Great Sand Dunes
These are some email journals sent as we visited Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, the upper Rio Grande near Creede, CO, and Pagosa Springs, CO, near the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
Date: Sat, 17 May 2008
Hello. I am trying out a blog this month. I know I haven't corresponded well, and this
continues the one-way flow. But I'll blame it on work,and now,we're taking our prairie
schooner to the fabled land of Colorado. If we have time to goof around with a blog,we
should have time for leisurely emails as well. You most likely need to reply to this
invite to see the blog,because I tried to make everything for family and friends only.
There's not much in the blog at this time,due to previously mentioned lack of internet
use. And who wants to see another vacation blog anyway? We will make the effort to provide
the full drama of life,of which there should be plenty. We have a four year old,a two year
old,a laptop,and a tent barely big enough for the show. As a sneak preview,we look forward
to introducing Noli to life without diapers,by introducing him to life without pants. And
if that isn't rough enough for you,I am only bringing 60 GB of music for the road!
On to St Louis!
Date: Tue, 20 May 2008
well nothing went wrong so far.
first all of our friends and family were expected to sign up for yahoo accounts. and I left
the power plug to the laptop plugged into the wall at home. and we all left with the flu, or
hand foot and mouth disease, or whatever debilitating infection it was that makes sitting up,
breathing, staying awake, and swallowing a more fitting challenge for the effortless task of
driving to the rockies.
so anyway, sorry about the the yahoo thing. I probably won't blog it. I may just send some
email and an occasional picture. I have a hard enough time with social networks, if you
haven't noticed, and commercialized coercion doesn't make it more appealing. let me know
if I should not be including you in this unsolicited enspamulation. I could have opened
the blog to the entire internet, but we're not interested in that.
we made it to Matthew and Candy's, outside of Washington, Missouri, in time for a 6 o'clock
dinner, thanks to the time zone change and our familiarity with being on the lost route. I
can't remember much of the drive, because my whole body felt like my lower back usually does,
and my lower back felt like my brain has felt lately. but it was the maiden voyage for the
prairie schooner, a 5x8 flatbed cargo trailer, and things rolled along smoothly, so there
was lot of happiness in the subtext of our misery. the ipod sounded like crap, but I am hoping
it was just low on battery, and not receiving enough juice from the three-way 12-volt adapter
that was also running the kids' dvd player. as long as no one is shrieking or whining, mom and
dad consider a straining semi in our wind-blasted window to be smooth jazz, so the music has
not been a backbreaker. for some reason, I didn't think to charge up the macbook, the phones,
or the ipod at Matthew's house, so we finally sorted most or all of it out during our Kansas leg.
Life at Forty Legends could not have been better. We told them we would only stay for the weekend,
but the serenity left us wanting for more. Serenity is a tall order, too, with Matt and Candy's
three kids, and three of their cousins also partaking of the slice of Missouri pie. Neylan and
Noli held their own and played well, and didn't break any chickens or goats, so they too look
forward to their return visit, very likely on our way back home. I can usually tell when I had
a great time, because I never thought to break out a camera, or any electronics, or any thing
else besides a change of clothes and toothbrush. Although schlepping the kids junk kind of
slows down the rest of my schlepping. I managed to compose a few pictures as we were leaving.
Monday morning rolled around, and we saw the Soete kids off to school, packed the car, and
ventured west. We shot up to Columbia, MO, to pick up the magnetic macbook plug, and hopped
back onto I-70. We were hoping to just take US 50 the whole way, but Missouri is beautiful
just about anywhere. Our lunch in Columbia consisted of a fajita plate for two, which easily
fed all of us. Not a bad option, if you can get the kids to actually eat much of it. Kansas City
at rush hour was a breeze. We stayed on 70 and didn't notice a thing, but all of the overpasses
looked jammed. That night in Topeka, we stayed at a Best Western and started to organize our
family unit a little. Noli finally got a good night's sleep, since the first couple of nights
we were all on the floor on futons, which was like a big slumber party for him. All of that
craziness, plus the nasty sore that thing finally caught up to him, and we all slept well.
It was cool to realize that wireless internet is standard at hotels, so there is no need to
get sucked in by advertising for it. I thought that was the case, but I never needed it before.
We had fruit loops, waffles, and a warm swim for breakfast, so we're able to check those off of
our to-do list.
On to Salina, and then a cool turn to the southwest. There is a decent diagonal from Salina to
Dodge City that cuts off a lot of miles, and the highway speed is mostly the same. Plus you get
to see some small towns. Driving home from Washington some 15 years ago, I remember declaring
that Nebraska was actually very beautiful, and worth driving through. I feel the same way about
Kansas, especially when you add in the history, and consider its relationship between the Rockies
and the Mississippi. Now maybe it is a result of Wal-Mart centralization and Interstate highway
economics, but there is a lot of Kansas and Colorado on smaller highways, and even US highways,
that looks like a great depression. Certainly not progress and success. But at the same time,
the industry is still grinding away, and maybe this is how it always looks. It's just Kansas.
I felt like it was not any different from central Mexico, except that we rarely saw any human
beings. Mexico looks like Kansas did, but you usually see people outside doing stuff, and
children doing their things, outside. That will be an accurate barometer of America's condition:
when the houses are warmer than the outside, then we finally know we're back to basics. Then
again, maybe all of the grungy squalor we saw has just plain been abandoned, and who knows if
that is better.
So here we are in Lamar Colorado, at an interstate-style Super 8. We walked up the main drag
to eat some good Thai food, and stretch the legs. This town again, seems to be all abandoned
businesses, some Interstate-style hotels and gas stations, and a Wal Mart. The good Thai place
was right across from a nice park dedicated to steam engines and the Santa Fe Trails, so they
might see some tourist business. But who am I to speculate on these hard working towns. They
are certainly hard scrabble. The wind blows hard and the crops grow green only as far as the
sprinklers reach. As it has always been. We are headed further south and west, into the San Luis
Valley, one of the oldest settlements, I think, of northern Mexico. I saw this part of Colorado
20 years ago when I was looking for greater challenges on the upper reaches of the Rio Grande.
I went all the way up to Creede, in George Strickland's chevette, and was turned away disappointed
by the river. But it is paying off. Due to all of the snow this year, we decided not to stake the
success of our vacation on the quiet stretches of the Arkansas River, further north. Brad McCallister
confirmed that there may not actually be any mellow water on the Arkansas at this time of year. The
Rio should have some nice mellow stretches, even if the flow is pretty strong. And before we even
get there, we hope to find that Great Sand Dunes has a snow melt creek flowing next to it, for a
whole new beach experience for the kids and Mona and me. We shall see. I am not sure when we may
write again. It's all campgrounds and maybe some wi-fi cafes for the next couple of weeks.
I have a few pics to add. I'll keep them small.
Hasta la escribe,
Tom and Mona
Date: Wed, 28 May 2008
sittin in a coin-op laundry with-out wi-fi. oh the agony. but I can still type. Noli is rolling matchbox
cars under the attendant's mop, and Neylan is coloring with Mona. we're in alamosa, hiding from a bitter wind
blowing across the dunes today. It should start warming up again tomorrow, and definitely after that.
so we hopped into our comfort zone and drove into town for fuel, supplies, cheaper firewood!, and a killer
lunch at some combo asian/southwest lunch place. we hope to make it up to reptile world before getting
back to the dunes, that's what drew us out here. and the ufo place is nearby. before we left, when we were
grooomiing the yard, we talked about camping out in our backyard for a month. I guess this is what it
would have been like. but we're surrounded by snowy rocky mountains, and the rivers are swollen, so it's
an exciting change of scenery. and the cool breeze feels great, just not a lot of it for the kiddos. They
had a great night in the tent. That's our other comfort zone. lots of pads and blankets and sleeping
bags, throw in some dolls and books, and we can ride out any storm.
so we are still anticipating the super fantastic fun blast promised by the dunes and medano creek, but
that's okay, we've been hyping it for months anyway. our sand buckets and shovels are ready for action.
Maybe tonight, probably tomorrow friday.
Tuesday, last night at Great Sand Dunes. I haven't read Mona's scribulations yet, so I will try to
recount things from memory. so laundry, eh? I think frome there we might have gone to see the colorado
gators. there are a lot of gators, there, hangin out in the geothermal pools. apparently, some hang out
outside the fencing, but they were "so cold and drugged up that they wouldn't bother anyone." That's
what some guys told me later, as the kids were mucking about in the creek. Lots of tilapia and gators and a
few other reptiles, fond memories of Central Florida. Unfortunately, we snapped a predator synapse in Noli,
and he may take a few years or lives to recover from it. The ostriches didn't exactly help. Noli didn't say
a word until sometime the next morning. He probably had an ear infection related to our family illness. So
he's actually being a good sport about all of this, especially for a guy with the genetic switch we call
D-O-U-G. He likes things to be in the order that he determines. Maybe he's grasping for any minute measure
of control that he can find. The wind and the snow and the rain those first few days were definitely testing
everyone's everyone's desire to commune with them, but modern conveniences helped, and each day turned
The friday modern convenience was the large geothermal swimming pool. The water is ancient, but the walls and
the sun shades, lunch counter and changing rooms made things somewhat fabulous. I don't think that I got to
the dunes until maybe saturday, and this was my trip, so you can interpolate how challenging the cold, sand,
and wind were. Two days at the pools, and we were able to hold off the rebellion. Saturday we still had to
spend time away from the elements, this time driving to the new age hipville of Crestone. Aligned chakras,
enlightenment and all that, plus a nice buddha garden and plexiglas stupa. We stumbled upon a health food
store with delicious sandwiches, including pastrami, and chocolate cake, and we drove up the mountain a
ways, past the Church of Dog school bus. So it was a fun trip to the north side of the dunes.
Meanwhile. the days turned slightly warmer and the winds waited slightly later each day to howl. We
finally made a family assault on the dunes on Sunday, but it was after lunch, when Noli needed a nap and the
winds were blasting. On top of that, we walked from the campground instead of driving to the river side
parking lot. Obviously, the advantage to this boot camp, is that eventually some day we might enjoy some
quality leisure time with the family, down by the river.
That's right, Monday. As predicted by the Rangers of the National Park Service of the USA, the weather did
turn warm and relatively mellow. We skipped the cooked breakfast, except for coffee and hot chocolate, and
hit the dunes before wind time. It was a bit cool for swimming, but the kids managed to find some joy in the
water and sand. I dashed off to the dunes for a quick climb and a few torsion dives, at long last. Still,
the wind picked up and we retreated by noon. We drove long enough for Noli to pass out, and then shot up
another mountainside, on the south end of the dunes, to Zapata falls, where Noli slept in the shade while
Mona typed and read. Neylan and I hiked a half mile up the trail to the creek. Actually, Neylan hopped rocks,
up the trail, so it took a while. The creek is your typical exemplar of rocky mountain splendor. Sunlight
filtered by aspens and cottonwoods, splashing onto a shallow clear stream over rocks and the occasional
ledge. We took our shoes off, figuring the hike back would be nicer, and waded up the stream. Soon, I was
carrying Neylan up the stream and over the ledges, since the water was numbing our toes. It was wasn't
far, though, and soon, we were in the chasm of Zapata Falls, soaking up the familiar icy breezes of the San
Luis Valley. Remember, I convinced Mona that this wouyld be just like the beach, but with awesome
mountain views. And it is, but the wettest season is still a bit on the cool side.
Having truly settled in to the rhythm of the dunes, we actually took in some of the evening ranger programs
at the amphitheater. The main attraction, is that when we walk back, we realize just how many stars we have
been missing. "They're like tiny little full moons", according to Neylan. The presentations were on horns
and antlers, bears, and vegetation, so they are quite helpful as we are camping or hiking in a majestic,
maybe magical place.
Tuesday, our final full day. Calm winds in the morning, and warm, we go ahead and cook breakfast to
use up some eggs in the pancakes, and the rest of the badass hippie bacon from Crestone. We finally realized
that we could drive a short way up the four wheel drive road, to get to some different duens, that are
far less frequented. The sand gets very soft by the time you park a 2WD vehicle, but you can deflate the
tires to gain some traction. Uh, so that's why there is an air pump at the dumpster, back at the
campground. We hiked a half mile or so down to the medano river, but this time, there was no one around,
and the steep dunes drop straight down to the water. We found some shade under a bush. We couldn't actually
identify it, although it is common. The kids toyed with the shovels and buckets a bit, and eventually we
had them running around on a sand island in the shallow river, playing catch with the current, by
tossing a ball upstream. By the end of our stay, we were mostly naked, covered in sand, rinsing in the
river, and diving in the dune. From the top of our local dune, we could see the campground and visitor
center, maybe a half mile downstream, but we saw only two people, who had hiked up to the high dune, down to
Sand Pit, where we were, and back downstream. Again, we were packing up by noon, due to the sun burn
possibilities. But we had peanut butter and honey on bread before we left, and again some payoff. Not only
did we not slice off the edges of the manky, flat, remaining slices of the week's loaf, but Neylan even
offered to eat the whole slice, including the edges. Good thing she did, because she got the heel for one
side anyway. It was a long, sandy hike back through the cacti, but it guaranteed a mellow afternoon at the
camp site, hanging out in the woods by the creek.
All in all, we settled into our campsite to the point that we didn't want to leave. The dinners, beers,
chores, views, and snoozes, all melded into a reasonable facsimile of the simple life. All those
cool moments and brilliant turns of phrase have radiated to the stars, since it was too much of an
imposition to power up the laptop. I am writing from the Snowshoe Lodge, in Creede, Colorado now. The
campsite type session didn't work out. We packed up Wednesday morning, and drove across the San Luis
Valley, to the Upper Rio Grande. We hoped to stay in South Fork, but it was a bit too much like Jellystone
campground in Kissimmee, Florida. Kind of cheesy. So we continued up the river. We found our riverside
campsit, Palisade, along the River, then headed up to Creede, for some laundry, shopping, dinner, and motel
luxury. We should be camping again tomorrow, then running the river a couple of times. No whitewater,
although the river is defintiely cruising. There is a class II stretch between Creede and Palisade that the
Mountain Men are rafting commercially, but it will be too risky with the tots. The kids had hot hot dogs,
while we had margharitas and wicked tacos at Kip's, so the Creede stop was worthwhile. I am typing with my
pinkies, because all of my fingers and heels have splits, so this is a good time to call it an email.
Discovery channel is our motel friend, not to mention wireless internet.
Hope to write in a week or so,
Date: Fri, 30 May 2008
we've been soaking up the dunes for......5 days now.
and are finally hitting something of a groove. funny to take a first family camping trip for a month -
far afield from home-sick with some sort of creeping crud - never having a shakedown attempt with all our
equipment. we seem to have taken the whole "car camping" thing a bit lightly. or i know i did.
back of my mind reassuring me as i gathered kitchen gear, clothes, etc. well how bad can it be? we can just
get in the car and aquire whatever..... for all the time i've spent walking/floating along, i'd wish i'd
days here in colorado go from finding ice crystals in the water bottles to shorts and tevas within a
single pass of the sun. we found that we'd forgotten flash lights, brought the wrong adapter for the lantern,
and could have used more layers for the kids. since we're out a ways from any town it's hard to replace these
things, but it's all beginning to work regardless. it helps that the front that brought us snow, ice
balls and rain has passed and temperatures are higher and the sun is shining through for longer periods.
with the sun the kids are more easily convinced that they are indeed having fun, for our first few days
it was hard to find the enthusiasm needed to pull them along. lots of tears have been shed. in part due
to residual krud, sore throats, runny noses - lack of "bob the builder" -- and in part to the immediate
chill after leaving the safety of the car or tent. given the cold we have explored all the plan b
options this corner of colorado has to offer. there's an alligator farm (it started as a fish farm
in the geothermal waters, the alligators were brought in to eat the fish offal) a funky ragtag family
affair - with everything from cats and goats- to alligators, ostrichs, and tropical plants, and a few
disconcerting holes in the fencing. noli has been scarred by this outing. after a full 24 hours of strangely silent
staring alternating with tearful clinging he has begun to say -- scared alligator, alligator bye bye? oy,
what were we thinking!!!
there is a grand outdoor pool like a vast hot tub, with mind blowing views of the dunes, that has been
our ace in the hole. there was laundry and the grocery store. we have walked along the dunes, built sand castles,
buried our feet, splashed in the creek and met new friends. yesterday was lovely. the kids hiked over
a mile in decent spirits and played in the stream beside the tent.
today we rousted early and drove to the side of the dunes and beat the wind for more sand and water fun.
through it all the kids' take on our outings surprises me. neylan finds the treats at any given stop
paramount to whatever we may see. and want to return so she can cajole tom and me into buying her a
toilet shaped candy dispenser filled with suger complete with lollipop "scrubbers" to dip up the sugary insides.
nevermind the pool, alligators, hawks, rocks, or beauty. she's also puzzled why we don't have a "house car".
that's all for now, we need to check out. going to camp on the upper rio grande, so no electronics for
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2008
pagosa. boiling waters.
another week is mostly past, again with no inclinations to fire up the laputer. we had so much
fun at the motel in creede, doing laundry, shopping, and eating tacos, that we spent two nights there. we
drove up main street, which is at the base of a steep canyon, hoping to see what was up beyond town. had we
paid any attention to the brochures, we would have know that this was the main attraction. first we went
by the underground firehouse, choosing to visit it later. then up the canyon, until we saw the signs for
the bachelor loop. we continued up the right fork, assuming the left was for downhill traffic. on up the
crazy willow creek, we pushed the jetta to its offroad clearance limits. luckily, there was a huge snow and
rock slide blocking the road, so we stopped and threw rocks and sticks into the froth. it was a really good
time for everyone, but we eventually turned around. on the way back, we cleared a lot of rocks and drove with
fewer passengers until the road eased up again. then we decided to check out the left fork, and drove up
some really, really steep hills, but the road was smooth. we finally figured out that we were on the
bachelor loop, and read the brochures that described the old silver mines and various other historical
sites. up in the mountain tops, we took in some fresh air as the kids napped, enjoyed the views, and read
some more about bachelor city, an old mining town long returned to grass and stone.
we packed up the next day and drove up river, instead of back down to the palisade campground, because it
looked so inviting on the maps. on the way out of town, I inquired with the local rafting outfitter
about the whitewater and hazards, and he mentioned the fisherman's campground, upstream of a site we were
interested in. most of the forest service campgrounds are $14-16 per night, but there are still many that
are not well-marked on the maps, or are just less-frequented, or maybe they are not in season yet.
this was one of those. we not only had a free campground on the river, but no one else was using it.
it had outhouses and water, so we supplied the rest. we set up camp, made dinner, roasted the mandatory
"mennows" (marshmellows) and planned our stay. after some driving around, we eventually drove up river
about 12 miles to the old San Juan City, once the capital of hinsdale county, and gateway to stony gap.
this was a treacherous route to silverton before the train made it to durango. the mule trains typically
had to pack their wagons on the mules to complete the crossing. It is now San Juan Ranch, but a couple of
the original buildings remain. just past that, we were greeted by an adult black bear at the side of the
road. we kept on driving, and he or she did not exactly back down. the whole rafting idea was not
sitting well with Mona already, due to the potential of losing her entire family, so the look I caught at
this point was, let's say memorable.
but I pressed on, acting like we do this all the time, since this stretch of river was perfect for the
occasion. it is flat and winding, as it meanders through a large valley floor, typical of a high alpine
meadow. the water was not high, but there was plenty of it, and the weather was warm and sunny. I conceded
that we probably did not need to teach ourselves how to fly fish on that particular outing, so that
probably eased the tension. It did turn out to be a wonderful, peaceful float, in the maiden river voyage
of our cheap chinese raft. we did take it to lake monroe a couple of times to see how it rode, before
heading west. we had an on-river picnic, and caught a tail wind at the big bend that signaled our home
stretch. the big bend was a confluence of the rio grande and two other significant streams, in one large
bowl, so the increase in wind was noticeable. we made the take-out at our campsite with ease, and then I
chugged some raisins and peanuts and water and hopped on the bike to fetch the car. this shuttle doesn't
sound bad on paper: twelve miles of relatively easy climbing on a lightly-traveled paved highway. but then
there is the head wind, which increases as the day wears on. and the couple of weeks' worth of dust in
the chain and gears. and I left the helmet in the car, so I could not wear a hat in the wind. but, still, it
was only 12 miles, and it was a beautiful afternoon. I was greeted back at camp by hootin and hollerin, the
way a camp should sound on the upper rio grande, and we had another fantastic dinner and mennows.
It was enough of a work out that we easily agreed to spend sunday fishing and relaxing. we did that, sort
of. I bought a good book on teaching children how to fly fish, when I bought the rod and flies in Creede. I
skipped to page 97 to read how to tie the flies on and how to cast. It gets complicated. I wanted to avoid
the trees and weeds at our site by fishing from the raft at the base of the island that was just upstream
of our camp. well, our little boat is not a high performance rig, and with one person paddling, that
whole idea ended quickly, but with less excitement than there could have been. back on shore, I tried to
show some basic ideas to Neylan, but the wind was stiff, there were no eddies, and the water was pretty
high. We gave it a good hour or two, but it was just me casting sideways into the current. now that we have
the book and equipment, it should be a fun thing to practice back home. Wespent the afternoon driving
further up the river, again towards Stony Gap. We found some incredibly beautiful riverside campgrounds,
an upper canyon, and some nice lakes filled with waterfowl. it was the perfect nap for Noli. Neylan
crashed too, since we had spent so much time in the sun. on the way back down to our camp, they woke up,
and we stopped in at Freemon's General Store for ice cream, so it was another successful day.
If I was in the right frame of mind, I would take this moment to compose Neylan's journal entries, something
like this: day 4. we stopped at a gas station and bought some airheads. dinner day 5. hot dogs and very
delicious chocolate ice cream. day 6. hotel breakfast has fruit loops. this is a good hotel. day 8. we stop
for gas and discover a gumball machine. very good gumballs...
back to the rio grande, the river had been visibly rising through the week, and Monday's level was
noticeably beefier than saturday's. since we had a comfortable ride on the first leg of our journey, our
crew was not terribly shaken by the flow. noli was not thrilled, but then the gators, wind, and bears were no
big thrills for him either. this time Mona ran the car down to Creede, and biked up a decent dirt road for 8
miles. I dressed the kids, lathered them in sunscreen, and threw stuff in the river as we waited for her
return. we talked with a forest service employee who was interested in our bear sighting, as well as the
gorners (quarters) that Neylan and Noli were looking forward to spending at the nearest gas station. Mona
did return, and we hopped in to complete our overnight float with car-supported layover. The river is still
mostly flat to Creede, but it is more constricted, so there are more continuous waves. The main hazards are
low bridges built by landowners. tow or three of them were of major concern, but easy once you figured them
out. However, with the higher flows this week and next, and the higher oar rigs that most people use,
they are serious hazards.
We had a nice, warm, uneventful float - another good nap for noli - and packed it all up into the car. the
highlight of the day, by far, was shopping at the Gifts and Gas in Creede for just the right treat.
Neylan settled on Kiddie Mix, a bag of gumballs, now and laters, lollipops, and sweet tarts. Noli settled
on candy corn, although he may not have realized what a scam candy corn is. I settled on a new tape-deck
adapter for the ipod, since we determined that our old one was the cause of the lousy sound. the kids had
their most delicious picnic at the elementary school playground in Creede, while we hopped on someone's
wireless connection to figure out what to do next. we also threw our camp trash in the playground trash can.
It was a budget week. As funny as that sounds, though, it was probably the best week for the kids. They
helped without being asked, and found ways to play together without requiring new stimulation or
suggestions. Sitting here in lovely Pagosa Springs, I miss that already.
anyway, we packed up our private idaho, and drove through creede, and over to pagosa. we stopped in
creede for another round of tacos and hot dogs, and a play session, but we didn't get back to that
undergound firehouse. next time. We drove up the amazing south fork of the rio grande, over wolf creek
pass, and into the San Juan drainage.
There are mineral springs at the Spa Motel, nice restaurants, cable, laundry, an excellent riverwalk
and gigantic hot springs. At the end of the week, we ill enjoy a big bluegrass festival, and then the
Cumbres-Toltec scenic railroad. so we'll be doing the more normal family stuff. it will be fun, and we will
all be happy to be treating ourselves to the good life, but life seemed as good at fisherman's camp as
it has anywhere, ever. at least it might inspire us to create some more adventures.
soaking it up in the boiling waters,