Spring brings tourists to the beaches in Florida, but in the Rocky Mountains, it's snowmobile time.
Starting in November and running well into late May, and sometimes June, the sound of roaring engines fills small towns throughout the Colorado Rockies as residents and tourists hit the trails.
Five years ago, I had my first taste of a real Colorado winter; temperatures at 8,500 feet seldom got up to zero. I was visiting friends in Grand Lake, a town of about 500 most of the year. It is just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
This was my first winter visit. Each day, I heard the steady sounds of snowmobiles outside my condo, working the hillsides in the distance but also rumbling along the street.
Grand Lake is thought to be the only Colorado town that allows snowmobiles on its streets. People go grocery shopping — or visit shops or the corner bar — aboard their machines. So it was inevitable that I would slog through the calf-high snow to the main road and then to a snowmobile rental store.
I was as prepared as most any Floridian could be: I had good snow boots and an American Express card.
The rental shop had one- and two-seaters. I was soloing, at age 62 my first time atop a snowmobile. The shop provided a helmet, a one-piece thermal suit and heavy gloves.
After five minutes of instruction on how to start the engine and control the throttle, I was ready to go. Around Grand Lake are more than 100 miles of mapped and groomed, or smoothed, trails. Another 187 miles of mapped trails are un-groomed.
While most towns require renters to wait for a group to gather and then be led off with a qualified guide, Grand Lake does not.
Instead, I was given a map, the gas tank was filled, and I had two hours to go out on my own. (Actually, I had a friend on a rented snowmobile trailing me.)
I've never ridden a motorcycle, so I can only guess that the snowmobile is something like that — all that noise and vibration, but slower. I stalled out twice in the first 100 yards along the packed path from the rental store to the trails. I was too throttle-timid.
But these machines are made for novices like me, and soon all I had to do was hold on as the hard-packed snow path was full of potholes, or whatever snow craters are called.
Then it was literally over the river and through the woods — and onto the small roads and lanes that had been groomed. The map was useless to me since I couldn't wear my reading glasses under my helmet, but there were trail markers at every fork in the road.
My friend and I wandered the roads, paying scant attention to where we were. The paths and signs would always lead us back to town, we figured.
For miles, we were alone. Other times we would meet fellow snowmobilers, politely waving and pulling to the side on the narrow lanes as we passed. The motors were too loud for conversation.
I was in my own roaring world, the stunning hillsides and trees blanketed in white. I was toasty in my thermal one-piece and awed by seeing the world in winter.
We would pause occasionally for the vistas laid out in front of us. With the engines off, the silence was rich as ice cream. Nature was asleep, and other snowmobilers were too far away to be heard or seen.
Once, while paying too much attention to the scenery, I ran my machine into a snowbank, nose first. Getting out proved tricky: There is no reverse on these machines and they weigh several hundred pounds.
At first, I thought my friend and I would have to wait for other snowmobilers to putter along. But I finally wrestled my machine free, sweating in my thermal suit despite the below-zero temperatures, and panting in the thin altitude.
For about 90 minutes, we roamed and roared through the countryside, pausing for the silence sometimes, enjoying the power beneath our bodies. We passed a steep hill where more adventurous snowmobilers were racing to the top, some stalling because of the angle.
With 30 minutes left on our rental time, we turned toward town. Someone had suggested we try the flat, packed roads leading into the national park. The park is closed in the winter, but the first mile or so is plowed and a popular, if illegal, track for full-throttle runs.
And so I opened it up, screaming in my helmet as I roared a half mile or more into the park, then roared back.
I returned to the rental shop, exhilarated. The freedom to explore on my own in my first snowmobile ride was a rare and memorable experience. I'm eager to go back.
Fred. W. Wright Jr. is a St. Petersburg freelance writer.