The mud-spattered school bus hits snow at about 7,000-feet elevation. I’m following in a front-wheel-drive mini-van, and my tires are starting to spin in the gathering slush. Any moment, I expect the bus driver to find a wide spot in the road and retreat back to the high school, elevation 5,300 feet, where it is undoubtedly still raining.
But there is no turning back. We have a basketball game to get to.
The bus keeps climbing, periodically throwing chunks of ice from the wheel wells as it winds through aspen and fir trees up 8,800-foot McClure Pass. At the top, the driver pulls over at a small parking lot covered with a foot of fresh snow; she hops out with the coaches and a few players. Out come the tire chains. Half an hour later, we’re back on the road, gingerly feeling our way down the backside of the pass, beneath three miles of avalanche-prone cliffs.
Two decades ago, when I first moved to rural Western Colorado, a trip like this would have freaked me out. What were the school administrators thinking, sending our kids over the mountains in a snowstorm on a bus without seat belts?
But now, after following my kids’ buses on hundreds of trips to attend their baseball, and basketball games, cross country meets and other activities at small-town schools dotted around the region, my heart scarcely misses a beat. Playing high school sports in the rural West means you have no choice but to make harrowing, long-distance trips from time to time. It’s worth the sore backs and frayed nerves.
In fact, I have developed a kind of macho pride in the tenacity of our school and community. A month ago, a visiting basketball mom from an affluent town over the mountains confided that, after the game, her kid would be taking the long way home on the bus -- three and a half hours instead of an hour and a half -- to avoid the treacherous mountain pass. “Our school district requires it,” she said. Not ours.
Of course, there is more to away game trips than the opportunity to indulge in “we’re-tougher-than-you” gratification. Traveling the back roads provides a unique glimpse of our corner of the West. Aspen High School, a two-hour drive from home, looks and feels like a small college campus. Fueled by tax money from the priciest real estate in Colorado, it sports two wood-floored gyms, including one that has an indoor track circling above and form-fitting seats with backs; sitting in the second row, you feel like Jack Nicholson watching the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum.
Two brand new high schools along the I-70 corridor -- Coal Ridge and Grand Valley -- are also capacious, though the student body is more likely to spend weekends on motorbikes than snowboards. Each has two large gymnasiums and high-ceilinged foyers as big as the entrance to an urban museum. How did these communities strike it rich? The natural gas boom, which has pumped workers and tax revenue into these once open stretches.
It’s hard not to be envious; our schools have leaky roofs, aging ventilation systems, fraying carpets and tennis courts with cracks a foot wide. And there is no hope for repair in sight: county voters emphatically turned down a bond measure in November that would have funded repairs. But driving away from the sparkling new schools through the cobwebs of new roads and drill pads, I’m glad to return to the serenity of our valley.
More important than the socio-economic strata revealed by away games -- or the thrill of nail-biting competition, or even the strange comfort found in eating the same plastic-cheesed nachos at the booster club concession stands -- are the trips themselves. A few weeks ago, our team traversed a serpentine road above Black Canyon National Park. As an eerie mist billowed up from the gorge below, we passed herds of elk and mule deer, standing silently in deep snow. Then to Blue Mesa, where small huddles of seated fisherman gathered to swap stories and freeze their tails off in pursuit of torpid fish. Later, in the cold sink of the Gunnison Valley, steam-bellowing cows fed on green hay spread on a white blanket. The thermometer in Gunnison read 8 degrees.
This landscape, these scenes, this light is a normal part of life for our kids. May the memories of away games stay with them forever.
Paul Larmer, publisher of High Country News, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).