Trek out West makes Rocky Mountain dream come true

The writer with her Vassar friends summited the peak of one of the Colorado mountains, feeling exhausted from the climb but at the same time excited for getting ice cream later. / Courtesy of Aidan Zola

Well, we’re back. After two weeks of eating, sleeping and watching way too many YouTube videos, it’s time to make the final push to May. And if you’re anything like me, the next six weeks will be chock-full of LinkedIn searches for last-minute summer internships and valiant attempts to balance a workload that would be better distributed among a team of NASA scientists.

One thing is for sure, though—when I inevitably find myself huddled in the darkest corner of the Deece, downing coffee and furiously typing my sixth research paper, I’ll be daydreaming of my spring break.

To explain, about a year ago my friends and I got the idea to travel to Colorado. Poughkeepsie is great and all, but the romance of the jagged peaks of the Rockies and the wide-open plains called to us. We didn’t know if it would be a summer-long road trip or a weekend excursion, but nevertheless, we set our minds to it. Every so often, one of us would check if plane tickets had gotten any cheaper, or make a detailed itinerary hoping that we would need it someday.

After months and months of dreaming, our plans finally materialized. About three weeks before we would find ourselves huddled in a tent on the side of a mountain in one of Colorado’s many national parks, we booked our plane tickets. It was all a bit last minute, but we somehow managed to reserve campgrounds, find a company that would rent a car to a bunch of 19-year-olds and map out dozens of hikes.

Our first day in Colorado was, well, interesting. I have to say that until I found myself curled up on a bench fighting some rather acute vertigo in the middle of the Denver Art Museum, I hadn’t really appreciated the true meaning of Denver’s nickname: “The Mile-High City.” I can now confirm that, yes, altitude sickness really does exist.

Anyway, after drinking about a gallon of water and sleeping around the clock, I was back up and at it. We left the Airbnb the next morning and headed into town for our second day in the city. Like true Vassar students, we managed to find the artsiest, most hipster area of Denver, as we browsed streets and streets of galleries and vintage stores.

We all knew, though, that the best was yet to come. After adjusting to the altitude in the city, it was time to set out for the wilderness. With John Denver songs blasting in our tiny Kia rental, we drove four hours south to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Now, picture this: a photograph of the sun setting over the Sahara Desert on the cover of National Geographic, except now add huge, green mountains behind it. That’s what this place looks like.

We climbed to the top of the tallest dune, all the while being painfully exfoliated by nature’s very own wind sandblaster (I still find sand in some of my clothes). After all was said and done, it was incredibly rewarding to watch the sun setting over miles and miles of this dreamlike landscape.

After sledding down the side of the dunes back to our car, it was time to camp our first night in Colorado. Well, at least my friends did—I slept in the car. I think we all agree now that we much prefer being woken up at 3 a.m. by the inevitable roar of Raymond’s radiators to having our toes nearly fall off from the brisk alpine air.

Unsurprisingly, our next day consisted of taking turns napping in the car on our way up north to Colorado Springs. When we got to the town, though, we pulled on our boots and sniffed out the most challenging hike around—“the Incline” at Pike’s Peak. For about an hour, we heaved ourselves up one mile of straight stairs on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. The ice cream we had later was well earned.

We dedicated our final two days to one of Colorado’s best-known sites, the Rocky Mountains. While at the beginning of our trip we were climbing sand dunes and mountains in shorts, we ended by slipping on ice and throwing snowballs. With a five-dollar plastic sled and four pairs of snowshoes jammed into our rental car, we wound our way up through the national park.

We lost cell phone signal almost immediately, but we somehow managed to stomp our way to one of the most pristine views in the U.S., Emerald Lake. Though being blinded by the white landscape and making snow angels aren’t exactly considered typical spring break activities, our time in the Rockies is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The plane ride home was subdued; the air outside JFK was heavier than what we had gotten used to, and the sky was grey. Suddenly, John Denver’s “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” seemed fitting. But as we drove through Manhattan, we still smiled. We had gone to Colorado. We’d had our Rocky Mountain high.

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