The plan was very simple. Load up our new VW SportWagen with our bikes and camping gear. Drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado on a Friday. Enjoy two days in one of the United States unique National Parks, then drive home on Monday. A quick road trip, but one filled with great promise.
What we had not planned on as we should was how much we would enjoy the “road” part of the road trip. When we turned off I-70 at Oakley, Kansas, we began one of the most enjoyable driving experiences we have ever shared. It all started with the glorious view of what makes Kansas the “Wheat State.” Alongside us the golden fields stood ready for harvest. Combines swept through fields as we passed. Even though the new strains of wheat no longer grow tall enough for the stalks to truly wave in the wind, the beauty remains powerfully heartening.
With nary a car in sight and the cruise control set, we cranked up the Sirius XM radio that kept our pace completely upbeat. How could we keep ourselves from helping the Clash Rock the Casbah? We belted out The Kinks All Day and All of the Night as loud as ears allowed. For the more syrupy songs, that thankfully were not videotaped, I not only serenaded Laura, I smoothly showed off the concert stage moves such songs require even with a seat belt strapped around me. Of course, there was no need to sing along with the Rolling Stones Happy because we both know “I need your love to keep me happy.”
Once into Colorado, the traffic thinned further as the Kansas wheat fields gave way to scrub grass and stubby trees. Huge ranches spread for miles. In the distance, the usual late afternoon Colorado thunderstorms developed giving the stark scenery dramatic contrasts as we began to climb up and over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rim the eastern portion of the San Luis Valley, the home of the Great Sand Dunes.
After 10 hours of enjoyable driving, we stopped in Alamosa to pick up the gear we needed for our dunes adventure and a good meal at Rubi Slipper, a highly recommended hamburger bar. Fortunately, no one tried to remind us with the tired cliché that we were “not in Kansas anymore.” Seriously, that gets old fast.
In the summer of 1971, the legendary Kansas distance runner, Jim Ryun, used the 9,000 foot elevation of the Dunes area for high-altitude training. I was involved in a film project led by Ryun’s great photographic documenter, Rich Clarkson. Ryun was training for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, where he hoped to claim an Olympic gold medal after being upset by Kenyan Kip Keino in Mexico City’s high altitude during the 1968 Olympics.
A film of Ryun’s pre-Olympic training, with me serving as the project’s sound man, brought us to Colorado. Standing atop a dune with my headphones planted over my ears and a boom mike in hand, I guarded my hefty tape deck from the sand as Ryun, looking very tiny in the setting, traversed the massive dunes. That sight remains firmly locked in my memory of great joys. Without another person in sight, we sweltered in the late-July heat. Spread over 37 square miles with dune after dune growing higher, the rich Colorado blue sky gave this 20-year-old a Lawrence of Arabia feeling I now wanted to share with Laura.
We arrived the next morning at the National Park ahead of the mid-day heat to find crowds filling the parking lot. With a sand sled and a sand board in our arms, we crossed a stream leaving the thicket of mosquitos behind us as we climbed up into the steep dunes away from the crowds for our rides. Laura preferred the sled for our fun, while I made over 20 rides down ever steeper slopes on the sand board.
While shaped much like a snow board, the lack of edges on the board and the soft sand made turning nearly impossible unless you traversed sideways across a dune. Since that would not be much fun, these were straight shots down 40-50 foot dunes. The feeling was as close as a land-locked Kansan could feel on the ground to dropping in on a huge winter wave on the North Shore of Oahu.
Of course, for each of those rides, a long climb back up in the soft sand at altitude awaited us. Shoes were mandatory as even a short time barefoot in the sand that can rise up to 150 degrees torched our feet. For every sand board ride, the shoes came off to be carried in hand down the dune. By the end of our time in the Dunes, we felt the workout our fun required. It did, however, prove again that in another time and another life, my belief that my calling to photography might well have been a call to big wave surfing.
Besides the Dunes’ beauty, the sound – or lack of sound – is what amazed us. Thanks to a CBS Sunday Morning News segment, we knew the Dunes are the most quiet spot in the United States. The segment revealed that a recording studio registers at 10 decibel. The Dunes register at only three to four decibel.
Even at our campsite, 10 miles from the National Park, we enjoyed the amazing effects of what quiet can do for the mind and soul. It is no wonder that various Native American tribes consider the Valley to be the most spiritual location on earth. The Tewa Puebloans called the Dunes “Sandy Place Lake” from where their ancestors, all earthly plants and animals, emerged from the “World Beneath.” Upon death, the Tewa people re-enter the Pueblo spirit world using a passageway in the Dunes.
The Navajo tribes view Blanca Peak, which sits just east of the road leading to the Dunes, as one of four sacred mountains that rose from pebbles set in the ground by the first man and woman on earth. At over 14,000 feet, Blanca Peak greets the rising sun each day and impressed us with its dramatic leap from the valley floor. With another peak in Colorado, one in Arizona and another in New Mexico, these four mountains frame the sacred land.
What we learned the next day on a long road ride was how the Valley is completely rimmed by mountains with the southern views coming from New Mexico. Distances were completely askew. The San Luis Valley encompasses approximately 8,000 square miles. At 122 miles long and 74 miles wide, a spot chosen as our turnaround seemed close but proved to be many miles further than expected.
Surprisingly, that did not matter. Even at altitude, we were riding as well together as ever before. On our return, into a 15 mph head wind, we alternated pulls every mile and negative-split our return time. A soak in the nearby hot springs seemed to be the perfect relief for our muscles and the two days of intense activity.
The 118 degree hot springs water at the Natural Hot Artesian Oasis required chilling before entering a large pool where the 95-100 degree water made sitting in the shallow end about as active as we wanted. Given the fact that the pool was once used to breed catfish, I started to wonder. With local high schoolers putting on a ceaseless display of diving skills, it was impossible to check the deep end for the “pods” found in the 1985 movie Cocoon. Could Laura and I have found water charged with the same life force that in time would have us carrying on like wild teenagers? Just the thought of me as a teenager again was enough to scare Laura, even though the others surrounding us seemed even more vegetative than us.
Disappointed, I tried the therapy pool, where the water ranged from 105-107 degrees. With hopes of finding my revitalizing “fountain of youth,” trying to tolerate the scorching heat in solitude, my peace proved short-lived.
“You don’t look like you are from around here?” I opened my eyes to find two men and the inquisitive woman way too close to me. “Have you been to the bat caves yet? You need to go to the bat caves. Every night at dusk, bats by the hundreds of thousands fly out of the cave. It’s spectacular.” Despite the scary looks of the trio, I found myself intrigued.
“You’ll have to park, then forge up a river before climbing some ragged areas to get there, but it is worth it.” None of that seemed that difficult.
“However, I need to warn you, that area is clothing optional. If you are bringing your children or grandchildren, make sure you warn them that they will see naked people. I climbed up there last night with just my boots and a backpack.”
Things turned weird quickly. I am not scared of bats and would be happy to go naked with Laura. However, looking at my trio of scary old folk made me remember how many student-athletes come to Laura wanting to major in physical therapy. In their mind’s eye, they see themselves working on taut physiques they see daily amongst their teammates. Then reality sets in as they discover the number of those fit people is only a small minority of the population. Most find themselves sitting in Laura’s office begging to change their major.
This certainly was not a fountain of youth. I leaped from therapy area and broke the rule of running on a wet pool deck to Laura where I pleaded the time to go had arrived. She was more than ready. Of course that was only the start of our strange adventures along a stretch of road openly called “The Cosmic Highway.”
The mythic nature of the San Luis Valley now attracts believers claiming the Valley to be the “most active UFO sight in United States.” We found that proclamation on a list of nearby attractions we discovered at the hot springs. Right there with the Sand Dunes National Park, our campgrounds at the San Luis State Park and the Colorado Alligator Farm, how could we miss out on the UFO Watchtower?
On grounds filled with RV’s and campers, a large jerry-rigged platform rose ominously. In the heat of the day, fanatics sat in lawn chairs atop the tower with eyes straining in the sun to catch a glimpse of a UFO streaking across the sky or coming in for a landing. Since neither of us are believers, we decided the five dollars required for a spot on the watchtower would be better spent on a final dinner in Alamosa.
It would be nice to say UFO sightings quickly vanished from our minds, but as we walked down the city streets, we could not keep ourselves from wondering how many of the locals were actually aliens from some bizarre Men in Black movie scene? Our waiter might be from a planet far, far away. He sure acted high, high away. Fortunately, back at our campsite with a fire roaring and stalks of sage tossed into the fire to keep mosquitos at bay, we scanned the night sky brimming with brilliant stars but without a streak across the sky from another world.
As we made our way out the Valley the next morning, our thoughts turned to how truly monstrous and majestic is our nation. On our bicycle ride, the mountain peaks behind the Dunes formed a V. Journeying through that V, Zebulon Pike and his men discovered the Sand Dunes during an expedition to chart the vastness of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike earlier passed a peak outside of Colorado Springs that now bears his name, the majestic Pike’s Peak.
Laura discovered that over 80% of Colorado’s population lives along the Front Range between Colorado Springs and Denver. Adding the population that now lives from Denver, past Boulder and up to Fort Collins helps give perspective that traveling like Pike through Colorado can still be a journey of solitude.
Yet somehow through all our country’s highs and lows, there remain enough sane men and women that have helped keep our majestic nation bound together, save for one Civil War. The beauty of it all is that two people can get in their car, crank the radio and drive along many cosmic highways. We cannot help but thank the Lord for allowing us to enjoy being so ridiculously happy and even more ridiculously in love. That makes for one great road trip throughout one great nation.