Tony Vagneur: Aspen to Denver drive makes memories every time … good or crazy
It takes a lot of grit and moxie to travel from Aspen to Denver, almost any time of the year, with the possible exception of summer. But don’t underestimate the SOB — summer can be brutal, as well.
Rockslides this year seem to be more plentiful than in recent memory, and Vail Pass has been closed a couple of times this spring due to that heavy, slick, spring snow we get — it’s just a matter of when. Some drivers get lulled into a state of carelessness by a month or two of dry roads near the end of winter and an unexpected spring snow can cause havoc, as it did on this side of Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel a few days ago. Cars get dented, egos get bruised, sometimes people get hurt or killed.
The most adventuresome days were perhaps those when the road was two-lane, all the way from Glenwood to Denver. You were forced to throw in with whoever else was out there, and deal with it, like it or not. Loveland Pass could be a brute, but seldom did I see a bad accident or other tragedy, although the Seven Sisters avalanche area could cause some delay. (In 1948, highway department employee Adam Frasier was killed in a Seven Sisters avalanche.)
Headed toward Denver, just past Arapahoe Basin, there was a long, straight stretch which, on a Sunday evening, returning to college after a weekend in Aspen, always seemed to be loaded with bumper-to-bumper traffic. With luck, meaning if there were no oncoming vehicles, you could pass a boatload of cars in that section. It’s hard to remember for certain, but it seems like my all-time record was around 40 cars passed in one attempt. No one else seemed to pass — you’d just have to pull back in line at the end of the straightaway and go the same slow speed you were before, but to a kid, there seemed to be a certain victory in passing all those cars, if not deep satisfaction.
Coming back from a football game in Boulder, Bob George’s car, carrying four or five of us, stalled out on the east side of Loveland. The road was wide and we were out of the traffic; someone going down volunteered to call a wrecker and what to do but wait? Hell no; we got out and, in the midst of a swirling snowstorm, managed to retune the carburetor and recalibrate the points, getting back on the road about the same time the wrecker showed up. The driver smiled and shook his head at the same time he flipped us off.
Loveland had its days of danger and intrigue, but Vail Pass seemed to be a sleeper in that regard. Almost anyone who traveled the highway frequently knew that Vail posed hidden problems, the kinds of issues that took out unsuspecting drivers. Unlike today, Vail didn’t close at the first whisper of slickness (because it was a narrow two-lane road through thick stands of trees) and stayed open almost 24/7, with a few exceptions here and there. Back in the day, we helped a few stuck people get back on the road, including one 18-wheeler, or told them to stay put until the road got plowed and sanded.
After a Denver Western stock show week, Buck Deane and I were milling around the Shepler’s western store on south I-25, riding out a bad snowstorm, even worse in the mountains, when a seasoned resident of the Roaring Fork Valley approached, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t get tire chains for his horse trailer. He had to get home, couldn’t wait another day, and was sorely worried about going down the west side of Vail. That’s the kind of consideration Vail Pass generated.
My favorite story, which I’ve written about before, is my brother Steve (RIP) and me going east on Vail Pass in my 1964 red VW Bug. Steve was driving, the snow was about an unplowed foot deep and the Bug was slowly holding its own, deliberately making it up the hill. The windshield wipers were freezing up and knowing that if we stopped, we’d likely be stuck, I’d jump out and run alongside the car, cleaning off the wipers. Job done, I’d get back in until needed again. We seemed to be the only car on the pass and were having a good time, just a couple of kids making memories.
That’s the attitude needed for driving between here and Denver, in any season.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.