10-day road trip through the Bad Lands to Durango, Colorado

Renae Brabham

We have mused this fling countless times over the years. "I just want to get in the car and drive across the country." Not a strategically planned, itinerary driven sort of adventure nor the lackadaisical "We'll just buy clothes as we need them" trip either — maybe something in between. At first, we decided to go in 2019. That changed the day Don said "Why wait?" Why indeed!  

We talked about driving to California, but stopped short when we realized a California stay would devour most of our trip budget. We decided on Colorado, south of the continental divide — Durango, Colorado. We didn't plan a whole lot, just our destination — an Airbnb for Durango and a Polar Express Christmas train ride. 

We packed light: a suitcase apiece and some warmer clothes on hangers, books, and a cooler with water and snacks. Before we left, we placed a picture of Snowy (our 18-year-old Lab/Mix that we lost 6 months ago) in the window above the dashboard. She always went everywhere with us and ate many a piece of napkin-wrapped, roadside restaurant bacon on our adventures.  

The first day the miles rolled by easily with familiar territory — Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. We sang our way with Sirius Classic Vinyl's across the south as we enjoyed great weather, beautiful scenery and few mishaps. We pulled over to sleep the first night in Tupelo, Mississippi and accidentally left our pillows at the hotel, which was a bummer when we realized it in Memphis. 

When we eased through Memphis, the skies became a little cloudy, the weather in the motel lobby said clear skies for most of the mid-west for the next few days. We traipsed across Arkansas pretty easily, I loved the Ozarks!! While Don drove, my nose was pressed to the glass. I saw hawks twice the size of our coastal ones. It was just beautiful there—pristine lakes, soft mounding mountains, winding roads and beautiful oaks that clung fiercely to fall with their bright orange, yellow and red foliage.

As we passed the "Welcome to Oklahoma" sign, almost instantaneously, the wind picked up. Hmmm, what’s up with that weather forecast this morning? These two novice roadies had no idea how volatile mid-west weather could be — and was. The SUV began to shake and minutes later we ran into a freak snowstorm. Enough for us, we called it a day outside of Oklahoma City. 

We woke up to a 9-degree morning and headed out gingerly. We didn't make it 5 miles from the hotel when we saw cars tumbled down into a ravine. Luckily all the Black Friday freight carrier trucks had warmed up the interstate and forged paths for us to drive cautiously. But — there were many that didn't make it. We counted 3 overturned trucks with spilt freight in the snow drifts off the road. On one particular stretch in Oklahoma, we had to stop because we couldn't see out of the windshield. It was covered in sludge from frozen ice. Don bought one the last bottles of windshield wiper solution at a gas station. The locals were talking about how bad the storm was overnight. Forty-eight cars wrecked between this exit and the next. We continued on slowly. We had no choice. There were no motels anywhere near us. We could only drive 35 mph because of the frozen ice and snow buildups on the road. Don called them ice speed bumps. The car was rocking. This may be where we began to more frequently use the term "What the fresh hell?" We were also pros by now at frequent but unintentional kegel’s. 

And then, just like that, the tundra changed, temperatures rose, and we were in Texas. Windmills, flat land, and cows for as far as the eye can see —and their aroma. We didn't make Amarillo by morning, but we did make it by lunchtime. "The Big Texan," a roadside menagerie that is advertised on billboards (like South of the Border in SC) for a hundred miles, arrived like an oasis on the frozen tundra of I-40. The eclectic tribute to Texas lived up to its billboard hype. We enjoyed a luscious ribeye and prime rib. They have this crazy challenge, "The Big Texan," where you have to eat a 62-ounce steak, baked potato, salad, 6 jumbo shrimp, and a roll in less than an hour or you have to pay for it. The contender sits on a platform above the restaurant patrons. While we were eating, they announced that there was a challenger. Don dismissed him within 15 minutes and said he wouldn’t make it. “He’s got the meat sweats,“ he said. I never knew there was such a condition, but he was definitely sweating buckets. We didn’t wait to see if he made it, but our guess is that he didn't. He was struggling with only 15 minutes left. His debit card would be smarting to the tune of $199, the cost of the meal.

We headed back out and into New Mexico. I loved New Mexico from the minute we crossed the state line. We saw our first snow covered flat mounds on the vast plains of nothing and everything.   

We pulled into Albuquerque for the last road night before Durango and ate a great dinner at the hotel. We had a wake-up call at 6, breakfast in the lobby, and then threw our stuff into the suitcases, but not before Don scarfed up the soap, conditioner and lotion samples.

The last leg made every single harrowing mile of the journey worth it. Surreal and humbling as Don put it. When we left Albuquerque, we got on Hwy 550 North. I don't think we even spoke except for guttural sighs and “Ahh’s” and the occasion “OMG!” for the next 4 hours. 

The temperature gauge read 21 degrees, but the horizon spoke differently. The sun was so bright you couldn't even look in its direction, most unlike our tepid, lazy, southern sol. And the colors of that sky! Turquoise and pink and even purple hues. Couple that with pastel yellow, pale terracotta-and salmon-colored hills, and changing rock formations on every winding bend of the road  — we were hypnotized. If there was another car on the road, we didn't see it. We were truly in the spirit world. We were in the badlands, an expansive piece of earth where nothing grows but rocks. But, Oh what rocks they are! What wasn't big and huge and every color you could think of was flat, flatter than flat, and glittery sand. Fittingly "Dream Weaver" was playing on Sirius. We passed through the sacred lands of the Ute, Navajo, Apache, Zuni, and Pueblo Indians.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that I don't pass up a photo opportunity, but every time I put up the viewfinder up on the camera, what I saw looked like kid-art. I just couldn't make something that vast so small, so I just took it all in. Massive shoals of rock jutted skyward, teetering, seemingly by air alone, on top of flat-topped rocks just waiting for the day a single drop of rain would tumble down. I tried to imagine just being alive the day the frost heaves of the Ice Age raised these rocks! And the meltdown must have been frightening as hell. The ravines were wider than the highway in some places and even though I couldn’t see the bottoms, I knew they were deep.

We pulled into Durango. Okay, you don't just pull into Durango. You circle down into it. Once you get to the storybook city below, you feel like you are the center of a mountain taco. 

Durango is beautiful and old and just our size. But, we were both so ready to get off the road and so overwhelmed by the surreal beauty of the last four hours that as crazy as it sounds, I just wanted to get into a room and shut the front door! There is something about all that wilderness, hugeness that made me want to seek solidarity in smallness, even if just to acclimate.  

So, the next morning our date with this old west town began. It started with a cup of tea in hand as I walked outside to face a huge red mountain at sunrise. A blue-black snow-capped mountain loomed behind the barren red and yellow one. The intensity of color was still messing with me. 

We spent the next days downtown exploring Durango’s shops, eateries, river walks, and hills. We ate WELL and met some really cool people. The first shop we visited was The World According to Mark. Mark has been selling his hand thrown pottery in Durango for 30 years. I brought home a little pot (no pun intended, or — maybe so.) The next stop was The Sacred Blanket, where we bought authentic Navajo jewelry, baskets, and a knife. The owner of The Sacred Blanket runs a wolf rescue on her ranch outside of town.

But by far, one of coolest finds was at a shop I had no business being in, (think bull in a china shop) the Toh Atin Gallery, Navajo for “no water.“  What a phenomenal Native American gallery and shop! Oh my! The large gallery is filled top to bottom with all things South Western: Hand woven blankets, papooses, woven wall hangings, teepees, beadwork, carvings, pipes, horns — you name it. All of it priceless, as it should be, Native authenticity. We were pretty sure we would be leaving there with only the brochure in my hand and then — Don finds this hand-carved blue flying pig Christmas ornament. Pure serendipity! We love flying pigs! So, we got to walk out of Toh Atin Gallery with a bag!

On to the next place, The White Rabbit Bookstore. Totally irresistible in any town for me is a proprietor owned bookstore. This place was incredible. Living up to its name, this tiny book and curiosity shop is a rabbit hole for sure. A hiccup on the backside of a string of shops on Animas River, next to a swinging suspension bridge. Seriously only 3 people could fit snugly into the shop at a time. But what a menagerie of surprises. Books stacked to the ceiling with a narrow sliding ladder to reach the top. Their curiosities included wire wrapped crystals, hour glasses, hand bound leather journals, handmade cards, and so much more. I bought 2 books, a journal, quartz stones for gifts, and a special card. 

Even though Durango isn’t a big city and most of the food establishments are on the couple mile stretch of downtown, we still couldn’t try them all in 4 days. But — the ones we tried were spectacular. We ate the best Tex-Mex we’ve EVER eaten, Bar-B-Q, and the most incredible country breakfast's at the Lone Spur Café.  

And then it was time for — the magical night. The night I waited for since we cemented the trip - the Durango Silverton Polar Express Train ride to the North Pole. Pure D magic! Imagine following a caravan of pajama wearing families to a train station at dusk, tickets in hand to be punched by the conductor on a steam train that has run consecutively through these mountain passes for 125 years. The cars we loaded were of the same era, not fabricated, the real deal! The Polar Express movie realistically played out before us as we loaded the train, a cabin chief led us in song and scenes from the Polar Express as the train wobbled out of the station. We had hot chocolate and I don't mean a lukewarm facsimile, it was delicious! We were each given a beautiful Polar Express porcelain mug, song book, bag and jingle bell, memory tickets, and awesome chocolate chip cookies. 

I will never forget the little boy across from us in red flannel pyjamas. His face didn’t leave the glass window. When he heard he was going to the North Pole, he was totally enchanted and barely blinked. We reached the little North Pole town about a half hour later. The train lights went out and the train backed into the town filled with elves and packages and Santa and Mrs. Claus. This little boy didn’t acknowledge the presence of his parents or sister the entire trip and didn’t fall back into his seat until the train pulled out from the North Pole. Little did he know, Santa had boarded the last car and was working his way through the cabins. When the chief announced that Santa had walked in, I thought the boy would get whiplash. An involuntary squeal erupted from him that surprised everyone nearby, and I think even him. He became silent again as Santa gave him a bell. I watched this little boy right past the silhouette of my hubby’s face, who sang Christmas carols, drank hot chocolate, rang his bell, and watched the windows as well. Pure Christmas MAGIC for me. My favorite line in the movie is when the conductor says. “One thing about trains: It doesn't matter where they're going'. What matters is deciding to get on.” I’m glad that I have the Love of my life to “get on” with me. 

But the magic of the last night wore on! When we took our frozen cheeks home to the Airbnb, I exchanged my cowgirl boots and jeans for flannels and chamomile tea. I had just propped up in the bed when Don came to get me. "Come quick, hurry.” We hurried out the front door, I stood on the cold ground in my monkey socks and Pj's. Don said, "Listen." The moon was extremely bright and stars infinity lit the sky above the blue gray silhouette of the mountain. And then I heard them, coyotes, and lots of them, at the base of the mountain, maybe howling or yapping at them moon. The coyotes increased their tempo to the rumblings on the train track as the antique rail cars from the later trip of the Polar Express rolled by with their cabins lit. Coyotes howled as the moon kissed the top of the mountain. And as Hero Boy, (Chris) says in the Polar Express Movie, “I believe.”   

There's no easy way to sum up this spectacular road trip. Don and I have both said, “Never again” for a 10 day road trip. However, neither of us would trade the trip for anything in the world! 

Road Trip Bloopers 
Scene: Two road weary old farts pulling into Oklahoma City past dark. Me as navigator, Don as driver. 
Me: 10 more miles.
Don:  (2 minutes later) How much farther?
Me: 9 more miles. 
Don: How is it that the miles are the same as they were 10 minutes ago?
Me:  Holding the night screen of the GPS up, “You act like I’m manipulating the f’n map.” 
Don: Snicker. 

Scene: I broke my glasses slap ass in two by trying to climb across the seat to get a water. Realized, after dark, I would need them to see help Don with the signs as we approached downtown Nashville, TN at dark.
Me: “In 2 ½ miles, you will need to get in the right lane for exit 420 A.” As we got closer I quit speaking because I had to find the two halves of my glasses and hold them together to my face with both hands to see the signs.
Don: “I really could use some directions instead of you looking at stuff through binoculars right now.”
Me: No Snicker. 
Later we cracked up. He thought I was sightseeing (at night) with the binoculars when I was holding up my broken glasses.