Interstate-70 between Denver and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, was once regaled as an engineering wonder of the world: Check out Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest and longest mountain tunnel on earth! Ogle the scenery on snowy Vail Pass! Marvel at the mono-rail-like elevated sections of highway above the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon!
Folks must really love it, because between August 4 and 6 of this year, 157,600 vehicles drove through the tunnel, setting a new daily-visitation record. That’s just a small fraction of the 12 million vehicles that travel the Colorado I-70 corridor each year.
Marvel my ass.
I-70 is a piece of shit. If it were a car, it would be a 1976 Ford Pinto with bald snow tires, balky brakes, and a shag steering wheel cover. If it were a person, it would be Anthony Scaramucci. “Hey you don’t like me? Go perform fellatio on yourself on I-80 during a ground blizzard, you friggin’ guy.” For the 16 years I’ve lived, worked, and raised a family in Colorado, I’ve only known I-70 as a broken highway that’s repeatedly tried to kill me.
I’m what you’d call a Front Ranger. Instead of living in the actual mountains of Colorado, I’m one of the nearly four million ass wipes that live in ticky-tacky suburbia between the prairie to the east and the foothills formed by the geologic front that butts up against the real Rockies to the west. I can see the Rockies from town, but they’re tough as hell to get to. That’s on account of those other 3,999,999 ass wipes with ski passes and mountain bikes and camping gear and fly rods. That, and the aberration of a highway called I-70.
My hatred of I-70 is long simmering. A few years after I moved to the Front Range—after decades spent living in mountain towns—a massive upslope storm backed up on the high country west of Denver, dropping seven feet of snow in a couple of days on the I-70 corridor. Evergreen got the bulk of it—what a waste—but Loveland Ski Area on the Continental Divide was reporting over three feet. Since my brother was out visiting from New Hampshire, we decided to make a go of it through the heart of the storm, all on account of powder skiing. On dry roads with no traffic I can make it to Loveland in one hour and 30 minutes. On this day, to be safe, we left at 4:30 a.m. to make first chair...by 9 a.m.
On I-70, my front-wheel-drive relic of a Scandinavian tank (a Saab 900) was unstoppable, thanks to fresh, studded snow tires and winter blades. But the I-70 zombies had eaten everybody else on the road: we wove between abandoned SUVs for miles. With the storm intensifying, the visibility went to 15 feet. A shape emerged from the tarmac. “What is that, guy?” I soprano screeched to my brother. The storm had sent a boulder the size of a passenger van rocketing from some unseen peak and embedded it two feet deep in the road surface. Judging by the skiff of snow that had accumulated on the meteor, we’d escaped pulverization by less than a minute.
But three feet of fresh awaited, so we continued plodding along through a Cormac McCarthy dystopia—only to crawl up on a demonic big horn sheep sitting in the right lane. He was monstrous. Rolling down the window, the steam from his breath nearly entered the car. I made the mistake of eye contact, and I-70's curse was cast. Poe knows of what I speak: “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture–a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold.”
In my cursed I-70 years since, I’ve pulled couples from wrecks (in one instance, they were, I swear to God, in a Dodge Ram), had the mountain bikes smashed by a hungover Colorado State kid (a CSU ram), who fell asleep from boredom in the stop-and-go traffic, and once, ignobly, had to get a tow over Vail Pass after a surprise October storm caught me on a return trip from Moab with my fading summer tires. Death by humiliation.
But of course it’s the traffic that’s the worst for my health, your health, and the environment. With small kids in the car, I once sat in gridlock for six hours between the tunnel and Idaho Springs, a distance of only 25 miles. There’s even been gunfire: a few years ago the world’s dumbest criminals attempted to escape the high country—via I-70 east. State patrol came by me in the breakdown lane and apprehended the villains just off the roadway with guns drawn and shots fired. Ah, such a scenic byway.
The traffic is so notorious among skiers that as the editor of Skiing magazine, I once did a service package about how to burn time with I-70 distractions. For one of the stops, we directed readers to a biker bar directly beneath I-70 where a waitress once walked up behind a friend wearing a pompom hat and snipped the pompom from his head. Who knows, maybe it was a no pompom establishment. But it was more likely that, after working beneath the vague malignance that is I-70 for so many years, she’d simply been marked by the beast. I’m not sure if her blue eyes were filmed over.
I-70 can’t be that bad, you might say. You’ve probably heard chatter about high-speed trains, public transportation, the end of truck traffic, and new lanes all intended to someday alleviate the problem. But Colorado once turned down the Winter Olympics after it had won the games because it couldn’t be bothered with building some skating rinks. The Mountain West doesn’t do infrastructure anymore.
There is a new express toll lane on I-70 east. It’s been a big help. Now I get to sit in the same traffic and watch as the one-percenters drop upwards of $50 to save a few minutes as they whiz by in their BMWs and Porsches. To me, the drivers all look like Scaramucci. But after making their devil’s bargain, I’m sure they’re punching their accelerators with cloven feet.
There’s no fixing it. And now the summer traffic is as bad as the winter traffic. As a skier, I-70 is the worst access road in the country. But—on account of powder skiing—I’ll be forced to live with it until it takes me out.