Originally posted at ReflectionsOfTheDrive.com. Some updates/edits made.
My love for traveling the country has roots back to early childhood. Adventure was instilled in me from an early age, whether exploring the nearby creek and woods, Colorado trips by van and motorhome, hiking, mushroom hunting, and eventually Jeep trips.
In late June 2015, my wife, 6yr old son, and I left the Dallas area mid-morning, keeping with what’s become a tradition of last-minute packing and expert-level underestimation of the time to do so. The destination, ultimately, was Buena Vista, CO, to visit family. With a lifetime of Colorado trips under my belt (and one year living there), the notable difference this year was that it was the first trip in my own, capable 4×4. A 2003 Nissan Xterra. Having recently having been laid off from my job, I was very much looking forward to getting away for a relaxing (and cheap!) trip.
Packed (finally!) and heading out!
That’s not to say I have no experience driving off-road. First a little history. I learned to drive in a ’72 K5 Blazer 4×4 with a 4-spd. granny gear on gravel. Cakewalk. To this day, I attribute my love of cars/trucks and being a bit of a gear head, to “my” first mod: taking off the Blazer’s hard top and installing a soft top with my dad in the garage. While we later moved back to Texas, my parents never sold the place in Colorado. So with many, many trips to Colorado over the next 25 years, I’ve spent considerable time wheeling that K5 up and down mountain trails and passes. Very recently, I acquired the very same Blazer from my dad and drove it 1000 miles back to Texas. That’s a story itself for a later time.
When I bought the Xterra in early 2015, it was bone stock aside from knock-off 31″ A/T tires and some fog/driving lights re-purposed from a giant Volvo coach. Little did I know exactly how much I’d enjoy the Xterra. The timing was perfect. It was just in time for the biggest snow I can remember in North Texas…in my lifetime at least.
Within weeks of buying the Xterra and beginning to venture off the beaten path, years and years of childhood exploration memories resurfaced. The years of living in suburbia, being “busy”, and “the grind” had seemingly squelched my outdoor spirit aside from some random hunting trips and of course the yearly Colorado trip. Satori, per the omniscient Wikipedia, is a Japanese term for an awakening. My Xterra had, and continued to, provide satori with a vengeance. A hunger to explore was growing, and an insatiable desire to experience adventure with my family was ever-present. And hey! Looks like my truck now has a name!
For years, the majority of my road trips have been in cars. Avoid freeways. Seek out scenery and adventure. Drive until tired (or longer). Find an interesting place to sleep, whether a tent, hotel (Dustball Rally!), or reclined seat of the car. Repeat the next day. And the next. Naturally, this year I was ecstatic to take some day trips in Satori, and if I was lucky, convince my wife to agree to a longer, multi-day trip. I later learned these longer trips are known as overlanding, albeit it’s maybe just scratching the surface of a true overland trip.
So back to our actual trip…
I almost have always driven 11-14 hours (travel time is mood/vehicle dependent, if you know what I mean) to Buena Vista straight through. This year, however, it was time to start a new tradition.
I had reserved an expedition tent at Aspen Acres Campground, about an hour south of Cañon City, CO. With the late start, I knew we’d already be approaching midnight before we hit camp. So we pushed onward, as I have for years, this time a little excited to camp on the way instead of pushing through the full 13-14 hours. Year after year, the rush of serotonin production when topping Raton Pass into Colorado never seems to dwindle.
The munchkin kept us safe on the drive.
The hours and hours through Texas were uneventful, however New Mexico brought a little excitement. Before the last iota of daylight parted from us, there it was…incoming! High rate of speed from port side. Windshield impact imminent. At the very last fraction of a second, the silhouetted bird of prey flared. It was impressive in the most literal and intimate sense. Yet at the instance of the flare, there was a secondary downward blur…and…BLAMMO! I barely saw it, but the mysterious object was clearly released from the bird’s talons moments before the gargantuan THUD. I stopped and couldn’t find any damage, nor could I find a trace of the impact site. That is, until we stopped for gas. In the glare of the station lights…there it was…a small rodent-sized, brown-tinged, dusty, hair-outlined area on my windshield. So cool. I hope he (hawk? owl?) found another meal though. Note the windshield right by the lower-left side of the GPS.
We arrived at Aspen Acres a bit after 11 pm. I wasn’t pleased with the number of RVs we passed to get to our site, but it was just a quick overnight after all. At least our outfitter tent (12’x14′ with 3 sets of bunk bed cots) was a bit isolated from all the rigs and next to the very few regular tent campsites. The sleeping bags came out and were quickly laid on three of the six cots (three “bunk beds”) in the tent. A quick walk was made down to the warm and impressively hygienic bathroom/shower building, and we were out for the night. So far, I was quite happy with the place, as my wife’s idea of camping is a nice, luxurious lodge with a view. Maybe this will start her conversion.
The next morning I was up just after the sun. Time to explore while the family slept. I walked the campground and down the road to follow a stream for a ways. On the way back, the camp office even had free coffee! Wow! It was gorgeous there. (Make sure to click it for a larger image.)
Wife and munchkin finally stirred (almost 8:30!), so it was off to surprise them with a little adventure. In all my years in Colorado, I’d never visited Cabra Castle. So off we went…a whopping 4ish miles up the road.
One man. His own, personal construction. The stones are from the nearby mountains. This is a very cool thing to see, and my wife only cried once. The upper reaches of the towers and walkways are no joke for the acrophobic types.
This dude may not like our government much. Just a suspicion.
Done with our impersonation of king, queen, and knight, plus a new plastic sword, and it was back to camp to pack and hit the road. After a few short miles, the realization hit us that while almost lunchtime, we had only snacked a bit and never ate breakfast. Starving. So in Westcliffe, instead of the right turn to head out of town, we opted to cruise town in search for grub. After some BBQ, we were off again. With each passing mile, I marveled at the growing mountains as I do each visit.
We turned on Hwy 50 in the metropolis of Cotopaxi (population 47). Home free! The glorious Arkansas River. It was surprising high for late June. Salida. Ahh…the memories. 8th grade Christmas. My first mountain bike came from a Salida bike shop. Cruising through the valley floor. Nathrop and Noah’s Ark Rafting. Good food, beer, and live music (my sister played there) while watching the boats. Johnson Village in the distance. Never been so happy to see the green-roofed prison. And there it was…Buena Vista and the iconic view of Mt. Princeton. A quick cruise down Main St., three more turns, and we arrived.
Time to sit on the back porch and soak in the view. Maybe even a margarita. Thanks Mom!
*Unemployed trip costs:
Campsite: $42.80 (save $12 if you use your own tent)
Food: $50 (4 meals. 3 people. The munchkin can eat!)
Souvenirs: $22 at Cabra Castle (magnet, koozie, shot glass, sword)
*Full Disclosure: The Grandparents wanted to see the munchkin so much, they paid the family’s fuel to travel to/from Buena Vista, provided accommodations in a couple spare bedrooms, and supplied us with food in bulk as well as happy hour beverages. Much appreciated!