Thursday, August 18, 2011

On the 'Million Dollar Highway'

US Route 550 winds its way precariously from Silverton to Ouray - threading its way on ledges, cuttings and through hair-pin bends through the San Juan Mountains. The road is narrow, windy, and for every stupendous view it offers up to the peaks - offers a lethal drop down thousands of feet into the abyss below. The road has no safety barriers, and in some places, hardly any clearly defined edges. The temptation for the driver to take his eyes off the road to enjoy the view or to draw breath at the sight of a soaring eagle is great - but in my case more than offset by the terrified screams of the passengers closest to the edge pointing out that our wheels were 'less than two feet from certain death'.

Driving the 'million dollar highway' (a nickname is gained because of the expense of its construction) is a great experience during the day. We were glad we were back through it before nightfall, as further down beyond Silverton we drove through the most intense lighting storm I have ever seen. The rain was so heavy that visibility was dreadful, while the road turned into a torrent of water. The road/river bed looked black and menacing - and was lit up every few seconds by the arcs of lightning slicing and dancing down from the clouds into the trees either side like incessant strobe lighting. Every mile-an-hour we had to slow down meant longer out in worsening conditions, and so the pressure to keep moving at a reasonable speed fought against the fact that sometimes the beams of our headlights revealed nothing at all! The lack of any reflective edges to the road or junctions meant that they were peering hopelessly into the darkness. What the 'million dollar highway' would have been like by that point I cannot imagine. One bookshop owner in Durango told me of the nightmares she had as child about the car going over the edge up there. Apparently her uncle knew the road like the back of his proverbial hand, and would drive it in the dark at break-neck speed - and in those days it was a rough dirt track.

We carried sleeping children from cars back into our holiday house through the still streaming rain, as lightning continued to flash and the lights flickered. Collapsing into deep sofas with huge cups of inordinately strong coffee seemed an appropriate end to the days adventures.

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