Rivers and Tires

by Sid Feddema

Our small plane out of Denver shudders a bit as we slice through heavy stacks of menacing cumulonimbus. It’s a hop over the Rockies to Durango, and when we break out of the slab of gray and into shafts of light and space I see them below – the jagged, inaccessible peaks still covered in snow well into June. Some of them, whether from inaccessibility or simple lack of interest have likely never seen the foot of man. Peering down from the confines of an economy seat that I probably mentally bitched about (the usual traveller’s screed against the merciless efficiency of airplane seating) I am forcefully reminded of what a privilege it is to live in the 21st century. These are mountains that must have struck despair into the hearts of those headed West, their forbidding hugeness looming ominously on the horizon. And here I am, cruising with a coke in my hand at 400 mph, making what would have been a harrowing journey for our forbears in less than an hour. I was to have many such opportunities for gratitude on this trip.

The reason for my visit to beautiful Durango, Colorado is a car. A gorgeous car. A ridiculous and fabulous amalgamation of trail-hungry ruggedness, obscene comfort (has your ass ever been selectively air-conditioned through diamond-quilted leather seats? Mine has), bleeding-edge technology, and pure, unadulterated my-knuckles-would-be-white-but-it-feels-so-easy-that-I’m-not-breaking-a-sweat-and-that-somehow-worries-me-even-more automotive performance.

It’s called the Bentayga, and it’s built by Bentley. It costs more than the house in which I grew up. It is the finest piece of machinery I’ve ever piloted, unless I’m counting Sweet Pete, the used 4-runner in which my first romantic dalliances took place at the tender age of sixteen, and where I had my first transcendent and specifically Californian-in-flavor taste of freedom of mobility (I’m not saying that this freedom is not also luscious in, say, Oklahoma—I’m just saying that considering our car-centric society and the heaving chest of natural and cultural riches tantalizingly out of reach of the shoe-bound or the mother’s-minivan-bound, it is maybe richer here) but of course we’re not counting Sweet Pete, and even if we were I think that, all things being even, my youthful romantic dalliances could have only been accentuated by taking place in the back of a Bentayga.

But these are philosophical musings and “Car People” love stats, or so I understand. Well, here they are: powered by a W12 6.0 litre engine, zero to sixty in four seconds, 600 horsepower, a top speed of 187 mph (which makes it the fastest production SUV in the world), and a range of driving modes to deftly handle any and all environments one could feasibly imagine willfully encountering in such an expensive vehicle. Adaptive cruise control. Lane correction. All manner of bells and whistles and holograms and screens. But, to be honest, I’ve never been much of a “car person”, at least in the gearhead sense. Personally I’m more interested in the softer questions, like:

What effect does it have on a man’s soul to be suddenly in control of such a massive amount of power, as I found myself to be after disembarking from the plane and in possession of the keys to the Bentley, my beat-to-shit Chevy Malibu left unloved and already forgotten back in Los Angeles?

Can pleasure be directly correlated to luxury? Does luxury, like power, corrupt?

Can an otherwise law-abiding citizen be seduced into lawlessness simply by being in possession of a car this totally dope?

I would soon find out.

We began our trip with a scenic two-hour drive out of the Durango airport to our lodgings, which were secured by the kind, generous, and impeccably organized Bentley team at Dunton Hot Springs. Here we would find that the bubble of Total Luxury would never have to be exited; that from the moment we opened our eyes, through every mile of our commute, and to the moment our eyes shut for sleep in our decadent beds we would be ensconced in a world of lavishness and beauty so rich that it risks moral decay.

The beauty cannot really be overstated. The Dunton Hot Springs site is nestled in a narrow valley between the shoulders of awe-inspiring mountains, woods of pine and trembling aspen on one side and a clear and kinetic river on the other. The camp itself is threaded through with both hot springs and a (second) snowmelt river boasting a roaring waterfall. It’s an embarrassment of natural riches. Add to this the beguiling historical context: the resort is built on the bones of a ghost town, refleshed in an understated but comprehensive opulence. Here again that privilege of existing in the present. I wander the grounds, taking it in—the sound of the river, the conspicuously clean air­—while for the men who mined this place in the 1880’s, among whose work and ghosts I walk, this was a place of struggle and labor. Not to mention the Ute Tribe, who hunted this land for centuries before being driven out by the West Fork federal troops.

All this history – geological; sociological. All the many timelines in which I could have been born. All that past roiling beneath my feet. And here I am now, a part of a strange little colony populated solely by journalists and the ample staff on hand to fulfill any request. Free top-shelf booze. Incredible food. I ramble around the grounds with a book tucked under my arm and a very expensive glass of whiskey in my hand. If I had the money to come here on my own and rent the whole place out for my family, as Vice Founder Shane Smith is rumored to have done, and as the heirs of the Clorox fortune supposedly do every summer – well, why wouldn’t I? I also find myself more comfortable in the company of the other journalists after a few drinks and an exquisite meal. Especially the old hands, who seem to regard me less as an upstart potential competitor than as, perhaps, a version of themselves in their golden years.

We eat dinner, we talk around the bar (original, from a 19th century saloon that sat on these grounds, and carved all over with the names of a century worth of patrons, including – supposedly – Butch Cassidy himself). I get buzzed quickly. With the altitude the booze sneaks up on you like a pickpocket. It’s midnight, then one a.m. Everyone goes to sleep but I’m still feeling wired, so I head for the hot springs.

A sort of womb of piping-hot water carved into the soft rock. Only nature making noises here—the rush of a nearby river, the wind hissing through the trees, a far-off bird call. Above me a riot of starlight. The water has an intensely earthy smell and flavor; you can feel the minerality of it as a thickness, a softness. I’m completely naked. I float on my back, ensconced in darkness, immersed in water heated by the earth. It’s one of those rare moments where the boundaries between you and the universe dissolve, where you feel yourself extending into the world around you and up into space. Kin of stars. An addicting taste of sublimity. I return every night and morning during my stay, and I’m pushing the experience on others like the Gospel but, amazingly, no one else seems all that interested. Their loss, my gain. I have the springs all to myself.

Today we take the car off-road on a ride through the mountains. Again I pair up with the auto journalist, hoping to balance out my inexperience with his expertise. We come around a corner and encounter an ominous warning from the past: a rusted wrecked car sitting at the bottom of a ravine. If only they had had our driving modes, our stability control! The auto journalist is not chastened. He’s got this.  We ride the curves hard, kicking up dust and wheeling through controlled drifts. A warning from the past Bareheaded mountains rise above us, dusted with snow. I learn a lot about cars. His passion is infectious, and he helps me to see the vehicle not just as a mode of transportation but also as an experience machine. Driving daily in LA, auto-piloting yourself through heavy traffic on the way to work, listening to NPR to distract yourself as best as you can from the fact that you’re driving at all – this makes up most of my experience with driving. But there are those moments now and then – cruising up the 101 to Santa Barbara, the blue shadowed mountains and the ocean meet each other, funneling you as you head north into a beautiful ribbon of narrow road. Windows down on a warm night dragging down Wilshire, the theater marquees in Beverly Hills becoming Korean neon. Snaking through the lavender scented hills of Topanga before bursting out into that breathtaking view of Malibu. You can forget, sometimes, how good driving can be. This car helps you to remember. It doesn’t matter what you do with it.

The author prepares for his first foray into fly fishing.

The author prepares for his first foray into fly fishing.

On my way back to the airport I have it to myself. I do some stupid shit. First on the list is breaking my personal speed record. I have the two lanes to myself, spooling out way ahead of me, flat, straight, and fantastic. From the driver’s seat the road looks like a work of art. I select “Sport Mode” and floor it, glad for the hologram speedometer that allows me to keep my eyes on the road as I watch it climb up, and up, and up. I break before the car seems ready to, giddy with exhilaration. I come to a complete stop on the highway, without a car in sight, just to do it again from zero. I lean the seat back a bit, activate the adaptive cruise control and lane correction, and crank DAMN. (which never sounded better than out of those mid-four-figure speakers at triple digit speeds), seeing how long the car will drive itself before forcing me to take over. I twiddle every dial; adjust every massage, lumbar, seat ventilation, and driving setting.

As we near the airport I end up next to one of the other journalists, in another Bentayga. He motions to me and points ahead. It that a cop? Damn. We laugh, driving excruciatingly slowly. You’re the one committing a crime here officer, not me. It’s a sin to do the speed limit in this machine. A sign informs me that it’s five miles to the airport. Every turnoff is a temptation to steal more time with the car, more time in Colorado.

I can’t help but reflect a bit. Roads weave together our land, our culture, and our lives. I remember standing on the driveway of my childhood home, and thinking of how the road that kissed it was connected via an unfathomably complex network to some kid’s house in Maine. I remember family vacations in the minivan, and mom dropping me off at baseball practice. I remember being sixteen and yearning for escape, reading Kerouac. If this trip didn’t quite turn me into a gearhead (though I’ve certainly come around), I’ve at least grown more appreciative of what a vehicle can be and what the experience of driving can mean. I feel a strange anticipatory nostalgia for the present, for the here and now. To drive this beautiful road, in America, behind the wheel of a beautiful vehicle, during that thin historical window when the technology had arrived that made a car like this possible but not yet so advanced that it completely drives itself – it was a privilege.

Written by Sid Feddema

Photography by Kelly