Top of the world

Perhaps when you were young you had dreams similar to mine. The nightmare rarely varied and they were always ended the same way: I would end up falling off something very high and feeling very panicked, knowing I was about to die. In the dream, I never quite actually met the bottom of the cliff and my maker. Perhaps they were a result of watching too many Road Runner cartoons, or perhaps they were vestigial memories of being in utero.

Perhaps this explains my vertigo. I am fine peering down over something from way up high, providing there is a guardrail or something similar to inhibit my fall. Otherwise I am incapable of getting near the edge of anything with a precipitous drop.

This phobia makes little sense as I can and do fly frequently. In fact, if the weather is nice, I prefer a window seat. Only a couple times have a felt panicky in an airplane, and only during moderate or severe turbulence.

I only rarely experience vertigo, mainly because I deal with it through rigorous avoidance. Occasionally though I have no choice. For those of us who suffer from vertigo, you should avoid Trail Ridge Road in The Rocky Mountain National Park. Up there above the tree line at altitudes from 10,000 to 12,000 feet there are miles of road where you drive literally along the side of the mountain with not so much as a guardrail between you, your car and careening thousands of feet down the side of the Rocky Mountains to certain death. Moreover you may be shadowed by tailgaters because you are going the speed limit of 35 mph and they want you to go faster. In short, if you suffer from vertigo like me the drive will be nerve wracking and heart pounding, and that is assuming that the weather is fine, which it often isn’t. The wind has been clocked at up to 150 mph at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center, and you can get snow, hail or sleet on the road at any time of the year.

View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center
View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center

Granted, if you want to kill yourself, you should have a spectacular view on the vertical descent. You may piss off a few elk, big horn sheep and moose on the tundra on your way down. Yet, even if you suffer from vertigo, you might want to take Trail Ridge Road anyhow, for few roads command such a breathtaking view. You are only guardrail-less for a few miles and once you get below the tree line the feelings of vertigo should recede. Trail Ridge Road is as close as many of us ordinary mortals will get to being on top of the world.

The Alpine Ridge Visitors Center is only publicly accessible during the short summer months. During the winter the road is closed. The snowdrifts can extend up to thirty five feet above the road. It takes the National Park Service months to make the road drivable during its short driving season. As I discovered, even in August the weather can be bracing at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center so bring a jacket and gloves. If you are not too faint from the thin air, you can take a trail a thousand feet or so to the summit and, like me (see picture) perch next to a sign that tells you that you are at 12,005 feet above sea level. This is likely as high up as I will get in my life.

Me at the top of Alpine Ridge
Me at the top of Alpine Ridge

When you vacation around The Rocky Mountains, you have to expect to be altitude challenged. I have flown to Denver enough times to no longer notice the thinner air, but move a couple thousand feet higher and I found myself short of breath and my heart racing, even while sitting still. East of The Rocky Mountain National Park is the city of Estes Park, which sits 7500 feet above sea level. My wife and I spent two nights in this mountain-lined city but even at that modest altitude my wife and I noticed the change in elevation.

Estes Park, a beautiful touristy city with expansive views, is something of a low altitude city compared to the last destination of our journey, Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the continental United States at 10,200 feet in elevation. It sits below the tree line, but not much below it. My wife and I spent a night in The Ice Palace Inn, one of dozens of bed and breakfasts in Leadville, a historic mining town that was once the largest city in the state and its presumed state capital. Even in August the weather in Leadville was bracing with cool blustery westerly winds and evening temperatures in the forties. Much of its lower temperature was likely due to its high altitude. Leadville can make an east coast guy like me feel humbled, for you can be at rest and still find yourself breathing heavily and your heart racing. Monday we took the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad ride 900 feet higher into the mountains. While the view was breathtaking, you will probably find yourself hyperventilating out of necessity. I found myself constantly taking deep breaths. We were grateful later in the day to be back with my brother and his wife in Boulder at a mere 5400 feet.

Today we fly back to low altitude Northern Virginia where we can breathe effortlessly again. Our trip out west exceeded both our expectations. In addition to the places I documented, we also spent two nights in Laramie, Wyoming at a B&B called The Mad Carpenter Inn, absolutely the best B&B where we have ever stayed. There we toured the well restored Ivinson Victorian Mansion, a local art museum and the Wyoming Territorial Prison (a far more interesting a place than it sounds) which housed many a ruffian including Butch Cassidy. Overall Wyoming is a beautiful state, if vastly underpopulated and very dry by east coast standards. The whole state has just 533,000 people in it. By contrast, the county I live in, Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, has over a million inhabitants. To go from one city to another in Montana usually requires a journey by car of several hours. There are no large cities in the state, with Cheyenne being its largest at about 53,000 residents.

We were amazed by the friendliness of people we met. We found it disarmingly easy to slip into intimate conversations with relative strangers. Perhaps the lack of people in states like Wyoming makes people naturally friendlier and inquisitive. In Estes Park, Colorado we had continental breakfasts at a Comfort Inn with the same two couples two mornings in a row. One couple left us their name and address so we could visit them in Western Nebraska.

The West has much to teach us somewhat insular East Coasters, including the somewhat lost art of friendliness. We will be back again. Perhaps we will retire out here.

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