The Million Dollar Highway

Day 42 – Wednesday 14th August 2013 – Montrose, CO to Cortez, CO

Breakfast at the Briarwood motel was fairly basic, but it was free and the owner was as friendly and as chatty as he had been the previous evening. He had a world map in reception and he asked all his visitors to stick pins into to show where they came from. As you’d expect there were plenty from all over the US, but also many from the rest of the world – one even from slap-bang in the middle of China. Doreen stuck a pink pin into Edinburgh. We were the first visitors from Scotland. As we left, he insisted we take fruit and trail bars for the journey. I didn’t catch his name, but he’s a great guy running a great little independent motel.

From what we saw of the rest of Montrose, it was not the most exciting or picturesque of towns, but it was a convenient stopping point for us, and just a little way out of town we were again hitting impressive scenery – a wide valley nestling between the mountain ranges on either side, dotted with wooden houses, lush green fields and the occasional lake. We stopped to refuel the Trooper in Ridgeway and I took a few snaps of the views to either side.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we approached Ouray, US-550 runs along side the Uncompahgre River with the vibrant red rock exposed on one side and the river running along the other.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Ouray is the start of the Million Dollar Highway and we stopped there looking for a mid-morning caffeine boost. Ouray is a delightful mountain town, retaining some of the original historic character lacking in many an American town. We sat outside to enjoy good, strong coffee, soaking up the mountain air and views.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

I finally managed to finish the American Bad Ass post whilst sitting trying not to just gaze at the mountains. Ah, the blogging life can be hard sometimes.

From Colorado, August 2013

While we were sitting there, a deer came limping across the main street. It’s back leg was obviously tender, probably from a run in with a car. It seemed oblivious to the people near by on the coffee shop patio, and was just intent on munching on the green grass. With it’s gamy back leg, we couldn’t help but wonder if it would make it through the winter.

From Colorado, August 2013

Immediately outside of Ouray, the road snakes steeply upwards, with a couple of good hair-pins. We couldn’t stop on the twisty road for photos, but we did at the turn-out at the top. We weren’t the only ones to do so.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The sign there says Switzerland of America and the similarities are obvious.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The Million Dollar Highway is the 25 miles of steep and twisty US-550 which connects Ouray with Silverton. It was built as a toll road in 1883 by Otto Mears at a cost of $10,000 per mile. The road was both a difficult engineering feat and a huge investment for it’s time. The mountains in that region of Colorado were rich in gold, silver, copper and zinc, but it was extremely difficult to get any of the mined metal back to civilization for sale. Mears reckoned he could recoup his massive investment by charging a toll to use the road – $5 per wagon and $1 per head of livestock. Despite the difficulty in building the road, the workers were under no threat of attack from local indians, as Mears had stuck a deal with Chief Ouray, the last of the great Ute chiefs.

From Colorado, August 2013

The pictures from back in the day look even scarier to travel than the road is today. As you wind your way up the corkscrew curves there is a massive drop on the right hand side, with no guard rail and no shoulder to speak of – just a huge plunge into the depths of the river valley below.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Despite the curves and the steep drop-off at the edge, there were big trucks using the road. We hoped we didn’t meet any of them on one of the switchbacks, as they seemed to want to take the whole road to navigate these bends.

As we progressed along the Million Dollar Highway, we found that once again the striking scenery is married with mining. We were in Colorado’s historic Red Mountain mining district.

From Colorado, August 2013

Mining started in the area in the 1800s and continued up until 1978. A number of mines and mining towns sprang up to mine the rich veins of copper, zinc, silver and gold, bringing an influx of over 3000 people. One of the mines was the Yankee Girl mine, which became one of the richest and most famous mines in silver mining history in the United States.

From Colorado, August 2013

There’s a scenic viewpoint that is well worth stopping at, where you can see the remnants of the mining work, with the Red Mountain behind, as well as some abandoned ramshackle houses.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Unfortunately, all those mine works left a nasty legacy in the form of pollution in the rivers and streams, many of which became sterile of life. Some have now been cleaned up, by diverting the water flow and keeping it away from the poisonous waste from the mining.

Just after leaving the outlook point, we were overtaken by an SUV, as we pulled out of the hairpin just out of shot in the last photo. He had Colorado plates, so obviously knew the road better than me, but still not exactly safe driving. I could see what he was going to do, so moved right over to let him pass, but Doreen took exception to the manoeuvre and gesticulated vigorously as he passed. A little later when we had stopped again, I commented on this. For sure, it wasn’t safe. If I had accelerated hard out of the bend rather than slowing and moving over, and if some other idiot had been coming fast the other way, when he tried that overtake, then someone could have been in serious trouble – most likely us as we were the exposed ones on a motorcycle.

I think we were both feeling particularly touchy about cretins overtaking on bends, as I had just read, and shown Doreen, a post from fellow blogger, Ursula Wachowiak, who started her solo motorcycle adventure around the USA in 2012, and who has been blogging about her journey at BROAD – Babe Riding Out A Dream. Ursula was on her way to Sturgis for the first time this year when she met a stupid arsehole overtaking a truck on a bend in Minnesota. She took the full impact of the resulting crash on her left leg. Her leg was amputated a week later due to her injuries. Go read her blog and help if you can.

Despite the utter contempt I have for people willing to risk the lives of others with dangerous overtaking, I suggested to Doreen that perhaps as visitors to the US, it was probably best not to let anger get the better of us and to inflame the situation with hand gestures. For one thing, you never know who is carrying a gun in the US and has had a bad day or has something to prove.

Even at home in Scotland, it is usually wiser not to rise to provocation (advice I do not always follow myself, but really should). Not long before I set off on this leg of the trip, Doreen and I were sitting at traffic lights on Waterloo Place in Edinburgh. The lights turned green, but we couldn’t go because some arsehole in a BMW had decided to pull out and block the intersection even though his lights were red. I just shook my head in frustration, but that was enough for his passenger to wind down his window and start mouthing off, threatening to get out of the car and come over and punch me off the bike. I had Doreen on the back of the Trooper at the time, and so said nothing and did nothing, and after another change of the lights the BMW went on it’s way with the passenger still mouthing off and trying to spit at us as they pulled off (a pathetic attempt as we were at least 6 feet away). Not responding to the provocation on this occasion was definitely the best course of action as no real harm was done.

If Doreen had not been sitting on the back of the Trooper, making it near impossible for me to just get off the bike, then things may have been different but probably not for the better, as I really hate dickheads in bling driving BMWs and thinking they are gangstas. But then again, perhaps they were. A few days later, we heard there had been a fatal shooting in Edinburgh a mile or 2 from where we live. A member of a local mosque, Mohammed Omar Abdi, who police had previously arrested in possession of several hundred thousand pounds worth of cocaine, had been shot dead after a car chase through the city. Perhaps one of the four man charged with his murder – Hussein Mohammed Ali, Ahmed Hussain Ahmed, Cadil Huseen, and Muhamud Muhamud – was the inbred that spat at us and  threatened to punch me off my bike . We have low lifes with guns in the UK too.

After our SUV incident, we continued riding through the mountainous splendour, and started to pass dozens of dirt bikes going in the opposite direction. Dirt biking seems to be a big activity around here judging from the number we ran into on the rest of the trip into Silverton.

After all the twists and turns coming out of Ouray, the road flattened out as we sped into the frontier town of Silverton. After some of the modern sprawling towns we’d seen in the US, both on this trip and the last, we loved the look of Silverton, which oozed wild west character.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

It was time for lunch, and after a stroll along the main street, we opted for BBQ at the 3 Pitts Again. The pulled pork was good. It seems that every state in the US has a claim to doing the best BBQ, and the 3 Pitts Again proudly displayed their BBQ championship awards on the walls in an effort to verify their claim.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we rode out of Silverton, toward Durango, we were climbing again and there is an amazing view of the town nestling in the valley floor. There was no place to stop for a photo, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, or go and see it for yourselves.

A little further along the road and a photo opportunity soon presented itself with a convenient parking area at a scenic outlook. As we walked over from the parking to the viewpoint we both noticed how thin the air was. We were at an altitude of just over 11,000 feet and even that small amount of exercise had us fighting for air. How do people manage to bicycle up these inclines, as we saw some people doing?

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As you get closer to Durango, the road gets less bendy, with more log cabins, but the pine trees are big and impressive. We didn’t stop in Durango, on the road through we didn’t really see anything worth stopping for. Perhaps there was more of interest if we’d headed into the centre, but our plan for the day was to get to Cortez, to give us less of a ride the following day, so we pressed on.

On the road between Durango and Cortez is the Mesa Verde National Park. We pulled over to look. From what we could tell, within the park was a road up to the top of the mesa, but since we would invariably have to pay to enter the park, even for just to 20 or 30 minutes we’d stop for, we decided that the view of mesa from down on the road was probably good enough.

From Colorado, August 2013

The outskirts of Cortez were grim and seemed to consist of one big trailer park, and as we pulled into town, even Doreen was happy to see a McD, as it was time for an overdue refreshment stop. We were both hot and bothered, and at least, McD’s ice tea is refreshing. We made use of the free wifi to check out hotel and bar options for the evening. The National 9 Inn seemed to fit the bill, being both relatively cheap and close to a bar. The google reviews were mixed, but I’d stayed in places with worse reviews and had found them fine. I sometimes wonder whether people reviewing budget motels aren’t used to or expecting something more akin to the smarter chain luxury with the extra free toiletries. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me. My only caveat is that they are clean. Unfortunately, that was not true for the National 9 Inn.

Alarm bells should have gone off as soon as we walked in reception. The place reeked with the fetid stench of yesterday’s curry. Putrid aroma’s from old cooking is never welcoming, but curry must be one of the worse, especially as I detest the stuff. Doreen loves curry, but even she took a step back when the noxious stink hit us as we walked in. We were still prepared to give it a go as the rooms didn’t adjoin reception and should have been spared the stench, so we paid our $50.

As I unstrapped and unloaded the bike, Doreen carried the bags into the room. Her face said it all when I walked in with the last bag. We weren’t staying here. Looking around room, it seemed that every soft furnishing in the place had evil looking stains on it. Doreen checked the sheets and the bathroom which seemed superficially clean, at least on the surface. These stains on chairs, carpet, lamp shades, etc. had been here a while. Still, we weren’t staying – the continuing look of disgust on Doreen’s face confirmed that.

As I loaded the gear back onto the bike, Doreen went to get a refund. The guy in reception tried to argue, but Doreen cut him dead. She did concede a $2.50 charge for processing the credit card transactions. When Doreen came out to help me strap the last of the luggage to the Trooper, a middle aged Mexican lady came scurrying over to us asking us to show her what was wrong with the room. She turned out to be the maid, and the owner had obviously just given her a flea in the ear about the room’s cleanliness. We showed her, and explained it wasn’t the daily cleaning that was the problem, it was the nasty ingrained stains. She then told us that she been telling the owner this herself. Apparently he was the new owner of the place, and whereas the old owner had supplied proper cleaning products and stain removers, the new owner had cut back on everything and the unfortunate lady was unable to do her job properly. She also told us that they had new chairs in storage, but the owner was too tight fisted to bring them out until the old ones were falling apart. Before we left the room for the last time, the owner himself had come over, and we were glad to have had the opportunity to point out to him exactly what was wrong, and to do this in front of the maid. The problems with the place were his, not his cleaner’s.

We rode back up the road looking for somewhere else to stay and about a mile back we came to the Aneth Lodge. I’m not sure bikers are very welcome or expected from the suspicious look on the faces of the two ladies who were manning the motel’s reception desk. If biker’s aren’t welcome, then I guess our polite request in our British accents secured us a room for the night. It was a clean and tidy room – sheer heaven after the National 9 Inn.

We had further to walk to reach the Main Street Brewery, but it was worth it, both for a clean room and because the brew pub did some great beers, including a banana and chocolate beer. Dark chocolatey beers are more up Doreen’s street than mine – I prefer something paler and hoppy – but she had a head for red wine that night, so the interesting sounding banana and chocolate beer went untasted, although plenty others were.

On our way back to the motel, we bumped into 2 of the bikers we had met on the Black Canyon loop. We all hesitated recognising each other, but not quite sure from where, until it suddenly clicked. They were colorful characters, also on a road trip but measured in weeks rather than months. They had endless stories of hunting elk with bows and narrowly missing encounters with grizzly bears in the dead of night. One the guys insisted on showing us a rattle snake skin drying back home. He’d come away as soon as he caught it, so he hadn’t eaten the meat. His intention was to make a hat band from the skin.

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