Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Winter Spring Wonderland

We are at Ridgway State Park, just north of Ridgway, CO (map).

There are hardly words to describe yesterday's drive. After leaving our wonderful little spot in the badlands we drove through the unremarkable town of Bloomfield, which more or less segued uninterrupted into Aztec some eight miles to the north. Aztec has some history to it, owing to the Puebloan ruins located there, and the combination of historic downtown and modern tourist amenities made for an interesting drive-through.

We stopped as planned at the Aztec Ruins National Monument, and took the self-guided walking tour of the extensive and elaborate ancient ruins. There were, of course, no Aztecs here -- an erroneous supposition on the part of early European explorers made its way onto maps of the day, and stuck long after the truth was well known. Excavating and studying these ruins became the life work of famed archaeologist Earl Morris, who reconstructed the enormous Kiva (the largest of perhaps dozens) on the site, and whose on-site home is now the Park Service Visitor Center.

We've explored many ancient Puebloan ruins, and so most of the NPS historical boiler-plate was familiar to us -- it took us only 45 minutes or so to see the entire site (well, at least the small portion open to visitors). We were eager to get an early start on the grade, and so we moved along, driving north across the Colorado line and through the Ute Nation reservation.

Durango, Colorado is the sort of tourist-trap destination for which we have little use. The town is so yuppie that their architectural control standards have big-box stores like Wal-Mart looking like Swiss chalets. It almost goes without saying that no overnight parking is allowed at Wal-Mart in this town. Nevertheless, the town has a free RV dump at its Gateway city park, on the Animas River south of town -- incidentally the location of the municipal sewage treatment plant.

While our waste tanks were far from full, I estimated that we had at least a half ton of waste on board. While half a ton does not sound like much compared to Odyssey's 23.5 ton loaded weight, every little bit counts, and I didn't want to waste the diesel carrying the extra half ton all the way up the hill, so we stopped here to dump. I'll spare you the sordid details, but suffice it to say the RV dump here involves dumping through a ground-level grate (as opposed to sticking the end of your hose down a 4" or so hole), and you can imagine what that's like. At least it was convenient and free.

Thus unburdened of 1,000+ pounds of stuff (I also emptied some of our fresh and drinking water, leaving just enough in the tanks for one night's use, in case we got stuck someplace), we proceeded north on 550 and the ascent to Coal Bank Pass. The grade is nearly a constant 6%, and even in the rapidly descending temperatures of the mountains, we had to keep the tranny in third and the speed below 45mph to keep the engine temperature in the green. I also turned off the battery inter-tie -- no sense using ten engine horsepower to charge the house batteries on the upgrade, when we'd get all the charging we could handle for free on the other side.

The scenery became spectacular almost from the moment we pulled out of Durango. Words fail to describe the raw beauty of the San Juan mountains, and so I won't try -- Louise is working on a video of our trip over the mountains. At 30-45mph, I even got to enjoy some of the scenery myself.

We coasted down the back side of Coal Bank and then Molas pass, and even with the alternator working hard and the retarder on full-time, I still had to get on the brakes for the hairpin turns. The infinite fuel mileage (diesels use no fuel whatsoever at zero throttle) helped just a little to make up for the 1.7mpg we got on the upgrade. A couple of final switchbacks and we were in Silverton.

Another historic town, where formerly they mined silver and now they mine tourists. A pair of steam trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were sitting in town as we came through, steam and smoke wafting into the cold mountain air. We opted to skip the traditional tourist activities this trip, to return here some other time, probably on the train, and in warmer weather -- it was in the 40's as we passed through. Instead we continued north toward Red Mountain Pass.

This pass is twisty and narrow, with a sheer rock face on one side, and an unprotected precipitous drop-off on the other. Nevertheless, it was well within Odyssey's capability and certainly nothing so bad as what we drove for nearly 500 miles in Baja. The pass is theoretically restricted from commercial trucks, but we passed no fewer than five, including a giant Office Depot 53' semi behind a 72" conventional sleeper cab, some 75'+ in overall length. Certainly it was a through-truck -- there is no Office Depot atop Red Mountain Pass.

We made it across without incident, finding ourselves in the mountain hot springs resort of Ouray, which bills itself as the Switzerland of America. After the fairly intense mountain driving, hot springs sounded like a great idea, and we were sorely tempted to find an RV park and spend the night. We knew the snow line would be at least that low, though, and did not relish the idea of perhaps getting stuck in Ouray until the road was clear, so we continued down the grade to Ridgway and then here to Ridgway State Park.

There are apparently several different campgrounds here in the park. We ended up at the $18 per night "electric only" one, as opposed to the $22 per night full-hookup campground. That does not count the $6 park entry fee, which must be paid as well. The park is virtually empty, and we had our choice of sites. We picked one with a view of the snow-capped peaks in the distance, and some protection from the wind consisting of low pines. We knew the temperatures would head south of freezing, and the 30-amp hookup would let us run the electric heaters, and also the air compressor, which would have to labor the whole night to keep up with the low-temperature leaks.

The forecast called for snow down to around 8,000', and we're at 7,100'. We were, therefore, somewhat surprised to wake up to snow all around us.

It didn't really stick to the roadway, but there was a dusting on the ground and a whole bunch in the trees. Unfortunately, there was also a 3" accumulation on our roof as well as the 10" or so of awning we had left protruding on either side to keep the rain off the somewhat leaky windows.

By 8:30 or so it had started snowing again, and I figured I'd better work on getting the awnings in before any more accumulated up there. Unlike the last time this happened, when we had to stand on the slippery roof with a broom, this time I had a squeegee on a retractable 10" pole (which we use to clean the upper windshield), and I was able to poke the awnings from underneath and "pop" most of the snow off them to get them retracted.

That did not stop us from having to go up on the roof. We were completely off-line because there was a good caking of snow on the satellite reflector, as well as some on the feedhorn. And the solar panels, air conditioners, deck, etc. were covered with a 3" layer of wet snow -- our roof insulation is really good. I managed to get the snow off all the important bits (can't keep you blog readers waiting, ya know), while Louise took photos and video of the whole process.

This is a very beautiful spot, made even more so by the snow, and we thought about staying another night. However, we're completely out of cat litter, the laundry needs to get done, and we have another conference call this evening and there is no cell service here. So we will be packing up shortly and moving north a short distance to Montrose, where there is a coin laundry, cell service (we presume), and several overnight options, to include a Wal-Mart SuperCenter and an Elks lodge.


  1. '10" pole'? I thought most such exagerations were in the other direction. :-)

  2. That's just sick about the Durango RV dump. Thanks for the warning!

  3. You really missed out by overlooking Durango. Surprisingly it has more 4 star restaurants per capita then San Francisco. I went through there last year, and was shocked at the culinary experience there.

  4. @Lance -- good catch, I'll fix it. Looks like I had the caps key down inadvertently...

    @liveworkdream -- not a big deal for us, as we've also dumped in any number of bus garages, where you don't even use a hose. But we had a mad scramble to wash down the overspray with the provided hose before it could escape the very shallow depression there.

    @corporatemonkey -- I did not mean to leave the impression that we would not visit Durango, although on re-reading that paragraph, I see how it came across that way. We had to keep moving to get over the mountain before the storm, so we couldn't stay. Before the weather moved in, it had been our plan to spend at least a night there.

    That said, (1) Durango is RV-unfriendly; if they really want the business, they need to provide more parking and more low-cost overnight opportunities, and (2) there is definitely a tourist-trap element to it all, and that element is a turn-off for us. Ferreting out truly exceptional dining experiences, for example, in such an environment can be a real challenge.

    I don't doubt that they exist, as you say, but I'm sure it's one in a hundred, not every other joint. BTW, when we eat in SF (rarely -- too touristy), we don't eat where the tourists do.

    Some day when we are not under weather pressure, we'll spend a few days in Durango, and, as I wrote in the post, take the train up to Silverton and spend some time there as well. Even touristy places have their charms.


  5. That snow is so beautiful! I may be just a little jealous with the mid 90s temperatures we've been getting this week, though. :)


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