I live near Detroit. The usual reasons some people dislike Detroit—the cold, the snow, the insular culture, the urban decay—they don’t bother me much. What really ticks me off about living there is that there’s not a single great driving road within three hours. I fantasize about living near mountains. For the next 24 hours, I get to live that fantasy. Maybe.
The car, a 1987 Honda CRX convertible (coachbuilder Straman’s doing) purchased in Phoenix two days ago, has the moves. I verified this yesterday and earlier today, while taking the scenic route through Arizona (plus a bit of Utah.) I found some suitably squiggly roads here and there. Overall, the car performed with aplomb as we got used to one another.
Now in southwestern Colorado I’ve reached the mountains, and they promise greater rewards, but also greater risks. Can the 92-horse (when new) 1.5-liter engine power up steep grades at high altitudes? And how hard can I hammer the Honda up those grades and around hairpins without some 155,ooo-mile-old part becoming multiple parts?
Plus this is December, and I have a severe cold front breathing down my neck. If I let the front catch up, it will kill the joy even if it doesn’t kill me or the car.
First, a delay. The CRX’s gas gauge reads empty long before the tank’s empty. Not wanting to run out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve been filling up every 180 miles. It’s time when I reach Ute Mountain. I try three pumps before one works (because reservation). A couple of Utes in a pickup warn me that the mountain is sacred, no photos. Just joking! They love the car.
Even through U.S. 160 winds through sizable mountains, it isn’t fun. On this major highway, many cars and big trucks need passing. They don’t get passed. The passing lanes are all on uphill grades, where the oxygen-starved CRX has little passing ability even if I downshift to third and plant my right foot. I succeed a couple times, fail more often, and realize the futility of the situation. I’m stuck. This is not my fantasy.
With the sun sinking and the temperature sinking with it, I’m getting cold. But I am not entirely without luck. A few months ago while cleaning the garage, I found a long-forgotten bag with some of my kids’ costumes in it. Judging from their size, they were at least six years old. I chucked them.
The bag also contained a fur-lined “Mad Bomber” cap. It smelled funky. I kept it, then tossed it into my duffel on the way out the door to Phoenix. It’s time for the cap. Mad Bomber mode engaged, the air feels 15 degrees warmer.
I reach Durango just before sunset. This time Hotwire’s highly rated two-star hotel is a dated Travelodge motel the same $43 as last night’s Days Inn, but not remotely as nice. I dine at Zia’s a block away. Its fresh-Mex burritos put Chipotle’s to shame. Afterwards I walk around an after-hours off-season downtown. Meh.
Back at the Travelodge, I face a tough choice. I badly want to head even further north, to Silverton and Ouray. I’ve never driven the fabled Million Dollar Highway. I’ve long wanted to. It’s right here.
But I’m not driving the right car. At 11,000 feet the 1.5 will be good for (maybe) 60 horsepower. The suspension might be waiting for a cliff-tracing curve to disintegrate.
Still, if I had a few hours to spare, I’d chance it.
But I don’t have those hours, either. The weather is always dicey at high altitudes, and that cold front has not reversed course. Plus I need to get to Oklahoma City tomorrow, and it’s over 700 miles away even without a detour. Ever so reluctantly, I save the Million Dollar Highway for another car, another time.
Departing at daybreak with the temperature right at freezing, top down anyway, 160 again bores me. I should have opted for northern New Mexico. Then I turn south onto U.S. 84. Twisty empty roads among snow-capped peaks, top down, small four singing, I’m overjoyed to be in this place, at this time, in this car. Glorious.
In New Mexico the curves become less curvy and farther between—until Tierra Amarillas. Then U.S. 64 starts climbing through hairpins. Even with my foot to the floor, the little engine needs third, even second at times. It never stops making encouraging noises.
The shifter flicks easily and precisely from gear to gear. The manual steering becomes chatty under load, telling me exactly what I need to know through the curves. With each hairpin I grow more confident. The CRX would have done just fine on the Million Dollar Highway. But if you can’t be with the road you love, love the road you’re with, and I’m loving this one. This is my fantasy.
Snow covers the sides of the road, but not the pavement itself. Even more luckily, there’s none of the road salt I’ve been desperately seeking to avoid. Instead, there’s a reddish sand-based substance.
At Brazos Summit, 10,507 feet above sea level and a few thousand feet above the valley, the air crisp, I enjoy a breathtaking view. I wish I could stay all day. But I can’t stay.
I descend to Taos. I come across Earthship, which develops off-the-grid housing. Far out. I contribute $7 to the cause and briefly tour the place. I stop at the Rio Grand Gorge, and hike to the midpoint of the high bridge. I try to visit the Taos Pueblo. It’s closed in honor of a recent death. I drive on, passing through another touristy town.
The road from Taos to Eagle Nest, posted 30 mph, twists enough to be great fun, at least in the CRX. As I round one curve, a huge, well-racked buck (elk?) appears on the shoulder then, spooked at least as much as I am, runs alongside the car for too many eon-like seconds. Very close. Let’s not do that again.
More than Taos, I came this way for Eagle Nest. Back in 1989, during a 160-day meander about North America, I stayed with Doc here. A friend had met Doc in upstate New York while volunteering at a homeless shelter. Doc was both a volunteer and a client. Among the last of the old-time hobos, Doc drifted here and there, never in a rush. Even when not rushing across the continent I can see the appeal.
Whenever Doc did feel the need for a home, he drifted back to one, in Eagle Nest. When home he worked as a firefighter, usually in the forest, and wrote poems about those experiences. Some were published.
Eagle Next has gotten a little larger and a lot more touristy. It being December, most places are closed. I finally find an open convenience store, a middle aged woman at the register. Of course she knew Doc. Doc is no longer here. He developed breathing problems and moved to Raton. Perhaps 24 years is too many to go between visits.
Raton isn’t far, but the cold front has caught up. Low clouds are frosting the peaks to the west. The first flakes fall as I hop back into the CRX. I drive hard to get back ahead of the front, the plentiful curves from Eagle Nest to Cimmaron the best sort of impediment. At Cimmaron the mountains end.
In Part 4 of 4: Ozarks, bourbon, a part failure, and a party.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of car comparisons, including reliability stats, pricing, and specs.