As my new pick up slid sideways around the snow-covered dirt road Feb. 20, I realized two things: my tires were not designed for off-road, and I was lost.
One of my earliest memories is camping with my folks and older brother, Mike, who thought it would be funny to lead me away from camp and leave me in the woods, presumably to “rescue” me later.
I remember the smell of damp dirt, pine trees and a camp fire. We were still close enough to hear our parents, but we couldn’t see the tents. He made his break, jetting off into the trees. I didn’t know a game was afoot, so I just walked back to the fireside and waited for him there.
“What’s he doing here,” my brother yelped, 15 or so minutes later as he sauntered into camp.
Equally ignorant of my brother’s game, my parents’ faces were a mosaic of confusion and growing anger. Knowing something was up, they forced my brother to spill the beans. Laughing at his fumbled prank, my parents sent Mike to bed without roasted marshmallows, and that was that.
Back in my pickup, I recalled the memory fondly.
I’m not lost, I told myself. I just don’t know how to get where I’m going. I can always find my way back to The Forks.
My adventure began at The Deli at The Forks in Livermore, Colorado, on U.S. Highway 287.
After spending the day in Denver working out some kinks in my new truck with the dealership, I was headed back to Laramie.
A creature of habit, I often stop at The Forks for an ice cream bar, soda or bathroom break. The rustic cabin-themed tourist trap nabs my attention every time as does the other side of the fork.
I bet that road links up with Walden, (Colorado), I’ve often thought.
It was about 3 p.m., and I wasn’t expected back home for several hours. Instinctively, I grabbed for my phone — an action that has become all too second nature.
If I just take a quick look at Google maps, I thought. I bet I can wing this without digital assistance.
Having spent much of my youth in Civil Air Patrol, then serving as a Forward Observer in the U.S. Army, I know my way around most maps. Overly confident in my abilities, I glanced at the area, saw a fork in the road that led to Walden, Colorado, and assumed that was The Forks.
Away from it all?
I set off West on Red Feather Lakes Road, beaming at the opportunity to explore Northern Colorado and test out the pickup.
My gas tank was half full, and I guessed my destination was, at most, an hour away.
The first leg of the trip, while beautiful, felt more like driving through a mountain suburb than an exploratory jaunt through the national forest I knew was nearby.
Houses, condos, lodges, cabins, event centers and the occasional restaurant were so prevalent, I found myself longing for the wide-open and unpopulated vastness of Wyoming.
As I drove further, the mountains grew steeper, the land seemed wilder and — counterintuitively — the communities got bigger.
After about an hour, I was worried I might run smack dab into downtown Denver when the pavement stopped altogether.
Have I crossed the state line? I wondered. Surely, Colorado paves its highways.
Here I was at yet another forks — either I ask the digital leash to show me the way or sally forth and potentially run out of gas.
My fuel gauge bobbed just over a quarter-full. I made a quick mental note my new truck was no where near as fuel efficient as its predecessor.
Sucking down half a cigarette on the side of the road, I decided to give in and check my phone before the mountain-town home owners association sent a security guard over to fine me for loitering.
My overconfidence cost me, and I was miles from the highway I initially believed myself to be traveling. My salvation, however, was just about a mile back. A meandering county road that should quickly put me back on track.
I should be getting in Laramie around sundown, I guessed, putting my phone away.
Testing the doodads
The county road didn’t as much meander as it did zig and zag.
And, it wasn’t as much a county road as it was a forest service road.
Wider than most winding through the Medicine Bow National Forest, the Roosevelt National Forest dirt track was well maintained and I felt safe enough — until I hit a patch of snow and went sliding toward a steep drop off.
The new truck’s anti-idiot traction kicked in, course correcting away from a potential barrel roll down the mountain side.
“So that’s how that works,” I said, tapping the blinking dash display and feigning curiousness to cover the nervous crack in my voice, though no one was present to be unconvinced.
The forest was a mix of barren deciduous trees and vibrant, green conifers. Against the splotchy blanket of recent snow, the view was breathtaking, and for the last several miles, unhindered by civilization.
By the time I exited the forest service road, the sun was nearly gone, and my tank was close to empty. Luckily, it dumped me straight into Rustic, Colorado, a sleepy gas station of a town nestled into the Poudre Valley and boasting one of the few remaining analog pay phones left in the world.
More than two hours after beginning my journey, I finally located the road I thought I started on.
With a full tank of gas, and the reassurance of the station attendant, I resumed my journey — a measure of confidence returned.
For most my life, I’ve lived a stone’s throw from the Poudre Valley, but never visited.
It’s worth the trip.
Colorado Highway 14 follows a babbling brook through sky-scraping peaks. Pull offs dot the road with access to camp grounds, fishing and one peak that astonishingly resembles a sleeping elephant.
Traffic was light and a thick mist hung over the valley as dark crept over the mountains.
Another hour slipped by, and the thought of checking my phone’s navigation system niggled at the back of my mind.
Teetering on the edge of breaking my digital fast for the third time this trip, I tried to focus on everything but my location.
It was dark, but I could make out a herd of elk grazing on the roadside.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. A few hundred feet up the road, a Toyota 4Runner was pulled off in the emergency lane.
As I got closer, I realized the SUV was at a funny angle.
It had been awhile since I’d seen another vehicle, so I pulled over to make sure everything was ok.
“The shoulder was deeper than I expected,” said the 4Runner’s driver, Zach Mellema. “I wanted to watch the elk, but then I got stuck.”
The night air was about 6 degrees, and a stiff breeze whipped over the road. Through chattering teeth, we made quick introductions and talked over a course of action.
Zach used a tow rope to connect the two vehicles, and I dropped my truck into low gear, pulling him out of the ditch with ease.
“I gotta take a picture of this,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “so I can explain to my girlfriend why I’m late.”
After unhooking the trucks, we shook hands and parted ways.
“And that, my friends, is why I own a truck,” I said to the empty cab.
My new truck test was complete.
Walden was a mile or two down the road and from there, home was just a hop, skip and a jump away.
What started out as a two-hour detour ended up as a six-hour adventure through national forests, mountain valleys and wildland suburbs.
As a society, we are hopelessly addicted to our digital sidekicks, and they’ve done a lot for us. But, every once in awhile, try tossing them aside and experiencing the world on analog — just be sure to fill the tank first and maybe bring a good, ol’ fashioned map. A tow strap is handy, too.