Just before you reach Leadville, Colorado, a Victorian town with 11,000 feet of elevation and a population of less than 3,000, you reach a decision point in the road. That is where you’ll decide how you’ll like to cross into the mountains. The left path leads to a steady climb through the Rockies, a mostly flat road with elevated stretches cut into the sides of canyon walls. The other path, the one that curves to the right sharply, promises fewer miles, but the terrain is sharp and tricky, taking you thousands of feet up without guardrails. In places, the road narrows to a single-lane where two cars passing have to slow to under ten miles an hour or else face several thousand feet of drop below. Independence Pass is high and narrow. But if you can find the courage to drive it, you’ll encounter one of the most unspoiled stretches of American road.
In the 1800’s, the Pass marked the line between Ute Territory and European expansion, a line between people native to the land and those who came to claim it. Today, it’s a state road maintained by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Which is why, in early August of 2011, my husband-to-be and I found ourselves on that skinny, treacherous highway, driving much faster than recommended.
It had been easy to decide to get married in the mountains. We’d spent weekends on Colorado’s Western Slope since we’d first met in Phoenix. The shocking height of the terrain along with the cool breath of the rivers had made the Western Slope our special retreat. The only problem was how to get there. I’ve always been afraid of heights. On this particular afternoon, it didn’t help that we were late, with a wedding scheduled to take place on a mountaintop the next evening, that we were rushing to meet my parents, who had endured the choppy flight known as the “vomit comet” to attend our wedding in this out-of-the-way place.
Up on the Pass, it is difficult to separate the dream of the West from the West as we know it. You move at modern speed through empty, open places, stretches so isolated that all you see are aspen and fir trees whose feet are sunk in endless wildflower beds. Up there, you find only open space and the fear of falling. That afternoon, twirling around high curves and holding our breath when the car shuddered, I wondered what that stretch must have looked like to Zebulon Pike, the surveyor who first saw it in 1806. I imagine him out in the deep heat of the summer, his boots hot on his feet as he mapped the Louisiana Purchase’s southern edge. How wild it must have seemed, the low edge of this country. How could you define this boundless a place with any kind of border, to try to cut the landscape with an artificial edge?
That was the same territory my soon-to-be husband and I traversed at top speed 205 years later. For us, the road meant danger, speed, the beginning of something unknown. Independence Pass, however treacherous, would carry us to where we were going. We knew the path before us had spots where the asphalt would go thin and narrow, where we would have to slow and hold our breath in order not to tumble. But, as we neared the summit, I was certain that if we kept our hands steady, that the road would carry us forward, into the West, into our marriage, and into everything that lay ahead.
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Corie Rosen‘s fiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Two Cities Review, Bangalore Review, and Konch Magazine, among other places. Her writing has been anthologized, integrated into classroom curriculum, and has also been featured on NPR. A Denver resident by way of Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, she teaches writing at the University of Colorado and is a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.