Article and Photographs by Jocelyn Catterson.
“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” – Edgar Allan Poe
FROM Denver, Colorado, drive up US-285 into the foothills of the Rockies, through the mountains and past the town of South Park made famous by the TV show, over Kenosha Pass at a winding 65 miles per hour, onto a stretch of road where the houses become scattered among the hills, through Poncha Springs, up and over Poncha Pass, and finally, you will emerge into the high desert of the San Luis Valley, where the sky opens up and the air smells like dust and sage.
After driving to the San Luis Valley with my family almost every year since I was a toddler, I know this drive as well as I know the directions to my childhood home. I have memorized the time it takes to reach the valley from every notable landmark. I know to always stop at the gas station in Poncha Springs for snacks, and at Coney Island in Bailey for lunch. I know where and when traffic will get backed up as swarms of people try to drive home after a weekend in the mountains. But most importantly, I know the euphoric feeling of finally coming down Poncha Pass into the beautiful San Luis Valley.
The valley sits at an average elevation of 7,664 ft in southern Colorado and encompasses an area of land about the size of Connecticut. Dry, sagebrush covered flatlands stretch out to barren dunes of sand while the 14,000 foot snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains loom in the distance. Over time, winds have ripped through the valley, slamming thousands and thousands of pounds of sand into the Sangre de Cristos and creating sand dunes hundreds of feet tall. The same force that brought the sand seems to have brought an inescapable strangeness and beauty to the San Luis Valley and the people who inhabit it.
My family has traveled to the valley almost every year to camp outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park. As a child I sat along a creek near the dunes building sand castles and splashing in the cool water. Small dams of sand slowly formed in the creek until they broke under the pressure of moving water. These releases of water sent surges, like little ocean waves, down the length of the creek. My dad and I stood ankle deep in the water jumping over the waves as they rushed towards us. The creek was a refuge from the intense summer heat that turned the sand to magma during the middle of the day. But the incessant buzzing of gnats, mosquitos, and flies often made the magma of sand dunes seem like a welcome relief.
Hiking uphill in sand takes effort similar to walking through water: one step up, sink into the sand, fall back half a step, empty your tennis shoes, and continue. I imagine the monotonousness of hiking upward while facing the dunes is similar to walking through the Sahara Desert, but in the valley you can always turn around to the Sangre de Cristos looming in the distance.
The summer that I entered middle school, my dad and I spent all morning slugging through the sand in order to reach the top of the Star Dune, the tallest of the sand dunes in the park at a height of 750ft. I sat at the top of the dune with the Sangre de Cristos right in front of me and the San Luis Valley stretching for miles and miles behind. The blazing afternoon sun burned right through layers of sunscreen to my pale skin and a strong, hot wind whipped sand into my eyes. The sweat that had accumulated on my skin from the hike acted like a sand magnet. My sneakers were filled with sand. My skin was gritty with sand. My clothes were covered in sand.
As I sat on top of the dune, watching people the size of ants run through the creek far below, it started to hail. The wind whipped pebble-sized balls of ice mixed with sand into my face. In a matter of minutes, I was no longer sweating, but freezing. There was not a cloud in the sky.
I have heard stories of lightning striking during snowstorms in the valley and of freezing rainstorms in the middle of the summer. Even though the San Luis Valley is a desert, you cannot plan on sunshine. Unpredictability creates the strange beauty of the place.
If you turn left onto CO-17 after you enter the San Luis Valley and drive straight towards the sand dunes in the distance, the Colorado Reptiles Gators Park will pop out of the sandy soil like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Here you can hold a baby alligator, get your picture taken with Mr. Bo Mangles (one of only 50 albino alligators in the world), and, if you’re lucky, see someone wrestle a gator, all for the bargain price of $15.
Inside the building, the putrid smell of stale water and wet reptile excrement mixes with the flowery perfume of visiting tourists. The constant sound of water spilling into the reptile tanks fills every corner. The water pours, splashes, and gurgles behind the glass in order to simulate a more lush and moist environment in the arid San Luis Valley. African Sulcata tortoises and alligators sit with half-open eyes in their pens. Occasionally children squeal in fear or delight as their parents make them pose for a photo with Mr. Bo Mangles. In the gift shop, a tattooed man with large muscles and a blue mohawk yells, “Gator wrestling will take place in the outer area of the park in five minutes. You wanna see if yer tough enough to wrestle a gator, come talk to me at the front desk.” Gurgle. Splash. Squeal. All the noises bounce around inside the mildewed walls of the reptile park. Every visitor begins to take on the smell of soggy reptile poop and flowery perfume.
I visited the reptile park for the first time the same year my dad and I climbed to the top of the Star Dune. The day before we came to the reptile park, one of the older gators died and some of the others had begun to munch on her sides during the night. In order to mitigate any potential conflicts over food, the park decided that it would be best to cut up the dead gator and feed it to the survivors. Fair and square. And they decided to make the feast a spectacle.
Swarms of tourists covered in sunscreen, wearing big, round sunglasses and oversized sun hats, shoved their faces against the fence that surrounded the outdoor gator pool. Employees lugged buckets full of dead gator towards the enclosure and chucked chunks of meat over the fence. Onlookers oooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the cannibalistic gators swinging open their jaws to catch the delicacy.
On our way out of the park, my parents gave me $10 to spend in the gift shop and I chose to buy a squishy, neon blue alligator gummy. But as I ate the gummy in the backseat of my mom’s minivan, the summer sun making the back of my thighs sweat against the carpeted seat, all I could think about was the alligator meat being thrown into the enclosure. I tossed the half eaten gummy into the garbage can before we left the parking lot. Even though the experience
made me nauseous, I loved the strangeness of it. As soon as we returned home, I made sure to tell my middle school friends all the gory details.
As I have grown older, the strange lure of the San Luis Valley has grown stronger. Summer visits, though preferable, are no longer always feasible and I have turned to the winter months to get my San Luis fix. During the winter break of my first year in college, I set my sites on the valley once again. Instead of summer car camping with my family, I forced my boyfriend at the time to backpack through the brutal cold of the Great Sand Dune National Park in January.
On our way down to the San Luis Valley, we were the only customers in the Authentic Thai restaurant in Poncha Springs. The town, boasting a population of 748, sits nestled at the base of multiple 14,000 foot peaks in the Colorado Rockies, far from the urban sprawl of the front range.
The Authentic Thai restaurant was too large for the amount of customers that it appeared to receive. No music played as we sat waiting for our waitress to take our orders, and the silence was overwhelming as our voices echoed off the walls. Bright red and gold tassels hung throughout the large room, but, otherwise, the decorations were sparse. The greasy smell of stir fry and sriracha hung in the air and the voices of a man and woman speaking in a foreign language drifted to our booth from the back of the restaurant. A middle aged woman with a strong Thai accent and long black hair served us cup after cup of a strong jasmine tea.
“Where are you from?” she asked. “The foothills outside Denver,” I said. “What are you doing out here?”
A lot of tourists come through this town on their way down to Taos or the San Luis Valley. But we were coming through in the middle of January, during the off season, and the weather forecast screamed warnings of temperatures reaching as low as -12 ºF over the weekend. The woman was curious as to what we could possibly be doing in the area in such cold weather.
“We’re going to backpack through the Great Sand Dunes National Park,” I told her.
Her eyes grew wide and a concerned look crept across her face. “Oh, but it is going to be so cold! You must eat lots of beef jerky. That will keep you warm. Beef jerky.” She gave us two giant to-go cups of jasmine tea for the road and we continued on towards the San Luis Valley.
Except for a few park rangers, we were the only people in the park that weekend. Wind whipped through the valley with gusts up to 40 mph and the temperature dropped to a bone- chilling -12 ºF at night. The creek was frozen. The sand was frozen. The fuel for our stove was too cold to light and my hands were too numb to even use the lighter.
Before going to bed that night, I stood looking up at the constellation of Orion shining bright in the clear sky overhead and felt an overwhelming sense of bliss. I loved the absurdity of the weather we were experiencing in contrast to the seemingly hot and dry landscape. I loved the way the snowy Sangre de Cristos loomed over the sand dunes. I loved the strange and motherly Thai woman from Poncha Springs. I loved the memories of hailstorms on top of the dunes, the surges of water in the creek, and the man with the blue mohawk at the gator park. It was the strangeness of the San Luis Valley that made the place beautiful.
On our way back from the sand dunes, I sat in the same booth at Authentic Thai as I had on our way in. I was covered in sand and smelled of cold sweat, but the same greasy smell of stir fry and sriracha hung in the air and the same woman with the strong Thai accent served us the same jasmine tea.
“I so worried about you,” she said. “It was so windy and I stay up thinking bout you all night. Thought about you out there in the cold, in the wind!”
She sat at the booth with us, pouring cup after cup of that strong jasmine tea. Her husband sang as he cooked our Pad Thai in the kitchen. After our bellies were full and we had our to-go cups filled, we drove down US 285 and away from the strange beauty of the San Luis Valley, away from the giant dunes of sand and the Sangre de Cristos covered in snow, away from the flatlands covered in sage, away from the gator park and the man with the blue mohawk, and away from the Thai woman who always gave us free to-go cups of jasmine tea.
Article and Photographs by Jocelyn Catterson.
Jocelyn grew up in a small town in Colorado and fell madly in love with the mountains. This passion has grown more intense with time and has come to include the desert, the plains, and the rivers, a passion for morning light and deep canyons, the smell of pine trees and hours spent on the road. These things have become the driving force behind her life and photography. She has become fascinated with the connection between man and nature and the simplistic beauty of a life lived in a tent/on the road.