On our way home from California, Courtland and I planned to swing by Grand Canyon and see the new Skywalk. So we crossed the Mojave Desert, again, narrowly avoided Death Valley, and headed for Kingman, Arizona. On the way there we drove within 21 miles of London Bridge. Really.
About 40 years ago a rich developer bought London Bridge, the one over the River Thames in England, which was falling down anyway. He had it shipped to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and rebuilt over an arm of Lake Havasu. The idea, I think, was to attract people like us, who were traveling nearby, and get us to come spend money in Lake Havasu.
When I realized how close we were to the bridge I asked Courtland, who was driving at the time, if he wanted to take a detour and see London Bridge. He looked at me like I had offered to put whipped cream in his shoes. So I explained about the bridge, and asked him again if he wanted to see it. He said, “Nah.” So we went on to Kingman instead.
I got to talking to a fellow at the park where we camped in Kingman, and told him we were headed for the Skywalk. He shook his head. After several minutes of prying information out of the guy, with pliers, I learned that the Skywalk is considered a big rip-off among the locals.
It’s about a 90-mile drive from Kingman, 40 of it on a dirt road. Then you have to pay $50 to get on the reservation, and another $25 apiece to go out on the Skywalk. Then you have to go back out the way you came in, all the way to Kingman, in order to get anywhere else.
So we skipped the Skywalk, too, and headed on up to Colorado, which I think was a good choice. We drove up to Ouray on the Million Dollar Highway, which weaves its way up Uncompahgre Gorge along a narrow shelf road, and affords some of the most beautiful scenery in Colorado. The driver can’t look at the scenery, though, unless he wants to become part of it. The gorge actually looks a lot like Yosemite Valley, only on a smaller scale.
That night Courtland and I pitched our tent at the KOA just north of Ouray, which is doubtless the most scenic KOA I’ve ever seen. Of course, we got the obligatory lecture about putting our food away properly, since bears had been coming around, causing problems. It seems not everyone in Colorado knows how to run the bears off.
What they do in most places when they have a problem bear is to blow up a balloon with some ammonia in it, coat it with honey, and hang it where the bear can find it. When the bear comes around it pops the balloon, gets a face full of ammonia, and decides to go somewhere else. Ammonia will do that to you.
But even though I kept hearing bear-type noises all night, we never saw one. We packed up the next morning and headed for Lake City by way of Engineer Pass Road. This is a four wheel drive road that makes up the northern section of the Alpine Loop, which connects Ouray, Lake City, Silverton, and London. Well, not London. Engineer Pass itself is a barren spot in the mountains at an elevation of 12,800 feet. And it’s for sale. At least there’s a realtor’s sign up there, right beside the Engineer Pass sign. No kidding.
The first five miles of Engineer Pass Road are the roughest, and the average speed on this stretch is about 5 mph. After that the road smoothes out some, although ‘smooth’ is a relative term. We took a slight detour and went to the abandoned mining town of Animas Forks, which has been uninhabited for almost 100 years, because the last residents were eaten by bears.
We finally made it out of the mountains and stopped by the Hard Tack Mine before we got to Lake City. The Hard Tack is a real mine, but is no longer operated. Tours are available, though, and there is a gift shop inside where you can buy little bottles of copper, silver, and other ores, plus lots of pretty rocks and such. The lady running the gift shop, whose name I can’t remember, was born in Brady and lives in San Angelo now. Which is typical.
It seems most of the people running campsites, RV parks, and tourist shops, and volunteering at the state and national parks in Colorado, are from Texas. They spend the winters in Texas and the summers in Colorado, which is a great arrangement.
But I felt sorry for the lady in the Hard Tack Mine gift shop. She lives all summer in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, and spends every day down in a hole in the ground where she can’t see anything.
The only consolation, I guess, is that the mine has some heavy wooden doors on it now. So at least she won’t get eaten by bears . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who has no idea how they put ammonia in a balloon full of air. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org