Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Northern Exposure

After yesterday's mountain biking we are tired. We don't wake up until 8am.

Today we drive north on part of the San Juan Skyway - a scenic 236 mile circular drive from Durango. We have decided not to drive the whole route but to go only as far as Ouray, 75 miles from Durango. The first part of our drive takes us to Silverton. This is the destination of the Durango-Silverton Steam Railway - a 3 hours one way ride at a cost of $400 for our family.

As we leave Durango, in our Ford Flex, the road begins to climb and mountain peaks appear in the distance. The road winds and twists with hairpin bends. Silverton is a nice surprise. It is a pretty town with just one main street and only 500 residents. The main street looks like is a set from a Wild West movie. George and I peer into the bank window. The metal grill through which you can see the bank teller looks like it has seen many a Wild West hold-up.

We have beaten the train from Durango. It appears a few minutes after we arrive in Silverton. The black steam engine puffs its way into the town on rails on an unmade side street. There is no platform. The train just stops and the passengers disembark. The engine driver climbs onto the top of the engine to clean the large bell. Shopkeepers, from the tourist souvenir shops, come and stand in their doorways. Here come their customers! We wander around the little town for a few minutes. Although the temperature is not very high, the sun is burning hot in the thin mountain air.

We soon leave to continue our journey to Ouray. The scenery becomes more spectacular as we leave Silverton. The cliffs and rocks are red and orange. There is evidence of old mines on the mountain sides - past productive iron, copper and silver mining. The left-over piles of mining residue are an environmental problem causing ores to seep into the rainwater as it runs off the land. The stream that occasionally runs by the roadside is bright orange from the iron in the water.

The road takes us up on a high pass. On one side of the road there is a cliff face. On the other side of the road there is a sheer drop into the valley below. Colin, as he drives, concentrates on keeping as close as possible to the yellow line in the middle of the road. The road descends steeply as Ouray is seen nestled in the bottom of the valley, steep mountain cliffs on each side except for a narrow exit at the end where the road continues through the valley.

Ouray, a little Wild West mining town, is even more beautiful than Silverton. We wander through the town and then stop off on a side road for lunch. The road crosses a narrow but very deep canyon through which flows a mountain stream. Although the stream is very small, the canyon shows evidence of a much stronger mountain torrent of snow and ice melt run off. The canyon sides are smooth and arc-shaped from the force of water.

As we return to Durango on the same road, the climb out of Ouray over the pass is much more nerve-wracking. This time, instead of being on the side of the road closest to the cliff face, we are on the side of the road with the sheer drop. The road signs post a speed limit of 15 or 20 miles an hour as we weave up the mountain. The road does not look flat. Instead it seems to be tilted slightly towards the drop off the edge of the road. In some places there is a noticeable dip, as if the edge of the road is giving way and crumbling into the canyon below. From our experience of mountain roads, this seems more trecherous than others. There is no guard rail on the edge of the road. Only a thin line of dirt divides the road from the drop into the canyon. Although we meet other cars we are thankful we do not meet the juggernout that we see later on the drive.

Even though the road continues to have long drops into the valley below, it is not as severe as the first part of the drive out of Ouray so we are able to relax slightly and enjoy the views of mountain tops, pine trees, waterfalls and mounds of snow caught in ridges higher on the mountains.

Back in Durango we walk a few minutes from our hotel to a South Western/Texas barbeque restaurant. The restaurant is very casual. It is more like a wooden shack. We order our food at a bar where it is prepared for us and then take it to tables and wooden benches outside on a veranda. Each table contains a large roll of kitchen paper rather than napkins. The ribs are delicious and messy. We use lots of kitchen paper. Some of the other customers look like they have come directly from Texas. They wear cowboy boots, hats and shiny metal-studded belts. We are, after all, in cowboy country!

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