Wolf Creek & Pagosa Springs, Yamaguchi Brothers

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked Aspen and all the skinny women there, but it was time for this Wander Woman to move on. My truck pointed south, the ultimate destination was Scottsdale to see two of my little grandkids, but I had a couple stops before I was to get a warm weather reprieve.

The road south went through Leadville, Colorado, where the little mining town was getting ready for their Ski Joring festival. When I was about 10 years old and my brother Tom was getting into skiing, I pulled him around on a tow rope hitched to the saddle horn of my horse. It certainly wasn’t the ski joring of today, but I have only the fondest memory of those two favorite things in my life—horseback riding and skiing.

Today’s ski joring is much faster and high flying than the tame activities Tom and I played at—unfortunately I was passing through and didn’t have time to stay and watch the festivities in Leadville. My goal was Wolf Creek Ski area and Pagosa Springs where another Worldmark room awaited.

The weather was beginning to turn—I got to Wolf Creek around noon and paid for the senior half day pass which ran me around $43. I rode every lift, went from right to left as you face the mountain. At the top of Alberta lift I saw these strange tubes about 24’ in diameter that came out of the ridge and pointed downward. They looked like heating ducts, but I knew they couldn’t be that. I was perplexed.

At the top of Alberta I took Knife Ridge Staircase that cut across the mountain to a bunch of steeps that it looked like a person would have to hike to—Not on my list of things to do. So I cut to Feather Duster to get back to the lifts. The moguls were deep on this ungroomed blue, and another family was skiing it back, too, so I wasn’t alone. But the place was pretty quiet and I was glad to have company. By the time I got back to the base area, it was snowing hard and I had about a 30 minute drive out of the mountains to Pagosa Springs. My plan was to return in a day or two to ski the mountain again. I liked the vibe of Wolf Creek. It’s out of the way, not a fancy resort like what I had just come from, and it was clear there were lots of locals skiing.

The road to Pagosa Springs was the continuation of Hwy 160, but the downside was that it was all switchbacks. Maybe not as extreme as the Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge, Montana to Cooke City, but still a lot. The snow wasn’t that bad yet, so it just took maybe ten minutes more than I had expected.

Pagosa Springs was the pleasantest surprise. It’s a great little resort town, with fine hot springs easily accessible off the main street. The Worldmark in town is a large complex, and I had a large one bedroom condo. I took a day off skiing to get some writing and work done, and decided I needed to get out of the condo to explore at least a few hours in the afternoon. I hit the local western wear store, Goodman’s and will someday go back there for sure. And then I just drove around town.

As I went west past the hot springs and by city hall I slammed on the breaks in front of a sign that had an arrow pointed right that said, “Yamaguchi Park.” Yamaguchi is clearly a Japanese name. I wondered what a Japanese park was doing in this remote Colorado town. As it turns out, four brothers from Pagosa Springs served in the 442nd all Japanese Battalion during WW2. All four boys were Nisei (born in the US) and one of the brothers became the mayor of Pagosa. They named the park for the four, who all served in the US military while over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated in the camps I had been stopping to see during my travels. A picture of the four men, taken in their military uniforms, is at the entrance of the park.

The 442nd had the highest injury and mortality rate of any battalion during the war. It wasn’t clear if all four boys returned from the war. But it was clear they were well respected in the community.

The snow began falling that night, and my plan was to spend the next day skiing at Wolf Creek and then head to Taos, New Mexico to ski. My sister and her husband were going to meet me there for a few days of vacation, and later my ski friend Cathy was going to join me for a few days of skiing.

I began early the next day to drive back to Wolf Creek. Four to six inches of snow had fallen overnight, so I knew the skiing was going to be good. Wolf Creek brags about getting the most snow in Colorado. As I began the drive to the resort, the roads were snow and ice packed. Several cars were off the road. I weighed my options, knowing the road to Wolf Creek had the switchbacks that I had navigated on my way into Pagosa Springs. I figured I could make it in my 4×4 truck, but there were cars headed up that I wasn’t so sure about and the road conditions app I use warned me of accidents ahead.

So, knowing that if I skied Wolf Creek, I would still have a three to four hour drive to Taos in front of me, I opted not to continue on and I figured I would take the lower road to Taos from Pagosa. I had to back track to Pagosa, but I was ok with that, knowing the pass to Wolf Creek was no easy drive. The first couple hours I figured I made the right choice—the roads were clear, even though it was trying to snow.

Can you see the road? Neither could I…

I took Hwy 84 south out of Pagosa, then veered left onto Hwy 64. I didn’t realize there was a different pass I had to cross on Hwy 64—Brazzo Summit. I was a couple hours from that. As I drove up out of the valley, it began snowing hard, and the two-lane road was not maintained. The snow was a foot to 18 inches deep at the higher elevations, and I didn’t pass another vehicle for miles. It was a switchback road, too. Pretty soon the road became one lane of two tracks that I squinted to see and follow. I had to move over for one 4×4 pickup that was headed my way, and I couldn’t slow down or I’d have been stuck. We barreled by each other, hell-bent to get through the drifts of snow, and after what felt like 30 minutes the road began to descend. The snow lightened up, and at about County Road 42B it appeared the snowplows had turned back. A small front wheel drive car approached, and a pickup pulling a camper was headed up the pass.  No way, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t warn them at that point, and I knew they’d figure it out soon enough.

When I got down off the mountain, into the Rio Grande Valley, there was a flashing sign at the start of the road headed up the mountain, bulbs not all burning that said, “find an alternative route”.  No kidding. I wish they had told me that before I started.

But that was then and this was now. I had only a 30-minute drive to my next destination—Taos, New Mexico and seven days of skiing.

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