The Million Dollar Highway

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

Hitchhiking is easy in the Colorado mountains. In Dolores, I caught a ride with Kai and Haley, modern-day hippies without peace signs or tie dye. He drove with aviators and a blond goatee, in a 4Runner packed with camping gear, food and beer, guitar and banjo.

“We’re gonna check out some hot springs by Rico,” Kai mumbled. I had to lean forward to hear him.

“Where are you headed?” Haley asked. She turned around, and I envied Kai. Haley didn’t wear beauty, that farce of makeup and manicures and three hundred dollars of clothes and hairstyling. Hers was an inescapable beauty, untouched by her oversized, paisley sweater and dirty, jawline-length hair. If anything, the grittiness made her prettier.

“Up to Telluride,” I said. “I keep hearing it’s worth a detour.”

They didn’t talk much after that. We all watched the mountains. Then Kai lit a cigarette, and Haley packed a one hitter with (legal) marijuana, and the silence was comfortable.


We passed Rico with no sign of the springs, and Kai and Haley made no effort to look harder. “We’ll just go to Telluride, too,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to get stuck out here.” She put in a Snoop Dogg CD.

In fragments, I learned their story. They worked seasonally with Canyon Country Youth Corps, where they had met. The corps, made up mostly of twenty-somes like themselves, did some trail maintenance, but focused more on removing invasive species. Their fall season would start Monday.

This drive was part of their break. They had hiked around Durango yesterday, and they were taking the rest of the week to explore the mountains and the hot springs.

Haley switched Snoop Dogg for Johnny Cash.

I asked them if they had hitchhiked. They had, quite often.

“I was stuck for four days once,” Kai said. A four day wait didn’t shock me, if he had hitched in the same corduroy vest and thrift-store pants he wore now. He had been in some mumbled city in California, trying to reach LA. “But people kept giving us stuff. We got five hundred dollars.”

“Five hundred?”

He nodded. “Then we found some Indians going to UCLA and rode with them.”

“My longest wait was a day and a half,” Haley said.

My four hours in Crookston and northwest Kansas didn’t seem so bad.

The view opened up, and we looked down a valley of evergreens with a ceiling of thick, gray clouds. I spent too much time watching to take a picture.

“We need a station,” Kai mumbled. I noticed the gas light, burning orange. He packed the one hitter and smoked.

Pink Floyd’s The Wall took us the rest of the way to Telluride. We filled up, and as I headed down the street, I saw the two embrace. Their hair, his shoulder-length and hers with a few tiny dreadlocks, blended perfectly. The same dirty gold, tangled and greasy and beautiful.


Looking down on Telluride from the gondola
Looking down on Telluride from the gondola

Those thick, gray clouds started raining while I was in the Telluride library. I covered my pack with a plastic poncho, pulled on my rain jacket, and waited for a break in the downpour to dash to the ski town’s free gondola. I headed up and over one mountainside and down into Mountain Village, which is even more of a resort community than Telluride. I explored briefly, taunted by restaurants and frustrated by an empty stomach. Since Santa Fe, a few drivers had given me food, but none had given me money to spend as I willed, and I refused to break into the last of my gifted food reserves: a box of NutriGrain bars. I fled temptation and headed to the rainy parking lot.

The first car stopped. I didn’t even have my sign out. He drove me to the junction with the main road, and–apologizing that he wasn’t going the same way as me–let me out in the rain.

Again, the first car stopped. Again, no sign. Hitchhiking in the rain is wonderful.

This driver, David, had lived in the area for the last ten years, initially as a Telluride ski lift operator, and now as a restaurant dishwasher and a maintenance man for a rich Texan’s ranch. Raised in Missouri, he moved west for the mountains, and he’s amazed by the people who stay in the east and Midwest, where life is too crowded and the scenery is too bland.

But many of those who do come to Colorado frustrate him. He told me about its transient community–not transients in the Kansas hitchhiker sense, but in the seasonal ski resort employee sense.

“They’re here to party and work as little as possible. Both in hours and effort,” he said. “And the party scene isn’t even that great.”

It’s hard to find long-term friends, David added. Too many people come and go, living there for just winters, or a few years, or only one season.

Then our routes diverged, and I returned to the rain. I had to wait until the third vehicle, this time, but it came with a dinner invitation. The driver, Gale, came to Telluride as a ski bum more than thirty years ago. A wife, steady job, and half million dollar home later, he’s now a well-established local. He still skis, and he also ice climbs, hikes, dirt bikes, drives jeeps, and mountain bikes. In the summer, he and his wife take their camper into the mountains every weekend, almost without fail.

That dinner turned into a night in his camper, out of the rain, and then breakfast the following morning. He offered me a place to stay the next night, too, after I spent the day detouring down and up the famous Million Dollar Highway, a precipitous and gorgeous converted mining road.

The Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway

I managed that detour in just two rides, both with drivers as outdoorsy and active as everyone else I met in the mountainous part of Colorado. I spent the scenic drive from Ridgway to Silverton with a high school geology teacher. His motto: “I live cheaply so I can play.” The teacher hitchhikes some himself, but only to return to his car after a thru-hike or a run of backcountry skiing.

On the return drive, I found a woman who had spent the last ten years as a climbing ranger in the Tetons. A Kansas City native, she fell in love with mountains when she attended college in Vermont, and she has stayed close to the vertical world of climbing ever since. We stopped in Ouray, the “Switzerland of America,” so she could show me the ice park, where sprinklers turn a narrow canyon into hundreds of ice climbing routes every winter.


Hitchhiking in mountainous Colorado is not just easier–it is profoundly different from any other area I have encountered. On the Million Dollar Highway alone, I saw three other hitchhikers. Three, in just sixty-eight miles. I saw just as many on the entire Washington to Michigan leg of my trip.

And in the northern US and the Midwest, my average wait was forty-five minutes. Then I would often be picked up by a driver who had hitchhiked himself back in the day, but just as often I’d get a ride with someone who never had thumbed–and many of those hadn’t even picked up a hitchhiker before.

Generosity differed, too. Not in size–drivers everywhere have continually overwhelmed me–but in type. Earlier in the trip, people often gave me money. Twenty bucks here, five there. In Colorado, though, instead of money I was offered dinners, a place to sleep, local outdoor information.

I think all are connected. Colorado attracts the outdoor enthusiasts, the transient workers, the recreationalists without hitchhiking qualms. The resulting prevalence of hitchhiking removes its stigma, and drivers are quick to help. And those drivers are also more likely to know what a hitchhiker needs, and so they do not just resort to giving money.

Cash is not only the most liquid form of wealth; it is also the most liquid form of help. Twenty dollars can be used however the recipient so desires–which we fear when giving to alcoholic panhandlers, but also hope when giving to someone with unknown needs. When a mother who has never met a hitchhiker before gives me cash, she does so because it’s the best chance she has of actually giving me something that helps on this trip.

But when an experienced hitchhiker picks me up, he knows what a roadside traveler needs. He does not revert to money, but instead gives meals or lodging directly–easier for me, because I don’t have to spend time hunting for a local diner or cheap grocery store, and more reassuring for him, because he knows he’s feeding a person, not funding a scam.

I don’t prefer any one type of generosity. I set out to discover the virtues of the American people, and seeing them displayed in any form is more than satisfying.

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