On the Edge of Beauty

October 29, 2013

“The most beautiful things in life are always the most dangerous” is the mantra I repeat to myself as the gorgeous landscape rushes through my windshield, its fatal frame one errant flick of the wrist away.

From Gunnison I decided to take what is one of the most scenic highways in the country to my destination, the Pueblo ruins (otherwise known as the Anasazi) at Mesa Verde. No one is quite sure how the road got its moniker but the Million Dollar Highway is quite aptly named. Some legends say that that was the cost to build the impossible roadway while others claim the mine fillings used in its construction would now be worth as much thanks to modern metallurgical techniques.

It takes me the entire morning to get to the route’s official start at Ouray. This lovely little town is nestled amongst mighty mountains and once there I found a fantastic coffee shop and chocolatier, Mouse’s Chocolates, where I believe I may have found my new favorite drink: the Dirty Hippy (chai with a shot of espresso!). Paired with one of their “scrap” cookies, containing whatever left over bits they salvage from their chocolate operations, it made a perfect accompaniment to the rest of the drive through the mountains to the road’s end at Silverton.

The serpentine path of the highway cuts through the rock in a glorious fashion. The lack of guard rails only serves to emphasize the devastating beauty of the drive, leaving no barrier between you and the overwhelming power of the mountains. One section bores straight through the stone while another is sheltered by a cement overhang that looks straight out of a Bond film. The whole journey is quite a test of ones driving prowess but the biggest challenge by far was deciding where to stop to drink it all in. The road is heavily trafficked by trucks and tourists alike while many of the best views are at its most dangerous points, making the perfect pull off elusive. I made about four stops along the road for photographs before finally pushing myself onwards to my ultimate destination.

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Mesa Verde wasn’t even on my map until my mother mentioned she’d always wanted to see the ancient Puebloan ruins there. I get to the park just in time for the last tour. An hour’s drive into the park I find the starting point along with a fellow east coast lone wolf. Hailing from New York City, this guy’s been on the road for months! From Boston, to Santa Fe, and all the way to Black Rock City, I can’t help but be a bit jealous. After exchanging some traveling tips, the group begins the tour.

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Our guide, one of the park rangers, is fantastic. Well worth the meager $3. The technology behind these ancient towns is stunning. As our guide tells us, the ancestral Puebloan people were spread out across the American southwest. For everything we know about the subtle details of their lives, many larger mysteries remain. They built their towns, or “pueblos”, first on the mesa tops where they performed all their dry farming, depending on the rain alone. Later, for reasons unknown, they began to move into their famous cave dwellings. But just a short century later they abandoned these gorgeous abodes as well, dispersing across the area and stumping archeologists.

The ranger informs us of the most popular theory. Archeological records show that these groups moved shop every few generations as they depleted local resources. This worked for centuries until they became a victim of their own success, their population exploding. Eventually there just wasn’t any non-depleted land to occupy and the entire intricate civilization began to fall apart. Perhaps the clans began moving into the safety of the cliffs for the protection they provided against their desperate neighbors.

And so the beauty of Mesa Verde belies the danger of its creators’ success.

I have to brave yet another curving road out of the park, this time in the dark, as I race to make it to Moab, Utah. Another state disappears behind me into the night.

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