Chapter 9 : Durango to Ouray

The original version of this article was published in The Legend-News of 2000 August 7 . Slight changes have been made, but nothing that affects the facts.

Thursday, 2000 June 1

There Goes The Silverton

After spending a lovely quiet night in the woods, we started west once again. Durango was about thirty miles away, and we arrived about 8 o’clock. Our first objectives were fuel and food; after a stop at a gas station we parked in downtown Durango and went to McDonalds. Now you may think that we could have done better for a restaurant, but this particular McDonalds had a quality that couldn’t be denied: it was located directly to the west of the depot for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

At 9 o’clock, the train pulled out for Silverton. We drove north on US 550, paralleling the train’s route, and caught it again as it passed under 550. And like the train, we arrived in Silverton. Next time, I’m taking the train!

The Silverton train, in the station
Down by the station, early in the morning. No. 480 waits at the Durango depot, ready to leave at 9 A.M. sharp.
The Silverton train leaving the depot
After crossing the street (in the foreground), the Silverton train heads north.
The Silverton train passing under a bridge on US 550
If you drive north on US 550 just after the train leaves Durango, you can see its smoke off to the side of the road, and you can race ahead to see the train as it passes under a bridge about halfway between Durango and Silverton. Note the crowd of tourists on the left; it’s a popular sport.
The town of Silverton
The town of Silverton. The railroad tracks enter the picture from the lower right, alongside the Animas River. The Silverton station is a bit to the right of the center of the picture. is the official website of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum

One Warm Dry Day In The Colorado Summer

Now just up the road is Red Mountain Pass, famous for the Riverside Slide. As you approach the slide area from the south, you’ll see a memorial at a turn-out on the right side of the road.

Snow plow drivers memorial near Red Mountain Pass
You never quite know what time of the night…

To This Valley We Said We Were Going

And then there’s Ouray, “the Switzerland of America”. We arrived around noon, and spent a hour or so wandering around the town. I stopped at several stores (I had a shopping list, too), including the famous Ouray V&S Variety where you can buy the video and audio tapes of some of C.W. McCall's works, including a version of the San Juan Odyssey slide show. (700 Main St., Ouray, Colorado 81427; 970.325.4469). [2010 February 27: the videotapes are long out-of-print, but you can buy the new DVD versions of the Odyssey. — Future Ed.]

High Country Leathers, Ouray, Colorado
Columbine Gifts & Jewelry, Ouray, Colorado

And speaking of San Juan Odyssey, here’s the Wright Opera House (a.k.a. Wrights Hall), where the show was presented for twenty years:

Wright Opera House in Ouray
The Wright Opera House. C.W. McCall’s San Juan Odyssey occupied the second floor from 1978 to 1998.

Now somewhere in this town lived Bill Fries, and we were going to find him. T A made the phone call, and we set up a meeting for 3 o’clock, outside of the Silver Eagle Saloon. But first T A and I needed to “freshen up”, because, well, we hadn’t showered that morning. The campground had a commode and that’s all. So T A asked around and found that there was a hot springs pool on the north end of town where for four bucks we could get the road dust washed off before we met Bill, so we did.

At 3 we were outside the Saloon and Bill was waiting for us. He didn’t look quite the same as in the C.W. days, but there was no mistaking the gentleman standing there on the sidewalk. We introduced ourselves and tried not to act like drooling fanboys, and we valiantly restrained ourselves from falling prostrate and chanting “We’re not worthy!”.

Bill asked us about what we wanted to do. Our intention was to have a brief conversation, learn a little more about him, and then point the chariots down the road. T A also wanted a phone line for his laptop, so that he could check his mail. We had expected nothing more than to spend an hour or two with Bill; but he surprised us by inviting us up to the house. I guess that we seemed normal enough.

Bill lives on the side of the mountain on the west side of the valley. No, I’m not going to tell you how to find the house; Bill values his privacy. In fact, because of occasional trespassers, he installed a pair of large iron gates at the end of the driveway to keep out the riff-raff. The house sits about thirty feet above the driveway, and access to the house is by way of a small inclined railway. The railway is a recent addition, about four years old; before then, reaching the house involved actually walking up through the rocks on the mountainside. A trivial fact: the wheels of the railway’s car were taken from a real ore car that was in use at the Idarado mine, south of town on the north side of Red Mountain Pass.

Our first glimpse of Bill’s place was the garage. There were two very interesting items in there: a 1950s-era military Jeep that Bill is restoring, three carts of slide projectors, and some audio gear.

The Jeep that Bill is restoring
A military Jeep (M-52A?) that Bill is restoring. I’ve never seen one that shiny.
The projectors and amplifiers for the San Juan Odyssey slide show
The equipment for the San Juan Odyssey slide show, awaiting a new day.

Lovely Jeep, isn’t it? And the audio/video equipment is that which was used for the now-closed San Juan Odyssey. Yeah, it’s in storage now; Bill said that maybe someday he’ll do the show again, but only for a limited time, and not another almost-daily run for twenty years.

Bill’s wife is the ‘R.J.’ who’s mentioned in “Black Bear Road”, and Rena is the second occupant of that house on the mountain, the third being a German shepherd named Hannah.

Bill and Rena Fries Hannah the German shepherd
From left to right: Rena, Bill, and Hannah.

They’ve been married about forty years or so, and Rena’s been with Bill through his long, strange career from advertising man to country music star to Ouray mayor to gentleman of leisure.

Breaker, One Bed

So we rode up the railway to the house, and Bill showed us around. The main floor is mostly open on the side facing the valley, with a loft area above it. On one side of the stairs which lead to the loft is a wet bar; on the wall behind the bar are Bill’s gold records and covers of his favorite albums. On the other side of the stairs is the kitchen. Across the front of both lies the table and the living area, where the stereo and television reside. Beyond that, on the outside of the house, is a large deck that overlooks the town. The gas grill is out there, too (this fact will be important, later).

The view from the deck of Bill's house
Close-up view of the Cleopatra formation
The view to the east from Bill’s house. The ridge at the top center of the picture has a formation known as “Cleopatra”, although it doesn’t much look like Elizabeth Taylor.

Bill and Rena offered us some drinks. T A and I split a Coke, and Bill had a martini. Conversation began, and although most of our subjects were about Bill, his life, and the songs that he wrote, we did wander a bit into other topics like computers and travel. What we learned was more than any biography had ever told us. The sudden popularity of “Old Home Fill-er Up An’ Keep On A-Truckin’ Café”, which led to the writing of more songs about the fictional truck driver (“If it wasn’t for C.W., I’d still be working in advertising.”); the trip in the early 1960s that became “Black Bear Road” (yes, the Jeep really did go over the side of the cliff); the time that Telluride was invaded by hippies (“Crispy Critters”); the literary licenses of “Audubon” and “Wolf Creek Pass”; the true location of the Lost Lake of “Wilderness”; Bill’s trip down into “Camp Bird Mine”; and general puzzlement over “Kidnap America” (Bill didn’t remember that song; he thinks that it was recorded for a local Republican political campaign in 1980).

And then we broke the bed.

Now get your mind out of whatever gutter it’s lept into, and listen to the explanation. You’ll remember that Bill’s computer is in the bedroom in the loft. It’s on a small desk on the right side of the room, about three feet from the side of a wood-frame bed. There’s a chair at the desk, but that’s the only chair in the room. The three of us had gone upstairs because we wanted Bill to listen to that atrocious cover of “Convoy” by Prolix, so he logged onto the Internet and downloaded it from the web site. Bill sat on the chair, and told T A and I to sit on the bed, which we did. Unfortunately, the bed was not accustomed to so much weight — both T A and I are, uh, carrying a few extra pounds — and about a minute after we’d parked our behinds there was a mighty snap and the support beam under the right side of the bed cracked, a split running from one of the bolt holes of a supporting bracket and down the length of the board. We were, to say the least, very embarassed. Here was Bill, a gentleman who had invited us into his home, and we were destroying the furniture. Excellent move, not. Fortunately, Bill told us that he’d been expecting that board to fail for some time, and that we were just the unlucky persons who were present when it did. We felt much better.

As far as we were concerned, we’d accomplished our goal of meeting and talking with the real C.W. McCall, Bill Fries. Five o’clock was the time, and T A said that we’d better get going if we were to make Grand Junction that night. But Bill surprised us again. He asked us, the rabid fanboy vandals who had invaded his home and damaged his belongings, to stay for dinner. And dinner was Omaha Steaks, cooked on the gas grill out there on the deck (I told you that would be an important fact to remember). So we stayed for dinner, played with Hannah, and talked about anything that came to mind. All in all, a great evening.

Along about 9 o’clock I called my wife back in Illinois. We have Caller ID, and she wasn’t sure who “Fries, William D” was, but she was expecting me to call that night so she answered the phone. I told her where I was, but she really didn’t believe me until I got first Rena then Bill on the phone to speak to her. Call it a telephonic brush with greatness.

Ten o’clock, and we had to leave eventually, if just to find a motel for the night. Our schedule so far was flexible; we didn’t really need to be in anyplace specific until Saturday (T A wanted to be in Sacramento, California) and even that appointment looked as if it might not take place. Bill wouldn’t let us go empty-handed though, and before we left his company he’d loaded us down with some booty: videotapes of off-road adventures that he’d narrated, autographed copies of the San Juan Odyssey LP, and 60-plus “C.W. McCall Fan Club” membership cards.

San Juan Odyssey LP C.W. McCall Fan Club membership card, front C.W. McCall Fan Club membership card, back
Booty! A genuine fully-autographed copy of the soundtrack to San Juan Odyssey (and you thought that “Kidnap America” was difficult to find), and a Fan Club membership card from the 1970s. I’ve got about thirty of them; whatever shall I do with that many?

All that had happened that afternoon and evening was far more than we expected. We wanted a short conversation and maybe an autograph; instead we got seven hours with Bill and Rena, plus dinner and stuff for our collections. Thanks, Bill and Rena!

But we did leave after profusely thanking Bill and Rena for their hospitality, and drove down the mountain back into downtown Ouray and a room at a local motel. The next morning we’d be off again, continuing our trip to L.A. More adventures lay in store.

Next: Ed. falls behind in Utah, and T A finds Nevada.