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Three for the Road

Eric McNatt The sun shining down on a long stretch of road.

Photo: Eric McNatt

Because I'd volunteered to drive this stretch, I missed a lot of the scenery on the way up. Indeed, it's not an option to take your eyes off the ever-changing road, a former mule trail still as iffy in some spots as it must have been 100 years ago. At its widest, it was only a little broader than the MDX. That would have been fine if we'd been cruising on flat ground, but considering that the left side of the road was a sharp ledge that dropped several hundred feet into a narrow canyon, size suddenly mattered.

Maybe it was because I hadn't driven in a while, or maybe it was the New Yorker in me, but I was fearless behind the wheel. I expected my sisters to embrace the danger of the ride as gleefully as I did, to enjoy speeding up, up, up the trail, past white-trunked aspens, fields of wildflowers, and icy runoff from melting snow. Instead, they begged me to slow down.

But it was too late. The rocky trail took revenge on my audacity, grabbing a front tire and holding it tight in a deep rut too close to the ledge for anyone's liking. That's when we thanked God for the VTM-4—short for Variable Torque Management FourWheel Drive System—a supercharged feature of the Acura activated by what we christened the "magic button."

FORGET THE TRIP COMPUTER AND BOSE STEREO: the magic button was our pick for the MDX's most impressive feature. The VTM-4 judges the severity of the mess you're in and, if it's sufficiently dangerous, orders the vehicle to kick into a special overdrive that spins the rear wheels in proportion to the rate of slippage. Or something like that; we didn't care. We just wanted to get away from the ledge. In what must have been less than a second, the system deemed our pickle sour enough, and freed the wheel just before Marie lost her wits.

Happily, we never needed to use the VTM-4 the next day as we drove the well-paved Million Dollar Highway. There are several explanations for why the 23-mile portion of the Skyway between Ouray and Silverton got this name—from the weight in gold tailing used to build the original road, from the amount the government shelled out to make the narrow cliffside drive more auto-friendly, and (our favorite) from the "million-dollar" views of the San Juan Mountains.

Of course, that million the government splurged on the highway in the twenties is beans compared to the sums that bigwigs such as Oprah Winfrey pay for their ski chalets in the area today. We mused on inflation as we sat inside the window jambs of the abandoned hundred-year-old cabins in the decomposing ghost town Animas Forks. In 1875, "the Forks" advertised itself as the "largest town in the world"—at its altitude (ba-dum-bum). But, as in many towns of its vintage, the population shrank to naught when the miners left near the turn of the century.

THIS BLEAK SCENE WAS A STRIKING CONTRAST to Silverton, a touristy town to the west. With its pastel buildings and pseudo—general stores full of cheap souvenirs at high prices, Silverton looks less like the mining community it was during the gold rush than a working prototype for one of those Wild West setups at Disney World.

Depressed, we barely blinked as we sped back onto the Skyway. The topography changes dramatically from Silverton south to Durango, the stretch that Marie got to drive. Steep mountain peaks become rolling, tree-covered hills before morphing into a high-desert landscape of cacti and mangled trees. It's a beautiful transformation.

With a permanent population of about 17,000, Durango was the largest city on our route, and, ironically, the one I was most eager to leave. I think it's because this is where some of my trust-fund hippie friends from college moved after graduation to "find themselves." There are places in Durango to buy $400 hiking boots, clubs where groovy bands jam nightly, and upscale restaurants where trustafarians nosh after a long day of mountain biking. But we were looking for somewhere with a bit more soul.

Although we had planned to take the Skyway from start to finish, at the suggestion of an adventure-guide friend of Marie's, we made a side trip to Navajo Lake, about 45 miles to the south over the New Mexico border. We took the MDX off-road to a secret inlet he'd told us about on the northwestern side of the lake, where we spent the afternoon floating in the cerulean water and sunning on smooth terra-cotta—colored boulders.

It was almost dark by the time we got back into Colorado and reached our final stop, Dolores. The town is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it places, and everything was closed. We woke at our inn the next morning to sunshine, a big breakfast, and the promise of a day of fly-fishing on the town's namesake river. We ate lunch at a roadside diner and hit an antiques store, and by the end of the day we felt that we really did know everyone.

Driving out of town back to Telluride, Millie noted that Dolores had none of the inauthentic kitsch that makes Silverton a bust, and none of the amenities that make Durango a must-stop. Instead, it had soul. And soul beats luxury every time.

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