3 Men and an Audi
"A picture is worth a 1000 words." These were the momentous words spoken by explorer Pranjal Manchanda before he unintentionally demonstrated it himself...
Before I narrate one of the most fun(ny) long weekends I've had, I should mention this anecdote is a rather long write-up. I did consider breaking it into parts but doing so would not compliment the sustained conviviality of our time in Colorado. Much like the thematic goofiness of our trip, the read should be continuous.
In May 2015, I took my second Colorado trip (again) over Memorial Day weekend. It would be the first time in the Mountain State for the Manchanda Brothers. We had planned a packed 5 days that looped through Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), Maroon Bells, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Pikes Peak. Yes, two new National Parks on the menu! I had been to RMNP a year before but there is so much to explore! You can read about my cumulative RMNP experience thus far in a dedicated blog post under the "National Parks" category.
The three of us arrived in Denver on a Saturday evening. We had reserved an Audi A4 as our journeying vessel. I love driving. So, I "generously" offered to be the driver for the full five days. The other two were surprised at my proposal but agreed readily. Win-win for everyone!
We made a quick stop in Denver downtown to grab some food from one of the many joints on 16th Street. Speaking of "joints," the recent marijuana legalization cast an arching aroma on the street. But, I was on 16th street with a singular purpose: to order the delicious and juicy lamb burger I had eaten a year ago at Paramount Cafe. It was so delectable that I have considered flying into Denver and back just for that burger!
Shubham is a vegetarian and Pranjal was going through a no-red-meat phase in 2015. We could not unite on a common eatery to satiate our appetites. Hence, we went to at least three different places. Lamb burger, Asian fusion, and some...veggie stuff. We took some more food to go and set the coordinates for Estes Park.
Estes Park is a charming village that serves as the access into RMNP. Unlike in 2014, I did not have to drive through a tornado. But, despite the darkness, it was a pleasure driving on Colorado roads again! We reached in about 90 minutes and chalked out the plan for the following day. Well, not like we had much time for sleep anyway; barely 3 hours. We partitioned only a morning for Rocky. So, we entered RMNP at 3 in the morning in below-freezing conditions. In Shubham's words: "hamari kulfi jam gayee," - which translates to "our dairy-based Popsicles froze" (more or less).
I chose a trail that would give my fellow hikers a good sense of the awesome alpine landscape while personally, exploring a new area. Our goal was to catch the sunrise at Dream Lake. We would start at Bear Lake and pass Nymph Lake en route. The trail was frozen over with snow covering most markers. Were we enthusiastic? Oh yeah! Were we dressed appropriately? No.
I think I was still okay in my four layers of clothing and hiking boots. Fine, I was prepared. But to be fair, a few months earlier, I had a near-frost-bite experience and this was my second time in RMNP. I was reasonably primed. But, the two maiden visitors challenged mother nature. One was in a hoodie while the other was in a light shell. But the upper half was not the issue. Their kulfi's were in jeopardy. Pranjal was sporting his signature basketball shorts and shoes look. His shoes still had some grip though. But the elder Manchanda's footwear took him on a parallel hike - quite literally.
Prioritizing "packing light" over the need for friction, Shubham set forth in tennis sneakers. On ice. In total darkness. Black bears were not our concern as our hike was punctuated with frequent shrieks of slipping and sliding on the trail. If you personally know us, you will know that when crisis strikes, our first reaction is laughter. I am sure we scared away the nearby elk.
Our flashlights finally picked up a dark, gleaming surface. Nymph Lake. The surface was iced. With our fingers barely moving in the cold, we took a moment to realign our backpacks. I knew Dream Lake was further up the trail, but we could not spot the trail anymore. We made a calculated guess and continued on to what we thought must be the way ahead.
10 minutes to Sunrise. We could finally see our surroundings clearly and realized something was not right. The "trail" was getting narrower by the yard with the snow getting thicker and thicker. We were supposed to be heading east but I could tell from the sky that we were heading further north. To confirm, I enabled location services and checked the GPS on my phone. Sure enough, we were lost and heading north. The path we were on looked more like an animal trail. Were we walking straight into a bear den??
We didn't go/wait to find out but turned around and traced our steps to Nymph Lake. It was the start of the golden hour when we arrived. Sunrise at Dream Lake would stay a dream but we were happy to be at a lake nonetheless! You see, most lakes in RMNP reflect the Rockies, which catch the pink alpenglow and warm sunlight.
Slight issue. The surface of Nymph Lake was frozen. Ice is nowhere as reflective as still water. However, I walked around the shore and found perhaps the only patch that was not frosted. That patch of water did reflect Hallett Peak (just enough). I thought that made for a really cool shot!
A couple of hikers arrived at the spot and gave us an amused look. They were clad in mountain hiking gear. They even had trekking poles. We had slipping soles. They happened to be on the same trail as we were and I asked them for directions to Dream Lake.
Ahh! We had continued straight when the trail cornered left. The next section of the trail was steeper and had more ice than snow. At this point, Shubham proclaimed his intense fascination with Nymph Lake. He was in such awe that he decided to forego Dream Lake and ruminate on life's mysteries on the shore of Nymph Lake. Pranjal and I continued forward.
With increasing elevation, the views got better as we were above the general tree line. Finally, we reached Dream Lake, which presented another challenge. There was no clear approach to the shore. The snow covered everything - deceptively. We noticed the remnants of unfortunate shoeprints that plunged straight through into the icy water below. The rocks were slippery. The logs looked fragile. But, there was no other way.
Jai Mata Di! After a couple of near-falls, we finally reached the water's edge, set our backpacks down and took it in. The stunning sight of a snow-covered mountain reflecting off an alpine lake never gets old! Exposures taken. Snapchat Story updated. We really wanted to keep going up the trail but we were on a schedule. Plus, we did not trust Shubham's ability to negotiate a peaceful MoU with a black bear, if required.
The return was hilarious. The status quo between surface and footwear had not changed. Except the path was now downhill. Without any exaggeration, Pranjal estimated that Shubham slid 90% of the way back. You could call it novelty ice-skating. There was a point when his left hand had a deathgrip on Pranja's right while his right hand clasped my left shoulder. We made with it one piece though. But...our troubles weren't over.
At 3 am, the Bear Lake parking lot was empty. I could have parked anywhere. But my genius chose the one spot that was off limits. What was worse: if anyone parked at that spot, the park buses could not turn in the tight space. There was a clear sign for "No Parking." When we returned, the lot was full. Our Audi grabbed everyone's attention. It had been impounded within police cones.
We approached our car. Park Rangers approached us. I hold the U.S. Park Rangers in the highest regard. They are so awesome! They protect the wonderful National Parks along with the ability to give you a speeding ticket! I was disappointed in myself. The infraction felt the same as you would feel if your favorite teacher caught you eating oranges in class (happened to me). Fortunately, our innocent countenances reflected our sincere remorse. After a few customary checks, they let us go.
On our way back to Estes Park, we stopped at Sprague Lake. A walk around the lake later, we needed to eat after checking out. The hope was to exit RMNP and continue to Aspen via the Trail Ridge Road. Unfortunately, snow still blocked the 12,000 ft high road so the guys missed out on one of the best pieces of tarmac you can drive on.
Nevertheless, Interstate 70 is one of the most scenic multilane highways! Meandering through the mountains, the road calls for the right car to do justice. We had one. The Audi sped through the tunnels and covered the near 5-hour drive with ease. We did run into some precipitation. With elevation gain, the rain turned into snow. A Colorado experience from the year before when I negotiated a blizzard on the icing roads of a mountain pass at night was still fresh in my mind. I took a sip of my hot Starbucks and smiled that chilling memory away. On to Aspen!
The approach to Aspen is beautiful as it takes you through ski country villages such as Vail. The year before, for Maroon Bells, we had lodged in Aspen. This time, my room was in Snowmass Village. Such alluring names!
We checked in and Pranjal heated some Maggi in the microwave. I do not know how he manged to get the most popular Indian noodles into the Rockies. Who cares. It was raining so we stayed in. We were to reach Maroon Bells the following morning for sunrise.
However, that did not happen. The rain persisted through to the morning which meant the iconic shot of Maroon Bells did not materialize that day. I couldn't get a second pass at capturing the famous sunrise. But, we didn't mind the extended sleep. Later in the morning, we were at Maroon Bells. There was a silver lining - pun intended.
At the lake, the snow shower was intermittent. But, for a few minutes, the clouds shifted off the mountain face and the water became still. The peak emerged from the clouds and the stormy frame reflected off Maroon lake. The time spent in the gym paid dividends when I squatted down on a small rock on the water with a tripod. Click!
Rumble. Pranjal was hungry, That made me realize so was I. Time for breakfast in Aspen! You just know by certain names the qualities that define it. Charming. Classy. Costly. Some reports have suggested that Aspen is the most expensive town in America!
Why wouldn't it be? Located in a skiing region with exquisite real estate, it's a winter retreat for the rich. We saw a TV promotion that bolstered the chique et riche reputation of Aspen. It was for a skiing event called Après Ski. I needn't say more. But see - that's why you needed an Audi!
Anyway, we found a highly rated New York pizzeria not far from a joint offering "recreational cannabis." The owner/chef baked some some fresh, hot slices. With our stomachs happy, it was time to break grounds into a new National Park - Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Sounds solid, doesn't it?
I hadn't driven through Western Colorado and so, I was extra-excited for the journey ahead. More beautiful roads! Most of Colorado's roads are scenic byways anyway. Silk, West Elk - just a couple of the several we took. We passed by this area called Bears Gulch on CO-133. A sequence of events happened that day in that location that made for a story that could feature in a book titled "Funniest Moments of My Life."
We pulled over in front of this small waterfall on the side of the road. I was happy to take pictures from the safety of the pullout but Pranjal wanted a closer feel. Although the "river" was more of a brook, the flow was brisk and the rocks did not appear stable. We advised Pranjal to not wade into the water. But he dismissed our concerns as he removed his shoes.
"A picture is worth a 1000 words." These were the momentous words spoken by explorer Pranjal Manchanda before he unintentionally demonstrated it himself. It happened in slow motion. He lost his footing, the current too strong to recover balance. He had his new DSLR in one hand. He fell into the river. With remarkable effort, though, he prevented his camera from diving with him. He held it up with one hand - just like the mother held her baby over a torrential river in the film, Baahubali. He was soaked completely. I managed to snap a picture. He was right: a picture is indeed worth a thousand words!
Of course, the first thing we did was to laugh at his mishap. Only then we helped him out of the cold water. But he enjoyed it, no doubt! It was one of those moments where you know you want to do something but you are hesitant. Then, to your hidden delight, a friend pushes you suddenly. However, his "misfortune" wasn't over yet.
He had to change every layer of clothing, obviously. But we were far from any restroom as such. With no alternative, we improvised. Try to picture it. Our Audi was parked parallel to the road. We opened the front and rear passenger doors. The idea was that Pranjal would slot in between the two open doors and use them as a changing room. To his north and south were the front and rear passenger doors, respectively. To the east was Bears Gulch's rocky wall and to the west was the rest of the Audi. Pranjal proceeded to undress and bare it all. It was a fool-proof jugaad.
Or so we thought. A few cars passed by. I noticed the occupants staring at Pranjal. Some of their expressions changing into unbridled amusement. This is what happened. When I had exited the driver's seat, I had left the door open. Hence, for any passerby, there was direct view from the road, through the driver's seat, straight out of the front passenger's seat, right into Manchanda Jr.'s junior. We ended up framing a unique exhibition of the family jewels!
With everything settled, we continued on to Gunnison, passing through more beautiful Colorado countryside. The approach, however, was rather confusing. We were not sure to what point to set our GPS. Somehow, we made it into the National Park and parked at the nearest viewpoint. Truth be told, I wasn't expecting to be blown away by Black Canyon. But, it was so profound! The pictures don't do justice. You would have to stand at the edge and peer down. Definitely not for ones with acrophobia!
There are two things I never cease to do. One, exhale "smoke" in cold weather - it's almost like a reflex. Two, test the echo in an echo-zone. I puffed my lungs and let out a high pitched shriek. The echo was amazing, resonating with clarity several times!
We would have spent more time along the rims but we hoped to reach Lake San Cristobal by Sunset. We were running behind. The German sedan sped along Gunnison River. However, I needed to drive with extra caution to account for wildlife activity along the road as the light faded. We did drive by some wildlife! Near Lake City, we spotted a black bear! Rather, a bear crossed the road. Why? To get to the other side.
We reached the shores of the hyped Lake San Cristobal. It was rather anticlimactic. It lacked the instant appeal we had anticipated. In retrospect, a few factors were responsible. A) the pictures we had seen were taken from an elevated angle; we lacked perspective. B) it was dusk; the colors were very subdued. C) we were hungry.
We had another two and half hours of driving left for Alamosa. What's in Alamosa, you ask? Beds.
But before we reached Alamosa, somewhere in the mountains of Rio Grande National Forest, another comical incident materialized. Darkness fell and we were alone on the road. I remarked that we were probably under a starlit sky. Shubham asked me to pull over so that he could testify. He stepped out as a Greek philosopher. He began praising the nocturnal wonders of nature and how small we were. To enhance his epiphany, I switched off the engine. I engaged the parking brake. The Audi made a groaning noise when I did. That groan was amplified by the stillness of the night.
Shubham had stepped out as a Greek philosopher. But when the parking brake groaned into position, he transformed into an African gazelle. With tremendous agility and speed, he leaped into the backseat of the Audi and banged the door shut. All feelings of philosophy were interrupted by instincts of survival. Before we could process what happened, we had to set off.
A few miles later, it was Pranjal's wish to celebrate the night. I retracted the sunroof and suggested he stand through the aperture of the moving car. Two facts to note: one, the ambient lighting of the Audi was red. Two, Pranjal has a signature laugh that could rival that of any rakshas from classic Indian TV. Time to turn up the visualization in your mind! Picture the following as a passerby on the opposite lane. You are going about your route. No soul in sight, no sound or light. Out of nowhere, you see a red face gliding through the night. Delirious laughter ringing through the air that becomes menacing with the Doppler Effect.
Obviously, staying awake was not a problem. Finally, we reached Alamosa to get some sleep. Well, "some sleep" translated to a meager 3 hours because we set out for Great Sand Dunes at 3 am, which was about 40 mins away.
I hadn't checked the celestial calendar and wasn't expecting to do much astrophotography. We were shooting for the sunrise (word play, right there). The sand dunes against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would make a great composition! The Great Sand Dunes parking lot hosted a lone SUV. Someone was already out there. The weather, though cold, was managed because we were all dressed appropriately. However, we had not anticipated another element - water. Further down the trail, the sound of rushing water became more audible. Medano Creek.
A six-foot high headlamp emerged ahead, bobbing toward us. It was the SUV guy. I asked him how far the sand dunes were. Not far - but a body of water separated us from the dunes. I noticed the photographer was wearing water-proof gaiters. Clearly, he had to negotiate some water. He advised us to be very careful.
Soon, we were at the edge of the creek. My headlamp picked out the fast current. The breadth of the creek was rather large, disappearing into the darkness. The memories of Bears Gulch were still fresh in our minds. We decided to avoid contact with Medano Creek.
The silhouettes of the dunes became more distinct as our eyes adjusted to the starlight. I fired a few test exposures of the nightscape around us. Immediately, I spotted Andromeda over the mountains! Then, when I swiveled 180, I instantly recognized the core of the Milky Way! I aligned my camera and exposed the sky for 20 seconds.
Wow! I hadn't captured such clarity and luminescence of the core before! For Pranjal and Shubham, it was a first time experience. I was so happy to share it with them! To celebrate the moment, we took an everlasting picture against the Milky Way.
The stars faded as they ushered in dawn. In the blue hour, we finally saw our surroundings. Medano Creek wasn't as harrowing as we had fathomed. It was ankle-deep. But, the breadth was still very wide and crossing it in the dark would still not be advisable. Moreover, you could not gauge the firmness of the sand easily - especially for new visitors.
Still, with renewed confidence, we moved a few steps into the creek, onto the many mini "sand-islands." The water formed designer streaks on the reflective sand. It was a unique setting that was about to get rather dramatic.
The eastern sky had clouds covering the peaks of Sangre de Cristo. A brilliant beam of light pierced through the cover, illuminating the clouds with a furnace-like glow. I was overwhelmed. There was so much going on! I clicked away frantically after setting up a foreground. The sand dunes formed the midground that lit up with the rising sun. Almost two years later, as I am typing these words, I am yet to process those photographs. I am not sure if I could handle so many elements where each commanded attention. But now it's time. Hopefully, the resulting photographs reflect the sheer spectacle of the sunrise!
Away on my right, Pranjal squatted on his own sand island with his camera. Shubham was enjoying a promenade along the bank. None of us paid attention to the enormous amounts of sediment we had accumulated on our clothing and body.
We needed to clean up before entering the Audi. This time, fortunately, we didn't need to do a Pranjal. Just the superficial layers needed cleaning/changing. Our happy faces beamed the success of the Great Sand Dunes NP leg. Next stop: Colorado Springs, 2h 40m away.
But it didn't take that long. The two brothers passed out in their seats. Pranjal looked peaceful. Shubham, who had promised to give me company, snored away. I didn't mind at all. I took the opportunity to gun it. Am I suggesting speeds of 130 mph? Dunno...my eyes were on the road! *Wink.
By the way, I don't mind if you fall asleep while I am driving - I take it as a compliment. But I did wake them up as we approached Pueblo. I was hungry. Very hungry. We all were. Check-in was a few hours away so we decided to eat first. When we reached our room, I collapsed on the bed. Those two wanted to indulge in adventure sports in the Royal Gorge area. I sat, rather slept, that one out. I needed sleep. Sleep, I did while they flew over valleys on ziplines!
For dinner, we chose a highly rated Nepali restaurant. Before I continue the story, let me give you some relevant background info. A few months earlier, I had missed a flight because of bowel issues. Also, in a separate incident, I had to, for the first time in my life, use a public restroom to relieve my bowels. Both were triggered by eating spicy food. For some reason, my digestive system is biased against the hot spices of America. What makes such predicaments worse is having an aversion against public restrooms when it comes to No. 2. Additionally, I need water and soap. No exceptions.
The point is, up till Colorado Springs, I had avoided anything that could upset my stomach. But, I slipped up on the last night. Pranjal and Shubham had ordered Butter Chicekn made "as spicy as possible." I had ordered something mild. They urged me to try their share. It did look delicious. I succumbed. I poured three spoons of gravy onto my biriyani. Three spoons was all it took.
But the dastardly aspect is that you cannot predict when a digestive crisis will hit. I had set an alarm for early morning to reach the Garden of the Gods for sunrise. A 15 minute drive, I entered the remarkable rock garden of Colorado Springs. Camera and tripod loaded on my back, I marched into the park. 2 minutes in, I had the first warning; an almost acute pain. A couple of minutes later, a low rumble. A few steps later, alarm bells.
I had no choice but to rush back to the Audi and accelerate to our hotel room. Why did I not just use one of the restrooms in the park? Did you not read what I said a few paragraphs above?! I was on the constant look out for cops. I had to speed when possible. System tolerance levels had been breached.
Thankfully, I reached our room with the payload contained. But Pranjal was in the restroom. GET OUT! Fortunately, my frantic pounding on the door communicated the urgency to him. He vacated the bathroom laughing. Things vacated from my system like the raging bulls of Encierro.
With order restored, we checked out and went to the Garden of the Gods. I missed my sunrise shots but we still wanted to see the park. In the distance you could see Pikes Peak - our next destination.
Pikes Peak, like Mt. Evans, has a thrilling road to the summit. Unfortunately, the last segment that led up to the summit was closed due to snow. The drive was breathtaking nonetheless.
Roads with no barriers reaching up to the clouds pump my adrenaline! We went as far as we could and parked. Colorado then witnessed an epic LeBron James Chalk (Snow) Toss. The view demanded it!
As you can tell, our trip was packed. But on our last day, we were cutting it close. Too close. We still had to drive to Denver for our return flights. Although an hour and a bit away, there was still the matter of return and check-in formalities. To make lives more difficult for us, we decided to try some more of the local Denver cuisine. We wasted an hour trying to find a non-existent Thai food truck. Finally, Pranjal stopped at this very promising food truck called Shondiz, serving kebabs and rolls. Mouth watering stuff, but I abstained from eating anything. My stomach was still delicate and could relapse into failure with the next morsel.
Shubham, on the other hand, had gone his own way to find a vegetarian place. We had wandered quite far from parking. Finally, we were oscar mike to the airport. But, I was already behind schedule for my flight. One hour and fifteen to departure, we hit traffic. After much frustration, I parked in front of a terminal entrance, grabbed my bags (1 check in, 1 carry-on, 1 tripod case) and ran to the check-in counter.
I was too late. If I didn't have check-in luggage, maybe I had a sliver of a chance. Without thinking, I did one of the dumbest things in my life. I called Pranjal and told him I was leaving my check-in suitcase and the tripod in the middle of the airport and running to security check with my backpack. They could pick it up for their flight to Houston. Before they could tell me I was on the verge of creating a security situation, I pocketed my phone.
There was a long queue at security check. In desperation, I signed up (on the spot) for this expedited security check service which registered personal data like my SSN. I made it to the front of the line. I was past the scanner and went for my bag at the outlet of the X-ray. It wasn't there. Someone gestured that one of the fastening clasps had jammed between the rolling pins. Are you kidding me?!
I had to go back through security after clearing the hold-up. Next, I needed to take an intra-terminal train to my boarding gate. Great. At that moment, I paused and reflected. Murphy's Law was in full effect. Maybe I was not supposed to board that flight. I surrendered to fate and ambled back to the ticketing counter. Actually, I ended up sprinting because I remembered what I had done with my luggage!
"Items unattended will be taken and destroyed." Nooo! Let me paint a picture. Take a third person's perspective or rather a security camera's POV. Five days of continuous travel had taken away some of my James Bond Casino look. I could pass off for a "suspicious character." I suspiciously leave 2 pieces of luggage unattended in the middle of a busy airport. The tripod case could easily pass off for one carrying armaments. Then, I am running around the terminal, talking on the phone frantically, and checking the time frequently.
Fortunately, I found my luggage where I had left it. Things could have seriously turned for the worse! I dished out $200 for the next available flight. At that point, I just wanted to be home.
When I took a nice hot shower in the comfort of my bathroom that evening, I reflected on the past few days. Truly one of the best outings! I look forward to more travel with those two. With good company, your trip becomes great. With great company, your trip becomes worthy of narrating over-and-over again!