Cougars & Cliff Dwellings – plus The Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse; a First Descent in the Four Corners!
In The Four Corners, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet, we discovered the perfect combination of activity, sightseeing and relaxation, high in the rocky mountains.
We based ourselves in Durango. You might not realise it, but you DEFINITELY know Durango. Billed as the ‘Hollywood of the Rockies’ the adobe hills, high peaks, steam train and typically Western town have provided the backdrop to many a famous film, some of which do not wander too far from the truth. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid was filmed here – and allegedly Butch really did hold up the bank at nearby Telluride. I’m sure that the prosperity of the mines attracted other well-known outlaws, although it is difficult to separate fact from myth and legend. Particularly where tourist dollars are involved!
Durango used to be a real ‘shoot em up’ western silver mining town. It was more recently been described by one visitor as “A close approach to paradise.” (In Spanish, Durango means “A well-watered place”, which doesn’t sound quite as romantic!) Although Durango is at an elevation of 6,500 feet, I can vouch that it is not just this extra closeness to God that prompted its heavenly description!
Every morning we were woken by the lovely sound of the steam train hooting and shunting through the centre of the town, leaving behind the delicious smell of steam and cinders. The Durango to Silverton narrow guage railway has been winding its way through the mountains for over 100 years, originally carrying gold and silver ore from the mountains to the smelter at Durango. Now, it carries tourists on the 4 hour trip to Silverton, through and above the picturesque Animas valley.
We enjoyed an excellent Victorian Melodrama in the theatre at the Strater Hotel. We didn’t go to the Shakespeare festival, although I took great pleasure in imagining a rendition of the immortal lines by The Bard delivered in trans-Atlantic tones: “Ay tu Brutay?” A bit like the John Wayne classic “Aw, truly he waaas the son of God” in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.” (Allegedly, John Stevens did many takes, finally directing The Duke to “add a little awe to the lines.” Ever the professional, The Duke duly obliged!)
In the light of my travelling past to 3rd world countries and our more recent exploits in places such as the Philippines; (Inset Jackie’s imaginary Philippines Tourist Board slogan “Come to the Philippines and get more BANG for your buck!” In our experience, the ‘BANG’ could be from a volcano, earthquake, car/plane crash or just something as plain and simple as a bomb in the shopping centre where you enjoyed a coffee the week before it was blown up) my Mum’s reaction was “Oh good. At least you can’t get up to any mischief in Colorado…”
I admitted it to her on our return. That we were members of the ‘Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse’ and had paddled our way into whitewater rafting history by doing the FIRST EVER commercial raft descent of Rockwood Gorge on the Rio de las Animas Perdidas (The River of Lost Souls). Moviegoers will know the gorge as the site where Butch and Sundance did the cliff jump in the 1969 film.
To get into the Rockwood Gorge, we passed a sign above the river at Tacoma. It announced that “This is the last take-out with train access” – the train being our ride back to Durango. It also gave a light and friendly warning about what to expect from the river below Tacoma. Another sign cosily declared “Extreme Danger. Experts Only”. Well, we had all done a couple of days paddling by then…
In whitewater rafting terms, Grade 6 is unrunnable (unless you have a particular death wish. Niagra Falls, for example, is Grade 6.) Rockwood boasted some interesting Grade 5 rapids, such as the one they call ‘Mandatory’, which were fun, fun, fun all the way! Our guide, Cory Bob, told his girlfriend, Jess, that the rapid was called ‘Mandatory’ because, as one of the Four Oarsmen, it was ‘Mandatory’ to paddle.
Since Jess had flatly refused to stay in the boat to run an earlier rapid called ‘No Name’ on the Upper Animas, he did not want to put her off the Rockwood run by calling ‘Mandatory’s’ by its full handle. That being the rather unequivocal ‘Mandatory Thrashing’! (Cory Bob told me that for many years, he had to disappear into the woods to vomit each time he scouted ‘No Name’ with clients. As a river runner who has globe-trotted around a few of the world’s wild waterways, I can honestly say that ‘No Name’ was easily the ugliest rapid I have ever seen. None of this was giving me a warm feeling about ‘Mandatory’!)
‘Mandatory’ was interesting. The whole river was squeezed through a narrow pour-through. Not as bad as I thought… except that concentrating on navigating the pour-through, I hadn’t noticed the sheer rock wall toward which the pour-through propelled us at full speed, necessitating a very swift and agile 90 degree turn to the left to avoid that Mandatory Thrashing!
We lost souls – and a lot of rafting equipment return to Durango by Steam Train!
We lost souls returned to Durango in style by steam train. After 5 days rafting on the Animas and the San Miguel rivers, we embarked on a hair-raising drive in a hired Toyota to Ouray, “The Switzerland of America”. We drove via the Million Dollar Highway over Red Mountain Pass, which clings to the mountainside to reach a dizzy 11,000 feet, with picturesque sheer drops just to the side of the road. A great route choice for 2 drivers who suffer from bad altitude! If you think we’re just being lily-livered wusses, please note that The Million Dollar Highway features in a digest of the The World’s Most Dangerous Roads!
While there is no speculation as to the reason for naming Red Mountain Pass, which is indeed a pass over a red mountain, an argument rages as to why the Million Dollar Highway is so called. With it being a gold and silver mining area, legend has it that the gravel used to pave the road was so rich with gold dust that it was worth a million dollars. Another theory argues that due to the tortuous route the pass takes so high in the mountains, by today’s standards, it would cost a million dollars to construct. By far the most convincing argument as far as I am concerned is that people like us, who are scared of heights, would take a look at said tortuous route through the mountains and say “I wouldn’t go over that if you paid me a million dollars!”
Mark and I bravely earned our $1,000,000 and navigated Red Mountain Pass, albeit in 1st gear all the way and never once exceeding 10mph. Thus, we avoided the quick way into Ouray – which is straight down. Too easily possible if you pay too much attention to the scenery and not enough to those hairpin bends!!
Ouray is another pretty, Victorian, western town set beautifully amid a natural amphitheatre of high peaks. We stayed at The Historic Weisbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodging, which has an underground vapour cave and hot spring. The therapeutic properties of the caves and waters had been recognised by the local Native Americans long before white prospectors colonised the area, hoping to make their fortunes in precious metals.
We spent most of our 3 days in Ouray being pampered and massaged with occasional forays into the town, which was teeming with interesting gift shops and galleries, which could have bankrupted me easily had I bought up all the art that I liked! (Shopping for gifts in Ed Washingtons Gator Emporium nearly did bankrupt me, but we’re sorted for Christmas presents now!)
We went horse riding right up into the rocky mountains with Deb’s Livery. The views were fantastic and the scent released as the horses brushed through sagebrush was intoxicating. Even while we were bathed in bright sunshine, we watched a thunderstorm develop moodily over some of the distant peaks. Fork lightning occasionally illuminated the stark, angular pinnacles of the mountains, while the thunder grumbled away like an angry giant, stalking the grey-shrouded valleys. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a mountain lion, a cougar, something that our hosts Deb and Mike said they had never seen! We lunched in a spot that bore traces of a recent visit by a bear and toasted Deb and Mike. They had chosen to ride with us as a celebration of their wedding anniversary!
We left Ouray by a different and much longer route since neither Mark nor I could face Red Mountain Pass going the other way. We had been on what is technically known as the ‘mountain’ side for the descent into Ouray. We felt that the return journey, next to the ‘sheer drop’ side, with no safety barriers, would be too much for this pair of First Descent Rafting Daredevils. We can face ‘No Name’ and ‘Mandatory Thrashing’ but not a well-constructed, mettled mountain pass. I guess we all have our Achilles heel!
We had another night in Durango before departing for Mesa Verde, literally the “Green Table”. Mesa Verde was home to the Anasazi people – the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. Being America, this was all billed as “Pre-historic.” Technically speaking, I suppose it is pre-historic in a country with only 400 years of recent history. The Anasazi lived in the cliff dwellings around 1000 years ago – during what we in Britain would call “The Middle Ages”!
The cliff dwellings were amazing; homes and temples built into alcoves high in the sandstone cliffs. The Anasazi were farmers who grew corn, beans and squash on the mesa tops. Commuting to work involved scaling the sheer cliffs! Shallow hand and toe holes were visible on the cliff faces, demonstrating the death-defying routes that these people had taken on a daily basis to go and tend their crops. It made the M25 in rush hour look tame.
It was incredibly hot while we were there but in winter, heavy snows fall. It must have been a hard life and certainly not one for those with no head for heights. It is funny that the irony of this did not strike Mark and I until we got there. What on earth were 2 people with vertigo doing visiting cliff dwellings?! It could be said that height-wise on this trip, we truly faced our demons!
And so it was that we “did” a very small part of Colorado. We stayed within about 100-mile radius of Durango, which the locals found very perplexing, what with amazing sights like Vegas, the Grand Canyon & Monument Valley less than a 10-hour drive away.
A few had ‘done’ Britain – “Yeah, we spent a coupla days there. We saw England, Scotland and Wales, then we took a day and did Ireland!” I suppose they can be forgiven; just the state of Colorado is larger than England and Wales put together and travelling huge distances, even to visit the neighbours, is just a way of life in The Big Country.
They say that life is a journey – but for us, now and again, we like to sit back and enjoy the destination!
Rafting – our Whitewater Rafting Trips were with Mild 2 Wild in Durango. We arranged the whole trip to Colorado because Mild 2 Wild was recommended by our rafting guide in Costa Rica, during Honeymoon II – The Sequel…! We were lucky enough to do the first descent because, knowing that we had rafted some of the biggest rivers in the world, our guide, Cory Bob, wanted to deliver something special!
We stayed at the Leland House Hotel in Durango.
Getting There – MAKE SURE YOU PRE-BOOK A CAB FROM DURANGO AIRPORT! We flew from Denver to Durango and expected to be able to find a cab at the airport, which is out of town. Note that this is America, so EVERYONE owns a car in which they are either collected from or which they leave at Durango airport. There were no cabs at the airport – fortunately, a baggage handler took pity on us as the airport was closing and called us a cab!