USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
I told you that there was another reason why I'd come up this particular road over the Stunner Pass, and this is it. It's the abandoned mining town, or ghost town, if you prefer, of Summitville, Colorado.
It's really superb here - not just the town but the altitude, the views and the atmosphere. I would have loved to have had more time to have wandered around here. It is the kind of place where I could quite happily spend a week.
The history behind Summitville is that gold was discovered here in 1870, and very soon a thriving town had sprung up. At one time, there were 600 or so inhabitants, but that didn't last too long. By the early 1880s the area had been worked out and the town was abandoned.
In the mid 1930s, new mining techniques led to the area being reworked, and the town was reoccupied for a short while. However the end of mining in the 30s is not the end of the story, no matter how romantic it may sound.
Further advances in mining technique coupled with "commercial considerations" led to the area being reworked in the 1980s. These new techniques included a leaching process involving cyanide (you see, I made a good guess earlier) in a sealed bed. However, for reasons that you might like to speculate, the sealing was not a success and the local watercourses became polluted
An investigation led to the company concerned being hit with a major obligation to abandon the work, clean up the site, and remedy the damage. The company's response was the inevitable big-business response, that of declaring bankruptcy and abandoning the site.
The company left behind a pool of between 150 and 200 millions of gallons of cyanide solution that was liable to overflow into the local water courses. This has cost the American taxpayer so far over $120,000,000 (1995 figure) to clean up. You can read some more about the Summitville Mining Disaster.
In Europe, the situation is quite different. European Union legislation requires that any treatment involving waste has to be licensed, and only an individual can hold a licence, not a corporation.
Furthermore, a licence-holder can't just walk away from a site. He has basically two obligations
This means that a corporation can't avoid its responsibilities by declaring bankruptcy - there's always some individual to carry the can.
Now whilst I was poking around Summitville, I met some American tourists, and we had quite a little chat about the area, "exchanging pleasantries", as the saying goes. Just before we parted, the lady said to me
"you know, just a little further on from here, there's this really impressive view of the Rockies"
"Really?" I replied, My ears had pricked right up at this sort of news.
"Why, yes". said the man. "Mind you it's really unfortunate that you won't get to see it".
"Well, your car won't get you up there. It's a bad road".
Now avid readers of these pages will know by now that phrases like "your car won't get up there" is like a red rag to a bull.
I've had the Mustang up some roads that they say 4x4s can't get up without a great deal of care and effort, so I wasn't going to be put off by this sort of talk. I was going to see for myself before I decided whether I could get up or not before I took anyone else's word for it.
What you now need to do is to bear in mind that the next 10 photographs have to be considered together. They are all part of a circular panorama.
And as for the view? Well, you can make up your own mind from the photographs. I would have crawled here on my hands and knees to see a view like this.
And so would you, I bet. It's a real shame that photographs just can't do justice to the real thing.
And there's snow on those peaks over there, too. Winter has started to arrive in the Rockies.
The more astute readers and viewers will have by now remarked
"But it's only mid September. Surely he can't be up above the snow line here?"
Well, he can, and he was. And if you wait just an instant I'll prove it to you too
I tell you, it was pretty high up and it was absolutely wonderful. There was this little buffeting wind blowing up here, the type that you sometimes feel on wide open spaces where there's absolutely no shelter at all. It was blowing right up here straight through this valley in which I was standing.
I just can't describe the eerie effect that it was having on me. I wasn't sure whether it was this wind, the altitude, the cold or just the excitement of being here and looking at this magnificent view. It's something I've never experienced before and probably never will again.
I don't think there ever was anything that can match the sense of grandeur, of magnificence, of isolation that I had when I was up here.
There was nothing in front of me until the Pacific Ocean, and behind me, there nothing until I reach the Atlantic.
What price Pike's Peak now?
I can now understand what Alan Parsons must have seen when he wrote
"I see the world"
"And I'm looking from a high place"
"Way above it all"
"Standing on higher ground"
When I went round to Lorna's the next time I was in the UK, we managed to arrange these photographs into a panorama, but it was too big to save onto a floppy disk. That panorama was so impressive that I'll have to remember to ask her what program she uses. It's one that automatically snaps together the photographs and tilts, distorts and pulls them automatically to fit. I'll have to treat myself to a copy.
And as for the road? Well, all I can say is that most Americans are nothing but a bunch of girls' blouses if they reckon that this is a "bad road". It just reinforces my opinion that there was nothing wrong with the Ford Exploder and everything wrong with the people who were driving it.
And in answer to the question you asked yourself a couple of minutes ago while you were looking at some of the earlier photos - well, see for yourself. Seeing snow in September is for me a rare event so I thought a photograph would be in order, just to prove I was there and so was the snow. It might not look like much, but it's snow In September nevertheless.
It's really hard to believe that just a couple of days ago I was scorching myself to death in the Utah desert
As you can see, the top of the Mustang is down, as I said. It didn't go up at all except for when I wasn't in it and it was left unattended. I have to admit that even once or twice, I may have had the heater going full blast, like I was doing up here - but the top was always down. I was determined to make the most of the convertible for as long as I was to have it.
Now this reminds me of something, of course. That is that the top was never up while I was in it. That means that it mustn't have rained for the whole time that I was in the car. I hadn't realised that before. This must be a record for me. I come from North-west Europe, remember.
Sadly, though, I was starting to come out of the mountains and descend to the Rio Grande valley again at Del Norte for the drive up to Carbondale. That was where I was planning to spend the night. A glance at the clock showed me that it was already 2:00, I was starving hungry, and there were still miles to go before I got to a food shop.
But this is a good moment to make you aware of something important though. Wherever I went in the USA, whether the mountains or the desert, there were always some provisions in the car. At least a couple of litres of water and some basic food such as bread, energy biscuits, and fruit.
If you're travelling off the beaten track and the car breaks down, you may have to wait quite a while before someone comes to rescue you. It's as well to be prepared for this kind of thing just in case.
So here I am driving down out of the San Juan mountains, and what do I see but a wigwam, or is it a tipi?
I could understand if I were driving along a tourist route, but here miles from anywhere this was the last thing I expected to see.
It reminds me of the story about the Indian chief who won the world tea-drinking championships.
They found him next morning, dead in his tipi.
On another occasion, I heard a story of an exploration party that stumbled accoss a party of friendly Indians, and they introduced themselves.
"Me Big Eagle, chief of the Commanche" said the leader of the Indian party
"How" replied the leader of the explorers
"This my squaw Spotted Elk" added Big Eagle, presenting a beautiful maiden to the explorers. "I bought her for three buffalo skins".
"How" replied the leader of the explorers
"Never mind how" shouted one of the explorers. "Where?"
DEL NORTE AND BAXTERVILLE
The next three photographs are some views of Del Norte, and of the local scenery.
Christmas has passed now, unfortunately, but there's always next time, or even my birthday if you want to be friendly. So if you're stuck for an idea as to what to buy me for a present and you just happen to have a time-expired school bus like this one lying around somewhere then the problem is solved.
As long as it has a straight - not a vee - diesel engine it it, then one like this will do nicely, thank you very much.
One of these could be quite easily transformed into some kind of nifty little mobile home for me when I'm on my travels and so I could seriously be interested in something like this.
Seriously, if anyone in the USA has one like this to sell, then if it's complete, a straight diesel and it's a runner then you may well have an interested buyer over on this side of the Atlantic.
All you need to do is work out a decent price to include the shipping charges to Europe. Alternatively, we can work out a deal involving a swap for a FX4 - a black London Taxicab for the uninitiated.
I don't need all of the mirrors and lights by the way. You can keep them.
In fact it amazes me how it is that these buses are lit up like Christmas trees. Dangers are out there in every corner of the world and in every minute of the day. Children should experience these dangers as a part of the growing-up process, so that they learn of them and learn how to deal with them. Totally isolating them is not doing them any good and they are unprepared for whatever the world has to offer them.
Well, there was nothing else that I could see to photograph at Del Norte.
I stopped at the petrol station-cum-restaurant to get some food. There was a weird machine here to operate in order to have something so I asked the guy behind the counter.
"Ah you work the machine"
So after a few minutes I asked him if he could show me how to work it, but he just walked away.
I got back in the Mustang and drove away. I'd better things to do than mess around with someone who was obviously educated in Belgium. I have to live with this mentality nearly every day of my life and was very disappointed to find it here.
A few miles along the road at Baxterville I fuelled up and had a sandwich made for me by a very pleasant woman at the service station there. I ended up having quite a chat here, with the two women working here and a couple of customers (all female!). Yes, I'm glad I didn't get to eat at Del Norte! Baxterville restored my faith in the USA.
THE SILVER THREAD BYWAY
From Baxterville, the next stage was to take me over the Slumgullion Pass to Gunnison, through the Wagon Wheel Gap and Spring Creek Pass. The highway here is Highway 149 - also known as the Silver Thread Byway.
I have to say that for a paved road, it was certainly one of the most picturesque in this part of the USA. So if you are not the adventurous type who doesn't fancy disappearing off the highway onto the dirt roads to seek some splendour, well this road was made for you.
San Juan City
Just here are a couple of photos of the site of San Juan City.
San Juan City's claim to fame was as a transit hub for all the various stage lines that met here. People would alight here from the main long-distance stages that used to stop here, and take one of the smaller transports that would go to all the various small towns and mining camps in the mountains around here.
The opening of the Durango-Silvertown railway the other side of the mountain range here effectively killed off all the stage traffic and thus killed off the town. Now the site of the town is privately owned. All that remains is the log cabin, which by some strange irony was the first building here in 1874
There are still several tracks over the mountains that could still be navigated by 4x4 vehicles. Ordinarily, that would be the cue for me to disappear into the wilderness but it was mid-afternoon, I still had a long way to go, and I had to be back in Denver the next day early afternoon for my aeroplane. Consequently I declined.
You can see from the comment of the member of the US Surveying team in 1874 that it would have been an interesting drive, to say the least. It makes me even more determined to come back another time.
Especially if I can persuade my friend Paul Humphries to come with me, and bring a set of tools and a rope. We would have no end of fun taking a hire car to pieces and letting it down several steep places by rope, I can promise you. We would even sell tickets.
The Continental reservoir
In the photograph on the left you can see the Continental reservoir. This reservoir is effectively the headwaters of the Rio Grande river.
If you click on the photograph on the right to enlarge it, you can see a little more of the story of the Rio Grande - so why should I copy it out when you have a mouse to click on?
Spring Creek Pass
We're now quite high up once more at the Spring Creek Pass. The altitude is 10898 feet, and it is once more part of the Continental Divide. You know the significance of the Continental Divide don't you? Any water east of it flows into the Atlantic or into the Gulf of Mexico. Any water to the west of it flows into the Pacific.
There was nowhere to stop to take a photograph, and the bend was rather too dangerous to be hanging around if something was coming the other way, so after a quick look around the corner to make sure nothing was coming, I took a quick snap from inside the car. Crude, but effective.
You'll probably even notice that I was wearing a seat belt. Not the usual procedure for me, I know, but if the car overturns I'd more than likely be thrown out, seeing as it's a convertible.
A little further on was the Slumgullion Pass - the highest part of the road and ONLY 11530 feet. at least there was somewhere to stop to take a photograph.
Once more, I have to say that it didn't seem anything like as high as that. That's even more impressive when I realised that before coming to the USA on this expedition, I'd never been anything like this high in all my life. Not even during some of my legendary skiing expeditions in the early 1990s. By now, though, 11530 feet was relatively small beer compared to Pike's Peak of 14110 feet that I visited a week or so ago.
Alfred (Alferd) Packer
Just a little further on, I took a whimsical little exploration off the beaten track and down a dirt road.
I'd heard about Alferd Packer before, but can't remember when or where. I suppose you might say he was an early Republican supporter making sure of the bushbaby's election success, having been allegedly told by Judge MB Gerry that
"when yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of 'em, goddam ya".
He's described in official records as Alfred Packer and this would seem to be much more likely, but there's a great deal of insistence on the use of the name "Alferd". Much of the non-government official-type of documentation records him as Alferd, so you'll have to please yourself.
Maybe Packer and Louis Keseberg should have joined together to open a restaurant. His legend did live on for a while though at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the "Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill" which we are told, "serves all mankind", allowed you to "have a friend for lunch".
What was really puzzling though, as far as I was concerned, was how come I'd heard of the name of Alferd (or Alfred) Packer before. It's not the kind of everyday thing you talk about over here in Europe.
Going Downhill Fast
The road down from Slumgullion to Gunnison is said by some to be the longest continuous descent (or ascent if you're coming the other way) in the entire United States road transport network, and it was so exhilarating to drive down it.
I have to be honest to say that there were several things that ordinarily I would have stopped to photograph, but by now I'd got the Mustang to go just like I wanted it, and in this descent of over 50 miles, I was pushing it through the bends like it ought to be driven. So much so that I didn't want to stop. If I had have had the time, I'd have done the descent three or four times just for fun.
Austin Powers had an E-type (or XKE if you are an American) Jaguar that he nicknamed "Shaguar". In my day job as "International Man of Mystery" I wondered how far down the road I would get if I changed the numberplates on the car to read "Poontang". I was really having an affinity with this car.
Halfway down the road, someone noticed me approaching behind him and tried to block my road, rather like a Belgian or an Italian driver would. This was the first time this had happened in the Mustang. No, I wasn't having any of that.
On the straight, the Mustang wasn't as quick as it might be, and I reckoned that even my armoured Opel Omega would give it a run. But on the bends nothing could match it, and as I drove past, the other driver found himself on the receiving end of an ... er ... ungentlemanly gesticulation, a mouthed unpleasant oath, a blast of the horn (first time I've EVER blown my horn in anger in the USA), and a dose of pollution out of the exhaust.
And serve him right, too.
At the end of the road there were two possibilities. One involved turning left and going all the way around via Hotchkiss up to Carbondale, but I turned right into Gunnison, and then left at the lights, and up the 135 to Crested Butte.