BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

'Don't break any speed records,' says a grunting stranger

UNPAID VACATION, DAY 1 — The far northwest corner of Colorado is a remote place, even by paved highway. Where the pavement on Colo. Highway 318 ends at the state line, the Utah gravel begins.

I came up here because after 'splorin' nearly all of Colorado, I've never made it north of Dinosaur National Monument nor seen its gaping Gates of Lodore swallow the Green River whole. Nor the placid Brown's Park, a national wildlife refuge famous for its great fishing. This area is significant to Fort Collins because one of its residents, entrepreneur Aaron Million, wants to build a giant pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming to Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. He's planning to take Green River water, and the only reason he can do that is because the Green River enters Colorado only long enough to arc through Brown's Park and Dinosaur National Monument before returning to Utah.

So, on the first day of my furlough, I decided to take the (very) scenic route to canyon country and camp somewhere in Brown's Park or at the Gates of Lodore to see this area for the first time.

Things didn't quite end up that way, of course.

Passing through Brown's Park, I checked out the closed Swinging Bridge, one of the only bridges across the Green River in Colorado. Camping around Brown's Park this time of year is a muddy proposition, with most side roads off the highway softened by rain and snowmelt, and campsites hardly any drier. I decided to move on into Utah, where I hoped to find a remote campsite high in the O-Wy-Yu-Kuts Mountains, which the Browns Park Road climbs in order to connect with U.S. 191 in far southern Wyoming.

So, crossing the state line and leaving the asphalt behind, I drove west and bumped along the gravel until the Brown's Park Road pulled away from the Green River. All of a sudden, I was greeted with a ribbon of newly paved and graded blacktop, switchbacking up into the O-Wy-Yu-Kutses quite nearly like a freeway unburdened by traffic. The pavement was so new, Daggett County hadn't striped it yet.

Really, I hadn't passed another vehicle in a half hour. After all, the nearest town, Maybell, Colo., was 70 miles behind, and the nearest gas station in Dutch John, Utah, was 30 miles ahead. The wide road ascended a long, steep hill, and suddenly, as the sun broke through the clouds, Browns Park and the Green River were alight with a glorious late-afternoon gold. I pulled over next to the fresh new guardrail, grabbed my camera and rushed around the back of my car to take a picture when I heard a violent hisssss coming from beneath my car. A flat. In the middle of nowhere and on a steep grade. Fun.

I unloaded the trunk, pulled out the spare, tire arm and jack, and went to work changing the tire. Just then a giant jacked-up Chevy truck carrying a muddy ATV rounded the curve far below, passed me and then stopped in the middle of the road.

"Did you break down or somethin'?" said the dude, who was badly sunburned only from the middle of his forehead down to his nose. He was nearly as dirty as his ATV.

"No," I said. "Just blew a flat. Not that big a deal."

He offered to lend a hand, and we switched the flat tire for the spare in just a couple of minutes. The only thing was, the spare was nearly flat, too. I found out later the spare, which was meant to be inflated to 60 psi, was only inflated to 20.

"Don't break any speed records, you'll be fine," he said.

The damn thing looked like it was about to pop, with about an inch of space between the rim and the road. It even gave under my own weight as I leaned on it before we put it on the car.

This happened to me before. About eight years ago, I blew a flat on I-25 north of Truth or Consequences, N.M., and the spare on my old blue Corolla was completely flat when I pulled it out of the trunk. I had to be towed 60 miles back to my home in Socorro.

"Fuck," I said to the dude. "Where's the nearest place to get air?"

"Dutch John," he said. "It's not far. It's like 30 miles from here. I'm headed there myself to get gas. I'm on empty."

"Would you be willing to follow me in case this thing blows and I need a ride to find a towtruck?" I asked. I'd still be out there as I write this if that spare didn't hold up.

He looked perturbed. "You'll make it, it's paved some of the way."

Some of the way? "You mean they only paved part of this road?" I asked.

"They only paved the hill," he said.

Yes, the ribbon of new asphalt was completely isolated by gravel on one end and miles of slush and mud on the other, once it crested the O-Wy-Yu-Kuts Mountains. He didn't really answer my question about following me, but suggested he might head on up and keep an eye in his rear-view mirror.

We limped up the hill and slid and sloshed through the miles of slush. We dropped down the other side of the mountains, traversed a valley called Clay Basin, found another short stretch of pavement, crossed the Wyoming line and, after about 45 minutes, arrived at U.S. 191. The spare tire, looking more deflated than ever, arrived just fine.

Luckily, at Dutch John, the place with the compressed air also had a mechanic on duty. A very old mechanic, who was very careful to consider quite diligently the condition of my tire. A rock had punctured the rubber, but, happily, it was fixable. He and his son worked together to install a patch, and soon, I was back on the road.

I thanked the dude who kept me in his rear-view mirror. He grunted forlornly and disappeared from the gas station.

I guess I delayed his trip back home to Vernal, where I'm writing this.

Tomorrow, onward to redrock country.