I’m leaning as far towards the windshield as I can with a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel. I strain to a squint trying to see through the twilight gloom and the blur of snow now falling fast, thick and sideways. The road, barely illuminated by the fuzzy beam of the headlights, curves out of sight around the mountainside just ahead. The only sound inside the darkened interior is a muffled, rhythmic bump of the windshield wipers barely audible over the roar of the wind outside. While I struggle to see through the wall of white another blast of the gale swirls around the mountain whipping a shroud of snow across the road and out over the canyon to my right where it disappears into the black abyss mixing with streaming clouds that rise and fall like apparitions in the night.
I was back in town an hour ago having a nice leisurely breakfast. The view outside the window had been cloaked in the gray of the gathering storm as the mist, teamed with the early morning light put a sheen on streets and buildings. The temperature on a sign next door had shown 36 degrees and I figured at that time that it was probably snowing up here but I had no idea the wind would be like this with visibility down to near zero. The forecast last night had been for moderate weather so where did this come from? I should have known that up here the mountain makes the rules and decides the day, not the weather forecasters.
I had eased north out of Durango after breakfast, headed for Telluride, looking forward to passage along one of the most picturesque drives in the state. Snow was just beginning to fall with the thermometer on the overhead console passing through 33 degrees. The casual drive that I had been hoping for was deteriorating fast. Minutes later, as each switchback carried me higher into the storm, the temperature continued its freefall. A few minutes and a few hundred feet gain in elevation later it was 18 degrees and the hissing of the tires on wet pavement had stopped as I was now driving on snow pack. The accumulations I could see in the ditches told me that it had been falling for quite a while up this high.
Then out of the gloom roared three snow plows with all of their lights flashing heading down the hill and back to town. I thought, OK, that’s my sign to turn this buggy around and follow them down and then do Telluride another day. Good idea! But turn where??! The ditch to my left was full of snow obscuring where the edge of the pavement stopped and the dirt began and to the right was the precipice and the drop into the canyon. In the semi- darkness of clouds swirling around the car, blowing snow and driving wind I could not see any place that looked wide enough to make the turnaround without a probability of sliding over the edge.
A side glance out the driver’s window reveals everything cloaked in tones of gray and black. I continue driving and occasionally the relentless, hammering gale would open a gap, for a brief moment, in the wall of blowing snow seen through the windshield, to reveal the tops of other cloud formations swirling in the dark abyss of the canyon. It also told me I was in the clouds.
Curious things happen in the wilderness and even though I was on a paved road, in those conditions, and with no other traffic, I definitely felt isolated by the weather and a target of Mother Nature’s wrath.
I slowly picked my way through the murkiness of the low hanging storm and tried as best I could to hold to what I hoped to be the center line feeling the tires occasionally break slightly on the slick surface. I was glad I had rented an all wheel drive back in Colorado Springs and I can say for sure that I never felt a wheel break loose and spin but even with all wheel drive the tires can still slide. Especially when hit broadside by a 90 mile wind gust. So that’s how the ascent went. Creeping slowly around one switchback and blind curve after another and about halfway up the mountain, as I came around one of the switchbacks, I stopped. Fast. There in the semi-darkness of the storm my headlights flashed on what appeared to be a large, pale human shape in the middle of the road. “What the hell…” The spiraling wind currents were drawing the surrounding snow into a mini tornado. It was about three car lengths in front of me and the top of it stretched high and disappeared. Its slender pale, grey outline clearly defined while it moved and writhed in a slow, sinuous, dance with the winds that had created it. The violence of the winds created then dispersed then recreated what seemed to be facial features a few feet above the ground. I sat mesmerized by the eerie scene and got a vague feeling that the damn thing was looking at me. At first I thought: “OK, I’m just going to sit here and pretend I’m not seeing that” as I tried to sink lower in the seat to hide behind the steering wheel while feeling my skin crawl. Inside the car it was dark as night now with only the dash lights and the reflection of my head lights against the apparition in the road faintly illuminating the front seat. Then all of a sudden the gyrations of the shape amplified, miffed that it was being ignored I guess, it thrashed violently, as if alive, leaning far left then back to the right then left again now right then it came towards me and the wind slammed the car… hard. I double griped the steering wheel anticipating being swept off the road into the black hole of the canyon. Then the thing vanished. Just burst apart and disappeared.
I sat still for a few seconds, a little shaken. The only sounds in the dark interior of the car were the howling wind and the faint thumping as the windshield wiper dance continued. I told myself that what I had just seen was a totally natural phenomenon similar to dust devils seen on the plains in summer. But this one had seemed different in a way I could not identify. I thought briefly that I had only imagined it, but as I started to move forward again I felt the tires bump over the ruts that the swirling wind had cut in the snow so I knew it had been real. I could feel my pulse pounding as I approached the next switch back about half expecting another whirling dervish but there was none.
A little further up, the road wound around a deep, wide valley with what appeared to be ranch buildings on the lower end that had snow drifts up to the eaves and it was still coming down.
I reached a wide clearing in the forest later at about a thousand feet below timber line. I stopped and got out to take in the winter beauty of the mountain in its mantle of pristine white. The cloud base had lifted a bit and there was, for sure, no traffic so I walked back along my tire tracks. I’ve always loved the music of the wind in the trees, rocks and canyons high up and I stood looking at the surrounding mountains and forests near and far as they chorused that ancient song and the beauty took my breath away. It was early spring and even in the grey of the storm, I sensed that where I was standing was on the cusp of the seasonal stir of the mountains and the animals from their long winter’s slumbers to begin another cycle of life. I thought to myself that if I were God I would live here. The next thought, of course was quick and obvious: “what makes you think He doesn’t”.
I recommend the drive if your ever over that way. Just be aware, you never know who or what you may meet along the way. If you do ever encounter ol’ Windy dancing on the road being rude, my suggestion is: don’t honk.