The Great Sand Dunes, UFOs and hippies: Fort Garland to Hooper Pool
Sunday August 18, 2013, 62 miles (99 km) – Total so far: 4,205 miles (6,768 km)
Our early morning ride is nearly flat as we skirt the edge of the San Luis Valley. Off to the north and east, though, the peaks tower high above us. The scale is grand. There are four 14,000 foot peaks up there – Ellingwood Point, Little Bear Peak, Mt Blanca and Mt Lindsay – anchoring the southern edge of this part of the Sangre de Cristos.
As we head north on Highway 150, we encounter new pavement, a very slight incline and a 16-mile honour guard of sunflowers. Aah, I don’t want to be anywhere else but right here, right now.
Interpretive signs closer to the Great Sand Dunes explain how the huge Zapata ranch has changed hands over the years. It is now managed in coordination with the national park and adjoining lands to preserve the greater ecosystem. In the late 1990s, investors and business folks from the Front Range wanted to buy up land and water rights in the San Luis Valley and pump the water to the Front Range. This united ranchers, biologists, ecologists, park staff and other locals in a fight to preserve the land.
For many years, scientists were concerned that the national monument, which only really protected the dunes themselves, needed to be much larger in area to encompass the processes that maintained the dunes. For example, Medano Creek takes sand back out into the valley where it is then blown back toward the dunes. Any pumping of water which threatens the flow in the creek threatens the maintenance of the dunes. Through considerable time, effort and public-private partnership, the Front Range water interests were deterred and a much greater area of the valley and surrounding mountains preserved. This also saw the Sand Dunes become a national park instead of just a national monument.
All of this has occurred since I last visited in the mid 90s. I find this political and social story, as well as the story about how the Dunes fit in the larger landscape, the most fascinating bits today.
The ride into the park is pretty much all uphill. The gate attendant doesn’t even ask for my parks pass or license. She just waves me through. Okay.
I stop at the visitor’s centre. I think it might be just a bit under-done. I don’t have any desire to go get sand in my shoes on this visit, so I don’t actually ride further up the road to the dune parking. I spend some time on the observation deck looking at the dunes and putting all the landscape pieces together in my mind, then I’m ready to head out.
I stop for some food at the RV park/store/restaurant just near the park entrance. I was unable to restock food yesterday in Ft Garland. The grocery store there takes top prize for “saddest grocery store I’ve ever visited”. Prior to that, the prize was held by the little supermarket in Coober Pedy in Outback Oz.
However, Ft Garland was so bad, my dinner last night consisted of a can of potato soup, a big dill pickle and milk. Yes, it was that bad. Consequently, the only food I’ve got on-board are the remains of a bag of Cheezits which are so crumbly they require a spoon for consumption.
I get a breakfast burrito and a Coke in the cafe. The food is okay, the serving size a bit small, but the Coke refills are generous. That’s okay, it won’t be the first time the majority of my calories have come from liquids.
It is all worth it though to hear the conversation between the locals and the waitresses. It is all talk about recent UFO sightings. I’ve always known the San Luis Valley was a hotspot for sightings (dating back to the 1600s!), but the seriousness of the conversation just blows me away.
Then, I head outside to my bike. As I’m getting all ready to go, there is a group of five men sitting at a table smoking. They are talking UFOs, too. The one man has a top engineer helping him set up cameras on various mountains nearby. When a UFO is spotted, the cameras will be able to be remotely activated with the press of a switch. Because they will be on different mountains, they will have different views. Therefore, they’ll be able to triangulate the data.
Wow. I don’t think he really knows what triangulating data means, but I wonder how much he has sunk into these cameras. The other guys are very interested in this system. They are film-makers who have done ghost stuff and conspiracy theory documentaries. All five of them get into a heated discussion about William Shatner and some of his recent comments.
Wow, again. I feel like I have just walked into a completely different culture. Their reality is so different to mine. I keep thinking, “Are they serious? When do they break out the punch line”? But no, they are incredibly serious, and their conversation is their reality. I don’t know if it’s wrong or right, but it is definitely light years away from my perceptions of the world. I love being reminded that there are many ‘truths’ out there.
Time to head off. I’ve got about 30 miles to do where I’m going to be the highest point in the landscape, so I’d like to be done before the afternoon storms.
There is not much to say about this landscape. It is fairly flat and covered with rabbitbrush, greaewood and sagebrush. Sheets of sand can be seen in places. Far off to the west, the valley is edged by mountains. The road is rough and the cracks are deep enough and spaced close enough to send you a little batty. The wind is constant, and of course, it’s in my face. Head down, just put the miles in. Look up on occasion to watch the beauty of the clouds as they form thunderheads.
I stop in the gas station at Hooper. Drinks are required. It is hot today. I also need directions to the Hooper Pool. It has camping, hot springs and an on-site cafe. The lady says to just turn right at the big blue sign and then head toward the trees. It will be a couple miles east then a mile or so north. Make sure I eat at the cafe, the food is quite good.
And so I turn up at the Hooper Pool. It’s very busy. Most everyone appears to be a local, and the mix of people runs the gamut from single, tattooed mothers to uber-polite, religious families who stop to pray before they eat the cafe food, even though they are sitting at a picnic table in their swimsuits. The people-watching here is superb.
For $18 I get a campsite and admission to the pools. The campsites have no shade or privacy but they are located on lush green grass. There is a new showerhouse and laundry facility. Everything is super clean. The cafe food is pretty good and the menu very diverse. The staff are all friendly and helpful. The main pool is huge. It has diving boards and basketball hoops. You can rent all sorts of pool toys and inflatables. There is also a kiddie pool and an adults-only therapy pool. I’m very impressed! It’s a great deal.
I also discover it’s a great place to pick up men. I head over to get a salad and some soup for dinner at the pool cafe. As I’m sitting there, I make eye contact with a guy who smiles and motions me over with a nod of his head. Oh, dear. I look at the pavement for a very long time. Then, as I’m about to leave, a different guy, aged about 50 and clad only in surf shorts, taps me on the shoulder. I look up as he slips a piece of paper into my hand as he heads for the exit. On it is written his name, phone number, RV site and the words ‘saw you come in on the bike (smiley face)’. Whoah. Whoah. Whoah.
Later that evening after dark, I head up to the pools again to go for a soak in the therapy pool. It is quite hot and feels awesome. There are three or four others in this pool, but they eventually get out and I’m left with a neo-hippie guy about my age. He’s very nice-looking and he starts up a conversation. All is fine until he says, “would you like to come back to my van with me for a while”? Whoah. Whoah. Whoah.
I pause, and then say, “Well, thank you, that’s very kind of you. But I’m really in a groove at the moment on my bike trip and it doesn’t happen to be that groove”.
He turns toward me and looks me straight in the eyes, as if he is trying to peer into my soul and make some sort of meaningful connection, and says, “I know tantra”.
I almost choke. I almost laugh. His sincerity and his offer are not funny, but it strikes me that way. I know, I’m a horrible person, but I’m Nerd Em and I’m not routinely offered to engage in such things in a van with a stranger.
I smile. I try to be nice. I say, “Brian, you are a very attractive guy. I’m sure you are fantastic in many ways. But the only time in my life I tried to have a one-night stand, I ended up falling in love with the guy and marrying him three years later. I’m not going down that road again. But all the best to you. Have a safe journey”. And I get out of the pool and head to my tent.
It has been an absolutely crazy day on the people front – the craziest I have on the whole tour. I can’t believe that in the past three days I’ve been hit on by a coal miner, a 75-year-old man and a neo-hippie who knows tantra. I tell you, it’s gonna be tough to go from being super-touring-bicycle-chick back to just being a nerd again after this ride (all said tongue in cheek, of course)!