If you were stuck with only one food item to eat for a week, what would you choose? And what would you not pick?
I remember hearing about the “Mile High” city of Denver when I was a kid. That seemed like it would be such a magical place in the clouds. Beautiful snow-capped peaks. Pine and Aspen forests. Wondrous. But still a place that could chill you to the bone.
And indeed, it is all of those things.*
I rolled into Colorado one year in Mid-May. Prepped for a week of leisurely camping, or so my friends and I thought. We were packing summer gear because in the Mid-West that warm summer Sun had already appeared.
We discovered our error when we crossed the border into a raging snow storm. Worse yet, we were camping in Rocky Mountain National Park and ended up at an even higher elevation than Denver. Snowpack surrounded us.
When night fell, and those piercing, numbing winds began to blow through the mountains, we took cover in our makeshift shelter. A couple of tarps stretched to form a dome-like structure. Granite boulders formed the south and west walls, and ponderosa pines provided the framework for the rest of our temporary abode.
I had put on every stitch of clothing I had brought with me, including my rain coat for the final layer. Hoping that cheap plastic wrap would hold in a little more of my body’s warmth.
We built a large fire pit at the opening of our wickiup and added a strategic opening in the roof to ventilate the smoke. All to no avail. No matter how much warmth could be trapped, those bone-chilling winds swept it all away. We could hear the howl of those blasts as they jolted us back awake. No sleep to be had in those nights.
We prayed for Helios to rise each morning bringing us from zero to 30-degrees. I bathed in those sun beams for hours. My skin soaked in those luscious, exquisite rays.
Those were the days before the Internet. There were no cell phones, no hand-held computers. We didn’t have things like navigation systems or ways to monitor the weather in far off places. There was no fancy thermal clothing, and sleeping bags weren’t rated to below zero temperatures. And if you got wet, you were really in trouble.
The world is a much smaller and different place now.
We have access to all kinds of wonderful equipment, and weather and travel reports. We can even map our hikes virtually before we take our first steps.
But back to “then.”
Although the “Mile-High City” has such a famous or infamous reputation, it pales a bit when compared to Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff sits at almost 7000 feet in elevation and it rests in the shadow of the sacred San Francisco Peaks. Mount Humphreys is the tallest at 12,633 feet.
Let’s just say that this beautiful high desert gets f–king frigid in the winter, and three feet of snow can easily fall overnight. And that’s exactly what happened as I traveled through this region in the late 1970s.
With the roads buried, I ended up trapped there for a few days and had to seek shelter. The cold and the snow were a bit overwhelming for my routine of bedding down in the car. I was having to crank up the engine every half hour or so to keep it warmed up and I had to dig the snow out from around the exhaust pipe to prevent gassing myself with carbon monoxide.
I had only so much set aside for gas and it was doubtful I could safely get to a gas station anyway. But one of the local run-down hotels was just a spit away, and I could hold up there for a few days. It would stretch the budget, but it wouldn’t break me. Once the storm subsided, I’d be on my way south.
But things never go exactly as planned.
I found a vacancy at that dive – called the Downtowner Motel. Locals called it “The Down and Outer” for obvious reasons, including the clientele it attracted. Built in 1919, it had fallen into disrepair many years ago. But it was cheap, and it was out of the snow and cold. Or so I thought.
Once checked in, I realized the steam radiator wasn’t working. I walked back to the front office but was told that my room was the only room they had available and they couldn’t move me to another. The manager did promise that he would get to fixing the heater.
Never happened. For four days.
There was frost forming on the inside of the windows, and you could feel the wind coming through. If you looked at the right angle you could see the dust and snow particles filtering into the room. A mini-blizzard. I had actually been warmer in my car. But with the room paid for, and no refunds forthcoming, I was stuck and had to dig in.
A concrete igloo.
The one thing the D&O did have was hot water. I began taking four or five hot showers a day just to warm up a bit. The extra humidity added to the frost collecting on the inside of the windows. Kind of like living in a refrigerator, but the accumulating frost finally did seal the air leaks around the windows and the wind was no longer howling through like it blasted through those Colorado mountain passes.
I also had my plug-in hot pot, so I could at least cook up some food. Problem was, I was running short on that too.
I finished up all I had on the first night except for box of instant potatoes. That was going to have to last me for a bit.
The next day wasn’t too bad. The gruel was hot and I had butter and salt and pepper.
Day two. No butter, but I still had seasoning. Three meals of potato buds latter, I was getting a bit tired of the mashed, indistinctive, white substance in my bowl. It was staring me down. And winning. If you let it go cold, it was even harder to stomach.
So, what does one do when they are imprisoned inside a 30-degree, ten by ten room with only local TV to watch beside watching your breath steam into the atmosphere or taking yet another hot shower? You explore your surroundings. True, it’s not like taking a hike in the open wilderness, but you can really crawl all over every inch of a space like this small cubical hoping to find something. Although I’m wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. Just passing time. Mental voyages. Drifting in space.
A little visualization and manifestation perhaps?
I wondered out loud if anyone could have possibly left some dope in this room for me to smoke. I’m not even sure why such a thing would pop into my mind. Massive boredom of a twenty-year-old mind. But I kid you not, after my murmurings, I found a single, beautiful bud resting on the hearth of the fake fireplace in the room.
Wow! What fortune!
I took small hits judiciously to make this anti-monotony substance last as long as possible. But you guessed it, the nice buzz I got, while making me immune to the cold, came accompanied by the munchies. And what did I have to eat – instant potatoes.
Add hot water and stir . . .
Day three. My God! Is this all I have to eat again??!!!! Well, calm down there. Instant potatoes are better than nothing, right?
Funny how this one element, or the absence of any variety, created such stress. An ever-pressing tension, uneasiness, an aggravation. A mounting annoyance – like a mosquito buzzing in your ear as you try to drift off to sleep. Finally exasperation and then concession.
Day four. Clammy, muculent, pasty, slimy, sticky, viscous, glutinous, miry, mucky, and scummy . . . a whimsical chant that ran through my brain as I washed down this spackling. I patched a hole in the wall with some.
But hunger is a driving force. It’s a longing, an emptiness, a gnawing, a voracious craving for something. For anything other than what I had.
I made it through.
When day five dawned, the storm had completely passed.
I repacked the car, pawned a couple of items to have money for gas and new grub, and I was back on the freshly plowed highway heading south. Trajectory set for Tucson.
There are certainly much tougher battles to fight in one’s life, but I vowed never to eat instant mashed potatoes again . . . and I haven’t 🙂
Photo: The feature pick is of an old radio-tower-looking-sign that was attached to the roof of the “Down and Outer.” Seriously, five bucks a night when the tower was erected. I think it was about ten bucks when I was there, and not worth that. I found this pic in the public domain on the Internet and it traced back to the web page “Route 66 Pix by Anne Erickson.”
*I’d have to say that some of Denver’s glory has passed since it has become such a massive city with incredibly congested highways. The daily ozone warnings belie the old notion that this was once a pristine haven, a place known for its clean mountain atmosphere. No more. As is much of the Natural world; succumbing to the ill effects of human occupation.