Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Travels with Krispy and Noddy (And Karen!), Day 4: Colorado is very high

Ah, but enough of these flashy CASINOS, gorgeous SCENERY, and epic 
HIKES: We've got a job to do!

Or, rather, I have a job to do. I used my escape pile of clothing by the motel door and left Admiral Karen to slumber through the sunrise. I drove the minivan across Grand Junction, fully comfortable in this strange little city after all the weeks I spent here last year. 

I turned on the Sirius radio thingie in the center touchscreen console and whoa! Things had changed! Now I heard "Lola", "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys", and 70's Who ("Love Reign O'r Me") - the three songs were in a completely different order than all the other times we had heard them. My world was shaken to its core.

But I shook off my existential crisis and got to work. At my Mothers storage shed I met her neighbor and together we hoisted the hope chest and all of the boxes of photo albums into the back of the minivan. The load covered the whole bottom of the floor, with a nice, tight seal. I do so love a well packed car load.

The only weird thing about the Hampton Inn
was this carpet. It wasn't threadbare or an isolated
patch. All of it looked like this - on purpose.
From there I drove across the city to the Industrial part of town. I had been handling my Mothers mail and bills from California since September, but some chores needed 'boots on the ground' - and this was one of them.

And so I finally, finally delivered her fucking cable box back to the cable company. I walked out of there and it was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Actually it had - those DVR things are heavy.

Back at the super-modern Hampton Inn I met Karen in the lobby for our Free Hot Breakfast of little tiny things of many colors served on Styrofoam plates.

Onward, down is the new up

I had wrapped up the reason for this road trip in short order and we were soon on the long road down to Durango.

Hampton Inn room. NuBland design.
Tuesday was already chock full of change: 
  • Actual weight in the minivan gave it some great traction. 
  • The only 3 Classic Rock Songs Ever were out of order. 
  • The time hadn't changed when we crossed into Colorado - we hadn't gained an hour in days. 
  • I actually got out of Grand Junction in less than a fortnight. 
  • And we were headed in a new direction (South), here on the back stretch of our Road trip.

Hey, look: Snow! (Foreshadowing.)
Also, there was a further direction we were traveling in as we headed down Highway 550: Up. Grand Junction sits in a valley at 4,500 feet. Delta is 5,000, Montrose 5,600, Ridgway comes in at 7,000 feet and tiny Ouray sits in a valley at 8,000 feet above sea level. In a short 100 miles we had doubled the elevation of our trip.

Up and up and up
However, Highway 550 doesn't offer much to the traveler besides a vector to ascend. It may be the "Million Dollar Highway" farther up, but here its more like the "$1.49 Road". There isn't much scenery, or recreation, or jobs or arts on display in these bleak, high prairie towns. Good thing marijuana is legal here, or else there would be a crime problem.

I did see a dubious sign advertising "Asian Massage" that apparently takes place in a log cabin. So there's that outlet.

We stopped at the Wal-Mart in Montrose, because I had forgotten my shampoo at home and the free stuff at the Inca Inn had turned my hair into enameled shredded wheat. (Plus I had a gift card as part of my inheritance.) Karen and I clung to each other and stayed in the middle of each of the wide, empty aisles.

A Wally World "Super Store" seems like a bit of overkill in a town with less than 20,000 residents - 1/3 of which appeared to be employees here - but we weren't here to judge. We were here to use the Self Service checkout, because all of the bored, depressed cashiers looked kinda scary.

The small, self-service checkout island comes with its own personal assistant employee (pause for irony), who sees your pathetic attempts to actually check yourself out, intervenes, scans your shampoo herself, fails, talks to the machine, scans again, curses under her smokers breath, takes out a key ring with 1,000 keys on it, inserts one, pushes hundreds of buttons, scans the shampoo again, talks heatedly to the stupid-ass machine, inserts other keys, asks us where we are from and then ignores us, scans my shampoo over and over and over until its expiration date approaches, yells at the machine, smacks it a couple of times like Han Solo bringing the Millennium Falcon back to life, finally gets my ancient shampoo to 'beep', runs my cards for me, puts each item into its own plastic bag, mumbles "thankyouforshoppingwalmarttodayhaveaniceday" and totters off for another smoke break.

Every little bit of Ouray
Mid-morning saw us descending into the pocket town of Ouray, population 1,000. The 1950 census also puts the population at 1,000, as does the 1900 census. The first accounting of the towns residents though, in 1877, put the
number at.......1,000. Now my Dad would tell a Dad Joke here, claiming the towns population remains steady because every time a baby is born a man leaves town. But I'm pretty sure the reason for the consistency is the size of the town.

They've lost their "L"evation.
Ouray is hemmed in on all four sides by tall, steep mountains, giving it its nickname "The Switzerland of America". There is just no room for anymore than 1,000 people there. We parked the minivan and walked the length of the pretty Main Street, the entirety of which is a National Historic District. When we got back to the car though, we felt like we had just run a 10K. There just aint enough air at 1.5 miles above sea level.

And all of these mountains, looming in, makes this the most claustrophobic town I've even been in. Sunrise must not happen until noon around here.

Climbing out of Ouray
Admiral Karen took the wheel now, since she lived in snow country for several years. We traversed the switchbacks which lead out of town, quickly climbing the side of the Southernest mountain. The road was clear and dry but there were drifts of snow framing the road for the rest of the afternoon.

Afternoon. Warm, sunny, afternoon. In Mid-March. With walls and overhangs of snow and ice alongside the road, and looooong valleys chock full of accumulated, melting, icebergs all ready to suddenly scoot on down and erase the highway completely.

The road sign of the day was: Avalanche Warning!

Which had me wondering: Okay. Just what IS an avalanche warning? Is there a sound? Does the ground shake? Are there sirens? Or does it just instantly arrive and swat you and your wife and your rented minivan down to the bottom of the chasm which is so far down it might be in New Mexico?

No one would find us for weeks. And nobody would see us go over, as there were very few cars on the 550 that day. Apparently the road had just been opened for a day or two when we went through, and the smart money was on waiting in town to see what this warm weather would do the warming snowpack up on the summits.

Not ours. Hey, it was very
cold out there, and there's
no oxygen!!
Which is where we were headed, clopping along at 20mph, winding our way up  the San Juan Mountains, passing signs like: "No stopping next 1.5 miles." "Do not use turnout" and the ubiquitous, mocking "Avalanche Warning" (well, what IS the warning??)

Red Mountain summit area. Not pictured: Any red.
At one dry turnout I looked over to see a car stopped and a family all watching something up above us, across the road. I turned the other way as we drove away and just caught a glorious glimpse of a whole herd of bighorn sheep up on the steep grade. Wow.

Lots and lots of snow. Stay up there, please.
I noted that they were on one of the gentler grades, with no dripping walls of snow above them. Because animals are sensible.

Humans, however are highly illogical. For one thing, they seemed to have completely forgotten to put in guardrails on this narrow section of highway.

The summit of Red Mountain (11,000 feet), had a scenic view that had been
Krispy, not so into it.
recently plowed, so we took it and stopped the minivan. Unfortunately nothing else had been cleared, so we got a good view of the completely snowed in walkway that lead up to the scenic majesty. Oh well. Back in the car - there’s no oxygen around here, anyway.

The descent down to Dura - oh wait. Another summit? Okay, I guess. Turns out there are 3 passes that we had to pass through, which made Karen's turn behind the wheel into a bit of a marathon. But she was a trooper about it.

Krispy and Noddy though, as an amphibian and a cold-blooded dinosaur, were heard to grumble. This was probably their least favorite part of the road trip.

The Strater and Main Ave.
(Photo from
We didn't exit the snowpack field until we reached Silverton, and from there it was only 45 miles of lovely riverside alpine scenery on into Durango.

Wild West Hotel, for Better and Worse

Our destination for Tuesday night was the Strater Hotel, which is right on Main Avenue in the old section of town. I had taken considerable time in choosing our hotels for this trip, opting for an alternating 'theme' and 'modern' rhythm. Last
night was the uber-new Hampton Inn in Grand Junction, and tonight was the Bella Union saloon from the Deadwood series, apparently.

Charming, even with the box fan.
The Strater hotel was built in 1887, and has been kept lovingly anachronistic ever since. 100 rooms, and 10 parking spaces (no parking lots in the Old West!) - but our amazing luck of this trip held and we found a spot right around the corner from the side entrance. The ground floor of the Strater is a confusing warren of connecting rooms, but we found the front desk and were assigned a 3rd floor room.

By this point we had our 'motel bags' down to a minimalist science, but even so, it was a tight fit for the two of us and our carryons in the elevator. Now stop and go back and read that last sentence again. Yes. The teeniest elevator car EVAR. Our bags almost had to wait in the lobby and take the next car up.
One of the shower chutes. Cinder
block on left, brick on right.

Our room was also on the small side, but charmingly furnished and not over knick-knacked, as some of these boutique places can get. No Air Conditioning though, which even in March is a knock in my book. The front desk quickly sent up a box fan though, which was nice. (Can't imagine what this place is like in July and August though.)

The fun engineering of the room though was the bathroom. It was in the very back of the room, and appeared to be a former walk-in closet. And we couldn't find the shower at all. We were about to call down again about this when I had to the use the bathroom for real. In doing so I naturally closed the door, and hey! There is the shower; behind the bathroom door. It was also tiny, but serviceable.

"Accessible" onceyougetdownthesestairs......
But looking at the room layout again, it became clear that the shower was a late addition, and it seemed to exist outside the normal walls of the hotel. I investigated later and sure enough, the showers had been added later, one on top of the next, in a series of cinder block towers up and down this side of the hotel. Shower chutes!

I had to try it, and yeah, not so much. It was the kind of shower that when someone in the building flushes, you get burnt. If someone in the saloon orders whiskey and water, you get blisters on the top of your head. So you end up showering next to the shower, and just jump into the water when you have something specific to do.

Phone booths! And books! (photo from my phone)
Our trip across the top of the world had taken much longer than we planned, and so our 'lunch' was at about 4pm. This left us with a long evening, which we spent exploring the hotel. We cracked up at the "Handicapped Accessible" restroom - just down a short flight of stairs, and I marveled at the actual phone booths across from the registration desk. With a rack of phone books of the major cities of America adjacent. Charming.

There was also a letterbox just inside the ornate front door, and I'm sure at one time there was a telegraph here. And ironically enough, the oldest hotel on our trip had the strongest Wi-Fi. So there you go, 150 years of communication.

Elsewhere on the ground floor we stumbled into a rotary meeting, a trivia night,
Its not much, but at least there was a
shelf for it!
a bluegrass jam session and two full saloons. We spilled out into the night and walked up and down Main Avenue, which was full of fun restaurants, hiking boot stores, pubs, fishing tackle shops, bars, railroad kitsch emporiums, and independent bookstores. I dropped $50.00 at Maria's Books and we headed to the other end of town and bought ice cream for dinner.

Durango was by far our favorite city on the Epic Road trip.

Back in the Miss Kitty room of the 130 year old hotel we snuggled on the twin bed, ate our ice cream and......watched Star Trek on the laptop computer. Of course!

The morrow would send us back even further in time, and show us the limits of modern technology.....

Angus McMahan


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