Henry Hathaway clearly fell under the spell of the San Juan Mountains, their tops like rows of shattered glass above rolling valleys. He’d filmed some of “How the West Was Won” here in 1961 and returned eight years later to shoot perhaps the most iconic Western ever, featuring the Duke at his finest.
John Wayne still rules the town where he earned his sole Academy Award, the town that for six weeks was turned into 1880s Fort Smith, Ark.
One can relive “Rooster” Cogburn glory by heading up Owl Creek Pass, getting near the summit where the recognizable Chimney Peak comes into view, then the aspen-lined meadow that was the site of the shootout finale in “True Grit.” Listen for an echo over the silence, Wayne shouting before full trot, reins in mouth: “Fill your hands, you son of a (expletive)!”
Closer to Ridgway, get on Last Dollar Road from Colorado 62 to reach the familiar ranch, where Cogburn bids farewell to Mattie Ross. Here he waved his hat and said, “Well, come see a fat old man sometime!” He howls a final “yawh!” as his steed jumps the fence, galloping out to those jagged, snowy peaks.
But you don’t have to roam far to walk in Wayne’s footsteps. Simply walk around the old railroad town, finding the placards that mark some of the most hallowed ground in film history:
“True Grit” begins with Cogburn performing his duty as the steely marshal. He hauls outlaws in the jail wagon that remains in the yard of the yellow building that was once the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Depot, now the Ouray County Ranch History Museum.
Scene of the gallows
Next to the museum is the town park, where the people of Fort Smith gathered to see three men hanged. Picnic tables have taken the place of the gallows.
Mortuary and Chen Lee’s
The red-brick building was where Mattie identified her father’s body. But the gloom has faded from the place, now a chic women’s boutique with apartments upstairs.
Nearby on Clinton Street is the former store of Cogburn’s “Chinaman” buddy. It’s hard to imagine the cowboy’s stone quarters in the back, where his cat, Gen. Sterling Price, also lived. The building is now home to Provisions Café, bright and modern with a menu of charcuterie and such.
True Grit Cafe
“The Grit” was established in 1986 to honor the Duke in the decade after his death. It is indeed a shrine. A glass case upstairs keeps Wayne’s bust and other memorabilia. His posters and quotes hang in the cozy dining room where locals gather for all-American comfort food, including “the best dang chicken-fried steak this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
Saloon and grocery
As you walk into the café, look left to see the wall with the original sign for Chambers Groceries. Next door is the abandoned storefront displaying the now-fading letters seen in the movie: “Fort Smith Saloon.”
Ouray County Courthouse
The desks with Dell computers give away the fact that Ouray’s most prominent building is not a relic. Court is still held here, though you won’t find anyone inside rolling a cigarette, as Mattie did to get Cogburn’s attention on his way out after testimony. The stairs she rushed down remain. The courtroom maintains its “True Grit” look with wooden chairs.
Ouray’s longest-operating restaurant is certainly fit for a star, with surf-and-turf plates to go with pricey cocktails. During filming, the Duke was known to drink and dine here.
Thinking it was a prank from someone who called as John Wayne to order dinner, the owner in 1969 is said to have hung up on him. Amends were made, supposedly. When tourists try on the tattered cowboy hat at the bar, they’re told it was donated by Wayne.
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