drives I’ve been known to spend a lot of time describing our route. But because we’ve done quite a few of these it’s a challenge to come up with roads we haven’t been on before. That is very much the case today. So while Gordon is pedaling furiously to catch up to the group I will go off on a bit of a tangent, now having the opportunity to describe a new road.

Heading south on US 285 in the northern end of the San Luis Valley we find ourselves in the little town of Saguache. It is perhaps one of the most mispronounced place names in the state. The proper pronunciation, or at least the way the locals pronounce it, is along the lines of “sa-watch”. It’s a Ute word that refers to the range of colors that includes both green and blue. Some modern Ute speakers say it refers to green vegetation while others maintain it refers to some bluish stones. In any event, Saguache is where we leave US 285 and head north on CO 114 and begin a 67 mile stretch of road I’ve never been on before.

The literal high point of this stretch of road is Cochetopa Pass. Actually the road goes over what the sign says is North Cochetopa Pass. But no matter. “Cochetopa” is another Ute word, this one for buffalo. (And when I say “buffalo”, I of course mean bison.) This pass was the original ancient all-weather Ute and buffalo trail linking the San Luis Valley to Gunnison country. It also figured in the first penetration of the Rocky Mountains by Europeans. Governor Juan Bautista de Anza crossed it in late summer of 1779 when he was chasing a group of Comanches led by chief Cuerno Verde. I don’t know of any places in Colorado named for de Anza, but just east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains you’ll find Greenhorn Mountain. Cuerno Verde means “green horn”.

The Rio Grande River flows through the southern part of the San Luis Valley, so it would be natural to think that the streams that flow from the mountains on the northern end of the valley are Rio Grande tributaries. De Anza learned that this isn’t true. These streams, like the ones that pour off the western flanks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains above the Sand Dunes, just disappear.

We had a much easier passage to the Gunnison drainage than de Anza had 239 years ago, as the northern end of CO 114 is a nice Lotus road. Our greatest difficulty was finding places to pass the cattle trucks and lumber trucks we came upon. It was while attempting to dispatch one of these cattle trucks that I noticed a green Elise coming up behind me on the double. Gordon had caught up to us. (“How did you catch us so quickly?” I later asked. “I spent a lot of time over [redacted]. It was fun!”)

After we ate lunch at Legion Park in Gunnison we headed to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Here you’ll find some of the steepest cliffs and oldest rocks in North America. Over a period of about two million years, the Gunnison river cut a deep gorge through 1.7 billion year old gneiss and schist. The river drops an average of 96 feet per mile in the park, falling more in 48 miles than the Mississippi River does in 1500 miles.

Painted Wall – at 2,250′ it is the tallest sheer cliff in Colorado. Can you spot Gordon?

Arriving at the park’s entrance station we asked for an interagency pass as we’d be visiting three parks on the trip. The ranger, though, was all out of them. So he let us in for free. “Make sure you buy your pass at the next park you visit.” We will do exactly that.

After a brief stop in the visitor center, the group broke up. Our next group activity was dinner in Montrose and we had a few hours to spend in the park so we headed to the western end of South Rim Road. There are a number of vantage points along the road with names like Dragon Point, Pulpit Rock, and Cross Fissures View. It seemed to me to be a good idea to start at that end and work our way back, but it turns out all the parking spots are on the rim side of the road. So our retrograde path meant we’d be parallel parking facing the wrong way every time. You can’t take me anywhere.

Chasm View

This is fairly arid country, made somewhat worse by the extreme drought we find ourselves in at the moment. One of the rangers there told us that the river is flowing at only about fifty percent of it’s normal for this time of year. In spite of that, most of the shrubs along the rim are in abundant bloom and this is perhaps the prettiest time of year to visit.

Pulpit Rock and another episode of “Can you spot Gordon?”

Having stopped at almost every vista along the road we exhausted our allotted time. We made our way out of the park and into Montrose a few miles down the road. We got checked in to the hotel, then headed to dinner at a restaurant called Camp Robber. They sat us outside. It was a bit cool, with a breeze and we got sprinkled on once or twice. We didn’t know we were going to sit outside, so we weren’t prepared. I had my jacket in the car and gave it to Genae. I was pretty cold by the end of the meal.

I had a salad – Parmesan encrusted chicken on spinach, with strawberries and pineapples, tomatoes, onion, and strawberry vinaigrette dressing. The soup was hatch green chili potato soup, tasty with a bit of heat. I enjoyed the meal in spite of the chilly conditions.

2017 United States Grand Prix

This was Chad’s trip. He did all the heavy lifting, all the logistics. He reached out to me with a question phrased as a hypothetical: if you were to go to the Formula One race, would you go for race day or all three? Where would you sit? Next you know, he’s made lodging accommodations, ordered the tickets, and rented a Cadillac.

Thursday we’d drive Denver to Scott’s place in Liberty Hill, TX. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the track, and return Monday. Fifteen hours of driving each way, sandwiched around three long days. Our housing was sixty miles from the track, so another seven and a half hours in the car.

Most of the way there we followed my route from June, altered only for the different end point. We made one navigational error – in Lubbock where I didn’t see the exit for the loop road until too late. We violated both Rule #1 and Rule #2 without remorse, beginning and ending each day’s journey in the dark, and covering about a third of the miles on the Interstate.

When renting the car Chad elected to purchase the damage waiver. He thought it seemed a bit high, at just under a quarter of the week’s rental fee. I told him I never buy it, being covered between my credit card and my own insurance. But then again, I’ve never had any incidents.

It’s still total darkness at 6:30am in late October an hour west of Austin. I’m driving. We are making good time up a two lane state route. The car in front of us is just taillights, a bit ahead of the reach of our headlights. The lights ahead take a bit of a hop. A split second later our lights reach a deer carcass, dead center in our lane, dead. We hit it square, a quick crack/thud combination that lifted the car a bit.

No warning indicators illuminated, the car felt fine, nothing seemed out of whack. We pulled into a gas station in the next town a few miles up the road. The front fascia was broken, smeared with blood in three places, but not missing any pieces. An inspection of the undercarriage revealed a big bone wedged up against the exhaust. The car smelled vaguely of cooked meat for the next couple hours.

I’m guessing Chad was happy to have bought the damage waiver.

Having jumped ahead to nearly the end of the weekend, I’ll dispense with any pretense of chronological order.

We were slow to the track on Friday, but sorted out off-property parking right across the street. Our purpose Friday was to scout the best location for race day. Although the track is only slightly more than a mile longer than Mid-Ohio, it seems a lot bigger when you’re walking around it. We only managed to cover about half the territory, never venturing anywhere near turns nine, ten, and eleven.

We spent the most time on the hill above Turn 7, which has a nice view mostly over the fences, all the way back to Turn 2. There was no overtaking here, but we got to see the cars change direction several times. We could also see glimpses of the cars across the track, through 13 and 14 and then again through 18.

We also spent some time on the grass in front of the grandstands at Turn 1. This grandstand might be the best vantage point on the property. Get high enough, you can see a good chunk of the track, a prime overtaking area directly in front of you, the main straight below and to the left where nice field glasses or a long lens would let you see the action in the pits.

We were there for the Formula One cars, of course, but that’s not all. We also had some historic cars, the Formula Four support race, and people getting rides in the pair of two-seaters. The F1 cars were much quieter than I expected. Off throttle the engines make a noise like the hitting the rumble strips, but louder. Funny, I don’t hear it on TV. The historics sounded fantastic. I think the best sounding cars of the weekend were the two-seaters. High revving and loud, we could hear them from our parking spot.

The support paddock was open to all fans, and we got a nice look at the old cars. The paddocks at all the Champ Car events I’ve attended were much more crowded; this was surprisingly crowd-free. But we didn’t visit it on race day, so that probably made a big difference.

I don’t think they’re releasing attendance figures, and I’m not particularly adept at judging crowd sizes. At our parking lot, I asked one of the attendants how many cars they parked in their lot. He said last year it was 200 on Friday, 400 on Saturday, and 600 on Sunday. He also said there were more cars on Friday this year than there were last year. Last year’s attendance was reported at something like 290,000. So I’m guessing half of them for race day; and perhaps fifty thousand on Friday and a hundred on Saturday.

Slumming with the amateurs

In the minutes before the lights went out for the start, a group of skydivers jumped from planes overhead. At the Broncos games, they bring the game ball to midfield. Here they didn’t even land on the property. One was flying the US flag, another the Texas flag.

Texans are nuts for their flag. It’s flown everywhere. We passed dozens of ranches proudly flying both national and Texas flags. I always understood that the national flag should be flown higher than lesser flags; evidently Texans don’t see their flag as lesser than the US flag as it was without exception flown at the same height. They put it on everything. I’m used to seeing the Colorado or Arizona or California flags primarily as flags. Sure, they’re on the occasional building or t-shirt. But the Texas flag is everywhere. There were several designs of event tees available; more with the Texas flag than the US flag.

Casual

We were subject to some official misinformation. Materials we read indicated we couldn’t bring lenses longer than ten inches, and tripods, selfie-sticks, and monopods were strictly verboten. In actual fact, giant lenses and monopods were commonplace. Scott kindly lent me a monopod and one of his long telephotos.

I struggled with my reflex lens. I hand-held on Friday. Very difficult. Focusing was a challenge. With the monopod the second day things were easier, as I could simulate a tripod by bracing the monopod against the lawn chair. Scott’s telephoto was much easier; auto-focus and image stabilizer. And much faster. I tried to shoot all the cars the first two days and relax on race day. I shot about 800 pictures, none of which are stellar. We confirmed in June I’m no Lewis Hamilton, and this weekend that I’m no Bernard Cahier.

As you’d expect, prices for food, drink, and merchandise were high. I had a giant sausage one day, piled high with onions for $14, a six cheese mac with bacon for $12, and a trio of sliders for $17.25. Yikes! Beers were nine bucks and up. The lowest priced t-shirt I saw was thirty bucks. Hats for fifty. Polo shirts eighty five.

Water was widely available. They had a number of giant dispensers around the facility. I watched them pour two hundred pounds of ice into one that wasn’t at a water source. I carried my empty container in and refilled it as necessary.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. I look forward to going to another one, but I probably won’t return to Austin for F1 in the next few years. Maybe I need to think about Montreal…

 

Carhenge Eclipse

Sunday, August 20

Originally, it was just going to be me and Jerry but Jerry’s brothers Chuck and Jay joined us. I wanted to hit the road fairly early, so asked if they could pick me up at eight. We were in Jay’s Chevy Colorado. It was cramped quarters. It’s not a crew cab – the back seats are hard, the backs are vertical and there is no leg room. At all. Even with the front seats all the way forward. Jay was sitting so close to the dash, he inadvertently engaged four-wheel drive on more than one occasion.

It’s temporary discomfort, though, right? We’re only going 250 miles. Google maps tells us it’s quicker to take I-25 north of Cheyenne before heading east. I’d rather take I-76 to Ft. Morgan, then through Kimball and Scottsbluff on state routes from there, hoping to avoid traffic. I think it was a good route; we indeed had no traffic but that was largely because we were ahead of the crowd.

We arrived in Alliance ready for lunch. A few blocks into town we came across Wonderful Kitchen, a Chinese place. There were two notices on the door: “Special Eclipse schedule, open until 9:30pm” and “Special Eclipse Menu”. I suspect the hours were longer than usual and the menu shorter. When we arrived, we were the only patrons and during the time we were there they only seated two other tables. I’m figuring they were expecting a bigger lunch crowd.

As to the menu, there were only six dishes available; a choice of shrimp, chicken, pork, or beef. No vegetarian options. Chopsticks were by request. Chuck has been on a vegan diet for four years. He’s not religious about it, says he enjoys a nice steak on his birthday. He ordered the chicken chow mein and the chopsticks. I had that most traditional Chinese dish: beef and potatoes. It had onions and green peppers and a dark spicy sauce.

What little traffic there was in Alliance was all heading the same way we were, northeast of town. The land here is mostly center pivot irrigation: literally, crop circles. Seen from above, the land is divided into obvious squares, and most of those squares are filled edge to edge with circles, sometimes half circles. Carhenge sits at the south west corner of a square without a circle. If the land in this square was leveled off a bit and a center pivot sprinkler installed, Carhenge would still sit unmolested in the corner. It’s not terribly big.

Across the street, and a few yards north, is Jeske Lawn Sprinklers. This operation occupies a wedge of land cut out of one of these circles, a Pac-Man of corn with the Jeske buildings in Pac-Man’s mouth, with the campground as the next dot. It is Jeske who I called to get a camp site. I looked at the satellite image before calling them, but I didn’t zoom in real close. At first glance it looked like a crude, primitive campground. Looking closer now, I see that’s not true. It looks more like a collapsed building and a bunch of junk surrounded by truck tracks.

Today it’s more like an actual primitive campground. They’ve called it “Over the Hill”, which it is. It’s over the hill from Carhenge. The terrain isn’t flat and there are no hookups of any kind. No showers, no bathrooms. Just port-a-potties. Those were sited on freshly poured concrete pads. People were filling the edges of the field first. When we arrived, perhaps a quarter of the field was occupied, and people were starting to arrive at the adjacent fields to the north and east. If all this area filled up, there would be quite a crowd.

We pulled into a place close enough, but not too close, to a port-a-pottie and set up the tent and awning. Jerry and I made a trip over the hill. I was looking for a prime spot, trying to judge where the sun would be at the appointed time. I decided I wanted to be as close to the thing as I could get. After scoping the place out, we went to the souvenir stand. This was outside the small permanent building – a tent and tables. They had laid out a line, TSA fashion, that zigzagged back and forth enough times to accommodate maybe thirty people. We were the only ones. We bought t-shirts.

I asked how many people they were expecting. “Ten to twenty thousand people, is what they’re saying.” Red Rocks holds just under ten thousand. Ten thousand people here would allow everybody to sit on blankets but it would pretty well fill the place. I had a hard time imagining twice that many people here. If they were really expecting twenty thousand, they’d have ordered more port-a-potties.

A steady flow of people kept arriving at the campground. By dusk there were a bit over twice as many people there as when we arrived. It wasn’t a party crowd – there didn’t seem to be any serious drinking, anyway. People chatted loudly, kids chased each other, screaming. Nearby, somebody played their car stereo, imposing their taste on everybody. At one point, the minivan across from us had their headlights on for quite a while for no apparent reason. But overall it was a pleasant evening, good weather, few bugs.

I had hoped to take a shot at some simple astrophotography. Because there was no moon and no nearby large cities, I was hoping it would be dark enough to see the Milky Way. But by dusk we were starting to get a few clouds. And because everybody had lights on, it wasn’t as dark as I’d hoped. Also, Alliance cast a surprisingly bright light to the southwest.

We spent a lot of time chatting. Jay told us a bit about seeing an eclipse a while back. He was scuba diving around Bonaire. They didn’t even know about the eclipse until the day before. They hopped on a plane for the thirty mile flight to Curaçao and watched the total eclipse from the beach. This was 1998.

Chuck and Jay slept outside, Jerry and I in the tent. This time on “What Did I Forget?” it was my sleeping pad. Jerry had an extra blanket which he kindly loaned me. I woke up at 1:33. Somebody nearby was still chatting. I laid there a while before deciding to head to the pottie. It was occupied, and someone was waiting. So I’m second in line.

By now, most of the lights had been extinguished. Most of the clouds had vanished and I could easily pick out several constellations I forgot the names of years ago. It would be a great time to try to take a picture. If I’d planned properly, I’d have readied everything. As it was, the camera was in the bag in the cab of the truck, tripod who knows where. And, as a bonus, I’d neglected to bring a flashlight.

I was awake for an hour then slept, dreaming odd dreams, that I forgot immediately upon waking.

Monday, August 21

I awoke in a bank of fog a bit before six. Chuck and Jay were up, awoken early by a light drizzle. Water clung in small drops on the tent and awning but the ground wasn’t soaked or muddy. Yesterday I talked briefly to a local, standing in line for the latrine (but not at 2:00 am). She said that for the last week or so, the mornings had been cloudy but that it had burned off by mid-morning. So, faced with visibility of a hundred and fifty yards, I tried to remain confident.

And it did clear up considerably by eight or nine. For a time, clouds hung low to the ground all around us, but the sky above our little hill was clear and blue. After breakfast I headed over the hill to see what was happening. Not many people were there yet.

Near the top of the hill I came across a gentleman and his Speed Graphic.Versions of this camera were produced for sixty years, and for a long time was standard equipment for press photographers. This man assembled his from parts. The image in the viewfinder is upside down and backwards. To focus, one uses a magnifying glass while underneath the black hood. His wife is a chemist, and she does the developing. He said he planned on doing a thirty second exposure.

The spot I scouted yesterday was occupied by a number of credentialed photographers; a copse of tripods. I set up nearby, leaving a small void. I got the tripod set up, had my chair and a jacket but forgot sunscreen. I asked one of my neighbors if he’d watch my stuff and I headed back to the camp. On the way I ran into Jerry coming to meet me. I pointed out my location and continued to fetch my sunscreen.

Chuck and Jay stayed at camp. Jerry and I hung out right by Carhenge. We chatted with the folks around us and took turns wandering around in the crowd. A few people were climbing on the cars, and there was a constant circulation of people across, around, and through the field and Carhenge.

An unusual assortment of people gravitated to the center of the structure. Some did yoga. Some laid crystals out on the ground and periodically clanged brass bowls that chimed like bells. One guy was using a pinhole box camera. A reporter took his photo and asked him a couple of questions. He took his name and home town and wrote them in his pocket sized spiral notebook. “A pinhole box you say?” People posed for pictures next to the cars. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice anybody taking selfies.

I met a woman who had come from Utah. Jerry talked to some folks from Texas. I saw license plates from Wisconsin and South Dakota. There was a guy from Washington, D.C. He told us he met other people from D.C. here. Everybody else I talked to was from Metro Denver. A couple next to us were speaking Spanish. I thought perhaps they were from a more distant place. They were from Thornton, but the guy was in Mexico City for the 1991 total eclipse.

It’s an odd collection of people, in an odd place, anticipating an odd phenomenon. Freaks and geeks. Hippies. It’s easy to let the mind wander perhaps a bit more off the beaten path. Doesn’t it look like the guy in the black t-shirt might be an alien, in the act of taking off his fake human head?

When the moon took its first bite out of the sun a murmur rippled through the crowd. It has begun!

A guy came through the crowd handing out the paper eclipse glasses. He gave us each a pair, even though we already had our sunglass style ones. People still moved around quite a bit, but the forest of tripods the subject of more intense attention. Just seconds before totality a cloud passed in front of the sun and people with their glasses on oooh’d prematurely. The cloud quickly passed and a few seconds later the crowd oooh’d again, this time for totality.

Since the start of the eclipse, the clouds had been quite variable. It was generally clear, but clouds would come in quickly and dissipate rather than blow away. I shot several pictures partially obscured by clouds. I could only test exposures with a “full” sun so I had no clue how much I’d need to change the exposure as it progressed so I did a 2 stop bracket. My tripod isn’t too good, I had difficulty following the sun as it climbed. So it was a crap shoot.

The sunlight was still bright, but it had an odd quality about it. Partial eclipses cause odd shadows in the leaves of trees, for example. But we had no trees here, just old cars. It was getting windy. It was good Jay and Chuck stayed at camp; they told us later that a gust nearly took away our awning. The temperature was dropping noticeably. It was about eighty when partiality started; by totality it was more like sixty.

The plan was to get a picture of the diamond ring, try a couple different exposures for the corona with the big lens. With the wide angle, I wanted to do a quick panorama. Also, I had the GoPro mounted on the arm of my chair and had started recording about ten minutes before totality. I didn’t expect much but it was easy to do.

So the crowd gives out it’s oooh! It’s the diamond ring. I press the shutter release and … nothing. I have Err 99. The dreaded unknown error. I swap camera bodies and get a couple of corona shots. The problem is, the borrowed camera doesn’t work the same as mine, and I don’t know how to work it in the dark. I take a couple of shots and call it quits on the camera.

It really is quite a remarkable event. By the time I was done with the camera my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. All around the flat horizon it was sunset, or perhaps sunrise. The dome of the sky was filled with stars and not quite directly overhead, the sun was black and hairy! Venus was about the brightest “star” in the sky. Mercury was likely visible, but I couldn’t have pointed it out.

And, suddenly, the lights come back on.

Wow.

I’ve been hearing a lot about how some people travel the world to see total eclipses. I’d be surprised if there weren’t people who’d do it. I didn’t go into this thinking that I’d travel the world to see more eclipses. But there’s one that will go from Texas to Maine in 2024. Jerry suggested we fly and stay in a hotel. I’m sure he was just joking, but it’s something to ponder

I can’t help but think about what one of these was like for your primitive peasant. We eagerly anticipated the event, watched the sun get eaten by the moon for an hour using high tech glasses. We have the advantage that we know exactly what’s going on. But that shepherd in sixth century Wales has no clue. He may not even notice the sun getting dim, and all at once that sun turns all black and hairy and the stars come out. And then it goes back to normal.

Take the Long Way Home

We didn’t dilly dally for long after the lights came back on. Maybe ten minutes after totality I started packing up the equipment. By the time we got back over the hill to the campsite, Chuck and Jay had everything packed up. They got an early start, what with having to take down the awning because of the wind. They weren’t alone in the camping area during the event; our neighbors had a birthday party and they shared some cake. Not only were we all packed up and ready to go, Jay made sandwiches. Time to hit the road!

It took us an hour and a half to go about five miles. Even after all the Alliance traffic merged onto the highway it took a while to get up to near the speed limit. It wasn’t helped by the many drivers who evidently weren’t interested in going anywhere near the speed limit.

Eventually we were on our way. We retraced our route through Scottsbluff and Kimball. We got stuck in another mess in Kimball. Just as we arrived, an ambulance came the other way to help a motorcyclist who was down on the ground. It didn’t look like an accident, though. Perhaps just dehydration. It took forever to get through town and when we got to I-80, the traffic on our desired route was blocked, an unmoving line of cars up the hill

We decided it was best to stick to a four lane road so we got on I-80 and headed to Cheyenne. I wasn’t too happy about going that way, but we had little choice. I couldn’t get a GPS signal, thought perhaps it was my phone so I rebooted it. But Jerry couldn’t get GPS, either. We had cell but without GPS we had no traffic data. I’d heard warnings for weeks that they expected problems with cell traffic. But that worked. I didn’t expect to have problems with GPS.

As long as we went west, traffic was okay. As soon as we hit I-25 it was a parking lot. Genae texted me that traffic was green in Colorado, but here we were, crawling along at five miles an hour, three miles from the border. By the time we crossed into Colorado we were moving again. There was another big knot between Ft. Collins and Mead.

We kept passing the same vehicles over and over. We came across a string of six rental cars, all the same model, all with magnetic signs on the doors and bumper stickers on the rear windows. It was a Russian astronomy club. I was trying to read the bumper stickers but couldn’t get a good look. I tried to take a picture of the sticker with my cell phone and I think they saw me doing it. Next time we passed them they smiled and waved. So we smiled and waved back. This happened a couple of times.

We arrived back at my place after an eight and a half hour drive. It only took us four to get up there. Eight and a half hours in the back of that truck was torture.

Yup, might have to fly to the next one.

COTA Blitz: The Road Home

Sunday, June 11

In general, I don’t like going the same way, to and from. I prefer a loop. A loop for this trip would be impractical. What I ended up with, though, was nearly as good: a dumbbell. Different routes for about two hundred miles on the Austin end and between home and Amarillo on the Denver end.

It was sunset when I approached the wind farm near Sweetwater. The windmills were in silhouette in darkening amber. There’s a red light on top of each turbine. The light flashes on and off; a few seconds on, a few seconds off. That rhythm gets interrupted depending on which way the wind blows. If the blades are facing you, they pass in front of the light.

These things are laid out in rows. Generally, due to the route the road takes, it just looks like a random assortment of the things. But every now and then you get to look down a row of five or six of them. Groups of thirty or forty had their lights synchronized such that they’d all go off and on at the same time.

Arrived at the motel and went to check in. No reservation. Hmmm. They asked if I had the right motel. I have gone to the wrong place before but pretty sure I got the right place this time. I checked my phone. Here’s the record of my phone call: I called this number last night. “Yes, that’s us.” How is it I can make reservations two different ways and still not have a reservation? I’m glad they weren’t booked up.

Monday, June 12

Just out of Snyder they’re erecting a windmill just a couple hundred yards off the highway. Shortly after I passed the site, I passed two blades on transporters. Probably not for the same site, as they only had a short section of the pylon completed. Near Lubbock I saw another piece of pylon heading the same way. Makes me wonder how many they’re still building. I also can’t help but wonder why they’re all white. I’m guessing they’re not painted, as that would seem to be a big maintenance nightmare. Is it a law that they’re white, or a result of an engineering issue?

North of Lubbock on I-27 I think a train honked at me. It was going the other way on a line with no grade crossings for miles. One quick blast of the horn and done.

I stopped at Boise City for lunch. When I got back on the highway, a sign indicated it was 287 miles to Denver. That was the only sign with mileage to Denver the entire trip until I got on I-70 at Limon.

I didn’t like the road in Oklahoma. The expansion strips were wide and drummed the car with a staccato beat.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever changed time zones by traveling north.

On the map, the road is arrow straight though there are some small variations. But it does rise and fall, and the horizon is no longer razor sharp. We’re crossing grassland, prairie. Not farmland, and doesn’t appear to be ranching, either.

I’ve lived in Colorado for about forty years. I’ve never been to about a quarter of the state – everything east of I-25 and south of I-70. Kit Carson, Eads, and Lamar were just names in weather reports. They’re still pretty much just names in weather reports to me, but I’ve driven through them!

There was a lot of truck traffic. It looked like most of it was going the other way, as I caught and passed only a few tractor trailer rigs. But southbound it was not uncommon to see trains of five, six, seven rigs.

I didn’t get rush hour traffic until Northfield, which was better than I expected. Only six or seven miles of it; much less unpleasant than ninety miles of I-25.

I’m happy to be home. Now it’s time to get the bugs off the car.

COTA Blitz: The Road to Austin

What the heck am I doing?

I got it in my head some time ago that I should run laps at Circuit of the Americas. I think It’s pretty cool to drive my car on just about any race track, but to drive on a current Formula 1 track cranks the coolness factor up a notch or three.

I started planning this trip late last year. For a while it looked like David might make the trip too. He’d trailer his car, which meant he’d be able to take my track wheels. The scheduling just didn’t work out, though. So I’d do it solo, marathon style, shortest elapsed time, minimum vacation days used.

It’s a thousand miles each way, thirty hours driving time. To spend a day driving. A week after collecting the car from the shop, where it spent one hundred days. No shakedown cruise, just straight into battle, so to speak.

The days leading up to my Portland and Laguna Seca trips were filled with pleasant anticipation, a buzz of excitement. This time it’s a bit different. Those trips were scenic drives with many good Lotus roads. They were vacations. This will be more akin to spending a long weekend crossing the Russian Steppes.

COTA Blitz!

Friday, June 9

I left the house promptly at 3pm, hoping to arrive in Clayton, NM around 8pm. This was optimistic. I didn’t have a motel reservation in Clayton. The thinking was that if I was making good time I could make it to Dalhart, TX. If not, there are half a dozen motels in Clayton availability shouldn’t be a problem.

The two obvious routes out of town are I-25 through central Denver or C-470 to US 85 and catch I-25 at Castle Rock. I chose the latter. Things weren’t starting well. I should have taken Sheridan but took Wadsworth instead. It was backed up. I-70 to C-470 is the next leg, and I-70 was a parking lot for a few miles. C-470 wasn’t any better until nearly Chatfield.

Going down US 85 I briefly considered taking the back road, CO 105, to Monument. But I figured I was in a hurry and didn’t have time for the scenic route. In retrospect, the back road probably would almost certainly have been faster. I-25 was stop and go until the Larkspur exit, never getting over about 20mph. Then, there was an accident on the north side of Colorado Springs that had traffic snarled.

It took me over three hours to get to Pueblo. South of Pueblo the traffic thinned out to more what I expected. Now I could follow Ryan’s advice to modulate my engine RPM’s. The speed limit is 75, which I obeyed until somebody faster passed. Then, once I left a reasonable gap, I matched speeds with them. After a few miles I’d slow back to the limit. Lather, rinse, repeat. This got me all over the map between 4,000 and 5,000 RPM. The earlier stop-and-go covered the lower ranges.

I quit violating Rule #1 when I got gas at the junction with US 87 in Raton. Fueling up, I was approached by a gentleman who was gassing up his rig. “I had a 2002 Esprit, sold it a while back to Dez Bryant of the Cowboys.” He pulled out his phone and showed me Dez Bryant sitting in a yellow 25th anniversary Esprit. “That’s one car I’m not wanting to see again. I’m afraid it’ll have 25” wheels.” He bought it new, said it was number 25.

“I went to that ell-oh-gee a few years back.” “The one in Aspen?”, I ask. “Yup, the one in Snowmass.” He’s a Corvette guy. I asked him what he had, he listed off five or six. I lost count. “The Esprit was just sitting. So I sold it.” I told him I was heading to Circuit of the Americas. “Oh, you’ll enjoy see-oh-tea-ay!”

While this conversation was going on, a woman with a little kid, perhaps 4 years old, approached. “He wants to look at your car.” I asked him if he wanted to sit in it. Mom had to go back to the minivan for her cell phone so she could get a picture.

No longer violating Rule #1, I would soon be breaking Rule #2. The sun was setting behind me, and entering Des Moines the road bends slightly south. This put the rising full moon directly in front of me, sitting large on the horizon. The last 40 miles or so were in the dark. Parts of the road had recently been repaired but not yet painted, adding to the degree of difficulty. I keep a keen watch for the flash of eyes in the darkness. I passed the carcass of a deer or antelope on the shoulder, I couldn’t tell which.

When you enter Clayton from the west the road goes over a railroad overpass. On the far side of the overpass the police had a car pulled over in the right lane. Not on the right shoulder, but still on the road. The speed limit is 30 through here. A couple blocks later, a police cruiser coming the other way turned his lights on and flipped a U-turn right in front of me. I was going 28. There were two or three cars ahead of me in that block; I don’t think anybody was going 35 but one got pulled over. Looks like Clayton is working on generating some revenue!

I headed to the Super 8 at the opposite end of town, passing plans B and C on the way. It didn’t look like there were a lot of cars in the lot, which I took as a good sign. There was nobody at the front desk, though. I pushed the bell a couple of times, trying to be patient. Then I tried the bell on the outside of the building. Just then another gentleman came in and asked if I’d pushed the button. A few moments later, a clerk finally materialized. “I don’t know how many rooms I have, if I even have any rooms. Are you two together? I might have a queen smoking room.” We are definitely not together. She called her manager and finally was able to give a report: they had one queen non-smoking, one queen smoking. Having arrived first, I claimed the non-smoking room. The other guy left.

This week on “What Did I Forget?”: pajamas.

Saturday, June 10

I wanted to get an early start, as I’d lose an hour about ten miles down the road when I entered Texas and the Central time zone.

I loaded up the car, strapped myself in, turned the key and pushed the button. A quick “tik tik tik tik.” I wondered if I’d accidentally left an interior light on or something. It started up just fine at the gas station in Raton, but not here. Accessories worked okay, just no crank. There were some folks in the parking lot so I asked if I could get a jump. Friendly people; one provided the cables, the other the jump. So I was on the road pretty much on time. Hopefully, running the car a hundred miles would charge the battery and all would be well.

I won’t bother with turn by turn navigation. I ended up on a lot of different roads, and many of them had multiple route designations. I didn’t have an atlas, I put my faith in Google. I simply entered my hotel address as the destination and said “no tolls” and let it guide me.

But after my luck with this strategy on the Laguna Seca trip, why would I do it again? Crossing Texas is nothing like crossing Nevada. I was happy with the route. It skirted Amarillo and Lubbock, the biggest cities on the way. It was a mix of US highways, Texas highways, and Interstates, but probably as little of the latter as was possible without adding a lot of time to the drive.

Much of the morning was spent crossing the Caprock Escarpment. This is a geological formation that is notable for its flatness. There’s not a tree or river to be seen; the terrain is as flat as a table, no sign that water has ever flowed here. The extreme western end is in New Mexico. It stretches from the Oklahoma panhandle on the north to a point roughly east of El Paso on the south, and its eastern edge is east of Lubbock. It’s a big place. Featureless, dull, with roads that are the antithesis of Lotus roads: flat and straight. This is crop circle land, literally: farms featuring center-pivot irrigation, mile after mile.

The only relief from this monotony is a stretch between Channing and Bushland, on Texas routes, where you descend through a valley that has somehow managed to be eroded from its surroundings.

I stopped for fuel in Amarillo, at the extreme southwest corner of the loop highway, Texas 335. Unfortunately, the car again failed to start. We live in a time of technological marvels. I was able to consult my phone to get a list of auto shops, with hours of operation and phone numbers. As this was Saturday, though, quite a few were closed. And the first two I tried that were supposedly open failed to answer. My third try was a Firestone shop.

After some bad experiences decades ago with Firestone I was reluctant to try them, but they were now my best shot. I called them, told them I needed to get to Austin before dark and asked if they could help. They said yes, so I had a destination. It took me all of about 90 seconds to get a volunteer to give me a jump start. This friendly gentleman also gave me directions to the very Firestone shop I had just talked to.

Within ten minutes I was at the shop. They quickly diagnosed the problem – it was indeed the battery – and were able to provide a replacement of the same brand and model. I was in and out in a bit less than an hour, and everyone there was friendly and helpful. I was back on the road a bit after 11am.

With the phone doing the navigating, I typically don’t even hear it chime when I get text messages. Even when I do hear them, I certainly don’t bother with them until I get to my next stop. At one point Ryan texted, wondering how the car was running. I let him know of my difficulties, and he was quite supportive. It really means a lot that he took a few minutes out of his busy day. He’s working to support a car in the Ferrari Challenge, one of the several events in Montreal this Grand Prix weekend.

The next stretch of road was I-27 southbound toward Lubbock. We’re back atop the Caprock Escarpment, straight, flat, and boring. Just before arriving on the north end of Lubbock I started seeing the icons of Texas: longhorn cattle and oil pumps. I felt like I finally entered Texas.

I much prefer US highways to Interstates. But in Texas there is often little difference between the two. Many of the miles I’ve traversed on US 87, US 84, and US 183 may as well be Interstates. They’re four (or more) lanes, divided highways, often with limited access. Exactly the kind of roads I try to avoid. Luckily, they don’t have nearly the truck traffic we see on the Interstates.

Google skirted me around Lubbock on the loop highway and sent me southeast on US 84. This is very much oil patch territory. Each farm and ranch had a number of oil pumps. It looked to me like only about a quarter or a third of them were in operation, bouncing slowly up and down. The scent of Texas Tea was in the air. As the road descends from the Caprock, not only the terrain is transformed. The flora changes dramatically from ranchland to what we’re more used to seeing in stereotypical television and movie versions of Texas. But the bigger transformation, to my surprise, was from oil wells to windmills.

My first thought was, “Wow, there are hundreds of windmills!” This is wrong. There are not hundreds of windmills. There are thousands. While only a fraction of the oil wells are actively pumping, well over ninety percent of the windmills were spinning. There are more than ten thousand windmills generating power in Texas and my route takes me through the largest concentration of them.

I remained on US 84 until the junction with I-20, which I took for only a short distance. When you get to Sweetwater on I-20, there’s a windmill blade, maybe sixty feet long, by the side of the road with “Life is Sweet in Sweetwater” written on it. By now, we’ve been passing windmills for nearly a hundred miles. And still they line the horizon. Somewhere around Brownwood I find myself back on US 84 and finally we leave the windmills in the rearview mirror.

The remainder of the route follows US 183 south. I’m somewhat amused by the directions Google provides. We follow 183 for twenty or thirty or more miles and are directed to make a right turn to remain on 183. This happens five or six times before we finally get to Austin where 183 becomes an urban Interstate: four, five, or six lanes wide, elevated, with much traffic.

I was not so good today modulating my engine speed. There’s some degree of that that occurs naturally, being that the roads I traveled pass through many small towns. The speed limits drop from 75 to 70 to 55 and on down to 45, 35, and 30. Then back up through the progression on the other side of town. But on the open road I pretty much stuck to the speed limit, which is a nearly universal 75.

I checked in to the motel at a quarter to eight. I hadn’t eaten dinner but didn’t want to get back in the car, so I wandered down the road a couple of blocks and found a dive Mexican restaurant. I was one of only a few customers. Had two beers and two tacos. Tasty tacos and refreshing beer, sure hit the spot.

Got online to make reservations in Snyder for the way back. I didn’t want to risk not having a room, after the near miss in Clayton. I used Expedia; selected a motel, entered my credit card info, and pressed submit. No reservation showed up in my account. So I called the motel. They had no record either of my reservation, so I asked for one. No problem, she says, and reserves me a room.

It has been a long day, leavened with a little stress from the problem battery. And I have a big day tomorrow. Drivers meeting is at 7:15, so I need to be checked out of the hotel not much after 6:30. Time to hit the hay.

LoCo Spring Drive – Day 3

June 4

For a three day vacation, there wasn’t much sleeping in. We breakfasted and checked out of the hotel and were on the road by 8am. We started off eastbound on I-80 for about twenty miles until we reached WY 130. Going south on WY 130 you cross the top of the T in a T-intersection. To continue on 130 we needed to make a left turn. Continuing straight puts you on WY 230.

We missed the turn. We were in the middle of the pack and assumed nobody else saw it as nobody slowed down or put on a turn signal. I didn’t see it until we were right on top of it, but Genae had no doubt we missed the turn for Snowy Pass. We discussed options, really wanting to turn around. I dithered, wanting to stay with the group. Before long, though, Mike found a spot where we could turn our string of cars around and after a short detour we were back on our proper way. I probably jinxed us yesterday by joking that we hadn’t made any wrong turns.

Medicine Bow Peak and the Snowy Range

The Snowy Range was the highlight of today’s drive. Mike led us to a scenic overlook that was empty, and we lined up the cars in front of the gorgeous backdrop of the Snowy Range. We lined up with the Hyundai and Subaru at the end, and very quickly a Honda Fit pulled into formation with us; an automotive photobomb. They made good by taking our group picture with Peter’s camera; he didn’t have a tripod, so with their help he got to be in the picture.

Photo courtesy Peter Monson

At the eastern foot of the pass we exited pine forest onto the high plains and through the town of Centennial. From there the road goes to Laramie, where we had a pit stop and a picnic in the park. At the gas station, one of the gals working there came out and ogled the cars. “I like that one best”, she said, pointing to the Elan +2, the oldest car in the group. “I like the old ones. I used to have Jaguar E-Type.” She was quite the enthusiast. She told us all sorts of clubs stop here; even the monster trucks came through.

From Laramie we headed south on WY 230. If you’ve been paying attention you may be wondering how we find ourselves on the road that we made a wrong turn on to on the other side of the Snowy Range. This is a fair question. You’ll have to ask somebody at the Wyoming transportation department. It appears that one can enter Colorado in two different places by driving south on WY 230.

In any event, we climb back above the grassy plains and into pine forest, and into Colorado where the route changes designation to CO 127. After a few short miles we exit the forest again and emerge in North Park where we junction with CO 125. (If you stay on CO 127 rather than making a left onto 127 you’ll cross into Wyoming and find yourself heading north on WY 230.)

I’ve lived in Colorado forty years and I’ve never been to North Park before. It was obvious to me where we were; it’s quite similar to South Park but on a smaller scale. A flat, wide, treeless, high altitude valley ringed by snow-capped mountains. We turned east on CO 14 and ascended Cameron pass. I made a point to try to identify what side roads I could, as I plan on coming here for a hike in a few weeks. But without knowing what I was looking for, a road name or route number, I could do little other than to get a sense of the terrain.

We didn’t have to go far down the Poudre canyon to start hitting traffic. We were trying to go only a few mph over the limit. The first couple of cars we caught up to kindly pulled over for us. Then we came upon a truck towing a 30’ trailer. He was oblivious; had a string of cars behind him about a mile long, was going between 10 and 20 mph under the limit, and passed at least three dozen signs advising slow traffic to use the pullouts. He led us all the way to US 287.

When we got out of the canyon, my phone chimed with a text. It was Victor, saying my car was ready. I had Genae reply, telling him I’d call him in a few minutes.

Our next (and last) rally point was the Conoco station at the corner of Wilcox and College. I immediately got on the phone with Victor. He really wanted to get the car to me so he had played around with it some more. He disconnected, cleaned, and reconnected the suspected bad sensor and it worked. I told him I’d stop by his shop after we had dinner with my brother.

I drove the rest of the way home in the Elise, but that’s the end of the next blog entry. I’m finally ready to tell the ordeal of the cam.

LoCo Spring Drive – Day 2

June 3

We wanted to get an early start today. Our first stop is the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center. It’s a short drive from there to the Quarry Exhibit Hall, and by 9:00 we’d have to take the shuttle bus. So we had breakfast and checked out of the hotel by 7:30.

Fossils in the quarry wall

They built a building over a “wall” of fossils; hundreds in a very small place. There are the bones of Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and several other behemoths plainly visible, free to be touched (as long as you don’t climb on the wall). The exhibit hall also includes murals and castings and signs detailing the fossils and the history of the quarry.

Quarry Exhibit Hall

The layers of the Earth are nearly vertical here. One of the layers had a faintly blue tint, which reminded me of the John Day fossil bed that I visited on my Oregon trip a few years ago. I asked about the similarity back at the visitors center but the ranger I talked to had only recently started work there and didn’t have an answer.

Swelter Shelter

We took a quick side trip about a half mile up the road to Swelter Shelter. This is a small site with enough parking for maybe half a dozen cars. Just a couple hundred feet from the road you get to see both petroglyphs and pictographs. A petroglyph is an image chipped or carved into the rock while a pictograph is something that is painted on the rock. The pictographs are somewhat more rare, as they’re more easily weathered. Unfortunately, many modern visitors have left their own marks here as well.

 

Extinct and large

After Dinosaur, back to Vernal then north on US 191. After a few miles the road rises steeply, navigating ten switchbacks taking us from high desert to more mountainous terrain – aspen and pine. The Simplot phosphate mine is visible in places on both sides of the highway. There are a couple of scenic overlooks but we dallied longer than expected at Dinosaur and didn’t stop to take in the views.

 

 

Extant and small

For several miles along this route we pass through a number of geological layers; we’re traveling through time. I didn’t have any idea which way we were going, from older to younger or vice-versa. For each layer we traversed there was an accompanying sign by the side of the road: “Morrison formation – where Stegosaurus roamed”. Some referenced “bizarre sharks” or fossilized sand dunes.

Passing through geologic history, we climbed and the terrain changed from high desert to mountain forests of pine and aspen. Flaming Gorge dam was next on our itinerary. US 191 makes a right turn at the junction with UT 44. We continued on 191 to the dam. Here we made notes of what we might see when we come back with the luxury of more time. They give a walking tour of the dam, where you can go deep inside and see the inner workings.

Flaming Gorge dam

On the east side of the dam there’s a road down to a boat ramp on the river. Near the top of this road is a small pullout with a nice view of the face of the dam. We asked some other members of our group if they wanted to go with us but had no takers. By the time we returned to the parking lot half a dozen others changed their minds. That’s okay, though, as there was very little parking.

We headed back down US 191 toward UT 44. Genae was keeping an eye out for a place to pull over so we could get a picture of an interesting bridge we crossed to get to the dam. It’s very much like the bridge at Roosevelt dam near Phoenix. Mike was way ahead of us, though, and had already picked out a spot for a group photo.

Which of these is not like the others?

Next we made another side trip, to Red Canyon overlook this time. There were a number of warning signs: “Steep cliffs. Guard your children!” The view was spectacular. Although we couldn’t hear the boats below us, we could see them clearly. We watched a water skier wipe out. By now it was noon and lunch wasn’t scheduled until we got to Green River. So it was decided we’d change plans and have lunch here. But no food was available; we had ours with us in a cooler (advantage of having cargo space) and a few others had stopped at a Subway in Vernal, but some didn’t have food. So a few cars went ahead of us.

After lunch we took a side trip down the Sheep Rock Geologic Loop for another group photo. We understood the loop was closed and turned around but found out later that some who didn’t have lunch went this way and the loop was open and “spectacular”. While we were stopped for this photo, I saw Ken messing around at the front of our car. He had a magnetic roundel, and temporarily made our car an honorary Lotus.

The terrain changes dramatically as we cross from Utah to Wyoming, from pine and aspen forest to high desert. Along the way we encountered some of the same signs as we saw in the morning, describing each of the geologic layers we traversed.

We stopped for fuel in Green River, WY. This was our originally scheduled lunch stop. It’s a good thing we adjusted our plan, as it was late afternoon by now.

About this time, I exchanged text messages with Victor. He confirmed that the car was ready. But shortly thereafter he called. He was sorry, but the car wouldn’t be ready until Monday at the earliest. He test drove it, but the fan never came on. Evidently the engine head coolant temperature sensor was bad and the fan wasn’t coming on. They can’t get a replacement part until Monday. I was disappointed, to say the least.

The final leg of the day was a blast eastbound on I-80 to Rawlins. We were gassed up and ready to go, so we hit the road first. It didn’t take long for the modern cars to pass us by, but we had a big enough head start that the older cars were still behind us.

After getting checked in at the hotel we had time for a brief rest before heading to dinner at Aspen House. We can be a bit picky when it comes to dining out. We wanted to go over the menu first, thinking we may head off on our own. They don’t have a menu on their website but the Yelp reviews were pretty good so we said “what the heck” and went anyway. This was a good decision. The restaurant operates in an interesting old Victorian house and the food and service were both good.