“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien
Things I was not expecting to see in Colorado:
- Vast sweeps of desert sand dunes
- Alligators and crocodiles
Granted, I’m not from these parts, but I’ve seen my share of western movies and perused the brochures – mustang herds and pine trees, John Denver and rafting the rapids. I’ve lived here and know our amazing spectrum of offerings, from Mongolian traditions to hot tamale salsa dancing.
But nowhere did I ever expect this. Yet there we were, hiking Lawrence of Arabia style, with sand in our sandals (that was day one; we got smart after that) across dune upon dune, as far as the eye could see.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has to be one of the most unexpected and incredible sites I’ve seen here in Colorado. On approach, the dunes appear as if out of nowhere, utterly different from the surrounding landscape. It’s as if a giant had been traveling through the high San Louis plains carting a massive load of sand and, not wanting to carry it through the Sangre de Cristo mountains, has simply dumped it all at the foothills.
I’d contemplated what to expect of the hot sands, and mentally picked out my perfect sand-hiking shoes, when I got my next shock: the first section was all water. Medano creek spreads wide and long at the base of the dunes, fed by the aquifer below. We took off our shoes and waded the creek, passing kids in bathing suits with sand buckets. On the other side the dry dunes I had been anticipating began in earnest, and we spent the next hour on the hot sand, making our way up and down, two steps forward, one slipping back. The park offered free entry that weekend as part of National Parks Week, and so, while certainly not crowded, there were other park visitors to be seen and observed in all directions. Some could be seen in the far distance (How far, we wondered? It was impossible to tell without the regular distance markers our minds instinctually use) hiking the Great Dune, while others were doing front flips and (poor devils, this never seemed to turn out well) horizontal rolls down the dunes.
We stopped to rest, digging back the sand so that Katie would have a cool patch of sand in which to lay her belly. Shortly after, we ourselves barreled down the dune, covering the short distance in one minute which had taken us a half-hour to climb.
The sand was getting hot, and we had put booties on Katie – those little tough balloons that seem so absurd in the store, yet so very practical to pop in a pocket and have available to guard against hot ground. Even so, the heat was rising and she was pulling back toward the bottom. We made our way up and down the remaining dunes toward the creek, shed shoes and booties, and cooled our four feet and four paws in the water. Ahhhh…..
We spent our final hour walking up the wide delta-like creek in search of the headwaters. We never reached the source, which turned out to be hidden some distance up the canyon where the sands end and the “normal” landscape begins, but we did see three horses pass – two with riders and one “off-leash” and following the others, stopping to paw frequently at the water, just for fun.
The day had one more strangeness to offer, one which has apparently been on Colin’s wish list for some time: a visit to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
This place, which began and still is… wait for it… a tilapia farm, is home to hundreds of alligators, crocodiles, caimans, tortoises, iguanas, and other such creatures. Warm water is supplied by the geothermal springs, and the remains of the tilapia farming business provide the food. The first hundred alligators were part of the tilapia business plan; the remaining creatures were relinquished to them by people who wanted to get rid of their pets when they realized – somehow they didn’t see this coming – that crocodiles and other reptiles grow up and get a little unwieldy.
We got to hold a small baby alligator, and a staff person filled us in on all the related content, ending with an offer to take the alligator wrestling classes the offer. Here I must clarify: they really do offer such classes. They also do not tape mouths shut (tape is hard on reptile skin; for those of a humane bent, this is apparently the only such operation in the state (States?) which does use this method; instead they wrestle them to do regular health checks and whatnot), so this is a class for the bold and the decisive. I gather you don’t want to change you mind halfway through wrestling an alligator. We did not sign up.
Beyond the aquarium-like section, we perused the tilapia pools, peaked in the medical tanks for sick alligators, and gawped at the albino alligators, and small-but-might caimans, and very much kept to the published path as we wound our way through swampy pools filled with basking rows of teeth. There was a mere layer of thick chicken wiring between us and such illustrious creatures as Big Betty, one of their original set, and Bruce Almighty, who is 20 years old, 800 lbs, 12 feet long – and still growing.
The final section of our visit brought us past farmland. Along with the usual assortment of chickens, they had emus and full-sized, fully displaying, girls-come-and-check-out-these-feathers turkeys, and with these two terrifying birds added to mix (I have had encounters with both – though that’s another story entirely), the place neatly took top prize for most disconcerting and unsettling visit.
Sand dunes and alligators behind us, it was time to head for canyonlands, and the Colorado I know.