BLACKTOP, BLOOD AND BISON: Seven days Nine states 4244 miles
I’m not sure I ever heard of Colorado State University. My son Luke decided he wanted to attend there in the fall of 2016. He got accepted and was 93.1954% sure he wanted to go. At least two, and possibly three of his friends had committed. One of his best friends was uncommitted and touring CSU in two weeks. I decided that maybe we should pay it a visit. My daughter Sophie is a junior and I figured she could use the college tour experience. We decided on a road trip, setting up college tours at CSU and the University of Chicago.
I over-research everything. Toasters, sneakers, dryers, lightning cables, light bulbs … everything. Naturally, I spent hours on TripAdvisor and Yelp searching for where to be a tourist and where to sleep and where to see nature. We could skip the world’s largest stamp ball in Nebraska but maybe not “Carhenge” or the largest truck stop in the USA in Iowa. I rented an SUV for a week for $40/day with unlimited miles. Cheaper than one flight to Denver for one person and more room than my car. The kids have been groomed to be road-friendly and have traveled by car over long distances A LOT.
We set off at night on the 12-hour drive to Chicago. I-80 was the way to go. It was coldest in western PA and slowly got warmer as we headed west. Back in the day, I toured Ohio a lot so I was reminiscing as I drove. Indiana is a random state and if it weren’t there I wouldn’t miss it. Who would?
Arriving too early for our tour of the University of Chicago, we opted for a drive up Lake Shore Drive along Lake Michigan, particularly nice with almost no traffic. Based on amazing reviews, we decided on breakfast at the Over Easy Café http://www.overeasycafechicago.com/ in the Ravenswood section of the city. All I can say is wow! It opened at 7 a.m. and there were six of us waiting for the doors to be unlocked. By 7:10 a.m. there were ten people seated with most everyone having ordered. There was so much goodness on the menu. I wound up with a salmon and egg scramble with red potato hash. It was stellar. I was torn between that and the house specialty Sassy Eggs. I will try them if ever I visit again. Great breakfast, super service. Just go and try to beat the rush. Based on what I’ve read, there are lines out the door waiting to get in on the weekends. It’s that good.
The tour at @UChicago was good. It’s a good campus and a great academic school. Sophie didn’t like the idea of a city campus but liked their sweatshirts enough to get one. After the tour, we made our way to Mojos East Coast Eats in Downers Grove, IL http://www.mojoseastcoasteats.com/. My ex-bro-in-law and the kids’ uncle owns this western suburb Philadelphia-themed cheese steak shop. Jon is no cheesesteak slouch. His shaved ribeye steaks are really good, served with American, provolone or wiz on Amoroso rolls. Easy to get to right off I-355. After eating, we went to Jon’s house where I crashed hard at 3pm and didn't wake till 9:30pm. The kids waited for their aunt from work and their cousins to get home from school. The wind was particularly nasty in the Chicago area on this day as their trampoline hovered off the ground and was blown away.
We left after midnight on our way to Denver. Just into Iowa I got pulled over by a state trooper for going 80 in a 65. I desperately wanted to tell him that the blue signs said the speed limit was 80 but I bit my tongue. Luke slept through the whole exchange. I didn’t get a ticket. 2 ½ hours west on I-80 was Truckomat of Walcott, IA, billed as the Largest Truck Stop in the US. It was a good place to stop and gas-up but pretty anti-climactic. It felt like a truck stop and its magnitude was lost on my haste to get back on the road. I-80 in Nebraska was as long as Tennessee on I-40 and way more boring. It was afternoon by the time we got out of the flatness of NE. Immediately upon crossing into Colorado we were driving on hills with the beginnings of the Rockies impending.
Hilton Garden Inn Denver Downtown. Good location downtown in the business district and a good walking location. The weather was beautiful around 60 degrees in late February. Yes please. City valet parking reasonable at $39.
It was a nice walk over to Coors Field where I got an assignment from www.centericephilly.com to cover an outdoor college hockey game between Colorado College and the University of Denver. Denver, ranked #10 in the country, made easy work of Colorado College in the win. The kids met me there with Luke’s friend, Nosaj. I’ve been to several NHL outdoor games and this game was no different. The crowd is so far away that it takes away any intimacy. It is a spectacle and an experience but I prefer hockey in an arena. Still, for me, a chance to shoot a hockey game is a good day.
One thing about Denver was there was a lot more homeless than I had anticipated, sleeping in doorways in the most populated and tourist-y locations. Here is a study done http://mdhi.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Denver-City-and-County-2015.pdf.
In the summer, legal pot got blamed for some of the influx of homeless and that may be true. But those are transitional and possibly migratory homeless (if there is a thing).
http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26216037/legal-pot-blamed-some-influx-homeless-this-summer. 16th Street was all prettied-up. But if you look closely, you can see some homeless in the sheltered doorways.
MOOSE & BIGHORN SHEEP
The next day, we made a trek to the west side of the Arapaho National Forest in the Kawuneeche Valley in a quest to see moose and bighorn sheep. I emailed the park and they said the west side was better for moose and sheep and the east side for elk. The road through the mountain was closed for winter so we made a choice It was a pretty drive and fairly animal free until we got to State Forest State Park in Walden, CO. It’s considered to be the moose-viewing capital of Colorado. The kids spotted a moose right away. It was a cow. We didn’t see her calf initially but there they were. Hoping this was a good omen, we kept going until the road ended (it was closed for the winter). We got out and hiked a few miles. The altitude was evident on the first hill and I was out of breath. We did not have skis or snowshoes and counted on the trails to be packed enough so as to not fall through in the deep snow. It was good for walking but we each fell through the snow up to our waists at one point. The walk was beautiful. We kept near the unfrozen parts of the upper Colorado River, which was more like a small stream where we saw tons of tracks but no wildlife. We set out toward Fort Collins and took a 9 mile dirt road called Rustic Road which was both awesome to drive and with its views. After a brief stop at the Moose Visitor Center, I spoke with a local. I told him we were interested in moose and bighorn sheep. He said while we are looking up on the hills for the sheep, they would surprise you and be right by the road when you least expect it. That’s exactly what happened. They were juvenile but we were quite happy to have seen them about 10 feet up the hill.
COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
This was the reason for the trip. I went in an almost blank slate and was keeping an open mind. The sit-down portion of the tour was an hour. Like everywhere, you got numbers and statistics and the like. It was a good presentation. The school felt tied to the community and it didn’t feel like it was just an albatross or a nuisance with all those meddling kids. My favorite fact was that during class and non-snowy weather there could be 20,000 bicycles on campus. The tour portion was 1 ½ hours. There were bike racks at every building that were FULL. Hundreds of bikes at each building. Locking skateboard racks. Astonishing. I was glad to spend that much time to check everything out if we were going to spend a lot of money to go there. It’s a mid-sized school and it didn’t feel too much of anything or too little of anything. Do your own math below if you want.
We didn’t leave Fort Collins until almost 2pm and there was a five-hour drive to Mt. Rushmore. Caught a beautiful Wyoming sunset near the South Dakota border complete with horses and a burro. We arrived at around 7:30 p.m. There was only one other car in the parking garage. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I got a nosebleed. Pretty sure I haven’t had a nosebleed in 25 years or more. This was more like a faucet. I felt like a boxer who just got cracked in the face. I wanted Mickey to throw in the towel and jam some vasoline up my nostrils. I’ll try to save you the grossness of it all, but it was nasty. The kids were looking at me and figured I was going to die there. They suggested a hospital visit and I declined. We didn’t stay too long and the experience was probably a little less memorable since they were more concerned with me. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Keystone, SD with me still holding tissues on my bloody nose. It would take over an hour for it to stop bleeding. Nothing was open in the town so I jammed vasoline medicated lip balm up there. The hotel was just fine. Not much winter traffic. Free parking, free breakfast. In the morning, we went back to Mt. Rushmore for a reprieve and it worked.
We were getting kinda bummed about not seeing bison on our early morning drive. We entered Custer National Park and were driving 10-15 minutes. We could see bison poo and tracks all over the roads and way off in the distance we saw some. Then there were hundreds. We drove right up upon them. I wouldn’t say they had no fear – but didn’t appear afraid – rather cautious. Most were ear tagged. One began to lick the tire of the car. Then several approached and they all began licking … all of the salt off the car. It was quite hilarious. Luke and Sophie both got to touch one. They were occasionally skittish and sometimes sparred with each other for salt rights. I was just hoping no one would gouge a horn through the rental. We left the lick marks on the car until the snow and rain washed them off later in the trip. They were magnificent and I can’t imagine the gall of the white people to slaughter them as they did. Seeing them was worth the whole trip.
On the drive east, we passed some really pretty places. We also cruised by Carhenge in Alliance, NE on the way out. Truly one of man’s greatest mysteries left by the Druids. We drove the Sandhills of Nebraska as fast as we could. Route 2 in NE follows railroad tracks for hundreds of miles and we saw so many. We got to Downers Grove, IL at 2:30 a.m. I got another nosebleed that kept me awake until 4 a.m.
Planning to drive out again to take Luke to CSU in August. More to follow one day…