Highpointing in the Time of COVID-19
On the Road to the End of an Epic Quest
August 4, 2020
“It had to teach [him] to think of [mountains] as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end it itself. ”
― adapted from and with apologies to: Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
COVID-19 presents terrible challenges ranging from the personal to societal – but also an opportunity to get after projects left long dormant. One such project for me was getting to the highpoints of Kansas and Nebraska – finishing off the last state highpoint 56 years after my first, a climb up Mt Katahdin in 1964.
Mt. Katahdin, ME – alpha
COVID-19 management demands social distancing, masks, and avoidance of crowds – like those found in aircraft bound for European vacations. And so our summer bike trip was cancelled, but an RV trip from Nashville to the great American West was born – and with it drive-by visits to Mt. Sunflower (Kansas) and Panorama Point (Nebraska), and the last stop on the 50 state highpoints.
For years I’ve been thinking about using a small RV as an alternative to the dirty duck camps that I hunt from. That research turned into a dedicated push on Outdoorsy.com to find the ideal small RV rental to tow behind my Ford F150 on our COVID inspired road trip. We found a great Mini Winnie – a 19-foot RV trailer belonging to a nice young couple here in Nashville.
The Minnie Winnie (a Winnebago Product) was ideal for our needs – a queen sized bed, bathroom with shower, three burner gas stove, refrigerator/freezer, air-conditioning, electric powered roll-out awning, and room for our two standard poodles – Penny and Annie.
F 150 and the Minnie Winnie – high pointing assault vehicles
Lending library, summit of Mt. Sunflower
Steinbeck got it right in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, there is nothing better than driving around the American West in a late model pick-up truck with poodle companions. On our first high pointing trip in 2011 I noted, “It is necessary to be a fairly serious mountaineer to be a successful high pointer, but not sufficient. This quest is about touching the fabric of America – from a feedlot in Iowa to the top of Bora Peak in Idaho [in an August blizzard] – it is a tasting menu. Martha and I are off to enjoy the entire meal,” Our job was a lot easier than Steinbeck’s; his mission was existential, ours was geographic. And Charley was an older dog, suffering from prostatitis, we have two young lady poodles, and were unencumbered by frequent bathroom breaks.
Bedford Civil War Soldier
Our second day found us in Martha’s paternal family home in Bedford Iowa. It was one of those beautiful bluebird days, and we visited the family home on Illinois St. (somewhat dilapidated) and the Lake of Three Fires where the family used to camp – delightful. Bedford is off the beaten path, has been shrinking in population since 1940; a fading memory of rural America. Steinbeck would have felt at home.
The old family homestead – Bedford Iowa
Campground at the Lake of Three Fires, Bedford IA
After an unremarkable overnight at a KOA in Grand Island Nebraska, we hit the road pointed to Panorama Point, Nebraska (elevation 5,429 ft.). Along the way we gained 4,300 feet and crossed the dry line at the 100th meridian. By the time we left I 80 for the 20 miles of bad road to Panorama Point, we were in Dust Bowl country – land long since abandoned by family farms. The farms are gone, but have been replaced by seemingly innumerable windmills – I wonder how many it takes to run a Tesla?
Abandoned farm in NW Nebraska
Panorama Point – a bison friendly high point
Panorama Point: an obelisk, a desk, a bench, and lots of sky – but no bison
Panorama Point is 162 feet high than Mt. Katahdin but has no vertical prominence at all. Despite the warnings on the sign we were not attacked by bison, but did see a couple across the field. In the fabric of America, this place felt like burlap.
We fled Nebraska, heading to Wyoming for the night at Curt Gowdy State Park – absolutely beautiful. Gowdy was a native of Wyoming and the voice of the Red Sox in my youth. The people of Wyoming did him proud with the park. We met a lot of nice people and had a great evening.
A wonderful night at Curt Gowdy State Park, WY
From Wyoming, we hightailed it to visit with my friend and climbing buddy Stan in Golden, CO. Stan lives in a cabin on the back side of Lookout Mountain, (7,377 ft.) with a 14 mile, 1,850 ft. vertical bicycle ride out his back door. This is one of my favorite rides and was a treat, despite an afternoon mountain thunderstorm that was scary and wet.
Switchbacks on Lookout Mt., Golden, CO
The next day we head for Mt Bierstadt, a 14er in the local parlance – 14,065 ft. – leaving Martha to luxuriate in a non-moving easy chair, complete with poodle companions.
A chair big enough for 3
Bierstadt is a beautiful hill, an easy 7.5-mile 3,000 ft. vertical hike, close to Denver and mobbed on a sunny day. The mountain is named for the eponymous painter of the Hudson River School who toured the area and painted neighboring Mt Evans in 1863.
Bierstadt at dawn
Summit of Bierstadt – Colorado at its best
Two old goats on the mountain
Two old goats on the mountain
We left Golden, headed for Mt. Sunflower, Topeka, and home. Mt. Sunflower is loved by someone, as it includes a lending library out in the middle of nowhere. We met a nice group of local people touring the highlights of Kansas – which includes Mt Sunflower.
Last pitch to the summit of Mt. Sunflower
The last rest stop on the trip was at the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) outside Topeka Kansas. Much like the other campgrounds that we visited, it was full, and included many gigantic RVs parked for the summer season. These included large grills, permanent staircase entries, large potted plants, and accessory vehicles. But no lake or other attraction to justify such a commitment – I guess that just getting out of the house is enough.
One of the peculiar things that we noted was the incredible “species diversity” of RVs. We saw hundreds, and no two seemed the same. Trailers, self-propelled, dozens of manufacturers, sizes, colors, slide outs, and accessories – the bio-diversity rivaled plants in the Amazon basin. They all run on the same power, water, and sewage systems; but the rest is all different. Really quite amazing.
Extreme genetic diversity in RVs – Topeka
I unknowingly started this quest in 1964 and finished up last week – from ages 9 to 65. I may hold the record for taking the longest time to complete the 50 state highpoints – but it has not been a race. Along the way I have met some terrific people and had a lot of fun – and that is all you can ask from any quest. Upon reflection, it is worth mentioning that my favorite was Gannett Peak in Wyoming – beautiful and wild. Who knows, maybe I’ll get back.
Gannett Peak Wyoming, America’s last best place