Many high points to Colorado vacation, but this wasn’t one of them

That time we nearly ran out of gas at 12,000 feet…
Heidi Williams and the writer at an overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Heidi Williams and the writer at an overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Among famous last words, someone somewhere must have said, “We’ve got enough gas to get there.”

It could’ve been me. This is the story of  what happened to the Williams family in Colorado, on a mountain road somewhere close to 12,000 feet high in Rocky Mountain National Park.

On a summer 2007 vacation that was full of high points, it could have been a low point. We’ll get to it a little later.

Our son was 16 at the time, and much given to sarcastic mutterings about the fallen state of the world adults would be leaving him. A good kid.

Friends had suggested that his teen years were the best time to take extended family trips — teenagers are old enough to be only mildly burdensome traveling companions, and then they’re gone before you know it. Sage advice.

We settled on Colorado because my wife had visions that were planted by John Denver, and I had the memory of a post-college cross-country bus trek during which I witnessed dawn near the Colorado Springs Greyhound station. I saw the enormous rock mass of a Pikes Peak — my first real mountain! — unshadow from the darkness, after days spent on the Great Plains. I haven’t been the same since.

And Nick, he was just glad to go anywhere that wasn’t Ballston Spa.

We flew from Albany through O’Hare to Denver International, dropped suddenly in a flat and treeless world where you saw your high-rise hotel standing alone in the prairie from three miles away (the Front Range still only a vague outline in the western horizon.)

The weeklong trip had many highlights.

  • A day to “get used to the elevation” in Denver, mostly spent at the Denver Zoo, still the biggest-city zoo I’ve ever been to. (My wife tried to befriend a non-exotic local Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel, hundreds of which live in the zoo, off the charity and spillage of zoo patrons. “Don’t do that,” a passerby warned. “They have the plague.” Wife: “What kind of plague?” Son: “Does it matter? The plague.”
  • Dinner at a Memphis barbecue joint in Denver. Because that’s the kind of people we are.
  • A morning jog in Frisco, elevation 9,000 feet. Then Loveland Pass on the Continenal Divide, looking down toward where I-70 enters the Eisenhower Tunnel. Exhilerating! A thunderstorm rolling in.
  • Leadville, way up in the mountains, where the legendary Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor evolved from scandalously young second bride of the town’s silver magnate mayor in the 1880s to crazy old widow lady by the 1930s, guarding a now-worthless mine shaft with a shotgun. Also home of the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame. I’m waiting for the trivia contest in which I get asked, “Which U.S. president is in the National Mining Hall of Fame?”
  • In Idaho Springs, a mine turned tourist attraction, where visitors could almost get lost inside the steep stairways and conveyors and sifters and chutes in the cavernous ore processing building, constructed multilevel into the side of a hill.

After our night in Idaho Springs, we set out northward, stopping for lunch at a deli in Winter Park where I successfully parallel parked the rented Toyota Corolla. The Corolla was still on its first tank of gas, the tank nearly half full. Our next stop was to be Estes Park, home of the world-famous Stanley Hotel. To get there, I wanted to go through — up and over, really — Rock Mountain National Park.

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At Grand Lake, a sign said 46 miles to Estes Park. Tank just over a quarter full. Wise Wife: “Should we get gas?” “It’s a Toyota,” I replied.

“We’ll be fine.”

It was immediately clear that Rocky Mountain National Park is spectacular. Moose grazed in the woods just a few yards from the road.

Elk chewed grass, caring not a rodent’s buttocks about gawking traffic. Wow.

Then the road — state Route 34, the Trail Ridge Road — started to climb. Vast meadows full of wildlife, spectacular vistas over wooded and wetland-filled valleys, rocky craigs towering. Then we climbed some more. More vast meadows of moose and elk, more valley views, more towering mountains all around.

The Stanley Hotel, which was on Wise Wife’s bucket list, is where Stephen King is said to have envisioned “The Shining” after a one-night stay.

Then more climbing, peaks all around. And more climbing.

Abruptly, traffic became bumper-to-bumper as we neared the top of the pass. Abruptly, we were in fog, and then it turned into a snow squall. (This was in late July.) Abruptly, I couldn’t see 50 feet. Abruptly, the dinging thing was warning me that gas was perilously low. A little red warning light came on.

Wise Wife was alarmed. She may have said, “I told you so.” Nick was greatly amused and he had the camera. I’m thinking to myself: Good one, Steve.

Stuck in traffic in a Colorado summer snow squall and running out of gas.

Fortunately, the squall passed and traffic began to move again. The highway leveled out, which helped the gas gauge recover a little.

There was a ranger station/visitor center ahead. With strong encouragement from my team, we pulled in and I found a ranger and asked whether there was anywhere to get gas. I looked and felt like a high school freshman crossing the gym floor to ask a pretty girl to dance.

Even though the ranger wore mirrored shades, I could feel her giving me the look I deserved. She said gas was available back down the mountain.


But we were at the top of the pass, probably halfway there. So on we went. Luckily we were soon headed downhill, through miles of massive peaks and wide valleys and wildlife. (We saw a coyote starting to stalk some resting elk, but didn’t stay to see how that would turn out.) We could coast — but to think my mind was at ease would be to misunderstand. Calmness was not among the virtues on display within our team.

Finally, we dropped down the last ridge into Estes Park, just as the sun was shifting from afternoon to an evening angle. Fortunately, one of the first things we saw was a gas station. A blessed gas station. For once, I was glad to prepay.

The incident left its mark. To this day, I don’t let the gas tank get below about a third. Life lesson learned.

Estes Park was another high point of the trip. It has a laid-back outdoor feel and the hilltop Stanley Hotel, which was on Wise Wife’s bucket list. Stephen King is said to have envisioned “The Shining” after a one-night stay there. It’s still a very active hotel, but enough of a tourist attraction that management can charge $5 per carload just to let people walk around. I muttered sarcastically after handing over the money, but it turned out to be a fin well-spent.

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There’s a Stanley Steamer in the lobby (inventor Freelan Stanley, wealthy from his steam-powered car, built the luxury hotel for the “mountain air” after a bout with tuberculosis. It opened in 1909).

The hotel is said to be haunted. Wise Wife believes it. She lost a retro roadside diner-art bracelet right off her wrist there, and to this day she suspects the supernatural.

I’m guessing Herbert Hoover would be skeptical, but maybe not. He’s the answer to the trivia question. The 31st president may not rank high among U.S. presidents, but he was a great mining engineer. Having cut his teeth in the Sierra Nevada mines in California, he consulted for mining operations all over the world before entering politics, and was successful enough to earn a plaque in Leadville.

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