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Driving the Continental Divide

Boutiques along Galena Street, in Aspen, Colorado, at dusk.

Photo: Kevin Cooley

The next day, descending into Anaconda toward the end of the Pintler Scenic Loop (Montana Highway 1), we drove alongside an endless chain of railcars frozen idle on a long-abandoned siding, a reminder of how mining had long ago halted abruptly in its tracks. That great wealth had belonged to Anaconda is evident in its liberal use of local brick, granite, and copper for grand Victorian buildings such as the county courthouse, the Hearst Free Library, and the former city hall.

Thirty miles farther east, the Berkeley Pit is an open sore on the eastern edge of Butte, a boomtown once nearly as bright and racy as Las Vegas. The former copper mine, now a 40-billion-gallon pool of toxicity, is an oddly compelling attraction, one of the largest hazardous waste sites in the nation and surely one of the only ones with a viewing platform and a gift shop. After having a look Lynn and I retreated to the safety of the minivan and the security of the open road. Just south of Butte, a signpost indicated distance: 20 miles to Divide, 75 to Wisdom.

Such was the pendulum rhythm of our mountain route. Our drive was swinging between nature’s tenderness and her might, man’s genius and his shame. The human footprint, especially its brutish stomps like the Berkeley Pit, propelled us back to nature for succor, or maybe to apologize. Then, eight hours in the car, consuming land and sky, revved up an appetite for civilization. Pulling up to the Old Faithful Inn after a day on the road was a tonic. With a full moon lighting up the steam plumes escaping Yellowstone’s burbling pits, we snugged down in our room—all plain wood, simple bedsteads, and fresh air.

Scotch was our cure the following night. At the Two-Bit Cowboy Saloon in Miner’s Delight, a tiny former mining settlement tucked away in South Pass, B&B proprietor Bob Townsend took the edge off a long drive and a growing chill with tastes of single malts from the best selection in Wyoming. Remote as it now is, South Pass was once a superhighway of westward migration. This gently sloping, 20-mile-wide crossing of the Continental Divide was one of the easiest, even at an elevation of 7,660 feet.

The Oregon, Mormon, and California trails and the Pony Express route all converged at South Pass. Such traffic would have been a boon for Polly Hinds and Lynda German, who, since 2000, have sold old books, fresh eggs from their property in Sweetwater Station, a one-time stagecoach stop 40 miles from the nearest gas station. Mad Dog and the Pilgrim Booksellers’ 75,000 antiquarian, out-of-print, and just plain curious volumes derailed our forward thrust like a mighty pine fallen across our path. Plus, Hinds had the casual erudition of Annie Proulx, her literary neighbor 126 miles down the road in Saratoga, Wyoming. Arriving in the town later that night, we took the hot-springs cure in tepee-tented pools at Saratoga Resort & Spa.

Coming off the open range of Wyoming, Colorado seemed constricted, as if its north and south borders had put the squeeze on the Rockies, forcing them up in tight clusters of steep peaks. High sagebrush desert gave way to blue spruce, pickups to Subarus, gun racks to bike racks, cowboy hats to baseball caps, though the faces were still tan and weathered. Having slowed or stopped to take pictures of every sign posted to mark the Continental Divide, we pulled over at Milner Pass, elevation 10,759, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The fourteeners of Colorado (the 58 peaks more than 14,000 feet high) that drew prospectors in the 19th century now mint gold less concentrated but just as subject to speculation. Where once the major boomtown was Leadville—the source of Meyer Guggenheim’s fortune—now it is Aspen where the mining digs deep but seems clean, done over drinks and on the slopes. Linking the two towns is Independence Pass, at 12,095 feet the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide.

I had thought that Aspen would be a lark, a reprieve from meat-heavy menus and hard-wearing outdoor clothing. The Sky Hotel delivered: fake-fur–trimmed lounge chairs; a lampshade as outsize as the lobby timbers; tuna-tartare tostadas; travelers in summer whites. But across the street at the Little Nell, the coterie of black Escalades, ready to beam guests the few short blocks to the Caribou Club or Prada or Dior, was deflating, a glossy reminder of Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.

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