Rocky Mountain High

Travels with Smartacus. Part 6 or 7 (I forget).

After nearly three weeks on the road, I am left with some major questions: What happened to all the Stuckey’s?  Without them, where am I supposed to buy a rubber tomahawk? Or big tin drums of pralines?

Also, for that matter, where are the Holiday Inns? Once in a while, you spot an overpriced Holiday Inn Express, as leaden an experience as exists in our nation today. It’s what the world would be like without cellos.

In the meantime, Smartacus and I are suffering though another night in a budget motel. We wake to the sound of old men coughing in the rooms around us, and I think, “Dear God, their poor wives.”

Yet here they all are, out and about like us, cowboying across Colorado, which is so vast and rich that we spent an entire day here.

Granted, no state offers as much as California. But Colorado comes pretty close.

First, we tour another college. The University of Denver drips money and prestige. All wrong for Smartacus, I think, and he ranks it third on the schools we’ve visited.

Then we hoof it down to Colorado Springs, which we liked a lot, but not the school. The University of Colorado has a satellite campus there, and it turns out to be a utilitarian place, toggle-bolted to a rocky hillside, not a tree in sight.

Half a college campus’s appeal is in the way the trees hunch over the quad like old disheveled poets. This one looks like a newly opened Panera.

Good side trip though. We take country highways back toward the interstate, through Breckenridge and some of the coolest western towns. It rained, really rained, fat drops pinging the cars, sending up tiny puffs of dust. Suddenly, the temp dropped to 50 degrees.

It is a long slog but one of the best of our road trip. Off to the left, a herd of bison. To the right, 100 horses. Creeks gushing everywhere. You could spend a pretty good summer exploring it all, with a kayak on the roof and a flyrod in the trunk.

In Colorado, most everyone has a beard, including the men, who are not that different in appearance from the women. No one makes eye contact, which is just how I like it.

In Grand Junction, we find a room for 80 bucks, and a couple of 10-ounce sirloins for $20. Now we’ve awakened to the rumble of coughing old men, as I drink my last cup of motel coffee, which tastes like it’s been brewed through a burro.

Ah, the wonders of the road – some glorious, some not.

Look, I don’t know where Smartacus will end up. He really liked Colorado State, in Fort Collins, and the University of Iowa clicked with him as well.

One question: Will he learn as much in a year of college as he has on this three-week road trip? Will the glint of Mt. Rushmore stay forever in his mind’s eye? Will he remember the U.S. presidents we discussed, what they added, what they screwed up?

Yep, great men screw up, just like the rest of us.

In any case, it’s been a pretty good trip … a moveable feast. I’m half inclined, when we finally pull into the driveway, to turn around and do this 5,300-mile journey all over again.

One of the appeals of this trip has been Smartacus and his eclectic play list. Toto? No kidding. Secretly, as with Barry Manilow, most everyone has a soft spot for Toto.

“I bless the rains down in Africaaaaaaa…”

In Colorado, most everyone has a beard, including the men, who are not that different in appearance from the women.

Smartacus also likes the Dropkick Murphys, an Irish band that shouts a lot, as the Irish are prone to do, otherwise why would anyone listen?

In one song, they sing of missing a leg, which is ironic because I seriously pulled a schnitzel while water skiing in Chicago, and it’s still not right.

A major muscle – basically my main beam – the schnitzel runs from the back of my tongue to my toes. There is not a move I make that doesn’t ouch a little.

Then I aggravated the muscle pull while trying to give Susie “No Kiss” Kelly an obligatory good night hug-smooch. It was kind of like tackling Walter Payton, an armful of nothing.

“Ow,” I said, grabbing my schnitzel.

“Thanks!” she called after me as I limped toward the car. “You all right?”


As expected, my former best friend Doug, who drove the ski boat, hasn’t missed a chance to mock me. I warned him that I’m getting an attorney. The only restitution I seek is never having to ski with him again. But I am willing to sit on his pool deck drinking bourbon. I mean, I’m not out for blood.

As luck would have it, the torn schnitzel is connected to my driving foot. Every time we brake, I wince a little. That’s certainly no way to travel from the heartland to the coast, but I usually wince whenever I re-enter Los Angeles, for various reasons.

L.A. has never been my dream town, though this is where I made my life. My friends are here now, and my son and daughters. L.A. has none of the qualities a guy like me needs: affordable housing, decent diners, bait shops and old bookstores with ratty couches.

Yet, I like it well enough. If you have friends, you have everything. And once, a few years ago, I got to attend the Oscars with a girl named Posh.

End note: In my hometown, there’s a handsome old guy who looks like Burt Lancaster. Rides a bike everywhere. They say he has a beautiful mind, was the pride of the high school, the brightest graduate ever. Now, he just rides his bike all day.

“He seems happy,” I tell my sis.

She looks at me, shrugs, and thinks to herself: “Yeah, I guess.”

I am the pride of no town. My college contacts me only during fund-raising drives. On my SATs, I scored a .002 (basically what they give you for remembering a pencil)

I excel at only one thing: schmoozing. As I confided to my nieces, “During COVID, I’ve forgotten how to schmooze. What do I have left?”

Here’s an inventory: One bum leg, a Honda in need of an oil change, and all my boyish dreams.

Hey, at least it’s something.

End note II: Wish I had left a thank-you note for my sister, who hosted me and Smartacus for a week. She has six millennials living with her on and off, and she is still the most entertaining person in the house.

She has raised her six kids well: They are chatty, thoughtful, fun-loving and just generally amazing. Meanwhile, her husband beats me at everything, yet still I like him (no joking, most everyone beats me at everything).

Road trip diary: We’ve awakened to the rumble of coughing old men, as I drink my last cup of motel coffee, which tastes like it’s been brewed through a burro #ChrisErskineLA #roadtrips #colorado

And still she takes me in, my sis does. She feeds me tangy gin & tonics as I sit by the pool in my Vietnamese pajamas, doing my usual schtick — dad jokes and tired humor about life on the road.

“Sure I let Smartacus drive. But he sits on my lap.”

I am the poster child for kooky uncles with more stories than accomplishments.

Yet, my sister takes me in on these visits back home, a lush little Illinois village that wears its summers well.

And where the smartest guy in town never left.

42 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain High

  1. What a treasure chest of memories you are building for you and Smartacus! What a great family you have. Thanks for sharing your grand summer adventure with us Covid shut ins! Party on, Chris.

  2. Don’t worry too much about your inventory. Can you repeat person, woman, man, camera, tv? Then you’re ok. I feel like I owe you a thank you card for the giggles and musings these past few weeks. You and Smartacus adventured all over, visited family and old friends, took in some college visits (forcing me to ask myself why I have none scheduled for my 17 year old daughter who plans to major in sun tanning and Tik Tok) and made great memories. Now that’s a graduation gift.

  3. It’s probably too late to change your course, but I imagine that if you drive through Salt Lake City, you had to make the fundamental decision to drive west or south…both providing excellent alternatives. The stunning national parks in Utah just off of the I-15, or the Sierra Nevada beckoning you to traverse the I-80 through northern Utah/Nevada. Looking forward to reading where your journey took you.

    And if you want to find some inexpensive living among the pines with all of the accoutrements, I suggest you look in the forests north of Dunsmuir, up the Sacramento, and in the shadows of the great volcano Mt Shasta.

  4. Chris, since you mentioned driving country highways, let me recommend William Least Heat Moon’s book “Blue Highways” for you and Spartacus to read now that you have traveled some of them.

  5. Please give University of Denver more thought. I went there and had the best experience trust me, it is not prestigious. My niece just graduated from there and loved it. There are students from all over attending.

  6. Mt. Shasta, God’s country for sure………..also, Provo, Utah, dropping down from Salt Lake City is a great college town. Burro/coffee making- that is one for the books! : )

  7. I sense a bit of Covid induced melancholy today. You have shared so much of your life in such a humorous and relatable way. Your joys and deep, deep pains. Though we may never meet you are a friend we all long to have and relate to. I for one am glad you left your home town to live a life well shared. We still got to go on one of those hikes with you in LaLa land!

  8. Thanks for taking us along on vacation. For some of us it is the only trip this summer.
    We enjoyed the ride.

  9. Open road…big sky…good company…

    Thanks for reminding us that there still a lot worth celebrating across the mountains and prairies of this land.

  10. Many years ago we took our daughter on a similar “college visit” trip which led us to the University of Colorado in Boulder. She fell in love–both with the campus and the wonderful man she met there–and never returned to California. (Sigh.) I’m sitting on her patio enjoying the Colorado high during our brief visit here. Beware of sending a child to college here. It’s as intoxicating and alluring as tangy gin.

  11. sounds like it may be your sciatic nerve ~ runs up and down the back of the leg causing great havoc when disturbed ~ ~ call me for a good yoga move to alleviate the pain ~ ~ lady k

  12. Chris, miss you in the LATimes. As “Saturday” is not the same without you.

    But now I`m getting the hang of this.

    Keep moving my friend!

  13. Wondering why you didn’t mention Boulder. Our favorite town in Colorado. Also a college town.

  14. My youngest Katy (25) went from CVHS to College of the Canyons and the counsellor recommended University of Colorado Denver, it’s exchange program with UCs. Cost the same but U Boulder is not part of it. Katy never looked back, she’s still in Denver, every weekend it’s mountains, skiing, fishing, camping …my two daughters will never be living in LA, found quality of life elsewhere. Denver school looks spiffy and the town is not gorgeous like Fort Collins, but it was great university life.

  15. Welcome home to our little suburb where the Chardonnay moms once ruled (and post Covid, will again!).

  16. Thanks for the road trip since I’m not going anywhere this year! Colorado is beautiful. We learned to ski at June Mt. & took our family & friends there to learn but discovered Snowmass-Aspen in 1980 & that’s our Rocky Mountain high!

  17. “One of the appeals of this trip has been Smartacus and his eclectic play list. Toto? One of my favorite bands and I actually knew Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro growing up in Studio City in the 60’s and 70’s.

    I always feel like I’ve been educated after reading your work. I’m living vicariously through you right now since we still cannot travel. What a wonderful and memorable trip this will undoubtedly be for you and Smartacus. I hope you realize by now, how much wisdom, joy and comfort it brings to read your unique and lyrical compositions. I use the word lyrical in an artistic sense, almost as if you were choreographing your stories through carefully chosen words the way I would choose different steps or movements to create a dance. Thank you for the mini vacation this morning. This pandemic can be paralyzing at times. Happy Trails and Safe travels!

  18. My college town was Grinnell, Iowa–about 50 miles from DeyMoin==best ever sundaes and milkshakes at Candyland plus best ever pork sandwiches and beer at The Spot. Long, long time ago but the trees around The Quad and Mears Hall are even more beautiful today. Agree Colorado a good choice==University of Denver A+ Also Boulder. We’ll all be happy when you’re home safe and sound.

    1. Grinnell is a highly respected school. Never visited. I suspect it’s a fortune, as so many private schools are today. Wish we’d made it part of our tour.

  19. A great trip, and I’m sure you’ll return to beautiful Colorado, with a fly rod and Smartacus to carry your creel. I’m sorry you couldn’t have introduced him to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana. It’s only 2 h 32 min (167.8 mi) via I-57 S from Barrington. A truly beautiful campus, isolated from civilisation, where I focused on engineering for 4 years and my wife did the same as a business major. We found romance in the air just 2 weeks before graduation, and stayed gkued together for 66 years. Perhaps Smartacus should investigate that opportunity. The football games, pizza and beer are outstanding!

  20. I enjoy your posts, Chris. Your travel reminds me of the many cross country trips my husband and I have traveled. Back then there were still Stuckey’s.
    Enjoying traveling back again through you and Smartacus.

  21. So glad you two were able to get some perspective and space during these troubled times. May I highly recommend the University of Utah in Salt Lake City? Growing, kid-oriented campus, responsive teachers and administration, affordable for most, just Mormon enough to remind you people appreciate good manners, but not so Mormon that you must be one to fit in, great sports, low key Greek life, non-stop flights from Burbank airport and an Honors College to boot. Go Utes!

    1. We toured it. Didn’t quite stack up to the other campuses visually. But a college is more than just how it looks. It’s still on his list. Thanks for your note.

  22. I wish I’d known you were looking at colleges in Colorado! (I am decidedly behind the 8-ball here). Two of our sons and two granddaughters attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs and really liked it. Our sons’ intentions were not pure…they liked the Block Plan (1 course at a time, taught intensively for 3 1/2 weeks, 8-9 blocks a year) and the opportunity to play Div lll football, as they hadn’t been able to play in high school. Interesting campus, picturesque part of C. Springs, pricey but aid available and a quite diverse student body, in terms of personality. When we went to our granddaughters’ graduation last year, Oprah was the speaker, as she sponsored one of her African students in that class.

Leave a Reply