Goin' West, Part 6: Top A' Th' World, Ma!
Wednesday, 31 May 2000
U.S. 160 turned southwest at South Fork, Colorado, and we did the same. Within a few minutes we were obviously entering the mountains, because walls of rock were rising up on one side or the other. The road was two lanes and twisty, and gradually going uphill.
Now the uphill side of the road to Wolf Creek Pass isn't that bad, at least not if you're in a car. In a truck, it would be a struggle. In a car it's still trying, but turn off your air conditioner to give the engine a break and you'll be able to travel at the speed limit, which occasionally — but rarely — reached 45 miles per hour.
T A was huffing and puffing, though. The Metro didn't accelerate quickly on flat roads, and on the uphills it was slowing down on the steep grades, dropping to a speed of 15 m.p.h. on the steeper sections. Nevertheless we stayed together, crawling along in the truck lane when there was one available. From the bottom to the top of the pass was about 24 miles, and we managed the journey in a little more than half an hour. We probably could have done it more quickly, but tourists we were, and we stopped to take a few pictures.
From small streams up here, the Rio Grande is formed.
When someone mentions the Rio Grande River — usually mispronouncing it as "ree-oh grand" instead of the correct "ree-oh gron-day" — of what do you think? Texans chasing horse rustlers across a not-too-wide waterway? Well, Texas isn't the only state with the Rio Grande. Yes, the Rio Grande. The river actually begins in southwest Colorado, then travels south across New Mexico before heading of the Gulf of Mexico. And as you head up Wolf Creek Pass, you're getting closer to the headways of that river, which begin in the Rio Grande National Forest.
The not-yet-mighty Rio Grande
In the song "Aurora Borealis", Bill wrote about "Lost Lake, Colorado". Last year the members of the Other Wild Places mailing list debated the location of this lake. They didn't reach any conclusion though, because according to the maps there are at least thirty "Lost Lakes" in Colorado and the song didn't give enough information as to the location of the lake of which Bill spoke.
The Lost Lake? (Map provided by MapQuest)
See that small body of water at the center of the map? Well, you may speculate all that you want, but T A and I didn't know about it on Wednesday; we did find out on Thursday afternoon, but that's next week's story.
Anyway, we finally made it to the top, up there on The Great Divide. 10,850 feet above sea level. And here, on the 31st of May, there's snow. Yeah, off the road a bit and near the trees, piles of that fluffy white stuff were still around. We reached the summit around 5 P.M. and the temperature was in the high 50s, normal for then. But the air at night is still cold, and the protection of the trees keeps the snow around until summer finally reaches the heights.
Which way does it flow? On top of the Great Divide at Wolf Creek Pass.
Spoiler Alert! If you don't want to hear the truth about the downhill side of Wolf Creek Pass, then you'd better bail out now, and don't read the next three paragraphs. Just skip past the next picture before you start reading again.
Still there? Okay, you asked for it.
There is no tunnel on the downhill side of Wolf Creek Pass between the summit and Pagosa Springs. There's no tunnel on the uphill side between South Fork and the summit, either. The road does twist and turn, and if you've an automatic transmission in your vehicle you may find yourself riding the brakes often. But don't bother trying to find the tunnel, 'cause it ain't there. You could try to count the phone poles, if you can spot them. If you do, and if you estimate that you're travelling at 22,000 telephones an hour, be very careful because you'd be travelling faster than escape velocity. Yep, one wrong turn and you'll be the next module on the International Space Station.
More bad news: there is no feed store in downtown Pagosa Springs. So if you're comin' down hot and you need something to slow you down, you'd better aim for one of the other stores.
Okay, the spoilers are over.
My, ain't it purdy up here. The view from a scenic overlook south of the summit.
T A and I safely reached the bottom, then continued west to a campground about 30 miles east of Durango and a mile off of the road. T A broke out the MREs (mine claimed to be some sort of beefsteak), then like the night before, we settled down in our cars. Tomorrow we were going to Durango, see the Silverton and Red Mountain Pass, and meet the man who inspired us: Bill Fries.
Next: We're Not Worthy!, or How We Broke C.W.'s Bed
Song A’ Th’ Week
From the album
C.W. McCall & Co.
Go to sleep, you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can't you hear the steel rail hummin'?
That's a hobo's lullaby
Do not think about tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you're in a nice warm boxcar
Safe from the all the wind and snow
I know your clothes are torn and ragged
And your hair is turnin' gray
Lift your head and smile at trouble
You'll find happiness someday