The next morning, we woke up, packed up our cats and our things, I ate some THC gummies, and we were on our way. It was a clear day and the Rocky Mountains seemed bigger than ever. We drove straight west into the jagged mountains, to a town called Estes Park, not far from Rocky Mountain National Park. The drive took us from the offbeat, dusty new age shops and dispensaries on the sides of the road coming out of Boulder, directly into the Mountains. Cliffs began to tower over the winding road, and for both me and my girlfriend, the altitude issues progressed from us feeling “a little off” to truly dizzy and sick.
Estes Park itself is over 7,500 feet high, (altitude sickness can occur as low as 6,500) and as we got out of our car I felt nauseous, and off balance as if a slight breeze would topple me over. The town surrounds a lake, with mountains in every direction taller than any I’d ever seen. The streets and sidewalks were so steep, jutting diagonally in what felt like every direction - I felt like I was navigating an M.C Escher painting. No doubt the last of my THC gummies added to such a feeling, but they seemed to be minimizing the nausea as well.
We had had plans to find a place to hike here before getting back in the car for 2 more full days, but we both felt sick enough that we actually started to consider just moving on – the highway mountain passes ahead through the Rockies would surely be worse – but we decided to stop for at least a hearty meal before moving on. We hadn’t eaten in a while which no doubt wasn’t helping. We located a place called Claire’s on the Park, that looked like basic but quality breakfast food. The building was yellow clapboard with vintage signage, looking like it could’ve been the only saloon in a mining town a hundred years ago. It was crowded, mostly with an older crowd, who seemed totally used to the altitude. Between the altitude and the mounting effects of multiple gummies, I felt as if I was experiencing everything through a sort of fog, a dim, delayed echo of the actual world around me.
I went out on a limb, and ordered fried trout with potatoes and a couple eggs – looking for something hearty and nutritious. It would’ve been hard to imagine ordering such a dish in an east coast diner, but I had a feeling the classic wilderness breakfast might be done right, here in the middle of the Rockies. My girlfriend ordered another benedict, this time with asparagus and red onion. The wait for the food seemed like an eternity – I’m sure it wasn’t actually, but the nausea and mental fog made it feel like a drawn out wait. When the food came, however, I was not disappointed. The trout was fried in corn meal, thin and crispy. My girlfriend’s veggie benedict was a fresh as imaginable. We decided the Rocky Mountains have the best breakfasts in the country, and left a few minutes later feeling better, but still wobbly.
We decided to move on immediately, as it was already about noon. This involved backtracking through Boulder and going south to our pass through the mountains. This was one of the more visually intimidating legs of the journey –in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains immediately to our right towering above us, with the great plains stretching endlessly to our left. Along with the altitude, this landscape played with my sense of balance. I was pretty apprehensive as we turned right, directly into the mountains. As we felt the attitude increase, we hit traffic almost immediately, for the first time since New York. I figured there were only a handful of roads through the tallest mountain range on the continent. We slowly progressed through rocky expanses, and tiny sleepy mountain towns – looking like something directly ripped out of the old west. These towns, no doubt founded for mining, looked as if they now relied almost exclusively on the highway traffic for income. Every last one had a handful of trendy looking restaurants visible as we passed – and almost all of them had a prominently marked cannabis dispensary.
As the towns began to thin out as we gained distance from Denver, we realized we needed to stop to refill on water. For a long time, we didn’t see a single place to pull off. We moved up and up through the mountains. Finally, at Vail Pass, at 10,662 feet, we found a small rest stop with bathrooms and water fountains. This stop was best described as a strange and ethereal experience. The sky at this point seemed darker and more overcast than during the rest of our drive, casting an ominous light over everything. I felt heavier here than anywhere else, and on the uphill walk to the bathrooms, I stopped multiple times to catch my breath. I could tell we were at a peak in the mountains, because finally there were no mountains towering above – just pine forests extending gradually downwards in all directions. There were a fair number of people there, all of whom silently made eye contact with me as I made my way up the hill to the water fountains. I’m not sure if this was because I was visibly struggling with the altitude, or because they were sharing the strange feeling that I was. I was happy to be back in the car. I’m not a particularly new-age kind of guy, but there’s no question that certain spots that we saw through the country had a noticeably strange energy to them. But perhaps my brain was simply low on oxygen.
The descent from Vail pass, out of the Rockies over the next few hours was dramatic. It was easily the steepest descent on a busy highway I’d ever seen – stretchingdownward for something like 100 miles. Truck ramps jutted off the sides of the particularly steep portions, turning almost straight up hill – so any out of control trucks could steer off to slow down. Gradually the mountains on each side of us became canyons towering straight over head – the rocks turning from grey to red as we approached the Utah border.
Through this whole stretch of land in central Colorado, I tried out my two cannabis strains – with some caution not to completely overdo it in such new and intimidating territory. While the Bubble Gum didn’t seem to ever cause anxiety in and of itself, the Northern Lights #5 was actually pretty key for staying calm and relaxed on this leg of the journey. With such a sedative effect, it wasn’t just about minimizing anxiety causing side effects, it actually helped me stay calmer than I would have been without it. I had little trouble using up the rest of what I had bought in Denver before leaving Colorado. I knew I would have access again in California, in either a few days or weeks – I wasn’t sure what the process looked like at that point.
By the time we actually left Colorado, the canyons were deep red and the landscape was beginning to look more like a desert than a mountain range. Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner would have been at home in this landscape. The orange light of dusk ahead of us added to the vibrant colors for about an hour. Unfortunately, the sun was almost done setting at this point, and we would drive through Utah’s Canyonlands in total darkness. The speed limit increased to 80, the highest I’d ever seen, and the road flashed by in white reflections of our headlights in the signs and highway lines.