Entry Seven: Rocky Mountain High

So, let’s talk about Colorado.

Yes, let's.
Yes, let’s.

Colorado is not my natural environment. It’s dry, the air is thin, and it’s full of people who own yoga mats and consider bicycling at two miles above sea level to be “light exercise”. Denver, in particular, is a frustrating clusterfuck. It’s a city with a LOT going for it, and a billion neat places to visit. Places that, unfortunately, traffic prevents anyone from getting to in a timely fashion. Colorado’s capital is bloated with new growth and follows the transportation philosophy that if eight lanes is good, sixteen lanes will be just frickin’ awesome. Fully half the city is under construction. It’s like Charlotte on steroids and without any black people. This is not the sort of place conducive to the prosperity of a whiskey-drinking, humidity fueled Southern boy whose most strenuous activity is your mom.

Look on the bright side: I went ten thousand feet above sea level and over six blog entries before I made a "your mom" joke.
Look on the bright side: I went ten thousand feet above sea level and over six blog entries before I made a “your mom” joke.

So, other than legal weed, why come at all? Well that’s an excellent question, whose answer speaks to the greater truth of life’s journey. Comfort zones are lovely and all, but we truly learn who we are when we roam outside them. In fact, it could be said that we become who we are outside our comfort zones. Bartholomew Roberts was comfortable in the merchant navy; he became Black Bart after pirates kidnapped him. Simo Häyhä was comfortable on his farm; the Winter War turned him into the White Death. Conan was comfortable on the Wheel of Pain… actually that’s a bad example. Anyone comfortable on the Wheel of Pain is pretty much already “The Destroyer”.

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Pictured: Comfort

So what did I become in Colorado? Dehydrated, mostly. But I honestly can’t complain. See, here’s the thing about Colorado, if you plan on travelling through there: There is a LOT of public land to camp on. I mean, a LOT. Like every twenty miles of state highway had an access road to forest service areas, most of which had no fees of any kind. Google search, pull off the road, pitch a tent. If you don’t mind sharing your evenings with the local wildlife (which I was relieved to discover only included black bears and not grizzlies) then you’re golden. And because of that, you get to experience this shit right here:

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And this:

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And of course this:

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What I’m trying to say is that this state is picturesque as fuck. You couldn’t move more than a few feet down the road before some new spectacular vista was laid out in front of you. In particular, Highway 160 across the southern part of the state is nothing but one postcard-worthy stop after another. There were enough soaring cliff faces and billowing clouds to keep bad landscape painters busy until the end of civilization. Honestly, it’s legitimately overwhelming. I discovered there’s a such thing as TOO much natural beauty. I started to get fatigued from all the awe. If that sounds weird to you, you try making that drive and see if the same thing doesn’t happen. I recommend doing it in warm weather like I did, though. I think the winter up there would be a hellish thing.

Pack this shit in ice and throw it at Ned Stark's head.
Pack this shit in ice and throw it at Ned Stark’s head.

But of course, cheap camping and scenic overlooks are hardly the first thing that come to mind whenever anyone mentions Colorado, right? There’s something much more interesting about the state that I’m sure everyone wants to hear about.

Ahem. Not yet.
Ahem. Not yet.

Of course, I’m talking about Mesa Verde. This place is some seriously deep shit, so let me give you a little background.

Here's one for your desktop.
Here’s one for your desktop.

Sometime before Jesus was born, ancient hunter-gatherers in what is today the Four Corners region of the American southwest began developing agriculture and settling down, like you do. By about 700 CE they had developed a complex culture with an intricate religion, knowledge of astronomy, and oh yeah ENTIRE GODDAMN CITIES BUILT INTO THE SIDES OF CLIFFS.

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Pictured: A goddamn city built into the side of a cliff. Holy shit.

Early Spanish explorers called them “pueblos”, the Spanish word for “town”, because apparently they were running low on imagination that day. You might have heard these people referred to as “Anasazi”. The Park Service is trying to get away from that term, because it’s a Navajo word that means something like “enemies of our forefathers”. This tells me that these people probably took precisely as much shit as you would expect from anyone who climbs two miles above sea level to carve their home out of solid fucking rock. In any case, this went on until the 12th century or so, when they got the hell out for unknown reasons that college professors probably argue over a lot.

Ran out of weed?
Ran out of weed?

Whatever the reason, they left behind these magnificent ruins, which are very well preserved due to the high and dry environment of their construction. And in the early part of the 20th century, equally magnificent badass Teddy Roosevelt established the US National Parks, with the pueblo cluster at Mesa Verde being among the first. Now, for a minimal fee, you can go camp at the base of this giant plateau by night and go hiking among the ruins by day. And you should, because holy shit.

Seriously.
Seriously.

It’s not too many places you can sit by firelight and listen to coyotes barking within reach of over two millennia of human history, but this park is just such a place. While I was there, I saw a working dig site…

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…stood in the bottom of a kiva (likely a religious chamber, like a sweat lodge)…

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…and basically roamed the canyons feeling like a dehydrated Indiana Jones.

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So yeah, go. If for no other reason, I’d love to wind up in just ONE national park that’s filled with someone other than vacationing Europeans.

As for the rest of Colorado, well… there was one more positive aspect.

Highly positive. (get it?)
Highly positive. (get it?)

Cannabis. Marijuana. Weed, herb, chiba, tea, dope, Mary Jane, reefer. There, I said it. It’s for sale legally in Colorado, and yes, out-of-state tourists can enjoy the hell out of it. You’re allowed a quarter-ounce with a valid and up-to-date ID, plus an indeterminate amount of edibles (I didn’t ask). If you’re curious where, I can only recommend a spot I visited, the cleverly named Altitude. The staff were friendly, knowledgeable, and totally willing to indulge an out-of-towner who was just dumbfounded he was buying weed in a fucking legal retail establishment. The prices are more than manageable, too.

Some of you will be happy to know most of their product are gluten-free.
Some of you will be happy to know most of their products are gluten-free.

And thus, upon experiencing endless scenery, ancient civilizations, and retail ganja did I find myself thoroughly exhausted. Overall, Colorado is a fine state with friendly people. But seriously, you fuckers need to get an atmosphere. I barely had the lung capacity to smoke my weed. But I managed.

You know the best part about this picture? Everything in it is completely legal.
You know the best part about this picture? Everything in it is completely legal.

Entry Five: The Ghosts of War

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Less than an hour north of Denver lies a small, fairly unremarkable town called Greeley. It is one of the endless stream of places that might fly past a car window, little more than another exit on the endless American highway. I would never have known it were there, much less stopped, had the internet not provided a lead on a cheap camping spot. Cheap spots to sleep are always welcome for a lone wanderer, and this particular site had the added bonus of sharing land with an old nuclear silo. How could I say no to that?

Despite the fact that camping near an old nuclear site is practically begging for zombies, I headed toward Greeley, ably navigated down a few back roads by Google Maps’ confident voice. It was quiet, out of the way, and fairly deserted; a perfect spot to rest for the night. When I pulled onto the access road, I discovered that I had wandered onto a piece of history.

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Those pillars next to Yolanda are all that remain of Camp 202. During the Second World War, it housed nearly four thousand German POW’s, most of them captured from Afrika Korps. Sent over in waves as Erwin Rommel’s defenses were collapsing, they would occupy what amounted to a minor city at the time. They were given jobs, primarily in agriculture due to wartime labor shortages, a place to live, and even paid with money they could send to their families back home. After conversing with the local county maintenance man, I learned that some of them liked it so much they stayed, settling in the area, and their descendants could be found around town today. I recalled the family I had seen in the gas station parking lot on the way in, the one with four incredibly blonde-haired children running around the minivan, and wondered.

Only the pillars are left to attest that the place ever existed. A couple of plaques mark the spot, a ruin that you’d have to be looking for to find, or else stumble across randomly as I did. Next to one of them could be seen a carving, presumably left by one of the prisoners:

The carving on the upper left is a set of initials and a prisoner number. The date is May 16, 1944.
It’s on the upper left: a set of initials and a prisoner number. The date is May 16, 1944.

My grandmother’s brother was named Marvin. He died at Kasserine Pass, one of thousands of American boys who lost their lives that day, overrun by the vastly more experienced wehrmacht. Did the man who killed my great uncle wind up at Camp 202? Was his family still living nearby? Did he carve this graffiti when he was released? There is obviously no way of knowing, but these were the thoughts that wandered through my head when I found myself amongst unexpected history.

Up the road, I found the campsite itself. The missile silo was sadly off-limits without a pre-arranged tour, but the view was spectacular. I had a sunset, a place to rest, and a few locals for company.

These guys, mostly.
These guys, mostly.

The county worker who told me about the camp was a nice guy, and content to chat about the site for a while. He warned me not to drink the well water, something I had no intention of doing anyway. And so I sat, near the former home of a world-ending weapon of mass destruction, cooking a simple meal on a picnic table and letting my thoughts wander.

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I thought of Missileers past who had manned this location. Two by two, working in shifts underground, their whole purpose in life had been to remain alert, waiting for the signal to turn a set of keys that would end civilization. I thought of the men and women who still do this job, of the active warheads still targeting god-knows-where inside of Russia. And I thought of the people who live their whole lives near sites like this, never knowing that there is a warhead on the other side of the planet, designated just for their home, targeting the hellish weaponry that their government tries to keep hidden from view.

I remembered the story of Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet Air Defense officer who refused to report an attack when his early warning system malfunctioned, showing a half-dozen missiles coming over the North Pole from the United States. He rightly assumed it was an error, broke his protocol and training, and saved us all from the horror of a full-scale nuclear exchange, less than two weeks after my sixth birthday.

Are both our weapons systems still automated, I wondered? Would there be any sort of fail-safe in place if something went wrong, a Petrov on either side to correct any errors? Or would all our remaining warheads launch, Dr. Strangelove-style, to carry out a war that no one ever, ever wanted to fight? Was the Greeley site still listed as a target in whatever aged Russian database determined their missiles’ course? Would I go to sleep in my tent that night, only to be evaporated on first contact, a casualty like great uncle Marvin? The Cold War has been been gone nearly thirty years, and most of us don’t realize that in many ways we still dance along the edge of civilization’s final sunset. That night, in that place, it was a reality that was hard to ignore.

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In the end, of course, these were just the idle and morbid thoughts of a lonely traveler, passing through the remnants of conflicts past, motivated to introspection by the layers of history that had been found off a random highway exit in Colorado. In a way, it threw me back to childhood, growing up with the reality of that endless threat always in our minds. We were a generation who were sung the songs of our ancestors’ war against the great fascist evil across the sea. We were the last generation who drilled for missile attack, constantly reminded by authority that death and chaos were at all times hours away.

I recall once being concerned about these things, and asked my father what would happen if the fire should actually start to fall. Ever the philosopher, he replied that there was no way of knowing. All he knew, he said, was where he would prefer to be if and when that happened. I asked him where, and his reply was concise.

“Under the first bombs.”

I slept well that night.

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