Tough Roads

Joe Shuster

Some of you might know that I took a vacation in September to go camping in the mountains of Colorado.

I had some personal business to conduct and some social contacts to develop, but I had a lot of time for simple recreation. One day, a fellow camper recommended a 4- wheel drive road to the top of a nearby pass. He said that some low clearance vehicles had some problems, but I should be ok in my Jeep Wrangler. The road was only 5 miles in length from my campsite to the top of the pass so I thought it would be easy. My Jeep was two years old, but I hadn't done much real 4-wheel drive work. I figured it would be a good test and a good education.

The first half-mile of the one-lane road was like a roller coaster ride: short, but steep microhills in the dirt road. I handled that easily. But then came some intimidation: The road was snuggled up against the side of the mountain with a 500' drop-off right outside the driver's window. Only a few thin aspen trees would slow you down if you rolled off the edge. And, no, there was no guardrail. I slowed to a snail's pace to handle this section of the road with care.

Soon the quality of the road deteriorated. It went from rough bare stone to insanely rough bare stone. It was like riding perpendicular across railroad tracks. Only the tracks were just a few inches apart, at different heights and uneven. My seatbelt snapped tight every few feet as the Jeep tossed around. I thought I could be a little safer if I stayed to my right, away from the edge of the road. But the road had been blasted from solid rock and the inward side was higher than the edge side. So when I tried to get safer by avoiding the edge, the Jeep started leaning more and more toward the edge.

Then I learned another scary fact: If I went too slow or too fast, the wheels would slip on the sand (too slow) or gravel (too fast) on the bare rock road surface. I wanted to get through quickly and at the same time, I wanted to be very careful. But I didn't have a choice - the road and physics would dictate my pace.

A couple of times, I felt like my wheels got stuck. Rather than just gun the engine, I decided to get out and look under the car to see what the problem was. Both times, after determining it was ok to keep moving, I found myself looking up at the Jeep as it leaned toward me and the edge. I was never more careful and graceful in gliding back into the driver's seat. I really wished I hadn't started on the road - I wanted to go home. But backing up was not a choice because I couldn't see clearly and the road wouldn't let me turn around. Once again, my only choice - forward - was made for me.

I decided on another strategy before I tipped over down the mountain. Instead of avoiding the edge, I tried driving right on the very edge of the road. The road dipped a little in the middle, so when I was on the outside edge, the Jeep leaned a little away from the edge. It was counterintuitive, but after 100 yards or so, I had confidence in that approach.

I had been driving for over an hour, but only had covered about 2 miles of the 5 mile road. Despite the cool weather, I was sweating and my heart was beating like a scared rabbit. But under the circumstances, I pressed on. After another 1/2 mile of miserable, uneven, Lake County Astronomical Society Night Times Page 3 edge-hugging road, a switchback finally took me onto a dirt road that was fairly even and smooth as it rose the rest of the way to the pass. Finally, I could "open it up" to the cruising speed of 8 miles per hour all the way to the top.

At the top, I snapped a picture of me and the sign for the pass. The sign looked much more relaxed than me. After all, besides being wrung out from the ride up, I was starting to think about the ride back down the hill. But a funny think happened on the way back. After the comfortably easy dirt section coming down from the top, I hit the rocks again. Like before, I was tossed around the Jeep while CD's fell from my holder and my antenna whipped back and forth wildly, threatening to slap the hood. And like before, I used the "testing the edge" technique to keep the Jeep from tipping the wrong way. But when I hit the familiar roller coaster section of the road, I realized I had gone through the "terror zone" without a problem and I was nearly back at camp. I wondered if I had imagined the uphill challenges. They certainly seemed tame on the way down. Maybe knowing I could handle the road reduced the tension.

Of course, this kind of life lesson can be applied elsewhere. For example, right now the club is making progress on the LakeSky telescope, but the progress seems slow at times. Sometimes, it seems like we'll never get done. And sometimes, it might seem that we shouldn't have started down this road at all. Some of the decisions we make might seem pretty risky at the time - downright dangerous. Right now, we can't actively solicit corporate funding until the IRS grants us a nonprofit tax status and we probably can't complete an observatory without corporate funding. But giving up and going back doesn't seem like a good choice. Finally, it would be nicer with a faster pace all around.

What I learned on the road to Hayden Pass in the San Luis Mountains is that when you take a challenge and expect to succeed, you need to be patient, and flexible. Your preliminary expectations are likely to be challenged by reality. Your own personal strategy and preferred pace might need to be changed to suit the conditions and circumstances that you cannot control. Despite your instincts, you might need to drive closer to the edge to be safe.

I expect the LakeSky Telescope project to succeed, just like I expected that I could drive to the top of the pass and back. The road to the pass and the road to a LakeSky Telescope are both rougher than I expected. Right now, we're in an especially rough section of road and there is some jostling to endure for a while. But soon the road will smooth out a little and we'll feel much better. And we'll wonder how we ever doubted the outcome during the challenging times.

Hang on tight! The view from the top will be great.