When we camped near Twin Lakes, we didn’t realize that we were on one of the most famous roads in Colorado: Highway 82, towards the ski resort town of Aspen. The road is only open in the summer, and is known for taking you over the most famous mountain passes at 12095 feet, Independence Pass.
The Lonely Planet website says this about the drive: “by the time you glimpse summer snowfields just below knife-edged peaks, you’ll be living in your own IMAX film”.
When we got to the top, we joined dozens of international tourists to trudge through the snow and take pictures. Lots of people offered to take ours! Everyone seemed so happy up there.
The drive down was harrowing indeed. Edd beeped as we approached curves because sometimes the road narrows to one lane and we are a big lumpy vehicle. We had to pull over a few times to let several cars go past us. Edd took it all in stride, using first and second gears all the way down.
When we reached Aspen, however, we realized we stupidly hadn’t planned where we were going to sleep, and all the good (and free) sites were back up in the mountain. We had passed several of them, along with trailheads where many amazing hikes were waiting for us. So back up the mountain we went.
One of the campgrounds, Lincoln Creek, was down a narrow, hilly dirt track for which the sign recommended a 4WD vehicle. We trepidly tried to get there anyway, but after lumbering down for five minutes in the van, we decided it was too difficult and turned around.
Before we drove around even more aimlessly, I stepped out to take a picture of a sign with the forest map. That’s when I noticed the large, expanding puddle underneath the van.
I touched it and held it to my nose. “What is it?” I asked Edd.
“It’s oil. We have to get to a mechanic NOW.”
It was a scary drive down. Again around the one-lane curves overlooking steep dropoffs. Again with the traffic on our tail. Our gears weren’t engaging, so we didn’t want to stop. At the same time, we were on a steep winding hill.
In an comically surreal moment, we passed a young couple on side of the road standing next to a minivan, waving to cars for help. I looked at them helplessly and cried, “Us tooooooooo!”
Back in Aspen, we almost couldn’t get the van in great at a light. We did a Google search for “mechanic” and luckily the first listing had a stellar review and was open. It was Saturday.
We barely made it to the garage, called Aspen Total Automotive. It was in the nicest industrial estate we’d ever seen; down the road was a French pastry shop across from a Swiss pastry shop. The garage was packed with cars.
A couple of Mexican mechanics shouted up to the second story window and the owner, John, came down. Although originally from Michigan, he had long abandoned any Midwesten formality. He was around 60, tanned and had messy blonde hair, an original old school California type.
He took a look at the van and told us it was a seal in the transmission had blown. The transmission fluid was completely gone. He told us to take a walk and let the engine cool down before he had one of his guys put some more oil in.
He said it was ok to drive but he wanted to check it the following day to make sure it was holding fluid. He was so nice that he offered to let us sleep in his parking lot that night, but told us we should also find someplace more interesting.
We read about free summer concerts they have on a ski hill at Snowmass resort. So we ventured up. In the parking lot, Edd spoke to a police officer who told us she would let us park overnight there! So we had a couple of beers and caught the free shuttle bus up to the concert. Sweet!
The Hot Buttered Rum String Band, a pretty well known bluegrass group, was playing. The setting was absolutely gorgeous, with the green mountains in the background. Everyone in Colorado looks prepared to go for a impromptu mountain bike ride at any moment.
The next morning, John was waterskiing until 11 but had told us it was ok to drop the van off at his garage. We did that early so we could do some sightseeing. One highly recommended place was the Maroon Bells Wilderness area, apparently containing the most photographed peaks in the US.
The public transportation system in Aspen is great. We took the free bus downtown, from where we caught another free bus to Aspen Highlands resort. From there, you have to have an $8.00 bus ticket to Maroon Bells. It’s the only way to get up there, as they are trying to protect the area from constant traffic. It was worth it. The bus driver gave us a cute guided tour, pointing out avalanche sites and marmots.
The mountains really are a deep red, and the valleys were scooped out by ice age glaciers. The landscape keeps changing because of the avalanches.
We went for a walk near the lake and down a creek, through meadows of dandelions and also snow. A deer even jumped out in front of us!
Back down in Aspen, a shirtless John wearing rubber gloves (it was cleaning day) told us the van was holding transmission fluid. Our research also said that apparently other Ford E350s do the same when the transmissions overheat. A temperature gauge may be in order.
John was super nice, and I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of his place. But apparently he is a legend in the area. He talked with us for a long time about what to see in Colorado. He repeated what another woman had said up at Snowmass: see Crested Butte, Telluride, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Rocky Mountain National Park is nice, but out of the way and crowded in the summer. Edd and I had some decisions to make about our route.
We are now at McClure Campground, at the top of another mountain pass. But we are staying put for a few nights to give the van a break. We need one too!