My kind of road. Nobody is on it.
Maybe one vehicle every couple of minutes, but other than that, it is mine. Great views, as we thunder down a valley with the walls rapidly closing in on themselves. Then the river snakes through a small gap, and soon we come out in yet another widening canyon.
I don’t know who put this road in here, but the Softail Deluxe and I are loving every mile. We’re way over on the western edge of Colorado, where the terrain is rough and broken. Several rivers have cut a path through these lowlands, and the green, grassy valleys all seem walled with red sandstone, a soft kind of rock shaped smooth by wind and water. If I keep up a steady 60 miles an hour, I’m scraping floorboards in many a curve in the road. Or I might just pull over, kill the Twin Cam engine, and listen to birds sing and water tumble along its shallow course.
Earlier in the morning I had been rolling alongside the Colorado River, heading downstream, past Rifle and Parachute, aiming for Arizona. In Clifton I pulled into the Colorado River State Park, took off my boots and waded in the very chilly water. Then I unfolded my map—reading a map is a good skill to learn—and I could see a road that was going more or less in my general southwesterly direction that seemed worth a look.
I leave the Colorado River and head south on Route 141, where it soon merges with U.S. 50. But only for a couple of miles, as just north of Whitewater, 141 turns off to the southwest. A sign tells me that I am getting on the Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic Byway. Such designations promise good things. Deluxe and I cross over the Union Pacific Railroad, over the Gunnison River, and into a valley alongside East Creek.
This is all part of what is generously known as the Colorado Plateau, which has an altitude of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The plateau is constantly cut by dozens of rivers and streams. I happen to be riding upstream alongside East Creek, which means some physical reality is going to occur, as in eventually I’ll come to the source of the creek. I’m going uphill, the water is going downhill, and the headwaters are somewhere ahead. East Creek ends shortly before I crest the 7,000-foot rise called the Unaweep Divide with a sign on top that tells me I have left East Creek behind, and will now be following West Creek downstream. I suppose that even cartographers have a hard time coming up with exciting names.
Headed into the Unaweep Canyon, which is pretty darned spectacular, the canyon twists and turns with the flowing water. I see Thimble Rock, and a little lake, and red walls everywhere. Coming around a curve I see the ruins of a large house off to my left. A sign by the road gives a little history of the remains of the Driggs Mansion; I give Deluxe a breather and walk over. Quite impressive construction considering it is many miles from anywhere. One theory has it that in 1914 Mr. Driggs thought that if he built a big lodge in this valley, he could attract tourists, mainly hunters. For four years he struggled to get this place built, but gave up on the idea in 1918. Nobody seems to know what his next venture was.
Forty miles go by. Great miles, sometimes in broad fields, other times cramped between the creek and the wall. Thick brush often hides the water, the occasional small animal darts in and out, birds sit calmly, awaiting the next insect, or, for the bigger ones, maybe a fish. Deluxe is happy motoring along at 3,000 rpm in this Softail country, cruising country, on a good road with time to enjoy it.
I pass a sign saying Gateway and come into a group of somewhat decrepit houses, each one with a couple of junked cars in view, There is an abandoned gas station and not much sign of life until I come to the meeting of West Creek and the Dolores River. Here a big new complex is going up with lodging, stores, and even gas pumps. Obviously someone is taking up where Mr. Driggs left off and knows a good tourist spot when he sees one.
Now we are running upriver along the Dolores River—the river of sadness, as the word dolores translates. The story goes that the first European expedition to come this way, in 1776, lost a man due to his drowning in the river, and the leader, a Spaniard named Escalante, called the river Dolores to commemorate him. That’s more original than West Creek, I would judge.
Off to the east of the river there used to be a big U.S. Atomic Energy Reserve, from about 1940 to 1980, due to important minerals in the area, such as uranium. Here we digress into a bit of geology. Prospectors came through here 150 years ago, looking for gold and silver, and mines opened up. More important in later years was vanadium, a mineral that is an important alloying agent in the making of high-grade steel. Vanadium does not occur by itself and is often found in a hard-packed lemon-colored mixture called carnotite, more popularly known as yellowcake, which also has uranium ore. Nobody but the medical world had much use for the mildly radioactive uranium until scientists began to think of splitting atoms during World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the Cold War. Life along the Dolores River boomed, and dozens of abandoned mines can now be found in the mountains.
At one point the road is running high above the river, and a well-marked pull-off has a sign saying I am standing above the Hanging Flume. I look down, and there, tacked into the sheer wall rising above the river, are the remnants of a minor construction miracle. Back around 1890 a wooden flume, like a big gutter, was built, which carried 7 to 8 million gallons of water a day to be used in hydraulic gold mining. sort of like pointing a powerful hose at the earth and blasting it away to reveal what is underneath. This flume ran for 13 miles, and it took considerable engineering creativity to build. Of course, eventually the gold ran out and the flume was abandoned, but it is still visible after 100 years.
We arrive at a vanished town that was called Uravan (URA-nium/VAN-adium, get it?), created in 1936 by the U.S. Vanadium company to house employees. Eight hundred people used to live here, Norman Rockwell families in little houses on tree-lined streets, but that is all gone. Seriously gone, carted away, ever since the mill and mines shut down in 1984. Downriver a half-mile away is an old warehouse and the company boarding house for bachelor employees, and this 20th century ghost town is all that is left of a once thriving business, the supply side of the Atomic Age, so to speak. That’s who built this nice road—the atomic industry. Do you oldies remember when we were riding new Harley Duo-Glides and aged Indian Chiefs, and wrist-watches had little radium-painted hands that glowed in the dark? Chances are that radium came from hereabouts. Back around 1900 the French doctor Madame Curie figured out how to cure various diseases using several radium-based therapies, but those medical uses have been supplanted by more modern technology. There is still a very small demand for the stuff.
Push the marvelous little starter button and the explosions in the combustion chambers of each of those 44-cubic-inch cylinders are well muffled. We are powered by petroleum, not uranium. I wonder if they will ever get atomic technology down to where one could build an engine that would fit into a Harley. But if you had a bad crash … Does not bear thinking about.
Leaving Uravan on Route 41 we also leave the Dolores River and start going upstream beside the San Miguel River; I imagine the obviously Catholic Escalante saw the river on St. Michael’s Day, and hence the name. There is a dirt-road turn-off to the Tabeguache wildlife area, up the Tabeguache Creek. Local lore has it that “tabeguache” is a made-up word which supposedly means “where the snow melts first.” Someday a linguist working for a Ph.D. will do a thesis on the subject.
Vancorum is the next wide spot in the road, once a busy little narrow-gauge railroad town with nearby coal mines, but now asleep. Any Thelma and Louise fans should take a trip up Paradox, as some of the scenes from the movie were shot there. A mile on from Vancorum is Naturita, which has gas, two restaurants (of sorts), a visitors’ center, a museum, and the turn-off to Nucla. Cool name; gotta go.
I pass the Nucla airport on the way, at almost 6,000 feet. Riding by the defunct Uranium Drive-In, I wonder if they offered an Atomic Burger on the menu. A Radium Frappe? Then a big, broad, half-mile-long, wide, main street opens in front, going up a hill, with a few stores and a couple of government buildings; but not much is happening around Nucla these days, just a bit of ranching.
Northeast out of Nucla there is a long dirt road to Delta, over the 8,500-foot Columbine Pass, but Deluxe indicates in no uncertain terms that he is not a dirt-road ride, so we decide to backtrack a couple of miles to Naturita. Lunch is a cheeseburger, but not one I would recommend; maybe that is because the cook and the waitress spend more time arguing than cooking or serving. I leave town, and after a mile hook a sharp right to keep on 141, headed for Dove Creek. This is open country, and the road climbs a little, then rolls over a low summit, and a huge valley opens up to Dry Creek Basin. The Basin is wet this June, flowing northeast to meet up with the San Miguel River near Vancorum. We cross over Gypsum Creek and climb up to Gypsum Gap at a refreshing 6,100 feet, very much the Colorado Plateau’s cattle country with fenced range and the occasional corral.
Another rise, higher this time, and a broad canyon opens up. The road plummets and twists down to a bridge over the Dolores River, and then makes a steep climb up the other side. There is the Slick Rock post office, though the town used to be known as Gladel; I like Slick Rock better. Fifteen minutes later I pass through Egnar, and then there are 10 straight-as-an-arrow miles to meet up with U.S. Highway 666, just west of Dove Creek. I’m tempted to go to the Dolores Canyon Overlook, northeast of Dove Creek, but Deluxe reminds me that this requires almost 20 miles of dirt, and he would not appreciate that. Pavement it is, and we head west into Utah on 666. U