Driving on, I stopped periodically to snap some shots of the Rockies in all their glorious, winter wonderland splendor. As I approached one more summit (Red Mountain Pass – elevation 11,018 ft.), the road became absolutely alarming, squeezing two lanes even tighter than before. Six-foot snowdrifts had been carved away along the shoulders. There were no guardrails, and the drop-offs weren’t just precipitous, they were apocalypse now. It was white-knuckle time. I tried to visualize what it must have been like to construct such a route. At some points, the road was literally carved out of the side of the mountain. The years to complete this project seemed almost academic. Besides taking a toll on the workers, the high altitudes must have limited the effectiveness of the steam shovels and jackhammers: water had a hard time boiling at such heights. Now you know why it was called the Million Dollar Highway…and that was 1920’s dollars.
The actual terminus of that incredible engineering feat is Ouray, which sits at the northern tip of the San Juan Mountains, and, like Silverton, is completely boxed-in by the omnipresent Rockies. I rolled down out of Ouray, and could see the canyon walls receding and opening out to some relatively flat land. Is Colorado great or what? Twenty minutes ago, I was wending my way through awe-inspiring mountain scenery, and now I was serenely cruising along in the middle of this bountiful valley, calf-high with feed grass and a meandering river. The grazing cattle couldn’t have looked more content. Purple mountain’s majesty and amber waves of grain…didn’t that inspire some hymn or anthem somewhere back when? Excuse my facetiousness.
I continued north on Route 550 to Montrose where I hooked a right onto U.S. 50, and headed east to Gunnison. Along the way, I looked to my right, and could see the cynosure of the San Juans, at least 30 miles away, and I thought: “I was just over there a couple of hours ago…is this state great or what?” Farther up the road, I had to skim across and around Blue Mesa Reservoir (part of the Gunnison River), where I noticed the water level was down 20 feet or more below normal. My curiosity was running rampant…there was something definitely wrong with that picture. I would find the answer just down the road.
I rolled into Gunnison and stopped at my favorite Safeway Store, where I could use the outside payphone to call my dear friend, Gene Paterson. Yep, I got a hold of her, right up there in Almont, where I had missed her a year ago, when I thought she was living in Montrose. I always loved hearing her voice: “Where are you? Oh, you’re in Gunnison. Come on up, I’d love to see you.” Now that’s Colorado hospitality. I hightailed up CO 135, and within ten minutes, I was in front of her barn-shaped log house (see illustration). We had one enjoyable evening, talking mostly about our former highschool classmates (Gene and I were voted Most Athletic, class of 1956). At one point, I had to ask her about the appalling condition at Blue Mesa. Her simple explanation was, “They release the water at the dam to make room for the spring run-off, the snow-melt.” Whew, that was a relief. I should have figured that out myself. Before retiring, Gene admonished, “You better batten down the hatches. They’re predicting some strong winds tonight.” “Okie-dokie, I’ll throw out the anchor,” I joked.
I woke up covered under a blanket of white. Only about an inch of flakes had accumulated, but it was enough to paint a beautiful wintry scene. I had finally exhausted my supply of bran flakes and milk, so a lone banana had to suffice for breakfast. The outside temperature read 33 degrees on my handy in/out thermometer (it was a toasty 45 degrees inside). As I strolled around the property, I was thinking: “This was as cold as I was going to feel for the next 8 or 9 months.” I really perused the barn house exterior, verifying the corner joinery of the 12″ by 12″ pine logs, the detailing around doors and windows, and various other particularities about the construction. It was safe to say the house was built to last a millennium, at least. I sashayed over to the corral to say hello to Gene’s three equine friends.
They didn’t know me from Adam. Horses had forever been a part of her life. Gene’s forte was training cutting horses, and she had some blue ribbons to show for it. She is quite the horse lady.