Last known location: London, England

Route 50: Million Dollar Highway

We left Grand Junction on the Wednesday, which was probably for the best given our fondness for one particular bar and taking photos with policemen! We were all feeling a little bit delicate after the previous days birthday celebrations so an early stop was required! Delta, about 30 miles from Grand Junction, is a pretty little town known as the City of Murals thanks to the multiple walls covered in interesting murals. We popped into a diner in town to rehydrate – the boys in particular were feeling rough. Dan even had to resort to a bowl of soup to settle his stomach! After a quick walk up and down Main Street we got back in the car to continue on our way.

Within a few miles we were diverting off Route 50 again, heading for the San Juan Mountains and the Million Dollar Highway. Eight miles east of Montrose the classic two-lane stretch of road forms a swirling ribbon through the San Juan Mountains, the wildest and most rugged peaks in the Colorado Rockies. It’s officially known as Route 550 and we followed it down to Ouray, a small but very pretty town sandwiched between imposing peaks. We stopped in town for some lunch and then visited the hot springs for a healing soak. The crystal clear natural springwater certainly eased some aches and pains and we had about 5 different pools with varying temperatures to choose from. The scenery was gorgeous, and we spent an hour or so admiring the mountains from the warm baths. But we couldn’t hang around for too long, we did need to cover a bit of ground that afternoon.

Our progress was hampered by the Million Dollar road, partly because we had to keep stopping to admire the amazing views and partly because the road itself was pretty hairy, with vertical drops off the narrow winding path. The origin of the “Million Dollar” name is somewhat mysterious but there are several ideas; some say it was first used after an early traveller complaining of the terrifying steepness of the route said he wouldn’t go that way again even if he was paid a million dollars. Others claim that it derives from the actual cost of paving the route in the 1930’s. The favourite explanation is that when the highway was constructed the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated million dollars. We made our way very gingerly along the route, rarely going above 15 miles an hour, but 19 miles later we’d made it through the most dangerous section; we heard later that there’s a fatal accident at least every few months, and it wasn’t surprising – I wouldn’t fancy the chances of survival if you went off the edge!

Despite the frequent stops and cautious driving we did eventually make our final destination: Silverton. A 2 street city, just one of them paved, and a stop on the Narrow Gauge Railroad which brings plenty of visitors to see the rather quaint little town. It’s location is another big draw, surrounded by the snow capped San Juan’s. We found a motel, the appropriately named Canyon View, and headed out to explore. At least that’s what I thought was happening but there only seemed to be one destination in mind for Dan and David. They’d been chatting to the motel man and had gotten onto the subject of beer. So we were actually headed for the Silverton Brewery, a shop front just up the road. There were a few beers on tap and once David had explained to the staff that Dan was on a round the world beer tasting trip he got to sample all of them. I stuck to a very good Bloody Mary.

After an hour or so tasting local brews the boys were ready to move on. We walked through town, and along unpaved Blair Street which is a blast from the past. During the silver rush Blair Street was considered notorious because it was home to thriving brothel and boozing establishments. We stopped off at the Shady Lady Saloon, which was unfortunately closed, as were several other similar places. It seems that the town is quite busy in the afternoon with day-trippers from Durango but once they all head back on the train it becomes something of a ghost town. Still, we managed to find one other bar open and popped in for another pre-dinner drink. I think Dan may have found another new beer to try – his total’s nearing 200 now! For dinner we went to Natalias 1912; it used to operate as a brothel and only stopped doing that kind of business in the 50’s. Apparently when they refurbished the place recently they found a lot of bloomers and old negligees that had been stuffed up in the roof and used for insulation! Whilst Silverton was a very pretty place in a beautiful setting there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of fun to be had so we were in bed shortly after dinner!

Up bright and early the next day we stopped for a quick coffee in town before hitting the road. We drove through the San Juan National Park and along Wolf Creek Pass, passing more stunning scenery. We stopped late morning in Durango, an archetypal old mining town filled with graceful hotels, Victorian era saloons and mountains dominating the periphery as far as the eye can see. It also had an acupuncture and Chinese medicine shop which we went into. David’s back was getting a bit stiff after sitting in the car for hours on end and a sign outside the shop said “Bad back? Get in here!”. I was amazed at the guy inside’s ability to tell where David was a bit sore and keen to see the acupuncture in action. Unfortunately the man already had someone “on the table” so he sent David away with a few packs of herbal pills, which he never ended up taking! We had lunch in what appeared to be the hottest spot in town, where we were introduced to Tater Tots and Chicken Fried Steak, before getting back on the road.

Our journey took us through some tiny towns and before it got too late we decided to find somewhere to stay. We were in Monte Vista, a nothing town save for the bowling alley which gave it some appeal. We found the only operating accommodation in town – the Rio Grande Motel – and checked in. It was only just operating as it turned out; apparently the previous day the manager had quit and walked out so the owners son was looking after the place. The rooms were themed and Dan and I got lucky with the Deer room while David got stuck with the Trout room, which included a 3 foot stuffed trout cushion! We had an hour or so to relax before heading over to the bowling alley. It looked very traditional but with modern touches – a hand dryer above the ball rack! We were the only people in there and played a couple of shocking games. I was last both times and Dan and David got a win each. All the scores were fairly awful though! Bowling done we went back out to Monte Vista to find a place to eat. We’d heard about the local bar, Alibi’s, and saw from the sign that they did food so we made our way over. It looked like a classic All-American bar with a couple of motorcycles outside and some flashing neon signs. Inside it was relatively plain but we were given a warm welcome by the bar staff who all informed us we were a day too early. Apparently on the Friday a big motorbike rally was taking place along with a concert and dinner dance at the bar. Bit of a shame to miss it but we needed to keep going so we stayed at the bar for just a couple of hours, sampling the spicy chicken wings, before going back to the motel to crash out.

Durng our few days exploring Colorado we’d seen some amazing scenery, and had a nice taste of smalltown America…with more to come!

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