Estes Park and Texans

There is a special relationship between Texas and Colorado that you can see in the bars of Estes Park and on the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park. This relationship is based originally on the summer heat of Houston and Dallas, on the coolness of the Rockies, and on their proximity to Texas back before people flew everywhere.

According to Google Maps, Houston is 1174 miles from Estes Park, a distance that takes 19 hours to drive, or an easy two days, perhaps with an overnight in Oklahoma or Kansas if you are driving the most direct route to escape the steamy blanket that covers most of Texas from May to October. The college kids driving up from UT or Rice to ski may make it in one day, driving all night in shifts.

Estes Park has a magic sound, signifying chill air, blue-etched mountains against the sky, pines, spruce, and large clones of aspen shimmering their silvery leaves together. The area has special birds that are unfamiliar to Texans, Clark’s nutcrackers, broad-winged hummingbirds, Steller’s  jays, black-billed magpies, and my favorite, the American dipper, more colorfully known as the water ouzel.  This dark bird runs under water up and down mountain streams eating insects.

A black-billed magpie eats a Rocky Mountain garter snake.

The trails of Rocky Mountain National Park can be steep and rocky, worn from the boots of millions of Texans pacing breathlessly up to a waterfall, a view, or a cold lake. A surprising number wear T shirts that let you know if they are Aggies or tea-sippers, though my UT-educated daughter had never heard that old term. The trail parking lots were often full, holding trucks and cars from Texas, but in no greater number than many other states. I suppose most Texans flew in, so they drove whatever the rental agency happened to have. Our group had two cars with Colorado plates and one with South Dakota plates.

We convened from San Antonio, Bryan, Palo Alto, Memphis, and St. Louis on a simple cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies with a view worth thousands and a porch that was a hummingbird battleground. We hiked to Emerald Lake, leaving early to avoid the road closure. We hiked Endo Valley, Upper Beaver Meadows, and up on the tundra. We fly fished with rented rods and one-day fishing permits in Lake Lily. We saw the damage elk do to aspen. We saw bear slashes on trees. We put together a jigsaw puzzle, painted the view with acrylics, played cards, and stayed in touch. All eight of us were delighted that our cabin had internet, for entertainment and a modest amount of keeping up with work.

Since we were staying at the YMCA compound, we could play tennis and putt-putt golf. We could find quiet in the library. We could wash our clothes, though we mostly did not. We could have made baskets, or painted a cup in the craft barn, but we did not. Even swimming we did not find time for. We were glad our cabin was at the Summit location, more wild than much of the main Y camp.

I thought of my grandparents and their early summers in Houston, unbelievable for transplanted Germans in those days before air conditioning. My father said Estes Park was a favorite destination back in the late 1930s and early 1940s when they were first in Houston. He said he made cartoons of them trying to figure out which peak was Hallett Peak, way up on the Continental Divide. I tried to find those cartoons, because my family saves everything, but I could not. Instead, I looked at the mountain with new understanding, seeing the bowl of snow to its north and wondering if my grandparents had that very view so many years ago.

Bear slashes on an aspen.

These days Texans have only to go inside to escape the heat. But I was one of the people who tried to embrace it. The more I am outside, the easier the heat is to take. I could bike the 5 miles from home to campus even when it got very hot, though I went more slowly. I even like the humidity, for it is what I know.

Now our special tie to the Rockies is broken, we maintain the tie all have and come for the beauty, the trails, the icy lakes and streams. Our eighth day in the park meant we needed an annual pass. I hope it doesn’t run out before we make it back.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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