July 1, 2020
It was going to be a long day. I was supposed to make Dodge City yesterday, but I didn’t. Love my Mt Vernon Corps of Engineering campground though. With all the hookups, nice staff, lots of distance between sites, nice facilities it goes on my favorite campgrounds list. I got off a little later than planned at 6:30. Technology can drive you crazy! I had chosen the route on Google Maps and sent it to my phone as a message so I could easily find it. I pushed the link and off I went, but I soon realized it was not taking me on Rt. 50. Losing 10 minutes may not be a big deal, but it was irritating.
Back on 50, I found Kansas to be beautiful, with lush, black dirt farmland. As Carla told me, Kansas isn’t flat. She is my shuttle driver for the Middle Fork trip, who once rode a bicycle from Idaho to Virginia Beach. She said Kansas was rolling hills, but she made 150 miles a day in Kansas!
Early on, there was a strange, gray, low-hanging cloud. I asked Siri if there was Saharan dust in Kansas, and I was surprised to hear there was. It’s a weird world these days. I stopped to see one of many markers about the Santa Fe Trail. At this spot, it was crossed by the Chisholm Trail used to drive cattle from Texas to Wyoming. Haven’t you seen Lonesome Dove?
I stopped again to find Pawnee Rock, a rocky outcrop rising above the plains with great views. There were very few fights with the Pawnee, but all were within 25 miles of this spot.
I knew I was in trouble when I didn’t get to Dodge City until noon. From here I had another 7 1/2 hours to go. Most of the time traveling Rt. 50, you just drive through small towns. I made the mistake of driving through Dodge City (pop. 27,000). I was hesitant to use GPS because it wanted to take me on a different route, mostly putting me on I70, which isn’t far to the north. I70 is not doubt a nice interstate, but 50 is a more pleasant drive…..if you have the time. There is lots of history and interesting little towns of mid-America. But now I needed to just go. 4th of July is coming, when there is madness.
As the day wore on, I passed some big oil fields with rail cars ready for transport. I had seen small pumping wells in the middle of crop fields, but this was serious. The further west I went, the drier it got. There was more irrigation, and the land was not so lush. Houses became more modest, progressing to really poor shacks on terrible land with no water.
The route follows the Arkansas River, but it doesn’t look like much for most of the drive. I crossed into Colorado about 4:15. Now it was dry sagebrush with mesas and dry washes, more like the west we are used to seeing on TV. Dodge City seems to mark the start of the west as I think of it.
I stopped for gas in Lamar, and talked to a nice man filling his dump truck with diesel. Was he Native American? He said it was very dry, with no snows in the winter and very little rain this year. It was hot, very hot, and very humid. I was sweating just from standing out there for 10 minutes.
I made Pueblo (pop 112,000) at rush hour. After driving through sparsely populated areas for many miles, I was surprised to find a big city with clogged traffic. Finally getting through, it was a straight shot to the big mountains ahead. After Canyon City, the road follows the Arkansas River. This is one of the prettiest stretches of highway I have ever driven. It is a beautiful river, perfect for fishing, rafting, kayaking, tubing or just looking. I wanted to stop at every bend to take pictures, but there was no time. The sun was getting low now, making perfect light for photography. Being so easily accessible, there are plenty of homes, cabins, campgrounds, rafting companies, restaurants and bars, but I did not see one person on the river. I’m sure it was different earlier in the day and surely will be over the coming, long weekend.
I wanted to stay here a week or two, or maybe a month, fishing and kayaking. I could have found a spot for the night, but I decided to press on. As Rt. 50 turns away from the Arkansas at Salinas, it climbs a winding route over a big mountain, Monarch Pass at 11,310′. Then a steep, winding route down the other side. This is why I bought a GMC 3500 diesel. It just makes this difficult job look easy. I patted the dashboard in gratitude and appreciation.
I had read about a small stream that follows 50 west of Monarch Pass, so I kept my eye on it. It is one of those streams people ignore, but I’d like to give it a try. I followed a tractor-trailer down. The sun would sink below a mountain, but on the next turn it was right in your face, making it hard to see. This guy has driven this road a lot. He knew where every curve was, and he was a very good driver. It is a beautiful valley, and much greener on this side.
Driving through Salida, it was an hour more to Gunnison. I was going to get groceries in Salida, but there was no way I was stopping now. Then along Blue Mesa Reservoir, I looked for Elk Creek Campground. The signs are brown, not a great color to read in the almost dark conditions. I put the GPS back on, hoping it would take me to the right spot. At 8:30, I pulled into the campground. Trying to find Loop A, I couldn’t see the signs and went past it. Backing up to turn around when you are really tired isn’t a good thing, but I made it, then found my spot, slowly, carefully, backing into the site. A few wiggles and I quit. It was 8:45 and fairly dark, but there was a big moon. A guy across from me played his guitar and sang in a low voice. Campfires and conversations were to the right of me. I could see the reservoir surrounded by mountains, but I just wanted a drink and to go to sleep. In three days I had driven 1875 miles, 700 today.