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Journeys : Apr May 2012
It’s summer in Colorado. We’re here to drive the San Juan Skyway – a 375 kilometre loop of road curling through the state’s south-west. Starting from the stately Victorian town of Durango, the road will rise three times to above 3000 metres as it winds through alpine wilder ness, historical mining towns and Wild West film locations. Today, we’ve started the journey without the car and caught a lazy ride on the historic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railroad. Prairie dogs pop up in meadows and we chug over bridges, stopping to pick up white-water rafters. The railway, built in 1882 to haul gold and silver ore, takes over three hours to climb from Durango to the smaller, more raffish town of Silverton, where notorious Blair Street once housed forty saloons and brothels. Today Silverton seems quiet and respectable, attracting skiers and tourists. We find a sandwich with pickles, then settle into a hotel bar to hear honky-tonk piano. Beyond Silverton, we drive the Skyway north through a precipitous stretch known as the Million Dollar Highway. The crags and gorges are gouged deeply by glaciation. Old mines cling to unbelievably-sheer cliff faces. Outside the valley town of Ouray, we stop at Box Canyon Falls, where the cold waters of Canyon Creek suddenly plunge with a roar through a vertical passage of rock. Above the falls, chipmunks play near a feature know n as the Great Unconfor mity, where rock strata meet across a billion-year gap in the geological record. Historical Ouray is pretty, well-preserved and blessed with hot springs. We’re attracted by a sign for Wiesbaden Spa and Lodge. The slightly wacky reception area is awash with ferns and palms. As we check in, an elderly man wanders through, clad only in a towel. “Of course, accommodation includes free use of the vapour cave,” says the proprietress. The cave, located in the basement, is fabulous. A heavy wooden door opens into a chamber of natural rock, where water sluices over a massive dome of fresh limestone. We paddle through and open a second door to a ver y hot, dimly-lit caver n housing a steaming spr ing. When our heads start to spin we stagger outside, fall into the outdoor pool and gaze up at the mighty San Juan Mountains. Beyond Ouray lies ranchland and Ridgway, location for the movie Tr ue Gr it. We meet Walt, an old-timer with a limp, who once enter tained tour ists with a Wild West show. Walt explains that he made good money building log cabins. Now the building and tourism trades have dried up and he can barely feed his horses. Still, Walt doesn’t complain – he has a building to sleep in, not a car. His limp comes from being shot in the hip during a show. “ You used live ammunition?” I gasp. “ Weren’t supposed to,” he gr ins. “Feller got mad ’cos we went with the same woman.” Oh, the Wild West! We drive on to brooding Black Canyon, named for its deeply shadowed walls. The dozens of viewpoints are smothered in wildflowers. Looping back south through Lizard Head Pass, the scenery is magnificent. White and purple peaks and forested foothills rise behind meadows studded with f lowering bulbs. As night falls, deer and elk loom on the road verges. In the small town of Rico, a wedding party has booked out the entire hotel, but the waiter kindly phones a friend who rents log cabins to hunters. Soon we’re housed near the Dolores River, happily shovelling wood into a pot-bellied stove to dry our boots. Beyond Dolores, the Skyway travels on to Mesa Verde National Park, an outstanding Pueblo Indian site with a large cliff palace. But we’re due in Telluride for the annual bluegrass festival, so we backtrack and join the jubilant queue that snakes r ight around town. Listening to banjo and fiddle in an open park, surrounded by snowy alps, is sheer magic. Out of hunger and curiosity I buy a ‘funnel cake’. It’s terrible – a sort of mega-doughnut drowned in icing sugar. I walk it off with an uphill hike to Telluride’s dramatic Bridal Veil Falls. Our adventure ends w ith a day-long dr ive to Denver Airport, through thin air and dazzlingly white peaks. When we get home, our hearts are still in Colorado. Unfortunately, so are our bags. Clockwise from opposite p age : Du rango-Sliverton Railroad; even ing primrose ; Ouray; the San J uan Skyway Photos this page: Gay McKinn on Destinations April / May 2012 17
Feb March 2012
Jun Jul 2012