Ever since my wife and I started dating in 2004, we have spent the last week of September on the road in southern Colorado. We go to explore new towns and trails and mountain ranges. We go for the local food and beer—and the hot springs, of course. We go for the foliage, which makes you feel like you dropped acid then stepped inside a kaleidoscope as you drive through each aspen grove.
But mostly we go for us.
It’s hard to quantify the distractions we accept as standard in our everyday lives. Work, play, family, Internet, errands… the list can feel endless and, at times, stifling. Worse, it can make getting away feel impossible. Why risk an even greater sense of submersion when you can just stay home and live within the submersion you are already (barely) able to manage?
This subtle tug-of-war exists at the root of all road trips—the ones that happen as well as the ones that don’t.
We have always made sure our September trip happens. It’s too important. Too simple, when it comes down to it: Throw a bunch of crap in the truck and start driving. It is the one stretch a year we have come to reserve exclusively for us.
We started out with two nights and three days, but soon realized we never wanted to go home on the third day. So we switched to three nights and four days. We still never want to go home, but we had to draw a line.
Usually we try and hit three spots—some combination of small towns and high passes and riverfront campgrounds—unless we really, really like a place; then we’ll stick around for an extra day and concede a third destination.
When it comes to people, road tripping is kind of like walking through an airport, but better and with more props. You see a cross section of society you simply don’t see in your hometown. For example, one night Larissa and I pulled into a creekside campground between South Fork and Wolf Creek Pass. We claimed a spot in a stand of lodgepole pine, set up our tent and made a fire.
Soon enough a family of five arrived next to us in an RV. They arranged chairs around their fire pit and quickly got a blaze going. Then the man did the darndest thing: He carried out a generator from his makeshift living room, plugged in a spotlight bright enough for a prison yard, rigged it to his roof and trained it on the campfire. I still don’t know how they roasted their marshmallows without sunglasses.
We were chuckling about that the next morning when we set out for Lake City. Soon enough the joke would be on me. We spent the night on a creek just north of town, wolfed down a pair of “French Bopper” breakfasts at the Tic Toc Diner, then headed up Cinnamon Pass toward Silverton.
Do not drive Cinnamon Pass if you care about your vehicle more than your cat. I know that now. At the time, I thought it would be just another dirt road over a high saddle. We averaged 5 to 10 mph the whole way, cringing every 20 yards on behalf of the truck. I wanted to tell it I was sorry the lurching and scraping was so horrific, yet I still didn’t know the extent of it.
We pulled into Silverton around 5 p.m. and, with darkening skies and sleet in the forecast, opted to forgo the tent for a room at the Triangle Motel. I ducked out for a quick mountain bike ride along the Animas River before dinner. On my first descent, while schussing downhill at 20 mph, I felt my front wheel wobble for an instant then detach from the frame entirely, torpedoing me into the rocky earth like a spear. A few minutes of self-collection later, I examined my bike to see what had caused such carnage. Turns out, the drive over Cinnamon Pass was so violent that the quick-release horseshoes at the bottom of the fork had broken off while attached to the mount in my truck bed, leaving little for the wheel to cling to when I rode it.
If I had been at home, that crash would have affected me for days. I would have dreaded the hassle of replacing the fork. I would have mourned the rest of my riding season. But when you are on the road, you move on immediately. I threw the bike in the back of the truck without lament, and we grabbed a map and picked out a peak to hike the next day.
You lose track of time on a road trip. A good one, anyway. That is part of its magic. Still, contrary to what conventional logic suggests, you don’t have to go far to feel far away.
A few times in the early years of our September tradition, we considered dipping down to Taos, New Mexico, or Sedona, Arizona, or even up to Montana. But we never did. In fact, we have never crossed the state line on these trips.
This is largely because we don’t need to. We seek empty trails, quaint, funky towns, bright colors and big peaks. Sometimes outsiders laugh at the prospect of finding all those things in Colorado, as if we live in some kind of imposter utopia. But the ideal here is alive and well. For every fourteener that gets grossly crowded on summer Saturdays, you can climb 20 other peaks with no one in sight.
That’s the brochure answer, anyway, for why we stick close to home. And it’s not hyperbole. But the deeper answer is more personal. Neither Larissa nor I was born in Colorado. She came for college and stayed, and I arrived on a whim at age 23. We met in Breckenridge one year later and have never really wanted to be elsewhere. When we reconnect, it’s always been important to do so in the state where “we” began.
Southern Colorado is full of hideout towns, places like Marble, Ouray, Lake City and Creede. They are among the precious few that overdeliver on authenticity. One year, we linked Crestone (North Crestone Creek has ridiculous aspen hiking, just in case you find yourself up that access road) with a night at the Sand Dunes then a stunning drive around the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo range up to Westcliffe, which, as an aside, would be a contender for best view in the state. Another year, we got a tip from a friend and went to great lengths to reach a particular section of the Continental Divide Trail near the Rio Grande Reservoir. It turned out to be one of the most breathtaking alpine trails we’d ever seen, much less ridden on bikes.
So it goes in the south. No need for reservations at the end of September; fellow road trippers are scarce. We only bring the essentials on our trips. Like 20 pieces of firewood, ample Milky Ways, a propane grill, and a bunch of clothes that I never end up wearing because I always finish the trip in the same ones that I start it in.
If I’m being honest, one of my favorite parts of these road trips is the food and local beer—four days of hearty indulgence. One time I voted for us to pass through Pagosa Springs strictly (and secretively) so I could get the fried salmon and chips and an IPA at the Pagosa Brewing Company (try them before you say that’s silly). Even scarfing salami and mozzarella under a tree during a hailstorm on Venable Pass still tasted like heaven.
And then there are the colors. We’ve found brilliant groves around Crested Butte that shine even in rainy weather. But the best we’ve seen surround the Carbonate Creek drainage and flanks of Mt. Daly in Marble. Circumnavigating that peak requires a sizable effort, but to behold such a rainbow of foliage in a harsh alpine environment mutes the suffering.
Scenery aside, the true prize of our journeys is always time spent together—in the truck, on the trail, around the fire, just talking through our life. Road trips remind me how much presence matters. Not texts, not phone calls, not FaceTime. Actual face time. Holding hands while driving through the San Luis Valley in the late-afternoon light, peaks on our left, prairie on our right. Just us.
—Devon O’Neil is a staff writer for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to Skiing and Outside magazines. His work can be viewed at DevonONeil.com.