The perfect trip: Southwest USA
The magnificent view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. (Mark Read)
Take to the road in Southwest USA, where you can explore incredible natural landscapes, hit the casinos in Las Vegas, then retire with your winnings to the classic glamour of Palm Springs.
Silverton, San Juan Mountains: Best for the Wild West
Fly into Denver, then drive for 6 hours through some truly epic mountain scenery
Silverton is a town with barely two paved streets to string together, hidden amid the peaks of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Dwarfed by monstrous wooded slopes, which begin their ascent to the skies mere metres from the street, this hamlet of wooden hotels and saloon bars doesn’t feel like a seething cesspit of debauchery. But it is just 60 years since little Silverton was at the forefront of the Wild West when, percentage-wise, it made today’s infamous cities of sin, Las Vegas and Bangkok, look like paragons of virtue.
The late 1800s saw scores of men arriving here to prospect for silver and gold. The earth was so abundant with mineral riches that the pass linking the new mining towns of Ouray, Silverton and Durango was nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway – not for its eye-popping views over the forested gorge, but after the subterranean jackpot every man was hoping to hit. With the miners came those who made a living by providing “entertainment” for their nights above ground.
So it was that up until the 1950s, a visitor to Silverton had a 50/50 chance the first building they wandered into would be a brothel. Literally half the town – Notorious Blair Street, as it’s still known – was dedicated to bordellos. The other half, centred around the parallel Greene Street, completed the binary of Wild West morality with long lines of churches and chapels.
The first bordello was a one-room wooden shack, split by a curtain into a “private” back room and a drinking den up front. It is now home to Professor Shutterbug’s Olde Tyme Portrait Parlour, where tourists can have sepia photos taken dressed in Wild West garb. Tommy Wipf set up the studio in 1973. He is a reserved man with a handlebar moustache to rival any in this, the capital of handlebar moustaches. “This was a good ol’ street,” he says, eyes darting towards the Shady Lady Saloon opposite. “Three blocks of whorehouses, 120 girls giving it their all. There were hangings and shootings on every corner – just a regular Western town.”
Silverton has inevitably lost its rough edges – the last brothel shut in 1953, the final mine in 1991. But the old edge-of-the-world feel can be conjured up with a drive past the ghost town ruins of former mines scattered along the pass. Rusted wheels stand silent, gap-toothed wooden houses are half-collapsed: the rotten shards of a thousand dreams of riches. The isolation here must have been overwhelming – topped only by the insatiable desire to keep digging for the next life-changing.
Where to eat
Stellar Bakery offers great pizza and friendly service (mains from £8; 00 1 970 387 9940).
Where to stay: The Teller House Hotel
The Teller House Hotel dates from 1896 and has kept its Victorian/Wild West hybrid character with period décor, wooden furniture and views across the mountains (from £55).
Visit silvertonhistoricsociety.org to learn more about the town's past.
Monument Valley: Best for the Navajo Nation
From Silverton, take a 4 1/2-hour drive along the US-160
There is a point on the drive from Colorado to Monument Valley in Utah where it becomes clear that here, the skin of modern America has been rubbed red raw. Every vestige has been stripped away with such ferocity that nothing remains but the dusty flesh of the earth. It’s as if the land itself has been turned inside out.
Colour here comes in the most primal of shades: blood red, sunburnt orange, deep purple. On either side of the road – the sole reminder that we are not deep in prehistory – gnarled rock figures disappear into the horizon. Ridges circle their bases like the rings of a tree, rising up to ragged red fingers or sandblasted outcrops silhouetted against a sky so blue it hurts.