If you stop and talk to the folks in the small towns nestled in the high valleys of the Colorado Rockies, like for instance Silverton, you hear a thousand versions of the same story. "Yeah, I drove through the place and I loved it and I quit what I was doing and came here to live."
Well, that's what happened to Del Smith...he was a teacher somewhere out in a flatter part of the world but gave it up to start the San Juan Back Country Jeep Tours.
Del took us up over Black Bear Pass between Silverton and Telluride and, for most of us, I guarantee it's worth it to have someone like Del do the driving.
"OK, from here on top of Black Bear Pass, 12,800 feet elevation. We're gonna' swing right down through here, and down into Telluride, and that's where the fun part starts."
Del points vaguely off into space at a valley some 4,000 feet lower than we are and only a few miles away as the crow flies but double that by the Black Bear Pass road.
"It's called the Steps. There's a few corners down there that, uh, well, they're interesting."
It rained and snowed and spit on us all day long but it didn't make this trip any less spectacular as we made our way down toward the "Dreaded Steps..."
"Some old prospector found a mine right up behind us and he called it the Black Bear Mine. Had to build a road to it. So this is an old wagon road. I can't imagine doing this with a team of mules and wagons, but...it's been in use for over 100 years."
This is not a road to take the faint of heart on, and I'm talking before we even get to the Dreaded Steps. Especially the parts where you can't make the turns without a couple of back and forth moves with several hundred feet of space to fall into if you make a mistake...Finally we come to the "Dreaded Steps..." Could we have some sinister music here please...
When you get there it is easy to see what they're all talking about and why jeep rental companies in this part of Colorado absolutely forbid you taking their jeeps down this road. The road here is what causes grown men to have nightmares. The "steps" are produced by a series of rock shelves that cascade downward over a narrow slice of sheer mountain side JUST wide enough for a vehicle. The fall-off on the drivers side is not really that far, but with the whole valley opening up in front of you, it looks like a million feet.
The fall-off IS far enough to kill you if you make a mistake and get going more than a slow crawl and miss the right hand dog-leg about half-way down, in which case you and your vehicle will be found in a million pieces way down there a lot closer to Telluride. It scares some people so badly they regress right back into the womb. Her name was Debbie...
"We got about half way down the steps and I glanced in the rear-view mirror and she was gone," Del says. "She was laying on the back seat, when I got to the bottom she was laying in the fetal position there. Like I said, it'll pucker certain parts of your anatomy."
It's a heck of a ride.
For info, call Del Smith in Silverton, Colorado at: 1-800-494-8687. We liked Del Smith a lot, a nice guy and knowledgeable and not pretentious. He didn't wear any of those "affected" outfits that some guides do, you know, bowie knives down to their knees and Outback campaign hats.