Independence Pass has been reduced to just two things to the many people who use it these days. For most it is a scenic route to recreational opportunities. For a few it is the ultimate test of luck.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the old days it was the summertime route to Denver. People waited all winter for its opening and the opportunity for a shorter drive to Denver. That was before Interstate 70 was built through the mountains and when Highway 82 was only two lanes. There was no Vail Pass. Glenwood Canyon was a long and winding road. You had to slow down through every small town you passed through along the way.
The annual trip to the big city — which led down to Glenwood then back up through Minturn over Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass to Leadville and then veered back to cover Fremont Pass which led to Loveland Pass down into Clear Creek just before reaching the town of Golden on the outskirts of Denver — took more than five hours with good weather, luck and light traffic; the latter of which was the only given.
In those days only locals cared about the Pass. Tourists hardly ever ventured there. It was a wash-boarded, dusty, gravel road that truly tested how badly you wanted to go to Denver for a long weekend. Rolled up windows were fair at keeping out the dust, but they also kept the heat in at that time when air-conditioning in a car was rare, kind of like it was until recently in mountain homes. Nobody thought you needed it. Between the dust, the heat and the never-ending curves, the average person had about a 50/50 chance of barfing before making it to Twin Lakes.
Of course, pavement and engineering changed everything. I don’t care what anyone says, Independence Pass is no longer the quickest drive to Denver. Yes, it is shorter than the Glenwood/I-70 route by about 45 miles, but time-wise it is almost always longer. And, the Highway 82 to I-70 route is a much easier drive. The only reason to choose Independence Pass over the I-70 route to Denver is because of its beauty.
Why, then, do people who elect to drive over the Pass get angry when they encounter slow drivers there? What did they expect? It is clearly an egalitarian route. There are no kings of the road up there. While an agitated driver trying to make his international flight from DIA may easily convince himself that the other drivers creeping along through the narrows or slowing down to snap a picture of the rock climbers along the way are idiots and morons, he might do well to flip down the sun visor with the vanity mirror in it to see what a real idiot looks like for comparison. Judge not chooser of the wrong path.
And yet, we know there is an irresistible force that attracts us to the Pass even though we know with certainty that a safer, faster route is only one left turn away at the Highway 82 intersection with Brush Creek Road. Independence Pass road has been a proving ground for locals. All it takes is one pass over a double yellow line across the apex of a blind corner to prove that we are superior to all rental car customers and those with out of state licenses plates.
We are pretty sure we saw no cars coming from the opposite direction through an opening in the trees on the last bend and so we stomp on the gas when we are riding the bumper of lolly-gaggers dilly-dallying through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world to ensure that we either get past them in a blur while sending the startling message that only a roaring engine can or smash into an oncoming truck at full throttle. It is a gamble that makes perfect sense in the moment. Live for today, for tomorrow we might do something even dumber. We have established proof!
One might suggest that it would be easier and safer to flash your headlights at a slow car in front of you or beep the horn. I think most drivers would eventually take the hint and allow us to pass. But that would seem rude, and where is the fun in easing past another driver who has pulled to the side of the road to let you go? There is undoubtedly something magic about Independence Pass. Some like it dark.
Roger Marolt cringes when he thinks of some of the stupid stunts he has pulled on Independence Pass, not all of them on skis. Email at [email protected].