Postcards from a road trip

Column by Hal Walter

Central Colorado – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOMETIMES getting out and around is easier said than done. Other chores call. There’s work to be done. And gasoline can be expensive. Then, at other times, it becomes imperative. You can’t get anything done at home, and fuel seems cheaper than a visit to a shrink. During a recent bout of emotional distress, I found myself driving around Central Colorado, taking stock of things.

As novelist Jim Harrison writes: “Do not scorn day trips. You can use them to avoid nervous collapse. They are akin to the ardent sailor and his small sailboat.” I took several such day trips, and some of them lasted more than a day.

In Leadville, I checked out what the Environmental Protection Agency is doing to the old mining district east of town. A sign on one side of the road points to a sculpted mound of tailings on the other side: “Taxpayer Peak.” The only thing missing from the sign is the elevation.

I would call myself a “deep ecologist.” But what’s going on above Leadville seems pointless and insane when you consider there’s no substantive evidence the metals in these tailings are a health threat.

Stirring up all this old dirt, moving it around and hauling it somewhere else doesn’t seem worth the cost — unless the sole purpose is to provide people with jobs.

It’s busy above Leadville. Big trucks race up and down the roads, heavy equipment roars and beeps, and people are out working these tailings the same way the miners who created them did. Where people once scoured the hills seeking their riches, they now toil for government paydirt.

There’s a guy in Leadville known as “Cosmos.” He owns the “Living God on Earth Museum.” And this “Living God” would be him. I like Cosmos and I have respectable, down-to-earth friends who claim they have witnessed nothing short of magic performed by this guy — the usual stuff like miracle healing and teleportation. I’ve never witnessed any of these tricks, but when I was the editor of the Leadville Herald Democrat, Cosmos used to visit with me. It had been a while since I’d seen Cosmos, but when I spoke with him recently he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You seem more real.”

It was late in the evening the night I showed up in Fairplay. I sat on the curb right at the finish line of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race and looked across at the Prunes Monument, and then up at the Milky Way trailing off to the Southwest. Less than a month before I had won this race in one of the biggest days of my life. It was an eerie moonless night, nobody was out on Front Street and a strange breeze was blowing. The “H” was missing on the neon “HOTEL” sign at the Hand Hotel. I could hear the clack of billiard balls and the whine of country-western music coming out of the Park Bar. Life is a procession of highs and lows.

The best food in the region is at Laughing Ladies restaurant in Salida. It’s tough to plug a business that doesn’t advertise in this magazine, but the food is really fantastic, rivaling anything I’ve eaten in cosmopolitan restaurants. You can’t go wrong with the Roasted Garlic Bruschetta appetizer. The restaurant also serves a number of fine wines and beers. I’ve never had a less-than-spectacular entrée, and I’ve ordered something different each of the few times that I’ve eaten there.

If you have any money left over at all from such a dining adventure, the thing to do is to stumble on over to the Salida Steam Plant Theater and see what show is playing. I saw Lance Brown’s (Somewhat Fractured) History of the World Show. The show was entertaining, but a tad long.

THE NEXT MORNING, a Sunday, despite the number of coffee shops in Salida, I was hard-pressed to find a decent cup because all of these shops were closed. Then I saw the small camping trailer out on U.S. Highway 50 in front of the feed store. Caffeine is not a drug; it’s a missing hormone.

The owner recently moved to Salida from Fort Collins to start this business. My limited market research tells me she should be successful, especially on Sunday mornings.

My friend Don is building a second home on the other side of Poncha Pass. He’s an airline pilot who sometimes entertains me with fly-overs of my ranch during his small-plane commutes between Salida and Texas. I recently loaned Don a small mouse-infested camping trailer my neighbor gave me. So I thought I’d drop by and see what was going on. His Czech friend Milan is helping him with building the house and training horses. Milan was the only person around; he’s also a trained body guard but is immediately recognizable as a gentle man. Don and Milan have cleaned up that trailer to the point that I may actually use it when they’re done building. They got rid of the mice, sealed the undercarriage, and fixed the water system. It’s in much better shape now than when I had it.

I had decided that it was high time to visit Crestone. There are some places in Colorado that I have purposely avoided. Aspen comes to mind for obvious reasons. But Crestone has only been avoided because it’s never been a destination, and it’s never been on the way to any place I was going. I’ve always wanted to check it out.

WHAT I FOUND is something akin to a town like Granite, Wetmore, or Cotopaxi on steroids. I sometimes read the Crestone Eagle newspaper for entertainment and writing ideas. I was always intrigued by the amount of advertising for what seemed like a good number of small shops or businesses. So I expected a small business district, perhaps something like the downtown block of Westcliffe. In reality I didn’t see much there other than a restaurant, a liquor store and a llama ruminating in someone’s driveway. Most of the businesses that advertise in the Eagle must be in residences. I wasn’t shopping for anything, so it really didn’t matter. It was a scenic and minor U-turn.

I’d heard all about the alligator farm near Mosca and so had to stop by there to see if they’d be interested in any tough meat to feed the gators should any of my burros not manage to outlive me. The gator farm is not currently taking any such donations. The admission price sent me on down the road toward Alamosa, where I figured I could better spend the money on Mexican food and Pacifico Clara at a place called Oscar’s.

It had already been decided that the Sand Dunes National Monument was the next destination. Admission is $3 per adult — less than the gator farm — but I find it annoying that I have to pay admission to enter my own property that I pay taxes to have maintained. Since I had never set foot on the Dunes, despite studying them in geology class and driving past them in other travels, it seemed worth the price.

There’s something surreal about the dunes, and walking in the sand is slower than I could have imagined. I sat in the sand facing the sun and drilled a few inches into the surface with my fingers. The sand was hot on the top. But only a few inches below it was cool and soaking wet. It’s a wonder to think of how much sand there must be in those wind-deposited piles of alluvial sediment. But if it’s that wet beneath the surface, the real wonder is how much water is stored in that sand.

I picked up handfuls of the sand and let it filter out of my hand and fall back onto the dune. Each individual grain was an infinitely tiny part of something so much greater. When those grains landed back on the surface of the dune, they arranged themselves as if they had never been disturbed, as if there were an order, a place they were supposed to go.

Columnist Hal Walter lives near Westcliffe, but his home is Central Colorado.