When I was a kid, my mom gave me a book called Blue Highways written by William Least Heat Moon. The story detailed an around the country road trip the author embarked on over the course of a year driving a pickup truck retrofitted with a camper shell, traveling the “Blue Highways.” The Blue Highways were the little 2 lane roads that went through small rural towns off the beat and path from the interstate highways. He met some really interesting people in those little towns and experienced some unique adventures driving through mountainous towns, running into snow storms, and roads that had washed out. I’ve always been attracted to road trips, adventures and maps since I was a little kid, and couldn’t wait to have my own Blue Highway moment when I grew up.
On my first road trip across country, having spent a fair amount of time on I-70, I decided to venture off on one of those 2-lane roads when I reached the Utah-Nevada border, taking Route 50 across Nevada. Once you leave the city of Ely, there’s not much to see in terms of civilization, but there is plenty of wide open space. Route 50 was nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America” because of its lack of people. At that time, cell phones were not wide spread, and pay phones were still plentiful. At one point, I passed a small pull off/rest area with a pay phone booth sitting in this barren landscape without a building in sight and a tiny sign that said, “Loneliest Phone in America.” Talk about feeling like you were in the middle of nowhere….
On a later road trip, I drove through northern New Mexico into Southern Utah. After surveying my road map for Utah, I spied what looked like a very direct route heading north, and decided to opt for that in place of going on a more circuitous route. I saw a sign warning of a steep climb on a dirt road with grades over 11%. Off in the distance, I saw a steep-walled Butte with very rugged formations. I thought to myself, surely, the road can’t go up the side of that. I was wrong. The infamous Moki Dugway switchbacks over 1200 feet up the side of this butte with steep drop-offs all along the way. That “Blue Highway” provided some memorable stories in my journal.
For people moving from back east out to the Colorado and other western states, it can be an eye-opening experience to drive roads where civilization seems far, far away. But it can also be exhilarating. Driving the back roads, you discover small towns that seem like time forgot them, or even ghost towns reminiscent of boom times long forgotten. I was reminded of this the other day, when instead of driving the ever busy, Boulder Canyon from Boulder to Nederland, I instead opted to drive Sunshine Canyon and the Gold Hill Road. Few people drive this road, and it would probably be mostly unknown for most living in this area except for The Great Flood of September, 2013, which basically wiped out all the canyon roads between Estes Park and I-70. The Sunshine Canyon and Gold Hill Road became the main route back and forth between Boulder and the mountain towns for almost a month. Despite its name, the Sunshine Canyon Road does not actually go through a canyon, but rather ascends a ridge with stellar views of the mountains all around you. Sunshine Canyon also gives you an up close and personal look at the incredible destruction of the 4-mile Canyon Fire of 2010. Then the road turns to dirt and descends into the quaint, small village of Gold Hill, founded when gold was discovered nearby in 1859. Driving through Gold Hill feels like you’ve gone back 150 years in time, as you drive down the dirt main street past the Gold Hill Inn, the 1-room school house and local mercantile. Finally, 45 minutes after leaving Boulder, bumping along around 20 mph, you reach the Peak to Peak Highway.
Driving the back roads and Blue Highways teaches me it’s good to slow down and really enjoy all the beauty and history our county and state has to offer. Sometime a detour on some of our rural roads reminds me of my road trips of younger years, and that’s any day in Colorado can offer up an adventure.