It would have been no laughing matter had the over-sensitive US Department of Homeland Security been alerted to the fact that, in the driver’s seat of this American car with a New York number plate, was a Pakistani man with an Australian passport.
(Published in Daily Times, 13 June 2012)
About two hours’ drive south of Denver, near Colorado Springs, is the Garden of the Gods, so called because of the unusual and steep rock formations, ancient sedimentary beds of red, blue and purple, now tilted vertically. It is a very unusual sight and popular with hikers and rock climbers.
On a previous trip, we had driven through Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Denver. It has majestic mountain views, from wooded forests to mountain tundra , as well as a variety of wildlife.
Encompassing over a thousand square kilometres, the park may be accessed by US Highway 34, which reaches an elevation of 3,713 metres. The park includes over five hundred kilometres of trails, 150 lakes, and 720 km of streams.
There are over 60 peaks higher than 3,700 metres, and over a quarter of the park is above the tree line. The Rockies is a formidable mountain range, 4,830 kilometres in length, from northern British Columbia in Canada to New Mexico in southern US.
Long Peak rises to 4,346 metres, just a few metres shy of the highest peak in the American Rockies, Mt Elbert (4401 m). Mt Whitney (4421 m) in the Sierra Nevada (California) is the highest in the contiguous US, only a few meters higher than Mt Elbert, but significantly shorter than the highest peak in the US and North America. That distinction goes to Mt McKinley in Alaska (6194 m).
Less than a hundred kilometres west of Denver, the Eisenhower Tunnel on the
Interstate-70 burrows through the Rockies at an altitude of 3,401 metres. Among the highest road tunnels in the world, it is 2.72 km-long.
In Denver I was the guest of my old friend Carl, professor of history, now in his late 60s and still working. It is “involuntary” work, he emphasises. There are many things that unite the two of us, among them a sense of humour. When writing this piece, I emailed Carl to check a few details, to which he replied: “Yes, I am aware that your travelogue is approaching Denver, and I anticipate it with some trepidation. Were the accommodations and meals up to your standards? I hope so. Did you detect any religious inclinations in your host? I surely hope not. Oh, and what about the policemen we saw near the Art Museum??? Yikes.”
The last is a reference to the handcuffing of a black man by 4-5 policemen in the small park next to the Denver Art Museum. Why? We didn’t ask and we don’t know. It was better to enjoy the fine collection of American Indian art inside the museum than ask the police why they are doing what they are doing. A new wing of the museum is an architecturally unique building with 24 sides, 7 stories tall, and clad in grey glass tiles.
The Denver Public Library, next to the museum, was the venue for the G-8 meeting in 1997 attended by some famous leaders, namely, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac and Boris Yeltsin. The room has been preserved as it would have been during the meeting with name tags opposite chairs indicating who sat where. I had my photo taken next to Boris Yeltsin’s, while Carl preferred Bill Clinton’s. For all his drunken antics, Yeltsin will be remembered for his historic liberating role in the USSR. Despite his superlative IQ, Clinton will always be associated with the infamous assertion: “I did not have sex with that woman”! Yikes!!
It is worth mentioning that both Carl and Richard (in Phoenix) are life members of their local museums, the Art and Herd Museums, respectively. Both museums are on the standard itineraries of their visiting friends, who also gain free (or highly discounted) entrance by virtue of their membership.
Long separated from his wife, Carl lives alone, keeping fit and happy by hiking in the mountains and visiting his daughter and grand-daughters in Puerto Rico as often as he can. He refused to accept the little souvenir we had brought him, saying he was at a point in his life when he better give away rather than acquire.
An avowed atheist, Carl is enjoying life, yet fully reconciled to the inevitable. Whilst believers his age might live anxiously, wondering whether heavenly bliss or hellfire awaits them in afterlife, Carl is at peace with himself, ready to turn into dust and renew the Earth and the Universe with his inanimate remains.
Carl was one of many witnesses to my only driving blunder of the long trip. In my single-minded focus on locating the entrance to the high-rise building in which Carl lives, I missed the “one way” road sign and made a wrong left turn onto three lanes of oncoming traffic. I have to say that my wife wasn’t much help precisely when her help was needed, although she takes on the airs of a driving instructor most of the time. Nor was Carl very good at giving directions.
In any case, all traffic screeched to a halt to register and announce my blunder. Slightly panicky and greatly embarrassed, I reversed onto the intersecting road watched by perhaps 20 pairs of eyes, but at the time it seemed like hundreds of them. As no damage was done and no fines imposed on me, I could later afford to laugh about it. I said to Carl that, since my car had a NY plate, everyone who had seen what happened would have told family and friends about an “idiot from New York” driving into a major one-way road from the wrong direction.
But it would have been no laughing matter had the over-sensitive US Department of Homeland Security been alerted to the fact that, in the driver’s seat of this American car with a New York number plate, was a Pakistani man with an Australian passport. My wrong left turn might have rung alarm bells and prompted the anti-terrorist squad to swoop down on us. I could have been accused of attempting to use a rental car as a Weapon of Mass Destruction in the heart of Denver!
Nothing of the sort happened. My journey continued and my American experience remained pleasant as ever. Even my driving record in the US remains without blemish!
By Razi Azmi