The front range of the Rocky Mountains always appears to the westbound traveler as a thin line of white on the horizon -- a line that just might be clouds at first. But as you keep driving across the great, wide flatness that precedes the hills, those "clouds" take on a familiar shape. Peaks on your horizon always mean that if you keep going, something is going to happen -- danger, excitement, beauty, maybe all of them.
In northern New Mexico, those traveling west on U.S. Highway 64 have a slightly different experience. On 64, you cruise past farms in Arkansas, then fly like an arrow by ranches in Oklahoma and oil derricks in the Texas Panhandle. By the time you hit New Mexico, you're in a high desert -- sage, mesas, dead volcanoes -- and then you see the thin, white line on the horizon.
And then they disappear.
You're driving west, completely in the groove, then you look up and the mountains are gone. The fact that there's a geological explanation for this -- a trench on the east side of the mountains -- takes nothing away from the traveler's experience. One minute you're watching the mountains take shape, the next they're not there, and you're rolling into a little nothing of a town called Cimarron.
You're still out in the desert. Behind you is the Great Wide Open and in front of you appears to be a dead end. Cimarron has the feeling of running into a wall. Sorry, it says, this road don't go no farther. Back up, get on I-15 north, go to Denver.
Instead, you keep going west. You see a little campground and wonder who would camp out here. Then you notice that the camp is next to a nice little stream. Hmmm, a stream, you think. Haven't seen one of those in a while. Pretty good size, in fact. A sign says it's the Cimarron River. Hmmm.
So you keep going, and pretty soon you notice walls on either side of the road, and they are getting steeper -- and closer. It's like you're going through that wall you saw earlier. Tunneling. You're in the shade now, and the road is kind of winding around, so you think, Well, I'll open up the window a bit. It's not so hot and windy now.
That's when you realize something is happening. When you were in Cimarron, you were hot, dry, dusty. When you roll down the windows a few miles out of town, it's pine. Evergreen. Fresh. Moist. Something's happening. Ah, yes, a canyon. That's what this is. Didn't see that coming either.
You come to a little town, makes Cimarron look like Boston, called Ute Park. You go through it without noticing much, but on the far side of town your world opens up a little. You can see places -- and there's hills. And meadows. Grass! What happened?
That's when you start to see the campgrounds and the trails. Yep, you think, I suppose those trails have places to go. Hell, on one turn you look up a side valley and see a genuine mountain, for just a moment, slipped in there like a subliminal message and then it's gone. Hmmm. Back to the road.
By now you've got all the windows down and the Marshall Tucker Band on the radio. Birds are zipping around, people are wading in the river whipping fly rods, kids are tossing Frisbees, and yet the road climbs.
Soon you really have to pay attention. It's getting steep, even more winding, and in some places you don't even want to look over the edge. The road winds, switches back. The trees thin out. More rocks along the side of the road. That hill up ahead is kind of bare. The road seems like it's aiming right up into the sky ...
There are a few times in your life when it all feels like a movie, when a John Williams score should be blasting from 10-foot speakers, when the audience wants to get up and hug each other. This is one such time.
Through windows where you so recently beheld sage, buttes, and mesas, you now gawk at a deep-blue lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Deep forests, long views, gentle hills, peaks rising behind it all. Your sense of wonder expands beyond measure.
Go north, west, or south from here, and it's all mountains, all green, all lovely. You have arrived in the heart of the Rockies. They made you work for it, kind of snuck it on you, then laid it all out at once, and said, "Welcome."