Tag Archives: Old West

48th State


Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.


The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.


Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.


Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.


There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.


Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.



Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.


Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.


The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.


As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.


This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.





The Way We Used to Travel


One hundred years ago, most of us traveled on steam engine trains.  The proliferation of railroads across the continent during the 19th Century revolutionized how we got around, and connected us in ways we had never been before.  At the start of the 19th century, it took Lewis and Clark multiple years to get from one end of the continent to the other.  By the end of the 19th Century, that trip could be made in only one week by train.

During the 20th Century, more and more people were able to afford automobiles and flights.  Many of the train lines across the country went away as people switched transportation methods.  Those that remain have long since converted to more modern technologies; diesel or electric, and are primarily used for commutes between cities and/or suburbs at times of high traffic volume.

There are a few places where one can still ride a steam train, exactly how we used to ride in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  One of those places is in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, where a Narrow Gauge Railway offers daily trips between Durango and Silverton, primarily for tourism purposes.

IMG_2475 IMG_2477

The train schedule is set for tourists to ride the train from Durango north to Silverton in the morning, and then return in the afternoon.  There are three departure time options, the earliest of which (and the one we took) departs at 8 A.M.


Part of the novelty of taking a train ride like this is how authentic the ride is, including the inside of the train.  Today, we are accustomed to traveling with a higher level of comfort than this.  But, the inside of this train definitely had the same exact feeling as one would have experienced one hundred years ago, making the experience as authentic as one can get.

This particular train route, from Durango to Silverton, follows alongside the Animas River the entire length of it’s 45.2 mile route.  The breathtaking scenery in which this train traverses makes the train ride appeal to many different kinds of tourists, as opposed to just train enthusiasts.

IMG_2481 IMG_2485

The train leaves Durango, at 6512′ above sea level, and begins it’s climb quite slowly, through a wide open river valley.

IMG_2493 IMG_2543

For the first section of the trip, the train follows the same path as the highway.

IMG_2513 IMG_2497

Some 15 or 20 miles into the trip, the train deviates paths from the highway, at a large lake called Electra Lake.  This is where the scenery really becomes quite unique and breathtaking.

IMG_2502 IMG_2504 IMG_2515 IMG_2516

The river valley becomes much more narrow as it meanders through the Needle Mountains.  The narrowness of the valley is the reason the train is “Narrow Gague”, and also the reason that roads could not be built to follow the river valley.

“Million Dollar Highway”, the highway that connects Durango to Silverton (and eventually Ouray), was necessarily built along a different route; traversing two mountain passes well above Silverton’s elevation of 9300(-ish) feet.

IMG_2547 IMG_2548

The route along “Million Dollar Highway” is also considered very scenic, but in a different way.  In fact, this highway is also a popular bicycle route, and even the venue of an annual bicycle race.  I would definitely recommend experiencing the journey from Durango to Silverton in both the old fashioned (steam train), and the modern (by car or with a nice road bike) way if time permits, as each set of views are great in a distinct way.

IMG_2517 IMG_2521 IMG_2522 IMG_2524

The train completes it’s journey into town in the heart of the Needle Mountains, where the gradual change in the color of the rocks surrounding the river reminds riders of the town’s history as a destination for miners.

IMG_2550 IMG_2552

Along Million Dollar Highway, motorists and cyclists view the Needle Mountains from both a higher elevation and a little bit of a distance, seeing them in their entirety.  This is followed by a descent that first winds around Molas Lake, and then provides an aerial view of the town.

IMG_2525 IMG_2534

Silverton is quite the unique place as well.  As soon as I stepped off the train, I felt as if I had entered the Old West.  In fact, I have never felt more genuinely in the Old West in an operational town (as opposed to a restoration like South Park City) as I did in Silverton.

IMG_2527 IMG_2530

With the exception of Main Street, Silverton’s roads remain unpaved.  Many of the storefronts are still reminiscent of Old West businesses, in design and font, and there are even a few cars that resemble those produced in the early days of the automobile’s availability.

We at a restaurant called Grumpy’s Saloon, right in the heart of town.  This restaurant also felt like an Old West recreation.  Between the wall decorations, the waitresses dressed clothing that seemed like it came right out a film like Maverick, and an old man playing tunes on the piano, it actually felt as if they were trying too hard.

IMG_2528 IMG_2529

The only real drawback to taking the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gague Railway is the length of time the trip takes.  A trip of only 45.2 miles actually takes close to three and a half hours each way. By contrast, the trip by car took roughly and hour.  And, while it may take around the same amount of time for a cyclist like me to get from Durango to Silverton, the mainly downhill return trip could likely be done in around two hours.

I guess, like all other aspects of this trip, the travel time is also true to the exact way it was one hundred years ago.  While it was great to get the real experience, the return trip did start to drag on a bit, particularly when the train entered the less exciting scenery in the later part of the return trip to Durango.  My advice would be to either pay the extra money to ride the bus on the return trip, or to bring a book or magazine for the last 60-90 minutes of this trip.



Goin’ Down to South Park


I decided to break with a previous precedent I had set in this blog to only post one entry about a day’s travels.  In retrospect, some of the entries I posted a couple of months ago, which combined several activities into one post just because they were done on the same day seem like they may have come out a bit awkward.  In reflecting on the travel writing I had previously read, they appeared to make breakouts by experience way more than date.

Since I had already traveled to the South and West along highway 285 to get to Staunton State Park today, I decided to continue along the road a bit to get to Fairplay, Colorado.  By looking at my DeLorme Atlas, and then doing a subsequent Google search, I determined that the show South Park, is based (some argue loosely) on this town.

As someone who is a fan of this show, it probably sounds stupid that it took me over a decade, as well as over a year after moving to Colorado, to figure this out. But, I am not one to base my life around T.V. shows.  I feel like people nowadays focus too much on T.V. shows.  I get exhausted by conversations about T.V. shows, and saddened by people who appear to posses a greater understanding of the lives of fictitious characters on a weekly T.V. show than the lives of actual people who should be important to them.

In South Park though, I see a show that can come to represent something more.  Most shows people watch are entertaining, but don’t change anyone’s lives.  Sometimes, a groundbreaking show like Seinfeld will come along, but Seinfeld mainly changed the course of television, not history or society.  There have been shows like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that produce commentary about real issues from time to time.  But South Park has come, to me at least, to represent an actual societal development.  It has come to represent the courage to retain the right to think individually, and come to a critical conclusion of almost anyone or anything regardless of what level of esteem they have come to enjoy by long-standing institutions or large groups of people.  It is the anti-group think, and the backlash to the political correctness movement of the 1990s.

IMG_0952 IMG_0953

However, the South Park Museum in town has absolutely nothing to do with the show.  But, it was a really good museum depicting life in the west in the 1870s/1880s.  The town was somehow preserved exactly as it was in that era, even down to the layout of the street and buildings.  There is even a historic train at the far end of the street.

Over 40 buildings were preserved, from homes, to the general store, saloon, blacksmith, and all of the quintessential buildings needed to make a true “old west” town.  Each building contained a significant amount of artifacts from that era, and museum attendees could actually walk through almost all of them and see most of the items used in day to day life here up close.  Walking through all of these buildings, I could actually imagine myself back in the old west.  I could picture myself living the life of the 300 or so residents of this town during that time period.  Overall, I have visiting my fair share of recreations like this, and this one has been the most realistic!

IMG_0956 IMG_0957

It is quite rare that any kind of museum, or historic town can lead to someone actually imagining themselves to be there!  However, there I was, imagining myself washing my clothes at the wash house, picking up supplies at the general store, boarding the train, and even getting involved in a game of cards at the saloon as if I were in the movie Maverick.  And all this was after I was expecting an entire museum about an animated T.V. series!

Also included in this museum was a 10 minute film strip about the town, and some basics about the history of the area.  All of this is not too far out of the ordinary.  As I visit more historical locations throughout the west, I have come to the conclusion that two themes are emerging from the beginning of the white man’s history of the west; fur and gold.  Most of the trails and even some of the towns in the area appear to have been established by fur trade, or gold rushes.  However, every gold rush appeared to have come to an end within a decade.  Some towns, like this one, found another niche (in the case of Fairplay it was ranching, and being a business center and county seat).  Others, like the ghost town I wandered through this past weekend, simply died when the gold ran out.

Overall, though, I can’t help but find it somewhat ironic that the history of the west was forced so much by fur and gold.  So, it feels to me that as much as we want to characterize the old west with images like this one.


I can’t help but think that since most of the early settlers were searching for fur and gold, the old west can be just as easily characterized by images like this one.


This recreation of the old west town was, of course, walled off from the rest of the town that was significantly more modern looking.  A few gift shops appeared to be trying to capitalize on the town’s association with the show, but not as many as I had expected.   The town had a somewhat similar layout to most small towns I am familiar with, with a central business district, and some larger shops and houses on the outskirts.  But, compared with the only other town above 9000 ft. I have spent a significant amount of time in, Breckenridge, it was a lot less dense.  The central business district was quite spread out, amongst a few streets and a fairly large area.

IMG_0959 IMG_0961

The one thing that definitely did remind me of the show, though, was the mountains outside of town.  Some of the mountain views from near town actually seemed to appear almost exactly as it appears in the cartoon.



On the return trip, I once again encountered the Colorado Trail, at Kenosha Pass, which is the mountain pass that separates the “South Park” area from the Front Range.  I do find it odd, though, that this mountain pass is at an elevation less than 100 feet higher than the elevation of the town I was just in.


IMG_0962 IMG_0963

Finally, the two images above that I did not take, the mountain man and the woman with the fur and gold, are credited to the site http://www.123rf.com.