Grand Lake and Going Home

Technically, I didn’t have to be back to Minnesota until March 27 so I had a good ten days remaining. My plan was to stay with my niece Kimi in Grand Lake, Colorado and ski Winter Park for a couple days, and then stay at my friend Mo’s in Frisco, Colorado (the heart of Summit County). Summit County is a Mecca of ski resorts that I could choose from: Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain. But the ski resorts began closing, the Vail Epic Resorts were some of the first, which impacted Breckenridge and Keystone. Then the Ikon resorts began tipping. I decided I would hit Winter Park and forego Summit County.

As a writer and a Montanan, I have been a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of the Longmire series. Johnson lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, just south of Hardin. Though originally part of the police force in New York, he has become an icon in Wyoming. He has also been a big proponent of small towns, and has appeared at my hometown library several times. Last year at my book launch in October, he had a scheduled appearance at the This House of Books in Billings a week after me.

So I was thrilled to hear he was going to be having a book signing in Hardin at the same library I grew up with and where I had a book launch party at last year. I decided since I couldn’t ski Summit, I’d reroute my return trip and attend Johnson’s book signing. I’d still be getting home to Minnesota a few days early, and I figured this was a great opportunity to meet a local hero.

But the Coronavirus situation was changing minute by minute. The focus zeroed in on people 60+ and especially those 60+ with co-morbidities. Well, I was part of that at-risk population, and virtually everyone I know and hang out with is part of that group!! My trip to see Craig Johnson would include seeing and staying with my sister (60+) and siblings (all 60+), some with underlying issues. The panic and social distancing and shelter-in-place orders were just beginning to formulate, and while ski resorts were closing, the President had said groups of 50 or less were ok. But by Saturday morning, the mood of the country and the world was quickly darkening, and I finally called my sister and cancelled my trip home through Hardin.

Bernice was just fine with my truncated plan. She didn’t quite cheer, but clearly she thought I had made the right decision. I stayed with Kimi, her partner and her two golden furry kids in Grand Lake, Colorado. They are both younger, not in the high risk age population. It was a relaxing visit, but the news kept getting worse.

Finally, I threw in the towel and abandoned any thought of skiing Winter Park and decided to high-tail it home.

At the same time as the Coronavirus was sweeping the country, Iran and Russia were having an oil war, so gas prices were also plummeting. I drove the scenic route out of Grand Lake by taking Hwy 34 back down to Granby, then cutting back north on Hwy 125 up through Rand, Walden (a very cute community) and taking Hwy 127 east then Hwy 230 northeast to Laramie, where I caught I-80. I hadn’t filled up with gas since Steamboat Springs, where the price was $2.59/gallon. At Laramie I stopped at the Tumbleweed Express and got gas for $1.79/gallon. They had plastic disposable mittens at each gas pump—I slipped one on, grabbed the nozzle and filled up without touching anything with my hands.

At the Laramie gas station. It was the only place I saw these protective mitts.

I thought maybe I would stop in Scottsbluff, NE overnight, but it was still only four in the afternoon. I decided to keep driving, even though I knew I would be heading into the Nebraska Sandhills and pretty desolate country.

I considered stopping in Scottsbluff long enough to look up a blind date I had had there in 1980, but that would have taken some time to do. I was itching to get home, and the frankly, one blind date a compelling reason does not make. Outside of Alliance, Nebraska was an unexpected sight. I sped by Carhenge, did a double take, and did my three point turn in the middle of the road to get a closer look. I pulled into a spring soaked, sodden driveway to look at this monument of cars, standing upright, some with cars balanced on an up-ended fender. It was a replica of England’s Stonehenge, made from cars, in the middle of a vast irrigated farm area. You might imagine the circular patterns around it to be mystical crop circles, but I know that they are formed by farm irrigation pivot sprinklers.  Clearly some farmer had too much time on his hands one winter’s night and needed to get rid of old vehicles that were rusting in the grove.

Light began to fade around Martin, NE, and while the country was beautiful in a stark, barren way, there were no good stopping places. I drove into the unending rolling hills as night fell.

I stopped at the largest and only town for miles–Kadoka, South Dakota. It was past 8 pm, and I was dogged tired. I had worried as the night fell about deer or antelope on the road, and only once did I see them as I sped by. I kept my fingers crossed that they would stay off the roads and give me safe passage. And they did. Who knows what else I sped by, as the night was as black as coal. By the time I got to the hotel, most of the restaurants were closed, and I didn’t see fast food at my exit at all. I went to bed without supper; I figured I could live for eight hours.

Fast food, gummy worms from the gas station, and Diet Coke were my sustenance for the seven plus hours home. At Chamberlain, where the Missouri River flows, the Snow geese, Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese and all sorts of ducks were soaring, swooping and sailing through the skies. Then, with only five hours between me and home, my rear window began losing flecks of glass!

In Midway, Utah, I had gone through a car wash, and the next day I saw that one pane of my three-pane rear window was broken in a spidery, fractal pattern. I knew it was tempered, and had that coating to keep it from shattering, so I had hoped then that it would last through my trip. Midway was about three weeks ago. The window had held up since then, and NOW it decided to start breaking up!!??!!

Couldn’t wait another five hours. Glass began to fail.

At first only a piece or two of the shattered glass flew off—they were pieces smaller than a dime. But then more pieces flew! I knew the whole window would go if I didn’t stop and do something. I could plug it with a piece of cardboard if the whole window went, but I didn’t want to have to figure that out at the next town, so I pulled over on I-90 to contemplate my dilemma.

The hole in the window was smaller than a dollar bill, but bigger than a silver dollar. I had clear packing tape, and I always carry duct tape in my ski bag. I figured if I taped the heck out of it, I could at least make it back to my lake home in Miltona. So that’s what I did—I jumped out, went to the passenger side back door, hung out and around the backseat and taped that window within an inch of its life or mine.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I left I-90 and drove north on I-29 through Brookings, and then back roads towards Alexandria. I took one last detour to drive by Andes Tower Ski area, about 15 miles from my Miltona home. Like all the other resorts, Andes Tower was closed up. It was sad to see.

My ski season was over.

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