Timing often dictates the glory or failure of any trip, and September and October are the no-duh months to get into the mountains of Colorado. The aspens are beginning to roar with color at the same time the tourists are quieting—those bound by school schedules, at least, are sweetly absent.
This is the time of year when the 90% of us who live on the sprawl of the Front Range can re-remember what we love about our state in the first place, and, for me, it’s historically a time when I elbow out obligations and life’s chatter to make time for exploring. Though I’m not much of a hashtag sort of person, the trending #mountainsarecalling and #quietthenoise ones speak to me, because there is indeed value in reminding one another to celebrate and appreciate what we have here.
Like everyone, I have my favorite areas: Walden, South Park, Salida, the Rawahs, but each year, I endeavor to go somewhere new, or pretty new. Recently, it was the San Juan Scenic Skyway, which I’d somehow never visited. But this 232-mile stretch of road is known as one of the most scenic drives in the country, likely because it spans elevations from 6,200 to 11,000 feet, which means it takes you through subalpine forests, tons of aspens, ghost towns, prehistoric ruins, and swaths of some of the most gorgeous land on this planet.
There’s a terrifying segment called the “Million Dollar Highway,” a 25-mile stretch that runs from Silverton to Ouray, and which has the problematic combination of simultaneously having both stunning views and a 300-foot drop without guardrails. (“No looking at the scenery at all!” I yelped at my partner, Michael, who was driving). I’ll admit, I found the road to be freaky, even for a lifelong Coloradoan.
It’s marked by steep cliffs, hairpin curves, three mountain passes, and narrow lanes that have been cut right into the side of the mountain. As they say, this road is “low difficulty, high consequence” — one small swerve could end the adventure of life altogether, and indeed, this is one of the most dangerous roads in the nation, especially during avalanche season.
But I took the heart-attack feeling further, and the spookiest drop, the one that had me (pointlessly) clutching anything around me, was The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. In an open car with blue skies, we chugged up mountains past waterfalls, cliffs, the glacier-blue and free-flowing Animas River.
Steam puffing into blue sky, sunlight streaming in, it was all dreamy-lovely until the stretch where our railcar clutched the canyon walls like a mountain goat. And even mountain goats could lose their balance, no? All I know is that I was not the only one on my railcar who was doing some breathing exercises and leaning toward the mountain, as if somehow that would help the train stay its course. But the train chugged on, delivering us safely to sweet Silverton and an ice-cream shop, the best place to laugh off nerves if ever there was one.
This was a fabulous trip, one of my favorites, but I am not wanting to be a travel agent here. I don’t think it matters where we go, so much as we go. Not only because travel is beautiful and interesting, which it is, but because we are expanded. Say, through time. To learn about ancestral homelands of our Colorado native peoples. To learn about the history of why these towns exist in the first place, which was often about extraction and money, which we should take an honest look at, too.
And sure, there’s the fun touristy stuff — on that trip, I saw John Wayne’s hat, the site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery, the first town in the country to be lit by Tesla’s newly-invented alternating current. But I saw history of more import to me: petroglyphs, ancient dwellings, strata of geologic time, and some seriously good museums.
A favorite is the Ouray County Historical Society Museum, recommended as one of the “10 Best Museums in the West” by Smithsonian Magazine. It was here that I found the weirdest thing of my journey: a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not “Mermaid Fish,” to which my response was sometimes, “Not.” After a lengthy discussion, we guessed it might be a small monkey’s skull mounted to the back end of a perch, and was delightfully gross. Who knows? The world is full of wonders and humans are weird.
Beautiful roads, glorious aspen, steep drops, deep history. But most wondrous of all, I must say, is maybe what we most take for granted: The enormous sprawl of our beautiful public lands. Our country’s wilderness preservation system is the finest in the world, and there are few places that prove it more obviously. As we traveled this section of Colorado, there was only awe and gratitude for such expanses and for the foresight of all those who worked to set it aside.
Indeed, as I stared out the window at aspen, I had a moment of quiet reflection about Colorado’s future inhabitants, and how I hope they are assured a substantial wilderness, too. Curiosity is the best definition of love, as they say. I believe it. Also, protecting and preserving something is the best evidence of love. I believe that, too. Remaining curious to Colorado — and striving to protect her — will always be my path. The first step is getting out there to witness the glory, and there’s a lot of glory to behold right now, if only we go looking.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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