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March 24, 2005

Ouray 2002

Colorado was deep into one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Normally, the creeks would be charged with spring runoff from melting snow. You should be able to set your watch by the late afternoon thunderstorms of the monsoon season. But on this year, the rains didn’t come. The creeks dried up and the lakes retreated in their beds. The listless boat ramps rested idly in the heat of the day, awkward and useless…a hundred feet from the water. Lake Dillon looked like it had been drained for restocking. As though the remainder of the water could be mopped up with a sponge.

The excursion was an excuse for family and friends to get together and play for a couple of days. People came from Ohio, California, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Colorado to drive around the Colorado Rocky Mountains for a few days. Some by plane, some by car, some by train. The rendezvous point was a meadow just south of Ouray, Colorado, only accessible by a narrow four-wheel drive trail.

As I drove West, I came out of the mountains into the high desert. The temperature rose from 70 degrees F to 95. In Glenwood Springs, the mountains were burned on both sides of I-70. About a dozen fires were burning out of control in Colorado. About 60 miles south of Ouray, the Missionary fire had already consumed 66,000 acres and was only 30 percent contained. The thick smoky, haze obscured the horizon and cloaked the mountains. The smoke from the firestorm rose through the atmosphere like a chimney, transforming into a peculiar, localized thunderhead rising to 40,000 feet. The thunderstorm created lighting, which made the fire more intense, and, in turn, made more lightning.

As I headed South across the high desert, my mind strayed from the road to the vehicles in the yards and fields beside the road. Intriguing equipment that was scattered about sporadically…Dodge Power Wagons, Tucker Snow Cats, Thiokols, flat fender jeeps, and M101 trailers. Things that one respected inherently, for their intrinsic nature…for their engineering. One could see through the rusted body panels, the flattened tires, the missing tracks, to see the essence of the machine…the intent of the engineer that designed it.

After five hours on the road, I pulled into Ouray. As others pulled into the meadow, greetings were exchanged, and then the work of setting up camp began. The air was heavy with dust and smoke. Trucks were unloaded, tent sites selected, and the tents rose like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Cots and folding chairs were unfolded. Mattresses were inflated. Groundcloths and tarps were spread. Lantern mantels were replaced. Kerosene flowed and flashlight batteries replaced. Everyone went about the work of preparing for the coming night, with only a minimal amount of communication.

Camping, as any boy scout can tell you, is a serious business. It is the time to pull out all of the stops. Everyone wants to one-up the other guy with a brighter lantern, a better stove, or a more tricked-out GPS system. Only a tenderfoot truly sleeps on the ground. Those who’ve done some camping bring cots or air mattresses. It isn’t really possible to pack “light? for a camping trip. You’re either going camping, or you’re not. It doesn’t make much difference whether you’re going camping for one night or ten nights, you have to take everything you have. People maintain camping lists and proudly hand them down from generation to generation. They are amended through the years, but some items don’t change. Axe. Handsaw. Twine. Duct tape. Matches. Sky hook. Smoke shifter. Egg popper. Bacon stretcher. These are things that always come in handy on a camping trip and have proven their worth through the ages.

After the camp was set up, the chairs were pulled together around where the campfire should have been, and over ice water and Gatorade, we began to banter. We commiserated about the heat and the drought and pondered the wildfires burning to the South of us.

The town of Ouray had a fire ban in effect. No campfires. No fireworks. No smoking allowed outdoors. The fliers were posted everywhere in English and Spanish. As soon as we had settled into camp, a forest ranger approached to make sure we were aware of the ban. He was wearing a bullet proof vest and packing a Glock .40 caliber pistol as a side-arm. He approached our tent slum cautiously with both of his hands drawn up before him in peculiar position. Perhaps the result of some arcane, neurological disorder. Perhaps, he was a poised like a gun-slinger, expecting a fight. In any event, it was disconcerting. We assured him we were aware of the fire ban and he left us alone.

We discussed our plans for the trail ride the next day. The USGS topographical maps painted a tantalizing picture. Steep, rugged terrain in the Colorado Rockies. Hundreds of thousands of acres of National Forest crisscrossed by four-wheel drive roads, foot paths, and mountain goat trails. We tasted the names of the features on the map as we read them…Engineer Pass…Hurricane Pass…Black Bear Pass…Red Cone…Immogene. We noted the elevations of some of the features…Hurricane Pass…12,407 feet. A little quick math confirmed that two miles above sea level was only 10,560 feet. So, that was about the altitude of our base camp.

After breakfast and coffee, we drove up to the head of one of the “four by? trails. The old timers tutored the beginners and the youngsters when they took their turn at the wheel.

Easy on the throttle. Get the right gear. Remember that at the bottom of the hill, you need to look all the way to the top and pick the right gear. Don’t want to be changing gears halfway up the hill. Choose the right gear, get it up to about 2,100 RPMs, and just let it walk up the mountain. Slow down for the big bumps like that one. Remember that your differentials are a little bit right of center. Watch out for those really sharp, pointed rocks. It’d be easy to bust a tire up here. Watch out for those loose ones there. They’re like marbles when you get on them. Give her a little more gas. Got to keep the RPM’s up. Don’t want to stall her. Watch your lines on those rocks. Get your left tire up on that one. Easy. Easy now. OK. When your frame is twisted like this, two of your tires are going to be light, and that’s when they’ll slip…throw a rock maybe. Then, you’ll get to bouncing and break something. That’s always how it happens. You gets to bouncing, and when it comes up, the axles spin free and then it comes down and gets in a bind and that’ll break something every time. Snap a driveshaft like a toothpick. Shear the splines right off. Don’t get too close up behind the truck in front of you. Might roll back and bust your radiator or worse. Make sure you can see the guy behind you. Don’t want to drive off and leave him if he breaks something. A mountain lion would get him for sure.

We made our way slowly up the steep mountain trail, admiring the Colombines, yellow-bellied marmots, and ground squirrels. We stopped at old, abandoned mines and felt the frigid air emanating from deep within the earth. We ate sandwiches on the trail and tried to drink enough water to stay hydrated. We stopped at a small lake and skipped rocks and shot an old .45 Colt Pistol from WWI.

The trails were steep, and there were a few switchbacks that couldn’t be negotiated without backing up a time or two, but the trail was only moderately difficult. The next day, we planned to go on one that was much more challenging. As we discussed the nuances and difficulties of the terrain that we would face, there was some grumbling and discord among the ranks. The rumbling continued after dinner over beers and grew into a schism in which two of our party, claiming that it was more of a “timing issue? than anything, opted to drive around on hard top for the remainder of the trip.

The rest of us drove up the mountain and prepared take San Juan County Road 16 over Black Bear Pass into Telluride. Telluride is an old mining town that only has one paved road going in. It’s nestled into a little dead-end valley, surrounded on three sides by mountains that the mountain goats find challenging. For some reason, however, someone did at some point in time, carve a treacherously narrow path down the face of the mountain, past bridal veil falls, into Telluride from US 550. The original trail was certainly a mountain goat trail, as elk and deer do not follow paths that diverge so radically from the natural lines of drift. The one-way path is so narrow for most of the way, that it is difficult for a person to walk by a jeep or rover that has stopped on the trail. This is surely the trail that they had in mind when they made the signs that say “Watch for falling Jeeps?. It’s the kind of trail where you take the doors and the top off your truck so you can see exactly where the tires are. The kind of trail where no one wears a seatbelt because the last place you want to be when the jeep goes off the road is in it. Getting thrown clear is definitely the best way to go in this case. The last place you want to be when the jeep goes careening down the face of the mountain end over end into the main drag of Telluride is strapped into the seat.

We began our descent, admiring the flotsam and jetsam of the old mining towns…the old, rusting tracks that the mine cars ran on a hundred and sixty years ago, now, rusted and twisting crazily out of the mine shaft…jutting 30 feet into the air…a scene straight out of Indiana Jones. Ancient, corroded iron cables stretching from the mines across the valley to the mountain on the opposing side. Inconceivable how it could still be precariously hanging there. One day, metal fatigue would finally gain the upper hand and the strands would part in a loud snap like a rifle retort, sending angry steel whipping into the trail below. But not today.

The mountain seemed to defy anything larger than a mountain goat to challenge it. The unyielding granite face rose in an intimidating vertical wall on one side. The other side did not exist. A few dusty, loose rocks, supported here and there by an old two by six and some rusted rebar…and then nothing.

The omnipotent mountain gnawed insidiously on the trail. Each rainstorm washed another inch off the shoulder. Each rockslide blocked the way with larger boulders. Each avalanche made the switchbacks a little tighter.

Tires slipping on dusty, loose scale. Don’t touch that clutch. Just let it crawl down the slope. Choose the right gear at the top of the grade you’re about to descend. Don’t want to have to shift down while you’re going down the face of it. Pull those side view mirrors in and get a little closer to the rock face.

“This is way worse than last year. Last year it was raining. Seemed to hold together a little better. This dust is crazy. It’s too dry now. Can’t stop from sliding on these rocks. Damned things are like marbles. Whoever made this trail was insane. How are we looking over there? Will asked.

On my side, I was looking down over the tops of a grove of full-grown 100 year old Ponderosa Pines. A rock would fall a thousand feet before it hit anything, and not stop rolling until it got into Telluride. On Will’s side, an intimidating, vertical wall of granite.

“Put a little green paint on it if you have to. You’re pretty close to getting some air under your tire on my side? I replied.

“There it goes again. Do you feel that? Do you feel it slipping? That’s why I didn’t stop back there. I couldn’t. Kept slipping on me. I wasn’t able to. Didn’t mean to leave you. How’m I looking over there?? Will asked.

“Less than a foot on my side. Let’s stop and let these hikers by. I don’t know if they can make it or not.? I pulled in the side view mirror to let a couple of hikers pass by. “Watch that weiner dog. Don’t know why on earth they don’t pick him up. What’s he doing up here anyway? That’s a flatlander dog there. Doesn’t have enough ground clearance for this terrain.? I complained.

At the bottom of the hill, we regrouped and had lunch. Some were more cognizant of the precariousness of the situation than others. There’s many things that can go wrong on the trail…a horse fly flies into the truck, you turn the windshield wipers on accidentally, the engine can jump out of gear…a boulder can come tumbling down the face of the mountain. People die on these trails every year. There’s no guardrails…No safety nets…No judge or jury. Just you and the mountain. No one to complain to if things go wrong. No one to sue of you die. No government program there to bail you out if things don’t go the way you’d hoped.

We took Colorado State Highway 62 back into Ouray. After a long day on the hot, dusty trail, one wants to get cleaned up. There were no public showers, but the was a small creek with enough water in it to rinse off pretty well. It became a rite of passage of sorts to strip down and bathe in the melting snow that flowed through the creek bed. A “Polar Bear bath? as Joe called it. It was so cold, that it was numbing and actually gave me the sensation of being hot. When I stood up to dry off, I could hardly feel my feet and didn’t immediately realize that I was still standing in the stream, as my feet were nearly numb. Drying off on the large, sun baked rocks completed the “Polar Bear? bath and left one feeling as refreshed as if he were staying at the Hotel National in Havana. After a round of margaritas, a hot dinner, and a good night’s sleep on a cot or an air-mattress, we were primed and ready to hit the trails again.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on March 24, 2005 at 9:08 PM


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