Buoyed by two good night’s sleep in Moab we were refreshed for what would be one of the longest road journeys – around 290 miles – of the entire trip before we reached our next overnight stop of Durango, Colorado. Two conscious decisions led to this – firstly, to make a detour to visit the Four Corners Monument and secondly, to ignore our trusty route planner’s recommendation to travel as far south on US-191 to Bluff before heading east, and cut off earlier at Monticello to pick up the 491. We were to make yet another detour, of which more later.
Having filled up at the Maverik gas station (this chain was a regular source of cheap fuel throughout the trip), we set off in the company of the customary blue sky (the rain on our journey into Moab two days previously had been a momentary aberration) and soon found ourselves alone on the road.
After 53 miles we took US-491 at Monticello as the Eagles sang on the in-car CD player “put me on a highway, show me the sign”. Well, the next sign we saw was one welcoming us to “Colorful Colorado”.
We had left, at least for now, the dramatic sandstone formations that had dominated the landscape for much of the past week. The area was a blend of flat pastureland and forest, dotted with the occasional homestead and small ranch, outside which horses and cattle grazed.
The Eagles were soon usurped by Kiss Country Radio 97.9 FM (“Keeping Cortez, Farmington and Durango country)”, which was to be our companion for the remainder of the day.
Dove Creek was the first town of any substance in Colorado with its business park and small airport. Further evidence of the growing number of grazing livestock was an advertisement on the radio for feed grains.
We were amused by a sign that announced that the Colorado Welcome Center was another 34 miles, an indication of the vast scale of this nation that you had to drive 50 miles before you could be officially welcomed to the state!
The San Juan National Forest which was to follow us all the way to Durango began to assume greater prominence as we passed the settlements of Cahone, Pleasant View, Yellow Jacket, Lewis and Arriola.
At Cortez, the largest town on today’s journey but one beset by roadworks, we eschewed the signs for Durango and branched south towards the Four Corners Monument.
Shortly afterwards, a low mountains range denoted that we were entering the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Once notable hunters, the Utes had been split up and relocated to poorer land by the white settlers’ westward expansion.
However, mineral leases and tourism had enabled them to build an impressive casino, hotel and resort (pictured above) where we halted briefly for free if indigestible coffee, restrooms and a futile flutter on the penny slots.
We managed to miss the turning for the Four Corners initially, but recovered the route within three miles. Had we taken the right road we would have avoided almost getting crushed by an immense truck turning left into the road at which junction we were sitting. The driver, equipped with almost obligatory drooping moustache and cowboy hat (not unlike the Dennis Hopper character in Easy Rider), did not seem amused, but his cargo of blindfolded horses appeared less concerned.
Crossing the San Juan River we arrived at the Four Corners Monument, the only spot in the U.S. where four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona) meet at a single point. Whilst that might sound glamorous, the reality is less so – it is a barren, hot (77 degrees) and dusty place, given over to the presence on all four sides of the ubiquitous Indian gift stalls (we were back in the Navajo Nation at this point).
That said, in addition to doing the tourist thing and having our photos taken spanning all four states (I was surprised we were not charged for the privilege), we picked up some lovely t-shirts.
So pleased with our purchases were we that we then contrived to leave them behind in our motel room in Durango the next morning. Happily, thanks to the kindness of the proprietor and a payment of £25 to UPS, I can now report we have just taken custody of them again at home.
We had to retrace our “steps” (around 30 miles) to traffic-ridden Cortez before continuing our journey to Durango on US-160 East. But lunch now beckoned. My vegetarian past cruelly cast aside, I had harboured a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger ever since our flight had touched down in Las Vegas eleven days before, and, as luck would have it, an outlet cuddled up to us just as we were pulling out of town.
I’m not sure this is what Jimmy Buffett had in mind when he sang Cheeseburger in Paradise but my double was scrumptious. Janet also enjoyed her crispy chicken sandwich. Our unfamiliarity with fast food burger joints was exposed, however, when we ordered two vanilla iced frosties, thinking they were coffees (a la frappuccinos), only to discover, not unpleasantly, that they were in fact milk shakes. And all for less than ten bucks.
With only 46 miles to Durango we decided to call in at Mesa Verde National Park en route. When we revamped our original itinerary to include the loop through New Mexico (Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup), we had been required to drop Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde.
But it was not until now that we fully realised just how close it was to the road we were taking, and even though time would not allow us to explore it as fully as it deserved, it would be crazy not to spend a couple of hours there.
Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish), the only U.S. national park exclusively devoted to archaeological remains, was home to the Ancestral Puebloan people between 550 and 1300AD, at which stage they mysteriously abandoned the cliff dwellings that had been their home. Formerly nomadic, they had turned to hunting and lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses.
We can only speculate why they lived in these secluded alcoves. Perhaps it was for defence or it may have been because they provided better protection from the elements, or even for religious or psychological reasons.
Whatever the purpose, they are astonishing buildings, some of them remarkably well preserved.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t sufficient time to join one of the ranger-led tours into the best preserved cliff dwellings, but we did take the self-guided Mesa Top Loop Drive which afforded us some excellent views of both the internal layout of the pithouses and overlooks of some of the villages.
Leaving Mesa Verde we drove through the Mancos Valley with the San Juan Mountains overhead. Mancos proclaimed itself as “Where the West Still Lives”, a not unreasonable boast as the scenery was taking on a distinctly more cowboy country feel. But this was clearly under some threat as a large picture of a cow was accompanied by the words “I’d rather be a cow than a condo”.
After checking in at the Econolodge motel in Durango we took the free trolley to the historic downtown for dinner at Tequila’s Family Restaurant, a beautiful tex-mex establishment with dazzling, colorful furnishings. My seafood enchiladas were the best I had ever tasted and the margaritas were delicious. And it was also inexpensive. The experience was topped off by our server, Hector, dashing back to our table before we left to thank us for his tip.
As the next day’s journey would be much shorter, we resolved to spend the next morning exploring downtown Durango before setting off for our next stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.