CAUTION: WATCH OUT FOR FALLING STUPID
by Todd Hartley
You know how they have those signs along roads that tell you to watch out for falling rocks? You know how you always ignore them? Well, there’s a place near where I live where you really do have to watch out, and it claimed another vehicular victim recently.
It’s called Glenwood Canyon, specifically the area around the Hanging Lake Rest Area, and every couple of years a big boulder or two will fall from the canyon wall onto Interstate 70. It happened again the other day, with the boulder taking out the trailer of a semi. Thankfully, the driver was unharmed, but for the time being, the rockfall has closed the highway in both directions between Glenwood Springs and Dotsero.
What that means is that if you want to drive from Aspen to Denver, you have to go about 180 miles out of your way, adding about four hours to the drive. But that’s not the issue. That has happened before. What’s so awesome about it this time is the way drivers are responding.
You see, once upon a time, back before cellphones did all of our thinking for us, people bought atlases that they kept in their cars. These books of maps typically covered all the states, Mexico and most of the Canadian provinces, showing people where the major roads were and how to get from Point A to Point B.
Nowadays, people simply enter where they are and where they’d like to go and then blindly follow the directions their GPS or phone tells them to take. This, unfortunately, has led to a bit of confusion.
If one were to seek directions from Aspen to Denver from Google Maps right now, one would be directed to take the Eagle-Thomasville road over Crooked Creek Pass. Apparently, Google Maps is smart enough to recognize that I-70 is shut down but not smart enough to realize that the Eagle-Thomasville road, a narrow dirt track, is closed in the winter.
MapQuest still suggests using I-70, despite the highway being closed, but the site does warn you that the traffic in Glenwood Canyon is “heavy” right now. As alternate routes, MapQuest suggests either the Eagle-Thomasville road or Highway 82 over Independence Pass, which is paved but is also closed at the moment and buried beneath many feet of snow. Bing Maps suggests I-70, too, but only lists Independence Pass as an alternate.
The day after the rockslide, The Aspen Times ran a story about how hundreds of cars showed up at the Independence Pass closure gate. This included a number of semis that were stuck there for about seven hours. This is significant because all along Highway 82, there are signs saying that vehicles over 35 feet in length are not allowed. Semis can’t even make it over the pass in the summer.
The best of all, though, is that police in Pitkin County had to put up signs telling people that Hagerman Pass between Basalt and Leadville was not open. Apparently, a number of drivers thought they could use it as an alternate route.
Hagerman Pass is a horrible road under the best of circumstances — navigable for most SUVs and pickups but high, long and very, very bumpy. It’s also very closed in the winter, but someone who didn’t know that and drove up to the closure gate would find himself or herself 13 miles from civilization and 36 miles from the nearest gas station or cellphone service.
The really sad thing, though, is that if the rockslide had happened in the summer, none of the map sites even knew the best alternate route anyway. Much better than any of the options presented is the Cottonwood Pass road between El Jebel and Gypsum, which can actually save drivers time on their way from Aspen to Denver.
It’s a very good, graded, oiled dirt road that never gets too high, although it’s a little hairy in one spot. But in the summer, any car can make the drive. It’s absolutely astounding that the map sites could miss it.
Of course, it, too, is closed in the winter, although perhaps this latest I-70 closure and the ensuing wave of stupidity can persuade Eagle County to improve the road, keep it open year-round and get it recognized by search engines. I’ve always been a big advocate of just such an idea, but perhaps that’s a column for another time. For now, I’m just glad I don’t have to drive anywhere anytime soon.
Todd Hartley apologizes for using his super strength to push that massive boulder off the cliff.