There was a time when Colorado was the Wild West and that spirit stays alive today
Colorado is for the hale and hearty. A place where the elderly boisterously mock passing 4×4s and reminisce about their skills on VW Bugs; where to get to work you may have to hold onto the roof of your car to spare your caboose a bruise. Colorado is also where the Trans-America Trail runs through. The TAT, as it’s endearingly called, is a coast-to-coast trail on completely dirt roads. The American state is famous for its 52 fourteeners (a mountain that meets or exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet (4,270m) above mean sea level), its Rocky Mountains and its large national landmarks and parks, but with the TAT we followed it through the less traversed southern Colorado and America’s Wild West. Southeast Colorado is ruled by derrière-branded cattle and their rugged ranchers, and if you make them laugh, they’ll point their shotgun towards some animal for dinner as a treat.
For a while I pretended to be a cowgirl as my partner and our two dogs traveled through Colorado – it was both exalting and cringing. Every traveler knows to welcome laughter; whether it’s with you or at you. In this case, it is at you paired with a “you’re not from around here.” And since most of the land here has been claimed, the safest spot for camping would also be on a ranch hand’s property – no cow patties or cougars. I watched as our rancher reached into his freezer and plucked out a bear’s head and paws (however, it’s capital punishment for stealing chickens). He will use the paws to make moccasins for his grandchild and has already used some rendered bear fat to oil his boots. I held the head in my hand, it’s much smaller than I imagined, and wondered what bear tastes like. It is like eating double animal. Then our rancher showed us his wall of skulls, the all-American trophies. I spotted a bison skull and whispered to my partner, “Aren’t those protected?” “Yup,” he replies. As a blaze is set inside a barrel with black frittering pops, I asked him another question, “Can you burn plastic?” “Nope,” he answers.
Colorado is speckled with mountain towns like Salida, Telluride and Silverton – the survivors of our Manifest Destiny who thrived beyond mining and railroad. These towns are as quaint as quaint can be with celebrations and recreation centered around its most extreme conditions: skijoring (a race between horse rider and skiers among snowy obstacles), Hardrock 100 (a hundred mile race elevating and declining between 67,984 feet) and the Alpine Loop (a backcountry byway weaving around the San Juan Mountains and the ghost towns that did not make it).
The Alpine Loop has its origin as a “wagon road” that led from one town to another, yet driving even the tamest route makes you wonder about the quality of that wagon. On Cinnamon Pass, we reached high elevations that we doubted our poorly-equipped vehicle could handle, crossed vibrant high alpine meadows, and our blood pressures soared as we edged over shelf roads. From there you are dropped into the ghost town of Animas Forks, where walking through the halls of the abandoned homes I imagined the madness that ensues from being snowed under 25 feet. We continued our way through Ophir Pass, a scree-sloped road streaked with beautifully intoxicating hues of red, gray, green and yellow. We finally took respite in Silverton, a town once strewn with saloons but now replaced with tourist outfitters. The only place that still seemed like it belonged was a shop that sold handwoven sweaters – Weathertop Wovens. Quaint.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is notable for its 400,000-year-old and 755-feet-high mountains of sand that hug the face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A birthplace of elements – a marriage of sand, stone and water to create the dune field, the alpine tundra, the montane forest and the wetlands.
We followed the sandy Medano Creek primitive 4×4 road into the national preserve and I can’t help but notice the wavering inclinometer as we drift and roll over the deep plush sand. In the national preserve we took a moment to forage for chokecherries and found a broken antler near our camp, a reminder of life’s stresses. Later, we hiked up the sand dunes and it is as difficult as it sounds – each step burning into the soles of our feet the fact that you cannot outrun a sandworm. Upon reaching the peak I looked over to the mountains next to us and took note of how windy it was, the same wind that is constantly eroding one to create another. Then, I look over the dunes and thought maybe our dogs can sled me down from here.
Somewhere in the San Juan Mountains, the largest mountain range in southwestern Colorado, we nestled for the night. The sun leaves us early and arrives late over the mountains, and to keep us warm I steeped some pine needles in hot water. As we put out the fire we notice dark shadows shuffling up, bear cubs? No, a mother porcupine and her baby! The dogs were already in the tent so my immediate caution was taken care of as I watch the porcupines make their way past us. I wanted to go and follow them into their home but they made no such welcome gesture back towards me. They did not care about us and knew we would be gone by dawn.
Even if you did nothing of what we did and spoke to no one, Colorado will never disappoint. There is no escaping the sensations. Even a highway will not take you to your city without first having you acknowledge the surrounding thoughtful lakes.
BIO: To read more about Chelsea and Rob’s (pictured top) off-road adventures on the Trans America Trail, visit arrowswest.com
Images by Rob Mcnamee