07/10/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Traveling to Colorado in a Rental Car

What was it like for me to return to Colorado, where I lived when I was 22, after years of living in Philadelphia? It's a little bit like exchanging your old box TV for a large flat screen that covers half the living room wall. Colorado is big; it's a state that's all about open spaces, tall, jagged mountains and long sloping mesas, but most of all it's about big sky. The sky in Colorado is nature's Sistine Chapel. In fact, flying in from Philly, I had to look twice to make sure that it was the same sky that exists in Philly and not one that had been annexed, abridged and oversized to fit the land of the Green Giants.

In Colorado, you are also at a higher altitude, some two thousand feet or more above all your Philly friends and neighbors. People from flat areas who have health problems are told to slow down when they first arrive here. Generally the prescription for new arrivals is to drink lots of water, even though so-called "altitude sickness" usually doesn't hit until you've been in the state for some 48 hours. Because you're so high up and closer to the sun, it also helps to wear hats or sunscreen. Many people who have spent all their lives in Colorado wind up with aged or weathered skin. It's a bit like the "Arizona sun" skin effect (or alligator skin), only not as bad.

Seeing Colorado again was much like a homecoming, although I'd forgotten the fact that in order to live here -- at least in the western part of the state -- you must have a car. Since this was my first trip to the western edge, I wrongly assumed that there'd be random city buses in the three towns on my itinerary -- Grand Junction, Delta and Montrose -- just as there are in Denver. But people in western Colorado consider Denver to be much like a big coastal city; in other words, a place so cosmopolitan it has lost many of the accruements of the Old West. "Oh, Denver is just like New York," they say, "noisy, too much traffic, too crowded with people always in a rush."

The "you'll need a car" mandate was brought home to me many times during the trip's planning stages. The organizers of this travel writing gig told me that it would be impossible to visit the western slopes without a rental car. Driving steep mountain roads that wind unpredictably like a snake was a scary proposition, causing me to think about accidents or even a car breakdown. I remembered something Henry Miller wrote years ago in a small essay entitled "Automotive Passacaglia": "...Take it for granted that nobody, not even a genius, can guarantee that your car won't fall apart five minutes after he's examined it. A car is even more delicate than a Swiss watch. And a lot more diabolical, if you know what I mean..."

Drunk drivers have been known to miss a turn on these mountain roads and go off a cliff.

A few years ago I rented a car from Philly Car Share to help a friend move, but found the workings of the car so alien -- with symbols instead of words indicating how to do the smallest things like turn on the windshield wipers. Because the symbols looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics, I played a random guessing game pushing buttons and wound up driving on I-95 at night for a good 30 minutes without headlights -- all because I couldn't find the right symbol. "Why not just label the headlight-on switch headlights rather than with symbols for Egyptian fertility!" I said to my equally befuddled friend who couldn't find the lights either.

Needless to say, I was reluctant to drive a car hundreds of miles on long mountainous roads. I shared my feelings with my sister Susana who quickly told me, "Tommy, we know how you are when it comes to directions. We want you back alive. Don't do it!" I was now more insecure than ever, and went ahead and suggested to the trip planners that I wanted to cancel the rental car because I was an avid walker and didn't mind taking the bus because I wanted to mingle with everyday commuters. "I once took a Greyhound from Frisco to Philly," I said. "The only bad part was the Nevada desert when the bus filled up with screaming Navajo babies."

"What bus?" the trip planner said. "There are no buses where you are going. Do you want us to cancel the trip?"

"I'm going to have to bite the bullet," I told Susana. "Just pray that no trucks out of Steven Spielberg's Duel sneak up behind me."

The rental car I got was an olive-green compact Nissan. With a minimum of dashboard symbols posing as names, the Nissan and I bonded instantly. I drove her to the Colorado National Monument, to and from downtown Grand Junction, back and forth to the hotel, to wine vineyards and back and finally across a massive interstate to Delta, up beautiful winding mountain roads, across great vistas with rolling hills, mesas and through high desert areas with mountains and the faint clouds of forest fire smoke in the distance.

At one point, while driving from Grand Junction to Montrose on US Hwy 50 and 65, I was the only car on the road for at least 45 minutes. Try doing this in Pennsylvania. Only when I neared Montrose did the first inklings of traffic appear. I also noticed that there were a fair number of hitchhikers, some with knapsacks, lining the roads. Living on the east coast for so long I had pretty much assumed that hitchhiking was dead in every state of the union, so it's good to know that it is alive and well in pioneer country, where apparently there's far less fear of meeting and talking with strangers.

Although I got lost many times, all I had to do was stop the car and "look" lost to attract the attention of a neighbor or a farmer, who would then ask, "You lost? Can I help you in some way?" While traveling to meet my new tour guide in Delta, I got so lost I had to turn onto a small gravel road that led to one of those all-purpose automotive shops with a big spare parts lot in the back. The place resembled one of those deserted western way stations in a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode. The husband-in-charge had the sun-weathered look of an old cowboy, and he smelled of motor oil.

"Hello, I'm from Philadelphia and driving a rental car, and I'm lost as sin," I said.

Coloradans, I've found, like it when you say you're from Philadelphia. They almost always have something to say about that, like "Oh, my daughter lives there," or, "I was in Philadelphia once." In the case of the motor oil guy, he said he was in Philadelphia once when he was in the military, "a long time ago." His eyes lit up like the bright headlights of my rental car. "Didn't spend enough time there, though," he added. He then proceeded to draw me a map of the road system in Delta, complete with recognizable signposts, images of trees, and even a few Stop 'N Go convenience stores. Can you imagine anyone in Philly taking the time to draw a lost traveler a map, complete with tree cluster locations?

The friendliness of the people is what most strikes you most about Colorado. Many times while on the road other drivers waved to me and I'd wave back. It was the same thing walking through the hotels or on the town streets: people said hello, nodded or wished you a good morning.

Most importantly, not once during my six-day visit did I ever hear the honking of a car horn. This came as a shock, since my hometown has a reputation for rude, impatient drivers who reach for the horn and blast it at the slightest provocation.

Ah, the golden west!