As soon as the lifts stopped rolling, the streets emptied
and the mud got ankle deep, the entire family would pack into
the Subaru and hit the road. Every spring, we followed this
ritual. The only changes were in the year and make of the
Subaru and the stretches of road we traveled. Other families
aimed at theme parks, the beaches of Baja or the glory of
national parks. Our trips tended toward the obscure.
Once, the Subaru
delivered my mom, dad, kid brother and me to a backward resort in
Tubac, Ariz. We spent another trip poolside in charming Gallup,
N.M. And years later, we explored the less-than-scenic Route 66
burg of Needles, Calif. A real family highlight came more than 20
years ago during a two-day stopover at the Sky Ute Lodge in Ignacio
(I won't go into details. Suffice it to say, the casino hadn't been
At the time, I never
understood why we chose to visit juice bars in Escondido, go on
tours of Prescott real estate or check out the scene in Flagstaff.
Being a kid, I assumed it was just the way vacations were, and
accepted that my fate was to have the weakest show-and-tell at the
end of the spring break.
However, a few years
ago, I finally learned the secret of those trips.
"We were wanderers," my
dad told me. "We were always out there looking for the next great
And not surprisingly, we
never found it. The road always led us right back home.
But in the back seat of
that Subaru, I caught that wanderer bug in force. Now, I get on the
road and can't help myself. Any trip out of La Plata County becomes
a scouting mission and one of my greatest failures in recent memory
was my exploration of Idaho.
Dreaming of the next
great, I pored over maps, read up on the literature and centered my
sights on the Potato State. With plenty of whitewater per square
mile, few people in that same square mile and a sufficiently bad
reputation to keep it that way, the state held real promise.
Eventually, I took my research on the road and got a glimpse of the
real story. A buddy had scored a permit for the Main Salmon, and
the river's remoteness guaranteed some long hours on the backroads
and in the small towns of Idaho.
Of all the towns we
would pass through, I had highest hopes for Challis. It sat close
to some of the great rivers of the west, but more importantly, I
liked the ring of the name. How could a place called Challis not be
The charm was still
heavy as we eased down a bumpy, two-laner and into the town's
outskirts. A high volcanic basin, clothed in desert and sporting
the headwaters of the Middle Fork and Main, Challis went easy on my
eyes. Breakfast found us at the House of Challis, the only joint in
town with a full parking lot.
Still full of hope, I
entered the greasy spoon but suddenly all eyes closed in on us.
Whispers were exchanged, fingers pointed and faces turned downwards
in frown. Any eye contact invited confrontation. Taking a table
close to the door, we spent long moments waiting for service. When
it came, it was hard and rushed. We were not welcome, and for most
of the meal, my coffee cup sat empty.
It only took a few bites
and a couple glances. Challis wasn't it, not even close. Neither
was Idaho Falls, Salmon, Arco or Riggins. And after a week in
Idaho, I had memories of Gallup, Flagstaff and Tubac spinning in my
head. But rolling back into Durango, visions of all these places
vanished. And as always, the road had led me back to the next great
place. Downtown, I immediately bumped into a familiar face. As the
sun dropped behind the Hogsback, there was a profound sense of
homecoming. I was looking on Durango with fresh eyes and the place
was pretty hard to resist.
I imagined my parents
returning from Northern Arizona and Eastern California 25 years
earlier. I assumed they reached similar conclusions and realized
that sometimes you have to look outside a place to regain your
appreciation for it. Maybe that next great place exists only as a
state of mind.
Speaking for myself, I
think I can hold that wandering urge in check for a little while.
For now, the only trips I'm taking are going to be out the front
door and down the street. I will say that I've heard great things
about a little town named Silver City near the headwaters of the
Gila. Maybe later this spring, my daughter will be old enough to
stop squirming in the back seat.