On a day that would eventually caress eighty degrees the early morning chill forced me to don a jacket for the first time since leaving the UK to visit the breakfast room for coffee and load the car. The local Albuquerque based TV station announced it was on “drought watch” predicting a “sea of sun for the next few days”.
With another 200 mile journey before us we filled up with gas, sharing the forecourt with two hefty Harleys and a monstrous Winnebago. We had resolved to explore “historic downtown Durango” before hitting the road – am I alone in finding that the use of “historic” to describe so many places in the US as a tad ironic?
Durango’s biggest tourist attraction is the “historic” (there I’ve used that word again) Durango & Silverton Railroad that chugs 45 miles to the mining town of Silverton through the breathtaking scenery of the San Juan Mountains. Sadly, our itinerary did not allow us to experience it on this occasion. The journey takes three and a half hours each way and we had only a couple of hours at our disposal. We did, however, see the early morning departure trundling out of town as we searched for a parking space.
And besides, breakfast was our priority. We alighted upon the Carver Brewing Co. and walked into what was clearly “where it was at” on a Saturday morning. We managed to grab a table in the large brew pub and restaurant before a lengthy line developed outside. The steady hum of conversation inside was only intermittently stilled to enable the interrogation of ipad and mobile phone screens before the backslapping and debate on sport and politics resumed.
Durango resembled Moab in that it had a cosmopolitan, high-energy vibe that was alien to the towns we had visited in the earlier part of the trip. Mountain biking and river-rafting are equally as popular as in its Utah counterpart. It also has a small ski resort, formerly called Purgatory – I can understand why they changed the name!
In addition, it felt now as if we were “out west”, unsurprising in that the town had been founded in 1880 as a rail junction for the Gold Rush community of Silverton.
Our guidebook had claimed that downtown Durango was the “liveliest urban area in the Four Corners” and “worth an hour or two of anyone’s time”. And indeed it was. Gift shops, outdoor clothing emporia and coffee houses gave it a youthful, vibrant feel. And the brilliant sky and slowly mounting temperatures made for an agreeable stroll along its streets.
We were impressed too with the free trolley service that connected downtown with the outlying areas and which had transported us back to our motel the night before.
We could not leave the town without visiting the railroad musuem and wander among the vintage steam trains and huge model railway layouts.
Everybody we met during the trip, on hearing that we had been to Durango, asked whether we had taken a ride on the railroad, so it sits high on a list of things to do when we are next passing by.
We finally dragged ourselves away from Durango just before noon, joining the US-160 East towards Pagosa Springs.
Once we had passed a series of out of town plazas, stores and malls, the scenery reverted to the same look as we had encountered the day before – rolling hills with periodic farms and homesteads, embraced by the San Juan National Forest. The occasional yellowing of the trees that we had observed more than a week before in Utah was becoming more widespread as we drove through Bayfield and Chimney Rock. A raccoon in the middle of the road was added to the growing list of animal species we had seen splattered by passing traffic.
We were scheduled to turn south at Pagosa Springs onto US-84 a few miles north of the New Mexico county line, but as with so many spread out U.S. towns, it was difficult to establish where the centre was. Dubbed “The Best of Colorado” it seemed to go on forever! But just as we were about to concede that we had unaccountably missed the turning, we reached downtown (we think), took the opportunity to avail ourselves of the restrooms of a local bar (me) and gas station (Janet), and check the map. In fact, the turning was visible around the next bend. My map reading reputation was intact!
In view of our substantial breakfast and late departure from Durango, we agreed to kick on and take our chances with lunch. This part of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico was undoubtedly cowboy country as the profusion of ranches (Squaw Valley, Crowley Creek and Spring Creek to name just a few) indicated. We even saw a large head of cattle being herded into a field by a group of men in full western regalia.
We were welcomed into “New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment” with spectacular lightning strikes over the mountains ahead, though these amounted to nothing. With Santa Fe still more than a hundred miles away we pressed on through the distinctly Mexican sounding communities of Los Brazos, Los Ojos, Ensenada and Tierra Amarilla. Even the majority of stations on the car radio were now playing mariarchi music and the advertisements were in Spanish. We were still in the US but…………….
The San Juan National Forest had given way now to the Carson National Forest to the east and the Santa Fe National Forest to the west. At Cebolla we encountered a stray dog sauntering along in our lane – at least he was alive, and remained so after we had swerved round him (I’m assuming it was a him though I didn’t check the gender). Much more exciting was the sight of a roadrunner scooting in front of us a little further on. It would appear that he had already shaken off Wily Coyote (no change there then).
I have already embarrassed Janet once in this diary about her being caught short so I will not mention the unscheduled stop we had to make 50 miles short of Santa Fe to allow her to make the acquaintance of a (very) small bush in an otherwise unoccupied picnic area.
Placitas, Abiquito, Chamita, Espanola, Arroya La Madera and Medalanes were left behind as we targeted a 4pm arrival in Santa Fe. Lunch had been forgotten in our quest to get settled at one of the stops we had most looked forward to. As we approached the town we experienced heavier traffic than we had been accustomed to all vacation. Nevertheless, we found the El Rey Inn without too much difficulty.
Built in a traditional northern New Mexico adobe style, the El Rey Inn opened in 1936 with just 12 rooms, since expanded to 86. The rooms and suites occupy 5 acres landscaped with trees, shrubs and flowers. Each room is unique, decorated with southwestern-style furniture and antiques. The inn itself boasts paintings, murals and sculptures from around the world.
After a brief walk around the grounds, we prepared ourselves for what would be a long overdue meal in town. As the trolley had stopped for the day, this necessitated a taxi ride into the plaza.
Having barely eaten since breakfast we wasted little time in selecting where to eat. Santa Fe’s most famous hotel, La Fonda, has an award winning dining room, La Plazuela, at which we were fortunate enough to arrive when a table was about to become vacant. Just off the lobby, the restaurant is in a lovely conservatory style setting with two trees filled with lights and a small central pond sharing the space with the solid, beautifully decorated wood dining furniture.
Delicious enchiladas (again), excellent service and a warm atmosphere made for one of the best dining experiences of the trip.
The evening was capped off with a single dollar taxi ride back to our hotel, an arrangement that I’m sure, dear reader, you would like to see replicated in your town. We were even regaled with stories of the “mob” in Las Vegas by the driver who seemed to have several “buddies” with connections – well worth his 500% tip!