It amazes me the lengths a person will go for that extra mile-per-hour. Even more surprising is how long it takes some folks to figure out that I’m going slower than they are, and maybe just maybe they should use that wide-open passing lane to, you know, pass…
Mile twelve-hundred-and-eleventy-something of my new employ with Ye Olde Overland Shipping Company. No sooner do I get one trailer disconnected and another is hooked up—when Adventure Trailers offers to cover your fuel for a long weekend of wandering, if you can get a trailer to Durango by morning, it’s tough to say no. It’s nearly 8pm, and the lingering summer sun is closer than it appears.
In spite of the tailgating, slow-to-pass speed demons, I’ve safely traversed Navajo territory with a nicely apportioned Horizon trailer silently in tow. The glow of Farmington, New Mexico is dead ahead. It’s midnight. I have Motel 6. I’m going to bed.
Running late. Arriving early. The drive time into Colorado is a lot shorter than I imagined. The trailer delivery went off without a hitch (sorry, couldn’t resist). Mission accomplished, now it’s time to satisfy that wanderlust.
That all too familiar Land Rover “ding” fills the cabin as I’m rounding the tight curves of the Million Dollar Highway somewhere above Silverton, and I glance down to find my speed reading zero. Speed pops up on a digital readout, intermittently, after a few button presses on the ScanGauge—much more helpful than an orange “check engine” light and a dead gauge. A check of the error code shows a wheel speed sensor is on the fritz, the Discovery is just old enough to not care so I press onward.
It’s interesting how the things we stop and see or choose to skip can change when traveling solo. Without my wife’s love of old-fashioned trains and small towns to keep me company, Silverton just doesn’t have the same hold. After a brief lunch and an Americano in hand I’m anxious to hit the road.
Ophir Pass appears quickly out of Silverton, and I’m reminded of that cliff-side gnome village spotted during the only other visit I’ve made to the San Juans. I’ve never been over 10,000 feet, at least not for any length of time. Slowly up the winding road toward the pass, ever cautious for signs of acute mountain sickness. Instead of the anticipated headache and dizziness the low pressure of altitude clears my sinuses more quickly than any pill ever could. Spectacular vistas swing into view over the gray and rust stone maze as ice-cold streams flow over the switchbacks. Water like this just doesn’t happen in the deserts I’ve grown accustomed to—life, rather than dirt, is the natural state of the ground here.
At the saddle of the pass a strong westerly wind rocks the vehicle. A stark contrast to the gentle climb from the Million Dollar Highway, the village of Ophir rests nearly one-half mile beneath the loose talus slope. Scanning miles of narrow shelf road as it curves around the valley I notice a lone Jeep climbing the grade—and not one turn-out save the tiny alcove where I am parked. I take in the view of green, cyan ponds, and deep blue lakes in the forest below while I wait for my turn at the road.
With the intended campsite behind me the search for plan-B begins. It’s a big mountain, with so many great spots to choose from, but far too early to settle in. The east fork of the Dolores River sparkles fresh and clear below, and before long I’m headed skyward on yet another shelf road—this one much smoother than the last. The engine growls appreciatively to life and in moments the dense aspen woods give way to alpine meadows that stretch to the ends of the earth. The crisp breeze above 10,000 feet tastes like freedom as I chase the sun westward.
Turning down a side road, I notice a different sort of growl—it’s time for dinner. The road leads through the heart of the meadows, skirting through scattered campsites. None catch my eye, but just as I’m about to turn around the perfect site comes into view: secluded and with ample firewood, right on the edge of a small thicket. A warm fire and hearty dinner of beef jerky and garlic mashed potatoes make the perfect end of the day. Still, I can’t shake this feeling that there is something strange about my campsite.
Strange quickly becomes downright creepy. I feel like I’m being watched. The last rays of the setting sun disappear and a moonless pitch black falls over the countryside. I know I am being watched. The last embers of the fire go dark as I retreat to the safety and warmth of the Discovery’s sleeper. Just as I’m about to close the door behind me, the silence is broken by a deafening howl…
Still and quiet—a pleasant contrast to last nights activity. Birdsong is the only sound mingling with the first rays of the rising sun. In the stillness I get the distinct feeling the wolves are continuing to study the camp. The cold reminds me exactly why I adopted the Navajo tradition of pointing my (mobile) hogan to the east.
Sunrise in The Meadows is much like watching sunset in reverse, and just as breathtaking. A snow-capped peak to the south hints at a rewarding climb, but the road is calling. Beautiful though this spot may be, I can’t help but wonder what’s around the next bend. Rooftops of small cabins peek out through the trees. Picturesque ranch compounds sit in fields of burning green. Creek after creek merge to form the rapids of the West Dolores River.
I make good time rolling through the valley, weaving back and forth over the river, until an elderly man on the side of the road waves me down. He needs only one thing: to shoot the breeze with another human being, even if only for a moment. Beneath the house he and his wife built many years ago he tells the tale of a life well lived: adventure the world over, fighting in the great war, fortunes made and lost, and decades spent beside the woman he loved. After all his travels and all he has seen, to him, the fifty square miles around this house is the most beautiful place in all the Earth.
In this moment I can’t help but agree.
Below the mountains a disappointing amount of divided four-lane, homes, and sprawl await. It’s scenic, no doubt, but opportunities for solitude are few and far between. Armed with a ginormous turkey sandwich from the Absolute Bakery in Mancos, I push west down the highway in search of more dirt. The course takes me down a canyon leading from Cortez to the Utah border, also known as Ismay Trading Post Road. It looks tempting on a map, but the traffic is reminiscent of pod racing. Far too many close calls screech by before the canyon finally dumps out into a desolate landscape cursed with a closer resemblance to a Middle Eastern oil field than southeastern Utah.
It’s not until the staggering 80-mile-wide sight of Comb Ridge comes into view that I finally pull off the road. The individual formations may not be quite as impressive as some of the other geologic phenomena in the region, but this long series of seemingly identical ridges extends in a straight line ad infinitum—the sight is simply beyond words.
Just a few gentle hills over, rust-colored pinnacles begin to rise out of the sand. The forms of Valley of the Gods may tower overhead, but they still feel like a scale model next to the giant silhouettes of Monument Valley on the southern horizon. More excellent campsites, but again far too early in the day.
The course continues west into the sunset, between the Moki Dugway and an approaching thunderstorm, in search of the perfect place to spend the night.
Morning is dead-calm, and this time I’m awake from the sauna-like conditions in the Discovery instead of the light from sunrise. All sign of last night’s storm is gone, and for the first time I can remember I opt for a cold shower before setting off on a hike.
A crack in the cliff face barely more than a foot wide taunts with an easy way down (and most importantly, a way back up). I squeeze through, eager to explore the upper levels of the mesa wall, and am greeted by a well-traveled trail winding east. The trail leads underneath the campsite before dropping down two more levels into a cool, shady alcove. Hanging gardens cling for life to the ceiling, soaking up cold dripping water, which even on this warm June day forms small pools on the ground. Nature finds a way. Life prevails.
Wild horses race the Discovery, turning back north as the road widens. I head south, back down the Moki, and cross Navajo territory one more time for home.
Originally licensed to American Adventurist for publishing on May 10th, 2016.