Natural born nomad

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 built).

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 place."

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 cool?

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.

Will Sands



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