The San Luis Valley

At 6:05a Christmas morning, I took off on a drive to my son Mateo’s home outside of Espanola, NM. The sun was just beginning to show itself as I headed south. I think early Christmas morning might be my favorite time to drive, ever. I had the world almost to myself. When I got to I-25 South there were about four cars that followed me all the way through the metro area. I was listening to classical Christmas music, and the scene was serene and comforting. I remember thinking, “This reminds me of the Colorado of my childhood”.
I stopped in Pueblo to say hi to my sister Rita and take a break. I soon headed south on an interstate route that I have driven 100’s of times. I can feel the stress flake off me as I see the Spanish Peaks on the horizon. In no time I was headed up La Veta Pass which empties into the San Luis Valley. 35 years ago in 1986, we moved to Alamosa which lies in the heart of the largest alpine valley in the world. It is a giant terrarium. It’s 60 miles wide by 120 miles long. It is totally surrounded by 14,000 ft peaks, with the Sangre do Christos on the east and the San Juans on the west.
We moved there with four kids, two cats and our best dog ever, Smiley the Australian Cattle dog. For the next 11 years I served as the pastor of First Christian Church in Alamosa. From 1993-97 I also served as the pastor of First Christian in Monte Vista. They were 19 miles apart and we lived out in the country placed nicely between them. The “Valley” as we came to know, it, is truly a mystical place. It is where Colorado history began. It is home to multiple cultures and peoples. The indigenous Americans would often spend the winter there as it had ample food and water everywhere. There are amazing farms and ranches there. It is full of artists, free spirits, and people whose line was “our car broke down here on our way to California and we never left”.
Let me tell you about the winter of 1991-92. On Halloween we got two feet of snow on the Valley floor, which is 7500 ft in elevation. What that did was to create a cold vacuum in the whole valley. There are thousands of artesian wells there which pour out warm water. This made a fog which covered the entire valley day and night. It was like a cloud lid. Every day got colder than the day before. For 91 days in a row it NEVER got above 0’ day or night. The coldest it got at our house that we knew of, was -44’.

For many days it got down to -63’ in La Jara, a town to the south of Alamosa.
I was at a minister’s meeting in Colorado Springs, where the pastor there was talking about being an Air Force Chaplain in Fairbanks, Alaska. “Do you know Mark, if it gets to minus 38’ you can do this amazing trick. Get water boiling and put it in a big thermal mug. Throw the water in the air and it will implode”. I headed home where I could not wait to try it. That night it was -41’ and I got the kids to join me. Sure enough, you throw the water up in the air and you hear a soft “whoooompffff” only to see a huge cloud go into the sky, and ice crystals sparkling in the night’s light. Soon word spread and for about three weeks this scene was repeated all over this frozen Dr. Zhivago tundra.
This Christmas Day the Valley did not disappoint. The winter scene was breathtaking. I turned south at Ft. Garland to head to Taos, NM, which was 70 miles away. My heart was filled with memories of Christmas time when my kids were all in our home. Of life in a small town where the best and worst of life together was shared (the best far outweighs the worst). As I was coming down the pass I was greeted by two Golden Eagles who were dining on the most recent road kill. I slowed down to come within just a few yards of these majestic birds. South of San Luis there are many wild horses and they did not disappoint. The almost yearling colts had grown since I saw them last summer.
I have had four homes in Colorado— Pueblo, Alamosa, Denver and now Arvada. Each of them have shaped me. The Valley, was the place where I found recovery, beauty, rich history, a love of the land, and a place where you lived in 360 degrees of sunrise and sunsets.
This Christmas morning I was alone but never lonely. Onward and Upward,
Mark

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