As anyone who reads my blog knows, “country comfort” is a major part of my life and survival stragedy especially during the pandemic. It’s comforting knowing there are not that many people around to start with, and it’s not that difficult to get out by one’s self. I haven’t found any downsides to this life. It’s just right as far as I’m concerned.
So what IS country comfort according to a woman living in this remote valley? I have it; not everyone who lives here does. In my case, it’s the result of a giant blast of good luck in the year 2000 when I got hired at San Diego State University. That led to my being given (a couple years later) a ration of benefits that I had, until then, only dreamed of — health, dental and vision insurance (which I paid for every month but am reaping the rewards now) and retirement (same story). Because of THAT which happened on the heels of what felt like bad luck (not getting a class at a local community college) I’m here in Heaven in a comfortable small house with my dogs and sunlight and I get to do whatever I want. I can’t imagine anything more comforting than that.
Truth be told, life out here isn’t for everyone. It’s harsh. It can be desperately windy and desperately cold. The growing season is short. Lots of people who move here stay only a year and then get out, but for me?
Bear and I went out to the Refuge yesterday. The wind was blowing in town, but nothing excruciating. The day was clear and fresh and why not? But it was a stealthy, evil, duplicitous wind because out there — at the far edge of the Refuge — the wind was something else entirely.
Where we walked, beside some of the large ponds, the waves came in regular sets that any 4 inch surfer could have had a good time riding. The ducks were bobbing up and down and fishing like always. A few geese had grounded themselves near small ponds and streams. Heading out, no big deal. Bear smelled the side of the road and I thought about what it would be like going back. Once in a while a gust hit — when I got home I learned they were gusting over 40 mph which was no surprise. Thinking we were fighting a losing battle, I turned around and THEN things got weird (but they got weirder later). We went roughly fifteen feet between blasts. I was grateful for being a short sturdy person. Even Bear didn’t like it. I looked across the Refuge and it was covered by a tan cloud of dust. Little by little we got back to the Bella, passed by a couple of cars, late-season crane tourists (good luck with that).
I’d parked so far into the Refuge that there was no turning around and going out the way I’d come in, so I followed the small caravan of undaunted people (two cars) who were determined to get SOMETHING out of the experience by reading the informational signs.
On the far side (ha ha) the dust cloud was so thick I couldn’t see in front of me at all. One of the other cars pulled over thinking, I guess, to wait it out (that would happen a couple hours later). I could see a few feet into the road ahead of me most of the time, but felt a little anxiety about the moment when I’d have to turn onto the main road — state highway– back into town. That road is frequented by hay trucks and semis trailering field sprinklers. All went well and within 100 yards the day was clear again, still windy, but clear.
The San Luis Valley is a wild place, and there are good reasons why some settlements survived and some didn’t. Somewhere out there is a ghost-settlement known as Rock Creek. I haven’t found it. I want to find it. It was settled by a group of “Dunkers.” But if it’s where everything indicates it was, a bleak novel could be written about that.
I also thought about what the man I met this past Sunday said about being out there being in the world before, when the settlers first came. Sunday was a postcard day, balmy, light breeze, beautiful light. Heaven. Yesterday? Yeah, Was that what the settlers encountered, too. But maybe less? With no plowed fields, a lot less dust. I encountered the dust on the end of the Refuge that abuts the recently plowed barely fields. The north end — my usual haunt — is all native chamisa and none of the farms north of there plow anything; they’re cattle ranches. So I thought, “Maybe not the settlers or the Utes and Navajo, but that was what people lived through day after day during the dustbowl.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.