By happy accident, last week I ended up in the steampunk town of Ridgway, Colorado (documented on my latest YouTube video). While wandering around awestruck at the bronze gear sculptures on every corner, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the last time I was here. It’s a story worthy of an adventure blog… getting lost, setting things on fire. Read on and you’ll see.
One long-ago summer, my brother Vinny and I decided to go on a sibling-bonding road & camping trip. As a film major and budding screen writer, Vinny was curious about Telluride. Although it was the wrong time of year to catch any art films, we were both excited to explore a famous and trendy part of Colorado to which we’d never been.
Back then, we were poor. I was a teacher struggling to pay rent and he was living in our parents’ guest room. Our goal for the trip was to only stay at free campsites. Now if you’ve ever attempted this type of trip, you’ll know it comes with a catch. Many of these sites are located down unmaintained dirt roads, which may or may not be passable depending on recent weather conditions. When you have a cute little Fiat (like I did at the time), the drive can get questionable. Free sites are also first-come-first-serve. This means you basically have to roll the dice and cross your fingers that (a) you can get there at all, and (b) that there’s a place for you if and when you make it.
The first night, this worked out just splendid. Vinny and I drove 6 hours west, stopping to hike around the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We ventured down a narrow gorge south of the highway (not part of the Ntl Park). Just when I started wondering if we should turn back, we saw a hike-in site halfway up the cliff wall. I hoisted the gear up to Vinny, who was perched on the ledge. I made a mental note to be careful of my steps in the dark. It would be all too easy to misstep into the rocky abyss yawning below our tent.
The next day we continued on to Telluride. We’d read that camping was allowed at the town park, and were banking on finding a spot there. Though it was mid-week, the town was thrumming with activity and throngs of visitors buzzed about. Apparently Telluride was host to a festival that week… and campgrounds near and far were completely sold out.
“No problem,” I said. “We can camp in the National Forest for free.” I knew this little piece of trivia thanks to my excursions with the Sierra Club. But at this point in time I didn’t fully understand the advance planning required to successfully pull off a proper boondock: i.e., a map, a plan for refilling water, awareness of whether it was hunting season, applying for necessary permits. Minor details.
We turned off the highway at the first National Forest sign we came across, and aimlessly drove into the woods. Thirty minutes later, we had yet to see a trailhead or even a pull-off in which to park the car.
“Em, let’s turn around,” said Vinny.
We argued for a while, but I finally drove back to the highway and headed for Ridgway State Park.
“There’s no way we’re gonna find an empty spot,” I said. As we pulled up, a sign said “Campground Full.” By then the car was blocked in and I couldn’t turn out without talking to the ranger at the check-in booth. I explained to her that we didn’t have a reservation and needed to turn around.
“Well you know what? It must be your lucky day,” the ranger said. “Someone just called to cancel their reservation; so if you want it, you can have it.”
Unexpectedly saved, we cheerfully set up camp and started dinner. I started roasting some sweet potatoes over a fire, then plated them with sorrel and Greek yogurt. My mouth was watering. I turned away for a moment to find utensils, and right at that moment a gust of wind blew the plates off the table. My luscious steaming potatoes fell right into the dirt.
“Aghshdfkjrldfm!” I screamed in frustration. Vinny sat looking at his phone. “Vinny, help me!” I yelled.
I then noticed that the same gust of wind had blown my camp chair into the fire. Huge flames leapt into the air, whipping in the wind. More yelling ensued as I attempted to kill the fire before it consumed our entire campsite.
Fire safely out, I breathed in relief and turned to look around me. Vinny was nowhere to be seen. Turns out he’d decided the best course of action was to hide in the car and eat his baked potato alone.
The next day we discovered the town of Ouray, which was not only breathtaking, it was full of cool outdoorsy people. We hiked a couple local trails and were rewarded with incredible views. We saw Ouray’s famous waterfall which attracts ice climbing fanatics in the winter. We sipped steaming coffee, chomped down scrumptious pizza, and relaxed in natural hot springs. Ouray immediately rose to the top of my list of favorite places in the world.
But the story ain’t over yet. We still had one more night to get through. I located a free campground somewhere in the Uncompahgre, halfway between Ridgway and a town called Cimarron. On my old-fashioned paper map, it sat upon a dashed line, which represented “unimproved” road. It was unclear whether 4WD was required, so I decided that my Fiat would probably do just fine.
It was bumpy and slow-going. Gradually the sun sank below the horizon, leaving a cascade of oranges, pinks and purples. I worried that this wasn’t a great road to drive on in the dark, but we’d already committed. So we pushed onward.
As I squinted out the windshield into a dark forested world, the shadow of a large creature suddenly appeared in front of the car. Vinny and I shrieked. It was a cow. The first of many, as it turned out; Some farmer apparently decided the dark of the night was prime grazing time.
Finally we rounded a bend and caught sight of campfires on the horizon. We rejoiced.
The next morning I emerged from the tent in wonder. It was the most beautiful campground I’d ever seen. Believe it or not, subjecting my tiny car to 40 miles of dirt road had been worth the effort.
Vinny and I made it home in one piece, despite all my bad decisions. The moral of the story is, the best camping is free camping.