Rio Grande north of trestle bridge. Mt. Blanca massif in background.

Photo Essay: Birthday Trip

High Intensity Day

This was my birthday trip. I thought of it a long time ago, taking the back roads in southern Colorado through some of the emptiest territory I’ve ever seen to an old trestle bridge over the Rio Grande and beyond, ending up at a brew pub in Alamosa before driving home to Taos (NM) via Antonito, San Antonio Mountain, and Tres Piedras. We took all day to go about 240 miles, and every one of them was stunning. On the way back we saw a llama stampede.

Much of this was on gravel roads. In this region we were all alone. I mean all alone. If I had all the money in the world, this is still exactly what I’d do: seek out special places where I’ve never been as if I were the only member of my tribe to ever go there. What could possibly be better? The beauty on the route we took would make a mark. The quality of the light and air. The clouds! The dark emotions radiating from dead homesteads. Swept along, I got lost more than once but kept it to myself because I knew the Rio Grande was “over there,” and that was all I needed.

My August 9th birthday trip was the best thing I’ve done in years, totally screaming true-to-myself. I picked roads that scared us both, for that is how you get to marvel at the vastness. I drove right past this thing. She said, “You ought to take a picture of that house.” Well, what a surprise, of course I should and why the hell hadn’t I, so I proceeded down the gravel road to turn around in the driveway of a long-dead homestead, where a pair of red-tailed hawks flew out of an actual tree and swooped so low, we saw into their eyes—with them, it’s always about the eyes.

The place above is made of stone and sits there daring fate. A broken, faded realtor’s sign lies hidden in the weeds. (The building actually used to be a school, I’ve learned.) How many different ways to fail are built into this scene? A short ways farther west we found a three or four-house town and spied a living human being. She didn’t look up as we drove by and I was not surprised. The poignancy out here is palpable — you could slice it into blocks and build a tragedy. I’d been alerted to a certain memorial nearby but missed it in my birthday rush. You might check out that link.

The population density in these parts is about three people per square mile. Looking downstream from the trestle bridge (below), it’s hard to imagine there could be that many people here. The Rio Grande is clear, with dark aquatic plant leaves waving in the current. Marshy stretches and green grass line the banks. No sounds not of nature if you turn your engine off.

El bridge. Load limit, eight tons. Yes, those are wooden boards. This is the only bridge across the Rio Grande between Taos and Alamosa, CO. Even with directions and a map app, not an easy spot to find. I’d been here twice before, the first time by accident fifteen years ago, the second by design. This time was by design as well, but I was semi-lost and glad to see it.

Except for the county road and scratched-out dreams below the far horizon, this is straight high desert. I don’t know whether it qualifies as wilderness, but one could die here, be absorbed with no more karmic weight than dirt, and the Earth would never miss you. I forgot to see if my iPhone worked, but what the hell do you think.

We’re heading due west here. I intended to hook a right somewhere and zig-zag northwest to meet US 285 at Manassa, boyhood home of no less than Jack Dempsey himself (the “Manassa Mauler”), but do you see a turn? I sure didn’t. This way took us straight into Antonito, which was fine, because when we got there at the end—a total surprise—at least I knew the way.

The town of fewer than eight hundred souls sits at 7,890 feet just north of the New Mexico State line making do with just five legal cannabis stores at last count. A local hotel allows smoking in the rooms and even rents out vaporizers, which ought to make things interesting when the place fills up with hunters in the fall. Probably helps the elk a little, too.

The best thing about visiting Alamosa (CO) is that it’s an actual town with reasons to exist that don’t depend on tourists, like Taos was when there were stores for locals on the Plaza. Railroad tracks, the Rio Grande, and Adams State University may have something to do with anchoring the place. I saw kids riding bikes on sidewalks with curbs and thought we could have been in small-town Iowa. There are buildings made of bricks in a functioning downtown. In one of them you’ll find “the brew pub” (San Luis Valley Brewing Company), our lunchtime destination.

While all of this is reassuring in a vaguely Midwestern sort of way, that is to say, evocative though quite different in tone and culture from where we live, I may have been in Taos too long to escape. Though it’s good to be reminded of the outer world again, the crazy doesn’t work unless you take it all the way, and too much normal only breaks your heart again.

(The food was fabulous, of course, and the waitress squatted down real low so the birthday boy could hear.)


I promised you a llama stampede. We found one just west of the gorge on our way home:

Adapted from a series of recent posts at JHFARR.COM.