Reaching its pinnacle at 8,755 feet, McClure Pass rises and falls for almost 50 miles between the Colorado towns of Carbondale and Somerset. It’s a treacherous road but it’s also awe-inspiring. I never allow the fear of falling boulders, rock slides, or avalanches to scare me away.
Near the top is one of my favorite U.S. Forest Service managed facilities, McClure Campground. It offers a woodsy refuge on a no-reservations-first-come-first-serve basis. All this without any fees, plus a regularly cleaned toilet stocked with paper. Can a road trip get any better?
These days the forests, national parks — even the privately owned RV corrals — have been overwhelmed by tourists, but McClure Campground incorporates a few natural buffers to preserve its cozy integrity. First off, it’s small, offering just 10 sites — the biggest one able to accommodate no more than a 19-foot trailer. No hookups, no water, and garbage should be packed out, so don’t even think about tossing it into the toilet. Secondly, it’s at the top of a steep, rugged mountain pass, so it’s not a destination. It’s more like a pull-off, a pause, a take-a-break sort of facility. Finally, the vistas and towering rock walls that accompany the highway to the summit and back down again are unpredictable, littering the road with stones and debris. I suspect many travelers fail to notice the tiny turn-off, distracted as they are by road conditions while trying to sneak a peek at the scenery.
In all the years Pam and I have crossed this pass we’ve always camped for at least one night. Never had any trouble finding an open site, never…that is, until last week. An inadvertent oversight on our part: we showed up late on a Friday afternoon. The rule of thumb, especially useful for retired folks who want to find a camping site, is never show up late in the day and never never never show up on the weekend. We deserved what we didn’t get.
Having to improvise for an alternative, we pulled to the shoulder a few times and idled, crept along the highway’s descent, flashers flashing, then walked into the trees at various unimproved dirt paths, hoping one of them might yield a space wide enough for our vehicle and a tiny 13-foot fiberglass Scamp trailer. The best option we found had a deeply rutted surface, some potholes half the depth of a tire, and a few of the worst ones still filled with mud and rainwater from the last passing storm. But a ridge of grass crowned the passage, tall enough to polish the bottom of our vehicle. Driving carefully along that high mark, we could reach a site hidden in the aspens that we’d scouted, a clearing with plenty of room for a U-turn when we needed to head back out.
We took the chance and reached the turn-around, unhitched the trailer, set it up, then drove the unencumbered vehicle back to the highway where we followed the pavement to a restaurant in Carbondale. Everything seemed to have worked out.
The subject of rain came up while ordering our meal. Or rather, I should say the subject of rain came down, very audibly against the restaurant’s metal roof like a team of galloping horses. We looked at each other, as if trying to put a finger on the appropriate mythology: war, famine, pestilence, or death. Would a gully washer fit into such company? By the time our meal arrived the rain had stopped and a bit of the setting sun lit our table like a flickering candle. Our appetites were rekindled.
We encountered a few headlights returning to our makeshift camp. We washed up, brushed our teeth and fell asleep with the windows wide open, our dreams nearly weightless as fresh air filled the trailer.
2 a.m.: A patter of rain against the fiberglass roof. I closed the windows and settled back against my pillow, trying to translate the secret code of weather. Tap tap tap, then a bit of rain-rap fading, so gentle even I faded away.
2:30 a.m.: A drum roll, one of those jazzy sets that makes a person sit up and pay attention. My feet started jittering.
3 a.m.: I couldn’t lie there for the rest of the night debating how long the rain would last. The weather forecast didn’t call for a drop. My forecast called for worry if this rain did not stop.
We got up and grabbed our clothes. Outside with my flashlight slashing a path through the indecipherable rain, I hitched up the trailer while Pam put away every loose thing that might bounce around, then I drove out of that quandary, parked on the shoulder at the side of the highway and crawled back into bed, leaving the trailer hitched.
Before I fell asleep for the fifth time that night I watched a semi-truck decked out with yellow marker lights whoosh past, then a star-speckled sky winked back at me like a marquee, announcing the upcoming morning.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/