The prior day, on the way up Pikes Peak in the back of the van, I had shared my plan to make it to Mesa Verde by nightfall had I not been stranded on the mountain. Since the two are nearly 400 miles apart, the locksmith corrected my guesswork and said it would take about six hours to drive to the National Park. This morning, my plan was to still drive some of the Colorado Springs Loop on the way to Mesa Verde, so neither he or I was correct on the timing. I decided to do the southern portion of the loop, driving west on CR 115 and then along US 50. I would leave the loop in Salida, Co and continue on US 50 and on to the park.
Driving the 250 miles from Colorado Springs into Canon City and then Montrose, I experienced dramatic views of the Arkansas River, from the Five Points to Pinnacle Rock. One of the high points, figurative and literally, of the US 50 drive is crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. The 11,312 ft high pass is surrounded by numerous mountain peaks with towering pine trees. The elevation of the US 50 changes from 6,000 to 9,000 to 11,000 and back to 9,000. After descended down from the peaks, US 50 runs along miles upon miles of open wetlands in the shadows of Gunnison National Forest.
Before hitting Gunnison, the road cuts through the town of Salida where my eye caught an extraordinary thing while cruising down the road. The sight of at least 100 weathered one foot wooden crosses. I doubled back to take a closer look. From the road, my first thought was that it commemorated fallen Iraqi War Troops. I got out of the car to get an even closer look. I scanned the birth dates, 1984, 1993, 2000. I then looked at the names, Holmes Rodriquez, Valerie Morrissey and Baby Doe. I was trying to understand what I was looking at. Were these all children? I opened the gate and entered and began to understand what I was seeing. I came across other names, Meatball, Nipper and Smokey. I understood the meaning of the crosses and snapped a few photographs and moved on to continue my quest to get to Mesa Verde by night fall.
The drive then gave me majestic views of the Dillon Pinnacles of Gunnison. The pinnacles were formed from a huge volcanic mud flow. My journey west on US 50 would end at Montrose, where I moved south on US 550 and onto the San Juan Skyway, getting me closer to my Mesa Verde adventure.
The 230 mile San Juan Skyway runs along the astonishing and amazingly sculpted landscape of the San Juan Mountains, with its many jagged volcanic summits with heights of over 10,000 feet. The half way mark on the Skyway would lead me to Mesa Verde. The Skyway is aptly named with a stretch of steep, narrow winding roads with breathtaking views of the snow capped Red Mountain. People would describe this stretch as “treacherous” and I agree. It is a two lane road that is really one and one half lanes wide with no guardrails as it runs along steep cliffs of the 11,018 ft mountain and slopes with 200 feet drops. Although it was a white knuckle, heart pounding, prayer filled drive the scenery was unbelievable, but unfortunately the road gave me no opportunity to pull over to photograph any of it. Once again the sight of crosses along the road caught my eye. I understood the meaning of these immediately and continued to concentrate on the road ahead of me. The winding road brought me past Bear Mountain and the Red Mountains, and the old mining towns of Silverton and Quray and down to Durango. When reaching Durango, I needed to head west on US 160. I came to a realization that I would not get to Mesa Verde by nightfall. I spent the night in Durango with plans to drive the additional fifty miles through La Planta County to the park the next day.