Posted by: cousindampier | 19 October 2015

The Great Road Trip, Part II


New Belgium welcoming Curtis and I

Jon Jay and I were drinking cognac and tea in his apartment in Almaty, probably in the dead of winter, and – as Jon is want to do – he was talking about mountains.

“If you survive the year without falling from lung cancer, going from here back to sea level will feel like the most amazing run you’ve ever had.”

I remembered all of this as I struggled through the high altitude which is Denver. Fuck, I thought as I ran through the massive park which holds the Denver Zoo, we didn’t talk about going back into the mountains.

The ground was half covered in snow and the half paved or green was filled by geese or feathers or geese droppings. I was tired, my legs were aching from the car, my lungs were burning, but those mountains were tremendous. They were not simply jutting up against the sky to make a beautiful scene because they were everywhere, surrounding me and the city. They were the normal and this flat plateau I was on was the other, and it made Denver feel somewhat utopic; like its mythical Shangri-La counterpart, running through the city that morning I had no way out but for a single mountain pass.

They would become a theme, a permanent background character during our time in Colorado and it is hard to separate my time there from them.  We spent the better part of a day in Denver, barely scratching the surface of the city, and yet what I remember is always seeing white peaks above buildings as we walked from brewery to brewery and by the time our first day there ended – exhausted, having walked a half dozen miles – even then, Denver felt like a gateway to a much larger world.

Stumbling across Kerouac in Denver

* *

After a day in Denver, where we stuffed ourselves with beer and Chipotle, Curtis and I made the trip to Fort Collins to visit New Belgium Brewery.  This was the only tour we planned, but the trip slowly began to be marked by breweries.  There’s an internet-famous map depicting the alcohol belts of Europe, and at this point, in the Western United States, we are all Germans, and I’d never appreciated it before.  In Almaty we had Балтика (Baltica) and Efes, a lager from Turkey. Baltica ran a number system – Baltica Seven was the lager, as far as I can recall, and there was a hefeweizen in there as well. They were good mostly because they were available; when Jon came back to Almaty after Christmas and brought a Dale’s Pale Ale, it – much like Denver – made me feel like I’d been living in a closet.

The New Belgium representatives in Spokane set us up well. The only time I’d ever pulled back the curtain behind beer was on a Guinness tour in Dublin, and then the experience was more about Dublin than about beer. My bosses at the Goat were good at explaining it – some might even say they nerd out about it – but as far as I knew there were big vats and fermentation and then it appeared in a can.

Making beer – large quantities of beer – is a complicated process which mixes the newest technology with some of the oldest methods. Creating beer is somewhat like creating a new car – no matter what you do to a car, the internal combustion engine is still what powers it, and that engine plus four wheels is the same basic idea as the Model T. Beer still requires the same basic ingredients and the same basic process as it did a few hundred years ago. However, wandering through the back rooms of New Belgium, everyone kept an eye on a computer, watching pressure and temperature and a list of other items. New Belgium is also out in front with sour beers – beers which need to be aged for years before they are ready to consume.

And they got us proper drunk beforehand. We walked across mosaic floors and around large vats of beer, checking out the little room where they experimented with flavours and styles, and stood above the cannery while the giant machine below rested. As we walked out into the parking lot with frisbees and hats and a few bottles of beer, coming down from the high of being treated like very important people, the exhaustion of the past two days set in. The drive from two days before weighed on us still. We made a fast stop by Odells – another great brewery – both Curtis and I could barely finish a beer, and we made it back to the hotel and all I can remember is being as tired as I’ve ever felt.


We awoke at 430 the next morning. I felt ill – tired and sick in the stomach. Curtis was alive and awake, always positive, the living manifestation of “its a good day to have a good day.” The sky was dark outside – the sun was climbing to reach the Denver plateau, but was stuck some hours away – and the snow was new and still falling. Fresh snow early in the morning makes everything seem new and wild, even a hotel complex.

Once again we found ourselves on the road to Denver as the sun crept overhead and the sky turned purple and the darkness fought to the final moment to stay around. The roads were plowed but somehow still terrible and traffic slowed us down as we made our way south until we moved off the Interstate and onto state highways, south and west to Silverton.

Outside of Denver, headed to the west, guided by Google, the New Great Road Trip map of choice. Colorado is flowing by, becoming an unearthly place, the type of landscape seen in movies but which is always some far-away land with hobbits and giants and dragons. We round a bend with a small hill to the left and mountains and mist appear, peaks reaching out of one sky and into the next. Rolling white hills border flat white fields and further into the distance white mountains surrounded by white fog. Occasionally, brown grass appears out of the white, little inkblots on the landscape which never seem to connect. The trees are green and muted, almost more gray with the sunlight and snow.

And in between the curves in the road and the mountains in the sky we hit these stretches of straight road, the Kerouac special, just the road and the powerlines fighting to stretch the furthest into infinity as we drove alongside, music blaring, windows occasionally cracked.

The way to Silverton was like this, windy and straight. It didn’t snow, not too much, and I told Curtis stories of Jon and Almaty and we talked about where to head next because anything was open, Alberquerque, Phoenix, San Diego.

By the time we reached Silverton, we’d decided on San Deigo. See Jon, have a bite to eat, and head west towards the ocean.


I’d first heard of Jon Jay a few years back, before Almaty, before Karakol – before Asia. Admiration seemed to follow him as much as adventure – Jon Jay, the man from Colorado; stuck in Bishkek, lost in Dushanbe. Zarina was the one to push me forwards towards Almaty; a few emails later I was emailing Jon; a few months later I was on the other side of the globe.

The last bit of road into Silverton was so small and windy that I thought we’d passed the city.  We’d come up through a small town about thirty minutes before and the further into the mountains we got, the more I thought we’d just driven straight through it because who lives all the way out here – but in the distance a few houses appeared and then the enrty to the town, a small roundabout; and just as quickly we were through it.

Jon was taking care of a three bedroom house just on the outskirts of the small town. He was out shoveling snow as we drove up. It was sunny out but we were still high in the mountains and he was bundled up, breath wafting up in puffs. I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on Satpayeva Street in Almaty, but he was dressed almost exactly the same – ski hat pulled high on his forehead, long shirt and a vest over the top. I jumped out of the car and gave him a hug, wanted to use the Lando Calrissian line from Star Wars – “how ya doing, you old pirate! So good to see you!” but I likely said something much less coherent.

Davinia was there too,the same pair of glasses framing her eyes, hair a bit straighter than I remembered. Jon had to head back to work, and after a few minutes we piled into the cars, heading higher into the Colorado Rockies, up more roads twisting on the sides of mountains and through more snow falling lightly on our windows.

I’d only ever been to a few ski resorts. Working in Ruapehu was my first real experience, and the lodge was massive. Mt. Spokane was pretty big, as was Schweitzer and 49. The lodge Jon worked in was maybe 30 feet by 30, rubber mats on the floor. Most of the heating came from the crowd of people inside the room and the toilet was, quite literally, a hole in the snow. But it was warm and the beer was cold and Curtis and Dav and I sat around a table chatting as Jon worked the bar, and as groups of mostly middle-aged men flooded in, chatting them up. As far as I could tell, it was exclusively a heli-ski operation which cost a fair amount to take part in.

To each of the guys there, it was probably worth every penny. A year before, Jon and I had been in Kyrgyzstan, Karakol, and Jon met up with the guys who run 40 Tribes and knowing nothing about skiing I’d asked them if there was a certain place or mountain or run they dreamed of skiing. Both of the 40 Tribes guides and Jon had answered the same – there was no one specific run, they wanted to ski all of them.

Curtis and I were still thinking of heading out, hitting the Four Corners and pulling an all-nighter to make it to LA.

Beer kept appearing in front of us.

Curtis and I stayed in Silverton for the night.

We drove back to Jon’s and had some chili he’d left on the crockpot all day long, and then headed out to a bar called Montoyas. It was a mountain bar and had a vague sense of the 20’s, a little art deco. We walked into an empty bar, yet it felt like the most warm and hospitable place I’d ever known. Walking through the snow in the dark makes you feel alone, especially if the snow is falling. With nobody else about, you feel truly alone, like the last group of people left alive wandering through elemental earth in search of something which may or may not exist.

There is food there, a large table of snack food. A ski party has just departed, one of the big ones where they rent out the place after a day in the mountains. I attack it readily, for even though we’ve been driving along large interstates in America, where its some sort of federal law to have a Subway every fifteen minutes, I am hungry. It is something about the constant movement and not knowing the future nor where we will end up next and it makes me eat like I might not see food soon.

Davinia talks about her PhD, which needs to be finished by September. It’s about oil and gas and Kazakhstan, I think – what I’d primarily learned about it is that finishing a PhD looked like a sweet gig from the outside, because of all the travel and the funding to simply write. But inside her head were a hundred questions and directions and things stressing her out and for as monumental of a task as it would be to finish one day, it was slowly driving her insane.  Even with the pressure of finishing, she was sharper than anybody in the room, both by ability to break down whatever world event was hapeing and by ability to call out bullshit when she saw it.   The British accent helps with that – sarcasm is always more biting when British – but there was still that drumbeat which I’m sure never left her head, finish by September, finish by September.  

We walk home some hours later, buzzed, feeling warm in the snow. Jon is housesitting for the season, and aside from shoveling snow the place has two extra bedrooms and a decent kitchen and we sat up drinking more beer and Jon and Davinia and I skyped Saranna, a short Almaty reunion.

We wake up early. Too early, it is 6:12 in the morning. I am cold and have a headache from the night before. Curtis is at the door, ready to take on the day, shirtless and this just makes me feel worse about myself so I get out of bed and pretend that I’m awake and alive.

Jon is making coffee and pours it into big cups and we sit around the table, Curtis, him, and I, all of us wrapped up with thick socks on. Jon is half suited up, ready for the mountain, and he and I catch up on the last few things as Curt does some pull ups, his internal motor already turning and waiting to be unleashed. It is a beautiful Colorado morning, the fist we’ve been able to appreciate. The windows are slowly moving from black to purple to blue, and the cold is welcoming in that strange way of a warming house. Eventually it is time for Jon to go, he has to get everything ready for the first set of skiiers and I peek in on Dav, still asleep in bed and I wish her goodbye until later in the summer, and then I hug Jon and we get back into Curt’s still-dirty Nissan and we head back up and through the mountain pass to reality.

The mountains are immense. Without them, the day would be gray and cold-looking, but they conspire to bring sunlight through the clouds. We head back to Durango, two passes away, up, up, still up, and suddenly the sun is peering on a peak, the mountain proudly showing off its jagged edges and we stop and dive out of the car and into a snowbank, take a photo and then run back to the car, cold, hands burning, jeans frozen only to do it again a few minutes later at the top of one of the mountain passes. We sit in the snow and stare at the peaks playing with the sun as Taylor Swift blares over the radio behind us. The New Road Trip, scenery and music combined.

Down and out on roads overlooking valleys, broad swaths of valley like some ancient riverbed where beasts lie dormant, and then up again, trees everywhere, dominating mountainsides and as we stare up at the green and white mountainsides we miss the beginnings of the desert until we are in it, snowfields mixed with sand. Red rock and red soil covered by a fine white and the snow comes pelting down, all the way to the Four Corners, Arizona, and Route 66.

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“So we go there where nothing is waiting; we find everything waiting there” -Neruda


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