Rocky Mountain Low

Photo by Daniel Mayer
Photo by Daniel Mayer


There’s an old saying—adopted by Leonard Woolf as the title for one of his volumes of autobiography—that “the journey not the arrival matters.” There’s also an old slogan—first used by Cunard ocean liners—that enthusiastically proclaimed that “getting there is half the fun.” Obviously neither Virginia Woolf’s husband nor the elegant passengers of the QE II ever tried to go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park in June 2012.

Let me point out, before I begin my apoplectic rant, that once upon a time I viewed myself as a resourceful and easygoing traveler. At the age of 14 I ran away from home for four days and hitchhiked around western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. At 17 I traveled to Mexico in a lemon yellow Mustang and saved money by bunking down in cheap, cockroach-infested flophouses. Great times both. In my early 20s I went on to thumb rides through Europe, readily sleeping in train stations, my backpack as a pillow. Once I even hunkered down for a night on a sidewalk grate—for warmth—in Paris.

Somehow travel was an adventure then, not simply an endurance test. In the early 1970s my parents dressed up in their Sunday best—my father in coat and tie, my mother in a severe gray outfit—to take the Greyhound Bus from Lorain, Ohio, to Ithaca, New York. I remember when riding the train still felt, just a little, like an adventure on the Orient Express, and when TWA might hand out free flight bags, and canapes would be served by a uniformed stewardess, and when you could count on a knowledgeable travel agent to advise you about trains and planes and hotels in far-off places.

Gone, all gone.

Today, we expect travel to be a prolonged nightmare. And it is. You spend hours online searching for a cheap flight, then discover that your air miles have all expired. Ever worsening traffic jams slow your rush to the airport. Pause too long at dropoff or pick-up, and police shout at you to move along. Inside the terminal, pythonesque lines snake their way slowly toward the distant security checkpoint. You feel hot, your luggage is heavy, you wonder if you’ll miss the plane. Eventually, you find yourself disrobing in public, removing your shoes, coat, belt, watch, cellphone, laptop, and pocket change while the people behind you grow restless, wishing you would hurry up. TSA agents pounce on your normal-sized can of shaving cream and ask, “Is this yours?” Out it goes. The X-ray machine, or sometimes a gloved official, intimately examines your body in all its flabby glory. Finally, you rush to repack all your items and relace your shoes, before discovering that the scheduled flight has been delayed for 20 minutes, 45 minutes, three hours, and finally canceled because of bad weather in Chicago. If you do board, tension mounts and tempers flare as the overhead luggage racks fill up because no one wants to pay extra to check a suitcase or risk losing one. Finally, when you settle into a middle seat just in front of the back lavatory, stressed and hungry, the only food available arrives in cellophane snack-packs, and …

But why go on? We all know these horrors. Every time I see the crowds inching their way forward toward ticket counters, through airport security, or at boarding gates the same line from “The Waste Land” goes through my head: “I had not thought that death had undone so many.”

Anyway, a little more than 10 days ago I found myself in Colorado for a wedding, in company with my Beloved Spouse, and my Number 1 and Number 2 Sons, along with their respective girlfriends. (Son number 3 remained at home, theoretically minding the house but actually throwing three parties in a single week, one of said parties being announced on Facebook, along with an open invitation to any roaming hordes to stop by if they and any fellow Visigoths had nothing better penciled in on their dance cards.) Meanwhile, in Evergreen, Colorado, the bride and groom celebrated their nuptials at a rustic inn, drink flowed, and a good time was had by all, even if far too much hip-hop music was played to the neglect of the “Beer Barrel Polka” and the golden oldies of the 1960s, back when rock was young.

After the festivities, my eldest son returned to his studies in Denver, my middle son flew back to his job in New York, and their onlie begetters—those poor lost souls–set off for a day’s hiking in the Rocky Mountains. To begin our excursion Beloved Spouse and I drove our rental car up to Estes Park, a town of motels, boutiques, and restaurants, best known as the location of that imposing compound called The Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining—and an obvious sign to all sensible people to turn back before it was too late. As Thomas Gray might have said: alas, regardless of their doom, the latest victims play!

The evening before our much anticipated day of communing with the Colorado sublime we stopped for soup and salad at The Baldpate Inn. En route to Estes Park I had noticed its sign, paused with wonder, then wondered even further when I observed the picture of a gigantic key underneath the inn’s name. Could this possibly be the inspiration for the once famous mystery novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, written by Earl Derr Biggers some years before he created his famous detective Charlie Chan? In fact, the charming hostelry was established in 1917 and took its name from the novel, with Biggers’s blessing. Over the years since, the Baldpate Inn had gradually created a museum of keys from around the world, including one to the room where Edgar Allan Poe lodged at the University of Virginia. While the darkness fell and Mr. and Mrs. Dirda innocently enjoyed their dinner, little did they know, as old mystery novels used to say, of the horror that awaited them the following morning and afternoon.

The next day at 9:30 A.M. the couple left their rented Impala at the Estes Park Visitors Center, having been informed that there was construction on the road into Rocky Mountain National Park. Cars were prohibited from entering after 9 A.M., and visitors were required to take a shuttle bus to a ranger station, where they would then change to a second bus that would carry them to the various trailheads. Nothing was said about any serious delays. One imagined a flagman in a hardhat, perhaps a five-minute wait, traffic alternating through the usual single lane around the work zone.

The day was hot, the bus crowded and without air conditioning. We waited for half an hour at the construction site before we finally got through. Then, as we pulled into the ranger station, each passenger stared with disbelief at a line a block long, where—we soon learned—people had already been standing for 45 minutes in the now vicious sun, patiently or restlessly awaiting the arrival of the second bus, the one that would take them to the trails. When it finally arrived, it absorbed 40 or 50 people, then disappeared. The line hardly seemed to have shrunk. When another bus finally appeared, we were lucky to make the cut for standing room. It took off, then halted at a second construction site where another half hour went by. It took us more than two hours to travel a few miles just to begin our John Muir-like saunter through the scrub and scrim up to three mountain lakes.

The next couple of hours were lovely, despite our gasping for oxygen in the higher altitudes, and we even saw a bluejay, a bird I hadn’t glimpsed since my childhood. And an elk. And lots of impressive rocks, cliffs, and torrents, as well as snow in summer. Unfortunately, we’d been in such a rush to get going early—ha!—that we’d only brought a bag of raisins and nuts. Naturally, the ranger station and trailhead stocked maps and souvenir lanyards, but nothing whatever to eat.

We returned then, somewhat hungry, at 2:20 to start our trip back to our parked rental car. Surely the travel situation couldn’t be any worse. What naivete! Is this America or what? This time our bus journey took a purgatorial three hours. We waited again in the sun for the first bus; after an hour it dawdled in and conveyed a tired crowd to the ranger station, where we expected to see the second bus. A child would have been less credulous. Because of the growing crowd, the rangers had divided people up into groups and ours—those who had parked in town, rather than at one of the other car-sites—was shunted to a separate line where we waited and waited and waited. Eventually, in a controlled fury that Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine might have learned from, I told the local ranger what I thought of the intolerable callousness and insult of the park’s treatment of its visitors. She agreed with me. When the second bus finally arrived, we wearily climbed on and journeyed 10 minutes down the rutted road, at which point the vehicle, overloaded with tired, desperate people, broke down. We waited for a third rescue bus, forbidden from leaving the one in which we were slowly cooking. People began to grow hysterical.

Somehow, we eventually reached the parking lot of the visitors center, but only after many passengers had been dropped off at two intervening parking areas. By now it was 5:30 in the afternoon. Our original plans were ruined. For a couple of hours of hiking we had spent most of the day on a bus or waiting for one.

Calming myself—no mean feat—I approached the main desk inside, gently pointed out that the actual road conditions and traffic delays were of an order of magnitude quite unlike that suggested by their sparky staff, then strongly underscored the real suffering of quite elderly seniors and quite young children, and finally suggested they tell people the truth and send them to other entrances to the park. Naturally, the personnel at the front desk regarded me as a pitiable crank and dismissed my outrage as obvious insanity. But here is the strangest part of all: no one else came forth to utter a peep about our cattle-car experiences. I was shocked at how docile my fellow sufferers had become. Were they too beaten down to say anything? Had they come to accept such abusive behavior as the modus operandi for life in these United States?

Perhaps some readers will regard all this as trivial. I can see that. I mean, we have real crises with unemployment, health care, crumbling economies around the world. Nonetheless, my experiences strike me as still another sign that those in power, whether it be corporate or governmental, have grown increasingly disconnected, increasingly callous in their treatment and exploitation of ordinary Americans. I once thought the part of me that years ago joined the Students for a Democratic Society was dead. Not entirely. I still feel outrage. Somehow, big banks lose billions and wreck people’s savings and retirement accounts, yet their plutocrat executives still get obscene bonuses. You don’t have to be an econ major to recognize that something here does not compute.

Oh, well, that Dirda! He’s just a literary guy, head in the clouds and all, no real understanding that everything is for the best in this best of all possible countries. Better he should stick to writing about books. Maybe so. But I won’t be visiting the Rockies at Estes Park again. Nor should you. My one vacation day in beautiful Colorado wasn’t entirely wrecked—those mountains are glorious—but I was left angry and depressed that in the midst of nature I couldn’t escape governmental indifference and bureaucratic ineptitude, or the overwhelming sense that I wasn’t being viewed as a human being but only as a statistic, a number, a vote, a cash cow. Leonard Woolf, I should point out, titled another volume of his autobiography Downhill All the Way. 

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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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