Thoughts of an Eaten Sun

through the mind of kyle tolle

Directions in the Mountains

I just finished reading my friend Natasha’s post Sometimes, The Journey Is Hard. Her experience with bad routing directions in the mountains reminded me of my own.

Fool Me Once

Several years ago, I was trying to get to the campground at Grays and Torreys. I’d been there a time or two before, but it had been a while. I did what I normally do for directions, and found the area on Google Maps. Then we set out, with that as our destination. The area of the highway exit seemed about right. The dirt road we drove up wasn’t familiar, but I chalked that up to bad memory.

As we went along, the road condition deteriorated. I recall the road up Grays and Torreys being a bit rough in areas, but this had large gouges across the way. It quickly became a 4x4 road, which I navigated in my 2WD sedan. I had to attack the road’s chasms at sharp angles and low speeds to avoid bottoming out or becoming stuck. It can’t last forever, I thought, and we’ll soon be at the campground.

Except we ran out of road. The dirt road literally ended at a closed, steel gate. No signage; nothing. I then realized I’d taken the wrong road completely. There weren’t any turnoffs I could have missed. We were simply on the wrong road. And now it was dark. We’d lost the last of the sunlight on our way up.

After turning the vehicle around and navigating those same damn ravines and gulches in my poor, poor car, we made our way back to I-70 – and cell service. My car handled the road fantastically, all things considered, even though it did take a small beating.

With a data signal, I was able to check out Google Maps, along with directions on the 14ers site to see what went wrong. Google had taken us to a road on the opposite side of the mountains from where we wanted to be. We’d gone too far west, and ended up in Nowhere.

This floored me. The campground for Grays and Torreys might not have been huge, but it was at least a thing. Whereas the road Google Maps had just taken us up was a dead-end with nothing along the way. How could Google get it that wrong? What about all the other thousands of hikers a year who hike Grays and Torreys? How do they get there? Maybe they followed other directions, or knew better than to trust Google blindly. Worse yet, how many other hikers per year are also lead astray by bad directions?

We had to backtrack to get to the eastern side of these peaks. Finally, we found the correct exit and dirt road, and made our way up to the trailhead, to where we would camp. It was many hours later than expected, in the pitch dark, but we did arrive.

This experience taught me to double-check the route and destination Google will suggest when heading into the mountains. It doesn’t seem particularly knowledgeable of hiking trail heads, even for the most popular of destinations.

Fool Me Twice

Earlier this year, Karla and I did some hiking in the mountains south of Idaho Springs. After the hike, we wanted to get into town and have some drinks and pizza at Beau Jo’s. I put the instructions into Google Maps and it calculated the fastest route to the restaurant.

We headed down a paved road, turned onto a well-maintained dirt road, and followed that for a while. A few minutes later, I was turning the car around because I’d taken a fork other than the one Google instructed. The road I kept to was in much better condition that the one the directions used, but it did say to take it. I didn’t have a signal to get an alternative route, so I pressed on, following Google’s lead. I’m sure you know where this story is headed.

The condition of the road wasn’t great when we started, but it got worse the further down we went. I should have taken this as an indication to turn around immediately, but I thought Google knew better. Because you know how smart their technologies are in other parts of your life, so why would this one be any different?

At a certain point, we reached a CLOSED sign, indicating the way wasn’t maintained in winter. That gave me pause, certainly. Except, it had narrowed so that turning around was impossible. There was no option but to keep going down.

Along the way, little streams flowed over the road here and there. Other parts had enormous rocks to dodge, or bang and scrape your car over. Sometimes, the road tilted us quite a few degrees on our side. A couple areas were so narrow that branches touched the car on both sides. Portions of the path had grass growing where the tires rode. That’s how long it had been since someone else traveled through there.

The entire time, I was waiting for us to reach a spot impassible, and then not be able to turn around. Eventually, I realized that even if we could have turned the car around, there’s no way I would make it up the terrain. Gravity was at least working with us in this direction.

It was freaky to realize this road was a giant mistake. No one would find us if we got stuck. We’d have to hike out however far to find someone. I have AAA, but would they even help if my car was stuck in a place like that?

I had worried about meeting some 4x4 vehicle coming up the road, and being unable to let them pass. But at least if we passed a vehicle going up, we’d know the road led somewhere. As it stood, we passed no one, and had no idea how long the road was.

Further down, we passed a creepy, abandoned trailer which had furniture torn up and scattered around. In the nearby area, there was a lot of scattered property. It looked like a scene from a horror movie.

Shortly after the cabin of despair, we reached a spot where a couple of guys and kids were walking alongside the road. I rolled down the window and said hello. They were exploring some of the junk that lay scattered in the woods.

I asked how they’d gotten up here, and how much further the road went. Turns out they were also in a Honda Accord and tried to come up the road. They’d given up and turned the car back. One of them said, “The worst is yet to come.” My first thought was, “Oh. Shit.”

Luckily, that little part of the road was nothing compared to what we’d been down. The guy had no idea how much worse the terrain was above. I told him there’s no way he could make it up, so he was smart not to press on.

From here, it was smooth sailing into Idaho Springs. Karla and I had made it through the unsettling uncertainty of how long the road was, and if it would just end.

Only after we’d made it out of there did I realize something else. The road we were originally on was Little Bear Creek Road. The road Google took us down was called Old Little Bear Creek Road. The “Old” in the name should have been a sign. It’s named that for a reason.

Funnily, the Little Bear Creek Road that Google didn’t take us down would have been loads faster, without the threat of being stranded. Google certainly didn’t account for the state of the Old road, or the snail pace required as we negotiated it.

In this case, Google had the right endpoint, and the routing was nearly there. But it reminded me to be more cognizant of what roads the directions take. If, in the mountains, one option is a wide, flat, clear, maintained dirt road, and the other is a narrow, grassy, steep, rocky road, use some common sense, Kyle! You’re better off turning around well before the CLOSED sign, instead of blindly following the output of an algorithm.

Better Not Be a Third Time

Fortunately we made it out in both of the above occasions. My car’s been dinged up before, and I don’t care about keeping it pristine and shiny. It certainly wasn’t the end of the world. Even got some good stories out of it.

Google Maps works really well in cities, but it definitely breaks down in the mountains. I hope to keep these trips in mind going forward so I don’t repeat them. I don’t want a worse experience where the only reason it happened is that I didn’t question the directions as I went along.