Man In A Suitcase

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Every January SGI used to send its field technical staff somewhere to get educated on new products and technology. One year it was to Jackson Hole, a small town in the Grand Tetons. This made the skiers in the group very happy. The rest of us bundled up and enjoyed the combination of alcohol and high altitude. And yes, we did go to the training sessions, if only to see the latest demos. That's one of the advantages of working for a cool company: product demos you actually want to see.

Durango, Colorado

I first saw Durango, Colorado at the end of a long day of driving that began in Flagstaff, Arizona and includes some time in southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. Southwestern Colorado makes quite a contrast from all those straight, flat roads through the desert. Now I'd entered the San Juan mountains, with trees and pastures and even a few lakes. I knew I was headed for some challenging driving tomorrow. But for now I could let the cruise control do the work and enjoy the scenery.

Durango is a perfect little tourist town. Downtown is small enough to cover on foot but full of shops, restaurants and other amusements. And all housed in enough perfectly preserved and restored Victorian architecture to satisfy the photographer in me. My only big regret is that I was pressed for time and couldn't spend a day riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad up to Silverton and back. I could only look longingly at the happy people returning to town after their grand day out.

Durango must have been a prosperous place way back when, not that it has anything to complain about now. Two of the handsomest buildings in town are the General Palmer and Stater Hotels. The Stater is clearly the full service establishment, with two handsome bars, a restaurant and a theater for the Diamond Circle Melodrama. I spent a pleasant evening at the Melodrama, absorbing what I was assured is a traditional 19th century theatrical experience where you cheer the stolid hero, boo the oily villain and groan at heights of overacting and depths of low humor. Was it really so wonderful? Or was the lack of oxygen at that altitude just getting to me?

Durango is situated on the Animas River, a gentle waterway as it passes through town. I'm guessing it gets a little more exciting downstream, at least from the way the rafters at left were equipped. The scene struck me as rather incongruous, with that raft slowly moving past a fisherman standing ankle deep in the water. (Click on the picture and you'll see what I mean.) The woman at right and her friend had the right idea: lie back in an inner tube and let the river do the work. Or you could be like me: stand onshore and watch the world inch its way by.

Silverton, Colorado

Bright and early the next morning, I was back on US 550 North and on my way to Silverton. It's only a 45 mile drive, although the changes in altitude, the constant switchbacks and the lack of anything resembling a guard rail make the drive seem a bit longer. At one point the road ascends to just shy of eleven thousand feet above sea level, before making a not very gradual descent to Silverton's nine thousand feet.

Silverton looks like something you'd see on the Universal Studios tour, a western town as envisaged by Spielberg, or maybe Zemeckis. It's a town that got its name from its good fortune, allegedly digging out silver by the ton. That wealth gave the town some magnificent buildings, marred on occasion by the same combination of corruption and incompetence we read about big projects today. According to a comprehensive city guide I picked up at breakfast, those handsome columns above the town hall at left came crashing down one day while the building was still under construction. The contractor lost his job in the scandal. One can only be grateful he wasn't standing under the colonade when it decided to let go. Now hat would have been a tragedy.

One amusing aspects of small mining towns is the way the good and bad parts of town can be within a stone's throw of each other. Literally, in the case of Silverton, although I don't know in which direction they were being thrown. One block off the main drag is the notorious (again, according to that city guide) Blair Street, home to many of the town's houses of ill repute. Even today the town changes character as you walk from paved Greene Street to gravel surfaced Blair. The buildings look more rustic and more real. Like the Shady Lady at right, built as a brothel in the late 1890s and now serving as a saloon. The front is original; the rear is an old railroad building that was moved here later as business improved. Or maybe bars just need more storage space than cathouses.

Ouray, Colorado

US 550 starts to get a lot more interesting north of Silverton, both in the scenic and the adrenaline sense. It's only another twenty-five miles to Ouray, where the road levels off and concerns about dropping off a mountain to a fiery death are replaced by rage at roadhogs in Caddys. But they're an exciting twenty-five miles. Part of this segment of 550 is called the Million Dollar Highway, either because of gold still buried along its route or, more likely, to acknowledge the fiscal acumen of Otto Mears, the guy who built the toll road that the highway retraces. I had the luck to be trapped behind an eighteen wheeler for much of the way. Which probably was lucky. For one thing, it kept me from driving faster than was good for me. And for another, I got to watch two big trucks headed in opposite directions maneuver past each other around a mountain curve that was way too narrow for their purposes. (Makes me glad I'm not in that line of business.) It also meant that I was going slowly enough as I rounded one curve to see a great big shoulder, from which I got my first view of the Switzerland of America. From this angle, it looked even more like a movie set than Silverton.

Ouray is a tiny tourist spot today. But it made a name for itself once. Ouray's first fortune came from a silver strike in the 1870s, a time of such extreme politics and personalities that even Queen Victoria subscribed to its newspaper. Things fell apart in the Panic of 1893. But Ouray lived to fight another day; a gold strike three years later made its second fortune. Mine owner Tom Walsh became so wealthy he was able to buy his way into Washington, DC society (then as now, more a matter of ready cash than of style, wit or gentility) and to get his daughter Evalyn a little trinket called the Hope Diamond.

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