This past summer I was able to relive one of my favorite childhood memories — a family car-camping trip to ride a steam train in Colorado — when I took my 10-year-old daughter Sarah and my German shepherd service dog Schatzie on a 21-day, 3,000-mile road trip from California to Colorado. Although the trip revolved around several planned events, the goal of the trip was to explore the open road, visit as many sights as possible and share the experience with Sarah in this fleeting time when she is still young enough that “traveling and hanging out with Daddy is fun!”
Getting ready involved several days’ worth of organizing and trying to fit all of our luggage, camping gear, adaptive gear and other essentials into the Jeep and trailer. This gave me a deep appreciation for the hard work my folks had put into my brother’s and my childhood camping trips. Packed and ready, we hit the road for our first leg of the trip, a 1,000-mile drive to Colorado.
The plan for long distance stretches of our journey was to travel in true road-trip style — drive until tired and find a low-budget motel room for the night. Fortunately, Sarah enjoys road-tripping and watching changing landscape and terrain through the windshield as much as I do.
I quickly discovered that finding a hotel room late at night during busy summer months is a challenge. So I taught Sarah how to ask for a room, and she became my ace in the hole. We would pull into a crowded hotel parking lot around 10 p.m. and Sarah would walk up to the front desk and say, “My daddy is in a wheelchair and we are tired. Do you have any rooms available?” More often than not, “one last room” would somehow become available for us.
Our first destination would be our base for three days, a campground nestled next to the Colorado River near Eagle, Colo. I was there to compete in the Adventure Team Challenge [see NM January 2012]. I explained to Sarah that interviewing people, taking notes and competing in the race was for an article I would be writing, and this was part of my job. Until now, the only part of my job that she had seen involved me sitting many hours typing articles at the computer.
In between races for the event we had a great time camping, and Sarah was free to bike ride, hike and explore with other kids. Schatzie got plenty of time off for swimming and fetching tennis balls in the river. During the race Sarah and Schatzie were able to ride along with the camera crew to remote mountain areas and cheer me on.
Relaxing after the final race day, we were watching Schatzie swim to retrieve a tennis ball I had thrown when Sarah said in a quizzical tone, “Really, Daddy? This is part of your job?!” I proudly replied, “Yup!”
With a couple of days before our next scheduled event, more road-tripping was in order. During the journey I started giving Sarah extra responsibilities, like helping with packing and unpacking, checking on the hotel and getting a receipt, and hopping out of the car at gas station quick-stops for food, coffee or directions. For her these were mini-adventures. I could see her confidence grow as she took pride in helping out. And she was a huge help! One day I told her: “I should get you a blue ‘service daughter’ vest, like Schatzie’s.”
On to Aspen
Our next stop was Aspen, a town known for skiing and for the rich and famous — and it’s also very accessible. We spent a leisurely afternoon strolling around town and ended up at the John Denver Sanctuary, a peaceful, accessible park commemorating the musician’s life, nestled among trees and granite boulders along the Roaring Fork River.
Aspen is unique. When we arrived at the park, it appeared we had stumbled onto the best-dressed dog park on the planet. It turned out to be a catered K9 birthday party, complete with K9 cup cakes. The gracious hosts invited us to join. I removed Schatzie’s cape and collar and let her run and swim with the other K9 revelers, as Sarah and I got to know the humans. Sarah was amazed: “Daddy, a birthday party for dogs?” Schatzie was also amazed.
Following the party we hopped in the Jeep and I explained who John Denver was and cranked up “Rocky Mountain High” as we drove up Independence Pass through lush stands of aspen trees, past waterfalls, cliffs and spectacular views on the winding road up the Continental Divide. Our timing was perfect. At the 12,092-foot summit we got to watch the setting sun turn the sky a brilliant pink, then fade into an alpenglow blue from the roof of the United States.
Our next event was located in the accessible mountain village of Winter Park, Colo. — the No Barriers Summit, a four-day adaptive sports and recreation seminar [see NM December 2011]. I explained to Sarah that my job here was shooting photos for the event and gathering information for another article. During the next four days Sarah and I went adaptive white water rafting on the Colorado River, adaptive kayaking and adaptive canoeing on Lake Granby and tried a myriad of other adaptive activities. I also introduced Sarah to many old friends, and we met many new ones. Once again came the question/declaration: “Seriously, Daddy. This really is part of your job?”
From Winter Park we drove seven hours south, to the San Juan Mountains, to put a checkmark next to one of my bucket list items —watching July 4 fireworks in Telluride, Colo., a scenic mountain town and ski resort nestled at the end of a box canyon surrounded by jagged 13,000-foot mountains.
The fireworks were amazing! Each display would light up the canyon walls, and each boom would echo and reverberate about the walls. It was a good thing Schatzie isn’t gun-shy. She fell asleep at the foot of my chair during the show.
The next day we explored town and rode the free (and accessible) gondola up to the mountain village and back during a summer rainstorm. Ascending the mountain feels like flying through a stand of aspen trees, and descending back into Telluride feels like floating down to a picturesque model train set surrounded by colorful red cliffs and snowcapped mountain peaks.
Train Magic Revisited
Our next stop was Durango, Colo., to ride behind a steam locomotive on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad — the same train my folks took us on during our car-camping trip in 1965. Steam locomotives have a captivating sound, as if they are a living, breathing being. As we got closer to the station, the sound of the locomotive combined with the unique, coal-fire smell lit up my synapses. Suddenly I was 5 again, excitedly walking next to my brother as our parents led us by our hands to ride the train. “Daddy, why are your eyes tearing up?” asked Sarah. I explained they were tears of joy because even as a kid I hoped to
someday return with kids of my own. And here we were.
Riding the train is like stepping back in time to the days of cowboys and outlaws — the railroad scenes from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot here. However, there is one very cool exception — the wooden coach closest to the locomotive is fully accessible, including a lift and an accessible bathroom. For a railroad fan, sitting close to the locomotive is akin to front row tickets to a concert!
The 45-mile, 3.5-hour route from Durango to Silverton winds through a jagged canyon following the Animas River, with non-stop spectacular views ranging from old stagecoach roads and abandoned mining camps to seemingly untouched wilds of Colorado shadowed by 14,000-foot peaks.
Sarah loved the views as we looked out the coach windows, and like me, she loved the sound of the engine pistons, the whistle, and the smell of locomotive smoke, but one thing she didn’t like — “Daddy, I’m getting cinders in my hair.” I explained that when I was a kid her Grandpa told us that real rail fans love the cinders and soot, and love getting dirty. From then on, Sarah kept her head out of the coach as much as possible. By the end of the line she was covered with soot and grinning from ear to ear — and so was I — grateful to have had this experience with my folks, and even more grateful to share it as a dad.
Rite of Passage
The next day, on a whim I decided to drive to the Four Corners area to see the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. At the park gate I showed my “Golden Access Card” — free to people with disabilities. Sarah was impressed that it gave us free admission.
For viewing cliff dwellings from a distance, Mesa Verde is accessible — as are its archeological sites and museum. But I wanted to show Sarah the cliff dwellings up close. I soon discovered the trails that go to most cliff dwellings are steep, rocky and inaccessible.
When we were at the museum I saw that the trail heading down to “Spruce Tree House” — one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings — was paved. As Sarah and I started to descend the trail in the scorching mid-day heat, a ranger stopped us and explained that the half-mile trail is very steep and narrow, does not meet legal grade requirements and is only accessible with assistance. I thanked him and, fueled by equal parts “I still think I’m a 30-year-old supercrip” mentality and a father’s determination to avoid disappointing his daughter, we ventured on. In places the trail was so steep that I had to carefully, precariously brake and balance in a wheelie. Unwisely ignoring concerns about the return trip, I continued to lead the descent.
When we arrived at Spruce Tree House it was worth it — being there had an ancient ethereal feel. We looked around, soaked in the amazing site, and Sarah climbed down a ladder to explore a kiva (ceremonial chamber).
As the heat of the day continued to rise, it was time to head back — and I was hit with a severe reality check — I’m not a 30-year-old supercrip any more. At age 51, an attempt to push up the trail would permanently destroy my shoulders! I swallowed my pride and asked a ranger for assistance — an experience I’m getting better at. I got lucky. Somebody overheard my plight, came up to me and said, “My 18-year-old son here is training for a triathlon. He needs a workout and would be happy to push you up the trail if you are interested.” I gladly accepted the offer. At the top of the trail I told them I was grateful for the help and said they had saved my shoulders.
Our next stop was Moab, Utah, to spend a day at Arches National Park. The park facilities are accessible and we were able to see the arches and rock formations throughout the park by car.
Once again it wasn’t enough for me. We stopped at several trailheads and I wheeled as far as I could — only to be stopped when the trail became too narrow or rocky. Since there were rangers and other hikers around, it presented a rite of passage opportunity for us. I told Sarah, “If you want, you can hike through the canyon to the arch, take some pictures and come back and show me. But be back in half an hour.”
Her eyes lit up “Really!?”
When she returned, Sarah was excited and couldn’t wait to show me the photos and tell me all about the hike.
As our trip wound to a close, we returned via Highway 50, also known as “The Loneliest Road in America,” a scenic two-lane highway that crosses southern Nevada over vast sage-filled high desert basins and numerous mountain ranges, paralleling the Pony Express Trail. Among the many highlights along the way were two sightings of elusive “shoe trees” — unexplained pieces of Americana where people toss old pairs of shoes into a lone tree. We also passed countless turnoffs onto tiny dirt roads, with signage stating they led to cool destinations, including ghost towns, hot springs, caves and petroglyphs — adventures for a future trip.
On the last part of the drive I noticed another kind of sign — growth in Sarah. She was no longer calling me Daddy. From now on I am “Dad.”