The blend of deep rust brushed with streaks of ocher right out of mother nature’s iron oxide paintbox were striking against the volcanic slopes of the San Juan Mountains. My sister and I made our way slowly along the breathtaking Million Dollar Highway on our route to the National Historic Landmark town of Silverton, Colorado. The town once a former silver mining camp located on the Silverton Caldera is one of the highest in the US at 9,318 feet. It had been the traditional summer home of the Ute Tribe (Nuchu) that had inhabited this high country since 1000 A.D. but this waste change with the economic forces of the mining boom. The road built in the 1880’s was an engineering feat at the time and it followed the Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad track and is by many considered one of the “most scenic drives in the USA.” The byway continued to wind up the steep passes of Coal Bank (10,640 ft), and Molas Pass (10.970 ft) and the snowpack glimmered in the sun. Clear roads at this elevation is always a concern in early April and fortunately the road was dry and the skies blue as we climbed toward the peak. This route is known for its sheer cliffs and narrow lanes that can be dangerous with jaw clenching hairpins turns, stretches with no railings, and combined with unpredictable weather makes for a truly memorable drive. We took in the surrounding slopes that bore the traces of ski touring and cross country runs along with the tell tale snowmobile tracks before making our descent.
The million dollar view into the valley below revealed a quaint Victorian mining town with colorful facades that highlighted its “wild west” past. Silverton is nestled in one of the worlds richest mineral supervolcanos that had erupted 27 million years ago. The vast wealth extracted from its caldera included gold, silver, copper, etc. and was the source of prosperity for the region that began in 1861 and ended in 1991. With the closing of its mines Silverton and surrounding towns have had to deal with the political, economic, and environmental complications stemming from years of mining pollution and controversial superfund support. Tragically in 2015 the Gold King waste water spill released toxic chemicals into the Silverton and Animas Rivers and what followed was an environmental disaster. The region has its work cut out for them in contending with the mining waste contamination but despite these complex problems Silverton is promoting high country tourism and touting the recreational and sporting opportunities of this alpine landscape.
The giving and receiving of directions out of the Navajo Reservation can be confusing if not downright impossible for non residents. Often they are issued with a nod of the head and pursued lips with the chin pointing the visitor in the right direction. Sometimes a hand wave is included towards a notable landmark such a water tower or chapter house then slowly one is told to proceed down the second graded road then turn left at the fence after the cornfield etc .…..It can be quite a challenge making one’s way around Navajo Country. I had come back on my yearly visit to Northeastern Arizona around Canyon to Chelly to spend time with my family after traveling through the dramatic landscape of New Mexico following my sojourn in Southwestern Colorado. Visiting the clan along with a requisite pilgrimage to Canyon de Chelly National Monument to pay my respects to Spider Rock is balm to this Native’s soul.