A Special Kind of Stupid 

This essay details the events of July 16, 2009. I swear it's all true.

Ever have one of those days? One recent one of mine started out on a sour note. I awoke in my truck near Shrine Pass, hoping to take some sunrise photos. I took a look around, noted the lack of interesting clouds and the presence of a steady breeze, and decided more sleep was a better idea. I’ve been photographing nature for a long time, and at this point in my career I need a little something extra to get my creative buzz on. Blue skies and breezy conditions do not a creative buzz make.

Ended up, I didn’t take my first photo of the day til almost 6:30 that evening, many miles away. This is when things started getting…interesting.

Colorado Highway-5, also know as the Mount Evans Highway, is a road that climbs almost to the summit of 14,264-foot-high Mount Evans. After a bit over 14 miles, it ends in a parking lot just a short walk from the actual summit. Ending at over 14,000 feet elevation, it’s the highest paved road in North America. This year the Colorado Department of Transportation (C-DOT) has the road closed Tuesdays through Thursdays in July for much-needed repairs. Having inquired a week earlier, I knew that on Thursday evenings, once the C-DOT crews finish for the day, they swing the gates back open. So I thought I’d mosey up to the highway entrance gate and check things out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one with this idea, as the parking area by the gate had about a dozen cars of people waiting for access to the mountain. As I waited, a passenger bus—the kind that holds about 20-25 people—pulled up as well. At that point, not wanting to get stuck behind it—or the rest of the tourists in waiting, for that matter—I thought I’d make a play for being the first person through the gate when it opened. The way I drive, no one was going to feel like they got stuck behind me. On the contrary, once through the gate, I planned on being little more than a mirage of Japanese engineering in short order, a storm gray Nissan phantom disappearing into the thin alpine air. The C-DOT guy manning the gate told me I could pull my truck up near the gate, and when they opened it, I could cruise on through. Yippee!

Sure enough, when the gate swung open at 6 p.m., I bolted through and punched it. It’s doubtful that ever again will I have this 14-mile road, with more twists and turns than a plot from Desperate Housewives, all to myself. No law enforcement, no Forest Service personnel, no C-DOT crews, no flatlanders – nothing but a high-altitude ribbon of blacktop in front of me. Although my initial photographic quest would be the large mountain goat population on the mountain, the goats would have to wait as I pushed the pedal to the metal, to see just how fast I could make it to the top. Fourteen minutes later, averaging around 60 miles an hour, I landed in the summit parking lot. Considering the fact that many turns were so tight that I needed to slow down to a near-stop to make them, there were moments on the longer straightaways where I was doing better than 80 mph to make that average. It…was…FUN!

But this little essay is not about fun. It’s about a special kind of stupid. Read on!

Despite reaching nearly the speed of sound on my trip up the mountain—okay, maybe I exaggerate—I couldn’t help but notice that someone had spray-painted words of encouragement at regular and frequent intervals on the pavement. Presumably there had been either a foot race or a bike race up the road recently, or there was soon to be one, and one of the participants’ friends decided to graffiti the hell out of the road with every iteration of “GO MANNI!” you can imagine. What makes these people think that spray-painting someone’s name on a treasured, beautiful, high mountain road is any different than spray-painting gang signs on the side of an office building or on a highway overpass down in Denver? I had half a mind to drive down to Denver, get my own spray paint, and go back up and contribute my own little nuggets of anti-encouragement for this Manni person. “YOU’RE THIRSTY, MANNI!!!” “YOU HAVE A SEVERE LEG CRAMP, MANNI!!!” “YOU HAVE HEMMORHOIDS, MANNI!!!” “YOUR HUSBAND [OR WIFE?] WANTS A DIVORCE, MANNI!!!” Oh, the possibilities!

So, is this that special kind of stupid I wanted to draw attention to? Nope. While it is stupid, there’s nothing particularly special about this level of stupidity. My friend Dave, by way of explanation, not to condone it, later told me this is something spectators often do along the route of the Tour de France and other such races in Europe. Whatever.

Having established my personal land speed record for this particular stretch of road, I headed back down the road, keeping an eye out for goats. It didn’t take long to find some. A few miles below the crest of the road, a pretty large herd was ambling across the tundra. Most importantly, there were several baby goats, born earlier this summer, in tow. That’s what I was hoping to find. I pulled to the side of the road and started the slow process of moving in closer, gaining the animals’ trust. It didn’t take long for other people to show up (well, actually, it did take long, because with my preternatural driving skills, I made it up there so much faster than any of those mere mortals—but I digress), including another photographer. At one point I looked over to see this fellow shooter towering over an adult mountain goat as it rolled around in the dirt. Approaching within arm’s reach of wildlife is rarely a good idea, and here this guy was, standing just a few feet away. How could this guy be so...stupid? Well, no. This guy wasn’t stupid at all. He was just standing there taking pictures of other goats, when this brazen goat came up to him and practically begged him to take pictures. It was a pretty amazing sight to see. And as most wise photographers would do, once he got off a few shots, he moved out of the animal’s personal space, at which point it took a rather spectacular leap into the air. These goats are curious creatures, having been habituated to the presence of humans along the popular highway.

An hour or so into my communing with goats, I had to walk back to the truck to change memory cards. (I know, rookie mistake. Always carry cards with you!) As I stood by the truck, another car pulled over to the side of the road and out stepped—I kid you not—a couple of guys in silver space suits and tinfoil hats. Yes, really. Which is funny, because just the other day I was telling my wife, Barb, that I had officially seen it all. But then I stopped myself and said to her, “You know, come to think of it, I’ve never seen a guy in a silver space suit and tinfoil hat chasing goats on Mount Evans.” And here they were, the answer to my undreamt dream, standing before me.

As I walked back towards the goats, I asked one of them what their story was. “We’re making a movie,” he said. Yeah, one of the other guys tagging along—silver-suited, but with dreadlocks—had what appeared to be a pretty standard issue VHS camera. Maybe they were in the process of making The Blair Dunce Project or something. Who knows? Whatever it is to be, I’m sure the crowds will flock to see it.

These guys did rise to a fairly high level of stupidity just in their choice of wardrobe, and rose even higher on the stupidity scale when one of them made some aggressive-looking moves in the direction of some of the goats, sending them scurrying away in fear. (Thanks, guy!) But special stupid? Nah. Keep reading.

After about two and a half hours spent shooting the goats, and then shifting gears to shoot the spectacular sunset unfolding to the west, I drove back up to the summit and sat reviewing images on my camera’s LCD screen. Although it was mid-July, it’s rarely warm on top of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks (fourteeners, they’re called), and this night was no exception. A cool front was heading into Colorado, and the wind on the summit was cold and strong. The car shook with every gust, as darkness began to envelope the landscape around me. As I sat in my truck, the glow from the LCD illuminating my face, a cyclist pulled up next to the passenger side of my truck. This guy is crazy!, I thought to myself. Then I rolled down the passenger-side window and said, “You’re crazy!” He gave me a knowing nod, and through heavily German-accented broken English, told me he didn’t expect it to be this cold. Nein scheiße, Sherlock!

The guy was in a little bit of distress—cold extremities, cramping up, dehydrated from not drinking enough fluids on the two-hours-plus ride to the summit. On top of that, he still had a long way to go—fourteen miles downhill, that is, in the dark, with no light on his bike. This guy’s got to be that special kind of stupid, right? Not hardly. (Stick with me, folks, I’m getting to it.) This dude had the good sense to ask me for a ride back down to his car parked at the entrance gate. I wasn’t really planning to go back down, since I intended to spend the night on the mountain to shoot the next day’s sunrise, but I probably needed to call Barb with an update on my whereabouts. Despite the city lights of Denver laid out before me like a sea of  sparkling  jewels, I  had  no  cell  phone  signal  up  there. I figured I’d give the guy a lift, and find a cell signal to check in at home.

On the ride down, this German without a name told me how he had ridden up as a bit of a workout session in preparation for the big race up the mountain the following Saturday. (A-ha! Manni has yet to see his friends’ [ahem] handy work! I hope he/she crashes spectacularly this weekend!) Unlike his ride this day, Saturday’s race would start fourteen miles farther down, all the way in Idaho Springs. At least he wouldn’t have darkness to contend with, and probably not the same chilly wind. I asked him what time the race started, and he said his age group launches at 7:40 in the morning. What age group? “55 to 65,” he says. Suddenly, I felt so small. This guy was 56 years old, although I would’ve never guessed he was out of his 40s, flew over from Heidelberg, Germany, elevation 350 feet above sea level, to ride in a race that’ll take him a large share of three miles higher than where he lives. I’m out of breath just typing that!

But wait, there’s more! Following the race, he tells me, he’s heading to Leadville (elevation 10,430 feet) to compete in a mini-triathlon. But hey, the swimming part will be in an indoor pool, not in a nearby, snowmelt-fed creek. What a wuss.

As I headed down the mountain with my Greek God of a passenger, every now and then I’d round a hairpin curve and my headlights would alight on a group of three or four teenagers making their way up the road. I finally stopped to ask one boy what they were all doing out there that night, and he said, “Going up there.” I asked where he had come from, and he said, “Down there,” vaguely gesturing in the direction of Summit Lake, which sits at 12,830 feet elevation, just over five road miles below the summit parking lot. (Why there’s a lake called Summit Lake almost 1,500 feet below the summit is a whole ‘nother essay! Oh well, there I go digressing again.) A little farther down, we came upon a group of three girls with their thumbs out, hitchhiker-style, angling for a ride downhill. Having clearly given up their summit bid, they seemed genuinely disappointed when I told them I already had all the passengers I could carry, and that a bicycle took up all the space in the rear of the truck. By now I could see the lights of that passenger bus sitting in the Summit Lake parking lot a few miles distant, so the girls would be back to the relative warmth of the bus probably within the half-hour. They didn’t appear to be in any danger.

After dropping off Wolfgang Amadeus Badass, calling Barb and pointing my truck back uphill, I started to think about the logic of these kids walking up that road in the dark of night, under-dressed, with a bitter wind blowing. (Hang in there, we’re getting close to the grand prize of stupidity!) The more I thought about it, I felt anger welling up in me. The closer I got to Summit Lake, the madder I got. I began to formulate a plan. If the bus was still in the parking lot, I was going to stop and find the driver and/or chaperone(s), and read them the riot act. If it wasn’t there, since it didn’t pass me on the way back up, I’d know that the adults were making their way up to the summit to pick up the kids. No harm, no foul. Maybe. Some clever individual allowed these kids from who-knows-where to start walking up the road ill-prepared for the conditions or the time of day. Surely they were in the process of driving up to the top, plucking these kids off the road as they went. Right? After all, it was now around 10:30 at night.

I hit the final straightaway before reaching the lake, and there sat that damn bus. I was livid. I already had a few choice words I planned to deliver, “It takes a special kind of stupid to let those kids hike up there in the dark” among them. But before I even had a chance to figure out which side of the bus to pull up on, the occupants were standing in its headlights, flagging me down. I hopped out of the truck, and three men approached me in a panic, telling me that they had let 18 kids walk to the summit, with the plan being that the bus would then drive to the summit and pick them up. Although no one said it, apparently the driver lost his nerve. The last five miles of road are very curvy, and hug the mountain in some rather precarious spots. They had sent these kids up, but now had no way to get them back down. They asked me if I would drive up to the summit parking lot and tell them they’d have to walk back down. That’s right—five miles back downhill, at high altitude, in the dark, with just a few space blankets and flashlights between them. These men were not aware that I had been up on the mountain earlier, and that I knew how long those kids had been up there in the cold and wind. In no uncertain terms, I told them I was onto their situation, and I instructed their driver to get his butt in the seat and get up there and pick those poor kids up! He asked if he could follow me up, which was fine by me.

Turns out this was a Christian youth group from Corpus Christi, Texas, in town for a conference at the Colorado Convention Center. They had planned on hiking the road all along, not knowing it was closed down for the day. They decided to head down to Denver, check into their hotel, and drive back up that afternoon, when the road was set to re-open. What an ingenious plan! Pass through the gate at 6:00pm, hit the Summit Lake parking lot around, oh, let’s say, 6:30, and shuffle the kids out of the bus. Point up at the summit and say, “Knock ‘em dead, kids!” Never mind that 6:30 p.m. equates to less than two hours before sunset, two hours being a shorter time than it usually takes to reach the summit, even for those well-equipped, both mentally and physically. Never mind that these kids were not accustomed to the altitude. Never mind that the wind was blowing a steady 20 mph, with frequent higher gusts that could knock an unwitting road-walker off his or her feet. I don’t know what the temperature was, but I know that it was miserably cold for me, Mr. Mountain Photographer. I could only imagine what these kids from sweltering Texas were dealing with. And don’t even get me started on windchill factor!

One could argue that, although it was a bit chilly at the lake, and certainly windy, the chaperones didn’t know how much colder and windier it would be on the summit. They should have. That’s what chaperones do. Good ones do, anyway. And it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that if it gets dark at 12,800 feet, it gets dark at 14,000 feet at pretty much the same time. Go figure.

As I drove up towards the summit, with the bus following some distance behind, I started to worry a little more about those kids up there, and decided I needed to pick up the pace. Mr. Bus Driver would have to figure it out on his own. I came up on three kids flagging me down just a few miles up the road, and told them, “Your idiot chaperones are right behind me.” Off I went. Soon, another threesome, two boys and a girl, flagged me down. The boys were cold but okay. The girl seemed out of it. I told them they’d have to hop in the back of my truck (it has a topper on it, so they wouldn’t be exposed to the elements), since I had all manner of camera gear and whatnot sitting on the front seat. As I said this, the girl was lifting my unzipped camera backpack off the seat, oblivious to what I had just said. I quickly moved it to the back seat before she could inadvertently dump its contents onto the road, and she hopped in, straddling all the gear I still had heaped on the floorboards.

About that time another vehicle, the only other one on the mountain, came down from the summit. I asked the driver if he had any of the kids with him, and he said he had just one. His car was already at capacity, but he shoehorned in one girl who wasn’t feeling well up on the summit.

When I got to the parking lot, there was no sign of any of the kids. Logic would dictate that they were sheltering themselves in the stone structure nearby, all that remained of a restaurant that burned down back in the ‘70s. I tooted the horn and waited. Nothing. I gave it a few longer blasts, and to my relief, one of the kids already in my truck yelled, “There they are!” All the remaining kids came walking out of the shadows, zombie-like, surely wondering who I was and what had become of their ride. I told them the bus would be up shortly, and to pile into the back of my truck to get out of the wind and cold while we waited for it. All but two did so, with only two older boys, who actually seemed to be having a good time on this misadventure, standing beside the tailgate.

Once the bus arrived, the kids cascaded out the back of the truck, each one extending a handshake, except for one. The last kid, a young boy (I had thought it was a girl in recent re-tellings, but then remembered it was a boy with a slightly effeminate nature—not that there’s anything wrong with that.) gave me a big hug, murmuring “Thank you!” into the folds of my coat.

The bus driver, a large man of Italian and Croatian heritage, asked if he could follow me back down. I asked him if he’d ever driven a road like this and he said he hadn’t. (Shocka!) I gave him a quick lesson in driving down a mountain—gears, not brakes!—and told him I’d hang with him as far as the lake, where I planned to park it for the night.

Once back at the lake, he told me he didn’t go up to pick up the kids because he didn’t think vehicles that size were permitted beyond the lake. That didn’t square with the whole plan of sending the kids up the mountain, to be picked up by that very same vehicle later! Hellooo? Is there anybody in there??? That’s how I came to my conclusion that the man had lost his nerve. Worse still, he told me that if I hadn’t come along when I did, he was going to give it another hour, then drive down to Idaho Springs and call for help. That would’ve meant at least another three hours for those kids up there, exposed to the altitude and the cold. It might’ve even turned into an all-nighter.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our winners! Split the prize money evenly between the driver and the chaperone who allowed those kids to head up the road in the first place.

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© Todd Caudle 2009

All Rights Reserved