A spiritual place: Westcliffe to Walsenburg
Wednesday August 14, 2013, 68 miles (110 km) – Total so far: 3,991 miles (6,423 km)
The mountain peaks glow pink in the first rays of dawn. From this viewpoint, much of the range can be seen rising steeply from the valley from north to south, the peaks throwing jagged edges into the air like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
The Spanish, who were the first Europeans to settle in this area, called these peaks the Sangre de Cristos because of the pink of the peaks at sunrise and sunset. The name means “Blood of Christ”. While I am definitely not a Christian, I definitely do pick up a very spiritual vibe as I head south today.
The road skirts the western edge of the Wet Mountains and the very eastern edge of the valley as we head south from Westcliffe. Consequently, the views toward the Sangres include the entire grassy bottom of the valley, the sagebrush edges, the steep forested slopes of the mountains and all of the glacially carved valleys and cirques. On occasion, the road nudges into conglomerate rocks whose rounded cobbles and pebbles lie in disorderly layers.
The road more or less climbs to the airport. Then, the views expand in all directions as you ride across a bit of a plateau between the hills of the Wet Mountains and the stream-carved sediments of the Sangres. Because the state has put land use restrictions and covenants on this valley so that it cannot be subdivided into tiny ranchettes, the views are not cluttered with city refugees finding sanctuary in 40-acre blocks carved from former ranch lands. Instead, the land remains largely in the same families as those who settled it, and acreages are huge. The valley looks like ‘old’ Colorado – it is definitely pleasant to see rural land remaining rural so close to the Front Range. Down south, where the road curves east, the owner of Maytag has a huge ranch with incredibly artistic front gates and signage. Some of the ranches down here are worth more than $7.5 million.
The jurisdictional line between Custer and Huerfano counties ushers in incredibly poor road pavement and a long downhill. The mountains look increasingly rugged to the south. The peaks merge into a confusing array of ridges, streams and foothills. There are several different turn-offs for different passes which will deposit you into Great Sand Dunes National Park on the other side. I mentally note that I want to come back and do this someday.
The beauty here is just outstanding. The low hills straddling the valley and mountain ecosystems look incredibly inviting. The peaks look wild. The whole landscape feels very alive and very sacred. I don’t know how. It just does. Unlike some Colorado landscapes which are so grand and vast they make a person feel tiny and insignificant, this landscape is grand but somehow still human-sized. It feels rough and rugged, but like it is just inviting you to come in further for a look and exploration. I feel like I’m in a natural cathedral and the spirit of the land is calling me forth.
Yeah, I’m not a real touchy-feely person, but the road from the county line to the town of Gardner just feels spiritual. Not in a God-like way but in a way that says much has happened here. Of course, I’m not the first to feel this. This area was a popular area for hippie communes back in the 1960s and 70s. There are still a couple left today. Plus, indigenous cultures consider the Spanish Peaks just south of here sacred – they are the site where life emerged forth.
As I progress down the valley past the little hippie town of Gardner, and the collection of run-down homes called Farisita, the valley opens a bit and the traffic picks up. Here also I run into a bunch of gas trucks and a bunch of anti-coal seam gas protest signs. The world is not a simple place.
We squeeze through a gap in the mountains where the Huerfano River crosses the road. Then we begin a long, long climb up onto sagebrush plains and hills. Throughout this section, and all the way into Walsenburg, we pass by crumbling buildings and steel structures from past coal mining. Walsenburg itself sits on many, many miles of coal mine tunnels. We also pass by active mining areas as we climb and climb.
Finally, we get one long descent that deposits us at a truckstop at Exit 52 on I-25. We climb again up over another ridge on the old highway into town.
Walsenburg has most definitely seen better days. The downtown is full of antique stores. The area may have had a facelift, but not recently. The town oozes “has-been” instead of “still got it” or “diversifying and trying hard”. The library is very nice though, and the folks there are very helpful. I’m trying to find some way to stay off I-25 tomorrow, but even with several maps and the local knowledge of four library staff, we conclude that there isn’t any good way to do it. I would have to go well out of my way into the mountains and connect up a bunch of questionable roads. I thank them immensely for their help before heading out.
I grab a sandwich at Subway then stop at the grocery store to pick up snacks and more calories. As soon as I enter the store, I just stand there. I don’t want anything. I am so tired of eating. And eating. And eating. I’ve lost all the weight I want to lose. Eating is such a chore now. Oh yes, the ability to eat whatever I wanted, and in whatever quantity I wanted, was a novelty for the first two months. Now, I just look for vegetables and calorie-dense options. I am so tired of eating.
I head out to the state park and get a tent site for the night. I’m the only one in the primitive camping area tonight.
The staff in the visitor centre have no clue what I should do with my food and toiletries. Pinyon pines are not exactly suitable for hanging a bear bag since they are quite short, bushy trees. They are all that is available in the campground. The woman suggests it shouldn’t be a problem, though, because they have not seen a bear since May. That bear was seen on the ridge and not in the campgrounds. So I figure I’ll just stick my food in a plastic bag, hang it off a branch so the mice can’t get it, and hope that there are more tasty options available in the other campground.
I go for a hike along the nature trail on the ridge and then ride the bike path around the lakes. The path has so many huge cracks in it, though, that is not all that suited to riding. The guys and I also hang out in the shade, eat and eat some more, then do some bike maintenance and repair that slow leak. It is the wire off a radial tire that’s found its way in. Grumble, grumble, I’m tired of all these flats!
As the evening wears on, we watch the clouds gather. The white and puffy forms collide and build, as they bunch up on the updrafts of the valley heat. They grow grey bases which become walls of midnight blue as the thunderstorms take shape. Sheets of virga stream out from the bottom, building to rain as the storms head east. We watch them heading down the ridge north of us. Eventually, some storms building to the southwest rumble and tumble our way, sending us into the tent a bit after sunset. Later in the night, I emerge from the tent and look up. Immediately, a large meteor hurtles across the sky, one of the Perseids treating to me a show. Can’t tell you what I wished for though.