By Phillip Benningfield
Older roadside establishments in the San Luis Valley are scarce, happy to serve, and hard to resist. Ones that have endured hold on to putting one at ease and know being present is more important than speed. In our neck of the woods – or high desert – a handful of places have registered time and again in my memory as giving one the sincere feeling of being appreciated. The people I have met are unassuming and friendly – but even more so, mindful of your need to be left alone. And to sweeten the taste, these stopovers are on the quieter roads of Colorado.
The La Garita Store is probably my all-time favorite simply because it is the loneliest location! If you can reach the front door in spite of the persistent gale-force winds, you will be welcomed by a quaint mercantile on a very small scale. The deli counter beckons; the sandwiches I have may be small, but they arrive quickly, cost little, and fill the void. The meager crowds I witness are stereotypical and completely fantastic in a toned-down version. Older ranchers nurse warm coffee and eat bags of potato chips, the owner buzzes around on a golf cart, and the ladies inside are always warm. The locals and staff I have met are surprisingly curious and helpful, well beyond any expectation. It could be due to the need to please necessary regulars, but the constant clientele of hunters, scraggly bike tourists and dirty rock climbers certainly covers the cultural differences that make owners comfortable with all walks of life. Wares include the old-time basics like canned everything, a couple of souvenirs and plenty of area maps and guides, which go on and on into the unknown.
Villa Grove Trade – Villa Grove
The “Trade” is easily the most welcoming stop, with delicious homemade pie. That alone is enough! I make many stops each year as I drive to Penitente Canyon, Joyful Journey or New Mexico, simply for the pie and a sincere smile. I have found every person to be genuine, albeit after I initiate some communication. I like the reality I find there. No one steps into another person’s space unless asked. Did I mention the pie? Flavors are banana crème, cherry, blueberry and many others. Don’t be disappointed if they are out – have a fresh cookie or something tasty off the grill. Plenty of necessities can be had, including, but not limited to smoking paraphernalia, groceries, tourist information and ice-cold sodas. Dinner specials, good burgers and occasional musical acts round out the selection and far surpass the basics found in most obscure general stores. If you are looking for a new career and would like to run a general store, the Trade is for sale. Contact Jeff or Amber.
Organic Peddler – Del Norte
A pleasant anomaly is made real and tangible due to the unique architecture, claustrophobic feeling and nearly endless array of hippie food and wares at the Organic Peddler. I first went to the Peddler not knowing what to expect. I was surprised by the bottle-filled outside walls, the roomy outside back bar, and nice servers who fed me my requisite espresso – quite tasty considering I was in Del Norte (not known for its fine coffee). Since my first foray through the cramped aisles, I have enjoyed quality sandwiches, short talks with the proprietors, great directions and good beer. If you wish to see something beyond unique, with nice folks helping you at every turn, then make sure to drop by the Organic Peddler. While you’re there, check out the entire complex (it’s for sale – KimAnna and Mike are ready to retire) with an entertaining art and antique shop, an inn and a small walking path. What you may miss in selection (and there is a massive selection of incense, foods, knickknacks and beads), you will make up for in the novel qualities at every turn.
4th Street Diner and Bakery – Saguache
Unfortunately for this former ranch town, there is a nearly continual change of good hangs. I have been trying them out for years, missing them once they’ve closed. But one thing always holds true in Saguache: the people are down-to-earth and happy to help out. The nice, warm 4th street Diner and Bakery keeps me happily returning to get a favorite pastry or delve into a full breakfast. My last visit was on a bike tour, and my senses were filled with interesting people-watching, exceptionally friendly service and a quality breakfast. The bakery has been receiving good reviews from folks I ask, and I have not been disappointed when I have visited. The fact that the downtown is seeing renewed life is a great sight. I love to drive through Saguache and spy what goes on, albeit very little … perfect! As with all the timeworn main drags we see in our part of Colorado, there is a strong force attempting to resuscitate these once vibrant community centers. I for one cannot wait to see what happens and to have another good experience.
Phillip Benningfield thrives on playing in the mountains and writing about the experiences, and even more so, enjoys obscure holes where only a handful of discerning souls are willing to venture.