Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
Everything looks better in the morning.
In addition to the general exhaustion and impatience I’d felt the night before, I had also been nervous. The closer we got to home the more I doubted what we were doing. Would any of it make sense? We were on this random trip that had no apparent continuity except for the road that connected each stop.
Some of our destinations had been picked out in advance; others, like Salvation Mountain, the International Car Forest of the Last Church, and Great Sand Dunes were added because of conversations with strangers.
And then others were random decisions to “turn there!” I was second-guessing everything. I was even nervous that we hadn’t seen enough, that we should have done more, even though we still had five more days of travel ahead of us.
Good lord, woman – what did I expect of myself? What did I expect of my husband?
In the morning I took a second look. I realized that we were going to two more National Parks that day featuring two completely different climates and landscapes, and both were in Colorado.
“This is what I’m trying to highlight,” I thought. The range of climates, geography, geology, cultures, tragedies, survivals, and experiences in this country – this trip was a random sampling of the United States. That’s what I wanted to show. It’s good and bad and beautiful and ugly; America is all of this.
Of course, I reminded myself, we couldn’t do everything. But we had done a lot, and there was more to come, and the entirety was a vivid quilt of what makes this country great.
We turned north on CO-150 outside of Alamosa. In the distance we could see a slight discoloration at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range, and as we neared the dunes took shape. It almost looked like an airbrushed landscape. Black mountains topped with white in the distance, beige brush all around us, and in between the tallest sand dunes in North America.
If you want to see a cyclical environment, you can’t get a much more perfect example than Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
The formation of the dunes began in the San Luis Valley about 440,000 years ago. Glaciers melted, creating a lake. When its water evaporated, sand and soil accumulated on the high desert plain. The Rio Grande and its tributaries contributed to those deposits, which were picked up by westerly winds.
When the winds came up against the mountain range they lost some of their oomph, and since they could no longer carry the extra baggage, they dropped it and the dunes were born.
They continue to grow. At the base of these huge piles of sand are wetlands and streams that cascade from the mountains. As their water evaporates, the cycle continues.
To get to the dunes from the Visitor Center, we walked a short trail through the sand sheet and over Medano Creek. It’s an intermittent, seasonal stream that was mostly dried up when we were there.
After the snow melt and summer thunderstorms it can get up to a foot deep, but we were able to keep dry as we crossed over rivulets. In the distance people were sandboarding and sand sledding down the dunes, riding special boards they either brought themselves or rented in Alamosa.
It was quiet; in fact, this is the quietest National Park in the 48 contiguous states.
With that silence, and the barrenness of the dunes, it was tempting to think the park was devoid of wildlife. It most certainly was not. It’s actually home to black bears, badgers, and other mammals; more than 200 species of birds; salamanders, frogs, and toads; tiny short-horned lizards; and more than 1,000 types of insects and spiders – that they know of.
Seven of those arthropods can be found nowhere else on earth. (Wearing shoes is advised.)
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was another haphazardly-added item to our itinerary that resulted in an eye-opening, educational experience, illustrating just how much there was to learn about this country.
Once we were on our way again it didn’t take long until we were completely out of the mountains and into the flat high plains of Eastern Colorado. We were headed to Timpas and the Comanche National Grasslands. This was not your typical tourist destination, and was certainly a different experience from the Great Sand Dunes and especially any of the Utah parks. I plugged “Comanche National Grasslands” into Google and it only pulled up the Carrizo Unit in the southeast corner of the state. Frankly, I have no idea how we even found the Timpas Unit.
What used to be a thriving town was now practically deserted, its only point of interest the picnic area and wayside exhibits marking the Santa Fe Trail.
I found a green spot on the map that indicated Vogel Canyon, so we headed east on a decently graded unpaved road. It took us through a mix of public land and private property demarcated by cattle guards.
The road seemed like it would go on forever just the way it was: straight, with rare and faint hills and dips, towards an unbroken horizon. It was the kind of road where oncoming vehicles kicked up dust clouds miles away. An occasional bird alit from a fence post, and a herd of pronghorn antelope followed alongside before leaping away.
It was peaceful, and bare, and easy to see how this area had once been the dustbowl.
The plains of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma had drawn homesteaders in the early twentieth century. Determined to make a go of it, they planted and tilled just like they did back east, except this soil was different. The prairie grasses were the only things holding it down, so when they dug those grasses up followed by a three-year drought, the whole area became a swirling cloud of dust.
The Federal government bought the land from the bankrupt homesteaders and in 1960 established Comanche National Grassland.
We drove through occasional rolling hills and stopped at a lone crumbling stone building set away from the road and marked with “We’re watching you” signs.
We made another stop at a marker for the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Route, and could see the ruts from the wagon wheels. Thinking about our air-conditioned comfort was quite the contrast to the stagecoaches that had made those grooves, especially considering that section of the trail hadn’t been used since 1876.
Our stop at the Vogel Canyon picnic area was short, basically just long enough to stretch our legs. The sun was starting to set. While the trail was only a mile to the canyon we didn’t want to get stuck on those back roads at dusk, so we hiked a few hundred feet, came back and signed the trail register, and Jim threw away a couple of empty beer cans someone had left in the box. (Who does that?)
Returning to Priceline for hotel guidance, we ended up at the nearly deserted but clean and courteous Bent’s Fort at America’s Best Value Inn just east of Las Animas.
The Inn was fifty years old with an antique safe from Spain in the lobby. The nice gent behind the counter said it was because the Mexican border used to be just south of the hotel. I had on my Chicago Cubs t-shirt, and he was wearing a Chicago Cubs hat, so we chatted and found out he’d moved to Colorado from Naperville.
It was a completely different experience from the one we’d had the night before.
The next morning we added another unplanned stop to our itinerary. The hotel was named after Bent’s Old Fort, a National Historic Site less than twenty minutes away. As we’d said so many times before, “we’d come this far.”
Nope, we definitely did not have to worry that we weren’t doing enough on this trip. It was a good thing we were a few days from home.
Previously published with modifications at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Driving through the Dusty Comanche National Grasslands