Thursday, April 18, 2013
Thirteen years ago this month I had lived in Denver for just over a year and a half and I thought I knew everything about my new home; adjusted to the altitude, converted to the Broncos, learned the short cuts to downtown at rush hour. So when my mom and brother came for a weekend visit that April, it proved how little I did know about living in the Centennial State.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning as we prepared for a day trip to the mountains. The sun was shining gloriously in a bright blue cloudless sky, warm and welcoming on my face. Even my cat Snickers was enjoying a sun bath on my apartment balcony before we left. My brother, who was on Spring Break from the university, was already in the mountains with friends and would meet us for dinner after a day of skiing. Because of the warm weather I wore sandals and a short sleeve shirt. Mom wore jeans and tennis shoes, but also had on a t-shirt. With little more than a wallet and a camera, we headed west.
The drive to the mountains that day was as gorgeous as a drive in the mountains could get. In the spring sunlight, the trees and shrubs along the interstate were a brilliant green; the rocks had trickles of snowmelt running down to the side of the road. Patches of white snow still clung to the summits. We were headed to the town of Breckenridge. To get there we traveled west on I-70 through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel , the highest vehicular tunnel in the world at over 11,000 ft. straddling the Continental Divide. As we emerged from the tunnel, we arrived in Summit County, one of Colorado’s best skiing areas with resorts such as Keystone, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge. We turned off the interstate at Frisco and took Highway 9 into town.
In some ways Breckenridge is the quaint mining town it was a hundred years ago with Victorian homes and street lamps, yet in other ways is a modern ski resort village. It’s filled with craft shops, trendy and not-so-trendy restaurants (Bubba Gump?), and a smoke shop or two, if you know what I mean. We spent the afternoon walking up and down the main street, walking into this jewelry store or that t-shirt shop. Some stores were closed with signs on the door that said, “On vacation, back in two weeks.” That’s what happens in the time after Easter, but before Memorial Weekend during what locals the “mud season,” when the skiers dwindle before the mountain bikers arrive. We had agreed to meet Chad and his friends for late lunch/early dinner at Breckenridge Brewery around 3 PM.
When people think back to the beginnings of the craft beer movement in Colorado, three breweries come to mind. The Wynkoop in Denver, New Belgium in Fort Collins and Breckenridge Brewery. All gained a foothold in the 1990’s and led the Western US out of the dark ages of beer brewing into a new and exciting century. Breckenridge is now the 41st largest craft brewer in the county. At the time we were there, brew pubs were still a novelty.
Chad and his two friends couldn’t stop talking about how great the snow was on the mountain and how much fun they had. That is until the food came and we all stuffed our faces. What we didn’t notice from inside the pub was that the clouds were rolling in off the mountain. The blue sky quickly turned white, then grey, then dark. As we left the pub to walk back to the car, the loudest crack of thunder ever heard by human ears jolted us out of our shoes. As the roar subsided, fat white snowflakes began to fall, both beautiful and scary. Chad, the weather student, said we needed to get going because thunder in the mountains was not a good thing. He left with his friends and Mom and I left in my 1993 Dodge Shadow to head back to Denver. The fluffy white snow grew thicker and thicker and got darker and darker as we drove. By the time we got on I-70, the wind had picked up and was blowing the snow straight at the windshield making it hard for me to see. If we could just get through the Eisenhower Tunnel, I knew the weather would be better on the other side.
We were driving the steep downhill heading into the valley where the towns of Dillon and Silverthorne met. I was only going about 35 mph because the blowing snow made it hard to see. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic. As we approached the off ramp to Dillon, a state patrol car with its lights flashing was stopped and turned sideways in the middle of the road. There were two cars ahead of me and both of their brake lights came on. Then one car began a slide and bumped into the car next to him. A state trooper was waving both cars to the off ramp. Trying not to panic, I gently tapped the brakes to slow down and the trooper holding a large electric torch waved us off the highway too. We had no idea what was going on. Once off the interstate and in the city of Dillon, I tried to get back on the interstate at the Dillon on ramp. A large metal gate was blocking the on ramp and four cars were lined up behind it. I got in line behind them. Then it hit me. State patrol closed interstate because of the snow. Who knows when it will open up again? Minutes, hours, days? I realized we only had two options. Stay in line and hope the weather changed or find a place to stay quick. If we stayed in line, I’d have to run the engine to keep us warm and that would use up all our gas. And what if the highway didn’t reopen? I had to act.
I pulled the car out of line to great protests from Mom. We were going to lose our place in line! Where are you going? What are you doing?
“We’re finding a hotel,” I said. But why, she asked.
“Because we can’t spend the night in the car.” That was when the reality of the situation hit her. Right next to the interstate on the Silverthorne side of the valley was a Days Inn. I’d passed it many times driving to the mountains, but had never stayed there. Mom went inside while I stayed in the car. She came out almost 30 minutes later. The power had gone out and the hotel had to book rooms manually. She also said the line was long, but she had managed to get us one of the last rooms in the hotel.
We went up to the hotel room, but with the power out we couldn’t watch TV. We needed to find something to do. Connected to the Days Inn was an Old Chicago restaurant and even though we had just eaten, we decided to go in. Since we weren’t driving anywhere I might as well have a beer and Mom wanted some dessert. The Old Chicago was packed to the rafters, obnoxiously loud and nowhere to sit. A couple who had a hightop table, but didn’t have any chairs let us stand at the table with them. I ordered a beer and Mom asked for a menu, but the waitress shook her head. The desserts were gone and with the power out they couldn’t cook any food. Our only option was chips and salsa, so we took it. We wondered aloud if Chad and the other boys were OK and if they made it to tunnel before the interstate closed. I had a cell phone, but reception was spotty and I couldn’t get a signal. Mom didn’t have a cell phone at that time.
We enjoyed chatting with the others around the table. Most had been skiing for the day and were on their way home when the interstate shut down. The couple that gave us space at the table had been sightseeing like we were and stopped in Silverthorne to shop at the outlet mall. They had ordered a salad to share and may have gotten the last leaves of lettuce in the building. A shout came from above the din.
“May I have your attention please?!” said a short older women standing on a planter. She wore an Old Chicago polo shirt so I assumed she was a manager. “I’m sorry, but we have run out of food. Colorado law states that we cannot serve alcohol without serving food so we are going to have to stop serving. You’re all going to have to leave.” A collective groan came from the crowd.
After settling our tab, we walked back to our hotel room. The power was back on so we were able to watch TV. However, their cable or antennae or whatever they used for a signal was having technical difficulties so we were stuck watching a local channel that was showing a Saturday night cheesy made-for-TV drama with a fuzzy picture. Finally, Chad was able to call my cell phone on his friend’s cell. They were staying at a hotel not too far from us in Silverthorne. They were all OK, but their power was out and they were in the dark. We agreed to meet at the Village Inn Restaurant about a block away the next morning. At 10 pm the news came on and that’s when we were able to learn about the storm that trapped us in the mountains. Could have used that information 12 hours ago.
Suddenly the fire alarm went off; the second loudest noise that day that almost gave me a heart attack. With all the electrical problems the hotel was having, we didn’t know if this was the real deal or not. I stuck my head out the door into the hallway. A woman in a bathrobe was standing there and asked me if I thought it was the real thing. I told her I didn’t know. Mom called the front desk and was told that it was indeed an electrical glitch so we did not have to leave our warm rooms for the cold and snowy parking lot. TWENTY MINUTES went by before the alarm stopped.
After the news and the alarm ended we started watching Saturday Night Live. We got about ten minutes in when the power went out and the room went completely dark.
“Well, I guess that means good night,” Mom said with a sign. Still in our clothes we crawled under the covers for some sleep. It didn’t last long because at 2 am the fire alarm went off again jarring us awake. The power had also returned. For a second time I stuck my head in the hallway, but saw no one. Then the alarm suddenly stopped. We turned out the lights and TV that all came on when the power came back. Once again in a dark room, we went back to sleep.
We both woke up around the same time later that morning. The lights and TV worked still worked so the power was still on. Looking in the hotel’s bathroom mirror, I was completely disheveled and desperate for a toothbrush. Couldn’t do anything about either. I called Chad on my cell phone. They were up and getting ready to head to the Village Inn. The restaurant was close enough for us to walk to in the chilly morning air. Fortunately, we could see the sun.
In another packed restaurant over a breakfast of pancakes and orange juice we all talked about the trials and tribulations of our overnight stay. The hotel the boys were in still didn’t have power. To avoid their dark room they spent some of the evening bundled up in the hotel’s courtyard chatting and cloud gazing. Unlike us they at least they got some sleep last night. As we ate, the lights in the Village Inn would flicker with power surges. As Mom and I returned to my car we saw vehicles buzzing by on the elevated interstate next to the hotel. As we drove back to Denver, it was once again a sunny day and as we emerged on the eastern side of the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel no one would have guessed there had been a blizzard by looking at the blue sky and green trees. By the time we returned to my apartment in Denver, the temperature was 65 degrees. What a difference 70 miles makes.
I have since learned from this experience to ALWAYS check the weather before heading into the mountains. I have also learned that for every 1000 feet of altitude change, there is a 10 degree difference in temperature and when there is thunder during a snowstorm, it’s called Thunder Snow (actual weather term), something that only happens in spring. It is the loudest, most bone rattling sound you will ever hear. I now carry a winter emergency kit in my car with a fleece blanket, a candle and matches, jumper cables and a tin can full of kitty litter. What I find amusing about this story is that it occurred before there were smart phones and 4G, etc., and how much trouble we had calling each other and how far we’ve come with mobile technology. I also thought I had photos of this trip, but I can't find them.