DRIVING SOUTHERN COLORADO
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
|“I just came back from seeing alligators at the foot of the Rocky Mountains,” my friend said to me.
“Yeah, sure,” I thought. “And I just came back from seeing a pink elephant in the frozen foods section at the market.”
“I’m serious,” said my friend. “There’s plenty of weird stuff in southern Colorado. If you’ve never been there, check it out.”
When someone says the words “check it out,” it’s usually only a few days before my husband and I gas up the metal buggy, load up on web wisdom and Triple A maps, and hit the road. I get nauseous when I read in a moving vehicle, so I usually toss all the information into the back seat of the car, and we travel, so to speak, by the seat of our pants. We ask locals for tips, follow unusual road signs, and hope for adventure. In southern Colorado, we weren’t disappointed.
We began in the town of San Luis, which is a gateway into the San Luis Valley, purportedly the largest Alpine valley in the world. One brochure says it’s the size of Rhode Island and a local swears it’s the size of Massachusetts; just knowing it’s as big as a state is good enough for me. The town of San Luis, with its largely-Hispanic population, is the oldest town in Colorado and houses the newest shrine in America: a hill with the stations of the cross depicted in three-quarter life-size bronze statues (by local artist Huberto Maestas). As visitors climb the mesa in silence, they are drawn into the intimate, moving scenes from the final hours of the life of Jesus.
The hill is crowned by a whitewashed adobe chapel, an architectural jewel that combines arches, a full dome and three half-domes into its design. The influences are Mexican, Revival, Moorish or Islamic and Iberian. Inside the chapel, in a small room, pilgrims leave photos and prayers for loved ones and for personal healing. The day I was there, a solitary young woman in a navy blue dress was sobbing. She clutched a photo of a handsome young man in a military uniform, and her tears fell onto his face.
On top of the hill, a few hundred yards away, is an inviting house-like structure with panoramic windows and an open door. Visitors can enter and get a dramatic view of the San Luis Valley with its cars, cows, mountain peaks, fields, cottonwood trees and simple houses.
Before leaving San Luis, we walked around the town, visiting the 1886 adobe-gothic Sangre de Cristo church, the old grocery store, and generally enjoying the slow pace, the unassuming residents, and the remarkable mural of Jesus talking to the children, where the “children” seem to be the locals from the town.
About forty-five minutes from San Luis is the Colorado Alligator Farm and I can attest to the fact that my friend wasn’t kidding. It started out as a tilapia farm, and the owners had to ship out the fish detritus to get rid of it. They came up with a brilliant idea. Their land had geothermal waters. Why not try to raise alligators in the waters? The gators would eat the fish remains and that would solve the waste shipping problem. They bought some baby gators, with the idea that they’d keep them for a year or so, and then return them and buy some more hungry babies. But, like other adoptive parents, they grew attached to the little ones, who slowly turned into big ones, and they bought more little ones, who also turned into grownups, and now they have three hundred gators. THREE HUNDRED TILAPIA-MUNCHING ALLIGATORS, right there in the lap of the snow-crested Rockies.
I guess one reptile led to another, and the Colorado Alligator Farm now has reptile rooms where you can see everything from albino Burmese pythons to Trans-Pecos copperheads to nurse sharks. You can hold Amy, the baby gator, whose mouth is gently taped shut so she doesn’t bite your hand off. You can go from tank to tank, watching the young gators and end up at the adult geothermal pool, where the big muthas hang out. They’re about a thousand times the size of those little suckers on the Lacoste shirts. In the summertime, visitors can “wrangle” the gators, which means you can plop your butt on the back of a giant reptile who probably doesn’t want you to be there. But what do I know? I can only guess at gator sentiments.
About five miles north on Route 17 is a recently-constructed roadside attraction: a UFO observation tower. It seems that the San Luis Valley has a lot of otherworldly lore, like cattle mutilations, strange lights, cigar-shaped objects floating overhead, and an abduction or two. Judy Messoline bought a slab of land with a great view, and she built a space-ship shaped store and a metal Lego-like tower where visitors can climb up to ponder the vast spaces and hope for a glimpse of a UFO, an extraterrestrial or maybe the famed “train light” that locals have reported seeing for the past sixty years. Inside the store, they can purchase Christopher O’Brien’s books on the valley and the UFO phenomenon, or they can stock up on Roswellian gifts like ET’s, t-shirts and things that glow in the dark.
About half an hour north, there is a sign that points to Crestone. Being rather footloose with a full tank of gas, we followed the sign and eight miles later found ourselves in another world, and I mean another world. Crestone is divided up into two sections: “downtown” and Baca Grande, (referred to as “The Baca.”) The former was the site of an old gold mining town, and it is still dotted with abandoned log cabins. There is no visible affluence now, and the only exchange of coins seems to take place at the single gas station, the only grocery store, the sole hardware shop and the rock/crystal/Buddha store with its free bins of recycled clothes outside. There are no horns honking, no radios and TVs blaring and the only noise is the rustling of leaves in the cottonwood trees and the occasional bark of a dog.
The Baca is part of an old Land Grant, and weaves up into the foothills and down through the San Luis valley. There is one restaurant, called Desert Sage, where the food is yummy and the staff friendly, and another lodge and restaurant(where brunch is served to the strains of live harp music) at White Eagle Village. There are about four B and B’s, and I stayed at the welcoming, comfortable Rainbow, which was $50 a night for me and my husband. Our room had a large picture window that included millions of stars in the light-pollution-free night sky; it was like sleeping out in nature with all the creature comforts of the great indoors.
What is extraordinary about Crestone is that it’s off the corporate culture grid. Every bulletin board is covered with fliers about healers, mystics, psychics, readers, ceremonies. There is no live theatre, no movie theatre, nothing to do at night but get together and relate. Everyone is aware of community, of helping others, and of living on the land in a way that sustains it. Houses are made of adobe, stone, recycled materials; Crestone is even referred to as the “straw bale capital of America.” Our hosts at the B and B, Judie Rose and Dennis Neuhaus, offer counseling and Reiki services, provide cell phone access and computer expertise, serve on volunteer committees, and are part-time foster parents.
In the 1980’s, a philanthropic couple named Maurice and Hanne Strong bought the Baca land grant and made an extraordinary offer: any religious, educational or environmentally-conscious group could get free land if they agreed to a build a center to maintain their traditions. Today’s visitors benefit from those generous open hands, and they have a spiritual cornucopia to choose from. They can drop in casually to some of the holy spots, or call ahead and be welcomed at others. They can sign up for longer retreats, and regenerate in the bosom of the Sangre de Cristos.
My husband’s interest in things spiritual is, to put it mildly, less than minimal, so, respecting his feelings, I limited myself to Option A and Option B. The first was the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram. A small sign pointed to an Indian-style temple devoted to the Divine Mother. Inside the sanctuary were pillows and a carpet spread in front of the beautifully-adorned Mother statue. There were photos of the revered yogi, Babaji, in his most recent incarnation in India. My husband remained outside, breathing in the fresh air from the beautiful wooded area. I stayed inside, talking to a young adept who was sweeping the temple. He invited us to stay for a chanting and drumming ceremony that evening, but when I opened the door and saw my husband’s face, I knew not to even bother asking. He suggested, instead, that we take a walk in the woods, where we sat down on two smooth rocks by a gurgling brook, and communed with nature, which is his favorite place of worship.
Option B was Sanctuary House, a retreat center open to anyone who wishes to enter, with the proviso that they must remove their shoes. Inside the courtyard was a breathtaking reconstruction of the labyrinth of Chartres cathedral. To my amazement, my husband began to walk it.
Around the courtyard were four rooms. The first was a Jewish/Christian sanctuary with crucifixes, portraits of Mary, candles, a Hebrew Bible, a Jewish star and an 8-branched menorah. The second room I entered had a Buddhist/Zen orientation. Beautifully-illustrated scrolls hung from the walls, images of the Buddha were everywhere, and, on a small altar, were a series of Tibetan bowls. The third room was Hindi/Vedic, and was permeated by the sweet scent of incense. All around were images of gods and goddesses and portraits of beloved yogis. The fourth sanctuary was devoted to Muslim/Sufi worship. The floor was lined with oriental carpets, and there were translations of the Koran, Sufi poems and drums in key locations. In each room, visitors can linger, meditate, read, weep, pray, dance, sing, or whatever they are called to do.
When I left the Sanctuary House, I felt tremendous inner peace and balance. But more astounding was the fact that my husband reported he “received” important and relevant messages about his life while he followed the path of the labyrinth.
From Crestone, we retraced our route on Highway 17, and turned left at a sign that pointed to Great Sand Dunes National Monument (about 45 minutes away). The winds and waters of nature created this miracle at the foot of the 14,000 foot peaks of the Rockies: 37 square miles of sand dunes that look like a set for “Lawrence of Arabia.” The great sand hills seemed so soft and inviting that we ran towards them for a climb. Within seconds the loose sand slowed to a trot, then a sort of exhausted, walking crawl. It was like climbing up a vertical beach. We slowly hiked to the crest of the dunes, passing by kids who were sliding down the slopes, couples posing for photos, and a few little tykes who had convinced their parents to “bury” them in sand, as though they were at the shore. The air seemed like it was pumped out of a purifier, there was a gentle breeze, and all the cares of the world vanished. Pfffttttt.
We were very hungry after our sandy expedition, and we drove down highway 150, turned west on highway 160 and followed the signs to Alamosa (about 40 minutes). The locals tipped us off to a great Mexican eatery. A couple of Mexican guys had learned the food trade while working in California. They got on a bus to Idaho to seek their fortune, lost their luggage, ended up in Alamosa, and the rest is culinary history. Taqueria Calvillo looks like a shack from outside, but inside it’s spacious, unpretentious, with the friendliest staff on the planet, a kitchen that is jumping with activity, generous portions, amazingly inexpensive and satisfying food. Every day there is a fresh fruit drink, and we washed our fajitas and enchiladas down with delicious, refreshing watermelon ade.
If we’d had more time, we would have checked out the Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Spa in the San Luis Valley and perhaps done a few laps in the geothermal pools that are open to the public. But real life called, and we had to bid adios to the reptiles, ET’s, dunes, shrines and eateries of southern Colorado.
IF YOU GO:
San Luis Valley information: 1-800-214-1240 or 719-852-0660 orwww.slv.org/slvic or email@example.com
Colorado Alligator Farm: Halfway between Mosca and Hooper on Highway 17, 719-378-2612 or www.gatorfarm.com
UFO watchtower: 2 and a half miles north of Hooper on Highway 17, 719-378-2271 or www.ufowatchtower.com
Crestone information: www.crestone.org or 719-256-4110 or CMBA P.O.B. 1011 Crestone, Colorado 81131
Rainbow B and B: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.rainbowbb.com or 1-800-530-1992 or 719-256-4110
Sanctuary House: www.sanctuaryhouse.org or 719-256-4420
The Haidakhandi Universal Ashram: email@example.com or 719-256-4108
Desert Sage Restaurant: 719-256-4402
White Eagle Village Restaurant: 719-256-4865
Great Sand Dunes National Monument: 719-378-2312
Taqueria Calvillo: 119 Broadway Ave, Alamosa, 719-587-5500
Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Spa: 719-256-4328
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