Strange Roads And Forgotten Highways

DATELINE: 12th July, 2018

The Rim Rock Road, part of the Colorado National Monument, nr. Fruita, CO.

John Otto was a bit of a strange one. A reclusive canyon-dweller, he was one of those guys for whom mid-nineteenth century America was made–a rugged individualist finding a place to call his own in the vast open spaces of the heartland.

He was a little late for the heyday, alas. But Otto’s spirit and love for the land north of Grand Junction he called home would have a lasting effect. In 1907 he began carving out paths and tracks to make the rugged canyons he trod so easily more accessible to the outside world. At the same time, he began agitating to make his ‘backyard’ into a place that everyone could enjoy. He was a recluse, but would happily abandon his privacy given any excuse to evangelize the spires and canyons amongst which he lived. Otto was tireless at writing petitions, conducting tours and seeking out sponsors to get the message out.

In 1911, his efforts were rewarded. President Taft signed papers that turned John Otto’s backyard into the Colorado National Monument. Otto was rewarded personally, with the creation of a new post–the Monument’s first custodian, with a stipend of a dollar a month. I get the feeling that he would have done it regardless of pay. He called the land ‘the heart of the world.’

Without him, we would not be in Fruita, Colorado, pointing the nose of the White Buffalo up onto the Rim Ridge Road.

Now, that road is a whole other story. 23 miles from Grand Junction to Fruita, it takes the high route up and through some of the most spectacular sights in John Otto’s backyard. 20 years in the making, carved out of the sparking red sandstone by gangs of young men with pickaxes, shovels and fistfuls of dynamite.

The Monument is geology laid bare. Millions of years of erosion have carved towers and sheets of rocks out of the landscape. They take on a myriad of forms–a pair of hands clasped in prayer, a couple kissing.

Steep-faced canyons drop hundreds of feet to green-scumbled valley floors. Brave souls can take the switchback trails that Otto cut into the rock down into these valleys, but they are not recommended if you’re unprepared. These are not paths to lightly tread. One false step and the express route to Plummetville awaits.

We stayed on the road, and chose to enjoy the views instead.

At sunset, those views change completely. The red rocks lose their angry hue in the face of the blazing crimson of the lowering sun. They blush instead, sweetening into coral and madder rose, lilac and damson. As we chased the gloaming back towards the jewel-lights of Grand Junction, a couple of thousand feet below, I thought again about John Otto, a man so intent on living life as he chose that his one attempt at normality, marriage to local artist Beatrice Farnham, foundered after three weeks. She left in despair, saying, “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”

There was only ever room for one true love in John Otto’s life, and she would never try to make him change.

DATELINE: 12th July 2018

Somewhere on Highway 6, on the Colorado/Utah border

Hawkeye did it again. We had a little time to kill before our last stop of the day, so he coaxed the Buffalo in a westerly direction and fired us out towards Utah. Hawkeye being Hawkeye, he didn’t choose the obvious route–Interstate 70, a clean, fast road. Instead he hung a tight left at a half-horse town called Loma, and put us onto Highway 6.

Once, this would have been one of the main drags through the western part of the state. Now it’s neglected. The surface is unmaintained, the blacktop gently devolving to rubble and potholes that tested the Buffalo’s shocks. There are no services, no people, no ambulant life at all. Low, scrubby plains march off to the green hills of the McInnis National Park. We were utterly alone. No other vehicles passed us for the entire time we were on Highway 6. The silence was deep and full in our heads.

The border between Utah and Colorado is marked by a handmade sign, deliberately hammered at an angle to a post. A shot-pocked can of peaches sits alongside. There is a sense of utter isolation, of abandonment at this sentry post. We paused for photos, but were soon chased back onto the road. There was a distinctly eerie atmosphere about the place. The feel of somewhere haunted by a history that had been almost completely erased.

A few miles into Utah, there was a spur road back onto I-70 which we took with a sigh of relief. It ran on the other side of the McInnis Ridge, a greener and much more pleasant drive. Less than a mile separated us from the forgotten road that waited quietly to the north, a road that you would now actively have to seek out.

I wondered why the road was so completely un-used. Surely an enterprising person could set up a little 420-friendly operation close to the state line. A simple shack with a pull-in. You could even do it as a mobile, food-truck style business on the weekends. A way to perhaps bring a spark of life back to this forgotten highway.

Call it The Last Chance Cannabis Saloon. I might set up a Kickstarter.

DATELINE: 12th July 2018

Somewhere in the hills above Fruita, CO.

Like butter wouldn’t melt…

Eventually, Star and I came to an understanding. I would stop kicking her in the side, and she would stay away from the tasty snacks on either side of the trail and pick up the pace. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t try it on. She was too damn stubborn not to test the boundaries of our fragile relationship. Typical redhead.

I am no natural horseman. Donkeys at the seaside were always more my speed. But it seemed foolish not to give it a go while we were in the heart of cowboy country. Besides, I had dropped sixty bucks on a fine hat back in Denver. We took a recommendation from our landlord in Palisades and booked a sunset ride with the fine folks at Rim Rock Adventures.

‘How you doing back there, Rob?’ Crysta, our guide, looked back down the line at Star and I.. She was a rangy, loud blonde cowgirl, constantly cracking jokes and chatting away. I managed a shaky thumbs up. This would not beat me.

I could understand Star’s attitude. This was her fourth ride of the day. It was hot and dusty up on the trail. Given the choice, I certainly wouldn’t fancy being loaded up with 12 stones of lanky Brit at the end of a long shift. She had definitely given me a look when we were introduced back at the ranch. I could tell she was distinctly under-impressed.

Hence her refusal to stay with the group, lagging behind the line of horses that picked their way up into the hills. She’d follow along, sure. But she was gonna take her own sweet time about it, find her own path and if she spotted a tasty bit of grass along the way, well, why not.

Star and I quickly became the comic relief of the group. Over the course of the ride, my hat would blow off my head, Star would get herself tangled in her hitching loop, and I would nearly come out of the saddle when she suddenly decided to break into a trot on a steep uphill gradient. Star was definitely the boss here. I was just along for the ride.

But what a ride. The trail snaked up through the foothills of the McInnis National Conservation Area, skirting the edge of Devil’s Canyon before plunging back through sagebrush-fringed coves. You couldn’t do this road by car, and the steep inclines and declines would have been an exhausting chore by foot. ‘Trust your horses,’ Crysta said, and they brought us over the hills and home again.

The sun was setting as we arrived back at the ranch, and we dismounted, a little saddle-sore but eyes shining. TLC reported whenever she looked back to see how I was doing, I was grinning like a loon and cackling. I guess maybe Star and I got along a little better than I thought.

I gave my stubborn, greedy slowpoke a hug before we left. She leaned in and huffed out a hot breath from her velvety snout. I don’t think we’d ever be friends, but I’d like to hope we shared a little something as we clattered over the red rocks at the foot of the Coronado National Monument.

Who knows? Maybe she was just glad to get me off her back at last.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

One thought on “Strange Roads And Forgotten Highways”

  1. That was very funny about the horse. They actually do resent it when you weigh too much. I’m not sure how much 12 stone is (looks it up on internet) 168 pounds. Well, that’s not so bad. I’ve seen them get pretty mad if you’re over 200. Usually the wrangler will match you with a horse that’s the right size. Generally, you need to weigh less than 1/5 of their weight including the saddle. So if Star was a decent sized horse of about 1000 pounds, she probably didn’t mind too much. As for the eating grass, they’re like children, they will try to take advantage. She may have even felt bad and nuzzled you at the end to apologize. Horses have emotions just like dogs. And they do like us, generally. Especially when we feed them.

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