Onward I drove, onward through the American West. Six and a half hours lay ahead as I traversed Interstate 80 eastbound through southern Wyoming. I headed towards Cheyenne where I turned south onto Interstate 25 for the Colorado state boundary. It’s there the sign proclaims, “Welcome to colorful Colorado.”
My destination was Vail by way of bypassing Denver and climbing up into the mountains via Interstate 70. Passing through the almost 1.7 mile Eisenhower Tunnel, which crosses the Continental Divide, the highway to Vail is a series of steep drops and wild curves. One navigates this against a backdrop of jagged rock silhouettes made ever more daunting by the twilight of the setting sun. At the same time, the road is jammed with runaway truck ramps. They speak to the engineering marvel of building such a highway through the Rocky Mountains. By the time Vail’s highway sign glared in my headlights, the silhouettes had disappeared. Gone to sleep, awaiting another daybreak.
Walking through Vail the next morning, I thought I’d woken up in a ski village somewhere in the Alps. Suddenly the ruggedness of the American West seemed an ocean away. I sauntered by chalet-style buildings housing shops, restaurants and hotels. Brainchild of a New England skier named Pete Seibert, Vail’s development began in 1962. It would become a world renown ski resort just a few short years later.
Riding the gondola to Mid-Vail and then hiking the peak from there, leaves one in awe. The scenic view is of Eagle Valley where Vail Mountain finds itself. The vistas could be a backdrop to the Sound of Music with one expecting the singing Von Trapp family to break out in chorus at any time. Hiking further, one encounters the Grand Traverse which crosses the mountain ridge to Eagle’s Nest. It’s here one catches the Born Free Express #8 gondola down to Lionshead and where the views become even more spectacular.
After spending a day in Vail, I came to understand a store-front sign I saw earlier advertising “Vail Style.” The locale has a style onto itself. With idyllic buildings, water fountains, statues, and wondrous vistas, it makes for a unique place in the American West. Something I realized as I drove back through the mountains towards Denver. Perched at the western edge of the vast plains, the hustle and bustle of this frontier city was about to replace the quiet solitude of Vail.
Although nicknamed the Mile High City, (its elevation is one statutory mile or 5,280 feet above sea-level), Denver feels more like a big town than it does a city. It’s many historical buildings are impressive and the State Capitol has to be one of the most splendid in the United States. With its column-filled halls and balconies, it presents a magnificent presence upon entering its grandeur. The main entrance features a majestic staircase encircled by murals showcasing the history of Colorado. The gold-filled and beige-colored dome breaths light into the space with its windows accessing the blue sky above. Most interesting, the third level displays oil portraits of each of the 45 American Presidents to date.
Denver oozes the past with historic buildings around every corner. A walk down the famous 16th Street pedestrian mall puts one on track to visit the city’s refurbished Union Station. Trains still run by here, however the main hall now features restaurants, shops and services. Built in 1881, it remains at the center of Denver’s multi-modal transportation hub. Railroads have always played a key role in Denver’s development and it was Thomas Durant, Vice President of Union Pacific Railroad, who in 1867 said that “Without railroads, Denver would be too dead to bury.”
As my sojourn in Denver wound down, I made my way back to the car. On the way, I couldn’t help to notice the many homeless ensconced in the park out front of the State Capitol. A sad reminder that for all the beauty of this American West city, it also has its urban challenges.
Nonetheless, Denver is worth a visit. Such was my thought as I slowly snaked my way through the sprawling east side of town. It was there that I would recapture the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70. It was there that I would recapture the wide-open spaces of the American West, and it was there I would head towards the farms of Kansas…
Note: Photos are by the author.
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