Million Dollar Highway

The Million Dollar Highway, the setting for a possible Discovery TV series. (Courtesy photo)

“The highway don’t need you here.”

—Tim McGraw, “The Highway Don’t Care”

U.S. Highway 550, the twisting, narrow Million Dollar Highway above the precipitous Uncompahgre Gorge, looms large in locals’ imaginations. So it was probably just a matter of time until Hollywood found it, too.

As Ouray County Sheriff Lance FitzGerald put it, “You’ve got to respect our mountains.”

Last summer, according to FitzGerald, a Discovery Studios casting director named Scott Goldstein drove over U.S. 550. Goldstein not only respected the highway, “he said it scared the hell out of him,” FitzGerald related. “He gave me a call, and told me he was interested” in filming a reality TV show — Discovery’s specialty — “that would be kind of similar to the TV show ‘COPS,’ with a film crew tagging along while rescues take place.”

Goldstein tentatively titled the project “The Million Dollar Highway.”

“It is our sole intention to make a griping (sic) show,” he wrote in a come-on letter included in the Board of County Commissioners’ agenda packet for Tuesday, “but one that fully shows the true professionalism and skill necessary to be an integral part of the working ecosystem that is the Million Dollar Highway. That is what we believe Discovery’s audience wants to see — and it is what we want to make; a series that focuses on the incredible organizations, tasked with clear directives, to reveal just how much skill and bravery goes into keeping the traveling public safe on one of America’s most deadly highways.”

“I was in favor” of such a program, said FitzGerald. “I thought it would be a neat idea, to show our area and how dangerous our mountains could be. I knew it would involve jumping through a lot of hoops to get permissions” to film it.

Reached by phone Monday, Goldstein would not comment on the proposed pilot.

“This show hasn’t been announced in any way, shape or form,” he said. “This is not something we talk about until a project is finalized. I understand that you’re a reporter, but I’m slightly disappointed” that “Million Dollar Highway” should be the subject of a news story.

On Tuesday, the plot (so to speak) unraveled. The Ouray Mountain Rescue Team had already turned down the opportunity to get involved with Discovery’s proposed program.

“They declined out of respect for the privacy of the victims,” FitzGerald said. “It was a protection thing, and I didn’t have any issues with that.”

In a regular county commission meeting, other reasons soon emerged to put the remote on indefinite “pause.” Discovery had requested permission to film a “5-to-10-minute ‘fizzle’ reel to pitch to network executives for approval of the series” sometime over the next couple of weeks, according to a proposal letter outlining the shoot by Ouray County Administrative Assistant Hannah Hollenbeck, and anticipated that “side county roads” branching off Highway 550 be used to allow “production vehicles space to pull over to film highway activity.”

The roads in question included “but (were) not limited to” County Roads 31, 31A, 18, 20A, 20D, 20W (and) 361.”

“Irrespective of the whole project, the request to use these roads off 550 for parking and staging in wintertime” was, in effect, a dealbreaker, County Commissioner Don Batchelder said. “What they were asking for was something we don’t have the capability or authority to approve. The county is not in a position to plow those roads.”

And there was more. Although “we are setting out to … (depict) the knowledge, training and bravery” required of local rescuers, law enforcement and road personnel, “The nature of these projects precludes allowing involved parties from reviewing or commenting on the content prior to airing,” Goldstein had written.

“We discussed this in-depth,” FitzGerald said. “It seemed like there were a lot of uncertainties about what they’d be filming. The general consensus was for our agencies not to get involved. It kind of seemed like, sometimes the filming crew would do what they wanted, and we didn’t want any negatives images being portrayed.”

The bottom line was, “We had no control.” Ouray, it seemed, was simply taking charge of what any Hollywood director insists on: the right to tell its own story of the Million Dollar Highway.