The air is a refreshing 68 degrees even in mid-summer, and the light breeze carries the scent of Aspen and Juniper. A quaint little Victorian town tucked away in the San Juan Mountains; Ouray, Colorado is possibly one of the most underrated destinations in the Rocky Mountain State. I spent several years living in CO, and Ouray was always my favorite spot for a weekend getaway. Year round, there is a wide array of activities to occupy your time: In the winter, ice climbing is one of the main attractions. If rock climbing isn’t extreme enough for you, you should experience the rush of scaling a frozen waterfall with a pickaxe. In the warmer months, off-roading on one of their many jeep trails is all the hype.
Enough of the brochure talk, though. I actually own a Jeep. My Dad bought it for me shortly after I moved to Colorado because my lemon of a Dodge Neon self-destructed on me and I desperately needed a car. I never actually intended for my Jeep to be used in extreme off-roading. It’s a Liberty Sport and it’s trail-rated, but I pretty much chose it simply because I knew it would be good in the snow. At this point in my life, all but one of the friends I’d hang out with were guys. Consequently, as soon as they saw my new ride they decided we were going to be using it for it’s full rock-crawling potential.
“No, guys.” I’d say, “I don’t want my tires and whatnot getting messed up.” (whatnot is my go-to term when I really don’t know WTF things are called, like most car parts for instance). “You all have SUVs, why do we have to use MY Jeep?” I’d ask.
The answers were always the same: “Because we can.” and “Because my jacked-up 4Runner is too big for the narrow mountain trails.”
And because I liked adventure as much as the next reckless college kid, I went along with it. Sure, I’d bitch and cuss people out when my Jeep would get hung up on a boulder or stuck in the mud or driven through a river that “seemed a lot shallower from over there”… But it was all in good fun. Mostly.
There is one particular trail that stretches through the highest parts of the mountains… 13,200 feet to be exact…. And it takes you through abandoned mining sites and untamed wilderness all the way to Telluride, CO. I never wanted to experience this trail. I am not that much of a thrill seeker, and I’m kind of afraid of heights. We’re talking about a narrow rock-and-dirt path that often runs beside a drop-off of ten thousand feet or so. I’m all for dying in a blaze of glory, but I’d prefer it if that blaze were not from the flames of my exploded vehicle after careening of a cliff.
So, I can’t really explain why I allowed the guys to talk me into it… Well, scratch that… It can easily be explained by a night out with Jim Beam and friends, and the [empty] promise that I would get to see wild stallions at the top of the mountain. So one July morning I found myself loading up my Jeep and getting into the back while my friend took the driver’s seat. I absolutely refused to be the one operating the vessel that would potentially lead me to my demise. I didn’t even want to sit shotgun. I was as comfortable as I could be in the safety of my back seat, sandwiched between a cooler and my excessively slobbery dog.
I had a system worked out. I hugged my dog and drank beer with my eyes closed until my friends told me that we were “safe” – i.e. not on the edge of a giant cliff. This system worked well for me, and I still got to see most of the stunning scenery. There were vast meadows of wildflowers, old mine shafts, caves, waterfalls, natural springs, and animals that you wouldn’t normally see at sea-level. If you’ve never watched a bighorn sheep hurdle your car, you really haven’t done enough living.
So I was actually having a great time. Until about 3/4 of the way through the trail when we ran into some trouble. At this point, my eyes were closed because we weren’t in a “safe” zone. I heard my friend yell “Oh, shit!”, my enormous dog jumped into my lap, and I was jostled and jarred out of my seat as we hit what I imagined was a hole or a rock. My eyes still closed, I then heard my friend ordering me to slide as far right as I could and to take my dog with me. He told me whatever I did, to keep my eyes closed. So, of course, I opened my eyes.
Looking out the left back window, all I could see was sky and the village 11,000 feet below. I then noticed that the Jeep was not stable. The front passenger-side tire was suspended in the air over the drop-off. I said nothing, and I held my breath. My friend squeezed himself out the driver’s window (the road was so narrow, he couldn’t open his door without hitting a rock wall) and started to work on pushing the jeep back onto solid ground. He kept telling me it would be okay, that he could get us back up. I took a deep breath and let it out, chugged the rest of my beer, and resumed my breath-holding. As he and another friend worked on pushing the jeep back up, my dog and I were being tossed around the back seat like pieces of chicken in a shake ‘n bake bag. It felt like a lifetime before the tire squeaked back onto the road, and I’m fairly certain that this very experience is what started my hair prematurely turning white in certain areas. But nonetheless, we survived. The rest of the trail gave us no problems, and that was officially the last time I allowed my Jeep to be used for any off-roading excursions.
*(all pictures seen here were taken by me with a 5 Megapixel camera that was pretty damn advanced for it’s time. The photo below is a real sign in Telluride, CO. If anyone knows why there is a question mark, PLEASE explain to me…. I’ve been trying to solve that mystery for the past 8 years…)