Where the Streets Have No Pavement: A Colorado Retrospective

 Right. Take note.

Right. Take note.

Flying from Denver to Montrose, there was no sudden lightening bolt realization. It was simply understood from the get-go. This is a place like no other. The tarmac and flat plains east of Denver fell away to ridges, rock faces, sharp peaks, and rippling black-green trees as we ascended higher into the sky. The dual explosion of me out of my seat and amazed expletives from my mouth were unavoidable when the Black Canyon drifted by my window. WHAT IS THAT!?! I was so dazzled with the spectacle below, I hardly had time to freak out about the teeny plane I was trapped in or whether or not this visually non-aerodynamic beast would be able to land on the frozen ground. The thought did cross my mind that I was happy I wore my biggest belt buckle and pink cowboy boots.

The 38th state in our fine country, Colorado shares borders with 7 other states. Seven! (an amazing thing for a Seattleite who’s state borders only 2). While none are marked with any natural boundaries, the 104,000+ square miles of its territory are pretty jam packed with natural wonders. Like the San Juans. The view of which is infectious and enhanced even more with a full moon while I’m soaking in a 104degree outdoor hot springs nestled at the base of 12,000’+ peaks. But as I mentioned above, the natural treasures of the Centennial State really were no surprise. However here are 6 unexpected fascinating wonders I discovered in Colorado mountain towns that you wont find anywhere else, maybe. (or maybe you will, how do I know?)

1. Tornado shelters in the airports.

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WHAT?! I’m equipped with an avi beacon, a SPOT, a sharp knife for cutting stuck rope, prusiks or fending off wild bears, breathable, wicking, insulating clothing, a large thermos and various other outdoor mountain sport accouterments. I’m not prepared for tornadoes and hope to be near an airport if one strikes since the clear signage in the airports will direct me where to go. Otherwise I’ll be that ridiculous person you read about in the paper running down the street with her arms flailing above her head who gets picked up over here and dropped over there when one strikes. I did not know Colorado was tornado territory.

2. Night time driving speeds.

I know about Montana’s “suggested” speed limits. I’ve experienced the Hawaiian tendency to drive 10-15mph below posted limits. But different speeds for the night time on black signs with white sparkly, reflective writing? Elk, bear, and rabbit can be heard rejoicing from curve to sketchy curve of the Million Dollar Highway. Which brings me to...

 Honesty policy. Order the NY Times and it just shows up in this bin. And no one will snitch it. 

Honesty policy. Order the NY Times and it just shows up in this bin. And no one will snitch it. 

3. The Million Dollar Highway

Connecting Ouray and Silverton, US HWY 550 is one of the most beautiful and terrifyingly white-knuckle stretches of highway that runs past Bear, Battleship, and Sultan Peaks not to mention over Red Mountain Pass. Drive it some day, you’ll be happy you did and will come away with pics your friends will drool over. If you happen to drive it with a local ski guide, you’ll also come away with a list of potential descents that may take a lifetime to tick off. I don’t know if its so dangerous because of the potential avalanche hazards (56 avi paths in 25 miles) or if its because the views are so gorgeous, you’re liable to get distracted ogling and photographing them and in the process drive right off the road plunging into the gorge below. Its wise to go as a passenger in the car of an experienced MDH driver.

4. Bruises. You cant avoid them, so toughen up, buddy.

While yes, this part of Colorado includes some pretty classic Western towns, you probably wont get into a bar fight unless you’re a real jerk and deserve it. Everyone here is so nice they’re more likely than to help you keep to your feet while walking on an icy sidewalk after last call. However, the name of the game here includes ice, snow, dirt, or rock. And its steep, anyway you take your play. If I didn’t come home with bruises that are just as purple and yellow a week after acquiring them, I would consider this a very unsuccessful trip. Shins, knees, thighs, arms - even the fingers on my right hand are swollen and bruised from accidentally punching the ice while desperately looking for a solid stick.

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Everything out there is extreme and requires commitment: elevation, sustained difficulty of ice/rock/ski route, swiftness of changing weather, heartiness of fellow adventure partners, effort of heart to pump blood fast enough. From the moment you step out the door, your faced with endless options. The hardest part of your day will be picking which activity to do first.

5. Dirt roads. One block off of main street.

I’ve been on plenty of dirt roads. Most hikes and many approach trails are found at the end of dirt roads. A few of my favorite hot springs require bumpy dirt road travel to get to the soaking. In most of the mountain towns I’ve been in, the dirt starts about 5 miles out of town. But dusty, gravelly, mixed-with-ice dirt roads on either side of Main Street aka the highway? That is new. Being in a town with only one paved road and the rest au natural felt like a step into some entirely new, stress-free, back-to-nature-ish alternate world. I liked it. Pavement didnt matter, it was all about the mountains, about the play, about sitting down to have a conversation with the one other person occupying the coffee house, bar, or chocolate shop. My kind of place.

 Historic "trash" left from mining days.

Historic "trash" left from mining days.

6. Hot springs.

I admit, I’ve been spoiled. The mountain towns I’ve spent a lot of time in happen to be in Idaho and they have great, convenient access to hot springs. Quite honestly, I didnt think other places existed that are as great as those Idaho mountain towns. Was I ever wrong. Not only did these Colorado towns have spectacular mountains and access to them, they also had superb hot springs worthy of a day or two of total laziness. You really wouldn’t even need a day. Go play from sunrise til you burn out and then they are so dang close to town, you can spend the afternoon soaking without much effort. How to get there? Turn off Main Street onto that dirt road, walk about 10 steps and BAM! you’re there. Easy like a Sunday morning.

Perhaps I should’ve kept knowledge of these 6 wonders to myself. Why the whole world doesn’t live in a town like Ouray, Silverton or Ridgeway is a mystery (of course, I dont live there either so who am I to talk). But the kindness of the locals, beauty a stone’s throw from the back porch, and access to every kind of amazing outdoor playground made it awfully tough to head home.