It’s something like midnight. A four-and-a-half-pound senior Chihuahua is tucked into her blanket and snuggled up next to my left rib cage inside my sleeping bag. Jen is asleep beside us.
We have myriad layers happening: Jen wears a down jacket inside her sleeping bag with a puffy blanket on top. I’m in a similar arrangement, sans the jacket, opting for a merino long-sleeve base layer. I sleep hot. Last but not least, Grant kindly lends us a giant thrifted wool blanket. He also acquaints us with a cold weather–camping hack: fill a stainless steel Kleen Kanteen water bottle with boiling water, wrap it in a towel, and place it at the foot of your sleeping bag. Jen and her typically cold feet are happy to indulge in this revelation. (For the record, that water bottle was still warm the following morning.)
This is what you get for camping at 11,218 feet.
I’m feeling it. My head is increasingly being squished. A solid, constant pressure. Despite oscillating between 5000–7000 feet of altitude the past week or so, acclimating to 11,000+ is a different ball game.
I rub my temples and the top of my head. It offers some reprieve. I grab my AirPods and play quiet music both to distract and to lull me to sleep. It works for 10- to 20-minute stretches before the pressure intrudes. I massage again. This ritual repeats throughout the night.
I tell myself, “You just gotta make it to sunrise.”
After what feels like forever, I do. The light in the tent begins to brighten, and I hear the opening or closing of a truck cab: Grant is awake.
I get organized and put on my coat and hat. I leave our dog Barbara cozied up in my sleeping bag, gently nudge Jen to let her know I’m heading out, and then unzip the tent.
I take a quick survey of the immediate area, scanning for critters, particularly bears. Bears are always on the mind in bear country, despite having no run-ins yet.
With shoes on, I climb down the ladder, unlock the rig, grab my camera, and look around for Grant. He’s isn’t here, though I have a hunch on his whereabouts.
I find him at a vista point across from camp. We exchange good mornings and start to take in the first proper hints of golden light, reveling in the stillness.
We break camp and discuss next moves. We all agree to check out the non-camping side of Alta Lakes and also Gold King Basin. This is the fork in the road from the day before: left for Alta Lakes, right for Gold King Basin. We saw a number of people head that way from our vantage at camp and assume only greatness awaits.
First, Alta Lakes again.
We then double back and continue on to Gold King Basin. Another winding and slightly more technical dirt road greets us. We spot a couple of rigs camped out as well as an immaculate house set against the mountainside. A wraparound deck and a wall of windows are its defining features. Imagine having your daily morning coffee, overlooking such splendor. What seems like an abandoned snowmobile is noticed nearby, but Grant suggests it’s simply the homeowners’ winter transportation.
We keep moving, and the basin reveals itself. Another lake, really. It’s absolutely breathtaking. We squeeze through a tight set of large boulders, and naturally I insist on getting out to take photos, but I’m barely able to open my door.
We move ahead a little more and stop to take in the requisite sights. It’s stunning.
We ponder whether we missed out on a prime camping spot with its vast space, but soon realize it’s far colder here. It’s exposed to the wind with no trees to provide added warmth or cover from the rain. We made the right call.
This drive alone is definitely worth the detour, though.
We make our way down the mountain and stop in the ghost town of Alta for photos. I try to imagine what life would have been like up here over a century ago, with some of the first electricity in the world.
Nature calls, and coffee and food beckon, so we drive back into Telluride. When you have the chance to get nourishment and use a proper bathroom in a lovely nearby mountain town surrounded by million-dollar homes, you take it.
I partly jest. Telluride is a ski resort town. It has the telltale signs of money: Realtors advertise no homes for under a million in the immediate area, an organic restaurant charges double digits per pound for its deli case items, and vehicles of all kinds skew fancy. It has its charms and is worth a visit, but for us, the nearby Durango is more our speed.
Coffee awakens us, and we stroll a while in the sun, as it’s starting to warm back up. Our joint adventure ends back at our parked rigs, where we all hug (!!!) and part ways with Grant. He has plans to explore more and stop back in at Rico.
Jen and I embark on the drive back to Cortez. We have a food restock on the agenda at City Market in town and then a return to the desert.
This time it’s further into the back canyons of the appropriately named Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management, i.e., public lands) tracks await us.