May 22, 2003
I approached Durango, CO, from the east, having driven in from Taos, NM, with several stops along the way. From the earthship settlement outside of Taos to the Tierra Amarilla hand-spun and dyed yarn, the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad to the mineral pools of Pagosa Springs, it had been an intensely interesting but tiring day, and I was ready for a good night’s sleep.
The Strater Hotel is without question one of the more spectacular historic hotels in the U.S. Its ornate Victorian design and rich red brick structure make it a living postcard of a building. Sitting right in the middle of scenic Durango’s main drag only adds to its attractive stature.
The history behind the Strater is a tale of business fortune, both the good type and the bad. Henry Strater came from Cleveland determined to see Durango move forward from being a mining town to being a prosperous force in the west. Bringing his pharmacy practice with him, he managed to obtain financing—telling some tall tales about his age in the process—and pulled off the construction of the hotel. It became a huge success, attracting both visitors to the area and locals who took shelter there in the cold winter months.
Strater ran into trouble, however, when H. L. Rice, the proprietor he hired to run the hotel, began charging him high rent for his pharmacy’s location. Angry over the situation, he built the nearby Columbian Hotel, hoping to bring about the downfall of the Strater Hotel and teach H.L. Rice a lesson in the process. Unfortunately, both hotels were taken down by the silver panic.
After a bank repossession and some years of hard work by then new owners Charles Stillwell and Hattie Mashburn, the Barker family entered the picture, picking up the Strater in 1926 and nurturing it into the fine lodging establishment it is today. Passed through several generations of Barkers, it remains in the family and is now run by Roderick Barker. Detailed restoration has been done, with particular care to the intricate woodwork. An impressive antique collection is housed within the hotel, which boasts 93 unique rooms.
I arrived later in the evening than I would have preferred, weary from travel and exploration. I took a classic room, the most basic offered at the Strater. Hardly basic in any way, it was decorated with antiques and featured small touches such as a clever bath amenity holder shaped like an old-fashioned bathtub.
I had stopped for something to eat while en route, but couldn’t resist stopped into the Diamond Belle Saloon, packed with old west historical ambiance and lively music, as well. Author Louis L’Amour often stayed in Room 222, directly above the saloon, saying the music helped set the mood for his writing. Though the saloon also offers food and spirits—of more than one type, it’s said—I was content to just soak up the energetic atmosphere before retreating to my room for the night.
I was awakened by the sound of a steam engine and jumped up to look out my window in time to see the Durango-Silverton train pulling up behind the hotel. Smoke billowed from above the engine, and passengers waved to enthusiastic onlookers. I had a bird’s eye view from my upper floor window.
Without the option of staying a second night, I downed a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby and set out to explore the Main St, or as the case is in Durango, Main Ave.
Durango is one of those perfect towns that is not too big, yet not too small. There are enough shops and cafes to keep visitors browsing for a full day. If shop-hopping is not a preferred activity, the options in the area are essentially endless, both in terms of outdoor activities and day trips to surrounding areas.
My time was limited, and I had one particular destination in mind. I returned to the hotel, reluctantly checked out, and took Hwy 160 west, through the town of Mancos and over to Mesa Verde National Park, a distance of approx. 65 miles.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to see all that Mesa Verde has to offer, but I was determined to take a few hours out of my day’s drive to see the famous cliff dwellings. They did not disappoint. Dating back to A.D. 600 – 1300, there are 600 cliff dwellings within this national park, including several areas available to view during guided tours or by individual viewing from designated areas.
I did my best to see what I could in the short time I had available. I left Mesa Verde and the Southwest Colorado area with a stash of photographs and an intense desire to return in the future.