Silverton, Colorado is a tiny town among giant mountains. The peaks rise up in all directions except for one tiny slot through which the river flows. The mountains are tall and steep and scoured by natural processes–wind, rain, snow, bitter cold, and intense sun. Indeed, beyond a certain point there simply is not enough air pressure to sustain trees, meaning much of the land above 11,500 feet has nothing more than a thin veneer of grass or even nothing at all–many of the steepest summits are bare rock for thousands of vertical feet.
Among all this, at 9,300 feet, nestles the town of Silverton: cabin-centric, wood-stove-heated, mostly unpaved, subject to inversion, and unique as only towns that have fought hard for survival can be. The town was founded by miners in the 1870s and has endured through many changes since, and now most people live off the tourist trade. Silverton is home to about the same amount of people as can fit into a Boeing 747, and the town swells by about half again on any summer’s day as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad huffs and puffs its way up the aforementioned tiny slot to disgorge tourists onto ‘Notorious Blair Street.’
You’ve heard of notorious Blair Street, of course, but in case you haven’t, it was the so-called ‘Red Light District’ of Silverton in the old mining days and persisted as such–and presumably frowned upon by the town gentiles–until around the 1940’s. In the 70 years since those same gentiles have seized upon the reputation and intrigue of the streets’ surely sad and degrading past to capitalize on the morbid fascination many of us have with such sordid histories. You can now buy hamburgers at the Shady Lady Saloon, get gifts at Natalia’s, or take an old photo at the Old Bordello. I do all of those things regularly.
That’s because I live in Silverton! Sort of. This will be my third summer out of the past four years that I have spent here, and every time I have come for Hardrock. The thought process is something along the lines of, “I want to do well in this race, and I have the freedom to live where I wish, so I may as well live and train in the town that hosts the race.” This is an especially convenient location for me since I am from Durango, just an hour south. So whenever I want I can just drive down there and let my mom cook me dinner. But generally I stay up here where the earth is ‘scoured by natural processes’ and so on and so forth, because it makes for a better story.
For the uninitiated, Hardrock is a running race through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. The stats: 100 miles; 33,000 feet (each!) of up and down; average elevation 11,200 feet; cutoff time 48 hours; course records 23:23 for the men (Kyle Skaggs, 2008), 27:18 for the women (Diana Finkel, 2009.) The highest point is over 14,000 feet on Handies Peak. It’s one hell of a race, although the hardest part is often just getting in – nearly 2,000 people entered last year for 140 spots in the race. Since I’ve been lucky enough to get in, I want to make the most of the opportunity. So I always move up here.
Keep in mind, however, that such fair-weather tenancy in no way makes me a ‘local.’ Silverton-ians (I may have just made that up) are protective of their clan, and not just anyone can be a local. One has to earn the right to such a title. But the locals are good folk, and they welcome newcomers with open arms, possibly because of their own scarcity of social diversity. I’ve been lucky enough to catch glimpses into the lifestyles that define Silverton, partly from working at the local coffee shop (three years ago) and partly from my own acute journalistic observational skills. But I am never sure what to expect.
The people of Silverton aren’t exactly known for being career-centric. I suppose this is partly due to the undeniable fact that if you live in Silverton, making money probably isn’t your highest priority. However, at least one guy in town is fantastic at his job, and he’s the guy who waters the streets. I don’t know who he is or where he comes from, but that’s the point–he’s a phantom! All but one of Silverton’s streets are unpaved and can get dusty, so they need to be watered regularly to keep the dust down. And these are wide streets! You can’t just water your patch of street with a bucket; this is a job that requires a huge truck and hundreds of gallons of water. But I have never once seen the guy watering the streets. All I know is the streets are always perfectly–even freshly–watered. And the culprit is nowhere to be found. He’s an inspiration for all of us.
Although not quite as efficient as the water guy, the town band at least deserves some accolades for effort. These people practice all the time, and they’re willing to practice just about wherever anyone will let them. I should point out that being in the band at all is a pretty heroic effort since it’s comprised almost entirely of brass instruments and we’re at 9,300 feet. These guys probably have a greater aerobic capacity than I do. And they’re always getting after it, though they presumably experience some listener burnout because they’re always on the move. The first time I saw them play was on the corner of the main street, which I soon learned they do every Thursday at five in the afternoon. Nothing weird there. But then one day I found them practicing in an alley behind the Miner’s Tavern. And a few days later I heard them in the downstairs of the library. I’ve heard them play on roofs, in the cemetery, below the ski hill, and even once on a stage. I think they build up all year for the July Fourth parade, and if practice has anything to do with it they are probably amazing.
I guess I’ve never stuck around to hear a whole show.
Through and around all these quirky idiosyncrasies, I spend my time either running/hiking through the mountains, eating, or planning the next run. I have a pile of maps that cover all the land between Durango, Norwood, Ridgway, Lake City, and Wolf Creek Pass, which is a stretch of land about two and a half times the size of Rhode Island (according to the stats for the San Juan National Forest on their website). And within that stretch of land are the San Juan Mountains–the biggest, wildest, most impressive range of mountains in the state. Hardrock only touches a corner of the area. Much of the San Juans are encompassed within the Weminuche Wilderness, a nearly 490,000-acre stretch of mountains entirely off limits to all forms of travel except foot and horse. The possibilities of such a place, and the commitment required to attempt them, fuels my imagination and brings me back every year. Silverton is right on the edge of this paradise, which is why I choose to live here over, say, Telluride, where I direct a race. The San Juan Mountains and the Weminuche were my first inspiration to be a mountain runner, and even if they don’t make me better with every run, they at least make this sport worth it.
Silverton and the San Juan Mountains are home for me. Where’s yours?
[Editor’s Note: This isn’t the first time Dakota has proclaimed his love for all things San Juan Mountains and Silverton. You can also read ‘A Totally Serious History Of Silverton, Colorado‘ and ‘A Personal Portrait Of Silverton,’ both of which he wrote while he living there in 2012.]
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Dakota says, “Silverton and the San Juan Mountains are home for me. Where’s yours?” Let’s hear it!