Every January SGI used to send its field technical staff somewhere to get
educated on new products and technology. One year it was to Jackson
Hole, a small town in the Grand Tetons. This made the skiers in the
group very happy. The rest of us bundled up and enjoyed the
combination of alcohol and high altitude. And yes, we did go to the
training sessions, if only to see the latest demos. That's one of the
advantages of working for a cool company: product demos you
actually want to see.
I first saw Durango, Colorado at the end of a long day of driving that began in Flagstaff, Arizona and includes some time in southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. Southwestern Colorado makes quite a contrast from all those straight, flat roads through the desert. Now I'd entered the San Juan mountains, with trees and pastures and even a few lakes. I knew I was headed for some challenging driving tomorrow. But for now I could let the cruise control do the work and enjoy the scenery.
Durango is a perfect little tourist town. Downtown is small enough
to cover on foot but full of shops, restaurants and other amusements.
And all housed in enough perfectly preserved and restored Victorian
architecture to satisfy the photographer in me. My only big regret
is that I was pressed for time and couldn't spend a day riding the
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad up to Silverton and
back. I could only look longingly at the happy people returning
to town after their grand day out.
Durango must have been a prosperous place way back when, not that
it has anything to complain about now. Two of the handsomest
buildings in town are the General Palmer and Stater Hotels. The
Stater is clearly the full service establishment, with two
handsome bars, a restaurant and a theater for the Diamond Circle
Melodrama. I spent a pleasant evening at the Melodrama,
absorbing what I was assured is a traditional 19th century theatrical
experience where you cheer the stolid hero, boo the oily villain and
groan at heights of overacting and depths of low humor. Was it
really so wonderful? Or was the lack of oxygen at that altitude
just getting to me?
Durango is situated on the Animas River, a gentle waterway as it
passes through town. I'm guessing it gets a little more exciting
downstream, at least from the way the rafters at left were equipped.
The scene struck me as rather incongruous, with that raft slowly
moving past a fisherman standing ankle deep in the water. (Click
on the picture and you'll see what I mean.) The woman at right
and her friend had the right idea: lie back in an inner tube and
let the river do the work. Or you could be like me: stand onshore
and watch the world inch its way by.
Bright and early the next morning, I was back on US 550 North and on my way to Silverton. It's only a 45 mile drive, although the changes in altitude, the constant switchbacks and the lack of anything resembling a guard rail make the drive seem a bit longer. At one point the road ascends to just shy of eleven thousand feet above sea level, before making a not very gradual descent to Silverton's nine thousand feet.
Silverton looks like something you'd see on the Universal Studios
tour, a western town as envisaged by Spielberg, or maybe
Zemeckis. It's a
town that got its name from its good fortune, allegedly digging
out silver by the ton. That wealth gave the town some magnificent
buildings, marred on occasion by the same combination of corruption and
incompetence we read about
big projects today. According to a comprehensive city guide I
picked up at breakfast, those handsome columns above the town hall
at left came crashing down one day while the building was still
under construction. The contractor lost his job in the scandal.
One can only be grateful he wasn't standing under the colonade when
it decided to let go. Now hat would have been a tragedy.
One amusing aspects of small mining towns is the way the good and
bad parts of town can be within a stone's throw of each other.
Literally, in the case of Silverton, although I don't know in which
direction they were being thrown. One block off the main drag is
the notorious (again, according to that city guide) Blair
Street, home to many of the town's houses of ill repute. Even
today the town changes character as you walk from paved Greene
Street to gravel surfaced Blair. The buildings look more rustic
and more real. Like the Shady Lady at right, built as a brothel
in the late 1890s and now serving as a saloon. The front is
original; the rear is an old railroad building that was moved
here later as business improved. Or maybe bars just need more
storage space than cathouses.
US 550 starts to get a lot more interesting north of Silverton,
both in the scenic and the adrenaline sense. It's only another
twenty-five miles to Ouray, where the road levels off and
concerns about dropping off a mountain to a fiery death
are replaced by rage at roadhogs in Caddys.
But they're an exciting twenty-five miles. Part of this
segment of 550 is called the Million Dollar Highway, either because
of gold still buried along its route or, more likely, to acknowledge
the fiscal acumen of Otto Mears, the guy who built the toll road that
the highway retraces. I had the luck to be trapped behind an
eighteen wheeler for much of the way. Which probably was
lucky. For one thing, it kept me from driving faster than was good
for me. And for another, I got to watch two big trucks headed in
opposite directions maneuver past each other around a mountain curve
that was way too narrow for their purposes. (Makes me glad I'm not
in that line of business.) It also meant that I was going slowly
enough as I rounded one curve to see a great big shoulder, from which
I got my first view of the Switzerland of America. From this angle,
it looked even more like a movie set than Silverton.
Ouray is a tiny tourist spot today. But it made a name for itself
once. Ouray's first fortune came from a silver strike in the 1870s,
a time of such extreme politics and personalities that even Queen
Victoria subscribed to its newspaper. Things fell apart in the
1893. But Ouray lived to fight another day; a gold strike three
years later made its second fortune. Mine owner Tom Walsh
became so wealthy he was able to buy his way into Washington, DC
society (then as now, more a matter of ready cash than of style, wit
and to get his daughter Evalyn a little trinket called the
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California