The High Way

Features
Author:
Publish date:
The Highway

////Warning////

This is the last chance to turn around or pass a vehicle for miles. NARROW road with steep drop-offs. If you are not on foot, bike or ATV, turn around NOW!

So reads the sign in our rearview mirror, growing smaller as my father and I drive down the narrow dirt path it warns against. The boulder-strewn track is barely the width of our Land Rover. Treacherous rocks hang from a cliff on our left; to the right, a near-vertical drop terminates in a swift river 200 feet below. "Um, Dad?" I say. "Think we should pay attention to that sign?" He gives me a look I know well: We are Harper boys. We pay no heed to danger signs.

Dad, who's driving, eases over a big rock and then through a waterfall that has washed away another foot of earth from the edge. I lean out to look into the abyss. At the bottom I see what looks like a tire. I squint. It is a tire. Formerly attached to a twisted wreck in the river that I can just make out as a Jeep Wrangler. We stop and glass the wreckage with binoculars. "No survivors there," says dad. "Maybe we shoulda paid attention to the sign," I say. "Well, we can't turn back now," he replies. No. We can't.

The Harper boys, as my 50-something dad calls us, are in a tight spot. Exactly what I expected and hoped for when I planned to retrace the path of a trip we made when I was 10-an adventure I've never forgotten. My father is notorious for his off-road wanderings. As I was growing up, we veered all over the country sides of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in 4X4s, fording rivers and bumping over hills, usually without a road in sight. But no trip was as interesting as our 10-day drive through Colorado's San Juan Mountains. It was a journey without a destination, an exploration of a land of rich history, 14,000-foot peaks, lush meadows and abandoned mines. Sure, one can take the highways, thrilling enough, between such towns as Aspen, Leadville, Ouray and Telluride. But the heart of the land lies in spaces crisscrossed by gutted, rocky, "unimproved" roads.

Even if a visitor is unfamiliar with off-roading, it's worth taking a guided 4X4 tour of these spectacular mountains. This is the true heart of the West, and it's impossible to appreciate it from a sedan on an asphalt road. It's also worth witnessing firsthand the challenges men and women faced a century ago, crossing these passes by horse and wagon in the name of gold and exploration.

In the 20 years since my last trip, things have changed a lot-and very little. Now I live in New York City instead of Farmington, N.M., a rugged oil town an hour outside of Durango. And we're driving a shiny black Range Rover instead of a beat-up GMC pickup. But Dad's still got his can-do attitude (which I inherited) and the propensity for letting it get him into trouble (ditto). And the roads are as unimproved as ever.

I chose the Rover for its versatility. It's responsive on asphalt, with 19-inch wheels, a five-speed auto with manual control and a 32-valve, 282-hp V8 that pumps out the 325 ft.-pounds essential for pulling its weight up steep hills. Well-crafted lines lend a rugged but cosmopolitan look, but I was most concerned with off-road chops. This terrain beats the hell out of wannabe off-roaders. I might have gone for a Jeep Rubicon, but I needed room for camping gear. The Rover was the right call.

Two days earlier, Dad and I had met at the Denver airport. He was already wearing his cowboy hat and boots. He loved the SUV, but grimaced at the license plate. "New Jersey? Everybody's gonna think we're from New Jersey?" I shrugged. Soon it'd be so muddy you wouldn't be able to read it. We stopped at a grocery store, loaded up and headed out. By early evening we were already off-road, exiting the asphalt near the village of Alma-where a dog slept in the middle of the road-for Mosquito Pass, which leads to Leadville. Once the fastest "toll road" from Denver to Leadville, the 13,185-foot-high ute today can be difficult to locate in places. We got on the right track as the sun wilted, leaving us in the shadow of Mt. Sherman. An official sign reading "Mosquito Pass" had a warning attached: Someone had scratched "Death Awaits" in the wood. "Cheery," I muttered.

Then again, the six-horse wagon trains that rumbled along "the highway of the frozen death," as it was known in 1878, weren't equipped with articulating wheels, Hill Descent Control or Electronic Air Suspension. Flip a switch on the Rover, and hydraulics raise its clearance to 11.1 inches. (On-road it hugs the pavement for better stability; a great compromise.) Its belly easily cleared large, sharp rocks, and the ride was smooth even in bad conditions. We reached the summit as the sky flared with crimson lances of the setting sun. I felt a thrum of exhilaration. I love the sea, but it is a learned love. For me, the mountains came first. That night we slept in Leadville, having put in 155 miles.

After a breakfast of omelets heaped with red and green chiles-a luxury not easily found in New York-we took a good dirt road past Turquoise Lake and along the Frying Pan River into Basalt. Mid-afternoon, outside Carbondale, a cop pulled us over. She said someone had phoned in a complaint that we'd passed another car illegally. "How fast were you going?" she asked sternly. "The speed limit," I answered promptly. "But how fast?" "Speed limit," Dad echoed. Her look became sterner. "Did you overtake on a solid line?" "Innocent," Dad crowed. She sighed-"Dismissed"-and we were off again.

The pavement petered out in Marble, a quirky quarry town, and we continued on rough road. Having logged 140 miles, we made camp near the Crystal River, caught four cutthroats for dinner and argued over the tent. Dad, who is six-foot-three and played football for the Oakland Raiders in his youth, said it was too small for both of us. I pointed out the two-man label sewed onto the fabric. I may be 30, but fathers will always be fathers. I slept outside.

And that is how we come to find OURselves, the next day, on the Road of Death. Or, as the map says, Schofield Pass. We drive on from the wrecked Jeep, and the road, incredibly, gets worse. Finally, there's a spot where it might be possible to turn around. We look at each other. "Never turn around," I whisper, a Harper mantra. Dad nods. We continue. The Rover crawls steadily on. Then we come around a corner and see what lies ahead. The track ramps upward at a 50-degree angle. And it's washed out. I get out and trudge up the shale and boulder path, my calves burning. It gets narrower. And narrower. The road levels, and I reach a gorge spanned by a sheet of metal. The river races beneath it. I pace it off, edge to edge. It's narrower than the truck. I walk back, squelching my pride. "We're turning around."

Dad adroitly backs up to where we can do a 10-point turn, and we creep the other way. Less than a half-mile away is Crystal City, an ambitiously named settlement of five houses. A woman weeds her garden, and we stop to jaw. It turns out she's been summering here for 50 years. "You tried Schofield Pass in that?" she says. "Good thing you turned around. It's too big. My father and husband have pulled a lot of bodies out of there over the years."We drive on, subdued. Maybe "never turn around" isn't such a good mantra after all.

This is the land of big mountains and bigger skies-skies so vividly blue they seem to define the color. It's a land that broadens one's perspective and reminds a city dweller that, too often, the horizon is obscured. For the next three days we cross and recross high mountain passes-Engineer, Imogene, Cinnamon, Independence. The joy comes not of reaching any destination, but of simply wandering. We gape at mines high above tree line-shafts dug long ago, hard-fought, now abandoned. One day we stop at an old mine near Picayne Gulch to make ham sandwiches on the Rover's tailgate. A soft rain falls. The light is spectral, and a tattered mist crawls up the folds of nearby canyons. Dozens of long-haired sheep gaze down from the hill behind us.

We camp near Silverton and hang out at the Miners Tavern, drinking cheap beer and playing pool. Another night we camp near Ouray. The mountain towns have a life of their own, but each morning I am pleased to put the Rover in 4X4 and move on.

On one of our final days, we come off a mountain and face a decision: Head to Silverton, or take Poughkeepsie Gulch toward Ouray? A sign on the Ouray route warns that high-base 4X4 is needed. That's the way we go. It's a series of descents, each nastier than the last. I take it slow, often getting out to scout ahead. We meet a convoy of modified Jeeps. Two are stuck. One yokel, beer in hand, leans out a window. "You're taking that fancy truck down here? Won't look the same when you get down. If you get down." I wave a desultory hand. Whatever.

The next stretch is worse, and I'm thankful for Descent Control, which brakes the vehicle automatically. Then I come to the last bit, known as "The Wall." It's bad: a series of boulders and slick rock, with a 12-foot drop at a 70-degree angle. A driver has to set up his line and then, basically, just let go. Dad gets out and guides me as best he can. And then, with a held breath, I go for it.

The front tires come off a rock shelf and are briefly in the air. The rear end follows with a hard crash. I steer past boulders. There's a second crash, and then, suddenly, I'm down. I get out. There's damage-a small chunk of paint missing near a wheel well. But I've acquitted myself well. "Nice job, son," says Dad. Hell, I'm 30. But it still feels good.

We camp near the Dolores River. Above my head is a grand miasma of stars. We used to fish here. The spot where we forded the river in the GMC is now a parking lot for hikers, but it's home. Tomorrow we'll drive to Four Corners. I'll spend time visiting family before heading back to Denver on highways. Then back to the big city. But tonight I have big skies. And bigger mountains. is spectral, and a tattered mist crawls up the folds of nearby canyons. Dozens of long-haired sheep gaze down from the hill behind us.

We camp near Silverton and hang out at the Miners Tavern, drinking cheap beer and playing pool. Another night we camp near Ouray. The mountain towns have a life of their own, but each morning I am pleased to put the Rover in 4X4 and move on.

On one of our final days, we come off a mountain and face a decision: Head to Silverton, or take Poughkeepsie Gulch toward Ouray? A sign on the Ouray route warns that high-base 4X4 is needed. That's the way we go. It's a series of descents, each nastier than the last. I take it slow, often getting out to scout ahead. We meet a convoy of modified Jeeps. Two are stuck. One yokel, beer in hand, leans out a window. "You're taking that fancy truck down here? Won't look the same when you get down. If you get down." I wave a desultory hand. Whatever.

The next stretch is worse, and I'm thankful for Descent Control, which brakes the vehicle automatically. Then I come to the last bit, known as "The Wall." It's bad: a series of boulders and slick rock, with a 12-foot drop at a 70-degree angle. A driver has to set up his line and then, basically, just let go. Dad gets out and guides me as best he can. And then, with a held breath, I go for it.

The front tires come off a rock shelf and are briefly in the air. The rear end follows with a hard crash. I steer past boulders. There's a second crash, and then, suddenly, I'm down. I get out. There's damage-a small chunk of paint missing near a wheel well. But I've acquitted myself well. "Nice job, son," says Dad. Hell, I'm 30. But it still feels good.

We camp near the Dolores River. Above my head is a grand miasma of stars. We used to fish here. The spot where we forded the river in the GMC is now a parking lot for hikers, but it's home. Tomorrow we'll drive to Four Corners. I'll spend time visiting family before heading back to Denver on highways. Then back to the big city. But tonight I have big skies. And bigger mountains.

Related