Come to Colorado…Next Year

It’s been a “stay local or stay home” kind of summer. Since March, my travels have been restricted to the grocery store and a few local parks. But last week I drove up to Fort Collins to visit one of my kids. He just moved there and since I’ve hiked a lot in that area, I thought I’d show him around.

Fort Collins is a beautiful town. I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but the roads are treelined and perfectly paved. In three days, I didn’t see a single pothole. You’ve probably heard about the downtown area being the inspiration for Disney’s Main Street, and it’s no surprise: even the alleys are clean, neat, and bedecked with flowers. I’d never noticed how pretty the place is because I usually drive straight to a trailhead.

I was there to show my son the great outdoors though, so first thing in the morning, we headed to the marina at Horsetooth Reservoir. And got in line behind a bunch of cars that weren’t moving. That’s when we noticed the billowing black smoke – a boat was on fire and they weren’t letting anyone on the water. I figured we’d be there a while, so I got out of the car to chat with one of the workers about boat rentals. “Rentals? All the boats are rented.” “Today, or for the whole weekend?” I asked. ‘The whole summer,” he said, “you’re not going to find a boat anywhere this year.”

Okay, so no boat. Well, Fort Collins is a big cycling town too. Maybe I’d surprise my son with a new bike. We headed back into town and stopped at an outdoor retailer, then another, then another. No bikes. So we found a bike shop near his home – a place that sold bicycles and nothing else. Here’s what the guy said, “We have no bikes. All the bikes are gone. We may have some in a few weeks if you’d like to check back.” I asked him how a bike shop could have no bikes – that seemed unusual to me. He responded, “This summer has been crazy. Everybody bought a bike.”

By this time, the day was half gone. We stopped for lunch. Sitting outside at a picnic table munching on pizza and salad, I thought about the rest of the day. Me (in all my trip-planning brilliance) had booked a timeslot at Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour’s drive from Fort Collins. This year, you can’t just drive into the park. They have a limited number of rolling reservations offered two days in advance, and they get snapped up in minutes. Our slot was for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. – not ideal, but it was the best I could do. At least the trails didn’t require a boat or a bike. All we had to do was get to the park, then let our feet take us on our merry way.

I headed for the Bear Lake parking lot and one of my favorite hikes. Not once did it occur to me that this was the most popular trailhead, to the most popular hike, in the state’s most popular national park, on a Saturday, in August. During a pandemic. I didn’t think about all the people who had made summer plans to visit the park months in advance. I didn’t consider all the people from out of state who were visiting Colorado to avoid lock-down in their own states. And I sure as heck didn’t think about how many people had been there all day, and by say, 5 o’clock, would be wrapping up their visit and trying to get out. None of this clicked with me, even when I saw the sign that said the Bear Lake parking lot was full and I’d have to take the shuttle.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Rocky Mountain National Park. Last August, I spend two long weekends camped there, hiked over 50 miles, and had lots of solitude on the trails. This day, the trails resembled a conga line. It was not the park I wanted to show my son, but I blame myself for being clueless about what this pandemic has done to the backcountry.

So after just one hike, we decided to find a less busy trail. We got in line for the shuttle and waited. And waited. And waited. Because there were more than 100 people in front of us, waiting for the shuttle too. After an hour and a half or so, and after six buses had taken away everyone ahead of us, we were finally at the front of the line. A bus pulled in. I stepped up to get on, but the driver stopped me. “Only drivers,” he said, “I’m only taking drivers who are willing to drive to their cars and drive back up here to get the rest of their party.” Well, as you can imagine, everyone at the end of the line was suddenly a driver. Everyone at the front of the line – including some very old people and the family of five behind us who had a baby with them – stood there, eyes wide, horrified. After waiting all that time, sitting on hot concrete in the sun for most of it, we couldn’t even get on the shuttle. I thought about getting on as a driver, but by then I was a little irritated. I figured the next bus would get there a lot sooner than I’d be able to drive all the way down the hill and back up again. This seemed like the smart choice until fifteen minutes later when the next bus pulled up, the door swung open, and the driver hollered, “Drivers only.” This time, I got on the bus.

I’m not complaining. If anyone has a right to complain, it’s the people working at the marina, and the bike shop, and the park. I don’t know how they are dealing with this summer’s insanity. But I learned my lesson: Stay home. Stay local. If you do go out, go somewhere that no one else wants to visit. Rocky Mountain National Park will be there next year.

Pulling back into Fort Collins, I was reminded of what a pretty little town it is. I said to my son, “I know today didn’t turn out like we planned, but you know what I’m going to remember most?” I was thinking about the walk downtown, the vegan pizza lunch, and the time spent with my son. He had other ideas: “I don’t know, Mom…come to Colorado: no boats, no bikes, no buses?”

Not what I was thinking, but it was accurate.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 26, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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