It may sound silly and obvious, but we need every little slice of sanity we can get these days.
One of the perks of being an editor with GearJunkie is that sometimes car companies just send you a shiny new vehicle to drive around for a while.
Ordinarily, this is either a great supplement for gear testing — stuffing 12 tents into an SUV, for example — or a chance to review the latest luxury gear-hauler. But when Ford sent me a fire-engine-red 2020 Ranger Lariat last month, I was at a loss what to do with it.
Frankly, no one is really in the mood to shell out big bucks on a new car — even the beloved and resurrected Ranger pickup. And with shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders keeping most destinations closed, there weren’t many adventures or destinations to tackle.
Honestly, I had no plans or ideas when I woke up one dreary, rainy morning over Memorial Day weekend. I just looked outside, sighed, and decided to go for a drive.
No — that’s not entirely true. I decided to go for a drive I’d never done before. So I made a pot of coffee, Googled some of the most scenic drives in Colorado, and stumbled across this spectacular list.
I found two meandering routes that wound through the Front Range — more or less north to south, with loads of twists and turns — and would take at least 6 hours to drive, with stops. There was no other plan, just drive. I grabbed the keys, a raincoat, my wallet, and a mask (the new necessity) and took off.
Don’t Forget Small Town, USA
My daily driver is an old 2001 Mazda pickup based on the old Ranger chassis. So suffice to say I was wildly impressed by all the newfangled tech that’s now commonplace on modern vehicles. (Did you know cars come with computer screens now? Crazy!)
I marveled at the spaceship-like array of buttons before me, painfully curious what each one did, but also terrified I might just break the whole truck by pressing the wrong one.
Fortunately, the headlights came on by themselves (also commonplace now, I’m told) and all that was left before putting that blaze-crimson stallion in “D” was to find the right driving music.
I stumbled into Sirius XM radio — honestly, no idea how I got there — and praise be! One of the presets was Classic Rewind. The station was in the midst of its “Top 1,000 Classic Rock Countdown,” and I tuned in at No. 395, “Rocket Man.”
I sped out of Denver, here and there surprised by some new automated convenience. Evidently, some invisible sensors determine how fast the wipers should go, particularly helpful in Colorado’s on-again, off-again precipitation patterns.
The route I’d set took me north out of the city to Estes Park. From there, I’d follow the Rockies along the famed Peak to Peak Highway, an undulating two-lane thoroughfare that led me through Rocky Mountain National Park, by way of the too-easy-too-miss town of Allenspark and still-hip hippie haven Nederland.
I stopped in Allenspark, happy to see a “Yes, We’re Open” sign outside a store loaded with knick-knacks and birthstone jewelry. I bought some artisanal (read: expensive) hand soap, presumably made by someone who could tell your horoscope and probably owns a wind chime or six.
But I discovered what I was actually shopping for was the brief, polite banter between shopkeep and someone “just looking around.”
Two months into quarantine, I noticed that latent suspicion of other people and places had become too familiar, too normal. Sure, we both wore masks. But the covered smiles were real and showed through in the eyes that gazed out above them.
My somber, solo drive started to take on a new sensation: eagerness. A few hundred miles lay ahead — who else would I encounter? What other overpriced crap could I once again waste my money on, simply because I was “just looking around”?
See Something New
I parked again in Nederland. I hadn’t planned to, but necessity being the mother of something-or-other meant that wherever I found a restroom, there I’d stop. So I ordered a latte at a quaint, clapboard coffee shop.
The doors were locked, a window next to it slid open to receive and dispense orders. Crudely taped off X’s delineated where one could and could not stand — another reminder to remain diligent, suspicious, and distant.
But it was raining and cold, so a handful of us packed under the eve, awkwardly pulling up drooping masks, wondering who among us cared and how long we’d all have to keep up these silly, necessary new habits.
Everyone’s order took too long — too few people left to work and too many others rushing to get back to old routines, like coffee. But it was damn good to have a hot cup of joe made at an honest-to-goodness coffee shop.
Back in the truck, the lights and wipers turned themselves on. At least I still got the satisfaction of starting the damn car, albeit with a button and not the good old-fashioned key turn I’m used to. Appropriately enough, the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” wailed out of the speaker, No. 381.
I waved to Ned on the way out and set off for the next big town, Black Hawk. I’d never heard of Black Hawk and don’t know what I expected. But what unfurled before the windshield as I tracked along the winding banks of Clear Creek (don’t be fooled, it’s a river) left me in awe.
If you haven’t heard of Black Hawk, Colorado, I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But suffice to say I have never seen a whole city of towering casinos and hotels — with bright neon lights bouncing off historic brick buildings — all basically jutting out of a mountainside. It is, in a word, stunning.
But casinos evidently posed too a high risk to open just yet, and the black windows told the truth behind the flashy signs’ false advertising. I slowed a bit along the highway, a little irked the truck wouldn’t just drive itself, so I could gawk more. As I exited the town, now on song No. 375, The Who’s “I Can See For Miles,” and began the second leg of the journey: the Lariat Loop.
Rediscover the Joy of Driving
I was closing on 200 miles and about 4 hours of the drive. From here, I’d track through more familiar territory, only along roads less traveled.
The Lariat Loop Scenic Byway traverses the foothills, connecting Evergreen, Idledale, and Morrison — everyone’s favorite little stop between Denver and, well, anything west of Denver.
But the 2-hour(ish) drive of just 40 lazy miles offered a new perspective on places I otherwise would have written off. I’ve been to Morrison — a tourist trap.
But behind the wheel, with no destination other than the next mile, the trip became a journey. A long time ago, I’m told, people looked forward to driving. They liked the act just as much as their arrival. It wasn’t the hellish multivitamin of stress, rage, and disrespect it often feels like today.
For that 2 hours, though, the hum of the tires, the wind rushing past a cracked window, and the slow, meditative turns of the steering wheel did more to relieve all those pent up months of anxiety and worry than I could have imagined. I was all too happy to stay to the right, take it nice and slow, and let everyone pass me — and the unbelievable mountain views — by.