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In Durango, don't worry, be funky

Cyclists, students, hikers and free spirits are at home in the laid-back Colorado town.

May 21, 2006|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

Durango, Colo. — I saw the members of the wedding party twice. The first time was on a sunny Colorado afternoon as they bicycled down Durango's Main Avenue in gowns and tuxedos, waving at tourists.

The second time, they were still biking, they were still on Main Avenue, and many were still in formal wear. Only now it was the middle of the night, and they were biking by lamplight, hopping between bars.

Here was the Durango I love -- active, irreverent, quirky and always up for a party. This is a town where kayaks are often strapped to the roofs of cars, where people take their dogs to the office and where locals are occasionally called "Durangutangs" (almost rhymes with orangutans).

I've been coming here for more than 20 years. The city has long been my portal to the backpacking trails of the nearly 2-million-acre San Juan National Forest, whose 14,000-foot peaks rise to the north.

But I no longer visit Durango just to get outside; I come because my stress evaporates in the dry air, because the relaxed vibe and somewhat granola aesthetic allow me to pretend that I too am laid-back, fit, tanned and effortlessly cool.

Like most of Colorado, though, Durango has changed in the last decade or so. The old youth hostel here was bulldozed in favor of condos. "Wine Spectator" signs have sprouted in restaurant windows. And the forests lining the highway north to Silverton are being colonized by upscale developments.

Some people like the added style and sophistication. But when I visited in late June and early July last year, I found myself gravitating toward old-school Durango -- not just venerable attractions but spots that jibed with the town's unpretentious spirit.

Mostly, though, I tried to apply a lesson that all visitors should learn: When you feel like worrying, stop. Just make like a Durangutang, and go with the flow.

Durango is not a pure Rocky Mountain town but rather a sort of borderland. Geographically, it's here that the arid air of the Southwest begins to bake the green slopes of the Rockies into warm shades of red and brown. Here, also, the frigid white water of the high country begins to slow, foreshadowing the turgid, cottonwood-lined rivers that water the pueblos of New Mexico.

Culturally, the town is also a crossroads; just check the bars and restaurants. You'll see lean mountain bikers kicking back after a day in the sun, partying students from Durango's Fort Lewis College, a smattering of cowboys in jeans and boots (maybe here for the summer rodeo) and a few Native Americans from the Ute and Navajo lands in the larger Four Corners area.

Of course, there are also scads of tourists, many eager to ride the coal-fired, steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the city's biggest tourist attraction and the center of its history.

Durango was founded in 1880 to serve the railroad, which ferried silver- and gold-containing ore out of the mountains around Silverton, about 45 miles north. As the minerals poured out, Durango grew into a mineral-industrial hub, earning the nickname "Smelter City."

After the mineral economy tanked, the train became an anchor of Durango's new tourist economy.

I keep expecting to lose my enthusiasm for the ride, but last year I again found myself negotiating with other passengers for picture-taking positions.

In one of the train's open-air cars, my fiancee, Laura, and I snacked on a bag of cherries, listened to the steam whistle and watched the Animas River thunder past, frothy and aquamarine.

Rock walls and craggy ridges blotted out the sky, and the train rocked gently as it passed groves of pines and aspens.

The train is relaxing and atmospheric, a quintessential Durango visitor experience. But some local friends took me to a better place to feel like a native: the Durango Farmers Market, which is in a downtown parking lot on Saturday mornings during spring, summer and fall. The vibe here ranges from cowboy hat to Rasta hat, and foods tend toward the organic and free-range variety.

At one booth, I ordered a drink made from wheat grass.

The vendor snipped a clump from the greenhouse tray and dropped it into a grinder, which she powered by pedaling a stationary bike. Pure Durango.

More touristy, yet worthwhile, is a rafting trip on the Animas River. The upper Animas is a white-knuckle thrill; it's usually run safely, but one person died in a rapid the same day we rode the train past it.

Because we wanted our thrills moderate and cheap, Laura and I sought out Flexible Flyers, a company specializing in the lower Animas, which runs through the heart of Durango. An hourlong trip on the lower Animas can cost as little as $12.

The best Durango rafting experience exposes you to rapids, but it also surrounds you with an ethos.

Our shuttle bus' rattling speakers blasted the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll." On my raft was a life-vest-wearing dog named Joaquin.

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