Passing Through

The map from this morning, showing snowy roads everywhere — but almost none of the squiggles look as squiggly as the roads really are. I see I forgot to mention the colorfully-named Slumgullion Pass south of Lake City, and I suppose technically you can avoid a pass if you go “over the Black” from Hotchkiss, even though it’s still a squiggly road.

They came in shortly before closing, the little girl first, followed by her mother with the same copper-bright hair, and finally her father, hair color hidden under a ballcap. They were looking for Crested Butte shirts; they’d spent the day skiing, but for some semi-articulated reason decided not to linger up there.

Gilly is always good at teasing out people’s stories; I don’t do so well at it. Anyway, I thought we had some Crested Butte shirts, but things keep moving around in our retail area (most recently, to make room for my used book project), so I went back where Gilly was cleaning screens to ask her.

She came up with her messy gloved hands and pointed toward the one design that is all we have on hand at the moment. We can print something on demand, but not without any of the people who had already gone home for the day.

Our one design wasn’t what they had in mind. The man, with his accent that suggested they had come from well south of Colorado, said they didn’t really know what they were doing or looking for, just wandering around town.

Gilly and I did let them know if they wanted to come back Tuesday they could get something custom. No, the woman said, they were spending the night in Salida. That’s when it became very apparent they weren’t from around here, because she pronounced it like one ought to when speaking Spanish, and “salida” is Spanish for “exit.” But in central Colorado we speak Spanish like a bunch of Anglos, and instead of saying “Saw-lee-dah,” we say “Suh-lye-duh.”

I had just noticed it was starting to snow. My weather had promised it was going to snow all day, resulting in an entire inch of the white stuff, with another one to three inches overnight. But it only snowed slightly in the morning, leaving the rest of the day overcast but moisture free. However, maybe the evening forecast was showing more reliability. (It turns out, yes, with possibly even a fourth inch to show for the effort.)

At pretty much the same time, Gilly and I advised — not that we were asked for our input — being careful going over the pass. The woman looked at us blankly. She didn’t seem opposed to the advice; in fact, she might even have appreciated it, but she had no idea what “going over the pass” meant.

Again, with Gilly in the midst of cleaning screens and me trying to fob the customers off on someone who might know where things were located, we did not get our customers’ back story.

One of the two of them had said something about their tickets being switched, or not right — it sounded like skiing Monday was rather unplanned, but that they had a good time. I forget that in this time of covid, one doesn’t just strap their skis on and hit the hill: you have to make a reservation.

And you’re not supposed to share the chairlift with anyone not of your household, leading one of Kara’s friends to scold her father after he blithely accepted an invitation from some folks from Texas to share the ride.

But now that they are long gone, I want to know about our non-customers. There is absolutely no way to drive to Gunnison without going over some pass: Cerro Summit from Montrose to the west; North, or Cochetopa (the name kept shifting around, and I go with Cochetopa, even though I say “Coach – uh – toe”) from Saguache (Suh-watch — these names come from the Utes); Kebler (not Keebler) from Paonia to the north, but only in the summer; the newly-paved but summer-only option over Cottonwood from Buena Vista (we butcher that pronunciation as well); and Monarch, the king or queen of giant passes, between us and Salida to the east.

These folks obviously had a car, although I suppose there’s the possibility they flew into the Gunnison airport and then rented a vehicle — but I don’t know how you drive here without at least learning what “going over the pass” means.

Going over a pass means curves on a vertical incline. We had a family friend, Sam Sweetkind, who was a trustee for the board of Western Then State Then College. She made a lot of trips to Denver, and assured us there were 27 turns on the west side of Monarch. I have never counted to verify this, but it seems a likely number.

So you drive along the Gunnison Valley, a curve here or there, for 30-some miles to the little hamlet of Sargents, and then you get serious: the curves come fast and furious —

Which is as good a place as any to note that some scenes for Fast and Furious 7 were filmed on Monarch Pass. I’ve never watched any of the films in this franchise; didn’t even know it was a franchise until they started filming the seventh, which I still haven’t seen. But there’s an easy way to see what sort of stuff Monarch is made of.

— and you start climbing up. And up. At least 4,000 feet in elevation gain over the span of 10 miles or so, much of that taken up in turns and twists of the road.

None of the other approaches into Gunnison are quite as hairy as this one, although part of the road on Kebler did slide a couple of winters ago, narrowing the travel path down considerably, but they all still come with their twists and turns and elevation changes.

Perhaps our erstwhile customers drove up from the south by way of Cochetopa (probably more correctly North Pass, but where’s the romance in that?), and he did the driving and maybe she slept. Or maybe the fly-in arrival explains it. Otherwise, I’m at a loss for how she was at a loss as to what Gilly and I meant when we offered standard Gunnison advice to “be careful going over the pass.”

“Slow and steady,” I counseled, as they headed out the door. And then they were gone.

Which was not really the time to wonder if I shouldn’t maybe have tried a little harder. Made sure they understood, while they were idling a snowy evening away in downtown Gunnison, that Salida, no matter how you pronounce it, is 60 or 66 miles away (depending on whether you’re coming or going and which highway sign you choose to believe), and that about 20 of those are given over to “The Pass,” which can be daunting on a bright summer day if you’re from someplace where the road doesn’t curve much while taking up elevation and downright frightening in the dark with ice all over the road and snow dropping on your windshield whether you’re from that sort of place or not.

It’s certainly none of my business, but they were kind of giving off the belief that Salida was just over yonder, and no reason to worry about getting there in any rush, even if it was snowing. Hopefully the next person they encountered in Gunnison offered them the advice I should have: forget about “going over the pass”; cancel your Salida reservation and find a room in Gunnison for the night.

It might not give you the true Colorado experience of driving a pass on a snowy winter night, but not everyone seeks that authenticity — not even people who have lived surrounded by passes for almost their entire lives.

It’s generally not quite this hazardous to drive Monarch.

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