It was a moment of disbelief when I didn’t even have the time to be stunned.
Two days prior I had been in the 100 degree heat of Moab, UT sweating just to stand still. If my future self had told my past self that two days later I would be braving a snow storm in the middle of May in the mountain passes of Colorado, I don’t know if I would have believed me.
Brendan and I had just left Moab that afternoon and were looking for a free campsite that had been listed off of I-70, about ten miles down highway six. We started climbing the winding mountain road in the RV, also known as Thor, towing the little Toyota Corolla. There were steep grades that varied from 6% to 9% and Thor was re-enacting the story of the Little Engine That Could as it faithfully carried us, the two little wiener dogs, and most of our earthly possessions up the mountain.
“Woohoo!” I would exclaim when we reached a speed higher than 25 miles per hour. “We just hit thirty!”
It was slow going but we made it to the designated camping sites that could be seen just off of the highway. There were a couple of RVs already parked and they looked like a handful of dirt plots scattered along a dirt road. Sometimes the free camping sites that other people are kind enough to share have you staying next to the flow of the Columbia River, in the local fairgrounds with running water, or in a dirt patch on the side of a state highway.
“What do you think?” I asked Brendan. He looked unimpressed, so I continued, “I’ve still got wind and we’ve still got daylight, do you want to keep going? According to the map, if we keep following this road it will intersect with I-70 again.”
“Yeah, let’s keep going,” he replied.
The map showed a few twists and turns in the form of a couple switchbacks but it didn’t prepare us for the reality of the mountain climb.
We started the trek again and began going past ski condos and ski lifts with snow on the ground. Soon we found ourselves going higher than even the lifts and snow started to fall from the sky. The roads were clear, but I slowed Thor down to 25 mph for safety’s sake instead of worrying about taxing the engine. There were no guard rails and the steep white slopes were not something I wanted to try off-roading in the RV.
“I can’t believe this is happening again,” Brendan said. “In May.” He has another story of traveling Colorado state highway 550 on his way back from a road trip to Austin that he should be the one to tell, but this wasn’t his first white-knuckled, white-out rodeo. “New rule. No Colorado state highways… ever,” he pronounced.
Thor continued to wind its way around the roads and we spotted signs that warned backcountry hikers of the avalanche risk of the area. Apparently natural avalanches weren’t enough but they might also be triggered by “remote weaponry.” I suppose it’s better to know when an avalanche is going to happen, rather than guess. Another sign told us that we had crossed the Continental Divide and as we began the descent down the mountain we discovered that we had just made it through Loveland Pass and were about to merge back onto I-70.
There was a brief moment of relief to realize that we had made it off the mountain alive and away from highway six, but the realization that we were now on the “other side” and that I-70 was just as treacherous with the snowfall now coming down thickly kept me gripping the wheel tightly.
The windshield wipers that had handled the rain on the Olympic peninsula of Washington and endured the thunderstorms of Salt Lake City were suddenly choking up on the wet snow that was piling up on the glass. “Um…” I was trying not to let the edge of panic completely overwhelm my voice. “I’m having some trouble with visibility,” I told Brendan.
“Here,” he spotted for me, “pull over.”
The “No Parking” signs glared at me and I hesitated. “No parking,” I said, hard wired to follow the rules.
“It’s an emergency,” Brendan insisted. “Now is the time to break the rules.”
That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from Brendan in my staunch stance of following the rules, even to my detriment. There are times when those rules not only should but need to be broken.
Brendan jumped out of the cab and took a paper towel out to wipe off the accumulating slush from the windshield and we were on our way again.
“I think we should spend the night in more normal weather,” Brendan said as we passed the rest area we had thought we might use as our backup should the earlier campsite we had scouted fall through. So we pushed on until the clouds parted, the sun had set, and we found ourselves a mile high in the sky in the city of Denver.