From the many switchbacks on U.S. 550 leaving Ouray, you can turn to your left and get a breathtaking view of the little town. On this weekday morning, sunlight set aglow this small seam in the San Juan Mountains, highlighting the occasional car passing through the single paved street, and the unhurried pedestrians meandering down the sidewalks.
My wife looked down on the scene for a minute, quiet, thoughtful. Then she turned to me and asked, with heartbreaking sincerity, "Don't you think that's pretty arrogant, to say you're the "Switzerland of America'?"
Man, do I love that woman.
I found myself in agreement that Ouray, with its subpar breakfast options and for-you-the-tourist! feel, may not do much for the Swiss. But no bother. We were leaving Ouray anyway, and via the Million Dollar Highway.
There are so many differing stories regarding this stretch of road, you'd think it was carved in the 1680s, not the 1880s. Most seem to agree that a Russian immigrant named Otto Mears built it as a moneymaking tollway to connect towns at the height of Colorado's mining boom. And it's definitely considered part of the San Juan Skyway Loop, one of only 27 roads given the "All-American" designation by the federal government.
But the name, "Million Dollar Highway"? Some say it refers to the $1 million per mile it must have taken to build such a windy stretch on the cliffs 500 feet above Uncompahgre Gorge. Others argue it refers to the cost of rebuilding and paving it in the 1920s, or the value of the gold and silver tailings in the roadbed. Still others maintain the name came from one early, spooked traveler saying, "I wouldn't go that way again if you paid me a million dollars."
Hard rock, soft skin
Perhaps all these different stories contribute to the confusion as to how much of the San Juan Skyway circling from Ridgway to Cortez to Durango and back actually deserves the designation of Million Dollar Highway. For the sake of this story, we're going to talk 25 miles, going from Ouray to Silverton.
The two-lane road ascends from about 8,000 feet to 11,000 feet at Red Mountain Pass, the speed limit usually 25 mph or under. Guardrails aren't an option, because in winter, the plows would have nowhere to put the snow that falls around, ahem, little Switzerland.
Within five waterfall-dotted miles, we came across a couple stone tablets on the side of the road. One remembers three men who have "given the supreme sacrifice in the maintenance of Red Mountain Pass." The second memorializes a reverend and his two daughters, who were killed on the highway in a mudslide.
We drove on. Within minutes, our reverence again was commanded, this time by Red Mountains 1, 2 and 3. These peaks, first seen from the northwest, almost glow reddish-orange, due to the iron in the soil. Runoff from rain and snow turns Technicolor in the valley.
Mining in this area more than a century ago produced ore that, in today's money, would amount to three-quarters of a billion dollars. The mountains still contain trails, now used mostly for hiking and biking, that lead to old mines with names like Yankee Girl and National Belle. But upon seeing a half-rotted animal carcass in the neon creekbed nearby, we decided to skip the exploration.
The lookout just below Red Mountain Pass is the most obvious place on the highway where past and present really connect, and it's perfectly awkward. Parents waddle around their Ford Explorers, their pasty, soft skin mocking the memory of the calloused men who once worked the mines. Teens stare at their flip-flops, ignoring placards detailing the old town of Ironton's mineral-fueled boom and market-caused bust.
Less depressingly, signs also detail the ongoing land reclamation work that the Idarado Mining Company is doing, planting grasses to help cover old scars in the mountainside.
Small business, cold beer
After Red Mountain Pass, Highway 550 is, simply, a beautiful mountain drive, all the way past the Christ of the Mines shrine that overlooks Silverton. J.C. has kept watch over this town for about 50 years. Legend has it that right after this 12-foot, 12-ton marble statue was erected, the town's largest mine reopened, revealing high-grade gold.
Now that the mining in this area has stopped again, perhaps He busies himself by keeping developers away.
Silverton, our final stop, has a population that topped out at a cool 531 in the 2000 U.S. Census, and it seems that all residences and businesses fan out around one main street. Named ... Main Street. Like Main Street in Ouray, you can tell you're on it because it appers to be the only paved street in town.
But that's not to say the entrepreneurial spirit has no place here. Parking on Main Street, we found ourselves looking through our windshield at an enterprising boy who had set up a rock-selling stand outside one of the trinket stores.
Hayden's operation, unobtrusively overseen by his mother about 15 feet away, virtually bled with authenticity. His grandfather, he said, had found the rocks in the hills nearby. At least the ones that Hayden hadn't bought online. We gave this information some careful thought, and decided that what the business lacked in guarantees, its proprietor made up for in honesty. We bought two.
Finally, we stopped at Silverton Brewery. Though only open since 2005, the brewery carries the name of a brewery that opened in 1880 and featured a beer garden and the oversight of a German master brewer. When this more-recent incarnation opened, it marked the first time since Prohibition that Silverton had its own brewery.
You'd never guess it's a newbie; it just feels legit. The Red Mountain Ale drinks smooth, and the Hugh Hefeweizen's Playmate of the Wheat is both light and complex. The wood floors inside the building are noticeably and nicely un-shined. Amid pairs and small groups eating good-sized burgers, we saw one family playing cards, as if at their own kitchen table.
We finished our last drops, paid our tab and walked out into midday. One of the brewery's T-shirt-clad staffers stood on a ladder, tinkering with the toy train that circles the track just above the doorway. A passerby offered encouragement to the brewer/engineer, and low clouds moved slowly through the San Juans around us.
Silverton, it seemed, needn't be a Switzerland, or a Samoa, or anything. What it was, by itself and without pretense, was more than enough.
Destination: The Million Dollar Highway
Route: Ouray is about 270 miles and 4.5 to 5 hours from Colorado Springs. Take Colorado Highway 115 south to U.S. Highway 50 west; follow to Montrose; go south on U.S. Highway 550 to Ouray.
Time on the MDH: From one hour to one day, depending on stops made and time spent in Silverton.
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