Post 502: The highway in the sky

I white-knuckled my way, steering our rented Ford Fusion around the switchback roads. Up, up, up we climbed. Twist. Turn. Twist again. The Fusion hybrid changed to its electric alter ego, informing me with a leafy icon on the dash. 

“I can drive if you’re too nervous,” Nick said. But he didn’t mean it. He too was taking in the scenery, jaw on the floor.

“No it’s okay! I got this.” 

We twisted and turned, then twisted again. We stopped at a pull-off to join other gawkers. We snapped pictures. We took it all in.

Nick had read about the alpine region and its intriguingly fragile vegetation. Oh, and the marmots. We hoped to see those after being rained out of Olympic National Park in 2016.  

We got back in the car and continued our drive. Up, up, up, to the welcome center, parking lot riddled with tour buses and driving campers. 

We parked. Used the facilities. Exchanged the obligatory “It’s amazing but sad that the plumbing works up here” comments. Bought our 1-year-old niece an “ABC” book about Rocky Mountain National Park. (“‘M’ is for ‘Marmot!’”) Then we hiked. 

In a single-file line.

Up manmade steps lined by “DO NOT CROSS” ropes. Plant markers on the side of the path illustrated the delicate tundra. Stepping over the ropes means certain death for plants that had taken decades to mature in the frigid alpine temperatures. 

Nick marveled at their resiliency. 

We inched our way up the path, hanging out behind slightly overweight human beings and families with children. We reached the top, surrounded by selfie sticks, clouds of chatter, and excited exhales. 

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said before we could take it all in.

We descended, step by step. Got back in the car, pulled out of the lot. Noticed with a start that, across the street from the welcome center, a van had gone off the road and stopped just before a steep drop. The van’s tire tracks cut through the vegetation, its family sprinkled across the tundra awaiting a forest ranger.

We stopped at another pull off at the Medicine Bow Curve and mountain-goated our way up a worn path. We passed a birder and a middle-aged couple wearing New Balance sneakers. 

Otherwise, serenity. And spectacular views. And MARMOTS.

We continued on to the other side of the park. Down, down, down, balancing responsible driving with sightseeing. 

Elk dotted the landscape. I wanted to see a moose and made up a song about it (foreshadowing: we’d see one later that very day). 

Throughout the drive we marveled at nature and man’s ability to build and maintain roads at such extreme altitudes.

And we both hoped they never try to save people from themselves at the expense of nature’s unbridled beauty.

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