Some people are able to plan their trips down to the smallest detail and never make wrong turns. I’m not one of them.
When I travel with my husband we set out with just a general plan and I’m the navigator. I can read a map as well as the next person, but sometimes I miss a crucial sign.
That’s what happened when we drove into Chama, a town at the northern end of a fertile valley in northwestern New Mexico. We wanted to go northwest from Chama to Durango and north from there to Silverton, in southwestern Colorado, so as to ride the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) north to Ouray (pronounced you-RAY). The steep cliffs, the narrow lanes cut into the mountain, and the hairpin curves make the 12 miles south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass spectacular.
No one seems to know exactly how this road that connects former centers of silver mining got its name. One story is that it cost that much per mile to build it in the early 1920s.
We had driven that highway many years before, also in autumn. The aspens then were ablaze with fall foliage—golden and orange against the verdant evergreens. This seemed like the perfect time of year to see them again.
That morning, however, I needed something urgently from a pharmacy, and in our rush to the pharmacy I missed the turnoff and we continued straight through Chama, which seemed logical. That, however, led us east on SR 17, a road with no markings and almost no signs of human habitation. The sun’s arc was low in the sky, making it harder for me to get my bearings. We had gone almost 40 miles before I realized the mistake and we turned back.
When we finally got to the Million Dollar Highway we discovered that the aspen foliage, though still beautiful, was slightly past its prime. But here on SR 17, a little-traveled road that wound its way up the mountains to a plateau, the aspens were in full glory—richly glowing gold and orange. My mistake was our gain and further proof of the old Latin adage: Non frettum rongum turnum.
Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.