I’ve spent a lot of time over the years exploring Colorado. What a beautiful state! It wasn’t uncommon for me to journey there six, eight or even ten times a year. Being a Denver Broncos fan, I went to a lot of home football games; always making time to venture into the mountains while there.
The number of trips to Colorado tapered off, then quietly came to a halt as I found a new hobby - flying skydivers. The experience of taking jumpers to 10 or 12,000 feet reminded me of being in Colorado. The air is cold and thin at that altitude, the sights are spectacular and oh, the thrill!
Each flight was an escape from the hassles and burdens of everyday life. It was like a mini trip to the far away state I dearly loved. Flying skydivers consumed many of my weekends during the season. I love flying airplanes, but still, I held onto my passion for the Rocky Mountains.
Melissa had told me of her trips to Colorado before we met and how she fell in love with the San Juan Mountains around Ouray. Her description of the area re-kindled my yearning to return to Colorado. We talked about it and committed to go someday.
One day we packed an overnight bag, jumped in the airplane and flew to Front Range Airport, just outside of Denver. We rented a car and drove to Georgetown, a favorite place of mine. We explored the Gunellea Pass over the historic mountain town together, had a wonderful dinner at the Red Ram, listened to some great music, and stayed the night at the Mountain Inn.
The next day we had talked about continuing west to Ouray, but the drive was too long. We just didn’t have enough time. “We’ll explore the mountains around Georgetown now and go to Ouray on our next visit.” We decided...but didn’t seem to get back that way.
Several years later, we planned to go to Ouray for our 8th annual honeymoon trip. Our plans to head west made a 180-degree turn and we ended up out east, exploring New England instead.
The next year I had a late December business trip taking me to southern California. Melissa would travel with me and on our return trip we would go through Colorado to be in Ouray for Christmas. But, that business trip was postponed; we changed plans and spent a memorable holiday with family in Austin, Texas.
The trip to California was rescheduled to February. The third time is a charm. On our return, Melissa and I finally made it to Ouray, together.
We arrived from the south, coming in on the Million Dollar Highway. Carved out of the mountain, the ledge twisted and turned, following her lines. To the right was the solid rock mountain with no shoulder; to the left there were no guardrails and no shoulder. The road dropped off a cliff, falling deep into the valley below. There was no room for error. Twenty-five miles per hour never felt so fast. It was breath-taking for sure.
That early evening, Melissa and I stopped at O’Briens Irish Pub - a quaint little place to relax and enjoy a pint of cold brew. We sat at a tall table with high stools in the front window to enjoy the mountains and the scenic Main Street of Ouray, Colorado.
People passing by on the sidewalk would stop to look at the menu, posted in the storefront window right next to us. It seemed they were coming to visit us at our table, but being separated by the glass. Eventually, I started having fun with them, knocking on the window, waving my hand, motioning for them to come on in.
Some of the people looked at me like I was a weirdo and scurried on past to avoid making eye contact. Others waved back, laughed, then walked on by. A few groups came inside, we greeted and welcomed each of them to O’Brien’s as if we worked there as hosts.
One group that came in seemed more friendly than the others, returning our salutations. We shared a brief conversation, then they took a seat at a regular short table across from us on the other side of the entrance. I assumed them to be man and wife and maybe an adult son, or a friend.
We finished our pint and started for the front door. As we passed the table of three, the man stretched out his arms and said to us in a sincere spirited voice, “It was so good to see you guys again!” For a moment I thought he was going to hug me! “It was good to see you as well. Maybe we’ll run into you again soon” I said. We shared a good laugh then Melissa and I left.
As we we crossing the street to go check out the Ouray Brewing Company. I told Melissa, “I should have got their names. They seemed like the kind of people we would enjoy hanging out with.”
We spent that night in a small one-room log cabin at Riverside Cabins and Motel, on the edge of town. The rustic room featured a full size log bed, with a set of log bunk beds to the side. The table was a log shelf mounted to the wall. A log style bench rounded out the furnishings.
The door handle was a rope that went through the door, lifting a board latch on the inside. There was no TV, nor telephone. One single bulb on the ceiling provided sufficient lighting. The room was heated by an electric wood stove. It was simple. Just what we wanted and we loved it.
That evening we took advantage of the amenities offered outdoors. We sat in the hot tub, in the cold night air. The steam from our breath was lost in the steam rising from the hot water. Looking up at the sky, the stars were giving way to a nearly full moon that was rising over the ridge, lighting the snowy tops of the mountain range surrounding us. The tranquility I was experiencing was humbling.
When we got out of the hot tub, I didn’t want to put my shoes on, so I stepped quickly across the snow packed ground to the shower house. My wife showing more sense than I, put on her shoes. The ground was freezing cold, yet the short walk in my bare feet was exhilarating and worth it.
After a nice hot shower we returned to out cabin. We turned up the heat, cracked the window open to enjoy the fresh mountain air and the sound of the stream running just outside our cabin. Melissa and I took the big bed. June Bug, our dog, slept on the bottom bunk and Edgar Allan, our cat, claimed the top bunk where he could keep watch over his loyal subjects below. By the morning we were all in the big bed together. Needless to say, we slept very well.
The next day we went to the Ouray Ice Park in Box Canyon. It was amazing to watch athletes of all ages, in full safety gear, climb the walls of ice. With a pick in each hand and special boots with cleats, they made their way up and down the vertical walls, tying off on climbing ropes.
While we were walking back to our truck a SUV pulled up along side us. “Are you going to be at the pub later?” The driver asked. Melissa and I looked at him, then at each other. Not having any idea who he was, we assumed he had mistaken us for someone else. Then MeIssa’s eyes widened, “Hey! It’s the people from O’Briens last night.” She said.
We stood at the side of their vehicle enjoying some conversation. When a car pulled up behind them, we said our farewells and they drove away. “I can’t believe I forgot to get their names again.” I told Melissa, adding, “They really seem like cool people. The kind we would hang out with to a share a bottle of wine.” Another missed opportunity.
Later that afternoon, Melissa and I were walking up and down Main Street. Exploring store front windows and occasionally entering a shop. We were discussing the beauty of Ouray, admiring the view of the mountains, when a man said, “Well, hello again!”
“Hey!” I said. It was the man and woman from O’Brien’s, without their friend this time. The third time is a charm and I wasn’t going to miss another opportunity. I learned his name was Keith Boos and his wife was Martha Claudine. They were visiting from Louisiana. We exchanged contact information and had another nice chat. We would have asked them to dinner, but we had to start for home yet that day. We said our farewells then went about our way.
Keith had explained the young man with them was a guide. When we ran into them earlier that day they were just coming down from the road to Yankee Boy Basin. Melissa and I had also driven that road that day. It is a very narrow, steep road. Though often only wide enough for one vehicle, it was a two-way road with no guardrails and steep drop offs into deep valleys below. There were plenty of sharp turns and blind corners. It was another Colorado mountain pass where the driver had to pay attention to the road.
Melissa told me a story of the time, years ago, when her dad drove them up that road in a rental car. He had taken off on his own early in the morning, then came back to get his family and drive them up the road. She told me she recalled an open meadow or field at the top of the road. I wanted to go there.
The day we drove it we could only go so far, then the road was closed for snow. Determined to drive all the way to Yankee Boy Basin, I told Melissa, “We’ll come back another time and drive to the top.” She agreed, that’s what we needed to do. Melissa’s birthday in May would be a good opportunity to do so.
May soon came. We started out west on a trip with our Scamp. The journey would first take us to Winona, Minnesota where Friday morning we attended our youngest daughter’s college graduation ceremony, then celebrated Friday night around a campfire.
Saturday morning we went to Lark Toy Company, in Kellogg, Minnesota for our youngest granddaughter’s first birthday party. By Saturday night, we were in Waterloo, Iowa spending the night with our kids and grandkids.
Sunday morning after church, we drove to the cemeteries near Coatsville, Missouri, to visit the grave sites of Melissa’s ancestors, then on to the Lake of the Ozarks for a four-day “working visit” with my brother Dan at their house on the lake. It had been a full trip already, and we were just getting started!
Thursday evening, we were finally on our way to celebrate Melissa’s birthday and Mother’s Day in Ouray Colorado.
On the drive over, I was already thinking about the challenge of driving up to Yankee Boy Basin. I had Melissa tell me the story again, about her Dad driving up there and then going again with her family. This time, that mountain would be mine!
After a tour though town, we started up the road to Yankee Boy Basin. The Subaru worked hard to pull the Scamp up the steep hills. Along the way, we stopped and set up our Scamp at the Thistledown forest service campground. What an amazing site we found!
Our campsite was right on Angel Creek. The cool mountain air rushed through the pine and aspen trees. The water in the stream rushed over the rocks. It’s an odd thing, how two loud sounds can bring about such peace and contentment.
After we set up, we continued up the road toward Yankee Boy Basin. The winding road was awesome! There is one place where the road is under construction for repairs. The mountain creek waters flow over the road surface. Melissa told me not to cross the water. I assured her, this is a place where the road has a paved dip for the waters to cross. It’s designed for traffic to pass through. She made me get out of the car to inspect the road for holes or erosion.
I did and returned to report “The road is fine. The water is two-inches deep and I’m going through.” We passed safely. We found places where the road runs under an overhanging mountain cliff. It was single lane with a straight drop off over the cliff to the south. A deep groove along the north wall of the mountain allowed water to drain. If one veered off the road either way, they would have a serious problem. To the north, the ditch would high-center their car. To the south...well, let’s not talk about what that result would be.
We continued on until we came to a fork in the road. To the left was Governor Basin - not recommend for any vehicle travel. To the right, Yankee Boy Basin continued. We veered to the right.
A short distance later the road became more narrow and rugged, there were signs warning, “High Clearance, Four Wheel Drive Vehicles Recommended.” I tried to distract Melissa by pointing out something the other way, but it was too late; she already saw and read the bright orange warning sign.
I maneuvered the Subaru around several large rocks (or small boulders as Melissa called them) embedded in the road. She suggested we should turn back. “You’re going to tear up our car,” She said. “Nonsense!” I replied, while carefully going around another rock. “If your dad could do it in a Toyota Camry, I can do it in my Subaru!” “OUR Subaru.” She corrected me, then justified, “Dad did it in a rental car. In 1995. This is our car and I don’t want you to damage it. Please turn around.”
“Fine! I’ll turn around.” I said in protest. I was silently thankful for her resistance because just ahead was a deep dip with a lot of big loose rocks. I wasn’t sure the car would have cleared them. Silently, I justified, “There is no way those rocks could have been there when Phil went through in a Camry. No way!”
As I backed the car up I grumbled aloud, “But let the record show, you are the fun-hater who stopped me!” “That’s fine with me,” She said, adding, “I’m the smart fun-hater who saved our car!” Hmfph!
We headed down the road, back into town. I pulled into a parking space in front of O’Brien’s just to make sure Keith wasn’t there waiting for us. He wasn’t, so we drove to Riverside Cabins where we had stayed on our previous trip.
I inquired about renting a Jeep. The owner told me the rental rates then asked, “Where are you wanting to go with the Jeep?” “Yankee Boy Basin.” I replied, then explained how far we got in the car.” He chuckled, “Then you don’t want to rent a Jeep today. You’ll only get about a quarter-mile past that point before you run into snow. You can’t get to the top right now.” I left, feeling defeated, but had to agree with him.
We headed back up the road to the campsite. I told Melissa, “The colors here will be beautiful in the fall. Maybe we should come back to Ouray for our annual honeymoon trip this year.” She said we should consider that, suggesting “We could bring the truck next time and camp out of the back and backpack through the mountains.” I agreed, then said to myself, “Yes, that would be fun! In our Toyota Tacoma. A high clearance, four wheel drive vehicle!”
Yankee Boy Basin, we shall meet again...next time at the top. After all, the third time is a charm!
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!