Sunday, July 24, 2011

My kind of bucket list...and one of 'em I've already checked off

Of course I now want to make sure I drive on every one of these roads before I die. The pictures, and descriptions... [sighs despondently at the thought of more years spent in Houston].

When I saw the title, "World's Scariest Roads: Most Wonderful Mountain Passes," I thought two things: (1) "This is going to be awesome," and (2) "I'm going to say they don't know what they're talking about if they don't include El Espinazo del Diablo, between Durango and Mazatlán, as I imagine they won't."

But to my delight, the very last mountain pass on the list? El Espinazo del Diablo. The pictures are hopeless, though. At the bottom of this post I'll attach my own description from my old Mexican travelogue, written back when, on a family vacation (yes, for a family vacation I once drove the kids from Austin to Mazatlán in a Ford Windstar), we stumbled, utterly without warning, out onto the Devil's Backbone.

At any rate, I want to drive every mile of every one of the mountain roads on this list (I have no interest in the Lena highway, as that is mere mud with no mountains).

  • Col de Turini, France. The only thing is, since this is probably the world's most famous road rally stretch and, thanks to television shows like this one, amateur hotshots come from all over the world to roar up and down it as fast as possible...well, I'd probably have to rent a Ferrari in order to avoid getting rear-ended on the hairpins. That's a really fun video, by the way. In fact the whole Top Gear series is a blast and well worth watching. Thanks to Top Gear there's a road on this list that I wouldn't otherwise have known about, namely...

  • The Transfăgărășan, Romania. Don't miss the Top Gear video, which includes a fascinating few minutes on the "People's Palace," the insane domicile of the insanse Nicolae Ceaușescu.

  • Stelvio Pass, Italy -- I haven't driven this one, though I did once drive the nearby St. Gotthard Pass in a rental car...on September 12th, 2001, grimly aware that I was trapped in Europe with my children stuck in West Virginia with my grandparents.

  • Before we leave the Alps, let's include one that really represents homage to the Tour de France: l'Alpe d'Huez. Given that this is on the list thanks to the world's elite cyclists, it would be inappropriate to do this in the ease and luxury of an automobile. I therefore propose to rent a moped. I will not, however, go so far as to ride it (in honor of Tour spectators) wasted out of my mind, nor, in honor of Alberto Contador, punching passersby in the face as I pedal. (Tim Moore, quoted in wikipedia: "During this year's clean-up operation, down in a ravine with the bottle shards and dented emulsion tins, a body turned up. He'd fallen off the mountain and no one had noticed. When the Tour goes up Alpe d'Huez, it's a squalid, manic and sometimes lethal shambles, and that's just the way they like it.")

  • Leh-Manali Highway, India. I particularly like this picture:

  • El Camino de la Muerte (the Road of Death), Boliva. More properly the "North Yungas Road." Of course it's the traffic that makes this road so deadly:. There's a special driving rule that applies only to el Camino de la Muerte: it's the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left, not on the right. This is so that you can look out your window to see where your wheels are:

  • Los Caracoles Pass, between Chile and Argentina.

  • Russian-Georgian Military Mountain Roads. Beware of that link, though, as several of the pictures are grossly mislabelled -- the muddy and snowy ones are the Lena Highway, and there's even a tropical-forest-festooned shot of el Camino de la Muerte, which is no doubt astonished to find itself in Georgia rather than Bolivia.

    By the way, just when exactly did we give the Russians permission to build military highways in Georgia? And why hasn't Governor Deal done somethin' about it?

  • 郭亮村(Guoliang Village) Tunnel Road, China. This one is so cool. Can't wait to get there. And just think: driving in China is an adventure even in the coastal plain. Just think of sharing that road with Chinese truck drivers and motor scooters. Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Just teasing, that road's a one-way road driven only by taxis and little tourist vans. It isn't really dangerous, just a fascinating road in beautiful country.)

    Actually, I think the best thing about this particular stretch of road (except for the tragic bit), is the story of how it got built. From Wikipedia:
    Before the tunnel was constructed, access to the nearby Guoliang village was limited to a difficult path carved into the mountainside. The village is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains cut off from civilization. In 1972 a group of villagers led by Shen Mingxin decided to carve a road into the side of the mountain. They raised money to purchase hammers and steel tools. Thirteen villagers began the project. The tunnel is 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) long, 5 metres (16 ft) tall and 4 metres (13 ft) wide. Some of the villagers died in accidents during construction. On 1 May 1977 the tunnel was opened to traffic.
    Never let it be said that the Chinese lack initiative. The full story can be found here (where we find out why everybody in the village shares the same last first name) and here, along with a delightful postscript that observes that once mainland China opened itself to Western tourism, thousands of currency-endowed tourists made their way to Guoliang, thus making the road one heck of an investment.

    Here is some video, by the way.

  • Taroko Gorge Road, Taiwan

  • The old Italian WWI military roads (now drivable only with motorcycle) up to Refugio Papi perched on the Pasubio massif, more precisely la Strada degli Eroi ("Road of Heroes") / la Strade delle Gallerie ("Road of Tunnels"), Italy. This road isn't so dangerous now, the way most people do it, which is on foot. But when it was built, it was plenty dangerous, considering that it was built and used by Italians under Austrian artillery fire, since the Pasubio massif was of critical strategic importance on the Austrio-Italian front. You can find articles about this road in Wikipedia...but only if you can read Italian.

  • This wasn't on the list I originally linked to, because you don't have the thousand-foot views to make you feel like death is a breath away. But since we're talking WWI military roads and we let the Italians in, we should give fair play to the Austrians, who built the remarkable road up the San Baldo Pass in 100 days. Or, rather, the Italian POW's and shepherds and grandmothers they had captured built it for them, under what we shall euphemistically term "encouragement." At any rate, in order to keep the grade to no greater than 12%, the Austrians designed in seven or eight switchbacks -- even though there wasn't actually room enough for switchbacks in the sliver of space they were trying to exploit. So how did they solve their problem? By building U-shaped tunnels to switch back in:
    There's only room for cars to go one direction at a time; so there are traffic lights at the top and bottom. This means that it really sucks if you get to the bottom of the Passo San Boldo on sheep-moving day:

  • Halsema Highway, Philippines

  • The Alaska Highway, Canada/USA. For degree-of-difficulty purposes, I propose to do this one in an RV.

  • Trollstigen ("Troll Ladder"), Norway

  • Lysebotn Road, Norway. Obviously Norway is on my list of places to visit -- I want to drive the Atlanterhavsveien, too.

  • Iroha-zaka winding road, Japan. There are actually two, each one-way, one going up and one going down. Apparently when the road was a monks' footpath, there were 48 switchbacks, one for each letter of the Japanese alphabet. Then they put in the new road, and the engineers put 50 curves in. But this honked people off; so they went back and re-engineered the road to reduce the number of curves back to 48. All righty then.

  • Van Zyls Pass, Namibia. Ohhhhhhhhh...just look at that road...[tries to control the drooling]

  • El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone), Mexico, which we can check off Kenny's Mountain Road Bucket List already. Why no link? Why, because I can find no really good pictures of it on the web, that's why.

Here's the bit from that old travelogue where we actually get to the part that takes El Espinazo into the Pantheon:
...I seem to recall that I had originally set out to describe the drive through the Sierra Madre, and had reached the pine forests at the 7,500- to 8,000-foot level. To return to my topic: Rain can get through to this part now, but the elevation doesn’t lend itself to jungle vines and such. So it’s remarkably like the Oklahoma hills, with grass and pines and vividly colored wildflowers. Also little miniature hand-reaped, hand-collected haystacks, the kind of step-back-in-time, tourist-pleasing picture-postcard effect that only severe poverty affords. (When we came back through a week later, one of the farmers was out bent double with a machete, mowing his hay by hand.) The breeze is pleasantly cool and the air is the sort of mountain air that makes you turn off the A/C and roll down the window until the whining from the kids in the back makes you roll it back up.

If you have a mile-by-mile travel guide with you, then you know when you cross the top of the pass at 8,900 feet. Otherwise you’ll never spot it, since it’s just a little hump in the road like the others over which you’ve been going up and down for the last half hour. (Things like that aren’t high, apparently, on the Mexican sign-painters’ agenda. Not even the Continental Divide rates a marker.) But a few minutes later you will know that you must have passed it already, because that is when you drive out onto the cliff.

I don’t mean you drive along the top of a cliff. I mean you drive out onto the face of a cliff. For the next about twenty miles the road is a wide spot dynamited across sheer rock walls that tower above you higher than you can see without sticking your head out the window and plunge hundreds of feet straight down on the other side. There is no shoulder except for very tiny spaces on the outsides of curves, big enough for a car to pause (but not for the trucks that pass back and forth incessantly). There are no emergency truck lanes; I presume that if a truck loses its brakes, then the driver either tries to scrape the cliff face and use friction to stop himself, or else jumps out and hopes not to break his neck, or else crosses himself and hopes to die in a state of grace.

I say this in retrospect, having driven back from Mazatlán on a day when the sun was shining cheerfully in the mountains. On the trip down, we hit heavy fog about two minutes before we hit the cliff. We could see what was on our right (the cliff face disappearing up into the fog), and we could see that there was nothing remotely like land visible on our left. But we didn’t really know what kind of spectacle we were missing until suddenly there was a brief break in the clouds and we could see across a mile of void to the road winding back into the clouds on the other side, with a town below the road – as in, five or six hundred feet below the road, at the base of the vertical section of the cliff, perched on an insanely steep slope that disappeared further down into the fog. Almost instantly the clouds closed back in, but we had seen enough to know we were in the middle of something special.

Throughout the rest of the cliff section, we would occasionally get tantalizing views for a few seconds, and our sense of awe just kept increasing. For we kept on driving, and the odometer kept clicking, and yet every time the clouds broke the cliffs were just as sheer and just as fearsome. Then we reached el Espinazo de Diablo, the “Devil’s Backbone.” Here we drove across a saddle from one cliff face to another. For just a moment we could see both directions, as the massive ridge along which our road was working its way down from the high sierra narrowed to a knife’s edge. And I mean that almost literally. For thirty or forty feet, the road was two lanes wide and took up the whole ridge, with a all-but-sheer drop on each side of literally hundreds of feet.

Actually, we could have seen both directions had it not been for the fog. Again, I’m talking from retrospect, i.e., from what we saw coming back through. On the way out what we saw was lots of white. A spot wide enough to park in has been dynamited out of the face on one side right at el Espinazo, and we stopped there. We got out and walked over to the edge, standing next to the wall that borders the (naturally shoulderless) west-bound lane. We peered over the edge, and what we saw was a straight fall until the fog blotted everything out. I mean, if you flipped a rock underhanded out over the wall, you would have seen it fall for fifty feet or so and then...gone, with no idea of when it was actually going to hit something solid.

But all good things must come to an end. Ever so gradually the cliffs mellowed into mere ridiculously steep slopes. We started actually to switchback every now and then (whereas before there was no place wide enough to switch directions). We passed the Tropic of Cancer – which, perversely enough, was marked with a sign. For a brief moment, far off in the distance, we spotted the Pacific, though even now we were several thousand feet above sea level. The vegetation changed character; now everywhere there was lush, viney underbrush rather like Kentucky, to use our guidebook’s apt simile. And here we saw one of the most remarkable testaments to human determination I’ve ever seen.

As I said, the mountainsides were technically slopes now, not cliffs. But if we hadn’t just come off those colossal, endless walls of stone I think we’d probably have been calling them cliffs. I grew up in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains and climbed a lot of rocks and a lot of hills, and I learned early on to recognize when a bank of soil was way too steep to even think about climbing up it, because the dirt would just slide out from under your feet and down you’d go right along with the soil you’d been trying to climb. These slopes were way too steep to even think about climbing them. Except – the local farmers were growing corn and soybeans all over them.

I have no idea how they did it. It’s been a couple of weeks now, and I still haven’t thought of any way for them to do it without using ropes. But can you really hoe a corn patch, or weed a soybean field, suspended on a rope like a window washer? I haven’t a clue. But I’ll tell you this: if I were a Mexican knowing that my choices were to grow corn on the side of cliffs that a goat wouldn’t trust, or else to sneak across a border and make five bucks an hour mowing lawns for some martini-sipping American housewife, no border patrol on earth could stand in my way. Shoot, the devil and all his minions would have their work cut out keeping me in those corn patches. (Somehow I just can’t bring myself to call them “fields.”)...


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