Make a left at Chama

Cliff Palace is one of the largest, best preserved cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.

"I think it's my adventure, my trip, my journey, and I guess my attitude is, let the chips fall where they may."

— Leonard Nimoy


It started as a grand idea … a week in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, courtesy of my sister and brother-in-law, who couldn't use their timeshare that season.

We had just moved to Tyler; money was tight; and we really had no business taking a vacation just yet. But surely, we thought optimistically, the old Oldsmobile that was losing its paint and showing its age had one more good trip in it.

It had been far too long since we last enjoyed the beauty of the Rockies. We would zip up through Amarillo and on to New Mexico, where we would angle up to Santa Fe and on north and west into Colorado and Pagosa Springs.

The trip was going well … until we got to Chama.

We went straight; the road we needed to take (U.S. 64) went hard left at the Dairy Queen. We were distracted, needed to coffee up, and somehow got turned around leaving the parking lot. Soon, miles down the road on a badly marked New Mexico 17, we were climbing toward a mountain pass in a snowstorm.

Colorado isn't like Kansas. Roads aren't laid out in squares and there is no such thing as jogging sideways to correct your mistake. Civilization was behind us, we were headed off the map and the snow was getting deep.

The road narrowed, and Marti got fidgety. Dark descended, the mountains closed in and we slowed to a crawl. Clusters of deer, annoyed by our intrusion, begrudgingly surrendered their spots on the road. But when a red fox held his ground and looked at us as if we had lost our minds, we decided he was right. It was time to turn back.

Back in Chama, we realized our error and blamed road construction for our confusion. Laughing, we turned toward Pagosa Springs and made it … late but safe.

The next day, we set out on our first day trip, heading off under blue skies to see Treasure Falls at the base of Wolf Creek Pass. It was wonderful, but coming down the mountain, something wasn't right. Maybe I worked too hard to stay ahead of that logging truck crowding my back bumper. But when we reached town, the transmission was gone.

Pagosa Springs is not big … even smaller in those days. The lone transmission shop was a tin shed behind a jumble of wrecks that filled the yard. But the grease-covered owner emerged from under a disabled car, smiled and took pity on us. He would check it out. Sure enough, the wound was mortal. The old Olds would need a new transmission. Our credit union would arrange his payment, but with no ride, our explorations would be severely hampered.

The mechanic had a solution and led me to his work van. A more miserable set of wheels I have never seen. Much of the paint had departed long ago, and the interior was no better, having hauled all manner of new, used and junk cargo.

But it was all he had, and I took it. He covered the seats with two beach towels to keep us out of the grease, and I was smart enough to spend a few hours vacuuming at the car wash before springing the idea on Marti. Soon, we were mobile.

We headed west toward Mesa Verde and the cliff dwellings. All went well. The van was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, and we saw it all. It took a few days to install a transmission, but because of that grimy van, we never missed a beat.

Before heading home, we thanked the mechanic for the courtesy van and drove away in our old sedan with a sparkly new transmission. All went well as we descended from the mountains, stopping for lunch in Santa Fe. Then, we motored south on U.S. 285 toward Clines Corners Travel Center and Restaurant, a Route 66 leftover that sits at the Interstate 40 intersection.

The country south of Santa Fe is desolate, a 55-mile stretch of dry ranch land and open highway. Somewhere around halfway — between the windmill on the hill and the bridge over the dry wash — our radiator blew.

Our Triple A offers a free tow — but only for three miles; this was more like 30. Returning to Santa Fe would cost us. In those days when cellphones were rare, getting off the highway meant flagging down a friendly driver to carry a message. Hours later, our tow arrived … and took care of the rest of our trip cash.

Back in Santa Fe, at a chain that brags of friendly service, the mechanic was less than cordial, berating us over the sorry condition of our radiator. He listed the costs, promising it would be ready "tomorrow." We lugged our bags to a cheap motel and, with nowhere to go, spent three days waiting. "Sorry, we're stacked up. Sorry, we're waiting on parts. Oh, sorry, it was ready yesterday. Didn't someone call?"

Well, we made it home and always considered that road trip a low point. We don't talk about it much. But last week I found myself thinking about Pagosa Springs when we returned from a "dream trip" to our daughter's wedding in Puerto Vallarta. So much could have gone wrong. A blizzard mangled all our flight plans, and yet all of us — family and guests from Texas, Oklahoma, Washington, New Jersey, Arkansas, Mexico and South Africa — made it. And we had an amazing time.

When I brought up the New Mexico vacation, Marti surprised me. She was — just that morning — thinking back on the same trip. Comparing notes, we found it hard to be upset about it. Despite the problems, we agreed, the good parts were pretty great. After all, we enjoyed a stay in a beautiful resort, explored a new part of the world, learned a lesson about mountain travel, captured great photos of the cliff dwellings, enjoyed a day below the waterfall and saw a lot of country.

Neither of us focused on the car troubles. Instead, we choose to remember the beauty of the mountains and a friendly mechanic who loaned us his crusty old van when he didn't have to.


Dave Berry is the former editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday.


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