Incomplete Pass


A line from one of C.W. McCall’s songs kept running through my head as I drove along a narrow, rocky shelf road on Ophir Pass Trail, east of Telluride, Colorado. The song is ‘Wolf Creek Pass.’ The line was, ‘I looked at Earl and his eyes were wide. His lip was curled and his leg was fried. His hands were froze to the wheel like a tongue to a sled in the middle of a blizzard. I said, “Earl, I’m not the type to complain, but the time has come for me to explain that if you don’t apply some brake real soon they’re gonna have to pick us up with a stick and a spoon.”’

No idea who Earl was, but my wife, Jocelynn, was in the passenger seat of the Jeep, making little, squeaky, wife-type noises, tensed up like a piano string, trying to see how deep she could bury her fingernails in the lid of the center console. The road didn’t seem all that dangerous to me, since we had a few inches of clearance on the right, next to the huge boulders that lined the road, and a few inches on the left, where the edge of the trail dropped off into a majestic and picturesque abyss. Jocelynn seemed to think we were about to plunge to sudden, immediate, and irreversible death at any moment. I guess it was a matter of perspective.

But then, Jocelynn is often tense when I drive, for some reason. She hides it pretty well, and hardly ever screams anymore, but she does constantly point out other vehicles, red lights, and stop signs, as if she thinks I’m driving with my eyes closed, using The Force. She also announces the speed limit every time she sees a sign, as if such information were somehow significant. She didn’t have any speed limit signs to read on Ophir Pass Trail, although she still seemed to think I was driving too fast anytime the wheels were actually turning. Jocelynn doesn’t care much for heights.

I don’t mind heights, but the words from ‘Wolf Creek Pass’ had me thinking back to a few days before, when I had put new brake pads on the Jeep. I’m not much of a mechanic, but I couldn’t get anyone else to do the job, so I did it myself. And I was hoping I’d done it right. Because if there’s one part of your Jeep you want working perfectly when you’re driving on those mountain pass roads, it’s your brakes. A mistake with your brakes in that situation is like a first impression. You don’t get a second chance to make one.

The song was significant for another reason, too. C.W. McCall was at least part of the reason Jocelynn and I were on that road to begin with. I was barely a teenager when I first heard his songs, and most of them seemed to be about driving Jeeps in the mountains of Colorado. My favorite was ‘Black Bear Road,’ which came out in 1975. And Black Bear was the road I wanted to be on at that moment, only it was still covered in snow, so we took Ophir from Ouray to Telluride instead. Which was probably a good thing, considering that the last mile of Black Bear would probably have given Jocelynn a heart attack.

C.W. McCall’s real name is Bill Fries, and I found out after our trip that Bill is still alive at 92, and lives in Ouray. If I’d known that I might have tried to look him up while we were there. I also found out that his song about Black Bear Road was based on a trip he and his family went on, when they rented a surplus army jeep from a fellow named Kuboske, for ‘thirty bucks a day, buy your gas along the way, take a rabbit’s foot and leave a pint of blood for a deposit,’ according to the song. And as it turns out, Kuboske was a real person, and was the first guy to offer Jeep rentals in the San Juans, in 1967.

Nowadays you can rent a Jeep just about anywhere around Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride, but there’s a catch. Anywhere you rent a Jeep, you have to sign a form that says you won’t drive it on Black Bear Road. That last mile of the trail, east of Telluride, has a bunch of impressive switchbacks, and I guess they’ve lost so many Jeeps there they’ve decided to blackball the road. And that’s the road I’ve wanted to drive since the song came out in 1975. Which is why I had to have my own Jeep to begin with, which is also Bill’s fault. There’s a pattern here.

But although Black Bear was still closed, we drove over California Pass, Hurricane Pass, Corkscrew Pass, Ophir Pass, and Imogene Pass, which, at 13,114 feet, is the third highest drivable mountain pass in Colorado. And I drove too close to the edge on every one, according to my spousal unit.

Significantly, we didn’t do Wolf Creek Pass, which is paved now, so it’s boring, anyway. Plus Jocelynn doesn’t like it when I call her Earl . . .

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