My End is in My Beginning: the Final Days of the Great Shea Western Voyage of Discovery

And so it came to pass that, lo, we did awake in the rest area of Rifle, Colorado (named because some mapmaker in the 19th century made a temporary note on his cartography material that a member of the surveying party had lost his gun and the note was mistaken for the name of the spot).  It is, ironically, in Garfield County, named for one of the American Presidential beneficiaries of our rich tradition of second amendment rights exercised by idiots “fighting tyranny”.  Rifle was also the scene of one of Teddy Roosevelt’s many hunting expeditions out west as well as the site of one of Christo’s preposterous “hanging out big sheets of plastic and calling it art” thingies:

Image result for christo rifle gap

The wind, which is fierce here, ripped it to pieces.  Nature is an unforgiving critic.

Anyway, we hit the road (it was a just a little over a week ago), Saturday, April 14, a day associated with terror and death.  On that day, in 1865 Abraham Lincoln also received the benefits of our rich second amendment tradition and, in 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg, killing Leonardo DiCaprio.

Closer to the present, we had to cross the pass on I-70 in an odyssey of terror.

It began pleasantly enough.  I’m used to mountains and mountain driving.  Indeed, the feeling of being hemmed in by mountain ranges is normal where I come from, seeing as how every view of the land where I live is bounded by the snowy Cascades on the east and the snowy Olympics on the west.  Getting out into the open country of Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is what is weird to me.  All that terrifying empty space in every direction!  How do people live like that?

At the same time, there is a wildly different quality to the Rockies than there is to ranges like the Cascades.  You still have the spectacular towering walls of stone dressed in moss, trees, grass, and flowers, dwarfing the entire scale of humanity to mere insects.  But there are also huge empty spaces of valleys between them that also dwarf everything.  Cattle are mere specks out there in the immense grasslands between the mountains and multiple different ranges make up the Rockies.  You drive on and and on and you are still climbing.  It seems to never end.

(I’d provide pictures but the camera is, alas, with my wife who has gone to a ladies retreat this weekend, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.)

Anyway, we were making for Colorado Springs via I-70 and it started to finally get a bit snowy, as well as muck getting sprayed on the windshield from other cars.  So I switched on the brand new windshield wipers and…. suddenly there was no wiper fluid!  AGGGH!

It was hard, but not impossible to see, so I got off at the Leadville exit (ab0ut 10,000 feet) and pulled into a service station which was, happily, well-provisioned with wiper fluid.  Filled the reservoir (but also heard an odd splashing sound, as though there was still fluid in there). So I tested the squirt mechanism and… it still didn’t work.  The problem was the cold.  It was freezing the fluid at the spout.  Jan got out and scraped the ice off with her fingers and it worked okay. So we gassed up, since climbing 11,000 feet costs you lotsa gas, and returned to the freeway, which was already in progress (points for my Firesign Theatre reference please).

Almost immediately the wiper fluid stopped working again.  We tried everything, but nothing helped.  We pulled off to the side and Jan tried warming the little jobbies with her hands.  Nothing.  Finally we were reduced to dumping our drinking water on the windshield, or lobbing wet snow at it, but when you got back on the road, it was immediately dirty again.

Somehow, we reached the summit and then, emerging from the Eisenhower Tunnel, we were plunged into an odyssey of terror as our windshield went almost completely white with frozen mud and we had no way to get it off as we sped down the hill with me peering through the thin band through which light could penetrate and I navigated as best I could till we could pull over some miles hence.

We cleaned the windshield with more water and snow and pressed on and eventually, we got down to altitudes and temperatures where the fluid finally started to work and we could see fine again.  But neither of us wanted to go through that again and we agreed she should drive going back (by a different route than that terrifying altitude).

We reach I-40 on the west side of Denver and then bent south to Colorado Springs–the Vatican of American Evangelicalism–where we arrived at my good friend Sherry’s house sometime after noon.

Sherry was her warm and welcoming self and it was lovely to come into her cozy home and have tea and milk and comfy couches and chat about her work and see her garden and  pet her cats.  Felt like home away from home a bit.

She made us a lovely eggy sausagey thing (I never get tired of eggy sausagey things) and we hung out for a while and gabbed.  Eventually I bugged out for a pre-arranged meeting with reader Robert Faughnan, who lived in the area and wanted to grab a cuppa joe and chat.  So we got together at every Seattleite’s home away from home: Starbucks.

Robert is a great guy.  Huge heart, love for Christ’s little ones, head screwed on straight, and just plain kind.  I very much relished the chance to talk and hash out some of the problems the Church and the country face today.  Plus, he kindly gave me a novel by Rudolfo Anaya called Bless Me, Ultima.

Then I made my way home in time for bedtime, whereupon we hit the hay with relish and slept the sleep of the weary traveler till early Sunday morning.

Then, per our pre-arranged agreement, we got up before dawn and went to the splendid Garden of the Gods to watch the sunrise hit the stunning red sandstone formations that populate that blessed place.

I looked up as we wandered the place and beheld one of the greatest comic visions of my life: a lone Canada Goose majestically silhouetted against the rising sun, lord of all he surveyed.  And Jan captured a glorious image of it:

So great.

We ambled about the place for an hour or so.  Here’s a taste:

Then we headed for breakfast at a local place that serves breakfasty things all day long.  It’s like Ron Swanson Heaven.  I’d worked up an appetite and got pancakes, bacon, and eggs (have I mentioned I like eggs?).  The waitress was a nice gal and we all wound up chatting.  She was new in town (from California) and we all wound up gabbing about places to see and go camping.  I recommended the San Juan Islands to her.  She was the kind of waitress who calls people “dear” and “love” and “hon”.  Very cheery.

Then we ambled back to Sherry’s and basically spent the day doing nothing and relaxing.  I took a nap.  Jan read a book out in the garden.  Sherry struggled with her taxes (I did mine before we left so as to have no anguish.)  At one point, I took the car in to have it washed at a drive-through car wash (something I have not done in years and something which always fills me with giddy amusement for some reason).  I also tried to get it lubed but could not, for the life of me, find the Jiffy Lube.

So Jan, who also needed to do some shopping, gave it a whirl later and achieved mission parameters.  She also, being the Wife of Proverbs 31, managed to replace a transformer doohickey that I had stupidly burnt out.

Then, at 5, we went to the evening Mass at Sherry’s parish, which was just what the doctor ordered.

That evening, I spoke with a friend via the video thingie on FB and we discuss some of our various struggles about various things.  It was a poignant ending to an otherwise light-hearted day.

Next morning, we were up bright and early, repacking our various belongings in the car to head off across the Rockies (via the route through Leadville, the world’s highest town with the world’s highest steeple at the Church of the Annuniciation, where the Unsinkable Molly Brown was married):

Image result for Leadville highest steeple

We pressed on all day, kitty corner across Colorado till we got to Dinosaur, Colorado, talked to the very sunny Welcome Center guy who pointed us to Dinosaur National Monument, which is the home of the Morrison Formation.

For Dinosaur Nerds, the Morrison Formation is a major pilgrimage site, not a tribute to The Doors.  150 million years ago, it was a river in a semi-tropical wetland near an inland sea.  A drought hit the area and the water supply dried up, so the local dinos (some ten different large species) crowded around the water supply till it vanished.  Then they started to die in large numbers, and get their carcasses scavenged by allosaurs, the apex predators of the day.

Shortly thereafter, the rains returned and created a torrent that washed away the smaller bones of little critters but jumbled together the huge bones of apatosaurs, stegasaurs, camarasaurs and sundry other big beasts in a giant heap and buried them.  The mud in which they were preserved eventually hardened into rock, fossilized the bones, and was thrust up nearly vertical by the formation of the Rockies.

Eventually that rock was worn away, exposing the fossils which were discovered a little over a century ago.  La Voila!

Image result for dinosaur national monument

We got there about a half hour before closing, but the ranger took an easy-going, relaxed Mediterranean attitude toward our lingering examination of the fossils and then recommended a nice hike close by that took us to more giant fossils that are just sitting out there in the native rock.

I was thrilled right down to my Little Boy’s Heart by the chance to see fossils in the wild and, with Jan’s urging (“If that trail is there and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But soon, and for the rest of your life.”) we set out to explore.

It was a steep climb down and the wind was ferocious in some spots, with stinging sand that forced you to walk backwards down the trail.  We found marine fossils (clams mostly) as well as (oh rapture!) a *huge* bone that appeared to be a sauropod forearm.  Just there.  Sticking out of the rock.

Excavation and extraction ended at the Morrison Formation about twenty years ago, mostly because there was no new information forthcoming.  They found the same 10 species repeatedly and so they decided to leave the place alone as a monument.

Eventually we saw all that we wanted to see and the sun was westering, so we headed back to the car, drove down to the Visitor Center and picnicked in the parking lot, all alone.  Salmon sandwiches!  Yum!

There was a stegosaur statue near the visitor center that was part of a display for the 1964 World’s Fair which somehow wound up here.  We naturally posed for hokey pictures and I touched the very tip of the tail, just to say I had.

Then a guy drove up in his truck, asking for directions to the Quarry (where we had just been).  We chatted for a while and it turned out he was a footloose and fancy-free fisherman in the Bering Sea who, when he was not working, took his enormous wages and blew it on travel.  So now he was looking for dinosaurs.  We steered him to where he wanted to go (though it was now closed, but he would return in the morning) and then Garmined ourselves in the general direction of where we wanted to go next: the Ape Caves near Mount St. Helens–a rather considerable distance from the upper right hand corner of Utah.

It was a warm, sunny, clear (and windy) evening and we were now well-fed.  So we decided to put some miles behind us for a couple of hours.

We made it 142 miles and then tucked in at a rest area (cheap as free!) and decided to turn in.  There were four feral cats there and they kept their distance from us, but Jan, being adorable, poured them a dish of milk, and then another, which they eagerly lapped up.

Jan and I agreed that since it was such a warm evening, we would only need one sleeping bag.  So we tucked in and were soon dead asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke to Jan heading for the loo and was surprised at how cold it was.  I awaited her return (snuggling back to back is an excellent warmer upper for both parties) but when she got back I felt her sit on the mattress but not lie down.  She kind of leaned over me to see if I was awake and I asked her what was up.

She said, “It’s snowing sideways.”

“What?”

I got my glasses and looked out the window.  It was a blizzard out there and the snow was already piling up.  And it was that very dry, powdery kind of snow that says, “BRRRRR!” especially in that fierce wind.

She said, “It’s 4:20 AM.  You wanna put on some miles?”

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” said I.  I had no desire to be trapped in a rest area in the middle of nowhere.

So we piled out of the van, threw all the stuff from the front seats on our mattress and headed off into the pitch dark of the Utah desert roads, with snow blowing heavily in our headlights.

As we drove, I found that I was longing for home and the more we drove, the more I just wanted to keep going till we got home.  Garmin declared infallibly that we were 1053 miles from our own nice, warm beds and that sounded increasingly lovely as we went.

We passed close to Salt Lake City (Jan really wanted to see the Great Salt Lake and salt flats, which she tantalizingly did, but never managed to get a decent picture of it, as far as I know).  Our car very reliably got about 400 miles per tank of gas and the coolant system, which had given us such a scare in Zion, never flagged.

We spelled each other on the drive, listening to Vox Libra freebie recordings of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.  When Jan drove I slept or scribbled things on the computer or played music.  After sufficient sleep, I was ready for a good long spell of driving and Jan was ready for a nap.

It was fascinating to watch the land slowly evolve from Utah into Idaho.  Increasingly, it reminded me of the Palouse around Walla Walla.  We passed into Idah0 and kept descending in enormous curving swoops till we came down out of the last of the Rocky foothills and into the Snake River area.

I proposed to Jan that we skip the Ape Caves (which we were not going to reach till dusk anyway) and press on to home.  She was amused, but she agreed to it.  But she asked if we could still parallel the Columbia instead of shortcutting up to Yakima and over I-90 and I said of course.

The Columbia is, if memory serves, the second mightiest river system in the US after the Mississippi.  We fetched up with it (on the Oregon side) and paralleled it for a couple hundred miles, nearly to Portland.  It is now a series of lakes due to the colossal system of dams that FDR built to water and electrify the Pacific Northwest.  But much of the land is very similar to what Lewis and Clark saw when they came down it two centuries ago.  It was, like so much of what we saw, beautiful–and enormous.  Also, dams–especially Bonneville–were impressive, though not as impressive as Hoover Dam or the Grand Coulee Dam (“mightiest thing ever built by a man!” according to Woody Guthrie).

There were also beautiful waterfalls on the great basalt cliffs on the Oregon side.  Don’t know their names, but they drifted in the wind as they fell and looked like lacey kerchiefs in the westering sun.  So pretty.

As we closed in on Portland I felt increasingly like Samwise entering Ithilien after having spent time in the desolation before the Morannon.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed the beauty of the desert but, well, there’s no place like home and coming into the Cascadia ecozone that runs from British Columbia, through western Washington and down into the Willamette Valley was an exquisite and joyous blessing.  It was wonderful to see the first road sign mentioning Seattle after two weeks and when we took the exit for I-5 and headed north, crossing the Columbia into Washington, my heart gave a leap.

We drove the 177 miles in the failing light with light hearts ourselves.  I felt better and better about skipping the Ape Caves since it was dusk and we would have had to sleep another night in the car to see them in the morning.  We posted the home front on FB that we were on the way, so we didn’t walk into some desperate scramble to fix the place up.  But as it happened, our very good kids had just naturally taken care of the home while were gone.

Weird.  It appears we raised them right.

Anyway we got in at 10ish, having driven 1053 miles since 4:20 AM (and that didn’t count the fact that we drove back in time by crossing from Mountain to Pacific time).  Every sight along the way, especially after we hit Olympia, was a thrill because we knew it like the back of our hands.  This was Home!  There’s JBLM!  And the Tacoma Dome!  And the good old traffic mess near it!  And Seatac!  And Renton!  And Seattle!  And the express lanes!  And Lake City!  And Northgate!  And Shoreline!  And Snohomish County!  And dear, sweet Home!

And it only took 5161.1 miles to get there!  Oh Aunty Em!  There’s no place like Home!

We were bushed, but we also wanted to catch up with Pete and Sean and tell some of our adventures.  Sean had driven with friends to Red Rock Amphitheatre in Denver last year, so he knew some of the places we’d been (and recommended Arches to us).  We were surprisingly energized once we got talking and didn’t actually get to bed till midnight.

I’m not really clear how to sum up a tale of journeying like this.  I Learned Some Things to be sure.  But mostly what I did was experience some things.  What it all means I may fill in later.  But right now my abiding impressions are simply the sights and smells and sounds that come flooding back to me when I think about it.

I remember, at one point, driving through a huge open space, I’m not sure where (there are a colossal number of Huge Open Spaces in the American West) and I looked up at the vast sky stretching in all directions unbounded and studded with a lot of small white clouds stuck to the blue like cotton.  It looked like Freedom itself painted before me and I suddenly found myself gasping out tears just for the beauty of the place.  I couldn’t tell you why it affected me so strongly.  It just did. Another place, near Lake Powell, presented me with a sight of the red high desert at sunset that I will associate with Ray Bradbury’s Mars till the day I die. I didn’t think about it or analyze it.  I just went through it: an experience, not an idea.

Much of the journey still affects me that way.  I’m very glad we did it and I hope we have further adventures one of these days (and quite an exciting one may be coming up next year or so).  But at present, I’m still kind of digesting this one and trying to wrap my head around the immensity of all we have seen and, well, experienced.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did and I’m glad we got to share it with you.

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