Chapter 3 – America’s Rooftop – US-550, Colorado SR-189, the Million-dollar Highway
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s June. We’re in Durango, in southwestern Colorado, at 6,500 feet. To get here we motored over Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, crossed the Columbia River at Umatilla, Oregon, cut across the northeastern corner of that state, drove to Boise and then across southeastern Idaho, entered Utah, passed north and east of the Great Salt Lake, then climbed the Wasatch Mountains and headed across the midriff of Utah to Moab (unofficial motto: “Mining, Mormons, Mountain Bikes”). In Moab we spent a few days mountain biking and hiking in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, then a couple of days exploring Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings in Southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. All the way, we’ve been gaining altitude. Now we’re poised to transit north through Western Colorado, skirting the Continental Divide, America’s rooftop.
This will be our third Airstream Bambi entanglement with the Continental Divide. Two years ago we followed its east slope from Canada down into Montana and Idaho. Last fall we crossed back and forth over the Divide while visiting Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. The term “continental divide” is one of the least capricious in the geological lexicon since it’s determined by answering a simple question: to which ocean do the local streams and rivers flow? Following the Divide, however, can seem capricious. It zigzags back and forth, usually tracking the mountain ranges that divide the continent, but not always. Sometimes it goes east-west rather than north-south. Sometimes it loops back on itself. Sometimes rivers and streams flow to no ocean at all, as in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah and in portions of Wyoming south and east of the Wind River Mountains. On this trip, in Colorado, we’ll be mostly on the Divide’s western slope.
For sons and daughters of the West Coast like Susan and me, Colorado marks the eastern boundary of the West, although only the western third of the state (in our opinion) is truly “the West.” The eastern two thirds runs pretty much flat, no great mountain ranges, not exactly Kansas, but not Utah or Nevada or California either, even though Wallace Stegner, in his book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, maintains the West begins at the twenty-inch annual rainfall line, which more or less corresponds to the hundredth meridian, which would include all of Colorado. But how can you be called “West” with no mountains? Call the eastern two thirds “high plains” if you want. But not “West.”
Colorado is not only closer geographically to the Midwest and South but closer culturally. In Colorado, you begin to hear the slower-paced accents of Texas and Oklahoma; you begin to see license plates from farther afield than we’re used to: Kansas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin; Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa; Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. In the Alpenrose RV Park, where we’re staying now, these relaxed accents prevail. Many here – especially the Texans and Oklahomans – seem arrived for a summer-long stay, escaping, we would guess, the Texas and Oklahoma heat.
Durango is pleasant and we like it despite its touristy identity. It was founded as a railway town in 1881 to support the San Juan Mountain gold and silver mines. The mines played out. The tourists haven’t: winter skiing; summer off-roading, fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, climbing, and rafting. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a big deal tourist-wise. Its steam engines haul tons of tourists forty-two miles and three-thousand feet up to the old mining town of Silverton.
Susan and I forgo the Durango and Silverton opting instead for the paved bike path that follows the Animas River from one end of town to the other – we bike its full length, fourteen miles round trip. When we stop for a water break we watch rafters drift through town.
The RV park is nearly full. We’re only beginning to understand the RV community’s sociological and cultural fault lines. Some are demographic – Baby-boomer retirees versus Greatest-generation retirees versus Gen-X/Millennial’s with their families. Some are economic – big-rig versus small-rig; neo-trailer-park versus nearly homeless. Some are life-style choices: vacation-travelers (who move every few days) versus “Snowbirders” (who migrate each season to more hospitable climes), “Fulltimers” (who have abandoned real estate for a mobile residence), “Workampers” (who follow jobs while living in RVs), all of whom more or less stay put. For some, RVs are a means to a truer passion – hunters, fly fishermen, ATVers, snowmobilers, surfers, football-game tailgaters, swap-meet attendees, square-dancers, Civil War reenactors, collectors (of practically anything), festival goers (Deadheads, Burning-Man, Christian-music, Seventh Day Adventists, and many, many others). There are “RV restorers” who are passionate about a specific brand (one of the Airstream subcultures). There are RVers who join clubs (like the Airstream Wally Byam International Caravan Club). There are individualist RVers who forgo social connections and seek solely the solitude of the road.
Here, in Alpenrose RV Park, we seem to have a cross section.
The tent-trailer guy next to us – a baby-boomer retiree – hails from Missouri. He tells me he’s on his way to the Oregon to fish for salmon. “Moved the boat earlier,” he says. His wife plans to fly to Oregon because “… she doesn’t like to drive.”
The guy on the other side of us is solo, gray-haired, gaunt, and silent. He has a thirty-foot trailer, a black pickup truck, and a morose-looking German shepherd. He spends his time “clicking in” the sights of various rifles using a sort of sight-calibration apparatus he has set up in the bed of his truck. Susan and I find him unnerving.
A seventy-something woman stops by and introduces herself as the president of the Washington State Chapter of the Wally Byam International Caravan Club. She travels alone, she says, and has been traveling alone with an Airstream for a dozen years. Her present model is an older, Class B Airstream meaning not a trailer but a truck-based model. She’s on her way to Farmington, New Mexico for the Western Regional Caravan Club Rendezvous. “Are you heading there too?” When we demur, she’s politely disappointed.
Two sixtyish women with Texas accents knock on our screen door one morning before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. They want us to know that our trailer is “cute.” This in itself is a little unusual. Serious RVers don’t regard the Bambi as a real RV. Or maybe “cute” means “not real.”
A number of the older retirement-age guests seem to know each other. Regulars, we guess, something we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in scenic and recreational destinations like Durango. Retirees definitely dominate Alpenrose, although maybe that’s because it’s early June and most families have kids in school.
A fly fisherman stops by and explains that he’s thinking about heading elsewhere because the snowy and rainy Colorado spring and a heavier-than-usual runoff have made the streams turbid and the fishing poor.
A male Boomer retiree surveys the Bambi and our fully loaded Acura MDX with its inflatable kayaks and paddle boards, bike racks, and bikes topside and asks somewhat skeptically, “That car tow well enough?”
“Well enough,” we assure him.
The highway that runs in front of the Alpenrose RV Park, US-550, is also known as the San Juan Scenic Skyway. From Durango north to Silverton it follows the Animas River and loosely parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The next twenty-five miles, from Silverton to Ouray, are called the “The Million Dollar Highway.” There’s some disagreement about the name’s origin. Some say it was the cost to build the highway in the 1920s; others that it’s because the highway’s fill dirt contains a million dollars of gold ore. What’s not in dispute is that this is one hell of a mountain highway: three passes, Red Mountain, Molas, and Coal Bank, each over ten thousand feet (Red Mountain is over eleven thousand); hairpin curves, narrow lanes, no guardrails; steep cliffs (“the vertiginous outside edge of the highway,” a website warns), three thirteen-thousand-footer mountains – Sultan, Kendall, and Storm Peak – looming over it all. The highway is open year-round. Twenty-five years ago Susan, our son John, John’s nanny Vilma, and I drove the highway southbound during a winter ski trip. This time Susan and I will be heading northbound: less snow but we’ll be towing Bambi.
I don’t find driving mountain passes particularly intimidating, I suppose because my father drove over so many in my boyhood what fear I had scared out of me. Trailer towing, however, warrants a few points of extra consideration. First is the power of your vehicle. You need enough power to keep climbing at a respectable speed or you’ll end up like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the 1953 movie, The Long, Long Trailer, (more on this classic movie later) with a line of horn-tooting, angry drivers queued up behind you. The second issue is gravity. When descending, gravity is trying to hurl you down mountain at a speed faster than it’s safe to go. There are two ways to slow down: one is using your brakes; the other is using your tow-vehicle engine torque as a brake. Most trailers have electric brakes that operate in conjunction with the tow vehicle’s brakes, either automatically (you can adjust when they kick in), or manually using a lever on the brake controller, which, in our car, is mounted under the steering wheel. I never feel comfortable groping for the brake lever, especially when I’m steering around hairpin turns. My preferred method is engine torque with modest application of the brakes. You put the transmission in a lower gear so the engine acts as a brake, essentially pushing back on the gravitational force that’s pulling you down. But there’s a caveat: you need an engine powerful enough to generate the torque to offset the weight of your tow vehicle, passengers, trailer, and all the bikes, kayaks, barbeques and whatever else you’ve dragged along. You also need an automatic transmission that will remain in a lower gear – some won’t. The other major concern on mountain passes is other RVs, especially big rigs from flat states like Kansas, Florida, and Illinois, who tend to hog the middle of the road, their drivers tensed in white-knuckle horror. Still, given all this, I’m confident in the MDX and the Bambi. We’ve summited several nine-thousand-foot passes before. Red Mountain will be our first eleven-thousand-footer.
We’ve picked a good day for the Skyway – sun out, not too hot, traffic light. Colorado’s late snowfall and wet spring may have hurt fly fishing but it’s heightened the scenery. The mountain summits are still snow covered. Spring cottonwoods and ranchland grasses green the Animas River Valley. The red sandstone and dark pines of the valley-side Hermosa Cliffs complement the valley greens. We climb gradually at first, but eventually the road begins to wind upward. We summit Cole Bank Pass – a ten-thousand-footer – then Molas Pass – another ten-thousand-footer. From here we can see Molas Lake, the Animas River Gorge, and Snowdon Peak. We haven’t reached the really narrow-lane segment – that comes later, after Silverton. We see tailings from old gold mines in several places. Mines scar the West, but perhaps more so in the Rocky Mountain West, and, it seems to me, most of all in Colorado. Maybe because the roads we drive were originally mining roads. Maybe because Colorado was one of the first Rocky Mountain states to be mined. Maybe because the geology of the Coloradan mountains makes the most valuable minerals accessible.
Most people oversimplify mining – you’re either for it or against it. It’s not that simple. Colorado’s mines (and mines elsewhere in the West) have fueled American industry, raised our standard of living as well as that of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Colorado mines, with their silver and gold, financed the defeat of slavery in the American Civil War, provided minerals necessary for victories over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, and over the Soviet communism in the Cold War. Mines continue to contribute to American economic strength – much of what we take for granted in our twenty-first-century lives depend on minerals from mines. At the same time, mines, especially abandoned mines, can be environmental time bombs. Susan and I don’t know this now but in two months one of those time bombs, one very close to where we are now, will explode.
Here’s what will happen:
On August 5th, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency personnel and EPA subcontractors using a backhoe will inadvertently displace a plug holding water trapped underground in the Gold King Mine (abandoned in 1923). Three-million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including cadmium, lead, arsenic, beryllium, zinc, iron, and copper, will dump into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. The Animas will turn yellow as dissolved iron from the spill oxidizes, photos of which will be broadcast around the world. The contaminated water will flow into the watersheds of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation. It will be revealed that this disaster occurred because 1) the EPA personnel attempting to install a drain in the mine tailing pond in order to prevent exactly this kind of event did not know the mine was already flooded, 2) that the EPA was forced to cobble together this solution because a more permanent and more expensive solution – designating the region and its abandoned mines as a Superfund site – had been blocked by local authorities who feared their tourism-based economy would be tainted by such a designation, 3) that the fish in the Animas River had already been long gone because of acid leakage from the region’s abandoned mines, and 4) that some EPA personnel suspected that the Gold King Mine might be flooded since it had shared drainage with the two other mines, the Sunnyside (closed in 1991) and the Mogul (sealed in 2003), but did not inform all of the EPA players. Ironically, the attempts to “seal” the other mines inadvertently contributed to the Gold King flooding.
Is anything simple here?
Not much. Not the mines’ interconnectedness. Not the expensive long-term solution. Not the conflicting governmental jurisdictions. Not the need to cover your ass if you’re an EPA employee or contractor. Not the jobs that might be lost in the tourist industry.
And how clean are your hands?
If you turn on your electric lights, use a cell phone, wear a gold wedding ring, watch TV, drive a car, undergo a cat scan or a root canal, get an X-ray, your hands are not clean. Heavy metals are essential to all these technologies. And even if the metals didn’t come from Colorado, they came from somewhere.
Susan and I, however, on this bright, cool, June morning in 2015, know nothing about the Gold King Mine disaster because it hasn’t happened yet.
Silverton, at 9,300 feet elevation, doesn’t feel like June. There’s a chill breeze even though the lower mountain slopes are snow free, grass greens the town lawns, the aspens bud spring-green with new leaves, and the small wooden houses display flowers on their windowsills. Still, something raw and dusty characterizes the place. The main street, Greene Street is paved, but the back streets like Reese Street, where we find room to park the car and Bambi, aren’t. The town hops with tourists. Most from the Durango train. But a surprising number haven’t arrived by train. Off-road vehicles, jeeps with electric winches mounted on their front bumpers, jerry cans on their tails, and shovels strapped to their sides jam Greene Street’s parking spaces. “Jeeping” is big here. The mountains are laced with old mining roads on what is called the “Alpine Loop,” sixty-five miles of unpaved tracks between Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City, which include seven ghost towns, two eleven-thousand-foot passes, and numerous primitive campsites. At lunch, we have to wait for a table. The train tourists arrived before us but they’ll eat fast; they have only two hours in town before the train whistle summons them back. After lunch, we explore. Tourist-treasure shops. A few more restaurants and bars. We find the US Post Office. We don’t find the “Our Lady of the Mines” shrine.
Beyond Silverton, we ascend Red Mountain Pass. We’re feeling the altitude, not for lack of oxygen but for how it looks: the trees have thinned out and the sky has turned a deep, high-altitude blue, almost as if we could reach out and touch an infinity of blue. The MDX and Bambi are doing fine despite the eleven-thousand feet. We descend in hairpin switchbacks. The “narrow lanes” and “vertiginous outside edge of the highway” that we’d been warned about seem less threatening than expected, perhaps because it’s a weekday and traffic is light. The town of Ouray begins at the last hairpin turn. Ouray lies at the base of a narrow, cup-shaped valley with high mountains on three sides. A sign proclaims it to be “The Switzerland of America” but it owes no apologies to Switzerland. With its red-rock mountains and its late nineteenth-century brick buildings Ouray looks more like the perfect western-movie-set town, which it is. Several movies have been filmed here, the most famous being True Grit, with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed, pot-bellied lawman whom Kim Darby’s character, Mattie Ross hires to avenge the death of her father. Wayne won an academy award for his role. We see no movie stars today. We do see a lot of motorcycles and an alarming number of kitschy western-apparel-and-tourist-trinket stores. We have a premonition of what the place might look like in July, brimful of Illinois and Missouri license plates. Ouray had been a possible campground destination for tonight but it’s early afternoon and we’re a little put off by the tourists. We decide to continue on.
Our new destination is Ridgeway State Park. We know nothing about Ridgeway except its location. We plan a day trip south to Telluride on Colorado-62 (and 145) and the park is near the highway junction, but after two Bambi seasons, we’ve learned that state parks (at least in the West) usually offer the best RV accommodations – roomy sites, clean restrooms, often power and water, dump stations (more on this topic later), and scenic views (a state park usually is there because there’s something there to see). But a paradox exists. After years (pre-retirement) waiting for weekends so that we could camp in public campgrounds, weekends have become the worst time to camp in public campgrounds. A plague of “weekenders” descends on the popular parks. Almost all the park systems have implemented reservation systems to manage the demand. You can play this system, and many retirees do, if you know the specific day when park reservations open. But for Susan and me, months-in-advance reservations seem counter to the spirit of serendipitous travel. Today, however, is a weekday, before the peak vacation season. We don’t anticipate a problem. What we don’t know is that the Telluride Blue Grass Festival begins the day after tomorrow.
On our arrival park signs are already posted that the park will be full for the forthcoming weekend. But what does weekend mean? Is Friday the weekend? We want to stay through Friday.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” the female ranger at the park gate assures us. “Just find a site not reserved for Friday.”
And we do. A glorious site.
Susan and I (and maybe most campers) have this idiosyncrasy: we’ll explore every campground loop to find the “best site,” even though we won’t be in any site more than a couple of days. “Best” is based on a set of attributes: a level parking place for Bambi; ease getting in and out, especially if backing; a degree of privacy from adjacent sites; not too close (but not too far) from the restrooms; shade if a hot climate; good neighbors (avoid high-school groups, crying babies, campers brandishing weapons); no nearby RVs that look as if they’ll run their gasoline generators late into the night; no neighbor campers who are already intoxicated – it isn’t going to get better; a wind break if windy; creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans nearby if any are present; a view – this last being an intangible that may include mountains, bodies of water, picturesque trees or cacti, interesting geological formations, fields of wildflowers.
Our Ridgeway site scores on all counts: level (and paved); a pull-through (meaning no backing); no neighbors; restrooms two sites distant; electricity, water within hose reach; a shade shelter and modest shade tree; an open grassy slope within view of a reservoir lake and two snowcapped mountain ranges, one east and one south.
You can’t do much better than this.
After we settle in (Bambi unhitched, stabilizing jacks down, electrical power connected, cocktails prepared and served), I haul out my Roadside Geology of Colorado.
This particular volume is coauthored by two women – Felice Williams and Halka Chronic; a separate book exists for each Western state. I’ve brought the books for the states we plan to visit. Chapters are arranged by highway, so it’s easy to track where we’ve been. Today we drove US-550 from Durango through the San Juan Mountains to here. And today, from the book, I find a surprise. What I expected today was layered sedimentary rock, the signature rock of the Southwest, what you see in Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Monument Valley, albeit sculpted by Pleistocene glaciers here in the high-elevation San Juan Mountains. Indeed, we did see sedimentary formations around Ouray and in the Animas River Valley. What I didn’t expect were volcanos. According to Chronic and Williams, the geology from Silverton to Ridgeway is largely volcanic due to two large, explosive calderas that erupted twenty to thirty million years ago. This was followed by fault-driven basalt flows that covered wide areas of western Colorado. For me, child of the Pacific Northwest, I expect volcanos to look like Mt. Rainier or Mt. St. Helens – cone-shaped stratovolcanoes – or at least like the big slab-sided shield volcanos Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, or even the black columnar cliffs of Columbia Basin flood basalt flows. The difference here is age. The Cascade volcanos and the Hawaiian volcanos are young geologically speaking. The San Juans are thirty million years older. Why this volcanism occurred in the first place is a little uncertain. Normally volcanos erupt two-to-four-hundred miles from a tectonic plate boundary – the Cascade volcanos for example – or over a “hot spot” magma plume like Yellowstone or Hawaii. But the San Juan volcanos erupted hundreds of miles farther east from where the Pacific Plate was diving under North America. California had already arrived; the plate boundary was there. The most accepted theory is that the angle of subduction by the Pacific Plate under North America was for some reason shallower causing the volcanos to erupt farther east. But why shallower? Williams and Chronic only speculate: “Was the subducting plate stuck beneath the Rockies?” they ask. “Or was it pushing against the extremely stable area that underlies the Great Plains?” This underlies the big questions. Why the Rocky Mountains where they are? Why do they cover so large an area? Why are they so high? Why are they still rising? Most of these are fundamentally unanswered. I love such geological puzzles, the unfolding of the land over eons, the saga of time. Some people simply enjoy looking at a mountain. Some have to climb it. I want to know why it’s there. One more reason l love Bambi travel.
If serendipitous travel is one of our Bambi travel objectives, over the next few days we live serendipitously. We drive south to Telluride intending to mountain bike around its environs. As we approach, however, reader-board signs warn of heavy traffic and parking restrictions. It turns out the bluegrass festival has already begun. Cars are being stopped at a roadblock and being directed to a large parking lot outside of town. A ski-instructor-trim, middle-age man wearing a Telluride Bluegrass Festival T-shirt and a hat that says “Parking” waves us to a stop. “Pass?” he asks.
“What pass?” we answer.
“Your hotel’s festival parking pass.”
“No hotel,” I reply. “Here to bike and lunch. Didn’t know the festival had begun. Until yesterday didn’t even know there was a festival.” I’m already calculating if it’s worth the hassle of remote parking and shuttle buses.
“How long do you need?”
He hands me a slip of paper. “Display this in your car window. Good for four hours. Park anywhere you can. Enjoy!” He waves us through.
Were there a contest for America’s most picturesque ski town, Telluride would surely contend. With its solid nineteenth-century stone-and-wood-framed buildings and its cottage-style houses the town would be handsome anywhere but Telluride sits in a steep-sided amphitheater valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, and wildflower meadows. We opt for an outdoor, street-side lunch at the New Sheridan Hotel. Flags bedeck the main-street buildings. Festival-goers wander shop to shop – jewelers, art galleries, upscale western and outdoor clothing. Across from us, in a small park, bluegrass bands already perform. We linger over a bottle of wine, mountain biking forgotten, charmed.
The next day, we head north toward Montrose on US-550. We have only a loose plan. There’s a National Park nearby that we’ve never visited – Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And east of that, a National Recreation Area called Curacanti, sited on the shore of two reservoir lakes. Beyond the lakes is the town of Gunnison, gateway to Crested Butte, a ski resort town about which we’ve long been curious. Crested Butte will be our “Turn-Around Destination” meaning the place from which we’ll begin heading home. We have three or four days before we plan to head back home.
We arrive at the Black Canyon’s South Rim Campground around noon, a noon arrival a good idea if it’s Saturday and you don’t have a reservation. The campground lies in a dry-oak forest a half mile or so from the canyon rim. One loop has electricity – not the norm for a National Park; all those sites are taken. But on the non-electrics loops, we find a pleasant site, shaded, with dry oaks that shield us from our neighbors. Susan organizes a late lunch, then we set out to explore the canyon.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison derives its name because it’s so deep – 1,700 to 2,500 feet deep – and so narrow – 1,300 feet, rim to rim at its narrowest – that most of the day it’s completely shadowed. I wouldn’t call the canyon typical of Colorado geography – it lacks the sedimentary layers of the southwestern half of the state and the big, glacier-shaped mountains of the northwest but the forces that created it are the forces that created all western Colorado. The canyon rock is very old – Precambrian, some billion-and-a-half-and-more years old – and very hard because it lay for so long below the surface, seven to ten miles below the surface, subjected to intense heat and pressure that folded it, bent it, and refolded it thereby crystalizing and compounding the rock’s mineral structure. It’s the rock, Williams and Chronic tell us, that underlies most of Colorado, its “basement” rock. I find it difficult to wrap my mind around 1.8 billion years and what can happen in 1.8 billion years. Were we to travel back to that time the continents wouldn’t resemble today’s continents, wouldn’t be on the same place on the planet, and life, such as it was, would be simple-celled and marine. As the eons unfolded, we’d watch continents drift, break apart, crash into each other, reform, seas flood in, seas ebb away, deserts form, seas return, as each step left in its wake what will become rock in a future age – limestone, sandstone, shale. Picture these as layers in a cake. Some will be so completely eroded or washed away, they’ll leave no trace. Seventy-two million years ago, six-million years or so before the Cretaceous Extinction Event that kills the dinosaurs, Colorado really begins to rise in what is called the Laramide Orogeny – “orogeny” being the process of mountain formation – kicking off a tempestuous era, the Cenozoic, which will be sixty-six million years long and include volcanos, fault rifting, further uplifting, and glaciation ultimately creating the Rocky Mountains we know today. At some point the Gunnison River begins to flow. Slow and meandering at first. Gaining speed and power as the land uplifts. It erodes layers away. Volcanic activity in the Elk River Mountains diverts the river south, then southern volcanism from the San Juan Mountains turns the river north. Finally, the river erodes through the Cenozoic layers and reaches the hard, ancient Precambrian rock. About this time, five-million years ago, the entire region uplifts another five-thousand feet to its present altitude. The river, unable to leave its valley, as Williams and Chronic put it, “… scoured its way downward, pounding, hammering, and deepening a canyon scarcely wider than itself (P. 254).”
Susan and I stand at an overlook and peer down into the canyon. In the flat, bright sunlight of midday, with the canyon so shadowed, it’s hard to have a sense of its depth. We decide to visit again in the morning when the sun is just rising.
And we do.
Two days later, we’re in Crested Butte. As with most other Colorado ski towns, Crested Butte began as a mining town, first for gold and silver, later for coal. There’s only one RV park and it’s located in a light-industrial area south of town. Simple. Clean. Open. No trees. Flowers between sites. A mix of big-rig buses and modest tent trailers. The Slate River flows behind the park. Signs have been posted that short-term fishing licenses are available in the RV park office. The mountains around us look more like what I expect the Rockies to look. Broad-shouldered. Softer summits. Wide valleys. The butte for which the town and ski resort are named is a few miles east. After we settle in, we drive to the ski-mountain base. European-style, high-rise condos crowd the ski lifts, a little out of place, it seems to us, in such a wide open, wild-west setting. The old mining town, however charms. Wood-frame buildings. Aspens. Flowers everywhere. A creek tumbling beside outdoor cafes. The town is smaller than Telluride and Durango and more laid back. Outside the old mining town, houses, bike paths, and playfields have a distinctly suburban aura. Pleasant and unpretentious.
Normally in Bambi travel, Susan and I bring road bikes. But this time, because of our visit to Moab, we’ve brought mountain bikes. Ours are low-end “hard tails” without fancy suspensions, not what any hard-core, hard-body, self-respecting mountain biker would ride. But we’re amateurs and happy to remain amateurs. Mountain biking is more like skiing than road biking. Balance, physical strength, and courage rule the day. Crested Butte claims to have invented the sport. A network of bike trails ring the valley, a few paved, most unpaved and single track, (“single track” meaning a hiking trail rather than a road, so riders must ride single file). A rating system ranks each trail by difficulty, although even the brochure we picked up at the Crested Butte Visitor Center cautions that the rating system at Crested Butte will be more challenging than elsewhere “because,” the brochure adds, “it’s Crested Butte.” Tomorrow is my sixty-eighth birthday. In the spirit of serendipity, we decide to celebrate by biking a Crested Butte trail.
Birthday day dawns cool and clear. We park adjacent to a playfield, not out of place in any prosperous suburb, except, of course, for the mass of Crested Butte rising in front of us. The trail ascends to the ski resort base, a well-graded, paved climb of a thousand feet. Blue lupine, golden balsamroot, and red paintbrush color the meadows. We make good progress on the paved path until we reach a steep, spur road that leads to the single-track trailhead. We’ve chosen an “easy” trail, a reassuring green on the mountain trail map. The beginning is so steep we walk our bikes for the first hundred yards. Then, tentatively, we mount up, wobble for a hundred yards more, find a degree of balance, and set off. We follow a ridge above green and flowered meadows. We ride through copses of aspens. If there’s a mountain biking heaven, this must be it. After a few miles, we descend a series of switchbacks, skidding perilously around each. We get lost at the bottom of the trail. Find it again along the Slate River. Follow the river until the trail widens into double track. We celebrate with lunch in a stream-side café. No broken bones. Some blood. Happy serendipitous birthday!