This morning, I went for a swim. TLC and I were on a weekend away at a posh hotel, and she urged me to give the spa facilities a go. Twenty leisurely lengths of the pool and a dose of sauna heat and steam room sweat opened up my pores and left me achy but glowing.
At one point I shared the steam room with a Spanish guy in budgie-smugglers. We exchanged a friendly nod, and that was it. A simple, normal moment of small luxury.
It had been at least fifteen years since I had been able to walk into a pool or spa area with any hint of confidence. Even a year ago, the Spanish gentleman would have looked at me with a mix of horror and disgust, and probably walked right back out of the steam room.
(TW: The following contains graphic descriptions of medical symptoms).
We were somewhere on Route 285, perhaps just outside Fairview, and I was deep into a fugue state. As I watched the browning landscape scud past the window to a soundtrack of 80’s goth-wave, the last three weeks swirled in my head, events sparking into focus for a moment, then popping away like a soap bubble. Continue reading The Last Ride Of The White Buffalo
Somewhere on Route 285, skirting the Carson National Forest, NM
The storm had tracked us since Alamosa. As we slipped south past the border, it shouldered in, riding alongside like a good ole boy with bad teeth and a worse attitude. It was pretty darn clear it was looking to start something.
The tail end of our trip south had lost its shine. Hawkeye had struck again. His ‘slight detour’ to dip a toe into a different state took us in a loop around some of the more desolate and depressing sites New Mexico had to offer. Dead or dying farmland. Vast junkheaps piled high with the ransacked corpses of old trucks, the exoskeletons of ruined farmed equipment splaying out thorny limbs like gigantic fossilised insects.
Every building we passed was empty, windows boarded up or kicked in. Scattered stands of graying lumber stood like waiting funeral pyres. The gateway to a ranch that we could not see had deer antlers knotted over the uprights, ugly-white as a bad dental job in the frantic light that pulsed out from the heart of the storm. The gateway to another had a mannequin strung by its neck hanging from a cross post.
I hope it was a mannequin. In the shadow-carved light, it was so difficult to be certain.
The storm was still with us, effortlessly keeping up the pace. Every now and again it would fling out a handful of rain, just to keep our attention up. This wasn’t the clean, warm Colorado rain we had come to welcome. This was dirty, greasy stuff, oil-spill and septic run-off, smearing the bug-strike across the Buffalo’s windshield without ever letting it clear.
The storm grumbled, thick and heavy as the snort from a Harley’s drivetrain, a deep pulse shaking us about like beans in a can. Anytime now, the fucker would pounce. Just at the point where we were furthest from help, it would clench its bruise-dark fists and pound us into the blacktop.
We found a way west. Route 64. According to the map, heading into the heart of the Carson National Forest. Months without rain had turned the landscape into a patchwork of khaki and tan, like camouflage, as if New Mexico was trying to hide from itself. The thirsting ground would have gratefully accepted the punishment of the storm. It was too busy toying with us to care about opening up.
The leading edge of the cloud front mutated, or maybe it was our change of course that shifted our perception. It developed a snout, sharp as a shark’s tooth. An eye-shaped meniscus bulged into being. Colourless as bone at the inner edge, deepening to the flat grey of dead flesh towards the orbit. Within, where a flash of blue from the early evening sky would have given us a faint glimpse of hope, there was only darkness.
No. Not darkness. Lightning flickered in there, actinic forks and nets of light, gone before they’d really registered. A complex pulse of activity, like the workings of some vast, inhuman mind made visible, all the better to inspire dread.
We felt it, alright. Barreling down a desolate highway with a malevolent weather system at our shoulder, dread was a default. The radio had gone dead. There was no-one else on the roads. There was no sign of habitation. No lights in the houses we passed. No livestock in the fields. This was abandoned country, dead land. Tierra muerte.
For a while, we wondered if the apocalypse had already happened and we were just a little late to the party.
Finally, we hit Highway 84 at Tierra Amarilla and could start working north. The storm, bored now, tossed one last bucket of dirty water at us and turned away, sulking south. Its dark eye closed, its snout flattened. Just a weather front now. Whatever demon had possessed it for a while on a an evening in mid-July in the New Mexico hinterlands was gone. At Chama, just south of the border, civilization began to reassert itself. A petrol station open for business. Houses with lights on. A dog in a yard, barking joyfully as we span past.
We broke the Colorado border at Chromo and the sun cast aside the last of the cloud. We were bathed in red and gold dusk-light all the way home.
A day later we would visit a town best known for its resident cannibal and bounce a deer off the Buffalo’s rear offside.
The Rim Rock Road, part of the Colorado National Monument, nr. Fruita, CO.
John Otto was a bit of a strange one. A reclusive canyon-dweller, he was one of those guys for whom mid-nineteenth century America was made–a rugged individualist finding a place to call his own in the vast open spaces of the heartland.
He was a little late for the heyday, alas. But Otto’s spirit and love for the land north of Grand Junction he called home would have a lasting effect. In 1907 he began carving out paths and tracks to make the rugged canyons he trod so easily more accessible to the outside world. At the same time, he began agitating to make his ‘backyard’ into a place that everyone could enjoy. He was a recluse, but would happily abandon his privacy given any excuse to evangelize the spires and canyons amongst which he lived. Otto was tireless at writing petitions, conducting tours and seeking out sponsors to get the message out.
In 1911, his efforts were rewarded. President Taft signed papers that turned John Otto’s backyard into the Colorado National Monument. Otto was rewarded personally, with the creation of a new post–the Monument’s first custodian, with a stipend of a dollar a month. I get the feeling that he would have done it regardless of pay. He called the land ‘the heart of the world.’
Without him, we would not be in Fruita, Colorado, pointing the nose of the White Buffalo up onto the Rim Ridge Road.
Now, that road is a whole other story. 23 miles from Grand Junction to Fruita, it takes the high route up and through some of the most spectacular sights in John Otto’s backyard. 20 years in the making, carved out of the sparking red sandstone by gangs of young men with pickaxes, shovels and fistfuls of dynamite.
The Monument is geology laid bare. Millions of years of erosion have carved towers and sheets of rocks out of the landscape. They take on a myriad of forms–a pair of hands clasped in prayer, a couple kissing.
Steep-faced canyons drop hundreds of feet to green-scumbled valley floors. Brave souls can take the switchback trails that Otto cut into the rock down into these valleys, but they are not recommended if you’re unprepared. These are not paths to lightly tread. One false step and the express route to Plummetville awaits.
We stayed on the road, and chose to enjoy the views instead.
At sunset, those views change completely. The red rocks lose their angry hue in the face of the blazing crimson of the lowering sun. They blush instead, sweetening into coral and madder rose, lilac and damson. As we chased the gloaming back towards the jewel-lights of Grand Junction, a couple of thousand feet below, I thought again about John Otto, a man so intent on living life as he chose that his one attempt at normality, marriage to local artist Beatrice Farnham, foundered after three weeks. She left in despair, saying, “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
There was only ever room for one true love in John Otto’s life, and she would never try to make him change.
DATELINE: 12th July 2018
Somewhere on Highway 6, on the Colorado/Utah border
Hawkeye did it again. We had a little time to kill before our last stop of the day, so he coaxed the Buffalo in a westerly direction and fired us out towards Utah. Hawkeye being Hawkeye, he didn’t choose the obvious route–Interstate 70, a clean, fast road. Instead he hung a tight left at a half-horse town called Loma, and put us onto Highway 6.
Once, this would have been one of the main drags through the western part of the state. Now it’s neglected. The surface is unmaintained, the blacktop gently devolving to rubble and potholes that tested the Buffalo’s shocks. There are no services, no people, no ambulant life at all. Low, scrubby plains march off to the green hills of the McInnis National Park. We were utterly alone. No other vehicles passed us for the entire time we were on Highway 6. The silence was deep and full in our heads.
The border between Utah and Colorado is marked by a handmade sign, deliberately hammered at an angle to a post. A shot-pocked can of peaches sits alongside. There is a sense of utter isolation, of abandonment at this sentry post. We paused for photos, but were soon chased back onto the road. There was a distinctly eerie atmosphere about the place. The feel of somewhere haunted by a history that had been almost completely erased.
A few miles into Utah, there was a spur road back onto I-70 which we took with a sigh of relief. It ran on the other side of the McInnis Ridge, a greener and much more pleasant drive. Less than a mile separated us from the forgotten road that waited quietly to the north, a road that you would now actively have to seek out.
I wondered why the road was so completely un-used. Surely an enterprising person could set up a little 420-friendly operation close to the state line. A simple shack with a pull-in. You could even do it as a mobile, food-truck style business on the weekends. A way to perhaps bring a spark of life back to this forgotten highway.
Call it The Last Chance Cannabis Saloon. I might set up a Kickstarter.
DATELINE: 12th July 2018
Somewhere in the hills above Fruita, CO.
Eventually, Star and I came to an understanding. I would stop kicking her in the side, and she would stay away from the tasty snacks on either side of the trail and pick up the pace. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t try it on. She was too damn stubborn not to test the boundaries of our fragile relationship. Typical redhead.
I am no natural horseman. Donkeys at the seaside were always more my speed. But it seemed foolish not to give it a go while we were in the heart of cowboy country. Besides, I had dropped sixty bucks on a fine hat back in Denver. We took a recommendation from our landlord in Palisades and booked a sunset ride with the fine folks at Rim Rock Adventures.
‘How you doing back there, Rob?’ Crysta, our guide, looked back down the line at Star and I.. She was a rangy, loud blonde cowgirl, constantly cracking jokes and chatting away. I managed a shaky thumbs up. This would not beat me.
I could understand Star’s attitude. This was her fourth ride of the day. It was hot and dusty up on the trail. Given the choice, I certainly wouldn’t fancy being loaded up with 12 stones of lanky Brit at the end of a long shift. She had definitely given me a look when we were introduced back at the ranch. I could tell she was distinctly under-impressed.
Hence her refusal to stay with the group, lagging behind the line of horses that picked their way up into the hills. She’d follow along, sure. But she was gonna take her own sweet time about it, find her own path and if she spotted a tasty bit of grass along the way, well, why not.
Star and I quickly became the comic relief of the group. Over the course of the ride, my hat would blow off my head, Star would get herself tangled in her hitching loop, and I would nearly come out of the saddle when she suddenly decided to break into a trot on a steep uphill gradient. Star was definitely the boss here. I was just along for the ride.
But what a ride. The trail snaked up through the foothills of the McInnis National Conservation Area, skirting the edge of Devil’s Canyon before plunging back through sagebrush-fringed coves. You couldn’t do this road by car, and the steep inclines and declines would have been an exhausting chore by foot. ‘Trust your horses,’ Crysta said, and they brought us over the hills and home again.
The sun was setting as we arrived back at the ranch, and we dismounted, a little saddle-sore but eyes shining. TLC reported whenever she looked back to see how I was doing, I was grinning like a loon and cackling. I guess maybe Star and I got along a little better than I thought.
I gave my stubborn, greedy slowpoke a hug before we left. She leaned in and huffed out a hot breath from her velvety snout. I don’t think we’d ever be friends, but I’d like to hope we shared a little something as we clattered over the red rocks at the foot of the Coronado National Monument.
Who knows? Maybe she was just glad to get me off her back at last.
Adams Falls, The Kawaneechee Valley, nr. Grand Lakes, CO.
Adventure is only ever the turn of a wheel away for the Clan Of The White Buffalo. We were acclimating to the opening section of the Rocky Mountain National Park before hitting the Trail Ridge Road, when Hawkeye spotted a turn-off for a place called Adam’s Falls. We like us a waterfall. In we went. Continue reading Four Feet In The Colorado River
Pepi’s Bar And Restaurant is a little bit of Austria in the Rockies. OK, sorry, let’s track back a little. The Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer is a little bit of Austria in the Rockies. Pepi Gramshammer was a member of the 1960 Olympic Ski Team, and saw the birth of Vail, effectively an Alpine-themed Milton Keynes, as an opportunity. 54 years later, it’s still there, the cheerfully orange frontage inviting you in as an antidote to the blando corporate blah on show elsewhere.
It’s unapologetically Austrian, offering schnitzel, spatzle and hearty rib-sticking winter fare all year round. As a stop off for lunch on our way through from Great Lakes to Palisades, it suited rather well. There was a sense of history and personality to the place, a sense of ‘fuck you, I was here first, and the big orange building stays.’ It’s an attitude that the rest of Vail could do well to copy or at least look at.
We snagged an end table on the terrace (which I have a nasty feeling was reserved for someone else but hey we got there first and we were English and polite therefore fuck youse) which made the hangout much more choice. We watched the rich and privileged of Vail waft past, sweetly invulnerable to the world around them.
Pepi does a damned good Reuben. You don’t have to unhinge your jaw to eat it.
DATELINE: 9th July 2018
Grand Junction, CO
When a place gets independently recommended by three different sources, you know you have to check it out. Bin 707 in Grand Junction got shout-outs from our next-door neighbor in Grand Lakes, a random lady at the World’s End brewpub down the way, and our hosts at Palisades.
Sure, ok, you have our attention.
Tucked into the business district of Grand Junction, Bin 707 is a gem of a place that you could walk past and miss and that would be a fuckup on your part. Highwalled, with a long low patio that allows you to make the most of the hazy 25 degree evening, Bin 707 is serious about their provenance. Local first, then state, then national. Which means Colorado lamb and pork is strong on the menu, with some great river-food in support. Alongside an amazing porchetta with green chili and hominy, and a lamb tenderloin so tender it almost melted on the fork, we enjoyed a glorious bavette that succumbed to the blade like a giallo victim, and duck breast that offered the perfect payoff between fat, crisp and melting tenderness. Stretch hit the jackpot, though. A simple Thai-spiced bowl of mussels won with the sweetest, plumpest bivalves I’ve ever tasted. The only criticism–more sourdough toast needed to soak up the precious juices.
Oh, and the beer menu was genuinely intimidating. In a good way, I mean. Thank the gods that our friendly and knowledgeable server could guide my way.
Relaxed, confident, delicious. You guys have to try this place out.
DATELINE: 10th July 2018
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you play it right, it can be the only meal of the day. If you want a serious, old-school American carbo-load, then Starvin Arvins on the main drag through Clifton is a must stop.
It’s dark wood and cozy booths. It’s stuffed animal heads on every wall. It’s stacked platefuls of food for absurdly small outlays of cash. It’s more coffee than you can drink in one go, and I never thought I’d write that sentence.
At Starvin, your waitress will be bright, blonde and heavily tattooed and it’s not a hipster affectation. At Starvin, I finally saw the point to breakfast. Here’s the buffer zone between you and the world. Here’s where you armour up against the challenges ahead.
A plateful of hash browns, cheese, sausage gravy and a cats-head biscuit with home-made peach and strawberry jelly on the side. Whatever else happens in your day, you know you’ve got breakfast right at least.
Fruit And Fibre? Bitch, please.
DATELINE: 10th July, 2018
One last thing, that isn’t breakfast, lunch or dinner, but needs to be raised to the group. The Grand Junction area is incredibly fertile, and Palisade, our base for this week, is rich in fruit of all kinds. It’s a big wine-growing region, and you have to know we’ve been tasting our faces off. The Dry Rosé at Grand River Winery is a crisp, flinty revelation.
But oh, the fruit. Summer season peaches are absurdly juicy and full-flavoured, spilling honeyed nectar down your chin with every bite. The Bing cherries on offer at every stall are so sweet and rich, almost alcoholic in their roundness and complexity. We spent money at Get Peachy, but you can do as well at Nana’s Fruit and Jam Shack, Herman’s Produce… oh, man, you honestly can’t go wrong.