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The Night on Abajo Peak
Road rallies, suspected robberies and other revelries in the Rockies.
It was a cold, snowy, February morning in the Southern Rockies. The town of Chama was as quiet as it could get. I rolled out of bed at the Chama Trails Inn, one of the only open motels in town. It’s the type of place that has that knotty pine panel board you find lining the walls in your grandparents basement. I opened the blinds to find my car, and the bundles of chilli pepper hanging from the overhang, dusted with snow. The weather in New Mexico had been rough since I arrived earlier that week with a mix of snow and rain in the mountains, and dry cold on the desert floors. The higher in elevation you get, the worse the weather gets. I opened the door to the room, still in my pyjamas. A brisk 25 degree wind whipped into the room and around my flanneled legs. 7am. Let’s get out of town. I packed what little I had taken out of my bag and turned my key into the man from Oklahoma that ran the front desk. He warned me the night before to “avoid the Navajo reservation, its the worst place I’ve ever been too.” I topped off the tank, and rolled north to Pagosa Springs, a popular sporting town in southern Colorado known for cross country skiing and snowmobiling among other things. Breakfast was two eggs and bacon over a phone call with my dad. “You ought to check the weather out west there. I hear it’s supposed to snow” he tells me with his distinct Upper Midwest accent that has the ability to be mistakably Canadian. “I’ll have to check on it, I’m heading into Durango to get new tent stakes before I head into the San Juan National Forest to camp for the night.” I responded in my equally intense Upper Midwest accent. The plan was to drive into Durango, a city well know for its “dude ranches”, and to head west from town into the San Juan National Forest and take a camping spot on a service road off of State Road 160. There’s a lot sporting guides in town so I figured I’d find a campsite through word of mouth, since most of the federal land was closed for the winter. The drive to Durango was gorgeous and uneventful. Advertisements play on the radio for job openings with the La Plata County Sheriffs Office. Horses stand in the snow like monoliths, draped in heated blankets. The red cliffs around Chimney Rock stretch upwards, scraping the low hanging clouds.
I got into Durango at high noon and strolled into a sporting goods store along the main drag in town. I was looking for reinforced steel tent stakes so I could pitch my tent on top of ice if I needed too. A few nights before I pitched my tent high in the mountains above Santa Fe and obliterated every tent stake I owned trying to secure it to the hard icy ground. I slept in the passenger seat and read Ferlinghetti until my fingers froze instead. I got the tent stakes and asked about camping sites. “What vehicle you in?” the clerk asked me. “A 93’ BMW sedan.” I told him. “Yeah you’d be damned if you went into the mountains this time of year in that.” he piped back. Then the other clerk, an older lady, dropped into the conversation, “Theres a giant snow storm moving east tonight into Utah and Colorado. Honestly if I were you I would just get the hell out of town before you get snowed in.” Cool, a snowstorm that would stretch from Salt Lake City to New York City, and I’m at the eastern edge of the front. “Where should I go then?” “Head south west, get into Utah or Arizona. Theres a nice camping spot along the San Juan River in Bluff. You’ll be good if you make it there.”
I re-secured my luggage, downloaded more maps onto my phone and laptop, and highlighted my paper maps, before heading further west, into Mormon country. But there was one last thing that stood between me and the Utah state line, Mesa Verde National Park. With some snow flurries brushing against my windshield, the weather was getting colder, and the light started to become more and more faint. I arrived at the welcome centre for the national park and it was completely closed. No cheesy tourist magnets or stickers for me. I grabbed a map from the information box outside. I opened the map and realised my problem. From the park entrance, it’s 25 miles one direction to get to the Cliff Palace, the core of park. 50 miles round trip, and a lot of lost daylight.
I looped through the park only to find out that the Cliff Palace was closed to visitors. Of course the main highlight is closed. But the one good thing about the small trek through the park, was that the park is at a far higher elevation than the surrounding area, giving gorgeous views of the deserts below and groups of mountains far in the distance. While I was at the park I discovered a dispersed camping area near the base of Abajo Peak, a mountain that rises behind the small town of Monticello, Utah. I figured with the new tent stakes and not quite freezing temperatures yet, that it would be a solid place to camp that night. As the sun was setting I drifted through Cortez and Dove Creek before reaching the state line with Utah. The sun had fully disappeared as I drove into the town of Monticello. Having a few MRE’s and some snacks left I decided to skip dinner and head up into the mountain behind town. The road was a small paved road that had some views of the small village below. But this is when the night truly started. The road began to narrow the higher in elevation I got. I rumbled over two cattle grates in the road, and then the road completely changed.
The car slid, deep into the half frozen mud that made up what was supposed to be a road. The car fishtailed, with the rear end swinging out nearly off the side of the embankment. “Holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck” I whisper to myself as my brain suddenly changes gear as I am now suddenly a professional rally car driver. The road is insanely muddy and very slick. I know that if I lose my speed, anything under 35 to 40 mph, my car will completely sink into the mud. So speed is the only option. I can feel the rear tires struggling to grab any sort of solid ground under the mud. So much mud is flying into the engine bay that is disconnects one of my headlights. Then the turns start. Multiple, hairpin turns of solid ice and mud. A racing chicane in its most wild form. I try to reduce speed into the turn but quickly realise the only way to survive the turn is to drift the car around the turn and pray to god I don’t roll off the embankment and die. If my BMW wasn’t rear wheel drive I would have been utterly screwed. As I get into the turn I cock the steering wheel hard to the right and stand on the gas pedal. The rear tires grab everything and propel the car forward while maintaining inertia. I slam through the first chicane. Then the next one. And the next one. Three hairpin turns later and the road turns into complete sheet ice. I let off the gas pedal and tap the brakes as the car comes to a slow, gliding halt on the road. I put the car in neutral and pull the handbrake.
I sit in the driver seat for a minute, taking a few deep breaths, before getting out of the car to inspect the damages. The car has no skid plates under it so the mud had free access to the car’s engine bay. This has got to be a cruel joke. The mountain road dead ends all the way at the top of Abajo Peak. Theres no other way out than the way I came. Ok Alexander, there is only one way off this mountain, and it’s right where you came from. Theres a small strip of gravel along the roadside facing the mountain, the other side is a rolling drop down into oblivion. I kick as much dirt and gravel under my tires as I possibly can to get more traction. I do something like a 17 point turn and slowly turn the car so I can drive back. Seriously, I have to drive through all of this again. I let on the gas slowly as the weight of the car gives it some minor traction on the ice. The moment the tires grab the cattle grate, I push hard onto the gas. Here we go again. Turn one, turn two, turn three, all over again. Drifting the car and throwing it around like I did when I was reckless in high school. Mud slings up from the road, splattering the rear windows once again. After launching my car across the muddy track and back onto pavement, I thought I was going to vomit. If I would have gotten stuck I would have been absolutely screwed. No cell service, no life forms in sight. Hell with this I’m going to a hotel for the night.
I drive back into Monticello and find one of the only open motels in town. The Canyonlands Motor Inn. The motel is dead quiet. Barely a soul here besides me. I waltz into the lobby the of motel. A lobby that hasn’t changed in maybe 30 years. A statue of some Hindu deity sits in the lobby on a coffee table, surrounded with tropical plants. Condensation sits on most of the windows. A small Indian guys comes out of the back and I start filling out the paperwork to rent a room for the night. $50 total for the night. Jesus this’ll be interesting. As I’m filling out the paperwork a lady walks in behind me into the lobby. She’s quite older, late 60’s. To put it bluntly, she looked quite haggard. She waited behind me to rent a room for a few minutes, and then the moment the man behind the desk told me my room number, she ran out of the lobby and back into her car. I was immediately concerned. I walked into my motel room and paced for a second. I called my dad. “Dad am I crazy? I think this lady is going to rob me, why else would anyone do that?” “Yeah I’d get out of town, that’s very suspicious, especially in some town out in the middle of nowhere.” I march back into the office, only minutes after renting the room. I point out the window to the lady’s truck with her in it. “That lady is going to rob me. I need a refund on my hotel room.” I tell the motel clerk with the most serious tone I can produce. “I’m sorry what? I can assure you this motel is safe sir.” he slowly responds. “No, I’m sorry, nobody ease drops on your room number without a reason, I need a refund.” “Well we can move you to a different room.” “Sir, that’s not my point, the point is, is that this lady is going to rob me, and it does not matter what room am I in. Frankly, I need to go to a different town.” I whip back at him. “Ok ok we’ll process a refund.”
Well, Arches National Park was not on the itinerary. Now it is, as I blast down the highway towards Moab hoping that state police aren’t out tonight. After an hour of driving through the pitch black, I finally arrive in the tourist watering hole of Moab, Utah. The basecamp for Arches National Park. At 2am I find a Super 8 motel. I throw myself into the 24 hour lobby, where some sorry 16 year old high school kid is holding down the desk for the night. “I just need your cheapest room, I’m having one of the shittiest nights of my life right now.” I tell him directly. “Oh shit I hope you’re ok man.” he says as he gets the keys ready. I drag my bags to the very end of the hallway and open the door. A hurricane had hit the room. The mattress was completely turned up, pillows and furniture were piled everywhere. It looked like an English bar fight had happened in the room. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Can anything, anything at all, go smoothly today. Back to the desk. “Hey man, the rooms majorly fucked up, I need a different room.” He reset the key, reassigned my room, and finally, after 19 hours, 3 hotel rooms, and one attempt at camping, I had a bed for the night. But if it weren’t for all these wild incidents, I would have never made it to Arches. I guess there are some positives out of all this craziness after all.