A Little Look at a Little Colorado Town

I’ve been reading A Bridge to Yesterday by Emma Riggenbach. This book is a history of my town, Monte Vista, Colorado. One of the soul-stirring items is the description of one of the early residents, a woman who drove a surrey “with the fringe on top.” The book is fascinating for a very limited audience. It has newspaper clippings, photos, minutes from early city council meetings, all very interesting if you happen to live here and are interested in that sort of thing.

The “old west” was not — now I know — all that long ago. Monte Vista, as the author of this book describes, saw a lot of fist-fights, but no gun fights though, as she writes, there was a mass murder. To make a long story short, a man got up early one morning, grabbed his rifle, and took off across the country on foot. He killed four of his neighbors and then himself. Riggenbach writes, “Five lives were snuffed out, the happiness of five homes broken up, two women widowed and six minor children orphaned.” No motive was ever discovered and the conclusion was that Mr. Bailey, the killer, had just lost his mind.

This was never a really “wild-and-woolly” place like a lot of “Wild West” towns were, but Monte Vista wasn’t a mining town, either, where passions run high. It had a train running through it — as a lot of American towns had back in the day — schools, churches, banks, two movie theaters, two news papers and even an opera house. My impression from the book is that from the beginning, Monte Vista just wanted to be a nice place for people to live. Many of the early traditions have endured and others have fallen away. The founder had visions of grandeur that never came true, but I think — if they saw their town now — they might be OK with that.

The featured photo is from A Bridge to Yesterday. What’s interesting about it is that building is still a real estate office.



the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment.

Back in 2017 I was privileged to find a bunch of mule deer friends. There was a buck and four or five does and one young deer. The buck was very fierce and stately and carried a large bush on his head. The does were very curious about Bear and me, and the buck was more wary. Over time — since I hiked at the same time every day — they got used to us and I would often see them hiding under the train cars at the golf course, and watched as they followed us to the end of our hike, about a mile to our turn around point and the gate. Sometimes we would just stand and watch each other. Then came a day when a doe wanted to get closer. I had to tell her that was a very bad plan.

Deer do NOT belong with people.

It was hunting season and they’d found good cover in a bramble of willows and beneath oil tanker cars on the rail road track.

Meanwhile, all over the San Luis Valley, hunters had adorned themselves in phenotypical clothing and were dressed as bushes. They were crawling through the willow brambles, stalking the deer, elk, whatever they had a license for. While I don’t have a problem with hunting (ungulate over-population is a legitimate problem out here) I knew that getting “my” deer too used to me would be the worst thing that could happen to them. I stopped visiting them. I still miss them and cherish the time we spent “together.”

My own phenotypical adjustment to living here has been slow and steady. The most recent manifestation is advertising on the Livestock Guardian Dog Facebook Page that I’m an artist and have a couple of Christmas card designs featuring livestock guardian dogs. This morning I got a commission. That NEVER would have happened if I hadn’t moved here, adopted and been inspired by Bear and the rest is history.



For the past week I’ve had more human contact than I’ve had since C-19 started. My neighbor and I spent a couple mornings together moving and placing flagstones — and talking, then we took a morning for a hike and conversation. Saturday Elizabeth came over with some produce from her garden and later on my friend Lois and her husband Michael met me in Del Norte where we ate pizza on the patio of 3 Barrel Brewery, social distanced and masked, but it was impossible not to hug. We usually see each other every couple of months, and the last time was early March at the Crane Festival. It was really, really wonderful to be together.

Then, last evening, I was walking Teddy, and as we turned toward home after sneaking onto the golf course for the last leg of our walk, I saw the kids by their fence waving frantically at me. In those moments I’d happily die because life really does not get better than two kids jumping up and down in joy because you’re coming to visit them. But, I didn’t die (thankfully) so we got to hang out.

A few weeks ago M told me that when she grew up she was going to ride wild horses. C, her brother, is going to ride bulls. Most of the people in their family — including their mom — have rodeoed so it just makes sense. I said to M, “You’re afraid of Teddy! How are you going to ride a wild horse?” She thought about it and nodded.

Last evening, they ended up out in the alley briefly (they’re not supposed to be there) and M decided she was going to pet Teddy. I told her to reach UNDER his chin not over his head. I made him sit. She petted him and even scratched his ears. Then she said, “Now I can ride a wild horse.”

This morning my friend Perla, an artist from Argentina who’s lived in the US since the 80s, came to visit. First we made a tour of Monte Vista’s trees so she could collect a variety of leaves for her eco-printing projects. Afterward, we sat in the shade in my front yard and talked for a couple of hours about what we’re going to do when Trump wins the upcoming election. Yes, I said “when” because I think it’s distinctly likely. Whether our plans are real or just dreams to help us through this anxiety provoking moment, I don’t know, but Perla already escaped an authoritarian regime and her perspective on current events is different, less complacent, even than mine.

I like our escape plan, but I hope I don’t need it. I love my little niche in the world — still, at the same time, the escape plan would be an amazing adventure.

I’m tired from this extremely unusual amount of human contact, but I feel very warm inside from being loved and loving in return. One thing this whole thing has shown me — including my recent fear that perhaps Bear had a very bad bone cancer — was how much courage it takes to love something, someone, and allow oneself to become attached to it. I believe this is a lesson I’ve gotten from being here in a world where my love for it is returned and magnified. This valley spread itself in front of me, poor beat up legs and all, as if it were saying, “There is more here for you than you can now imagine. Give me time to show you everything.”


In just a few weeks — assuming school DOES start in various parts of the country — my street should quiet down again. Some. There will still be a lot of potato and cattle truck traffic, but… I heard the other day that more people are moving here, up in the area of Crestone and South Fork.

One of the permanent changes wrought by the virus is the ability to work at home. I can just imagine droves of people from points south, east and west coming up here to live permanently where they had always just spent the summer. I’m not crazy about this — none of us are except maybe real estate sales people. Our little corner of Heaven doesn’t have things those people are used to and I’m pretty sure we don’t want them.

As long as I’ve lived here there’s been litigation over development of our local ski area, Wolf Creek. People who live here don’t want that. I don’t want that. I live on a US highway which in normal times is only mildly annoying in summer, but if a ski area were developed up there? I can imagine traffic all year and possibly losing my house to eminent domain.

The mountains don’t need the inevitable additional foot and bike traffic, either. Mountain communities in Colorado with larger human populations — both seasonal and year round — are struggling to protect elk and other wild animal habitat without abridging the “freedom” that has always characterized the Colorado mountain experience.

There’s also the reality that from every direction a person can reach here only by going over a high mountain pass. We don’t have a real airport. There’s a one-runway airport in Alamosa. When I moved here, Frontier flew into Alamosa, but it’s pulled out. Now there is only Boutique Air, and it is there because the airport was designated an “essential airport.” There is no other way out of this valley except driving yourself, taking the weekly shuttle to Salida, on horseback, walking or on bike. It can happen that EVERY PASS IS CLOSED in winter. 😉

I don’t have any control over what will happen in the next few years to those mountains or even the parcels west of town that are slated for development (BIG HOUSES! NO WATER! RATTLESNAKES!) or the innumerable permanent social changes that will result from this strange year.



I should have taken more photos yesterday when I was out with Teddy at the Big Empty. There was virga that really did look like fringe hanging from the dark clouds. It was beautiful. The easternmost part of the mountains closest to me, the San Juans, is only a couple of miles away. Most of the time, when a storm comes over from the west, the higher elevations take the rain. Then, like yesterday, the clouds float over the valley – still raining at the elevation of the mountains making rain fringe in the sky.

I took the featured photo six years ago as I was leaving the San Luis Valley after my very first (adult) visit here during which I looked at my dream house (still here, still empty) and fell in love with my town and the valley. The mountains in the photo are the Sangre de Cristos. My friend Lois and I were headed to Valley View Hot Springs in Crestone and then up to Colorado Springs.


Breeze; Blessing or Curse?

Among people who’ve actually been here, the San Luis Valley is famous for its wind. Most people who have been here — not just driving through past my house — have come to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Wind at the Sand Dunes is a combination curse and blessing. Sand blowing around gets in your eyes, your skin, your nose etc. etc. BUT it keeps the mosquitoes away when you’re trying to enjoy your PBJ at the picnic table. Great Sand Dunes National Park reopens today with a long list of precautions and warnings. Oddly, everyone will be safer if the wind keeps blowing.

Bear and I love the wind and we don’t care how hard it’s blowing or how cold it is. For us, it’s a friend. There’s that mosquito thing. Then, if it’s blowing hard enough, no one is playing golf, though San Luis Valley golfers are a hardy bunch and they’ll play golf in snow.

One fun phenomenon here in the Big Empty is wind blowing in two directions at once. There are mountains to the east and mountains to the west, different ranges. If the wind blows over each range, it comes from different directions, that happens most often in spring, the dust cloud gets “stuck” in the wind. You can see this in the featured photo. The dust cloud had made it all the way, blowing from the east, across the fields between Alamosa and Monte Vista. It hit the wind coming from the west over the San Juans and got “stuck.” North winds happen with storms. Most of the time, though, the wind blows from the south and while it might be fierce and dusty, it’s just wind.

Walking north in a hard wind in winter is a sport all by itself, fun if you’re dressed for it.

Me impersonating Roald Amundsen. I wonder if he would have liked the kind of high tech warm-wear we have now?

Otherwise, I’m having a hard time sleeping these days. I wake up at 1 feeling anxious and weird and don’t go back to sleep until 3 or so. I’m pretty damned tired, and I bet I’m not the only one. Hang in there, everybody.


A Little about the Geological History of the Big Empty

Yesterday out at the Refuge I stopped to take photos of the sign beside the entrance. You can see from the way it is written that it strives to appeal to kids.

I figured since everyone who reads my blog is getting an education in this little-known remote valley, I might as well share something I find amazing. When I think of a valley, I think of something cut by a meandering river. That’s what I learned in 8th grade geology (one of my favorite classes ever because it lent itself to drawing pictures). But this immense valley is an immense rift valley. One of the most common rocks lying around is scoria; hardened lava, bubbles and all.

The Valley formed BEFORE the river. There are places in the southern end of the valley where the Rio Grande is busy cutting into the surface, but generally, the Rio Grande just comes down the mountain and the valley — already here — says, “Slow down, river, look around.” And that’s what it does. Looking at my town from space you see something that looks like an OLD river.

The Star is more or less my house, the golf course, etc. It’s a little difficult to find the main thread of the Rio Grande

My prize winning story is published in the literary magazine put out by the Friends of the Alamosa Library. That publication is Messages from the Hidden Lake. Since I feel a strange connection to this place — and have since the beginning — that title resonates with me, alluding to a time when the Sandhill Cranes were coming through, but human beings were not. I love science because it opens windows to things that we, trapped in time as we are, couldn’t see any other way.


Big Empty Update

I know my readers are on pins and needles about what’s happening out here in the Big Empty, so let’s get right to it.

Not much.

The biggest change is the temperature. It’s in the seventies (19/20c) and that’s hot for my poor Bear who is now taking a nap on the cool tile by the front door. Snow is in the forecast for parts of Colorado, even this part. 40% so cross your fingers.

Most of the action right now is Canadian geese, frogs, horny magpies and symphonic meadowlarks. The snakes ARE out, something I know from spying a substantial amount of large snake poop. Yes. I’m interested in scat, too.

All I can tell you about the snakes in question is that they are large. They could be gopher snakes and they could be prairie rattlers. Bear has made a lot of progress with the new “command” (one doesn’t command Bear; one advises) “No, Bear, Rattlesnake.” With Bear, the command voice has to be saved for something very serious.

I went out prepared to pull my ski buff over my mouth and nose in case there were other people there, but the tourist rush (ha ha) is definitely over and there was nary an SUV for Bear and I to welcome. I like it that way, though I sincerely love the fact that 20,000 Sandhill Cranes can command that much attention. How many lives have changed as a result of a visit to this paradise? How many people have looked beyond their camera and perceived the wonder of a species that has endured for millions of years actually being in THIS world with US?

I thought about the innumerable animals that have gone extinct during the Sandhill Cranes’ long existence. I thought of all the scientists who have pondered the cause of the extinction of animal X and dodo Y. I thought of how COVID-19 has put us at the very base of survival strategy for any species which is, “Avoid danger!” I thought of the mama ground-squirrel I watched years ago defend her four tiny babies from a rattlesnake, a battle she actually won. The snake basically said, “Fuck it. This is WAY too much trouble,” unloosed his coil and slithered off into the black sage.

As I walked, I also thought of how today has been a semi-normal day, with a chat with the mailman. He was wearing a mask, and said, “If I go to work I’m in trouble and if I don’t I’m in trouble,” and then shrugged. Today, for the first time after 6 years of conversations, I noticed he has only one functioning eye. What’s wrong with me? On the way out to the Refuge, I got to talk with the kids — from the car. “Bear wants to come out,” said the little girl. Bear was whimpering in the back of Bella. Clearly she wanted out to see the kids.

I also thought about the best hikes of my life. That’s a catalog I love going through. I realized I no longer feel sad or resentful that I can’t run or easily go up and down hills. I realized that the immense sky and mountain vistas of the Big Empty have soothed my feelings of loss. This landscape is even older than the Sandhill Crane species which is still ancient enough to have witnessed major changes to the form and shape of my Big Empty. A sea once filled the valley and fossils of its creatures now rest on the top of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. With changes like that all around me, how could I expect to remain the same?

“You have to start bringing water, Martha.”
“OK, Bear.”