It’s November in Nebraska and it is bitter cold. The sun is out but the wind is sharp and cuts into your cheeks. I’m standing in a small cemetery over 100 years old. Wooden planks mark the graves of the unknown dead whose remains still wear a pair of leather boots.
Or so the name Boot Hill would imply.
The town of Ogallala built a subdivision around this graveyard. I’d guess it was in the 1950s or 60s. A school is located nearby and I can hear the children playing while out at recess. It’s such an incongruous setting, this idyllic little community surrounding the last resting place of these violent men, these hard men, these men of the West. The wind stabs a little deeper as I pay my respects to these builders of legend and lore. Then it’s time to drive on.
United States Interstate 80 pretty faithfully follows the Transcontinental Railroad built in the 1860s. Some lamented that when the railway was finished it would be the end of the West. This sleepy subdivision in Ogallala, where children play in the shadow of Boot Hill, is evidence that those mourners were correct. The days of saloons and gambling and liquor and 25 cent women are over. “Hell on Wheels” has moved on down the line to Las Vegas where it has been appropriated and sold back to you as family entertainment. Such is the price of progress.
Near the Colorado border the road splits. Four lanes become briefly become eight as Interstate 76 swerves southwesterly toward Denver. It seems quite ludicrous. It feels like nowhere, but in this nowhere the government has decided it needs eight lanes of asphalt to move enough cars. I am driving the only car I can see in either direction. I feel lonesome and claustrophobic at once.
Once in Colorado the road starts to ascend rolling foothills of burnt yellow grass. It runs along a ridge above the South Platte River Valley passing above small towns with the names of Ovid and Iliff and Crook. The railways and roads brought these towns into existence but now the Interstate passes them by. In a land this empty the road signs seem more like rumour than fact. Only a single gas station at the interchange provides any clue that there is civilization off the big road.
The four lanes keep climbing up the high plains. Every crest I arrive at only reveals the next crest to climb until somewhere near Fort Morgan where I can see the mighty Rockies start scraping the clouds. It will still be another hour until I reach their base. They’ll grow in my windshield slowly. It’s like trying to watch the hour hand of a clock. It only seems to move when you’re not paying attention.
Denver is a city I choose to pass through. I’ve only heard good things about the city but I would rather see the mountains on this day. For a long time Denver was the last outpost of civilization (meaning gambling, liquor and prostitutes) sitting beneath the impenetrable wall of the Rockies. This is where the wilderness began and I want to see the four lane asphalt trail we cut through it.
Interstate 70 creeps up the Rockies at a dangerously steep angle. I can hear the engine grunt and groan. The speedometer’s needle tracks backward even as I step up on the gas pedal. The transport trucks crawl onward and you pass them in seemingly slow motion.
The battles between man and nature are turning out more and more in favour of our engineering and we win again today as I ascend Mount Lookout. I pull off the interstate to let my car draw some deep breaths. It’s a neighbourhood populated by large wooden mansions. Every house fights for an eastern view back out over the city. All I can think about is how the plumbing works on top of a mountain. When you flush the toilet, where does it go?
Buffalo Bill Cody is buried on top of this mountain. The view from his gravesite is one that the people in the mansions would kill for. He’s a showman even in death. He sold the lawlessness of the West to the masses in a contrived public show after law and order finally started prevailing. It was kind of a Wild West Circus Show. Sell the romance and leave out the truth. Gunfights and trick riding they got, the slaughter of Indian families they left out. It’s no different today. Soon you’ll see “Compton, The Amusement Park” with giant cartoon Snoop Doggs and Ice Cubes.
The road crosses the continental divide at Loveland Pass. At almost 12,000 feet above sea level I’m pretty sure it’s the highest point in the United States Interstate System. It’s another tribute to the audacity of man. Not only did they build a road to this summit they built a four lane wide highway. After crossing over the pass I take my foot off the gas. It’s a six mile long downhill run and I coast at 60 miles an hour.
The highway zooms past Dillon and Avon and Minturn. Towns built on rock. I’m not sure what brought these people here. Mining and logging perhaps, I don’t know. I don’t stop to find out. Right now I’m water rushing down river to the Pacific. I follow the valley floor winding around peaks and mesas with ever increasing speed before plunging into Glenwood Canyon where I flow into the Colorado River.
The fourteen miles through the canyon is bliss. The walls seem to lean inward so there’s only room for the river and the road. At times there is even less space when the westbound lanes sit atop the eastbound ones. The river through here is peaceful but the road is a run of frothing rapids. I am the one being driven. I don’t have true control, I’m just reacting. The snow begins to fall but the road does not let up. I pull my hat down onto my brow, lower my head, snap the reigns, and lean into the turns. All I can hear is the engine, the wind, and my pulse racing wildly.
The rear of the car slides out a bit more as I round the curves with more and more speed and my heart slides further and further up my throat. When I pass by Glenwood Springs and the road levels out I realize I am breathing hard and have the feeling of exhilaration one gets after riding a rollercoaster. Except the danger was real. This may not be the old West anymore but for a few minutes I was driving an out-of-control stagecoach down a mountain pass.
The road rolls along past Rifle and Parachute and Silt. It slides along the Colorado River for 75 miles wedged between the looming north face of Battlement Mesa and the cliffs of the Roan Plateau. I skip by Grand Junction where I remark that there I will see the last McDonald’s sign for hundreds of miles as I head into the Canyonlands of Utah.
The river drops southward but the road continues on its westerly course over the rock. As the sun sets the snow picks up again. I rush headlong into the wind. It’s cold out there and in the fading light I see the ghosts of the natives huddled up for warmth and waiting out the storm. I drive on.
In this part of the country a gas station at a crossroads passes for a city. That’s what Crescent Junction looks like – a highway passing over a lonely road and an Exxon station. There is nothing but rock in all directions for 20 miles. Next up is Green River, which is my day’s destination. I had already driven 600 miles and the next town along is another 106 miles away.
I found a great diner, the kind of place that hangs old 45s of singles from the 1950s, the kind of place that puts real bananas in their milkshakes. I munched on a burrito and listened to a group of elderly ladies talk on about their respective dental surgeries, cavities, and dentures. The Wild West has been tamed.