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Topless on two-lanes: Jeep treks west to Colorado, Black Hills

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travel Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

Where to go, where to go? In the past, hubby Bryan and I have planned our annual summer Jeep vacation based on distance (how far can we go in a topless vehicle?), on terrain (we tend to like hilly landscapes with winding roads) and desire to see a certain part of the country.

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This year was a bit different. Our route was determined both by familial obligation (we hadn't visited my sister and family in Colorado in a number of years) and friendship (the opportunity to rent a house in the Black Hills with a group of close friends). So we planned our itinerary to venture first to Colorado, then come back through South Dakota.

Due to some nasty clouds to the south that first morning out, we initially headed west on Interstate 90, eventually turning south into Nebraska toward Kearney -- our stopping point the first night. Our two-lane route ran parallel to a well-traveled rail line, so we entertained ourselves by waving at trains, trying to get the conductors to sound the horns. Before the rails moved beyond waving distance, we were seven for 12.

Colorado

Our ultimate destination was the Denver suburb of Englewood, home to sister Margaret, brother-in-law RevDon and niece Alexis. Since RevDon was officiating at a wedding in Steamboat Springs on our target arrival date, we first sidetracked north to Fort Collins.

Why Fort Collins in particular? Because of my beer-brewin'-and-lovin' husband, of course. Fort Collins is home to New Belgium Brewery, maker of Fat Tire and other fine craft beers, as well as several other brewing enterprises. But there will be more on the pursuit of beer in the second installment of this travelogue.

This was our first overnight stay in FC, but I doubt it will be our last. In fact, Bryan and I wished we had a bit more time to spend there this time around. Situated at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, so it has a funky college town vibe and lots of interesting stores and restaurants. There's a lovely downtown-historic district area that includes a sculpture garden and lovely flower planting.

In this town of more than 140,000 residents, bicycles are everywhere, and it's not just the students who are riding them. The visitors bureau Web site notes there are more than 23 miles of walking and biking trails throughout the city, but bicycles are also accommodated through marked biking lanes and bicycle racks outside almost every business.

FC is also in close proximity to the tourist-resort areas of Loveland and Estes Park, where there are lots of other shopping, dining and entertainment options. Although we left FC reluctantly, we decided a quick jaunt through the mountains was in order, so we headed through the Big Thompson Canyon (site of the historic 1976 flood that killed 145 people) to Estes Park. This is one of my favorite Colorado drives -- one that I've taken several times throughout the years -- as it winds through the canyon alongside the river, where fly fisherman can be spotted casting their lines for trout.

In Estes Park -- which was overflowing with tourists on this particular day -- we encountered our first glitch with our portable GPS device, nicknamed Alice in honor of my late grandmother. Looking to stop for a brew and bite to eat, we plugged in the information for the Estes Park Brewery, which was probably the first microbrewery/brewpub we had ever visited some 15 years prior. Alice came up with the address and began to guide us up a winding series of residential streets. A few turns later, Alice proclaimed, "You have reached your destination on right" -- a house that bore no resemblance to the brewpub we were looking for. As Bryan and I sat there looking puzzled, a man emerged from a nearby house and inquired, "Are you looking for the brewery? This happens all the time." He proceeded to give us directions and admired our Jeep -- the main reason he came to our aid, he admitted, because he had an interest in buying one.

Due to the tourist traffic, we never did find the Estes brewery, instead settling for an alternate eating establishment before turning our wheels toward Denver and a reunion with the relatives. While most of our stay in Denver was spent "catching up," the highlight would probably be the Colorado Rockies-Arizona Diamondbacks game at Coors Field. It was a beautiful night for outdoor baseball, we had great seats near the third base foul pole, and the Rockies won. Upon our return to Englewood, however, the weather quickly turned ugly, with torrential downpours, tornado sirens and reports of softball-size hail, although the area we were in didn't suffer any major damage.

Black Hills

The morning after the Rockies game, Bryan and I were up early, in hopes of avoiding morning rush-hour traffic, and Black Hills bound. Although we usually avoid the freeways, we took the interstate north, back through Fort Collins and on to Cheyenne, Wyo., before finding a likely two-lane. The most notable thing about this part of our journey was the vast nothingness -- 80-plus-mile stretches of road without a single town. There were some beautiful bluffs and rock formations sighted, however, and one stray antelope along the side of the road before the Jeep began to climb into the Black Hills region.

We pulled into downtown Deadwood, S.D., in the early afternoon and were greeted by our friends from Worthington, who were at a sidewalk café, awaiting the appointed time when we could all check into our Black Hills abode.

The house is situated in a wooded area between Deadwood and Sturgis -- five bedrooms, deck overlooking the woods with a hot tub, fully appointed kitchen, game room with pool tables and pinball machine and many other amenities. Evenings were spent stargazing on the deck or sitting in the hot tub.

Daytime excursions include the prerequisite visit to The Heads (Mount Rushmore) as well as a pontoon ride on Lake Pactola reservoir, a drive through Spearfish Canyon, a miniature golf challenge and shopping and gambling in Deadwood. But for the most part, we relaxed and enjoyed the assembled company.

If there was one unpleasant part of this particular Jeep venture, it was the drive home. It is a long way across South Dakota, especially with the change of time zone. Once again, we elected to take the interstate -- busy, noisy and boring. Give me a winding back road any day, but there just isn't one to be had in that long stretch.

This time around, it was with reluctance that we returned home. Even though it had been 10 days, it seemed more like half that time, although neither Bryan nor I are anxious to trek across South Dakota anytime soon.

Next Saturday: A brewer's tour

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