Great Sand Dunes National Park  and Zapata Falls

A couple hours South of Poncha Pass the valley widened and the mountains grew shorter with peaks more dispersed.  We neared Great Sand Dunes National Park.  40 miles (roughly 65 km.) we spotted a beige cluster in the southeast distance.  The fact it was visible from such a distance suggests the scale of it.  We stopped for a quick bathroom break off the highway at a pit stop with no more than 2 of any item in stock, and less than a ¼ of the shelves with anything to catch the dust at all.  There was a diner attached.  If crickets paid they might make ends meet.  How these communities and places survive is a mystery to me.  The sandy, infertile, and incredibly inhospitable land was littered with mobile homes and trailers whose tin roofs were weighed down with old tires so not to fly away with the winds that whipped the land into it’s current condition.  Living in Edmonton and Saskatoon I’ve been questioned by many as to how we survive seasons.  The seemingly unfathomable cold is nothing compared to the un-growing, unproviding lands these are.  With cold brings snow, brings melt and feeds growth.  The native plants seem to barely survive here.  It’s hard to imagine this land providing in the sense we are accustomed to in the fertile, frozen north.

We lucked out coming into the park.  It seems those at the gate were on break.  The typically manned pay window was closed tight with a sign saying “gone, will collect payment on re-entry”.  Awesome!  National Park entry fees are $30.  Based on our cheap living budget that’s 3 days of meals for the two of us.  The dunes were barely visible from about 1km before the park gates until almost 2km after.  By that point they seem to quadruple in size.  What looked once like a sandy first rise up a desert mountain was suddenly a deep mass of sun warmed wash.  From the sandy, mostly frozen creek-bed below the dunes there is no camera lens that can capture the volume of what lies before you.  Carefully we skipped across 100m (300 feet) of partially frozen, still running, wet sand wash to get to the dry warm beach that is the base of the dunes.  And a beach it was!  This is by far the cleanest, softest, purest sand I’ve ever seen or set foot in.  It was dry 6” deep and I just can’t explain…  think the “champagne powder” of sand.

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With a quick preview and a plan of making the 750 foot vertical climb the following day, we left the park and headed up the next mountain south to a free campsite at the base of Zapata Falls.

I have a thing for waterfalls.  I find them absolutely fascinating and am obsessed with seeing and participating in as many as possible.  How exactly does one participate in a waterfall?  Good question.  I haven’t really given this much thought until this moment, the first time I’ve tried to explain or justify my obsession.  There is such a power behind any waterfall.  The only way they exist is because of thousands of years of water, something that seems so soft and gentle, forming rock; something so hard and un-formable.  You can participate by hiking nearby, ascending the same landscape they have cut through with no regard to its previous shape.  We swim and bath in the pools they form.  We jump off cliffs with them, feeling for a brief second the same power plunging into the pools below.  That’s all if you’re lucky. In most cases we participate simply by being there to observe and feel a power and force that cannot be measured by any man-made unit.

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Zapata Falls was all of that, but frozen.  Paused in time as for what you can see.  Your ears and feet disagree though.  Under thick, cracked ice, mostly clouded with air but for a few glimpses through a clear block.  This flow was alive and well beneath a frozen cloak of cold trying its best to put you on your backside with every slippery step.  I feel winter may be the best and possibly only real time to view these falls.  From the end of well groomed trail leading to them, the frozen state allows you to climb back into the tight and tall canyon, around a bend where the giant falls stand.  Without the solid water I’m not sure we would have witnessed this sight.

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Half-way back to the main parking area, the trail forks and leads an alternate route back to one of the best laid out campsites we’ve stayed at yet.  Two large loops, one for tenting and one for RV’s are lined alternately, either side with pull-through stalls, each complete with a bear-proof storage bin to keep food items in overnight, as well as picnic tables and steel fire-pits including removable grilling grates.  It seemed there wasn’t a site that didn’t offer beautiful panoramic views of the valley below, with the city of Alamosa to the South, the distant peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the West, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the North, slightly dwarfed by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains behind.  But just slightly.  From this elevated viewpoint we were able to, for the first time, really view and comprehend the 31 square mile sprawl of the dunes.

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Truck and Trailer- sunset view
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Rubix looking at the sunset from the trailer.
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Colorado Hospitality

Canadians are well known across the globe for their hospitable, friendly, and apologetic nature.  I’m sorry for stereotyping, but it’s generally quite true.  Canadians are genuinely concerned and adept to the state of happiness of our fellow Canucks or anyone else around for that matter.  With that said, I’ve found Colorado hospitality to rival that of most any Canadian experience I’ve had.  We’ve had the pleasure of experiencing 5 or 6 breweries, a few restaurants, as well as a few fuel stations.  At every one of which we were greeted with some of the friendliest folks we’ve ever come by.  Avery Brewing Co., as well as Asher Brewing in Boulder, Colorado, have some of the best staff we’ve ever encountered.  Not only was the beer fantastic, but the staff were incredibly welcoming and eager to help with anything we asked.  For example at Avery Brewery, we quickly realized that their substantial menu of beer ranging from 3.something % up to 16.9% was not ideal for those that wanted to continue trying everything that looked delicious and not drive themselves home after.  They did all they could to find us a way to get home (by home I mean Angela’s relatives place and the street on which our trailer was currently parked) with our dog who was waiting patiently in the truck.  That’s one of the perks of having dogs vs kids.  I find we aren’t judged nearly as much as a parent who goes to a bar and leaves their kids in the truck…

Unfortunately, in our experience, Boulder, Colorado has not developed quite the industry Saskatchewan and Canada have as far as designated driver services go that will drive you home in your vehicle.  Note for the future – business idea.  With that said, we did not stay at Avery long, opting to try out one more recommended local brewery, Asher Brewing.  Back home in Saskatoon, we have a few local microbreweries, one of which has become a bit of a second home.  Now this isn’t because of a serious disease known as alcoholism.  No, there are better reasons.  First of which is the regulars.  Prairie Sun brewery became a “Cheers” sort of local pub where you would walk in the door any given day and be greeted by name with friendly faces that you could sit next to for an hour or two and shoot the shit, whether you had one beer or three.  Asher Brewing had the same feeling.  It is a smaller place on the scale of Colorado microbreweries.  But it felt like Prairie Sun.  The bartender was friendly as could be, genuinely interested in our story of where we came from and what we were up to.  The Canadian I.D. tends to garner questions just about everywhere we go.  Imagine you are at work one day and a talking lama comes in and asks where to find a bathroom.  We feel like the lama.  For some reason, bewilderment is the first reaction, more often than not, when people realize they are in the presence of a Canadian.  Remember as a child when you first saw a rabbit or hare running through the streets?  And remember how you wondered if someone’s pet got out or if it escaped from the zoo?  We are the rabbits.  We really aren’t that foreign, yet we aren’t natural to the landscape.  Fortunately for us we have a common language with which to communicate and don’t simply run off scared.  And thanks to that common language we and the rabbit spotters in Colorado have found that we aren’t really that different.  In fact, this place feels like home.  It feels like Canada.  That is a compliment, Colorado.  We really like it here!

Having spent a couple weeks for family time with Angela’s Aunt, Uncle and their two kids over Christmas, it was time to hit the road.  The Great Sand Dunes National Park was the next target on our list.  As we left Boulder we made one last stop to fill up a few growlers at another great local spot.  Bob, who owned the brewery, Endo Brewing Co., came to check out the trailer and gave us a recommendation for somewhere to see on the way to the dunes.  Salida, Colorado.  We followed Bob’s advice and made a quick detour.  Well, not much of a detour.  More like a different route.  All I can say is Wow!  The province of Colorado just keeps on giving.  After a roadside nap overnight just south of Colorado Springs we hit the road early well before the sun came up.  After an hour drive South, we headed West out of Pueblo, Colorado, and wound our way into the mountains again.  Along the surreal, red rock canyon drive into the hills we saw signs for Royal Gorge Park.

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A place not on our radar or one that we were even aware of became our new next stop.  And what a stop it was.  A small tourist village made up of dinosaur exhibits, rock and gemstone stores, and even a cowboys and Indians store (a bit shocking considering the times).  Through the village and up a winding road we found the parking lot just as the sun was starting to rise over the hills behind us.  It was a beautiful sight watching the red peaks ahead slowly be bathed in bright orange light.  We opted to hit some trails recommended by the park ranger at the gorge bridge, rather than paying the fees to walk across the bridge.  Always looking down so not to trip on a rock or step on a cactus (which were everywhere) we made our way to the gorge’s edge, taking over a viewpoint occupied by a couple bighorn sheep just before we showed up.  Standing a good way above the bridge, I think we had what may be the best view of it all, short of down in the steady little river that lay below, or through the windows of the train that runs along it.  Sheer red walls rise straight up from the edge of the water and the edge of the tracks hundreds of feet.  We didn’t venture to close to the slippery shale covered edge for fear of going over.  How the bighorn sheep navigate those cliffs seems to defy physics.

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On the road again, after the Royal Gorge stop, we continued West through one of the most scenic canyon drives I’ve ever had the pleasure of cruising.  It’s not quite as fun in a truck with a 30 foot trailer in tow as it would be in car or on a bike, but I loved it no less.  Along side the same river that snakes through the Royal Gorge, we wound through 40 miles of scenic, tight, red canyon walls all the way to Salida.  And what a cool city it is.  A mix of Mexican style clay wall homes, typical last 30 year North American homes, and a lot of century old brick English style architecture gave Salida a very unique vibe.  And the people matched.  Thought I didn’t get out for a ride here, we stopped at a local bike shop for a few tubes and advice on trails.  Incredibly helpful is all I can say.  Before leaving town a quick stop at a roadside winery we spotted, Vino Salida, to sample some mead (honey wine) and wine.  I did a flight of mead samples.  I don’t think “flight” is how you refer to wine tastings, but it’s what I know so that’s what we’ll call it.  Angela sampled a “selection?” of wines, and eventually left with a bottle of red something.  Maybe I’ll tell you how it gave me heartburn later, or Angela will tell of how it made her evening…   we’ll see.

We didn’t stick around Salida long, heading South towards the sand dunes, but stopping at another national forest free campsite.  Poncha Pass.  What an incredible place.  We left 3 degree Celsius weather, climbed 2500 feet, and were welcomed with a wide open plateau full of sun and 10 degree bake setting.  The bike came out, shorts went on and Corona’s were opened.  Let the tropical holiday begin!  After a quick loop on the bike around the off-road trails up and down a few adjacent hills it was back to the campsite for a sweater, pants, and the reality that, despite the warm afternoon, we were still at 9000 feet elevation in January.  The sun dropped over the mountains to the West with a glowing goodbye, followed shortly by a full, low moon rising in the East.  Darkness was skipped.  The whole landscape was lit by the moon to the point you could read.  What a scene!

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The next two days were more of the same, except for one adventure.  The typical homebody, Gus, decided to try to catch something.  A chase ensued, Angela on foot, and me not quite out of bed yet.  Eventually, I hopped in the truck and started to look.  Roughly 25 minutes later he was caught with a team effort and brought back to camp.  He will be leashed from now on…

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The real work begins…

Anybody that has done any do-it-yourself type of renovation or construction project will relate to my next statement.  Everything is more work than you think it will be.  Of course, there were aspects that went incredibly smooth, but even those took more time than expected.

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Pre-gut Video Tour of Trailer

As far as the condition of the trailer goes; remember when I said at first glance it wasn’t that bad?  Well, subsequent glances really started to contradict that statement.  A few pieces of the aluminum sheet that lined the walls were loose.  They were bent up and dented so the intention was to replace them, and now that we owned the trailer we could remove said panels and look in behind the walls.  What hid there was nasty.  Mice had made a home.  And I learned that mice will shit where they sleep.  With one panel off we could see the mice and their shit carried on behind the next one, so down it came too.  And the next one, and the next one, and the next one.  It became apparent very quickly that we would be gutting the trailer shell completely.  Haz-mat suits and masks were donned and the demo began.  The cabinetry was removed as well as appliances, water tank, water heater, furnace, shower and so on.  You get the idea – everything.  Everything was cleaned and treated with a kill all type spray to which I can’t recall the name of.  Typically, demolition work in a home can often be done with a few basic tools (Sawzall, hammer, big pry bar) and brute force.  Aluminium trailers are nothing like that.  Everything, and I mean everything, is secured, joined and fastened using rivets.  Lots of rivets.  Did I mention that shit loads of rivets were used?  I could happily go through the rest of my life without touching another rivet.

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With the walls all stripped and the trailer empty the next logical step was to repair the floor.  Fortunately, there were no rivets used on the floor.  But that is not to say that the floor wasn’t a royal pain.  It may have been one of the most difficult components to repair.  And now, with all the cabinetry removed we could see the condition of the entire floor.  Sitting for years, not covered, with broken roof vent covers allowing in all the elements it is not how I would suggest one store a camper they intend on using again one day.  All around the perimeter, there were soft spots and signs of rot.  The original 5/8” plywood all had to go.  We began that pain-staking process.  5 feet at a time a process of steps was followed and repeated.  The original construction of the trailer before any indoor buildout went as follows; build frame out of steel, lay thin fiberglass insulation across the top of the frame, cover the frame with plywood and screw down, drop upper shell onto plywood and secure upper shell through plywood and into the steel frame below.  So here lied the problem.  We did not have the means to lift the upper shell off the floor.  Many professional restorers will do just that.  And it makes sense because it really would be easier, if you could.  But we couldn’t.  5 feet at a time we removed the plywood, chiseled and broke it out from where it sat under the walls, supported the walls while we cleaned up everything below, including a squirrel’s winter stash.  I hope he’s doing ok.  The squirrel that is.  He had at least 2 lbs of sunflower seeds stashed below in the floor and I think he may have been sleeping there.  He certainly didn’t shit there.  I like squirrels.  Mice, not so much.  After a week or so we had the floor replaced with new 5/8” plywood, new r20 insulation below, and repaired a few broken welds that tied the cross supports onto the main front to back frame rails.

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With the floor mostly done and a flat surface to stand on again it was time to look at electrical and plumbing.  Just like a regular home, these items need to be completed before any walls are closed in or new cabinetry is installed.  Fortunately for me, I’ve met some great people through the years that were both excited and willing to help with the aspects I’m not well-versed in.  Electrical and plumbing would be what I’m referring to.

Fraser, who own NextGen Automotive and is a shop neighbor came through and did all the wiring except for the 120V wiring.  Starting with the exterior, all marker lights (18 I believe), which were a mix of numerous assorted styles as they’d been slowly replaced over the years, were replaced with new LED lights.  The original taillights were disassembled, cleaned up, repaired and re-installed.  All wiring associated with those lights, the trailer brakes, a new break-away kit, and the harness was replaced and re-wired with a new harness to connect to the pickup.  Cory, from Rooter Man, also a shop neighbor, came over and replaced the old propane lines and installed new regulators for the tanks as well as shutoffs prior to each appliance (water heater and furnace).  And I did the 120V wiring.  In a later write-up, I’ll detail all the electrical components and a review of their performance after we’ve had some time to use everything.

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With the “behind the walls” work is done we were ready to start finishing the inside.  But first, insulation.  The trailer appears to have been spray foam insulated from the factory.  Impressive for 1973.  I feel though that it was less about insulation and more about providing rigidity to the aluminum walls.  It worked.  It held up quite well over the years but was thin in many places.  We called in a spray foam company to top up the spray foam and try to fill the 2” thick walls as best as possible.  And of course, that didn’t go smoothly either.  We were experiencing slightly cooler than ideal temperatures so the foam didn’t set quick enough.  It pushed all our wiring outwards instead of setting around it.  It ran and pooled and cured in grapefruit size lumps, most of which would have to get cut off.  I need a beer break.

Soon the fun stuff begins…