It’s nine degrees below zero Fahrenheit and I’m the only soul out for a walk in downtown Durango on a Friday night. Everyone else in this idyllic town of about 16,000 in the southwest corner of Colorado is sensibly rushing into and out of businesses and some leave their cars running outside while they pop into shops or restaurants. It’s my first night in a town that I’ve imagined as a kind of adventure playground utopia and I have no intention of sitting in my warm hotel room watching TV.
Durango is a town that shows up on all kinds of best places lists. Outside magazine appears to crown Durango as the best something or other almost every year – in 2012 it was named one of their best new adventure hubs and one of America’s best river towns, and on at least two prior occasions, it was on their list of best towns. In recent years, my wife and I have been fantasizing about moving to a smaller, more laid back community and I’ve long been convinced that Durango would be a great place to live despite never having stepped foot in the place.
Before I landed in town, I met three people who loved the place so much that they found a way to live there, two in the airport and one on my flight in. Durango native Gregory Martin overheard me talking on the phone in the Denver airport about trying to find a medicine man on the Navajo Reservation and asked if I was “into sweat lodges” and things of that nature.
We got to talking and Martin told me he was a wilderness therapist at a place called Open Sky Wilderness, which helps heal troubled youths by bringing them out to live in a rustic, natural setting in the wilderness for two to three months. After talking to Gregory, I met a young man from Virginia who is studying music at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He visited the place and fell in love with it and his parents were sold when they found out that he could get free tuition because he’s ¼ Comanche Indian (the college provides free tuition to Native Americans).
“How did you prove you were Native American?” I asked, curious to know how a kid who looked very white could make the cut as a Native American.
“When I was born my dad got a card for me on the reservation, it’s kind of like a social security card – it proves I have Native American roots,” he explained.
And on the flight into Durango, a pilot who convinced NetJets, his employer, to allow him to base there about six years ago, sold me on the place.
“It would be a great place to grow up,” he said, and all I had to do was look over his shoulder at the dramatic, snow-capped mountains out the window to see what he meant.
Even after all the hype, I liked Durango immediately. The Animas River flows right behind Main Street, which is anchored at one end by a vintage train station where you can take the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train, which has been in continuous operation for more than 130 years. I was bundled up and ready for the biting cold and the frigid night air felt oddly invigorating. Heat saps my energy and turns me into a sloth, but the cold puts a spring in my step, especially when there’s no wind.
On this bitter evening, the stars were out in force, the town was eerily quiet and the squeaky sounds of my shoes making impressions in the snow seemed oddly melodic.
I walked almost every block of Durango’s walkable, Wild West meets hip ski town center and felt like the place had pretty much everything I needed: two good bookstores, two brewpubs right downtown and two more nearby (four breweries in a city of 16,000!?), a nice collection of independent restaurants and shops, and a pleasant lost-in-time vibe.
I passed two old hotels, the Strater and the General Palmer, places advertising “Old West Photos” and Cowgirl apparel, a Tibetan Shop, a music store advertising “compact discs and tapes,” a Nepali, Indian and Tibetan restaurant and a shop selling a T-shirt, which read: OMG WTF is happening to the English language?
I had a glass of Colorado Kolsch at Steamworks Brewing and noticed that guys with ponytails shared baskets of peanuts with guys in cowboy hats and middle-aged ski bunnies in fluffy boots. When I asked a couple what the worst thing about Durango was they laughed.
“That’s a tough one,” the guy said. “We love it here.”
[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]