Home Again

I’ve had an intense couple of days. As you may remember, an important acquaintance died while I was up in Colorado Springs injuring my shoulder. I hadn’t been able to go see his wife, my friend Louise, at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte until — wow, day before yesterday. I knew the visit would be intense and sad and everything that conversation is. It was all that. Louise asked if I could design Thank You notes for her to send to everyone who sent flowers and donated to the Alzheimer’s foundation. “What would you like?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”

Then I thought — and spoke, “Do you want your painting?” I meant the painting she and her husband had bought each other for Christmas last year.

“Yes,” she said. Then she reached for her purse.

I said, “No,” and I meant no, but I followed it with, “I don’t know what it will cost me to print them yet.” Actually that doesn’t matter.

After an hour or so talking, I got back into Bella and headed back “over the hill.” (There’s a hill between the town of Del Norte and Monte Vista) and I had the feeling that for the first time in at least a year I was back home. I don’t know where I’ve been in the past few months, but I haven’t been home. On the crest of the hill, Mohammed’s Radio began to play Psychedelic Furs, “Heaven,” and I said, “Yeah. It is.”

Yesterday morning the drain plumber was going to come out and clean the sewer lines in advance of winter because, you know, shit happens. (sorry) I was sound asleep when he got here right at 8. The dogs barked, he knocked, I heard NOTHING. He called. It must have awakened me because a few minutes after his call I was awake and calling him back.

“It’s all good. I’ll swing back later.” He returned about 2 hours later after a couple of jobs in the nearby town of Saguache. He cleaned everything out and inspected everything — important after the bizarre events in my sewer line in 2020. We talked. I learned he’d been a rodeo rider, riding broncs. He’s a young guy, maybe 35, with a wife and two kids. I learned about all his injuries and saw some of the scars. I like rodeo. I know it’s dangerous and a little insane, but it’s been a small part of my life since I was a baby. Rodeo cowboys are athletes; in a way it’s like mountaineering.

We talked about injuries and doctors and I said, “I thought I had good scars, but I got nothing.” He laughed.

I seldom have anything but deep conversations with people. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that way. Pretty soon we’re talking about life and death and why we love the San Luis Valley. I said, “I love it and strangely, I think it’s requited.”

“It is. I feel that too. People down here are real.” When he’d finished and was coiling up the cord to the machine he said, “The way I see it, if we can’t be nice to each other, what’s the point of living?”

Exactly that. That’s what’s been in my mind and has been my struggle since January 6.

The day wore on and the water heater stopped working. My kind neighbor came over to see if he could light it, but no luck. I called my favorite non-sewer line plumber and they said, “Four days.” I said OK. I lived without hot water for a year. It is really not the end of the world. The water heater is relatively new — 7 years old, not a rusty relic. I was hopeful it could be fixed.

Then the wind came up, the sky darkened, and I knew the golden hour had arrived. Bear and I got in Bella. The Refuge was empty, the light was golden and miraculous. We started out in a cool breeze as a storm cell slowly made its way over us. At one point Bear stopped, looking into the distance and soon I saw why. A dozen sandhill cranes calling out flew over us. I was so happy to see them. On our return the storm cell was centered above us and it rained. The cell moved on and I turned around, to see a rainbow stretching across my refuge.

I felt peace inside for the first time in months.

Anyway…the water heater is up and running. The plumber was here by nine and out by 9:10 after explaining what happened and telling me how to fix it myself next time. He spoke in an accent I don’t normally hear in the San Luis Valley and I recognized it instantly. “You’re from New York,” I said.

“Yeah. Long Island.”

“I love it,” I said. “I don’t hear that much out here. One of the best friends I’ve had in my life was from out there. It’s nice to hear.” His arm was inked with Celtic knots and various other signals of his New York Irishness. We talked a bit about how he ended up here and he basically echoed what my sewer line plumber had said and what I feel.

If we can’t be nice to each other, what’s the point of living.

Well Trained

Once-upon-a-time trains ran from town to town here just as they do in Europe, local trains. When I was an elementary school kid, they were still running in places, and one of them was between the suburb of Denver where I lived — Englewood — and the next town — Littleton. Of course, Englewood and Littleton had been towns in their own right, until Denver pushed itself out to the netherlands.

All through the San Luis Valley are attractive turn of the 20th century buildings, most painted yellow and brown, all of them sitting beside the railroad tracks. The little depot in Monte Vista is a pretty one. I wish the trains ran now because if they did, I’d probably go to my high school reunion.

Parked tank cars by the golf course are good hiding places for deer…

Now many of the tracks around here are privately owned and maintained. They are rented out for $$$$$ to house coal cars for the most part. There are also three historical trains in the area, one of which, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, runs cars from the City of New Orleans. It runs from Alamosa to a little spot up in the Sangre de Cristos where there’s a concert stage. I took that journey with friends the first summer I lived here to hear John McCutcheon. It was a beautiful trip and we bought fancy seats on the train so it was pretty plush. The other two trains are the Cumbres/Toltec that goes over a breathtaking mountain pass but costs $$$, and the Durango/Silverton — probably the most famous of these old trains. It goes through amazing scenery as well.

I think my favorite train of this nature was in California and it was actually pretty lame. The Southern Pacific. It goes out of an old train yard in Campo, CA, a dusty small town south east of San Diego not far from Tecate, Mexico. The prices to ride this are more along the $ lines. It was fun to take the stepsons and niece on this train (fun for me) and I dimly remember maybe having taken students. For a while it crossed the border into Mexico — its original route, but when GWB put up the giant border fence, it ran to the fence. That was a little grim, actually, seeing a giant, black fence stretched across rugged terrain in the middle of nowhere. There are so many amazing attractions in Southern California, that this little train museum in the desert struck me as a version of “the little engine that could.” It can’t, but it’s still there. 🙂

Campo Train and a little of the landscape

My neighbor, Bob, Elizabeth’s husband, is a serious and legit train guy. He has bought and restored entire cars. His brother owns long lengths of track in the San Luis Valley. A little train used to run from South Fork nearly all the way to Creede on the old narrow gauge. Stupid me, I put off riding it until I was settled, so even though I was in South Fork for a month before moving into Monte Vista, I didn’t ride it. I didn’t know that the next year would be its last year. BUT, Elizabeth took me up to follow the little train on its last run. There’s a little conversation about my phone case which looks like a box of watercolors.

Another Day in Paradise

Another beautiful day in Heaven yesterday with my friends. We didn’t do much because no one wanted to, but we did do a small bit of sight seeing, the kind you do in the San Luis Valley when you’ve seen all the big sights you get to delve deeper into the kinds of places that you might see at 2 am on PBS on Sunday.

I took my friends through the virtually dead down of Los Valdezes (Hispanic name) and Plaza (semi-Hispanic name). It’s a small, formerly vital town, that had a train going through it that people used it to commute to bigger towns. It has a church that I found fascinating. It’s the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.

Then we came home and people took naps. The excitement never stops. We went out for dinner and everyone had the green chile (how we spell it) the region is famous for then we took a drive out to the big empty to watch the light. Here’s what we saw (Lois’ photos because I was driving). Our goal was the tree I painted last year in the painting of me, Bear and, uh, the tree.

No, it’s not a twister, just some Virga, rain hoping to reach the valley floor.

As we neared the tree, a large bird took flight and we stopped. There was an owl family in the tree. The two adults took off, leaving the two young birds in the tree. Nature. But the little owls made their way to the highest branches while Lois took photos.

Young great-horned owl in “the tree”

P.S. My guests have gone, we’ve downsized (again). Teddy and Frosty became best friends. I found them sleeping together on a small rug last night when I got up. I would have kept him. He fit in so well and was so happy here, but his human would be lonely and I know Frosty would miss his human.

From the Back of the Beyond

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?

Featured photo: a traffic jam a few years back.


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.