The \"Million Dollar Highway\"

By Totty Posted on Adventure


Where burning brakes bring to mind a secret town and John Galt

Like pain, the odor of burning brake linings is a sensation your brain keeps you from remembering well. That small mercy was one of several thoughts I had as I tried not to descend too rapidly down Highway 550 into Silverton, Colorado. The year was 1992 and my wife, son and I, in a rented Ford, had just spent a languorous 90 minutes climbing out of Durango to 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains. Now, poised above Silverton’s high mountain valley and within sight of the old mining town, the road decided to deliver us abruptly to our destination by plunging half a mile over a distance of five.

Our car’s brakes, built by people who lived in places where the landscape rolls but does not soar, were not used to the task I was laying on them. By the time we were halfway down the mountainside, the acrid smell of carbonized brake lining filled the car. As the brakes overheated, our concern quickly became just how many pieces would we arrive in at Silverton?

But even as we fretted about whether Silverton might be our last vision on earth, we amazed ourselves at the other thoughts we were having. In between gritting our teeth, one of us would say, “Gee, look at that view!” momentarily distracting us all. It was good advice: We were driving about as high up on pavement as people can in the continental U.S., looking down on a valley almost two miles above sea level and hemmed in by looming mountain masses. The sense of being high, distant and remote felt good.

We geared down, used turnouts to rest the brakes, and made Silverton in one piece. Walking down its main street, we realized this was a place that was easy on the eye but probably very hard to live in. At 9,000 feet, Silverton’s dry valley was bare, surrounded by 3,000 and 4,000-foot peaks that burst from the earth with no prelude. There were no foothills here – in one step you were walking on level terrain; in the next your feet were pointed at a 45-degree angle. We could imagine how bitter winters here could be in the thin air, with the mountains standing like grim guards, blocking the sun and warm fronts.

But it was not winter, and Silverton was not our final destination. Our real goal was Ouray, a hamlet 25 miles further north, one that had intrigued us with its beauty, its isolation and its role as one of the inspirations for a powerful modern novel. So we set off from Silverton, driving back to the crossroads and looking warily south at the highway that had almost won its duel with our brakes, then turned in the other direction to resume our climb into the San Juans.

The drive through the San Juans is the opposite of a drive along the Sierra Nevada in the Owens Valley or past the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole. In those trips, you look across to the mountains and up at them. Although you can see the whole of their fronts, you can only imagine what the high terrain back away from their crests looks like. In the San Juans, driving at 10,000 and 11,000 feet, you are in the mountains, near their very tops. It’s like being invited into the private heart of somebody’s home where, at last, you can see what things are really like.

At that height, the mountains were less jagged and abrupt, and seemed to stretch gently away from us at modest inclines. It was as though they sensed that their climbing was almost done and that the visual drama of their lower reaches was no longer necessary. Vegetation near the top was mostly short plants, seasonal grasses and lichens, with copses of fir, spruce and aspens tucked in sheltered folds. The sky was huge, since the higher we drove the closer it was to becoming all that there was. The drive crested at 11,250 feet, only half a mile lower than the very top of the San Juans, and began, as it did at Silverton, to hurry downward to its next destination.

We learned that on this final stretch to Ouray, Highway 550 was known as the “Million Dollar Highway.” Miners originally bestowed the name, noting the wealth that poured down the highway to Ouray from the mines there in the high country. Later, as the mines played out and the beauty of the San Juans began drawing tourists, the name referred to the million-dollar views. In places, though, the views were not worth a million bucks – lurid colors left by mine tailings stained several creeks and pools along the way, and would last for years. These blotches were not enjoyable to see, but they were a part of the history of the place. The miners who preceded us did not have the luxury of aesthetics, leisure time or environmentalism. The 19th-century’s work ethic was simple and inexorable: work or die. If their work put them in a place where they might find riches and escape a life of appalling drudgery, so much the better.  

Past the mining scars, the road plunged along deep canyons. Relief here was high and stark, and we praised the efforts of the engineers who had somehow found a place to put a road in these mountains. Then, a quick glimpse of a little town in a valley, just as quickly obscured by another shoulder of the mountains. Suddenly, another turn of a curve and there it was, spread out below us, the place where John Galt escaped the world.

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