The Wild West holds mythical prominence in the romanticized history of our America. Cowboys, outlaws, Indians, and miners all roamed these mountains. The majestic hillsides gave up gold and silver to the hard-working miners. The mines closed, the towns grew empty, and then John Denver began singing the praises of Colorado like it was new all over again.
Spending some time this summer photographing this region, its easy to feel like you’re coming home to a place you’ve never been before. Cradled in valleys surrounded by tall mountains the small town main streets wear Victorian-era architecture like its still the 1880s. Life here is quieter, more easy going. Summer in the San Juan Mountains is a good place to be, especially if your mailing address is somewhere in the desert heat like Arizona.
Southwestern Colorado has some colorful scenery, and colorful history. Small fields of white snow still cling to the high slopes of the San Juan Mountains into late summer. The towns of Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, and Telluride have gotten pretty well known for their fall color. Rolling hillsides of aspen trees will soon glow golden yellow. There are famous mountains here. Like Mount Wilson (seen in the background of the photo), that appear on every bottle and can of Coors beer. Perhaps even more famous is the Wild West outlaw named Butch Cassidy who visited Telluride in 1889, before quickly leaving town with roughly $25,000 from his first bank robbery.
A rough dirt byway called the Last Dollar Road connects Ridgway with Telluride, and anyone with a camera should know that it hides some of the best road-side scenery in this part of Colorado. Getting a late start for the unknown journey, my wife, Wendy, and I left Ridgway about 5pm headed for Telluride up the Last Dollar Road. It was our first time doing this route, and the adventure began with some warnings about rough spots, and to never take this road in wet weather. The hillsides of aspens were solid green, and the light was not yet inspiring as we made our way. We drove onward and the desire for a classic landscape photo was bearing down on me as the day was nearing its end.
The long views of mountains and rangeland held promise, but nothing made me stop and say this is the place. We kept driving on toward Telluride, and still the scenery was beautiful but not yet spectacular. When my thoughts had moved away from finding what I was hoping for the next moment arose like a trout breaking calm water. All was quiet and still, and then like a flash it appeared. We rounded a sharp turn after driving miles of a beat up old dirt road, when glory hallelujah, there it was. Mountains. Old buildings. Wide open spaces. And sweet lingering light.
While it’s easier said than done, patience is a virtue. Some things are worth waiting for. That’s when Wendy said, of course you would find your shot, the magic follows you. I breathed out a sigh of relief. Then went to work. That kind of light doesn’t last long.