Taking the back roads on 2,000-mile whirlwind tour from Colorado to Oregon The Call of the West

December 19, 1993|By Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman

Just south of Chilly, Idaho, we turned off Route 93 onto a narrow road that cut southwest into the Pioneer Mountains.

"Is this right?" I asked.

The road was unmarked and soon turned into dirt. A plume of dust rose behind the car.

"We were supposed to follow the river," Brigid said, checking the map. "The Big Lost River."

In a few miles, we passed a sign announcing we were entering the Challis National Forest. This was the back road that would take us past the 12,000-foot Hyndman Peak, and, after a hair-raising descent on washboards with no guardrail, into Sun Valley and the town of Ketchum.

We stopped for coffee in this trendy community of boutiques, espresso, movie-star mountain homes and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. But we didn't stay long -- we were on a 10-day, 2,000-mile mission: to get as far away as possible from urban madness and explore the back roads of the West.

We had few rules: No cities. No roadside motels. No hot spots like Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Telluride, Colo. And no interstates.

We flew from Washington to Denver and began a trek to Portland, Ore., that would take us from the Colorado Rockies north to Wyoming. We wound our way through the awesome Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. We hiked, canoed, looked at ancient Indian petroglyphs. We rode horses with the former mayor of Halfway, Ore., in the Wallowa Mountains, soaking our tired bones later that night under the stars in an outdoor hot tub in the central Oregon Cascades.

Our route was anything but direct, but it was a well-worn path: We unwittingly traced the meanderings of the tens of thousands of pioneers, guided by the curves of nature, searching for a better life along the Oregon Trail.

We left Denver airport and headed west on Route 36. After miles of strip shopping malls, we began our 90-minute climb into the Rocky Mountains toward Allenspark. Fourteen miles from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Allenspark is little more than a cluster of horse stables and a few crooked buildings housing antiques and futon stores and auto repair shops.

We stayed at Allenspark Lodge, a rustic inn of ponderosa pine and stone built in the 1930s. After a typical afternoon mountain downpour cut short our hike in the nearby Wild Basin area, we jumped into the lodge's hot tub, protected from the rain by a screened porch.

Dinner that night was an unexpected treat. A short walk down the road brought us to the Fawnbrook Inn, a five-star restaurant nestled among the trees.

The next day, we set out early to hike in Rocky Mountain NationalPark. We drove along Trail Ridge Road, a narrow, two-lane switchback that leads to the enormous, snow-capped peaks. Rising above the early morning clouds, we looked down across vast expanses of glacier lakes and greenish tundra.

There are dozens of miles of hiking trails in the park, from short walks to strenuous climbs, so we stopped at the Alpine Visitor Center and asked a ranger for advice.

We took a four-mile path along the headwaters of the Colorado River. The trail hugged the Never Summer Mountain Range. As we became used to the silence, a herd of elk crashed through a thicket a few hundred yards away. Alone once again, we proceeded to our destination, the ruins of Lulu City, a once-raucous 1880s town of get-rich-quick silver miners. Only a few stray logs of former cabins remain.

On to Wyoming

"You guys want another beer?"

sat in the sun on the outdoor porch of Half Moon Lake Lodge, and hoisted our tired feet up on the log railing. We had just spent seven hours hiking in the Bridger-Teton wilderness area in western Wyoming's Wind River range. The lodge sits on Half Moon Lake, encircled by a dense evergreen forest.

We had traveled hundreds of miles across the golden plains of Wyoming, with stops at the Virginian Hotel, a restored 19th-century watering hole in Medicine Bow. We had watched a lightning storm, purple and violent, on the eastern horizon near Laramie while the sun set in brilliant orange in the clear western sky. We had visited Atlantic City to find Brigid's grandfather's failed gold mine. And, after descending through South Pass -- a break in the mountains discovered by early settlers and later a main thoroughfare on the Oregon Trail -- we had come to the Wind River, a mountain range that forms a curtain of jagged peaks behind the sleepy frontier town of Pinedale.

To the west of Pinedale is the Green River Valley, where "mountain men" like Jim Bridger and Jedidiah Smith met every year with other trappers and Indians for a fortnight of carousing and fur trading known as the Rendezvous. The landscape has changed little since those earlier days.

"Where's your map?" asked Frank Deede, who owns the Half Moon Lake Lodge. "I can point you in the direction of some gorgeous country."

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