There are certain places our van just can’t go. High country “roads” that only the most capable 4x4 can traverse is one of them. Lucky Julia had a Jeep, an adventurous disposition, and a few days off work. After a great deal of sourcing from the locals, we decided on tackling Williams Lake, which, rumor has it, was the impetus for John Denver’s classic hit “Rocky Mountain High” after a night spent musing on it’s starry reflections while camping along the shore. The first few miles of the drive were pleasant, but it didn’t take long before our decision to take an off road vehicle was aggressively affirmed. The road gave way to boulders and washouts, with a grade that could only be described as 1,000%. Much to our surprise, as we were tossed around like rocks in a tin can, at each successive plateau was parked several average pedestrian vehicles (most notably was a particularly shiny BMW minivan just before the trailhead). “How were all these folks so brave?” we wondered. Perhaps living in a temperamental 85’ Vanagon had turned us soft.
The hike itself was short and merciful at only 1.8 miles of steep, albeit well maintained trail. This being our first hike of the season at altitude we were slow to scratch our way to the top. Julia, at a youthful 22 years of age, with lungs well acclimated to life in the mountains seemed, at least to my eyes, to hop and skip her way up the trail with ease. After only a quarter mile we stopped and paused at a small lake a few hundred yards off the main trail were Julia and her boyfriend Miles had once shared a first date. We saw a few fish cruising the shallows but opted to push onwards; encouraged that William’s bounty would be even more plentiful. We reached the lake around noon, and were glad to find that it was sunny, calm, and most importantly completely devoid of other people. Given the cars we saw on the way in we’d feared we might be met with droves of families, pets, and competing anglers. After surveying the shoreline we ate lunch on a rock outcropping, and spent the next hour casting at what appeared to be a population of about 3 fish. Dries, droppers, and streamers proved fruitless and after a pleasant, though slightly disappointing afternoon we agreed to make our way back down the trail. As we traversed the outlet flow by way of crisscrossed fallen timber we spotted something that in our initial eagerness we’d missed. There, nearly hidden in the small foamy pockets between logs were dozens of radiant Cutthroat, closely guarding they’re redds while performing an elegant and elaborate spawning ritual. Though we couldn’t catch these fish (and most would argue it would be unethical to do if we could) we spent 20 minutes watching them dance in the small glass-like windows, more beautiful and vibrant than the wildflowers surrounding us.
Having come up fishless, I urged the group to give the first lake, and its cruising Cutties a second look. We were glad we did; cast after cast of perfect dry fly eats as the shadows lengthened and the afternoon waned made for a perfect end to a beautiful day. In a white-knuckle burst of excitement, the final fish of the day, a flamboyantly colored sixteen-inch male slowly swam over and ate Aimee’s black ant imitation five yards from our feet.
We’d gotten a taste of Colorado’s high country and were eager to return. Julia was back at work, but a close friend, and early mentor of mine, Brian, was fifteen minutes down the road in Basalt, and though working as well, had offered to put us in touch with his girlfriend Fran who was willing to guide us to one of their favorite lakes. Brian is a few years older than me, and was instrumental in shaping my worldview as a late teen, where we shared endless hours skateboarding and working together in Morgantown, WV. Brian left Morgantown to expand his horizons as a chef, eventually leading him to his current position at the prestigious Hotel Jerome in Aspen. Years later he would pick up fly fishing, and though we have been close friends for over a decade, distance has kept us from ever sharing a day on the water together. It looked like we wouldn’t have an opportunity to fish together this time either, but we were able to catch up a local gas station were we met in the early morning to link up with Fran (an excellent angler in her own right) and Brian’s ten-year old daughter Lydia, who would accompany us an a hike that Fran admitted had“destroyed” her and Brian on their first ascent.
The hike was only about six miles round trip, but had an elevation gain akin to climbing stairs start to finish. Luckily Lydia’s tiny legs tired easily, and we were happy to ride the coattails of her frequent breaks. Just under three hours later and about 2,000 feet higher from where we departed the trailhead we arrived at the picturesque, emerald-colored lake. Unlike our first hike to Williams, this lake appeared to have an abundant population of feeding fish and it took Fran all of twenty minutes to eat lunch, rig up, and release her first Cutthroat. Similarly to our previous experience, large numbers of spawning fish crowded the outlet flow, so we focused on the ones cruising the perimeter looking for food. Aimee threw a hail-marry cast at twenty-plus incher and to her surprise the fish paused, turned, held beneath her Parachute Adams (see previous post) for what felt like an eternity, then nonchalantly gulped it down. We’d catch several more fish that afternoon, but none as astonishing as the first. After several hours we collectively decided to make our way back down. Determined, Fran meticulously worked the shore on her way back to her pack, and was rewarded with a fish of comparable size to Aimee’s brute, which sported even brighter colors. It was the perfect note to end on, and with jovial spirits we flew down the trail nearly 3 times as fast as we’d ascended.
Our elation quickly changed to desperation as we turned the key to start Bullwinkle and came up empty. The starter cranked and cranked, but nothing. To cut a long and agonizing story short, we tried everything at our disposal to no avail. We’d had problems with altitude before, and wondered if the trailheads near 10,000-foot high thin air was the culprit. It was getting dark, and we had to make a choice. We needed to get back down to aspen (almost 2,000-feet lower) to test our theory. But over eleven miles of dirt, then steep winding road lay between us. Was the road a straight shot down from here? We couldn’t remember, but we knew getting a tow truck to the trailhead was going to cost a fortune. “Screw it,” we agreed, “Put the damn thing in neutral and point it downhill!”
What ensued over the next quarter mile of dirt road was something out of a movie. We flew down the trail at nearly forty miles an hour, afraid to brake and maroon ourselves in any of the deep low spots preceding the steep launch ramps. We soared through the air on more than one occasion as Aimee howled out the window, fist pumping through the air in wild rebellion. For that brief moment, all of our stress and uncertainty had melted away, and we were like two children, riding a rollercoaster for the first time; simultaneously scared, excited and altogether free. With the contents of the van thoroughly blended and scattered on the floor we took the sharp left turn back on to pavement and continued to roll down to civilization. By our estimation we made it over a mile before one final uphill climb brought us to a deadening halt. The writing was on the wall, and after a final failed attempt to start the van we hopped in the car with Fran and Lydia, and watched Bullwinkle slowly fade over the horizon in the rear view mirror. It was the very first time we’d ever left the van alone, and the whole thing had us feeling sick to our stomachs. Bullwinkle had never let us down before, ever, and leaving him now, in his darkest hour, felt like a true betrayal of everything we’d been through. But with no one in our party having access to cell reception we had no choice. It took another three hours, dinner with Brian, Fran, and Lydia, and an altogether confusing and exhausting game of phone-tag before we were hopping into a tow truck in Aspen to journey back to Bullwinkle.
Our drivers name was Matt; a semi retired fly fishing guide on a 96-hour on-call bender. The fishy conversation that ensued kept the mood light as we loaded the van onto the back of the truck and deliriously wound our way back down the mountains at 1AM. Matt dropped us off at a bus depot he knew people camped at overnight often and wished us luck. “I’d give you a free ride but my boss keeps a log of this stuff”, he said. We were happy to pay the nine dollars our bill came out to after our AAA discount. As the trucks taillights disappeared into the night we held our collective breath and slid the keys into the ignition. The starter cranked…and cranked…and cranked…and VROOOOM! Bullwinkle burst back to life with a gasp and roar, and we didn’t hang around long enough to ask questions about exactly what had transpired over the course of the afternoon and evening. We raced like spirits though the night back to Carbondale.
Our most harrowing experience on the road was now behind us, and our time in Colorado was coming to a close. With heavy hearts we said our goodbyes the following morning, and puttered down the road towards Utah. If the altitude didn’t get us, the heat might, as our National Park tour was projected to skyrocket past the hundred-degree mark in Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion. We stared longingly at the non-functioning air conditioning dial on the dash. “We’ll figure it out when we get there” we agreed. And like so many times before, we turned back onto the highway, and drove off into the great wide open.