Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Go west

Sharing the driving on long journeys might naively be considered an act worthy of encouragement. Car rental companies, however, appear to relish the prospect of a single jet-lagged aeroplane passenger, probably freshly arrived from the UK, Australia or Japan, taking out a vehicle they have never driven before on a long road trip starting at the edge of a major city. As such, they charge exorbitant rates for adding a second driver to the rental agreement. This phenomenon resulted in me taking advantage of Alamos' alternative solution of free coffee, before heading out from Denver airport to the ski resort town of Aspen.

The first part of the journey ran straight along the highway. Normally this would be an uninteresting route, but it was marked by me having the dubious honour of being the only sober driver on the road. Our first encounter with the upshot of this situation was a car just in front of us that was positioned in the lane about as centrally as the right-wing player in a hockey game. So far over was the vehicle that two of its wheels were running in the narrow hard shoulder. Deciding that this was not a person I wished to be behind, I overtook, allowing us a great view of the driver actually drinking behind the wheel.

Any illusions that we might have harboured of this being an isolated incident were swept aside by the electronic road signs. There must have been at least half a dozen, all flashing messages about fines incurred for DUI. The law, one stated, was cracking down, which rather implied this was a new initiative. Police cars littered the road side, pulling over cars on both sides of the highway. I should have pointed them half a mile back to our friend with the centring problem.

Since we were passing through the mountains, the road went through a series of fairly steep dips and peaks. This must have been an issue for large trucks, since sheer run off ramps, resembling the world's best skateboard playground, led off the road at frequent intervals. Despite the encouragement of my supervisor, I refrained from trying one out in our corolla. Worryingly, one of the only non drunk driver signs I saw requested those without breaks to not take the next turn.

Rather to my relief, a couple of hours later saw us leaving the highway and weaving into the mountains. The route was winding and narrow in places, with a number of hairpin 180 degree turns. My GPS unit apparently grew weary of it, since at one point it directed us to a track I could barely make out, that was unmarked by road signs. Evidently, it thought the time had come to go straight over a mountain. As with its suggestion regarding leaping the bridge at the US border, I ignored it. 

The main hazards on this part of the trip were not the roads, the GPS unit or the drunk drivers, but the wildlife. It was now late at night and the roadsides were peppered with deer, foxes, rabbits, raccoons and even a coyote. The raccoons comprised of a family, with two adults and a slightly smaller stripey beast. This diminutive one stopped right before my wheel to have a good examination of the red shiny machine before it finally conceded to move along. I could have taught it a lesson, but there seemed little point if it wouldn't have lived to benefit from the education.

Aspen itself is beautiful, as was revealed when we surfaced the next morning (from our beds, not a ditch, in case anyone was doubting my driving ability). Houses that I'd need to marry a movie star to own are scattered on the hillside and the town, when not in ski-season, hosts many different cultural groups including musicians, Shakespeare performers, ballet camps and, um, physicists. I couldn't help but wonder, as I walked through the streets in a tee-shirt and khakis, whether the person who suggested the institute was still allowed a home inside the town boundaries.

I have been put in an apartment with the two other British postdocs in our workshop. We have bought 100 teabags.

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