Going West with Mom (Part 4)

(Part 3 is available here.)

Driving from Bluff, Utah to Raton, New Mexico makes for a long day. When Mom and I woke up on October 2nd, we had to decide whether we were going to drive back into New Mexico, through Taos, or take the road through southern Colorado. Mom left the decision up to me so I picked the road I’d not yet traveled…Highway 160 across the The Centennial State.

We crossed the border and headed into higher elevations. As we climbed, I looked for the beautiful yellow Aspen trees that Colorado is known for in autumn. Yes, we did see a few of them here and there on the drive, but I was shocked by what I saw the MOST of: dead pine trees.

The national forests of Colorado have seen widespread decimation of spruce pine trees caused by the spread of the spruce beetle. It started in 1996 and has, so far, covered over ONE MILLION acres of forest. There’s not anything that can be done to save this particular kind of tree from this beetle. Eventually, the forest will be rebuilt from other types of pine…but today, entire mountainsides are blanketed with gray, empty trunks and branches. It’s heartbreaking.

The highest elevation we reached was 10,857 Feet at Wolf Creek Pass. The high mountain pass also happens to be along the Continental Divide. This now marks the fourth spot on the Divide I’ve visited and they all have their own particular charm. My favorite is still on old Route 66, where hand-carved wooden signs and a cheesy gift shop welcome travelers that pull off the highway to mark their progress.

We continued through several small towns, stopping occasionally for photographs of old neon or cool buildings. West of Alamosa, we passed a freight train with Iowa Pacific railroad. Incredibly, the freight was being pulled by an EMD E9 locomotive, which were built between 1954 and 1964. I pulled over and took some photos, the conductor sounding the horn as I snapped away. What a beauty!

We arrived in Raton, NM in early evening. The Raton Pass Motor Inn is a classic little motor court on the north edge of town, very close to the Colorado border. The lobby is delightfully vintage, complete with mid-century furniture, round-top Westinghouse fridge, console turntable, and one of those fireplaces that look like an Apollo space capsule. Our room for the night was basic, comfortable…and quiet. I had no qualms about leaving Mom there for a bit while I went to take photos of some of the town’s neon signs.

As sunset approached, it looked like the sky might put on a show. I drove to the south edge of town just in time for the clouds to light up with vibrant shades of pink and orange. I took a side road to find a clear spot to photograph the distant mountain range and came across a family of deer having dinner not fifty feet from the road. I pulled over slowly and got out of the car carefully – they didn’t seem to mind me or my camera and stayed put. It was a stroke of luck and a perfect end to the day.

Our drive on Thursday, October 3rd wasn’t quite as taxing. We stopped at an old drive-in theatre in Trinidad, Colorado that I’d seen the day before but had talked myself out of photographing. I’m glad I stopped the second time around; the low clouds gave the place a real spooky vibe. It’s been closed since the late 1980s.

For most of the day, we followed the Santa Fe Trail. There’s a small overlook near Rocky Ford, CO with interpretive panels from the National Park Service that try to give modern travelers an understanding of how frontier migrants would feel when the Rockies came into view…or, conversely, how eastbound families might feel at having an expanse of prairie in front of them after the hardship of crossing through treacherous mountain passes. For us, it was just another mile marker.

It felt like an immediate change when we crossed into Kansas. Of course, the landscape was a lot flatter (no need to mark the elevation on each town’s welcome signage) but the towns felt a lot more isolated. Many of them, to their credit, still had old school cinemas in business and active agriculture business.

Even though it was a much shorter day, we were exhausted when we arrived in Dodge City for the night. On Friday, we only had one real stop on our way to Wichita: Hutchinson, KS.

I wanted to stop and visit a vintage toy shop on Main Street, which was actually rather hard to get to thanks to multiple road closures to prepare for the town’s upcoming Oktoberfest. It was worth the hassle, though, as I found many toys that I hadn’t seen or thought of in decades. Since we were in town, we had lunch at the R-B Drive-In, the state’s oldest drive-in. The onion rings alone were worth the drive.

We stayed with Mom’s cousin on that last night in Wichita. After so much time on the road, it was nice to just sit and visit a while. Additionally, it was fulfilling to hear stories about Mom’s home town of Barnsdall, OK from people other than her. I just listened and took it all in.

We returned home to Tulsa the next day. Our little road trip took an entire week, turning 2,782 miles through seven states. The time we spent together is something I’ll treasure forever. I have to say I’m very glad I didn’t try to squeeze another day of sight-seeing. As I get older, I’m really starting to appreciate rest days before going back to work!

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