Four-wheel Drive Adventure

Article and photos by Richard Holmes

Views above timberline (c) Richard Holmes

Views above timberline (c) Richard Holmes

Angry tires clawed their way up the steep road, rubber tread digging into loose rock. The engine strained and the transmission groaned as our 4-wheel drive vehicle churned forward, hauling half a dozen passengers up the mountain. The rocky road twisted, turned, undulated and doubled back on itself as the switchbacks led us first one way, then another.

The air was bracing and the sky clear on a cold, windless morning. With an occasional photo stop we drove farther up through the forest. Fall color was at its peak––the aspens on the mountainsides were just radiant. Every shade of yellow, punctuated by patches of orange and green, glowed in the morning sun. It continued for miles. I felt immersed in gold, the gold of autumn. Beauty is not allocated in the Ouray area––it is pervasive.

The road through golden aspens (c) Richard Holmes

The road through golden aspens (c) Richard Holmes

We climbed above the aspens, ever higher as the trees thinned, becoming smaller as we approached timberline. We were pushing 12,000 feet. Suddenly the views opened up. We could see for miles. Stopping in a clearing, everyone piled out, cameras in hand. I walked over to where I could see several miles beyond forever and knelt down on the tundra to take a picture. Why kneel to photograph a vast landscape? I don’t know. Reverence?

The sun felt warm, even deserved. Up to that point we were riding in the shade, growing colder with altitude.

We had left Ouray early morning, a convoy of a half dozen vehicles heading a few miles south along the highway toward Silverton. It was cold sitting out in the open on bench seats, and we huddled under several layers of clothing. We were driving up a deep canyon shaded by mountains. Only when turning off the highway onto a dirt road in the forest did we find relief from the wind in our faces.

Prospectors (c) Richard Holmes

Prospectors (c) Richard Holmes

After milling around timberline for a while we descended back through the forest. From ghost towns, to old mining buildings, to the detritus of days-gone-by, we paused, photographed and reveled. Upon reaching the valley floor we stopped for lunch, a mountain lunch where you sit on a log. Or a rock. A spot where a chipmunk and a mountain jay want your food.

Fall color was in every direction, and straight up and straight down. Cameras never stopped clicking. As the afternoon passed I realized that, for me, this was another lifetime experience, another day to remember. Perhaps others felt the same.