The weather forecast was sketchy. “90% chance of rain, but that’s at 5 o’clock. We have time.” my friend, E, clearly, wanted to go. So did I. So did K. I’d even cleaned out my car and removed the dog proofing so people could sit in it.
My car is not an SUV. It’s a simple Ford Focus with a sport package. For a Ford Focus, it’s hot looking. It’s metal-flake gray and inside the seats are leather, black and maroon. ¡Que suave! And, anyway, the roads up there are well-cared for gravel and dirt. What could happen?
The afternoon seemed hospitable enough. Blue sky, white fluffy clouds, but once we were out of town E looked out the window of the car and said, “There’s a storm building.”
“It’s building a big city down there, not a village,” I said. I’m so funny.
K had several pages of directions she’d printed off the Internet, one of which said, “It’s extremely difficult to find the Natural Arch.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” said K.
I had written directions on a piece of paper. I handed them to K, who sat in the passenger seat, and said, “Just read these to me as we go. It’ll be fine.”
I wondered how the guy who wrote the article got lost going out there, first because there are not many roads, second because the BLM had done a good job with signage. Still, it’s a pretty remote spot, wait, everything here is remote. My bad.
I drove, we talked, exclaiming over the landscape, the beauty of the rocks (my friends truly love rocks), talking about the geology and how we were driving across a giant ancient caldera.
“It hasn’t exploded for millions of years, but it could,” said E.
I didn’t actually think so, but what do I know? Am I in charge of cataclysmic geological events? No. I told them about the big earthquake I’d enjoyed (truly) when I lived in Southern California. A huge wave had passed under the feet of a friend and I while we were hiking. It was amazing and truly wonder-full. “Of course, there was an earthquake almost every day out there, I said.
“Did you feel them?” asked K.
“A lot of times I just heard them, a loud bang of thunder inside the ground, kind of a loud ‘boom’ in the wrong place.”
We reached the end of the road. I looked around for a trail that would lead to the Natural Arch and saw no trails anywhere.
Looking across the valley from the Natural Arch at the start of the adventure
“Where is it?” asked K.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Then K looked out the window, “It’s right there!” Sure enough, the arch loomed above us, a hole punched somehow in the giant caldera that is the La Garita Mountains.
The day was still beautiful and sunny where we were, but the clouds to the south were dark and they were moving. There was a trail up to the arch, so we all headed up. I don’t mind uphills, but downhills are difficult with my severely arthritic knee. I think the big problem is I’m afraid of falling, not the knee. K and E each went up — E forged her own trail and K went up the existing trail. I followed as far as I was sure I could get back down and I turned around.
Meanwhile, the storm kept building, now faster, to the south. It was on the move, too. About the time my friends reached the arch thunder began to roll. I thought of my lower clearance vehicle and some of the ruts I’d navigated around on the way up. “Damn,” I thought, “we had better get out of here.” Lessons learned, no doubt, from Into Thin Air. (ha ha)
My friends had the same thought, so we all “hurried” down. We got back into the car as the storm struck.
The drive out was fantastic. The storm was wild, pelting the car with graupel and rain. The light changed constantly and the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains moved closer, magnified by the humidity. The road was a mix of small ice balls and gravel and I was glad. If the rain had come down like that, it would have been soup.
For me, that drive was the best part of the adventure. People might have found the storm inhospitable, but I thought it was a welcoming committee. And I got to see what my car can do. We passed some amazing rock formations, reconnoitered the location for a future adventure, and saw a stone and adobe ruin built against a small outcropping.
The San Luis Valley has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and while that small building was probably built in the 20th century, it was essentially the same as you would find at Cañon de Chelly.
We weren’t ready for the afternoon to end, so we stopped in Del Norte for coffee and to plan future adventures.