All roads lead to Rome, I’ve heard it said, but here in Gunnison there’s really only one good way in and out of town.
Technically, it’s two ways, but both are on the same highway, U.S. 50. I am just now learning, along with you, that this is the “Loneliest Road” in the United States, according to multiple Google offerings. I’ve never felt lonely while on it, but what do I know?
Before my time, boosters in the Gunnison area called their share of the highway “The Rainbow Route,” for rainbows both in the sky and in our award-winning trout streams. We don’t seem to call it that anymore, although both still apply.
But any ol’ day now, this route, which — depending on which coast you think of first — either starts or ends in Ocean City, Md., and winds 3,073 miles to a meeting with Interstate 80 in West Sacremento, Calif., is going to become darn near impassable between Gunnison and Montrose.
5 12 19, the Colorado Department of Transportation is going to address the subpar-ness of the Little Blue Canyon, four miles of treachery pretty much smack dab in the middle between Gunnison and Montrose. And by subpar we mean: the national Christmas tree, on its immense truck, could not navigate these turns without closing down the road and availing itself of every inch of paved surface.
Technically again, this project was planned long before a Christmas tree threaded its way through, and to no local’s dismay, it got delayed a year by a pandemic. But now the time no one has been waiting for is finally here. Or will be, any ol’ day now.
A reputable photojournalist would have at least suggested to his spouse, taking one final joyride to Montrose earlier this week, that she stop and gather photographic evidence, but that didn’t happen.
So I will try to describe these four miles: you are driving along, headed west of Gunnison because you are going to a specialist doctor or dentist, or your kid is participating in a sport, or the big boxes and fast food are singing their siren song, or because you can’t stand being in Gunnison one minute longer and just have to get away (that last one never happens to me, just so you know, but since everyone else who lives here falls victim to it, it must be a real thing), and you are winding along the stretches of Blue Mesa Reservoir without any real reservations unless the deer and elk are active.
Then you pass the dam that creates the reservoir, heading upward, going a few more miles until you kind of plateau out on gentle curves. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the road drops down in a elongated but tight U that becomes two tiny S’es. I’ve never gotten out of a car to measure the width of the highway — because this is not a place you want to stop, with a truck due any moment around the bend behind you — but it is definitely subpar.
The notion of a shoulder is laughable: on the one side is rock that maybe isn’t solid. It’s imposing, but parts of it like to break off. On the other side, down where you can’t see it, is Little Blue Creek. I’m sure there are people out there, but I am not one of them, who can tell you fun facts about this creek, like where it originates or even which direction it’s flowing, but to study any of that one would have to stop, down at the bottom of this short, out-of-nowhere canyon, at the one place where the canyon walls are wide enough to offer a pull-out.
Once you’ve bottomed out, you take a couple of more reasonable curves in a more open space, and then you are free to resume your carefree drive to Montrose, so long as you keep an eye out not just for deer and elk on the road but also stray cattle or sheep.
The official project website tells me 230 crashes occurred in this canyonlet from 2000 to 2018, with 67 injuries and eight fatalities. Reason enough to scrape a bunch of the not-solid rock wall out of the way to make the lanes a standard 12 feet wide with a four-foot paved shoulder on either side.
The cost for this has been thrown about numerous times in the local paper, often during a discussion of whether to lengthen the project by another year and another $10 million to allow a tiny bit more traffic through, but apparently this cost does not rate on the official website’s project overview nor their FAQs page. It’s a lot, we all know that, and in the end no one is even going to notice a difference, except that maybe their knuckles won’t be so white while navigating these turns, which are also going to be re-aligned.
[I know this because a similar project was already done between Gunnison and Crested Butte. It took a lot of time, effort and money to re-align some curves and widen the shoulders on Highway 135, and when you drive along near Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery if you are actively looking for it you can see where the roadbed used to lie. Otherwise you don’t even remember this project took place.]
To blast away at Little Blue safely however, it needs to be done during the day, and so from April whenever until November 2022 (assuming everything goes according to plan, which is always a dangerous assumption), this United States highway is going to be closed to traffic.
Not all the time; just most of it. From Friday late afternoon to Monday morning early, you can drive along this road to your heart’s content. You could, for fun, just drive back and forth in the canyon.
But for the work week, when all your doctor/dentist appointments are, you have to wait in lines for the one-way traffic that will be open for two-hour slots morning, noon and evening. No one seems to know what happens if you’re the unlucky car right behind the last one allowed through. I suppose you have a choice, depending on where they stop traffic: you can turn around (maybe — it might pay to drive a Smart Car), or you can sit there and wait to be the first one through four hours later. Bring a book and some snacks.
There are no good detour options. The best one, and it’s a bad one, is Highway 92, which goes across the dam and wends its twisty way around the north rim of the Black Canyon (which is why we call it “going over the Black”) to get to Hotchkiss and points beyond, one of those points being Delta, where you can turn south to Montrose, adding probably only an entire extra hour to your hour and 15-minute drive.
Unless, of course, you were on 50 waiting in the traffic queue for two hours, only to have the door slammed in your face. Then you might as well make it an all-day excursion to the Land of Big Boxes and Fast Food.
These options have our hospital mightily concerned, and I’m not sure they’ve come up with an answer. I also don’t know what it does to sports. Saturday events won’t be a problem, but the middle school in particular relies heavily upon after-school dates to get a decent season in. Taking buses and ambulances over the Black seems like a bad idea, but it may be the best one there is.
No one has a feel yet for potential economic impacts, either, as perhaps tourists seek out a through road. There’s also the wonder about grocery and other delivery trucks, which frequently are mostly in Gunnison because it’s on the way to their next, bigger stop. It’s been estimated that without a grocery truck, this valley has a three-day supply of food.
We will see, some day soon here: maybe it’s true, and we are in a lonely place on a lonely road — one that’s going to go nowhere, at least nowhere fast, for the next couple years.