In Durango, don't worry, be funky

Special to The Times

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.

Across the water, a buff, blond guide entertained his crew of squealing little girls by mimicking "Saturday Night Live" characters Hans and Franz and jumping into the water.

Flexible Flyers co-owner Stephen Saltsman stayed dry while piloting our raft. "Never," he yelled, "trust a guide that likes to swim!"

Despite Durango's outdoorsy vibe, it has a great place to be sedentary: Main Avenue's shopping and restaurant district.

To kick off a night out, I skipped the chic eateries and chose a funky local favorite -- Skinny's Grill, where Southwestern food gets a few international twists, producing such dishes as Thai chicken tacos and chicken tequila penne.

Next stop: the bars. As befits the home of Fort Lewis College and its 4,500 students, Durango has a nice variety of pool halls, breweries, saloons and a few dance spots.

I started my drinking tour at Steamworks Brewing Co., a restaurant and brewery whose jalapeno-flavored Prescribed Burn Chili Ale forced me to cool my lips with a Hefeweizen.

Next stop: the Lost Dog, with 71 varieties of tequila. Although the dance floor was mostly empty, it felt as though bumping and grinding could break out at any minute.

Other places were more mellow. I caught a band at the Summit, an upstairs bar, before hitting my trendiest stop -- Joel's, a martini bar where an older college and young adult crowd lounged on leather couches beneath a pressed-tin ceiling.

Main Avenue also offers ample opportunity for daylight relaxation, though I'm not a huge fan of the clothing boutiques and home-decor stores. One morning, though, I enjoyed a newspaper and coffee at Magpie's Newsstand Cafe, where I people-watched in the clear Colorado sunlight.

I saw mostly normal folks -- chatty college-age girls, retirees, and a student reading texts on mythology.

Not a single bridesmaid on a bicycle. But I knew she was out there somewhere. Despite Durango's changes, there was comfort in that.

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Rocky Mountain sigh

GETTING THERE:

From Southern California airports, America West and United offer connecting (change of planes) service to Durango-La Plata County Airport, which is about 15 miles southeast of town. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $373

WHERE TO STAY:

The Strater Hotel, 699 Main Ave.; (970) 247-4431, www.strater.com. The 119-year-old building has 93 rooms filled with Victorian antiques and reproductions. Summer doubles $169-$249, depending on availability.

The Gable House Bed and Breakfast, 805 E. 5th Ave; (970) 247-4982, www.durangobedandbreakfast.com. Lovely 114-year-old Queen Anne in a residential district of downtown. Children must be 10 or older. Summer doubles begin at $152.

Spanish Trails Inn and Suites, 3141 Main Ave.; (970) 247-4173, www.spanishtrails.com. One of several reasonably priced options on Main Avenue (U.S. 550). Not fancy, but it has a pool and clean, good-value rooms. Doubles $59-$79 in summer.

WHERE TO EAT:

Skinny's Grill, 1017 Main Ave.; (970) 382-2500. One of the locals' favorites, a narrow storefront where Southwestern food gets occasional international twists. Sandwiches and entrees $6.95-$10.95.

Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, 3535 N. Main Ave.; (970) 247-2240, www.serioustexasbbq.com. Excellent beef brisket, pulled pork and smoked turkey breast and a nice porch to eat it on. $4-$18.

Gazpacho, 431 E. 2nd Ave.; (970) 259-9494, www.gazpachorestaurant.com. Good northern New Mexican cuisine. Entrees $6.50-$14.95.

Durango Creamery, 600 Main Ave., No. 107; (970) 382-9278. Super-creamy, home-made ice cream for $3.25 a scoop.

Steamworks Brewing Co., 801 E. 2nd Ave.; (970) 259-9200. Restaurant in the evenings, bar later at night. Entrees $9-$16.

The Lost Dog Bar & Lounge, 1150-B Main Ave.; (970) 259-0430. More than 70 tequilas, 50 bourbons, and 50 single malt scotches -- and an outdoor tiki bar.

The Summit, 600 Main Ave.; (970) 247-2324. Often has DJs and live bands in its upstairs space. Also pool, foosball, etc.

Joel's, 119 W. 8th St.; (970) 385-0430. Martini bar that's as close as Durango gets to trendy.

WHAT TO DO:

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, 45 Main Ave.; (877) 872-4607. The steam-powered train chugs though 45 miles of stunning mountain scenery, mostly along the Animas River. Round-trip tickets begin at $62 ($31 children) and include seven hours on the train (3 1/2 hours each way) and 2 hours, 15 minutes in Silverton. A one-way train ride combined with a one-way bus trip (1 hour) begins at $69, $38 children.

River rafting companies abound. I floated the lower Animas with Flexible Flyers, (800) 346-7741, www.flexibleflyersrafting.com. One-hour trips cost $12 or $14; two hours, $20. Trips leave from Roosa Avenue and 9th Street, on the riverbank.

The Durango Farmers Market, parking lot of First National Bank, 259 W. 9th St.; www.durangofarmersmarket.com. Vendors sell pottery, candles and other crafts, but the emphasis is on locally grown food. 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Open mid-May to mid-October.

TO LEARN MORE

Durango Area Tourism Office, 111 S. Camino del Rio, Durango, CO 81302; (800) 463-8726, www.durango.org.

-- Ben Brazil

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