In these modern times, folks travel extensively. There are some people who have traveled all over the world—they can name exotic places in Africa or any of the other continents on Earth with glib ease. I am not one of those, although I would like to be. I am somewhere between the well traveled and those who never leave home at all. I have been to a few states, and traveled extensively in three of them.
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Being the novice I am at globe-trotting, I would like to humbly submit an account of a different sort of trip that I have taken, that may be more worthwhile than many, more expensive destinations. This is the hike over Oh My God Road in Clear Creek County. It doesn’t involve the use of any passports or gasoline—I don’t have to get any special shots, or get a physical to go—I just put on my hiking shoes and walk out the door on a slightly northward path, straight up the road.
What makes the trip so worthwhile is the contact with the pavement, and later, the gravel. There are two roads, really, and both less-traveled. Two Brothers Road joins Oh My God Road before it leads straight up for about one mile, a good 9% grade, and joins again with Oh My God Road. At the bottom, the road is called Virginia Canyon Road. When the pavement runs out, you can go straight up Two Brothers Road or follow Oh My God Road and the attending switchbacks to the right. I go straight up Two Brothers and then back down Oh My God Road, in a big circle. Confusing? It wouldn’t be if you took the time for the trip. It is about three miles roundtrip. I have taken the hike several times.
It is early morning, and before I even get off the pavement, I hear the clatter of rocks to my right. It is so quiet, no one here but me, and the sun has not yet shone into the shadow of this valley. I spy the source of the noise, which is loud enough to wake the dead after the quiet of my solitary footfalls—it comes from six mountain sheep about forty feet away—as close as I have ever been to them. They are surprised to see me, as I am surprised to see them. Not knowing what to do, I keep up the pace. When they decide that I am no threat, they make their way on up the steep, rocky cliff side, climbing it in their typical carefree fashion. We go our separate ways, the sheep and I.
I continue my climb, for uphill of any sort is a climb for me. There is a gulch to my left that carries the sound of running water, usually. The stream dries up about halfway to the top, the top not really being that, but the point where I turn and go back. The little stream of water is not much at all; but in the early morning with the loudest sound being the quiet, the water is there. It is easy to let the imagination wander and think of being a new traveler in a strange place. How useful water can be, to drink, and to give you direction. It provides direction. But this is not a strange place, and I have enjoyed this path many times, so many times I know that when I come around the next slight bend the dog will start to bark, and he won’t stop until I have passed the place in the road adjacent to the mouth of the old mine he stands guard to. Another rugged individualist has decided to make a go of it, and his dog knows I am here. I wonder if he will ever grow familiar with my scent or the sound of my footfall, and decide that it is okay; that he doesn’t have to bark, just once.
Just past the dogs adopted territory the water stops—the sound of it stops, because the water has to be coming from somewhere, up here. It is still there, but falls silent now. I look down into the ravine and can see only mud, where the water tries to become substantial enough to run on its own. The creek bed is wide here, wide enough to house an old truck, a ’39 Ford, by the look of it. How did it get there? Did someone lose control many years ago during a winter day when the steep road was a sheet of ice? Or did it get swept up in the torrent of a flood, given up as a lost cause? Perhaps it was dumped there at an earlier time when it was deemed to be not worth the fixing. We will never know; I will never know, but I will wonder every time I see it down there, telling a story of its own by its presence.
The creek bed is to my left, but to the right is the rocky face of the mountain as it grows out of the road, rising to the sky. The next landmark I see to the right—the one that tells me I am almost to the “top” and an easy descent before too much longer—is the mine shaft. It sits there tucked away into the mountainside with a steel grate over its useless mouth, keeping out all but the hardiest adventurers. I am not of the hardiest kind, and the shaft is deep—very deep. I cannot see the bottom, and one day I plan to bring back a flashlight, or maybe throw a pebble down, just to see if I can guess how deep it is. For now, I will continue believing that it connects with the center of the earth. A friend of mine of the hardiest kind once went into a shaft like this with self-contained breathing apparatus, and after exploring vents and shafts the whole day, he emerged somewhere near Central City. A whole catacomb of hand-dug tunnels awaits the spelunking traveler here, but I prefer the overland route.
After a mile of being on Two Brothers road, I have finally made it to where it meets with Oh My God Road, and am ready to turn back and go down by the other route. It’s all downhill from here, and time to let my aching lungs return to normal and enjoy what is on this side of the trip. Having reversed direction, the mountain is now on my left while the mountain that was previously to the right becomes the drop-off from the road.
Out there along the steep terrain is little more than rocks and grass, and an occasional determined stunted juniper tree. If I threw a ball from here, it would hit Two Brothers road down below before continuing its path to the old Ford truck at rest there. It looks so close, but distance is hard to judge here. I stay to the right near the drop-off, because on the left side the rocks above form an escarpment from which a mountain lion could easily leap onto its prey. Maybe I delude myself, thinking that this one precaution will protect me from a hungry cat. Maybe I flatter myself, thinking that I would make a good meal. Up here, I would rather see the dangers than to place myself below them unawares.
Along the edge of the road where the gravel has been heaped up by graders in the past, and right next to thousands of tire tracks from cars that strayed from the safer center, I have observed a little buttercup primrose. When I first discovered it, I thought that surely it would not survive up there all alone, growing out of the gravel. This has to be food for deer and mountain goats that frequent the area, but after several trips, I notice the buttercup has only flourished, and it is beautiful. Its beauty derives from the solitary place it holds, where nothing else grows—especially nothing that blooms—so delicate, so unbeatable.
Oh My God Road has existed since the mining days, and served as a stagecoach route to Central City and parts beyond. Back in those times, Idaho Springs, Central City, Georgetown, and Golden formed part of a thriving network of miners and prospectors. The mining towns, Central City, Idaho Springs, and Georgetown, sprung up almost overnight. Back in those days, there were plenty of reasons to use the Oh My God Road: to convey men, equipment, supplies, and currency back and forth between the towns.
To my left, against the barren mountainside, lies a colossal tailings pile. Mine tailings are the useless dirt that is left after sifting all the gold out. Towering above the pile is an old wooden sluice, the testimony of the past; when extracting gold was the justification for all wrongs committed. Now they scar the mountainside together: nothing grows there, nor is it likely that anything will for years to come.
After the old tailings pile, I finally begin to appreciate why the road is called by its name, as I can see the switchbacks undulate below like a snake into the valley, and all is below for the eye to see—in the distance is Idaho Springs, a miniature version of it, along with the little toy interstate rising a tiny distance above it. Between the town and where I stand are two azure mountainsides, which give way to conifers closer in. Beyond the town, there is a view of Mount Evans, and some other peaks as well. Back in the old days, it is rumored, when the stagecoach rounded these switchbacks coming and going, many a passenger was heard to exclaim “Oh My God.” This might have been because the view is so incredible, or it may be that they were praying for their safety on the treacherous and often washed out road, since guardrails were not in place back then. There are still no guardrails today, but the road is much safer now, since two cars can pass each other in many places, unlike the old days before the improvements were made.
As I walk the remaining 1 and 1/2 miles, back to the place I started up from, it is a time for silent contemplation and a slow, gradual descent of the spirit—back into the world that is waiting below. With each step, the tiny town looms larger, becoming more real and significant than this mountainside I walk on, but only until my return. In the meantime, if things get a little overwhelming, I need only remember how tiny it all looks from the top of that road.
My sister once told me that it doesn’t matter where you have been, or where you are going, because it is the trip itself that is worthwhile. So, the next time you are going somewhere, slow down for a minute, or even longer, and have a look at what is getting past you. If you really want to see it, though, you may have to walk.
"We sit here stranded though we're all doing our best to deny it." (Visions of Johanna) Bob Dylan