Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”
They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.
I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger. I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.
“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing. Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.
And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes. A truly nasty smell.
One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.
Or at least, turn up his nose.
And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!
I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.
But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.
Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town. Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.
There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.
The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.
The hot springs felt great. But smelled bad. The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.
So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.
Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me. There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.
Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier. The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher. Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.
Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango. Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.
But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Butch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.
So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.
Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.
As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat. We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.
The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams. The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.
At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there. The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen. Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point. It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.
Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.
So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.