In the fall of 2021, I packed up my 2015 Jeep Wrangler and set out on a solo journey from my home in Northeast Georgia toward Western Colorado to see the beautiful yellow leaves of the aspen trees at their peak.
However, all the advanced planning in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the unexpected detours and events that would take place along the way. This road trip wasn’t just a simple journey to admire the colors of nature, but a journey that taught me the value of embracing uncertainty and remaining open to life’s surprises.
It was early morning in Northeast Georgia when I headed out the door to embark on my journey. I was on my own for this trip, so I knew it would take at least 2 days to make it out west. I had feelings of both fear and excitement, which I was familiar with by this point. It can be nerve-wracking to take a solo 2-week trip across the country, but I knew the fear would fade once I hit the open road.
This wasn’t my first rodeo, so I knew an early start would be my best bet to avoid traffic and get to my first stop early enough to rest up. My route was an unfamiliar one, which took me through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas before finally reaching Colorado. With each passing mile, my anticipation grew, as did my excitement for the impending breathtaking landscapes.
The first leg of my journey took me through states I’d visited before but hadn’t spent much time sightseeing. I took in sites such as the mighty Mississippi River, Tennessee’s Nashville skyline, the rolling hills of Kentucky, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. My excitement to make it to the destination prevented me from making any prolonged stops in any one location. My only goal was to make it to a small town just outside of Kansas City, Missouri, where I would rest for the evening before making another early morning rise for the second leg of my journey.
While the first day was a blur, I vividly remember departing from Kansas City on Interstate 70 West and seeing the entire city lit up in a red glow for its beloved Chiefs football team. Within a few hours, I found myself at a rest stop in Kansas, where I took the opportunity to catch the sunrise before getting back on the long Kansas road. The yellow light of the morning was too beautiful not to take a break from the road, so I stopped at the first rest stop I could find, grabbed my camera, and let my shutter finger go wild to capture some photos.
As I continued on the road, I got a text from a friend who landed in Denver, Colorado. He said he would be in town for a private cooking demonstration and could use a videographer if I were in the area. It just so happened my path took me through the city, so I plotted a course for Denver, Colorado—my first detour.
I was unable to meet my friend in the evening due to his schedule, but it gave me an opportunity to explore the city. I took the unexpected turn of events as an opportunity to walk downtown and make a quick visit to the Museum of Nature and Science, where I caught a glimpse of the Denver skyline.
Worth the extra miles
The next morning, I headed out to meet my friend in Breckenridge, where I played the role of videographer, capturing the experience. The event, a private cooking demonstration for a group of food influencers, lasted well into the evening and ended with s’mores over a fire. During our last day in Breckenridge, we stumbled upon an antique car convention at the hotel where we were staying.
After bidding farewell, I headed back onto the road, searching for the aspens. Having no agenda, I took the scenic route. I made stops in the always breath-taking Leadville and lovely Buena Vista, where I visited the local shops in the towns. It was the perfect opportunity to grab more photos and ask for recommendations on the best routes to take into Crested Butte. One of the locals gave me a tip about a mountain pass that had recently reopened. According to her, Cottonwood Pass was an excellent route with plenty of mountain views making it the obvious choice as dusk drew near.
As I drove through the mountain pass, I constantly pulled over to take in the views. The beautiful landscape of the Rocky Mountains left me in awe at the magnificence of Colorado. As I crossed over the Continental Divide, I could see the majestic mountains for miles. The golden light of the sun illuminated the mountains perfectly, and as I reached the other side, the light went from golden to the purplest hue I’d ever seen—it was well worth the extra miles.
A week too early
When I finally arrived in Crested Butte, nighttime hit so I found a place to hunker down for the night before I set out on my journey to capture the aspens, or as the locals say, “leaf peeping.” The plan was to drive the famous Kebler Pass, where the colors are known to be the most vibrant. However, as I drove the next morning, I realized that I was too early and the leaves had yet to reach their peak.
I drove to Ohio Pass and Lake City to see if the colors were any different. Unfortunately, it was all the same. The best thing I could hope for was for the colors to develop more throughout the rest of my journey. And while I was disappointed, I was quickly reminded of the real magic of this trip: the unexpected experiences.
Even though Crested Butte was a wash when it came to the aspen colors, I ran into great people and amazing wildlife. Whether it was the herd of bighorn sheep crossing a major highway, or the herd that nearly overtook my Jeep, there were plenty of unexpected moments to make up for the lack of leaves. But I wouldn’t be deterred, so I headed to my next destination, Silver Jack Reservoir.
The drive to Silver Jack Reservoir was a remote one that took me through two national forests into a stunning area I didn’t know about before. As I explored, I stumbled upon a fellow photographer in a clearing. He seemed frantic at first, so I decided to talk to him a bit to see if I could help. He told me he owned an art studio in Denver and had been using his drone to take some shots of the mountains when it suddenly lost connection. But despite his concern, he couldn’t help but express gratitude for the opportunity to be in such a beautiful location.
His attitude was infectious, and I soon found myself joining him in capturing the stunning landscape that surrounded us. The experience reminded me of the power of connection and the importance of being open to the unexpected.
My final stop was Telluride, a charming and modern town that offered a taste of civilization after days spent in the wilderness. I explored the town, enjoyed delicious meals, and immersed myself in its rich culture and history.
While in Telluride, I also took advantage of the nearby dispersed camping sites, including Alta Lakes and Lizard Head Pass. Camping under the stars, surrounded by the towering peaks, was an experience I’ll never forget. Each time I visit Colorado, I make time to visit the town of Telluride just for this experience. The roads have always been treacherous, but it’s worth it every time.
On my way up the mountains to reach the campsites, it started raining. This wouldn’t normally be a concern, but the temperature made the chance of snow and sleet much more likely. And while I wasn’t confronted with either of these on my way up, I woke up to hail and sleet the next morning. I wanted to make breakfast and enjoy the namesake lake, but the idea of weathering the storm was too much of a gamble. So I packed up my Jeep, headed back down the mountain, and began the long journey back to Georgia.
As I made my way back home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many unexpected twists and turns my initially simple road trip had taken. From arriving too early for peak colors to meeting a fellow photographer, this road trip taught me the value of embracing uncertainty and remaining open to the surprises that life has in store. Ultimately, it wasn’t the vibrant colors of the aspens that made this trip memorable—instead, it was an adventure filled with wonder, excitement, and camaraderie with the fellow travelers and locals I met along the way.